Written November 2012
When I'd walked the West Highland Way (WHW) in 2005 I'd been really impressed by the galaxy of spectacular and iconic Munros surrounding it. The West Highland Railway Line runs close to the WHW for much of its length, and the stations at regular intervals provide a perfect way to travel to and from these Munros. The northern part of the WHW has the greatest and most impressive concentration of Munros, with high rocky ridges providing exhilarating connecting routes between the summits.
I planned to start my trek in Spean Bridge station at the northern end, then walk southwards over the mountains for two weeks, camping high nearly every night, ending at Bridge of Orchy station. This ambitious route would cross the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, Càrn Mòr Dearg, Ben Nevis, the Mamores, Glen Coe, the Black Mount and the hills above Bridge of Orchy. All these peaks are well-known and many are considered to be among the finest of Munros. This region is known as Lochaber; but note that the name does not refer to any specific loch! This trip would cover a remarkable 32 Munros, a personal record that I've only broken once (in my 2007 trip to Glen Shiel with 35 Munros).
Part of my planning process was to assemble a paper "anthology" of walking/scrambling book route descriptions, with the help of scissors, glue and a photocopier. Having these route descriptions collated all in one place would allow me to choose the exact route as I went along, camping whenever energy ran out. The "anthology" would be very handy for figuring out the obscure connecting routes between mountains and assessing the difficulty of scrambles. For this trip I took the sleeper train up, which I hoped would be much less stressful the internal flights I'd used on previous trips.
From Southampton I travelled to Euston and caught the sleeper in the late evening. The hostess showed me to my cabin and asked if I wanted tea or coffee with my breakfast in the morning. This was already better than an internal flight! It was great to be tucked up in bed, with the soothing rhythm of the train to lull me off to sleep.
Saturday 29th July 2006
In the morning I woke to stunning scenery from the train window. Breakfast in bed was very welcome and consisted of a croissant, a little pot of granola and yoghurt, a cup cake and shortbread. The tea was of the "partially made" variety i.e. a teabag hanging in a cup of hot water.
I disembarked at Spean Bridge then walked east along a minor road, following the River Spean upstream for a couple of miles to reach a track into the mountains. Since I was carrying a fair bit of weight, this first day was deliberately short and easy. All I had to do was to gain some height along this track and reach the Lairig Leacach Bothy. The weather was humid as I laboured uphill with my pack, but my efforts were amply rewarded by expanding vistas and dramatic rocky scenery. My eye was particularly caught by Sgùrr Innse, a distinctive little rocky peak who's summit appears to be defended by crags on all sides.
Lairig Leacach Bothy is small and cosy, and I had a good night there. I can't recall now if there were any other occupants.
Today I was heading over the Grey Corries. This range is aptly named after the pale-grey quartzite screes that decorate the higher slopes of these hills. To climb all these peaks in a day from a public road and back is a long and serious expedition in remote country. I had the advantage of having many options for stopping and camping along the ridge.
The first Munro of the day was Stob Bàn, which sits slightly apart from the main Grey Corries ridge. On the ascent of Stob Bàn some fine scrambling can be had on the quartzite slabs at the head of Coire Claurigh. With a heavy pack, I decided to avoid the scrambling and just admire the slabs from the safety of the ridge on the south side of the corrie. The midges were quite bad because the air was still, so I put on some citronella repellent, which has an overpowering lemony aroma. After Stob Bàn, the next peak was Stob Choire Claurigh, at 1177m, the highest of the group, and so required a fair bit of re-ascent to climb its south ridge.
Now established on the ridge proper, I had an exhilarating afternoon. To reach the next Munro, Stob Coire an Laoigh, the twisting ridge-line crossed three intermediate peaks (Stob a' Choire Leith, Stob Coire Cath na Sine and Caisteal). After Stob Coire an Laoigh I had just one more intermediate peak, Stob Coire Easain, before a steep descent into Bealach Coire Easain and a climb up to the fourth and final Munro of the day, Sgùrr Choinnich Mòr. This last Munro is the most shapely of the Grey Corrie peaks, and made a fitting terminus to this section of the ridge.
Descending from Sgùrr Choinnich Mòr, and over the little bump Sgùrr Choinnich Beag, I was now half-way along a ridge that runs nearly all the way to Fort William. I dropped down easy slopes to the broad Coire Bhealaich where I camped.
Monday 31st July 2006
I woke to views of the hills obscured by cloud clinging to the high peaks. The direct route looked rather rocky and uninviting, vanishing up into cloud. Instead I worked around to the south and used a gully to gain height, which was slightly awkward at the top due to steep loose soil. From the head of the gully I walked northwards, over Stob Coire Bhealaich to gain the first Munro of the day Aonach Beag. This Munro and its neighbour Aonach Mòr are both over 4000ft high and are the seventh and eighth highest peaks in Scotland retrospectively. The suffixes "Beag" and "Mòr" mean small and large, although Aonach Beag is actually the highest of the pair. The name Aonach Mòr probably derives from the bulk of this mountain when seen from its northern side, where its rocky flanks splay out on both sides, making it the largest rather than the highest.
The two Aonachs have a steep glaciated sides and a narrow elongated plateau representing the highest ground. I headed north to the summit of Aonach Mòr. The shallow corrie beyond this summit is home to the Nevis Range Ski Centre. An alpine-style gondola above pinewoods can be used to reach the base of the ski slopes from the road. The gondola can be used to conveniently gain 650m on Aonach Mòr; from this point there is less than 600m ascent to the summit. Fortunately I was going nowhere near this ugly development, and retraced my steps back to the south to Seang Aonach Mòr, where I took a steep rough path down to a high bealach.
From the bealach I scrambled up an easy ridge, marked on the map as "Watershed", to gain Càrn Mòr Dearg, the third Munro of the day and the ninth highest peak in Scotland. The infamous Carn Mor Dearg Arête is a narrow ridge formed of huge chunky blocks of pink granite, that must be clambered over to progress along the ridge towards Ben Nevis. This route is justifiably regarded as the finest walking route up Ben Nevis. Normally it is gained from Coire Leis up relentless scree slopes, ascending the side of Carn Dearg Meadhonach, which I was glad to avoid. The arête was free from cloud, but Ben Nevis was still covered, so the views of its awesome north face were unfortunately obscured.
At the end of the arête, I reached the abseil posts that winter climbers use for descending into Coire Leis. In summer conditions it's possible to descend this way without abseil ropes. Even though I was at 1150m, I still had 200m to climb to reach the summit of Ben Nevis. This was up a steep pathless boulder-field. The summit furniture consists of the remains of the observatory, a small shelter, several cairns and a trig point. A few metres to the north, the cliffs drop vertically down the tallest cliff in Britain. Ben Nevis was actually the first Munro I ever climbed, on a "rest day" between finishing the Great Glen Way and starting the WHW. The first time I'd gone up and down the rather dull tourist path, so I'd rather gloss over this ascent and count my second ascent as my first proper Ben Nevis ascent (as part of a continuous trip).
The summit rocks of Ben Nevis are the remainder of a massive plug of lava which roofed a huge chasm below it. The chasm gradually filled with magma and when the plug eventually sank, it was baked to impervious andesite that is more resistant to weathering than the softer rocks around it. The softer rocks, such as on Ben Nevis's lower slopes, are mainly pink granite, as is clear from the pink boulders strewn over Càrn Mòr Dearg's three summits; "dearg" meaning "red" in Gaelic. These rocks were long ago stripped of their lava coat by weathering and glacial action.
In 1999 the Ben Nevis Estate was put on the market. The John Muir Trust launched an appeal and bought the land for around £500,000. The area they purchased extends east into the Grey Corries and west past the upper Glen Nevis gorge. The John Muir Trust have subsequently been active removing structures that are deemed to no longer have a use (other than those that have a cultural heritage value, such as the ruins of the observatory). The Trust have also removed all the ad-hoc memorial plaques from the summit, and endeavoured to return them to relatives of the deceased. In addtion there is now a ban on the scattering of ashes on the summit, since high concentrations of nitrates were encouraging unnatural vegetation growth on the plateau.
It was now getting late in the day and the weather was closing in, so I opted to descend part of the tourist path, then camp at the halfway lochan, Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe. On the way down I passed by a short dry-stone wall on the bend of a zigzag. This has been built to divert walkers away from the treacherous Five Finger and Surgeon's gullies. In poor visibility it is advisable to take a compass bearing before setting off from the summit, to avoid the crags on the south west flank of the mountain. The halfway lochan turned out to be a delightful location for wild camping, the water reflecting the colours of the hills and sky all around. I was glad to have made it safely across the first long ridge of the holiday.
Tuesday 1st August 2006
I was not looking forward to today's walk as I would lose a lot of height descending into Glen Nevis, then have to regain the height on the far side of the glen to gain the Mamores ridge. The weather was drizzly and overcast, which didn't improve my mood. After descending the remainder of the tourist path, I followed the road up Glen Nevis for a mile, then began climbing uphill through a firebreak in the forestry plantation that cloaks the west side of Glen Nevis.
I was trying to follow a route suggested by the "Highland Highway" guidebook, which defines a high-level alternative to the WHW. Unfortunately I should have chosen a firebreak further up the glen. The one I'd selected for ascent was choked with fallen trees, and higher up there was a dense area of saplings that I had to squeeze though. After much exertion I broke out of the plantation onto the open hillside, and gained the rocky peak Sgorr Chalum. The guidebook did warn than the ground around this peak is broken and rocky and riven with small streams, so I should have read it more carefully!
As I climbed higher, the conditions underfoot improved and after a few miles of easy walking I gained Mullach nan Coirean. This peak marks the western end of the Mamores, a 15km long ridge that is one of the finest mountain ranges of Scotland. Ten Munros are linked by narrow glaciated ridges, with their flanks scooped by many corries. The ridge never drops below a height of 800m.The mountains are blessed by a remarkable network of well-constructed stalkers' paths, some taking spectacular lines across the hillsides giving easy access to the peaks. Many combinations of the Mamore Munros can be climbed in a single day, from one to all ten. I planned to climb one more today, then tackle the bulk of them tomorrow.
Mullach nan Coirean has a distinctive red glow, from its granite rocks. From here, on the way to the next Munro, the slopes were initially grassy, then the geology changed and the path crossed a bare field of shattered quartz boulders. Stob Bàn has a shapely summit cone and a fine line of buttresses and gullies on the north-east side of the peak. It has an appealing profile when viewed from Glen Nevis and in some lights the pale grey Binnean quartzite cap can resemble snow. This was the second peak of this name I'd climbed on this trip, the first being in the Grey Corries.
On the way to Stob Bàn I met another walker and we chatted as we climbed towards the summit. We collectively made a navigational error on descent from Stob Bàn and dropped 100m down the wrong ridge. Once out of the cloud, the schoolboy error became apparent, and we were forced to retrace steps to the summit before locating the correct route. The chap needed to descend back to Glen Nevis from the next bealach, and I used my GPS to double-check for him that we were in the right place. I continued for a short distance and set up camp by the beautiful Lochan Coire nam Miseach. The sound of the burn tumbling out of the lochan was a lovely soundtrack to fall asleep to.
Wednesday 2nd August 2006
The next four Munros form part of a circular walk known as the Ring of Steall, which is normally tackled from the dramatic waterfall An Steall ("the cataract") in upper Glen Nevis. To reach the waterfall, a three-wire bridge is used to cross the Water of Nevis. Once over the bridge, great care needs to be taken to locate the correct route though the steep broken ground in the vicinity of the An Steall waterfall. There have been many fatalities and rescues in this area. The hanging valley Coire 'a Mhail, cupped inside the Ring is more difficult to enter than the Lost Valley of Glen Coe; yet it is much larger. Since I was already up on the Mamore ridge, I could avoid these difficulties, but denied the convenience of a circular walk, I needed to make two there-and-back again trips to reach the Munros on subsidiary spurs of the main ridge. Thus I did the "U of Steall" rather than the Ring of Steall.
The first satellite peak, Sgùrr a' Mhàim, I reached via the Devil's Ridge; a narrow arête that featured the toughest scrambling of the trip so far. This short scramble is rather exposed in a number of places; I found it quite exhilarating and one of the highlights of the Mamores. Once over the difficulties I dumped my pack for the final ascent to Sgùrr a' Mhàim. This peak dominates the western half of the Mamore range, standing at the end of the longest of the arms projecting northwards from the main ridge. From Glen Nevis the quartzite capping is quite striking in certain lights. Sgùrr a' Mhàim sits on a bed of schist that has been affected by a massive landslip in geologically quite recent times. From the summit I retraced my steps, and enjoyed the Devil's Ridge for a second time, to regain the main Mamore ridge.
I continued on over Sgùrr an Iubhair, which was demoted from Munro to Top status in 1997 as part of an effort to balance out the west and east Highlands. In less than a mile I reached the rocky summit of the second Munro of the day, Am Bodach. A steep red eroded path dropped down a seemingly sheer section to a bealach, which needed some care in descent. The terrain then became easier and more grassy on the climb up to Stob Coire a' Chàirn. To gain the last Munro in the Ring of Steall I dumped my pack, then completed the rocky scramble between An Gabhanach and An Gearanach. This section the crest is very narrow and exposed, falling steeply on both sides. On the way back I passed a couple of walkers who'd been confused by my apparently abandoned pack. From here I was able to make use of a stalkers' path to traverse around the side of Stob Coire a' Chàirn and regain the main ridge without any re-ascent.
I'm unsure now (writing in 2012) if I camped in Coire Ghabhail or continued on to climb three more Munros. I recall the weather and visibility being good and the total ascent for all seven Munros would be 1600m, which is feasible in a day, so I recon I did climb them all in one day. Next up was Na Gruagaichean, and standing on its rocky summit peering down at me as I clambered up over quartzite blocks was a curly-horned sheep. It held its ground 'til the very last minute, before bounding off! This Munro, whose name means "The Maidens" has twin summits with a dramatic U-shaped curve between them. Some describe it less poetically as being "tent shaped".
I continued on over an unnamed Top to gain the highest and most shapely of the Mamores, Binnein Mòr. It has the classic mountain form of ridges and corries sweeping up to a narrow summit crest. From here I took the ridge Sròn a' Gharbh-Choire, which is a little-used scramble with a few awkward moves in descent. At the foot of this ridge I dumped my pack at a little lochan. I might have camped here, but I think I continued and climbed the final 200m over scree and schistose boulders to reach the last Munro of the day Binnein Beag. This little conical peak is rather dwarfed by its illustrious neighbours, being separated from the main range by a 750m bealach.
The final mile of today's walk was along a stalkers' path traversing around the side of Binnein Mòr. I was suffering from a painful rash on my back, and stopped to smear it with antiseptic cream, which only made it worse. I found out afterwards that the rash was prickly heat, caused by my rucksack being continually pressed against my back. The humid and wet August weather didn't help, as waterproofs provide little ventilation. The only solution I found subsequently is to wash my back daily to prevent the pores from getting blocked by dirt. In addition, by tightening the rucksack hip belt and loosening the shoulder straps, the pressure on the back can be reduced.
Just as I was putting on the antiseptic cream, a young walker came along in the opposite direction. He was also wild camping and had decided to take a year out to climb the Munros all in one trip. His enthusiasm buoyed my spirits and I continued along the path to reach the collection of shapely lochans set in a fine position in Coire an Lochain, nestled between the spectacular mountains Sgùrr Eilde Mòr and Beag. It was here that I believe that I camped.
Thursday 3rd August 2006
I had just one Munro left to complete in the Mamores, so left my pack by the lochans, and nipped up quickly to bag Sgùrr Eilde Mòr. This is the most remote of the Mamores, a steep conical peak of scree and quartzite boulders, rising scenically above Coire an Lochain. On the descent the weather was sweltering as I walked along a well-made stalkers' path to Kinlochleven. My back was in quite some pain due to the prickly heat, and I was keen to reach a bed and breakfast so that I could take a shower. All along the path there were hundreds of hairy caterpillars. Many insects have occasional bumper years, normally caused by cyclic reductions in the number of predators.
Lower down the path wound through beautiful scattered deciduous trees, and I finally emerged in Kinlochleven. The village lies at the head of a fjord-like sea loch, Loch Leven. It is surrounded on both sides by steep mountains, being in shadow for much of the winter.
Kinlochleven was created in 1907 from two previously separate small communities, by the building of dedicated housing for employees of the British Aluminium Company, serving the new aluminium smelter. The processing plant was powered by a hydroelectric scheme situated in the mountains above, and made Kinlochleven the first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity, earning it the nickname "The Electric Village".
Today the village is an important Highland tourist destination, and is the last stop on the WHW before Fort William.
Kinlochleven is home to a mountain activity centre which opened to the public in 2003 ("Ice Factor: the National Ice Climbing Centre"). It includes the biggest indoor ice climbing wall in the world, the UK's highest indoor articulated rock climbing wall and a competition bouldering wall voted the best in the UK.
The village also is home to a micro-brewery, located in a small part of the former coke bunker (used for carbon production for the aluminium reduction works). This started in 2002 as Atlas Brewery and together with Orkney Brewery, was taken over in 2006 to form Sinclair Brewery Ltd. Atlas was closed in July 2010 and its production transferred to Orkney. The micro-brewery was re-opened in 2011 and now supplies River Leven Ales.
I found a pub which had a room available for the night. I'd wanted to stay for two nights, so that I could do a day walk without my pack, over the Aonach Eagach ridge scramble. However they had no availability the following night. I was desperate for a shower, so I decided to book in for one night, and figure out the logistics later. The shower worked wonders on my back, and afterwards I came down feeling refreshed and ready for some pub food and beer.
Friday 4th August 2006
The Aonach Eagach, "the notched ridge", forms the north wall of Glen Coe, and is one of the most notorious ridge-scrambles in Scotland. Unlike other ridges on the mainland, there are no escape routes once started and neither are there any easier traversing paths on the side of the ridge. Navigationally it is straightforward - all you have to do is stick to the crest, but some of the scrambling is extremely exposed, and the drops down both sides are sheer. For these reasons it is a very hard scramble to grade, and various guidebooks rate it between grade 1 and 3. Weather conditions can also have a big impact on the grading. It is not a route to take lightly and there have been many fatalities here over the years.
The finest account of an Aonach Eagach traverse is by the great mountaineer W.H. Murray, who completed the climb one night in winter, with the full moon shining. The expedition was crowned by a glorious display of the northern lights, aurora borealis, casting an eerie green light on the climbers as they edged along the icy ridge.
The forecast for today was cloud but no rain or wind, however showers and gales were on the way for the next few days. I had no intention of crossing the Aonach Eagach in high winds and rain, so given the forecast, I had to go today or not at all! Most people climb the Aonach Eagach from the Glen Coe side, so today's walk was rather unconventional, gaining the ridge from the Kinlochleven side to the north. I didn't want to do the ridge scramble with a fully-laden pack, but since I had no accommodation booked for the evening, I had to hide my camping gear in a bin bag in the bushes on the outskirts of Kinlochleven! I planned to return in the evening to restock food supplies and spend a night at the campsite in the village.
With a lightened pack I set off southwards along the WHW, branching off at a small reservoir by a dam after a mile or so. The "Highland High Way" guidebook recommends a rough route along the Allt Coire Mhorair and up its tributary Fèith nan Lab to gain Meall Dearg's north ridge. I initially followed the Allt Coire Mhorair, but then decided to take a more direct route, up Coire Mhorair to gain the ridge further to the east. From this bealach I turned right to follow the ridge and crossed the stony summit of Sròn Gharbh, then continued on with some easy scrambling up to Am Bodach.
From here the path continues west, then appears to come to an abrupt halt. The west side of Am Bodach is a precipitous cliff that plunges first to the ridge, then far down to Glen Coe below. It is hard to believe that there is any way down, let alone a way suitable for un-roped walkers! The SMC guide vaguely suggests: "a cast to the right should succeed". The crags are steep and the route precarious, but there are sufficient hand and footholds to give a feasible line down the 23m drop to the continuation of the ridge. The descent is tackled from the north side until about half-way down. Here the ground flattens slightly, and you go through a small gap to traverse around to the Glen Coe side, thus avoiding a steep cliff. The final descent to the ridge can then be made down a series of oversized rock steps. Some parties use a rope to protect this 23m descent from Am Bodach.
The next section of the ridge is known evocatively as The Chancellor, the start of which is marked by an old fence post at the top of a gully plunging down to Glen Coe. The scrambling now becomes easier, along the crest of the ridge, to the first Munro of the day, Meall Dearg. This Munro has a special place in Munro-climbing history. It was the last Munro climbed by Rev A.E. Robertson, the first person to climb all the Munros. To help celebrate his achievement, the Rev. invited his wife and his best friend to accompany him on the excursion. His friend recorded that Robertson marked the achievement in true mountaineer style by first kissing the summit cairn, and then kissing his wife after.
Glen Coe has volcanic origins, but in contrast to Ben Nevis, it was the result of a ring fault that immediately sank into a pool of lava below. The summit rock of Meall Dearg is rather different from the volcanic lavas that make up much of the Aonach Eagach ridge. It consists of pink porphyrite which was intruded along the boundary fault of the Glen Coe cauldron. Leaving the summit the next section of ridge is made up rhyolite and andesite lavas.
To continue I would have to traverse the true Aonach Eagach as marked on OS maps, representing the best part of the traverse. This was an experience that I'd been anticipating with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The descent from Am Bodach had provided an early taste of the difficulties. The nature of the scrambling on the narrow Aonach Eagach ridge was very diverse, with chimneys, slabs and rock towers to overcome. Care is required due to the sheer drops on both sides, but the rhyolite rock is mostly sound and reliable giving good holds whenever they are needed. Between Meall Dearg and Stob Coire Leith there are no safe escape routes down to Glen Coe.
Cloud was sitting on the ridge, making the rocks damp and slippery with condensation, but there was a light breeze which was drying most of it off. At least the dense cloud reduced the sense of exposure by obscuring my view of the scary drops! I knew that the difficulties would be sustained for nearly a mile. Without a view, it was hard to gauge how far I had left to go, and I kept hoping that the scrambling wouldn't get any harder.
The crux of the route was a series of gendarmes, known as the Crazy Pinnacles, that had to be surmounted. There are big drops on both sides, and this is the most exposed part of the ridge. However the rock is good and the holds are worn. At one stage a gendarme seemed to block the way and I followed a helpful-looking path on the north side of the ridge. This ended up on steep ground, so I retraced my steps and took the gendarme direct, which wasn't as bad as it looked!
The thing I found most awkward was all the down-climbing, particularly one slightly overhanging two metre drop towards the end. I was thankful that the low cloud obscured all the scary drops, the sound of cars 900m below in Glen Coe was the only clue to the near-vertical cliffs below. Throughout my time on the Aonach Eagach I didn't meet a single soul, which added to the intensity of the experience, knowing that help was far away.
Just when I thought that I couldn't cope with any more scrambling, there was a steep pull up to Stob Coire Leith, marking the end of the difficulties. The continuation to the second Munro, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, was then a straightforward walk. The rock here is nearly all quartzite with occasional dykes and small outcrops of pink/orange porphyrite.
For hikers who want to finish in Glen Coe, the difficulties are not yet over. To reach Glen Coe, there is a direct descent by an eroded path down the south ridge, which is continually steep and at the top very loose. Dislodged stones pose a serious risk to people below. Another route goes down the west side of the Clachaig Gully, again which is steep and loose, with the added problem of some slabby rock to descend and considerable exposure at times. The Clachaig Gully route is no longer recommended as the loose rock poses a real danger to the people below, particularly climbers in the gully, who might not be visible from above.
The current advice to walkers is to continue along the ridge to the bealach below the Pap of Glencoe. The additional ridge walking is less than a mile. I also headed this way, but rather than descend to Glen Coe, I dropped down the north side of the ridge towards Loch Leven. I had considered climbing the Pap of Glencoe, but my energy was waning, so instead opted to descend into Coire na Cìche and follow the Allt Coire na Cìche down to the road.
From here it was a three-mile plod along the B863 back to Kinlochleven, following the shores of the fjord-like Loch Leven. My feet were extremely sore after the long road walk. At thirteen miles, this was the longest day of the trek. Reaching Kinlochleven I retrieved my camping gear from the bushes, then headed to a bunkhouse which has a small camping area next to the River Leven. The midges were out and nearly everyone was wearing head-nets; the scene looked like a beekeepers convention! I paid for camping and was given a security code to get in the toilets and washrooms. I quickly put up my tent, then hurried off the Co-Op to buy supplies for the next six days. After my exertions I headed down to the pub for some well-deserved beer and food.
Saturday 5th August 2006
This was nominally an easier day, as the route didn't climb any Munros. I did however have to reach a suitable camping spot for climbing two Munros the following day, so my easy day was actually ten miles with 800m ascent! The first section was simple, along the WHW heading south, climbing up to the Devil's Staircase. For walkers doing the route in the usual direction heading north, the Devil's Staircase is regarded as the crux of the route. Actually the "staircase" is formed of well-constructed zigzags, and the ascent is little more than 200m. I was descending this route, so was really grateful for the easy graded zigzags taking the strain off my knees. On the way down there were great views of the great shepherd Buachaille Etive Mòr across the glen, rising up over Rannoch Moor.
Reaching the road I turned west, leaving the WHW to follow the busy A82 down into Glen Coe. Snaking around the road are traces of a track, the remains of the old military road, which is really handy for avoiding walking along the road itself. This road is rightly regarded one of the most scenic and atmospheric car journeys in Scotland.
From Rannoch Moor, Glen Coe plunges steeply down, squeezing between the sentinel of Buachaille Etive Beag and the sheer walls of the Aonach Eagach. Beyond the Buachailles, the dramatic ridges of the Three Sisters thrust out into the glen, looming darkly over those who travel this way. In the steepest section, known as The Study, the road traverses and crosses a narrow ravine. The sense of drama so close to a main road is unique in Scotland. A scrambling route steeply ascends from The Study up A' Chailleach (the old woman), to reach Am Bodach (the old man) and the start of the Aoanach Eagach.
After three miles I reached a car park where a man in full Highland costume was deftly playing bagpipes. This is probably the most scenic busking location in Scotland! I now thankfully left the noise of the cars and bagpipes and headed across the River Coe and up a steep path the Lost Valley, a hanging valley between the first two of the Three Sisters. During the ice ages, Glen Coe was heavily glaciated, with glaciers scooping out the hanging valleys between the Three Sisters, and steepening the walls of the glen. Rannoch Moor was once home to a vast snow lake, that spilt rivers of ice outwards in all directions.
The Lost Valley is reputedly where the MacDonalds hid the cattle that they stole from neighbouring clans. The MacDonalds were subjected to a terrible massacre (known as the Glen Coe massacre) early in the morning of 13 February 1692, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution and the Jacobite uprising of 1689. The massacre began simultaneously in three settlements along the glen. Thirty-eight unsuspecting MacDonalds from the Clan MacDonald were killed by the guests who had accepted their hospitality, on the grounds that the MacDonalds had not been prompt in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, William and Mary. Killing subsequently happened all over the glen as fleeing MacDonalds were pursued.
Under Scots law there was a special category of murder, "murder under trust", which was considered to be even more heinous than ordinary murder. The Glen Coe massacre was a clear example of such, and consequently an inquiry into the incident was launched. The challenge to the inquiry was to apportion blame on those responsible for the massacre. However the orders which led to it were signed by the King himself, who could not be seen to be responsible. The Glencoe massacre became a propaganda piece for Jacobite sympathies, which came to a head in the next generation in the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
These days the climb to the Lost Valley is a popular half-day walk for tourists, and the steep path up the Allt Coire Gabhail is well maintained, so not such a good place to hide stolen goods! The climb was rather strenuous, particularly late in the day with a fully-laden pack, and involving some scrambling over rocks. At last I reached the extraordinary green, grassy and fertile boulder-strewn floor of the Lost Valley. I picked a spot to camp on the far side away from the main path.
Sunday 6th August 2006
The weather broke and throughout the night my tent was lashed by heavy rain. In the morning I was rather startled by the tent floor being cold and clammy and rippling when I touched it! Looking out on both sides of my tent, I was alarmed to see water flowing though both porches! I realised that the base of the Lost Valley must be a rock-bowl of boulders and when conditions are sufficiently wet, the bowl fills up and water flows over the surface. My map did mark streams crossing the floor of the Lost Valley, but I'd ignored this and unwittingly camped in a pluvial stream bed. Fortunately the sewn-in groundsheet of my tent held out the water, as I calmly packed my rucksack and finished breakfast. I escaped from the tent and dumped my pack on a boulder, before dragging my sodden tent from the stream and shaking the water out from it.
I set off along the Lost Valley, picking a way through the muddle of rocks and boulders to join a distinct path on the right. At the head of the valley a steep rock wall appears to rise almost vertically - the path ascends directly up this wall and thankfully the slope is not as steep as it first seems. The path contours above a gorge chiselled out by the burn. Near the top, the mixture of mud, scree and boulders becomes unstable underfoot. The red, muddy, heavily-eroded path is quite enclosed for the final 15ft, like a little chute. Care must be taken on this section, particularly when the weather is wet or icy. On the ascent I met a couple, of which the wife was doing all the Munros. The husband remarked in despair, "I just hope they can find a cure for it"!
I was heading for Bidean nam Bian, the highest mountain in Argyll, and the secluded queen of Glen Coe. Bidean hides secretively behind the Three Sisters projecting out into the glen and enclosing three fine corries. So high and steep are the Three Sisters, that from Glen Coe it is difficult to get a view of Bidean's summit. The Buachailles, the Three Sisters and the Aonach Eagach flamboyantly flaunt their wares to all and sundry, while Bidean hides her charms for intrepid connoisseurs. Bidean's shapely summit peak thrusts high above the Three Sisters, extending an array of rocky ridges to the north and east.
With towering cliffs, gullies, loose rocky slopes and craggy spurs, an expedition to Bidean is always a serious undertaking. In winter the mountain should only be tackled by experienced parties. Unfortunately visibility was poor, and it was still raining, so my appreciation of Bidean was much diminished. I didn't spend long on the summit, and quickly retraced steps back to the bealach, then began the climb up Stob Coire Sgreamhach ("stop the ice-cream van"!), the second Munro of the day. I subsequently discovered that it is possible to continue along this Munro's north ridge, Beinn Fhada, then descend its steep east slopes down into the Lairig Eilde. This would have been a short cut, but potentially would be difficult in poor weather, so instead I returned by the Lost Valley.
Returning to the bealach for a third time, I carefully located the start of the descent path, since all the other gullies at the head of this valley are reputedly treacherous. Once beyond this steep section, there was a fair amount of water flowing over the floor of the Lost Valley. On the path down to Glen Coe, I had to remove my boots to wade across the Allt Coire Gabhail in spate. I climbed back up to the busy A82, then again followed the traces of the old military road back up the glen for a mile, turning off up the Lairig Eilde.
I was heading for Buachaille Etive Beag, the little shepard of Etive, which has many similarities in character to its more famous big brother Buachaille Etive Mòr. In comparison, Buachaille Etive Beag lacks grandeur and only from Glen Etive does it match its big brother in height and appearance. Buachaille Etive Beag is flanked by two fine mountain passes, the Lairig Eilde and the Lairig Gartain, both taking short-cuts between Glen Coe and Glen Etive. It is possible to circumnavigate the little Buachaille in a low-level half-day walk along these two Lairigs.
I initially set off up the Lairig Eilde, but then soon branched off to follow the path up to the Màm Buidhe, the high bealach between Buachaille Etive Beag's twin Munros. On the way I collected water, then set up camp at the bealach for the night. The rain had stopped and the weather was improving. The following day I was planning to tackle both Buachailles, and I was hoping for good views.
Monday 7th August 2006
I awoke early so I could safely leave my pack at the bealach and do two there-and-back-again trips to collect Buachaille Etive Beag's Munros. I took the shorter option first to Stob Coire Raineach, then the slighter longer walk to the higher summit Stob Dubh afterwards. The weather was clear and sunny, and I enjoyed spectacular views over to Bidean, the Aonach Eagach and a foreshortened view onwards to Buachaille Etive Mòr. Due to the early start and the high camp, I still had plenty of time to continue on to Buachaille Etive Mòr. I first dropped down into the Lairig Gartain then ascended Buachaille Etive Mòr by way of Coire Altruim. The path up this corrie was rather wet and eroded.
Buachaille Etive Mòr, and in particular its highest peak Stob Dearg, is one of the grandest and best-known mountains in Scotland, standing in isolation, rising above the north-west corner of Rannoch Moor. From the A82, the Buachaille's vast walls, gullies and buttresses of bare rock appear impregnable and forbidding. The apparently perfect cone of Stob Dearg, best seen from The King's House Hotel, is actually the end of three-mile ridge, running south above Glen Etive and barely dropping below 3000ft.
The main spine consists of four principal summits: Stob Dearg, Stob na Doire, Stob Coire Altruim and a second Munro at its southern end, Stob na Bròige. Many of Scotland's great mountains hide their best features in remote corries and glen; in contrast, for accessibility the Buachaille is unrivalled and it flamboyantly displays its towering rock walls, buttresses and gullies for all to see. The remarkable north-facing pyramid of Stob Dearg is the perfect sentinel for Glen Coe, setting the scene for the subsequent descent into its grim depths. W.H. Murray considered the Buachaille to be his favourite mountain.
Gaining the spine of the Buachaille, I initially headed south over the craggy Top Stob Coire Altrium to reach Stob na Bròige. Retracing steps to the bealach I crossed Stob na Doire, then continued on to reach the highest point of the day, Stob Dearg. From this eyrie, poised above awesome cliffs, I surveyed the vast expanse of Rannoch Moor with its countless lochans glittering like jewels. The views were extensive across the moorland to the prominent peak of Schiehallion on the far side. After the disappointing weather over the past three days in Glen Coe, the views from here were amazingly rewarding.
Stob Dearg is the top of many well-known rock-climbs, the easiest of which is Curved Ridge and Crowberry Tower. This is the most well-known and popular scramble on Buachaille Etive Mòr, and arguably the second best in the Glencoe area, after the Aonach Eagach. This route is graded 2 / 3 under summer conditions. The more difficult Crowberry Ridge is graded severe.
The great cliffs encircling Stob Dearg are breached on the north-west side by Coire na Tulaich. This is the main route used by tourist to traipse up the mountain from the road and consequently is very eroded and scree-ridden. Being shaded and sheltered, this corrie is also notoriously midgey! The Challenging Walks book suggested a pathless alternative route down Coire Cloiche Finne, one of the few chinks in the armour on the Buachaille's south side. I took this route in descent, following a steep ridge between the V of two streams. Just before the two streams met, the ground levelled and I was able to find a suitable camping spot. This positioned me well for continuing to the Black Mount the following day.
In the morning the weather was still holding, but dark clouds indicated that more rain was on the way. The first challenge of the day was to cross the wide River Etive. I descended from the Buachaille into Glen Etive, then walked north-eastwards up the minor road for a mile, following the river upstream. There were many people with camper vans and tents, pitched up along this seldom-visited glen.
I found a suitable crossing point, but needed to remove my boots and socks to get across. The midges were atrocious, and it was frustrating to be at their mercy as I carefully picked away over the slippery river stones. I hurriedly put on my boots and socks, then ran upwind of them to throw them off my scent. Had this point been un-crossable, I would have had to walk a further mile to cross above the confluence with the River Coupall.
Between the King's House and Inveroran, the Black Mount forms a high ridge, offering an adventurous alternative to the WHW, which takes a lower route skirting the western fringe of Rannoch Moor along an old military road. The traverse of the entire Black Mount range over Stob Ghabhar, Clach Leathad (Clachlet), Creise and Meall a' Bhùiridh is one of the classic hillwalking expeditions in Scotland, linking two old and famous hostelries. It is a long a strenuous route, so labouring under a heavy pack, I decided to savour it over two days, camping high up on the ridge at the end of the first day.
The first objective was the steep nose of Sròn na Creise, a little-used scramble offering the finest way to ascend the Black Mount from the north. This excellent scramble involves a series of easy steps, ledges, ramps and scree gullies. The lower part of the ridge is formed of small greasy rock outcrops that can be easily bypassed. Higher up a nose of rock forces a detour on the right side, but eventually hands must be used to make progress up a short wall near the top. By the easiest line is no more than grade 1, although harder alternatives can be sought out. This scramble is somewhat neglected in favour of the more tempting Glen Coe scrambles nearby. The ridge shows few signs of wear-and-tear, hence requires careful route-finding. While on the scramble it began to rain, so I hurried on to gain the top before the rock became wet and slippery.
From the top I crossed Stob a' Ghlais Choire and followed the rocky ridge to reach the summit of Creise. From here I had to temporarily leave the main ridge to visit Meall a' Bhùiridh on a subsidiary spur. The route dropped very steeply at first, but without difficulty down a rocky arête to reach a bealach. I left my pack here, and climbed quite steeply again up a rocky ridge. From the summit of Meall a' Bhùiridh the views over Rannoch Moor are reputedly spectacular, however the the wet overcast weather obscured my view
The poor visibility also thankfully obscured the ugly ski tows of the Glen Coe Mountain Resort. The Glencoe Ski area (also known as the White Corries ski centre), is the oldest ski centre in Scotland, opening in 1960. The ski area has seven lifts on Meall a' Bhùiridh, which serve a variety of ski runs on long-lasting snowfields. The car park lies below the normal snow line, so the skiing is reached via a low-level access chair lift, although it is occasionally possible to ski all the way down to the car park. The access chair lift also runs in summer for tourists and walkers.
I retraced my steps back to my rucksack, then climbed back up onto Creise. Re-joining the main ridge, I headed southwards to the Top Clach Leathad (Clachlet). The steep corries on the east side of this ridge hold large snowfields in winter, while the gentler western slopes drop down to enticing hidden glens. South of Clach Leathad the ground falls away into the vast Coireach a' Bà, reputedly the largest corrie in Scotland (or the smallest glen!). To progress along the ridge I had to descend steeply to Bealach Fuar-chathaidh. There are crags either side of the correct line of descent, so in the mist I had to carefully follow a compass bearing, double-checking with a GPS at intervals.
This had been one of the shorter days of the trek at 7 miles, but I had climbed 1200m during the day, so was rather tired. At just under 700m, Bealach Fuar-chathaidh is the lowest point on the main Black Mount ridge, so would be a good place to stop for the night.
Wednesday 9th August 2006
I awoke in the night to the sound of a primitive animal bark, and froze immediately with fear. All kinds of thoughts shot through my mind of wolves and escaped zoo animals. Plucking up courage I looked outside and realised that it was just a herd of deer. The deer must use this bealach for crossing from Rannoch to Glen Etive, and they were voicing their displeasure at finding an unexpected object blocking their usual route. I clapped loudly, simulating a gun shot, and they ran off, recognising the age-old human danger. Fortunately I dropped back off and had some more restful sleep before the morning.
From the bealach I climbed up onto the broad ridge of another Aonach Mòr. This widens to a high plateau, then narrows again on the approach to the Munro Stob Ghabhar. A short and spicy scramble can be had on the exposed crest of Stob Ghabhar's east ridge, the Aonach Eagach (not the same as the one in Glen Coe!). I could not take this route, since I had to stay on the high ground, following a good path down to a 668m bealach, then back up to the last Munro of the day Stob a' Choire Odhair. A well-constructed stalkers' path descends the broad south ridge of this peak. Lower down the path widens into a track, which follows the waters of the Allt Toaig. This river flows into the larger Abhainn Shira, where a footbridge crosses the Allt Toaig just before the confluence. The footbridge is the gateway to a long-cross country route leading eventually to Glen Kinglass and Loch Etive.
Also at the confluence is a small hut, the Clashgour hut, that was originally built c.1900 and rebuilt in 1919 following a fire. Its construction is of the Meccano kit type, typical of temporary structures of this period. Until 1933 it was used as a tiny primary school, but this ended with the opening of the new road to Glencoe. For several years it remained unused and it deteriorated until 1948 when the Black Mount estate agreed to lease it to the Glasgow University Mountaineering club, an arrangement that continues today. The structure has changed since the club took it over; the main change being the construction of the upper level. Some relics of the pre-war era still remain, including the school bell above the door. The hut reputedly once held 35 people after two groups of walkers were forced to return there from a wild day on the Black Mount.
I continued along the track following the banks of the Abhainn Shira, and after a mile reached Victoria Bridge at the terminus of a minor road. I was now back on the WHW, and turned south, walking along the road for a short distance, past a designated "wild campsite" next to another bridge. From this road there are fine views of Loch Tulla, fringed with mature Scots Pines along the lochside. Soon I reached the pub at Inveroran, where I turned off the road to follow the WHW along a track to Bridge of Orchy. This follows the route of an old military road and involves a 150m climb that wasn't welcome at the end of the day!
At Bridge of Orchy there is another designated "wild campsite" on the west bank of the River Orchy. I decided to head to the pub for a treat of some pub food and beer, before pitching my tent. While in the pub, a biker came in and sat down with me. He was interested in where I'd been walking and remarked on my physical fitness on completing such a challenging route. When I told him of my plan to climb all the Munros in a series of treks, he warned that I might end up with all the isolated Munros scattered around at the end. He worked for (or was a founder of) K.E. Adventure Travel (http://www.keadventure.com/).
After an excellent meal and many beers, I headed back and found a good spot on the riverbank to camp, along from several other people's tents. At the time of writing I can't recall how I travelled back from Scotland, but I think it was an overnight sleeper, which I had pre-booked. I'd arrived at Bridge of Orchy a day early, so would have time to climb two more Munros tomorrow, before travelling back in the evening.
Thursday 10th August 2006
Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dòthaidh are the southern half of a gently curving range of mountains forming the south-east wall of Rannoch Moor, overlooking Loch Tulla and the headwaters of the River Orchy. Beinn Dorain has a distinctive conical sandcastle shape, sweeping dramatically upwards from the West Highland Railway. Beinn an Dòthaidh is less spectacular, but presents an uninterrupted bastion above Loch Tulla, with a fine hidden corrie on its north-east side. They are easily accessed from the railway station at Bridge of Orchy, and consequently the path up to the bealach between the two peaks is quite severely eroded.
From the bealach I headed first for Beinn an Dòthaidh. It was possible to take a circular route around Coire Reidh, varying the route on return to the bealach. There was another party behind me, but at my pace I kept them at a distance. Back at the bealach I began the climb to Beinn Dorain. There are several cairns along this ridge, and near the top it is necessary to drop for a short distance before climbing up to the true summit. At the top I chatted to a family who were new to the west Highlands, having concentrated previous holidays on the spectacular peaks in Scotland's north-west. They strongly recommended visiting this part of Scotland. The group who were lagging behind me finally caught up and they joked about how they'd tried to catch up!
I retraced steps to the bealach, then dropped down the eroded descent path to Bridge of Orchy. There was time for some food and drink in the pub before catching the sleeper in the evening.
I arrived feeling refreshed at London Euston, although my muscles were aching after the exertions of the past two weeks. My fitness was definitely much higher at the end than at the beginning of the trek. The trek had cherry-picked some of the finest mountains in Scotland - never since would I climb so many iconic Munros all in one trip. The most spectacular part of the journey was the Aonach Eagach ridge, which was just on the right side of frightening! The wet August weather had been disappointing in obscuring views from many of the Munros, but the continual scrambling and rock interest had more than made up for this. I would definitely like to revisit the area, perhaps setting up bases at official campsites to tackle some more of the scrambles in the area (see Cicerone guidebook "Scrambles in Lochaber").