Day 1: Switch to hillwalking
Thanks to WH members, Geograph.org.uk, Scottishhills.com and lots of other sources a nice 9 day walk was conceived. A plan is one thing, the real walk quite something else, and the writing down of it creates yet another incarnation of the same old recipe: connect different landscapes of Scotland by a route that can be altered on the go. I’ll now try and write something insightful about my latest sounter in the Highlands.
This year’s trip starts in Achanalt on the Kyle-line from Inverness. My friend Paul drops me off there.
The Fannaichs as snow condition indicator
Sgurr a’Choire Rainich from the north
The walk from the railway line at Achanalt to the base of Sgurr a’Choire Rainich is staged to slowly switch from ‘500 yards is far’ and ‘three flights of stairs is high’ to ’20 miles is far’ and ‘914 metres is high’. ‘Snow is slippery’, ‘below freezing is cold’ and ‘I really need network coverage’ go out the window as well.
Seems each office-dweller has a set of reflexes and senses stored somewhere in the brain that are activated the first day on the hill. I’m adjusting while my feet are already happily trotting away.
For the Strathconon Corbetts, Hamish Brown claims: “admire from Strath Bran, climb from Strathconon, except if you have a fetish for flogging miles of boggy moorland”. I do have that fetish, but luckily enough, all bog is frozen. All nine days of the trip. I put on my merino longjohns. To keep them on for almost the full nine days.
Seen from the railway line, Rainich looks high, of textbook shape and very frosty. Its eastern corrie, the one I use for ascending, is filled with snow blown in form elsewhere. Fine views. To the north are the Fannaichs, northwest is Torridon, northeast is Wyvis.
The blue sky of the morning is always gone by midday. Today is no exception.
Mental note 1: in snowy conditions, avoid leesides of things since snow accumulates there. Mental note 2: in windy conditions, look for leesides.
The devil adds up these two today. “In conditions that are windy AND snowy, choose freely between floundering and getting rattled”. I choose wind over snowdrifts and forget about contouring to the saddle between Meallan nan Uan and Sgurr a’Mhuillin. The shape of this mini massif is not very clear to me at first. I find the eastern ridge, and follow it to Mhuillins cairn. Meallan nan Uan is more of a hill. Better shape, steeper, and with better views west and south.
The view is nearly black and white. Snow, dotted with dark trees, cut by a dark river. Not a soul to be seen. On the horizon are the Strathfarrar Four, and to the west Maoile Lunndaidh & Co. Some hills are new to me, like Bac an Eich.
Sgurr a’Mhuillinn from Meallan nan Uan
Meallan nan Uan summit rocks
Gleann Meinidh, Strathconon from Meallan nan Uan. Sgurr a’Choire Ghlais top right
Track from Strathconon to Glen Orrin, looking south to Carn nan Gobhar. Creag a’Ghlastail on the right
Track from Glen Orrin to Strathfarrar, looking north to Creag a’Ghlastail
True to habit the first day is too long, nine and a half hours. Pouring over maps and reading bluesky-TR’s this winter has again simplified things and made any route seem possible. Reality moulds the route into something more feasible.
Inverchoran depresses me, as does the track up and over to Glen Orrin. However, when the downhill section starts the weather brightens a bit, and an eagle comes swooping up. It probably has an eyrie on the cliffs of Creag a Ghlastail, overlooking a pine tree-dotted slope. Trees undo the intimidation of high wind and piercing cold. I’m not a tree hugger, but sure fond of them. I cross the river Orrin (bridge) and camp sheltered from the wind behind a conifer plantation. Meths burner works like a charm, dinner tastes real good. Water from streams is too cold to drink. [camp at NH266465; 22.1 km +1378m, -1186m]
Day two: Strathfarrar Four, Three, Two … One.
Many times I’ve imagined how I would succesfully ascend Sgurr Fhuar-Thuill and walk east to do the other three. And proudly post a trip report “Four from the North”. This hybris will be rebuked today. In the morning, after re-reading the MWIS forecast on a PDF I’ve reduced the number of munro’s planned to one or two. Once on Carn nan Gobhar conditions leave nothing to the imagination. In fact, they leave only one option: out of here. And don’t even think of walking into the wind. (MWIS predicted 75 mph gusts and a -22 windchill; as far as I could tell, it wasn’t far off). I check my position using the NavigX app and leave. Or rather, I’m being blown west. Cheekbones and nose hurt from the stinging cold and the flying particles. Leaning into the wind sideways brings me out onto An Socach, a gentle way down on crusty snow. Of course any An Socach is a snout, a spur jutting out into the glen with a steep front. This steepness is welcome, the sooner I’m down, the better.
Fear on Carn nan Gobhar
During nine days I’ve only seen one couple of walkers, on day 6, from a distance. Some conditions begged for an encounter with some cheeky fellow hillwalker to take away the intimidation presented by high winds and bitter cold. And I made a mistake: the route on day 2 didn’t have a low level alternative (other than walking round via the Monar dam).
In Strathfarrar I cross the river at Cambussorray. I see them, my saviours, the Scots Pine of Coille na Leitire Duibhe. At 2:30 I call it a day next to the biggest tree I can find. Nature has this strange habit of letting you be friends with it, but at the same time not giving a hoot about you. Goldcrests and coal tits frolic through the branches. How these tiny birds maintain their 40 degree body temperature is a mystery to me. I’m cold. (camp at NH287376 after 11.9 km, ascent +779m descent -922m)
Sgorr na Diollaid above Deanie Hydroworks intake
Home is where the biggest tree is
Day 3: La Diollaid
Sgorr na Doillaid has my sympathy since 1998 when I first walked Strathfarrar. Being a Corbett it is quite far away from the higher hills on the same ridge. Two conspicuous horns keep it out of the whaleback-category, and the northern side is steep enough to have the summit visible from the floor of Glen Strathfarrar. As expected, even an 800m hill is rasped by winds. I’m unpleasantly surprised by the stark appearance of the ice-clad summit rocks: some scrambling is unavoidable. Today I’m on the other side of the thin line between fear and audacity, so I scramble up over brittle ice. I utter a covert ‘woohoo’. Good thing I marked the peat hag my rucksack leans against digitally and with my ice-axe on top, for, not unusual, on return I looked for it far more to the south.
Micro forest on snowy hill
Messy climb in Coille na Leitire Duibhe
Loch Meall a’Mhadaidh near Sgorr Diollaid
Each walk of mine seems to include a classic or two. I planned for hitchhiking from the Spar in Cannich to Affric Lodge Parking, but that doesn’t happen. No traffic. So after a big free coffee from the shop couple I walk the whole stretch. A good thing, since it introduces Affric pleasantly slow. And I’m impressed. What a forest, a northern jungle. What a views. The esthetics of elegantly arranged giant pines on heather slopes and islands. I do not make it to Loch a’Chladheim, the 18th mile proves to be one too many. (camp: NH241247; 27.1 km, +1450m, -1388m)
Loch Beinn a’Mheadoin looking west
Day 4: the Baltic plains
The new MWIS forecast PDF I downloaded in Cannich predicts a less windy sunday. I’d like to camp in Gleann na Cailliche and from the camp do “some” (I dare not say five) munro’s. This well prepaired plan is foiled. It freezes 7 degrees on the glen floor, the path is icy, and just look at the ridges around, outlines blurry with drifting snow. Conbhairean is a white fin, jutting into the storm. Danger. I shiver, not only from this sight, but also from a cold. One day has to be the lowest.
Mullach Fraoch Choire from Strawberry Cottage hallway
Icey path on the way to Camban
Talking to an eagle watcher in the glen, I suddenly see it clearly: abort! So I turn back to Glen Affric, rest in the hallway of Strawberry Cottage end this day at Camban. The bothy is cold too, but a little charcoal, lots of tea and dinner provide warmth. After I put the spookiness of the bothy aside, I fall asleep soon. (Memories of the bothy in ‘Mama’, the horror movie, resurface). Full moon too. (Camban bothy; 26.1 km, +652m, -561m)
Ciste Dubh’s shadow on Mullach Fraoch Choire’s flank
Many guests pass the snowy doormat of Camban bothy
Day 5 Benchmark Langoustines
There’s not many hills that have lived on my wishlist for as long as Beinn Fhada has. So, forget about boosting my munro number closer to 141 by climbing Ciste Dubh and the Brothers, loyalty prescribes Fhada is next.
Glen Affric from Bheinn Fhada pt 710
A’Ghlas Bheinn and Loch a Bhealach from Beinn Fhada’s eastern end
Beinn Fhada trig pillar and northern ridges
Ceum na h-Aon-choise from Meall an Fhuarain Mhoir
Sgurr Fhuaran and Gleann Lichd from Ceum na h-Aon-choise
The east-west traverse is a grand route, Ben Alder-like at first, with a dash of Cuillin in the tail. Exhilarating ridge walk, and quite effortless negotiation of the bad step between Sgurr a Choire Garbh and Ceum na h-Aon-choise. See a descriptive TR here.
On Beinn Fhada the wind drops, and the sun comes out. It melts away my apprehensive alertness. The feeling that one can be on speaking terms with a winter mountain returns. Even though I am never really scared, the first three days fear came along every once in a while, to keep the option of turning back at the top of my mind. It’s that fear that induces safety. It’s a good thing, but I like ‘audacity that generates fun and bliss’ much more.
Sgurr a Choire Garbh Bad Step (Beinn Fhada)
Long ago I walked from Morvich to Shiel Bridge once too often, so I really do not like this stretch of asphalt. Fortunately there’s an audio book, the excellent ‘Old Ways’ by Robert McFarlane. The shop in Shiel Bridge is just being set up after five quiet winter months. I hope it survives. Not inclined to walk back to Kintail Lodge for pint and dinner and bed, I decide to hitchhike to Glenelg. One of my better hunches. The Glenelg Inn has benchmark langoustines. Immensely juicy and with very hard, sharp shells, lukewarm. The scallops are good too. And the washing machine is available. The mid-walk-beautiful-porcelain-girl turns up too! All is well. (17.0 km, +1078m, -1398m)
Classic filling station and classic hill
Glenelg Inn housekeeping
Day 6 Stacked Stones & Scree
What charms me the most about Glen Beag is the way the road weaves on, curve after curve, every time revealing a new pasture, old wall, broch, farm or autarchic house. After Balvraid, a messy farm, the path slants upward to Dun Grugaig and turns a delightful moss-padded track in a birch wood. A DIY bridge crosses the river. Some mile on southwestward, the path peters out near a meandering stream. This is where my ‘roaming’ naturally ends. To go further would mean starting a climbing episode, so ‘homing’ takes over. I wander somewhat further upstream, and pitch the tent in Roisdail, within sight of both Eaglaises north ridge and Sgritheall’s northeast ridge.
Dun Troddan, Glen Beag
One hour later a set out for Sgritheall’s northeast ridge. The weather turns grey and cold once more, but the sweeping zig-zag of the ridge is a grand outing nonetheless.
On summiting Sgritheall the seaward view really jumps at me. Hurray for the sun making firey spots on the bluegreen sea.
On Beinn Sgritheall’s northeast ridge looking into Coire Min. Druim nam Bo and Beinn nan Caorach behind
Beinn Sgritheall summit seen from northeast ridge
Beinn na Caillich, Knoydarts north coast and the isle of Eigg
Sgritheall’s narrow bit and Sgurr a’Choire Bheithe, Sgurr na Ciche and Luinne Bheinn
I read people’s complaints about the unrelenting steepness of the climb from Bealach Arnisdail to pt 906. And didn’t pay attention. So the apparent lack of a connecting ridge seen from point 906 startles me. I descend a bit to the north to see that of course there is a ridge. It’s so steep you cannot see the slope from the summit of pt906. Jeez. I go down because I have to, but it turns out to be the least ‘fun’ element of this trip. Cold sweat. Hereafter, my reaction to Eaglaises western flank is no surprise. I look, I spy, I pry for a way through it’s steepness, but I’m overruled by the safety committee. Nope. Let’s go home. (With hindsight, I could have descended into Coire Min even before climbing pt.906) (camp at NG857136; 18.2 km, +1306m, -1022m)
Roisdail camp spot and Beinn na h-Ealglaise
Early morning summiting of Beinn na h-Eaglaise
Bealach Dhruim nam Bò and Beinn na h-Eaglaise and Beinn Sgritheall
Day 7 Loch Hourn switchback
Surely, Eaglaise is bagged the next morning by it’s north ridge easy-peasy. At 7.45 I’m on its summit. Swoop swoop. Lovely morning too, warm enough to take off the longjohns.
Bealach Dhruim nam Bò is a special place. Something Cairngormy about it, and the idea that cows can be driven across it, is believable. Beinn Caorach is a grey mouse of a peak, “it would look strange and flat if it weren’t there” is all I can say to promote it. To reach Kinloch Hourn one goes down southeast from Bealach Aoidhdailean into a glen which is quite nice with it’s deep lying river and trees and a peculiar T-crossing. But the rest of the way is no man’s land, defined by the mountains that surround it. Featureless land with lots of stalking tracks.
At Kinloch Hourn I pass a parked Volkswagen Polo, thinking nothing of it. I suspect Barrisdale is too far, but aim for it anyway. When I photograph a beautiful pine 3/4 down the way at Caolas Mor, I realise that this is the place to make home. The sunny hours left are thoroughly enjoyed, drying the tent and airing the sleeping bag. Snow comes and goes, just for decoration. I look at the map for tomorrow’s route, make a decision, put the map away. Only to unfold it again (repeat 10 times). (camp: NG889063; 22.9 km, +1646m, -1920m)
Gleanndubhlochain ruin, looking southwest
Pine and Stob Dhoircaill from Barrisdale path
Taking it easy in sunshine. Loch Hourn shore near Barrisdale
Day 8: Ladhar Bheinn
In the morning I strike camp at 6:30 and discover my ice-axe is missing. As far as I can reconstruct, I still had it on me round midday the day before. After lunch I must have attached it to the rucksack in the wrong way (after doing it right for 18 years). It could be anywhere between here and 20k back. I do no go look for it, since my boat-train-flight home is near.
Holly tree and Luinne Bheinn. Barrisdale
Beinn Sgritheall from Barrisdale
Ladhar Bhein without an ice-axe, is that okay? Crampons, but no ice-axe? Something I would frown upon, but I admit to stretching the rules a bit when it’s me that’s breaking them. All former plans of walking to Li and climbing the hill from there are binned as soon as I come round the Barrisdale corner: Ladhar Bheinn looks glorious, bright white against the blue. Stob a’Chearcaill puts me off a direct ascent, so I climb to Mam Barrisdale to try and circumvent the Stob. As could be predicted, I end up doing a harebrained climb up its southeastern flank, nails dirty from clawing at the steep grass. From a distance, this looked steep, but less steep than Eaglaise. However, from close range the whole southeastern side of Stob a’Chearcaill has an apron of crags. Note: if you want to avoid climbing it straight from the northeast, go round the southeast side at least as far as the stream. The south bank of the stream is the way up if one wants to avoid the Stob altogether.
Upon gaining the summit I want to rest and walk around for the views, but the summit is so narrow, Coire Dhoircaill starts with a huge drop one step away. Jellylegged I continue to pt 849 where I can relax on a domey top.
Stob a’Chearcaill southeastern aspect
Ladhar Bheinn from Stob a’Chearcaill summit
Ladhar Bheinn’s twisting ridges and Knoydart peaks seen from eastern end of summit ridge
Ladhar Bheinn summit ridge and Coire Gorm seen from west
Next is the ascent of pt 858 which looks daunting from a distance. I eat my last three shortbread fingers. Gentle zigzags lead trough all difficulties, and after climbing the last rib the main summit ridge is gained. I feel real good sitting at the trig point, make a pano-video of the view and text home that all is well. Ladhar Bheinn, Sgritheall and Beinn Fhada have something in common: bland southern slopes, complex northern corries. No sooner do I leave the summit ridge at its southwest exit or I slip. Hoar frost fingers have melted and refrozen and the whole surface is dotted with shiny pearls of ice. Crampons back on, to walk crunch crunch downstairs towards An Diollaid. There I make a right turn into the cold northern corrie, the fastest way to flowing water and a well deserved midday fry-up.
Well deserved fry-up after coming down Ladhar Bheinn
Beinn na Caillich seen from shielings in Coire Each
This corrie seems remote but I spot shielings, its general atmosphere is friendly. Without losing much height I continue to Mam Li. The lochans must make for good camping spots. The first one doesn’t. Higher up there’s the nicely named Lochan a Bhealach na Creagan Dubha, with flat mossy pitches. Good chance the sun will be on the tent till after five, and will shine on me early morning. The night is not markedly colder than anywhere else I’ve slept. Mixing horrifying pasta’n’sauce with sardines in tomato sauce miraculously gives me a mediterranean bouillabaisse. (camp at NG810075;16.9 km, +1670m, -1170m)
Camp at Bealach nan Creagan Dubha, looking at Beinn na Caillich
Sunrise above South Shiel hills. Lochan a’Bhealach Creagan Dubha
Day 9 Coastal wanderings
Before sunrise I’m up to take pictures (you know, first thing when you open your eyes is the bladder alert, you have to hurry so why not bring the camera out).
So what’s left to do this friday. After Ladhar Bheinn the momentum is gone, I do not feel like a big day, but there’s a good idea that jumps at me from the map. The glen south of Ladhar Bheinn is so boring, I long for other ways to come off Beinn na Cailliche. At 7.50 I’m on top of that one, and have good fun descending it on it’s northwestern side, quite steep and suprisingly rocky, especially Creag…. Nice lochans and a beautiful short wooded glen lead out to the coast at Croulin. I bump into a fox. Birches, drystane dykes, and the sea. At the shore one can see Sgritheall again, sitting like a galleon on the water. The coastal walk is bliss. Short cropped grass and some copses of birch, some rocky headlands but mostly flat and wide grass, fringed with beds of pebbles. Inverguesachain is nothing (I imagined it to be a lovely set of houses where I could miraculously have tea and a cake). The road to Inverie is just that and nothing more, but Robert MacFarlane’s book is in my ears. (19.7 km, +715m, -1223m)
Beinn na Caillich, Knoydart, seen from the coast at Croulin
Knoydart northern coast lobster cages and Beinn Sgritheall
Inverie has boomed since I’d last been there (1995) with a big pier, a taxi and much more accomodation. In the Knoydart Foundation office I read an A4 nailed to the message board: Clive Dennier is missing. Today (March 29) they found his car, the Volkswagen I saw. This explains the mooring of an orange rescue vessel. It delivers some 6 mountain rescue people. I halt the landrover transporting them to report where I’ve been and what I’ve seen (no trace). If they find a purple and alu ice axe, it’s not his, it’s mine. I’m rather shaken. This man is me. A solo walker in Knoydart. Clive Dennier still wasn’t found when I write this.
The Venturer brought me back to Mallaig from Inverie
In Mallaig I visit the swimming pool, the chip shop, the giftshop, the supermarket and a hardware store (to buy fresh socks) and the train station where the evening train to Edinburgh awaits. Unrolling my mat at the airport at 02:00 is a contrast to wild camping that is hard to handle.
This year’s newcomers are a merino pair of longjohns (Rab MeCo120) which are impressive. Superlight, warm, no smell. The gear to go out the door next year is a pair of waterproof gloves. Point is, the inner liner comes out when you pull your hands out. When puttin them on when really needed, I fidgeted with the liner for ages. Very annoying.
Mainstay is my Montane Extreme Smock. Where would I be without it.
My 8mm foam matress might go next year. Warm enough, and very light, but I might switch to Neo Air or similar, althought there’s a 100 gr weight penalty (short version weighs 420 gr, foam matress weighs 315).
This year saw the exit of all things too sugary. I’m a diesel, and what I do is for diesels, so no ‘sugar highs’ needed. The body burns fat and slow sugars, and switching to the fast sugars of jellybeans etc is uncomfortable. Cheese is favourite, and canned fat fish.
Distances and ascent
I didn’t do any measuring while underway. No alarm clock either, just went to sleep in the last light (19.30) and got up 06.30 which gave me long days. Distances and ascent are measured on 1:25.000 maps using WH’s GPS-planner. Real distance probably a bit more, but who cares.