Articles of faith

TGO Challenge Gear List (not)

Six years ago I crossed the Alps. There I met the ultimate backpacker. He wore isolated shoes, two loose goatskin trouser legs, a hazel-framed backpack, a bow and arrows, a pouch with fire-making tools and a couple of birch bark food canisters. And an axe with a heavy and expensive copper axe-head. His name was Ötzi. 

I asked him why he would take that heavy copper axe-head. In a soft voice he said: “the museum people thought it might have signified riches and leadership, but for myself, well, I just love it, as a tool. I don’t mind the weight penalty, chopping firewood with it is such a pleasure.”

Ötzi. Reconstruction by the Arie & Alfons Kennis in Ötzi’s very own Bolzano museum.

Irrational additions to the backpack have existed for at least 5,000 years. These articles of faith define the walker. Show me yours and I’ll try and read them. But first:

What do I want from a walk, what are my articles of faith?

I want silence. The best thing in the wild is the huge big silence. My current stove, a White Box Stove, is completely silent. Why pick a nice spot for the tent, amidst this silent landscape, and then turn on a roaring jetboil? Calculating the weight penalty? I’ve tried, given up, and settled for it’s 53 gram (including windscreen)

My White Box Stove during a test, 2015.

I want simplicity of movement. I never fail to enjoy the sheer simplicity of walking. There’s many modern day ‘stuff’ that can ruin this simplicity. Think walking poles. They give your brain two extra legs to master (it can’t), they swing in and out of your view. Noise! On pole-people’s gear lists two or often three pairs of gloves turn up, because hands are exposed. While pole users have many a reason to use poles, I have only one counter-argument: poles are simplicity lost. A non negotiable to me.

I want to be immersed in the landscape. If I wouldn’t have any inhibitions, I would walk naked, and sleep on a bed of moss under the starry sky, eating rabbit each night. Until then, I prefer the thinnest barrier between me and the landscape, put up in a minute. And gone in a minute. This lightness is spoilt by having too much stuff inside the tent. Spare stuff annoys me. I don’t bring spare batteries, no pillow, a tiny towel (aaarghhh), less repair stuff, no shampoo, no swiss army knife, no spare socks, no spare shoelaces, no … you name it. This stufflessness is a dogma, and I thought I would suffer the consequences sooner or later, but I never feel something’s missing. Because so much is gained.

I need some comfort. Two items stand out: a book, and a thermos. For as long as I can remember I carry books. Lately, it’s an e-reader. But the purpose is the same: a book keeps me from walking into bad weather, and keeps me from walking at all if that’s what’s called for. 
In a way, the thermos accompanies the alcohol stove. The stove is not lit quickly, and fuel, once poured in, can’t be re-used. So I boil one and a half liter of water two times a day. The thermos contains the surplus. Benefit: hot tea first thing in the morning, without setting up the stove, and a hot drink on the hill. Weight penalty: 189 g (e-reader + cable), 229 g (0,6 L thermos)

Safety. Of course I carry torch, compass and a foil blanket. But I have an irrational fear of high winds. When I was 10 or 11, the family camped on a French campground when one of those mediterranean winds struck our tents at night. Being inside a small tent with that storm hammering it made a lasting impression. My sister and I where ‘evacuated’ into the bigger tent my parents slept in. In Scotland I’ve had many a stormy night in my Phoenix Phreebooter, a bombproof tent. Recently, I bought a Tramplite tent, which stormproofness is overkill on most days, but it frees me from fear. 
Weight penalty: about 200 grams (pegs!), compared to my Tarptent Moment.

Ye Olde Phreebooter somewhere behind Liathach, Torridon, 1995

The oddest and oldest relic in my pack is my spoon. Over 30 years old, and with me on all my Scottish walks. Weight penalty? Even calculating it would be heresy!

Latest news: yes, I bought a Dyneema Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber) Fusion Bonded SUL Tent Peg Bag, size XL. ‘What animal’s skin is this made of?’ Ötzi would ask.

The latest addition to my gear list: a girl’s make-up mirror, to catch ticks.

More posts on my preparation for the TGO Challenge here.

One gram at a time

My gear list is perfect … for coming to Scotland in March or April. So when I heard that the start of the TGO Challenge had been postponed till June 18, this kind of threw me off guard. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure. Because June means heat, and worse, The Scottish Midge. The last year I suffered the midge was 1995. My log states “160 bites. On each lower leg”. This is why my walks in the following 25 years were firmly outside the midge season.

Lochailort, 1995. The last time I remember being driven to madness by midges

Some data for the unbelievers: the midge has a wing span of 1.4mm, and there’s 8,000 midges in a gram. Population size is 180 thousand trillion midges in peak season (180,000,000,000,000,000). This makes for 22.5 million ton of midge in the sky. Staggering. Fortunately they come one gram at a time (see photo below). There could be 37 different species in that one gram, but Culicoides Impunctatus accounts for most of the bites. (source:

A quarter gram of midges. The rest of the gram is on the other hand and the lower legs.

To counter the plague, I bought a can of Smidge, and a sun hat with the accompanying midge-proof headnet. And I scrapped the plan to leave the inner tent at home.

My gear list is nothing special. I was about to write that I’m baffled by the neurotic level of detail gear lists have, but mine is pretty bad nowadays. It seems even gloves or pegs have five word names with a lot of ‘exploring’, ‘pure’ and ‘nature’ in them. Going online ensures the ‘do I need this’ question is always answered with a YES. The worst is, where everything is sorted by weight. This conveniently conceals the fact that sorting the shop by weight (low to high) has almost the same result as sorting by price (high to low).

Therefore, we need a good defense against buying expensive lightweight stuff. One trick is to realise walking doesn’t need any gear at all. Just good shoes, decent socks and something to keep the rain out. If that doesn’t help ask yourself this question:

What does hillwalking do for me and how can my gear enhance that?

My answers to this question and my gear list for the TGO Challenge are in the next edition of this blog. One gram at a time!

More posts on my preparation for the TGO Challenge here.

Who selects the camping spot?

TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part 3 [click here for part 2]

Every now and then I read French philosophers. It makes me feel intelligent, after only a single paragraph. Last week I read Roland Barthes. He’s brilliant when talking about signs and language. He said of Jules Verne – the 19th century writer of adventures – that it’s not the adventures that are so appealing to the reader, it’s the compatibility with childhood. Let’s elaborate on that. Verne delights in the finite, on a ship’s deck, aboard a submarine, watching the wild world. I remember treating any piece of wasteland, like a building site in preparation, or the fringes of my granddad’s farm, as a world in itself, however small. My world. Indoors, any child builds huts and tents using chairs and bedlinen. The man-child walking the Highlands likes to hide in a tent, snug inside the sleeping bag while the storm (the infinite) batters the flysheet. From all this, I deduce that the TGO Challenge is not an adventure (almost everything is under control), it is rather a very nice celebration of things boys and girls like.* 

Engraving by Alphonse Neuville, in 20,000 leagues under the sea

Prospect and Refuge
25 years ago I read Yi Fu Tuan (a China-born American geographer) about the experience of landscape. He reduces the experience of landscape to two words: Prospect and Refuge. To rest, to plot the next move, man seeks refuge. To hunt and to conquer, man seeks prospect. You want the hilltop, and for that you go out on a limb, into the open. When tired, you seek the glen or the woods. Every lover of mountains recognises the relief when, coming down from a summit, the tree line is reached. In Scotland, prospect and refuge are conveniently close together.

tent view
Many Challengers and other wild campers take this kind of picture: looking out from the safety of the pod. (Loch Hourn, March 2013)

While summits are precisely located points, known to everyone, the camping spot doesn’t exist, you have to create it. I like that, the strictly private action that is the placement of a tent. On the TGO Challenge Route Sheet you have to fill in camp coordinates. But pinpointing a camping spot is a bridge too far: I need to see for myself where I make my home. I select an area, where I expect to find a good spot. I’m not ashamed to tell you I spend quite some time walking up and down the area, not necessarily because I cannot find a flat spot, but because I have to get used to the place, it has to feel right. Don’t ask me what that is, for who selects the camping spot? The child. Don’t expect it to be a rational thing.

The extremes
Once you recognize what wild camping does for you, you can optimize it. The high camp unites prospect and refuge: safely inside the tent, looking down into the night between the hills, the lights of roads and ships on the horizon. And in the morning, you’re on top of the world right from the start. The low route disappoints: after resting and planning inside the shelter, no prospect is gained, because the safety of the glen is chosen over the ridges. Many Challengers complain of boredom on their low routes. For a reason. The child likes the snug tent, but its snugness is greatly enhanced by venturing out, and returning to it. I’d like to put it stronger: not venturing out eventually kills the tent’s attraction. Feeling vulnerable out on the hill? The lightweight tent is the perfect solution: whenever you feel you’ve had too much openness, you can turn prospect into refuge by just pitching it. Magic.

In Jules Verne’s books, the Ship is also an important, very finite, very enclosed place. I’d say tents are a below deck space turned upside down. Some tents feel and look like sails, coming down from a mast. I guess that’s why single pole shelters are so popular. (Noordduinen, Netherlands, 2020) 
This type of photo is very common with wild campers: frost on the tent to prove that hiding inside a small space was necessary (there was danger outside). In reality, most frost on a tent is the result of camping low, near water and away from wind (some wind would prevent the frosty cover) (Near Loch Gorm, Ben More Assynt in view, april 1996, and yes, the tent’s a Phoenix Phreebooter)
Refuge can be reduced to the bare minimum. A camp is a camp even when it’s hardly a camp. (Bivy on a nine day trek from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut, Greenland, 2001)
Badly pitched tent after a one hour search for a camping spot. Low terrain & flat terrain was too wet, high terrain was to windy. (Loch Dubh Mas Holasmul, South Harris, 2018)

*an important condition: free will. There’s many children and adults living in tents involuntarily, in refugee camps or on the run. This kind of tent still provides refuge, but it’s anything but a celebration. Awfully privileged, wild camping in the hills…

The Italian connection

TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part 2 / click here for part one

If an Italian man dresses up to make an impression, he will never let on whether he’s going to a bar or to his mother. I’m sympathetic to this principle. Walking friends have described me as extremely opportunistic, route wise. So, when walking across the Highlands I’d be ready for the high ridges, but when the weather forces me to walk the landrover track down in the glen, I will do so and happily pretend it’s my choice. My TGO route for the coming west to east crossing of the Highlands must accommodate this behaviour. Designing such a route is fun. The only problem is that my imagination runs wild and before I know it I the maps are filled with scribbles and options. I love it, except… 

TGO Challenge 2021 Route design
Marked route on printed sheets and calculations

TGO Challenge Control forces you step up with only one main route, and one Foul Weather Alternative. There’s a route sheet you download and fill in, box by box, in great detail. This makes playing the tourist and following every whim a lot harder. Challenge Control would make an Italian write down which bar he would enter, what lady he would walk up to and what would happen next. Would the Italian ever confess to walking a dull route, on paper? 

TGO Challenge Route Sheet
The freedom to roam the hills is preceded by some bureaucracy

Once described, one sends the route off to Ali & Sue, the gatekeepers at Challenge Control. They are Challenge veterans themselves. They assign you to a vetter, a person that checks your route against rules and safety regulations, Julia in my case. This week, she sent my route back with a list of formal issues. Simply put: I’m not allowed to leave so many options open, and I should write the main route and foul weather alternative sections in the box of the day they are to be walked. This feels like filling in forms for tax return. Thou shalt jump through hoops. On the positive side: the formalities made me cut out bland stuff, and made me commit to my route.

All this goes against my habit to sneak off into a fold in the landscape. My predisposition is to hide, to escape and turn up in unlikely places. But Challenge Control’s responsibility is to find me, so I will have to suppress my urges and be traceable. Let’s find out how much escapism I can fit in there. Supervised escapism, does that count?

Glen Etive lunch stop
Smug opportunist having lunch, Glen Etive, 1999

Update: the minute I published this post, I got a message from Ali & Sue: “Thanks for this which looks good to us.  We will pass it on to Julia for a closer look at the detail”. More on this in a week or two…

Update 26 January: Julia Hume vetted the route, I made two corrections and then it was signed off, ready to be walked!

“Dyneema Hybrid Composite Fabric (Cuben Fiber) Fusion Bonded Tent Peg Bag”

TGO Challenge 2021, preparations part one

Madness. We are locked down and I got a place on the 2021 TGO Challenge, a walk across the Highlands of Scotland (Read more about it here). This is the first post, in English, about my TGO preparations and walk. The walk is in May, preparations are just what I do every winter, absorbing maps.

The good old romantic babble claims the Highlands separate the men from the boys (the women from the girls), build character, reveal the real you to you. Repeating this, supporting it with gear, building communities around it in a wave of instagram-posts and books … doesn’t make it true. 
One might as well claim that walking the Highlands is easy, easier than working life, easier than raising children, easier than the culturally complex task of visiting an art gallery on opening night (how to dress, what to say, who to avoid, how little to drink, how late to arrive? Whoa!).
‘By what route shall I descend Ben MacDui if the weather comes down?’ is dead easy by comparison. Still, the outdoors is made out to be difficult, and scares people into buying gear that has eleven word names, like said cuben fiber tent peg bag. I clicked on it, it was that close! Madness.

Seriously, did I think the crutch would aid hitchhiking?

This will be my 20th wander in the Highlands. My career started with hitchhiking in jeans, followed by a long period of semi-heroism, doing more or less dangerous/daft things, in recent years growing into the subtle art of mobile waiting, mixing roughing it and touristy stuff into a pleasant blend. I try to counter the nature-adoring pose of the romantics or the heavy handed gear talk of the control freak type of walker. For me, walking is doing nothing. Turning it into a sport, by pole-flaying along at great speed, or turning it into a religion, by striking a pose every turn, just shows how bad people are at doing nothing.  

Found a page three, early February 2003, between Geldie and Feshie (later I found out I crossed a popular west to east route here, hence the tabloid)
Sympathetic & Very Obscure Hill on South Uist

Yet, I might be counted as a member of the Church of Hillwalkers. I keep a log of classified hills and aim for them, I own a too expensive handmade tent, I sleep under a quilt with custom colours, I donated to Walkhighlands and won its prize for report of the month.

But I will go great lengths to deny my membership. Call me a snob or spineless, I like my identity to be layered. I’ll be my own subcategory of hillwalker-designer, neither mountaineer nor artist. I’m in-between but hey, I can handle a pub full of hillwalkers. And I might even dare going into an art gallery during opening night.

So what has all this to do with the TGO Challenge? For one, this challenge will be a nice and purposeless saunter, mixed with daft high stuff. That’s what I’m aiming for.

Soon: since it serves no purpose, my route had better be baroque.

Click here for TGO Challenge 2021 preparations part two

Creating my TGO21 route book. Baroque? It’s office work, really.

Zo vliegen voornemens de prullenbak in

“Kom, schrijf op. Hoeft niet goed, maar doe het toch”, zeg ik zo vlak voor Oud en Nieuw 2020, “want het gaat over voornemens”. Okee. Hak-op-de-tak en daar gaan we. Dat lijkt aardig op de tocht zelf.

Het begon simpel, op het stationnetje van Rannoch, met plannen om een diagonaal te lopen naar de Cluanie Inn, zo’n 170km verderop. Ik had zin om te lopen. Het voornemen om de rugzak rustig uit de vliegtuigstand te halen ging daarom de prullenbak in. Uren later, toen ik een laag sneeuw wegschepte om mijn tent op te zetten, brak dat me op. Ik kon werkelijk niets vinden, vooral de hoofdlamp niet. Die bleek nog thuis te liggen. Gelukkig had ik voor het eerst aan een reserve-hoofdlampje gedacht, een voornemen uit 2019.

20 februari. Tent in Coire allt Eigeach.

De volgende dag konden plannen om twee nabijgelegen heuvels te beklimmen de prullenbak in. Ik kan wel vertellen over het weer, maar de meeste wandelaars vervallen dan in overdrijvingen, of het leest in elk geval als een overdrijving. Ik kom er op terug.

Loch Ossian YH
Bijkomen in Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, en dan weer terug de gurigheid in

Van de Winter Warden van het Loch Ossian hostel kreeg ik vier blokken hout mee, die ik in plastic verpakt meedroeg naar Staoineag bothy. Het waaide hard genoeg om een duistere bothy te verkiezen boven slapen in de tent.

Een dag later, op 22 februari, oefende ik met het weer. Ik beklom Stob Ban, een handzame Munro. De video zegt meer dan duizend woorden.

Het Weer. Wat je ziet vliegen zijn stukjes ijs die zeer doen.
Op Stob Ban. Ik heb een snor, wat raar is als je de baard die erbij hoort niet ziet.

Ondanks dit voornemens-vernietigend geweld beklom ik die berg (op stijgijzers natuurlijk) en kwam weer terug in Meanach Bothy, waar ik een goed winters boek las, en in de ochtend mijn verjaardagskadootjes uitpakte.

Echt een heel goed boek!
Lichtgewicht verjaardag.

Op mijn verjaardag zag het er iets beter uit. Mijn route liep haaks over de bergkam van de Grey Corries naar het noorden. Je raad het al, ook dat ging niet door. De wind was de voorspelde 75-90 mijl per uur en ik besloot op de top om te keren (geen besluit, de wind legt zoiets op). Wat me bijblijft: terwijl ik op de grond zat duwde de wind mij voort. Niets hielp, zeg maar. Een erg duidelijke situatie.

Stormy weather, Grey Curries
Stormachtig weer ziet er goed uit.
Stob Coire an Laoigh summit
IJs in de wenkbrauwen op de top van Stob Coire an Laoigh

Toen ik, dooreengerammeld, weer in het dal stond was ik blij: mijn brein was blijven werken. Later, vanuit een warm hotel, belde ik Lein, die bezorgd was geweest. Terecht, voor deze ene keer. (Ik neem me nu voor haar bezorgdheid te voorkomen). De volgende dag liep ik naar Glen Mallie, gewoon langs een bewegwijzerd pad. Dat kan ook nog, natuurlijk.

Alles vredig in Glen Mallie
Coire Sgreamhach N of Gulvain
Coire Sgreamhach. Fraai en onbegaanbaar.
Loch Arkaig Southern shore
Loch Arkaig
Kinlocharkaig Barn Owl
Een kerkuil in de ruïne van Kinlocharkaig
Glen Kingie Bothy
Kinbreack bothy in Glen Kingie
De zesde dag, 25 februari. Glen Mallie naar Glen Kingie, 29km/10.5u

Kijk, ergens rond de kerst teken ik zo’n route, en die wekt een enorme loyaliteit in mij op. Komt bij dat Glen Kingie en Sgurr Mor al sinds 1994 op mijn verlanglijst staan. Hier hebben we voornemens waar geen sneeuw, hoge heide, modder en padloze stukken mij van af kunnen brengen. Op naar Glen Kingie dus, geen zin in iets anders.

Toen ik in de avondschemering kwam aanklossen brandde het vuur in de bothy al. Drie man en een enorme zak kolen, echt een traktatie. De bothymuis knaagde een gaatje in mijn rugzak op zoek naar een lege chocoladewikkel. Omdat mijn bibbers over harde wind en diepe kou nog niet waren weggetrokken, was ik blij toen Jack (the London Dentist) de volgende ochtend voorstelde om samen Sgurr Mor te beklimmen. Hij is ook nog zo’n type dat de leiding moet hebben, iets wat heel welkom is in diepe sneeuw, haha. Het rondje van 10km kostte ons zes uur.

Sgurr Mor from Sgurr nam Fhuaran
Sgurr Mor vanaf Sgurr an Fhuarain
On the way to Sgurr nam Fhuaran (photo courtesy Jack The London Dentist)
Een dun zonnetje, op weg naar Sgurr an Fhuarain (foto Jack the London Dentist)

De dagen erna zwikte het tussen betoverend winters en intimiderend winters. Op de berg Gairich nam ik me voor mijn navigatie minder van het zicht te laten afhangen. Op de één na laatste dag beklom ik Gleouraich. Ik voelde me belazerd, want hogerop verdween m’n spoor en waaide het even hard, en even snijdend als altijd. Daarna verdween het zicht en vond ik de top ‘plotseling’. Ik daalde zo snel mogelijk af naar de vloer van Glen Quoich. Zo’n typisch moment dat de spannende dingen achter je liggen, terwijl de kaart zegt dat er nog 13 kilometer te gaan zijn, met smurrie en sneeuw op de grond, natte sneeuw uit de lucht en erg veel ‘nu ben ik er bijna’ momenten.

Onderweg vanuit Glen Kingie naar Gairich
Gairich Summit
De top van Gairich
Zo wit. Precies in het midden van het beeld is een kleine stenen brug. Erg blij mee, want daar is een weggetje. Had ik al gezegd dat weggetjes niets betekenen als er zoveel sneeuw ligt? Je ziet ze namelijk niet.
Am Bhatach, Ciste Dubh and Sgurr nan Ceathramnean
Je ziet het niet, maar het weer was hier best goed. Voordat ik om 12 uur de bus naar Inverness zou halen, klom ik nog even op Am Bathach, vlak boven de Cluanie Inn waar ik de avond ervoor was aangespoeld.


Voornemens? Ja, weer naar Schotland als Corona weg is. Wat ik ga doen vertel ik hier snel.

Een veel uitgebreider versie van deze tocht, compleet met routekaart en allerlei details, is te vinden op Walkhighlands.

Beinn Alligin from Forsinard (2014)

Lees het artikel op Walkhighlands (engels). Veel foto’s. Klik hier


De top van Cnoc Alaskie, de natste plek van deze tocht, ergens in Sutherland

… Did I notice it had been drizzling for hours? Did I consciously decide that my pertex jacket could handle it? What was I thinking, crossing the Fiag plantation, when bigger raindrops soaked the fabric? Was it the sphagnum surface, so wet that one wouldn’t notice rain? Was it the mesmerizing repetition of heathery clumps, muddy throughs and swampy patches? The melancholy of this bleakest of places?

Anyway, when I crossed northwest of Druim an Claise Grianach and decided to use firebreaks to reach the road at the head of Loch Shin, I was soaked. The firebreaks split, got very wide, and very vegetated, but I made it to the road guessing which turn to take. Instead of walking 2 k in the wrong direction, I walked northwest to a group of small houses. Only one was inhabited, and my plea for a chance to dry out was turned down. A fast as I could I walked another 3km to Corriekinloch. It was either beg to be let in, or call it a day and camp. I just had to put an end to the shivering and the cold water running down my elbows.

Housekeeper Marian opened the door with a paint brush in her hand, looking perplexed. I stuttered my plea … and was welcomed in. In return for drying out, I had to suffer the humiliation of not only being offered a tumble dryer, but also of being looked at with a motherly eye, followed by ‘would you like a blanket, you look terrubly cold’. And please use the cooker. Hillwalker, self-proclaimed ‘experienced’, gets wet and is rescued by cleaning lady. There. :oops:



Ladhar Bheinn from Achanalt (9 cold days)

Day 1: Switch to hillwalking
Thanks to WH members,, 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.

Icey beard

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)

Affric jungle

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

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.