North West Highlands
The general plan for this trek was to spend the first week climbing the fourteen Munros around Loch Monar in the remote hinterland between Glen Carron and Glen Cannich. Then in the second week head northwards to tidy up various odds and sods, initially in the Coulin Forest, then the mighty Torridonian peaks of Beinn Eighe and Slioch and finally the remote Beinn Dearg group near Ullapool. This would complete my tour of the spectacular Munros in the North West Highlands (having previously visited Skye, Glen Shiel, Glen Affric, Torridon, Knoydart, the Great Wilderness and the Fannaichs).
Inverness would be an ideal start and end point for this trip. The Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh railway line could used to reach Achnashellach in Glen Carron on the outward journey. Then the CityLink bus from Ullapool could be joined at Braemore Junction, 44 miles and one hour from Inverness on the return.
I had initially planned to wild camp every night, but being my first Scotland trip of 2010, my level of fitness was rather low, and it was clear that some warm-up days would be beneficial! The previous year I had stayed at the Loch Ossian SYHA hostel for a couple of days, then did a five day circuit, before returning to the hostel to retrieve a cache of food for the second week. This "circuit-then-walk-out" strategy had worked rather well, and on discovering Gerry's Hostel near Achnashellach, I realised that it was equally applicable to the trip in hand. I booked a bed at Gerry's for 10th and 11th June, then after a six day circuit, would return for a further night on 17th June.
Gerry's is the oldest independent hostel in Scotland, running for 44 years to date. It was made famous in the 1970s by Hamish Brown's book about his record-breaking continuous round of Munros. The hostel is open all year and in winter it must be a haven for frozen mountaineers, Gerry's log fires being the stuff of legend. The hostel has no fancy online booking system - instead you call the payphone at the hostel and hope that Gerry answers. Advance payment in the form of a cheque must then be posted to Gerry.
Written July 2010
After finishing work and doing some last-minute packing I caught the 6pm train from Southampton to Waterloo. The fast service takes just 1 hour 20 minutes to reach London. This was a little early as the sleeper doesn't depart from Euston until 9:15pm, but it is always good to have a large margin for delays and have time to get some takeaway food. The return train ticket from Southampton to Inverness cost £147.90, with an additional £38 supplement for the sleeper berth. For the return I had not reserved a sleeper berth, since I wanted to keep the trip open-ended, rather than rush back for a particular date.
I shared a sleeper cabin with a chap called Robin, who ran his own business called Envirosense, doing contract work such as carbon footprint estimates, environmental impact assessments etc. He was travelling up for a fishing trip with his friends, somewhere on the River Spey near Inverness. He had done some hillwalking and ice climbing and was very enthusiastic about my Munro activities, calling it an "odyssey" and recommending I write a book called something like "Munro treks by public transport".
Thursday 10th June 2010
In the morning the usual cup of tea did not arrive and after some time I went off to investigate. It turned out that the hot water system in our carriage had broken, meaning that the hostess had to walk some distance through the train to reach an alternative source. Eventually the tea and a single finger of shortbread arrived and there was just enough time to finish it before arriving in Inverness at 8:30am. The onward ticket to Achnashellach was only £13.50. This line is reckoned to be one of the prettiest railway routes in Britain, passing through dramatic mountains and beside deep lochs. On the train I chatted to a nautical-looking chap originally from Portsmouth, but now living in Scotland and on his way to sail the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen.
Achnashellach is a request stop and the ticket inspector made arrangements for the driver to stop for me, after just over one hour's travel from Inverness. The station is connected to the A890 by a short track. Gerry's hostel is located in the hamlet of Craig, two miles east of Achnashellach along the A890. There are forest tracks that can be used to reach Craig, but since I was carrying two week's worth of food, the road was the flattest and easiest option. Walking along an "A" road in England is always a miserable experience, but in Scotland on many "A" roads the traffic volume low enough for it to be fairly pleasant. Most motorists slow down and where possible they usually pull out when passing.
The weather was warm and sunny as I plodded along the road to Craig. Gerry accepts new arrivals in the evenings between 5pm and 8.30pm and the hostel is locked during the day if everyone is out. Since I knew that I would be arriving shortly after 11am, I'd arranged with Gerry to leave some luggage in his woodshed, so I could go off for a day walk, then return in the evening to book in. For the first day's walk I picked the two mountains closest to the south side of Glen Carron. Of these Mòruisg is a Munro and Sgùrr nan Ceannaichean is a former Munro.
Sgùrr nan Ceannaichean was originally listed as a Corbett, but following completion of Ordnance Survey's photogrammetric height survey in the late 1970s it was reclassified as a Munro in 1981 with a height of 915m. In 2009, a ground survey commissioned by The Munro Society assigned it a new height of 913.43m, thus demoting it back to the status of Corbett after 28 years! Since it was on the list when I started, I considered it to be "part of the challenge" and wanted to climb it. In any case, of the two mountains, it is by far the finest; its rocky west face is split by two gullies and looks very impressive from Glen Carron. The circuit of the two mountains makes for a more interesting walk than climbing the massive bulk of Mòruisg in isolation.
After crossing the railway at a private level crossing, the first few miles of the walk is up a forestry track. This area has recently been harvested and replanted with another batch of regimented conifers. This is a pity since there is a beautiful remnant of native Scots pine on the opposite side of the Allt a' Choinais (signposted as Allt a' Choinais Pinewood), and an opportunity has been missed to expand its limited extent. A gate in the deer fence brings the track out of the forest and onto the open hillside. Next to the gate is a notice containing the standard estate blurb about preserving the delicate balance of flora and fauna by deer population management.
I decided to tackle Sgùrr nan Ceannaichean directly, by working a way around its craggy west face, then ascending steeply into a high corrie on its northern side. I disturbed a small group of deer grazing in the corrie, and they vanished higher up. Eventually the route emerged onto the upper slopes of the hill, and I turned left up the easy-angled west ridge to the summit. The summit is crowned by a skilfully-constructed beehive cairn, the top of which must be above Munro height! Perhaps the locals should take inspiration from the film "The Man Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain" and pile up some more rocks!
On the way to Mòruisg I overtook a large group of youngsters on a Duke of Edinburgh Award training expedition. They had enormous backpacks and were complaining about the abundant insect life. Daddy-long-legs were having a bumper year in this area and the mountain was crawling with them, which the girls considered "gross".
After a short drop down to a bealach, the path continued gently upwards for a mile or so to reach Mòruisg. For the descent, the easiest route was to drop cross-country for a mile, to reach the top of a stalkers' path, descending south to Glenuaig Lodge. Such paths are invariably well-constructed and well-drained. Footpath erosion and energy exertion are minimised by using zigzag routes up the hillsides. By 4pm I was down by the lodge, then it was a six mile walk along the track to join the outward route by the forest. Walking along tracks can be quite tedious, so for a while I listened to my mp3 player to alleviate the boredom.
I arrived back at the hostel at 7.30pm. My luggage was gone from the woodshed and I assumed Gerry had brought it in. He wasn't around, but a lady called Julie said that he often goes for a little nap at this time. She also said that he prefers people to keep their outdoor gear in the drying room. I had not taken my boots off since they were pretty clean after walking along the dry track. Julie directed me to the dormitory, which is on the ground floor next to the lounge. Here I found I found my bags laid out on a bed. The dorm has access to the shower, the bathroom, the "outdoor gear" entrance/exit door and the drying room, where I deposited my boots.
Julie had been coming up to Scotland since the 1970s, in all seasons, climbing Munros, but she claimed not to know how many she had climbed! There was another chap there called Maurice, from Belgium, who was doing a grand three-week cycle tour around Scotland, starting and finishing at Glasgow and staying in hostels along the way.
The hostel has a very homely feel about it. The lounge is stacked high with old magazines (TGO dating back to the 1980s), a semicircle of random easy chairs and sofas surround a wood-burning stove, there are several bookcases stuffed with climbing books, wildlife identification guides and paperback fiction. Above the fire a long Bayeux-tapestry-esque painting curves around the walls, with scenes themed around American Indians. To the left of the fire there is "Harrods Highland Store", where it is possible to buy assorted tins and jars of food, frozen milk, individual teabags and sachets of salt & pepper. There is a dining table in the corner of the room next to a record player, and a piece of twisted bogwood hangs from the ceiling.
On the other side of the lounge there is a hall, with a flight of stairs leading to family rooms on the first floor, and the "front" door which I had erroneously used to enter the hostel in boots. At the bottom of these stairs there is a very unusual toilet. One wall has been concreted and is inset with a bizarre selection of items such as bones, teeth, pottery, chains and three rocks arranged in a phallic shape! There is a bin in the toilet with the ominous message "please use this bin to dispose of sanitary products or prepare to learn the finer points of drain unblocking".
The kitchen also leads off from the foot of the stairs, and to here I now went, for I was getting quite hungry. The kitchen is of the old-fashioned non-fitted type - at one end there is a sink unit, at the other an ancient "distressed look" chest of draws containing cutlery. Pans, cups and food are stored on shelves on one side, and on the opposite there is a long worktop holding a jumble of gas and electric cooking appliances of various vintages. A sign reads "if you can't clean, you carnt [sic] cook".
After finishing eating, I was unpacking in the dorm when a chap with a white beard popped through the door. I said "hello", but he ignored me and walked by. I guessed it might be Gerry, but couldn't be certain since I didn't know what he looked like! Soon after a large party arrived back from a long day expedition to the remote Munros Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhòr. Their account of this demanding walk was conveyed with considerable excitement for at least an hour. They were all from Manchester and had escaped from their wives for a week to do some Munro-climbing. They had been coming to Scotland for many years and were impressed I had climbed a similar number of Munros in just five years.
We were sat in the semicircle of chairs around the stove, when Gerry came in with a glass of white wine, put on a classical record, then asked me to move to a different chair so he could sit down! Someone explained afterwards that it is better to avoid sitting in Gerry's favourite chair when he is around.
Later on in the evening somebody swore and Gerry reprimanded him, saying that the English language is rich enough to not have to resort to vulgarities! It appears that Gerry has a long list of unwritten rules, which you either find out by inadvertently breaking them; from discovering cryptic handwritten signs; or by word of mouth from other guests. Other rules include "the log fire is Gerry's exclusive domain", "no smoking on the premises - not even outside", "all rubbish must be compressed" and "no pets".
With everyone back from their day excursions, Gerry asked us all to fill in his guestbook with our names and addresses. At last I had an opportunity to introduce myself, to which he replied "I guessed that. I brought your things in from the shed, to stop the mice getting them", and I thanked him. Some of the Manchester party had not recorded their postcodes, so Gerry asked them to come back to complete the book. They said they would do it later, but Gerry insisted they do it now, since he wanted to put the book away. Reluctantly they came back to complete the task - the atmosphere was a little frosty for a while afterwards! Gradually people began to drift off to bed early, with most gone by 11pm.
This was the second warm-up day. Yesterday I had already tackled the nearby peaks on the south side of Glen Carron, the next closest were on the north side in the Coulin (pronounced Cow-lin) Forest. In contrast to the predominantly grassy hills south of Glen Carron, the Coulin peaks are mostly rock. Geologically they are closely related to the Torridon peaks immediately north of the Coulin Forest, being formed of sandstone and quartzite.
The walk up Beinn Liath Mhòr and Sgorr Ruadh starts from Achnashellach station - two miles west from Gerry's Hostel. I didn't want to repeat the road walk, and Gerry had recommended taking the Coulin pass up from the road, then following a forestry track to the station. The ancient Coulin pass is an old droving route. The short climb at the start was for many years obliterated by dense forestry, and has now been restored by the Scottish Rights of Way Society in conjunction with the Forestry Commission.
The new path snakes up through the trees, marked out by splashes of orange paint on the tree trunks. After passing through an open heather area, then through some more conifers, the path emerges on a forest track after ascending around 150m. The forest track drops down to Achnashellach, but today it was closed for harvesting operations, and in any case I was loath to lose the 150m I had just gained! In the other direction the track zigzags up to the Coulin pass, out of the forest and onto the open hillside. A path is shown on the map heading west towards the Coulin peaks. In reality this path had almost vanished through lack of use, although it looked to originally have been a well-constructed stalkers' path.
The weather now deteriorated into continuous drizzle and I got rather hot and bothered, slogging across this featureless boggy moorland. Eventually I heard voices, so assumed I was getting closer to the normal ascent path from Achnashellach. It turned out to be the Manchester party, who had gone by car to Achnashellach to start the same walk.
We were standing at junction of paths. One route goes up the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhòr, the second goes up Coire Lair and the third goes to the bealach between Sgorr Ruadh and the Corbett Fuar Tholl. The Manchester party were heading for the ridge, but since the weather was wet, cold and windy the ridge did not appeal to me. Instead I followed the more gentle and sheltered route up Coire Lair.
Coire Lair is an impressive place, surrounded by three fine mountains; Sgorr Ruadh with its high sandstone cliffs above Loch Coire Lair, the rocky climber's peak of Fuar Tholl and the long ridge of Beinn Liath Mhòr on the north side of the corrie, with its white quartzite screes in contrast to the dark sandstone on the opposite side. The clouds were down over the mountains, but the corrie was cloud-free, occasionally giving atmospheric glimpses of the crags.
The route up to Beinn Liath Mhòr from the head of Coire Lair is not straightforward. First a steep 100m high rocky knoll has to be circumvented to reach a small lochan, then an easy gully scramble negotiates a way through steep crags (usefully marked by a small cairn at the top); the path then crosses a sandstone pavement before disappearing into loose quartzite scree in the upper reaches of the mountain. I was half-expecting to meet the Manchester party, but they must have been further away along the ridge. The summit was cold, wet and windy, so I quickly retraced my steps to the head of Coire Lair.
On descent, the clouds parted momentarily to give a dramatic glimpse across the corrie to Sgorr Ruadh, my next objective. Initially a path went up from the bealach, but this soon became vague and ill-defined in the broken rocky upper reaches of the mountain, shortly before reaching the summit.
Rather than return by the outward route, I opted to continue over the south side of the mountain, to the bealach separating it from Fuar Tholl. At the bealach, a stalkers' path drops into lower Coire Lair. The mile of descent cross-country was quite difficult, across much steep, broken and boggy ground. It was hard to follow a compass bearing, as obstacles kept diverting the course. Eventually I reached the cluster of lochans marking the broad bealach.
On the far side of the bealach I picked up the stalkers' path, but I came upon it from a direction opposite to that which I was expecting. Being rather tired and weather-beaten, I glossed over this anomaly, and happily set off down the path. After a minute or so it didn't feel right, so I checked the compass and realised I was following the path in the wrong direction, heading downhill into the wrong valley! The lie of the land on the south side of Sgorr Ruadh seems to encourage this navigational error, and on discussion afterwards, the Manchester party had experienced similar problems here.
After a short amount of re-ascent up the path, I was heading downhill in the correct direction. The difficulties were now over, although in spate, the River Lair is reportedly difficult or impossible to cross at the bottom of this path. By now I was quite tired and opted to follow the easy path through the corrie, following the river down to Achnashellach. On the descent I spoke to a strange character who had spent the day on Fuar Tholl.
As the lower glen is approached, the path skirts around the edge of a forestry plantation, following the riverbank. Two adjacent gates then provide a way through the forest fence. One of these gates is a standard wooden deer fence gate, but the other is a perfectly round metal gate inset into the fence, the purpose of which is not apparent. It looked like it was specially adapted for certain Mr Men characters!
Once through the gate, a short section of path doubles back to reach the forest track leading down to the station. The road walk was not particularly inspiring in the rain, and on the way back the fully-laden Manchester party car passed me by. The drying room was already jam-packed, and apparently Gerry had been very amenable, helping everyone get their kit hung up. The drying room was personally designed and built by Gerry, and is one of the wonders of the Highlands! There are several rotating fan heaters, a dehumidifier and a walking boot drying rack (with a dedicated heater). Across the ceiling are rows of metal rails with dozens of coat-hangers to suspend wet garments. I happily sat there for fifteen minutes warming up and drying out.
Whilst I was cooking, Gerry came into the kitchen, I greeted him, and got more of a response than last time: "now I know why it rains when you go out - it's the sky crying". I began to feel quite concerned that I'd done something to upset Gerry, but the Manchester group also remarked on his lack of welcome and hospitality.
After running for so many years I suppose he's come to regard being polite to guests as beyond the scope of his duties. Gerry seemed to relate more to older people and was better at light-hearted banter than polite conversation. However Gerry behaves, people will keep coming, since the hostel is in a unique location for climbing Munros, plus it's on the Cape Wrath trail and on a TGO route. Nevertheless it would make a very entertaining episode for a reality TV show called "hostel inspector"!
I sat down for dinner with the Manchester group, who were having a chicken curry that had been pre-cooked and frozen by one of their wives. Gerry passed by and someone asked him to put a record on. The records are all stacked flat in a chest of draws, which presumably means the ones at the bottom don't get played at all. Somebody quipped "got any Sex Pistols", to which Gerry replied, quick as a flash: "only the one I was born with!" After much deliberation Gerry put on a classical compilation, featuring Bach's Toccata and Fugue, lending a Gothic atmosphere to the proceedings!
For the next five nights I would be wild camping, so this morning the first task was to decide what food to take and what to leave behind for the second week. Gerry was in a good mood and he said I could leave food on the top shelf in the kitchen, marked with my name and return date.
The initial part of the walk repeated the route of the first day up the forestry track. Today the midges were out in force, so any rest stops were out of the question! Higher up the track beyond the forest it was necessary to cross to the opposite side of the Allt a' Choinais. At this point I caught up with two gents from Merseyside. They were looking for the footbridge marked on the map, which apparently has now disintegrated. It has been replaced by a couple of wire bridges, one in the lower glen, and one slightly higher. Both span the river with two thin wires, one for your feet and one for your arms! The Merseysiders opted for a shallow ford, while I tackled the upper bridge. It was not straightforward, and one could easily get a soaking by losing balance. It must take some courage to cross this bridge when the river is in spate.
From the bridge a gentle stalkers' path ascends a corrie up to Bealach Bhearnais. This bealach is the key entrance point to the Munros I was tackling. I decided to do the trek in a clockwise direction, since the weather today was showery and the forecast for the following day was continuous rain. Heading clockwise I could climb three Munros today, then have a short easy "connecting day" in the rain. In the other direction, there were two very hard days comprising six Munros, which would have been exhausting in such weather. This six day route circuits the vast reservoir of Loch Monar, although throughout this time I only ever got fleeting glimpses of this reclusive body of water.
The first pair of Munros of the day, Sgùrr Choinnich and Sgùrr a' Chaorachain are known variously as the two Ss, the two Cs or the two S-Cs. I climbed Sgùrr Choinnich by its steep west ridge, which involved some short sections of easy scrambling. The Merseysiders, a chap from near Edinburgh and I all reached the summit within the space of several minutes. The Merseysiders were planning to leave the second peak for another day. I expressed surprise, since the drop down and back up to Sgùrr a' Chaorachain is relatively easy.
The chap from Edinburgh and I headed onwards. He had come up by car for a day walk, setting off at the crack of dawn. He had 20 Munros left to do, but all located in places far from Edinburgh! He clutched a GPS and repeatedly checked its readings. On the little summit plateau of Sgùrr a' Chaorachain he wandered around, double-checking that the destroyed trig point stump and rock shelter was the highest point of the mountain. Soon the Merseysiders arrived, quipping "will you stop persuading us to climb more mountains!" I replied "there's another one just a short way in that direction!" Indeed that's where I was heading next for my last Munro of the day!
The direct route involves descending some steep and rocky ground, but I found an easier route down to a lochan, along the stream at its outflow, then up the ridge on the far side. By now it was 4pm and I expected to be alone on Maoile Lunndaidh. To my surprise I caught up with a mother and father, with the father carrying his young daughter in a "baby rucksack". I commented that it was a fine way to do the Munros being carried up by someone else! He said his daughter was getting too heavy to sustain the technique for much longer! They had hired Glenuaig Lodge near Mòruisg for the week and had been climbing the Munros in the area. They remarked that the weather had been typically better in the afternoons over the past week, hence their late ascent. I overtook them as they stopped to put some warmer clothes on their daughter at Càrn nam Fiaclan (a Munro Top).
Maoile Lunndaidh is a Cairngorm-like peak, with a large domed plateau, eaten into by steep glaciated corries on several sides. The next section of the plateau narrowed, with corries on opposite sides almost touching. The corrie on the north side is particularly eye-catching, holding a clutch of small lochans and a miniature rocky peak. After a short distance the plateau broadens and ascends gently to the domed summit. From some distance I could see someone sat at the summit cairn. I wondered what he was doing so late on the mountain and he probably wondered the same about me!
He had walked in from the road, from the opposite direction to me, and had camped at Loch a' Chlaidheimh the previous night. Today he had waited for the showers to pass, and had headed up to enjoy the improving visibility at the end of the day. Loch a' Chlaidheimh was exactly the spot I had chosen for tonight's wild camp, and it was amusing that we had both headed for the same remote spot from opposite directions!
Since he had got there first, I said I didn't mind camping somewhere else, but he didn't seem bothered. He said there was a better spot at the opposite end of the loch to where he was camped, which he had only discovered on his way up the mountain. He even pointed out an easy way down to the loch, including details of which side of the corrie had the most cooperative terrain for descent. I had previously planned a rather steep and rocky direct descent route.
He had reached Scotland via an internal flight from southern England, then had hired a car for the week. His "setting up base-camp then climbing a Munro" method was designed to minimise exertion on any given day. He explained most of these decisions with the short sentence "I'm lazy", but in truth he had arthritis in his back and his activities were actually very impressive and certainly not lazy. I said I would be paranoid about leaving a tent unattended for such a long time, but he said he was more worried about it blowing away than anyone interfering with it. Tents can and do blow away - I know from experience!
We sat for a while exchanging wild camping tips. He had once burnt his tent to the ground by knocking over his gas stove, and now used rocks to stabilise the stove. I joked we could signal to each other with torches across the loch, but he said he didn't bother with a torch since it barely got dark during the summer in Scotland.
By now it was getting pretty cold, so I headed down. He was planning to stay up for a few more hours before dropping down. Just as I was leaving, the young family showed up and we hurried off together, chilled by the evening breeze.
The descent route was indeed straightforward, and by 7pm I was down at the lochside. The ideal spot was on a little grassy island, separated from the shore by a gap just too far to jump! With more energy I would have built a causeway with some rocks, but not today, and I opted instead for a sheltered area on the banks of a stream flowing into the loch. From this spot it was not possible to see the other tent, and so the feeling of wilderness was preserved!
Just before dark I waved to my fellow camper, as he headed home for the night. I was glad he didn't come over, since I had made a rather poor job of erecting the tent, which was not so apparent from a distance!
My tent is a Mountain Equipment AR Ultralite, and this was a new version I was using for the first time, since my old one had worn out. The manufacturer has made a few minor improvements, such as adding some very useful deep pockets on the inside, for holding small items that usually get lost in a tent! The condensation problem in the feet end has been partially addressed by an additional guy line, but it still needs some air vents and wire stiffening to hold the tent away from the feet. The glow-in-the-dark zip pulls have now been restricted to the outside of the tent, perhaps because people want the inside of their tent to be dark at night!
As forecast, the weather today was wet, and I awoke to the sound of heavy rain. It was good to know that I didn't have far to go, and there was time to laze around all morning and into the early afternoon. Having made around 1700m of ascent yesterday, it was nice to have a chance to rest. It was still raining hard when I finally set off. At the far end of the loch my fellow camper's tent had vanished and I assumed he was on his way back down the valley. It didn't take long to catch him up, and he greeted me warmly.
We had a short discussion about camping food. He was still taking bread and crisps, which I've now eliminated in favour of oatcakes which give a higher amount of energy, are more compact and less crushable! We found common ground on Ainsley Herriot couscous, John West tuna-with-a-twist and Green & Blacks Maya Gold chocolate. He dismissed pasta as taking too long to cook ("I'm lazy"), and recommended a double-portion of noodles instead.
He also mentioned Merchant Gourmet pre-cooked lentils, which was coincidental since I had a pack of Merchant Gourmet oven-roasted tomatoes. He recommended coffee bags for a single mug of good coffee, but I generally don't bother with hot drinks, since it just involves more paraphernalia and rubbish. In addition to the tuna, for protein I used a metal tube of spicy tofu pâté (slightly on the heavy side) and a small block of hard goat's cheese (easier to digest than normal cheese).
Soon our routes parted - he was heading down the valley to his car for a few days recuperation, I took a stalkers' path leading up the 814m peak of An Sìdhean. Despite the persistent rain, the cloud was only just catching the top of this peak. To continue I had to reach a bealach over convex, gently-sloping ground, thus it was not possible to see the destination when I started descent, and my route was inevitably inefficient!
On the opposite side of the bealach I was surprised to find a useful little cairned path zigzagging up onto the ridge of Druim Dubh. I followed this undulating rocky ridge northwards, through the clouds, passing small marker cairns from time to time. The ridge terminated at some very boggy ground, which I crossed, then made a "traversing ascent", finally dropping down to An Gorm Loch, at the foot of the next four Munros.
In the morning the rain had stopped and the clouds were clearing. I had four Munros to traverse today, and so made an early start. I hung my sodden waterproofs on the outside of my pack to dry out. Soon I was ascending the Munro Top of Sgùrr na Fearstaig. From a distance there was a white box-shaped object visible on the ridge. Wondering what it could possibly be, the only explanations that came to mind were a regularly-shaped quartzite boulder or a Whillans Box tent!
Soon I got closer and on inspection it turned out to be made of fibreglass and hollow with a small rectangular entrance to the inside. It had metal loops on the roof, so was probably flown here by helicopter. The box was held firmly in place by rocks stacked up around the outside. Inside was a broken aerial. A buried wire leading southwards had been severed.
The following day while walking up Glen Strathfarrar I noticed that the lodge had a satellite dish. The mountain aerial must have been the only way they could get TV reception before the advent of satellite! The fibreglass box is now redundant, but would fit several people sitting, so would be a convenient place to shelter from a shower or blizzard. It is a little too cramped for a bivvy and it would be hard to seal the entrance from the wind and rain. I wonder if it should be marked on the OS map, but this may well encourage misuse, so perhaps it is better to keep it word of mouth! Conservation purists would argue that it shouldn't be there in the first place, and that it should now be removed along with the several miles of buried wire presumably leading back to the lodge.
While resting at the summit of Sgùrr Fhuar-thuill, the first Munro of the day, an American couple caught up with me. The gentlemen was in his late 60s, he had spent some time previously living in Scotland and had Scottish ancestry. He was over from Florida for two months this year, trying to finish off the Munros, but he had been frustrated by remnants of snow and ice taking time to thaw after an exceptionally cold winter. He had been turned back by hard ice on Màm Sodhail in Glen Affric mid-May. He now had only 20 Munros left, but had made the mistake of leaving some of the remotest ones to last.
He left his wife resting, as she was clearly less bothered about the Munros than he, and we continued over the Top of Creag Ghorm a' Bhealaich, then leading the way he circumvented a stack of boulders to reach the summit of Sgùrr a' Choire Ghlais. This Munro is the highest and clear king of the Strathfarrar group, crowned with two fine beehive cairns on either side of the flat summit and a trig point in the middle. The American had to retrace his steps along the ridge to find his wife, while I still had two more Munros to do. He gave me a synopsis of what was in store "the first one you have to go over a lot of rocks" (he clearly had a dislike for this type of terrain), "the second is covered in lovely cushioned moss, perfect for tired feet".
Steeply descending Sgùrr a' Choire Ghlais, I met a solitary walker on the way up. He had also come to Scotland for May and June, and repeated this journey every year, having a special part-time working arrangement. He said that he used to work full-time, but a particular individual made his life a misery, so one day he just walked out of a meeting and quit! He had encountered extreme conditions this year, being turned back by hard ice on the Càrn Mòr Dearg arête route up Ben Nevis in mid-May. The following day he had managed to get his niece up the tourist route of Ben Nevis, although there was still a lot of ice and hard snow.
The American's predictions were correct - the summit of Càrn nan Gobhar was strewn with ankle-twisting boulders, while the ascent of Sgùrr na Ruaidhe was wonderfully cushioned like walking over a shag pile carpet. The different colours of moss and plants even seemed to form regular patterns, like a floral motif, emphasising the impression of luxurious carpet.
On the far side on the summit I followed the descent path towards Glen Strathfarrar for a while. On the map I had spotted an apparently ideal campsite on a little flat pasture next to a stream in the corrie, so I veered off path to make a beeline for it. Coming around a bend, I got to within a few metres of a mountain hare. Being downwind of it, the hare had not been alerted to my presence. Up close I realised the mountain hare is an extraordinary creature, quite different to a rabbit, and has an almost cartoon-like appearance. Soon it spotted me and bounded off at top speed.
This certainly was a day for wildlife spotting - as I followed the stream down to flatter ground, I came upon a baby deer dozing by the riverbank. Its parents were nowhere to be seen, and as it heard me it leapt up and made a startled noise. I hurried by, not wishing to disturb it. It seems to be the case that deer are happy to leave their offspring sleeping, while they go off for the day. This is surprising, but in Scotland today, deer really have no natural predators. Perhaps they have learnt that humans only ever shoot fully grown deer.
I found a nice grassy camping place slightly lower down. Pulling my rucksack into the tent, I discovered it was covered in tiny ticks. Unfortunately my waterproofs were still strapped to the outside of the pack, and it took some time running my hands through the fabric to get all the ticks out. This was a real surprise finding ticks at 480m, perhaps the highest ones I've ever encountered, and particularly notable given the cold winter.
Having said this, the corrie is south-facing, it is sheltered from the wind, the stream has a warming effect, and the riverbanks provide some shelter, creating a micro-climate for the ticks. In addition I realise now that this area is used intensively by the deer, and I should have been alerted to this fact by the sleeping baby. Glen Strathfarrar is a key area for deer stalking, so presumably has a high deer population. One or two ticks made their way up the outside of my flysheet, but it wasn't as bad as it first seemed, and I just must have been unlucky where I put my pack down. The only alternative camping places were tussocky heather, which may have been less tick prone, but would have been considerably less comfortable!
Despite the thorough tick-checking, one adult tick had found its way under my sock and onto my ankle by the morning. The pressure of the sock had prevented it from making much of an impression, and with a pair of tweezers it was soon off and destroyed. Today was an easy day - all I had to do was drop down to Glen Strathfarrar, walk along the flat glen, then gain some height ready for the next day's Munros. The weather was sunny and it promised to be a pleasant walk.
The first task was to get back onto the path, which I did by cutting across the corrie, rather than following the tick infested riverbanks. The path soon widened to a boggy off-road vehicle track, then picked up a gravel track zigzagging down to the glen.
The surfaced road up the glen is private and is kept locked, but the gatekeeper will let cars in and out during the daytime in summer, everyday except Tuesday and on Sunday mornings. This arrangement has been made between Scottish Natural Heritage and the estate, and presumably some money has been exchanged for the privilege. Drivers are advised not to expect to be allowed in or out if they arrive at the gatehouse outside the allotted times!
It is possible to drive up the private road, right up to Loch Monar, and across two dams to reach car parking spaces at the head of the glen. This road would be spectacular just as a day's scenic drive or a bike ride. Given the gatehouse is closed at night, the car park would be a very secure place to leave a vehicle during a night's wild camping.
Glen Strathfarrar is surely one of Scotland's most enchanting glens. It is filled with a fantastic variety of native trees including dwarf oak, Scots pine, birch and rowan. There are several Scots pine woods on the far side of the glen, and on one loch there is a beautiful island covered in Scots pine and birches - a heart-aching reminder of what Scotland must have looked before the clearances. Efforts are now being made to expand the tree coverage, and saplings have recently been planted along the glen, with shields protecting them from grazing deer. At little further on the "Ross Cairn" was signposted just off the road. This area of Scotland is known as "Wester Ross", so perhaps there is a connection?
Soon I passed by the imposing estate house, surrounded by a high fence and large gates. A little further was the more modest keeper's cottage. The original plan was to head right up the glen before ascending the first of the Loch Mullardoch Munros. However this route crossed a wide and rough peaty corrie, so looked like hard work. After studying the map, a shorter, easier route became apparent, first by following a track up the side of the glen, then once some height had been gained, following streams higher, finally picking up a stream that lead right up onto the ridge. This would avoid the worst of the ticks in the lower glen, and provide a convenient source of drinking water higher up.
The only problem was getting across the river! My map showed a footbridge, but upon reaching it, the entrance was boarded up, with a sign "Bridge Closed". The bridge was made of wood, with cross-supports dropping down into the water. All the supports looked dangerously rotten, but the surface of the bridge was still intact. On the opposite bank some estate workers had stopped for lunch. They were just out of earshot, so I couldn't ask their opinion! There was a ford just a bit higher up, which they presumably cross with their off-road vehicles, making the footbridge redundant from the perspective of the estate.
Having crossed several condemned footbridges in Scotland (one over the River Avon on the north side of Ben Avon, one near Braemore Junction on the way to An Teallach, and one near Shiel Bridge on the way up the Five Sisters of Kintail), I was not deterred by the "closed" sign, and scrambled round the side and onto the bridge. Stepping carefully, and avoiding sudden movements, I slowly crossed the bridge. In action films like Indiana Jones, disintegrating wooden bridges make ominous creaking noises for a while before collapsing. I suspect this is just for dramatic effect and in reality there would be no such warning of imminent collapse.
The estate workers made no comment, and I hurried past, onto the track. This apparently little-used track wound its way up the hillside along a stream, with a beautiful Scots pine woodland on the opposite bank. I came across a single pointed deer antler, and attached it to my pack. Following unusual routes off the beaten track is the best way to find antlers. I have a collection of three antlers from previous trips, all discovered in similar circumstances.
Soon I had to leave the track, and after an initial patch of rough heather, the terrain eased, and progress was remarkably easy. My objective was a stream flowing along the base of the rocky north face of Creag Dhubh. Soon the dark crag loomed into view at the head of the corrie and navigation was straightforward. Just as I picked up the stream it began to rain. Fortunately I quickly reached a wonderful section with a choice of grassy patches on the banks. The tent was soon up and I relaxed listening to the sound of the rain and the pleasant gurgling of the stream. A few wandering ticks appeared, but these were probably acquired on the way up, as 650m is far to high for permanent tick habitation.
In the morning I found one tiny tick attached to my leg, but this was to be the last for the trip. Today my route would cross the four Munros north side of Loch Mullardoch. These are high remote Munros, and indeed the mountains circling this long reservoir are the highest group north of Ben Nevis. They are all fairly remote, one guidebook describing them as a "mountain stronghold". The normal access route is via the road to the Loch Mullardoch dam. A boatman on the loch operates a monopoly, ferrying Munroists up and down so they can get closer to their prizes. This was going to be a tough day, so I made an early start. The forecast predicted low cloud, light winds and occasional warm showers, so I didn't bother with waterproofs.
A little higher up my stream took a sharp left towards Creag Dhubh. There were some good camping places at this point too. Rather than climb Creag Dhubh which is "just a Top", I contoured around its slopes to reach the bealach below the second Càrn nan Gobhar of this trip. A straightforward climb up into the clouds then brought me to the first Munro of the day. The path became well-defined as it dropped down to the dramatic bealach ahead of Sgùrr na Lapaich. The place has a primeval atmosphere, being strewn with giant boulders, with views of wild lochans nestling in the high corries on either side.
Sgùrr na Lapaich is the highest of these four Munros (1150m), and is also the most shapely, with its pointed summit discernable from afar. It is possible to scramble up its east ridge, but I was reserving energy for later in the day, so opted for the easier path that goes up the steep corrie just south of the ridge. This little path really is a gem, winding its way up the easiest ground, occasionally disappearing into a patch of boulders here and there, to reliably reappear on the other side. Higher up the terrain became steep and rocky, and after negotiating a pile of large boulders, I came upon a huge patch of icy snow, which I carefully crossed, before climbing up the final steep boulders to reach the summit trig pillar.
The descent down to the next bealach was straightforward, and once again I emerged from the clouds. The weather was as predicted, and although there was some moisture in the air, the warm breeze quickly dried out my clothes. This bealach was not as dramatic as the previous one, but still had some fine views down to high lochans on the north side.
Once again I was on the way up into the clouds towards the third Munro of the day, An Riabhachan. A mile-and-a-half long gently undulating ridge forms the high ground of this mountain. At points along the ridge, cairns mark local maxima, including a slightly larger cairn for the true summit. In the cloud the mountain was unremarkable, and plodding along the featureless ridge got rather dull after a while! I was in for a pleasant surprise, since the mountain saves its best features for the two steep rocky Munro Tops at its western end.
From the southwest Top there is a short scramble down, before rising up to the rocky west Top. The descent is gentle at first then steepens to a scramble to reach the next bealach. From here I got the only views of Loch Mullardoch, and could just about discern the Munros on the far side of the loch, which I had climbed on a previous trip from Glen Affric. Gradually I'm learning how the various areas of the Highlands fit together, which will be very useful for planning future non-Munro-climbing trips!
On the far side of the bealach there was a short scramble, before an easy path lead up to the summit cairn of An Socach. Across the entire length of the Mullardoch ridge the path is in excellent condition, showing few signs of wear and tear, probably thanks to the remoteness of these Munros. Of the three Munros called An Socach this one is certainly the most difficult to access, and in fact it is considered to be one of the most remote Munros in Scotland. It is normally approached from the west side from Iron Lodge, but can also be accessed by taking a boat to the head of Loch Mullardoch. I hadn't seen anyone all day, probably since people prefer to save these Munros for a clear day.
I was now getting quite tired and the steep, grassy, pathless slopes on the north west side of An Socach were not easy to descend. Lower down there was a huge herd of deer grazing. They seemed to have a good appreciation of shooting range, since they didn't all bolt immediately, but instead dispersed in dribs and drabs as I approached each group. At the lip of the corrie, I followed a moraine ridge down to the glen below to pick up a stalkers' path following a river downstream.
This stalkers' path has now become an off-road vehicle track. A little further on the stalkers' path veered off to contour around the base of An Cruachan, while the track followed the river. The river route looked wet and boggy, so I stuck to the old stalkers' path, and was rewarded by a beautifully-constructed little-used route.
The area I was entering is 300m-high wild nameless moorland, forming a juncture between high mountains. During the Ice Age is must have been an impressive snow lake, with glaciers flowing out in all directions. Two rivers drain the moorland, one flowing east and the other flowing west. At their closest they are less than one kilometre from each other, and it is quite possible that the drainage of the area has been altered by glaciation. The moorland is studded with tiny lochans and is a haven for wildlife (with the exception of deer who prefer the high corries).
I had wanted to cross the moorland today, so as to get closer to the next day's Munros, but my energy was flagging. Looking around there was no suitable ground for camping - either tussocky heather or probably tick-infested pastures by the riverbank. There is an MBA bothy (Maol Bhuidhe) a mile-and-a-half west from where I was, but the River Ling is rather wide at this point, and may well have presented problems reaching Lurg Mhòr the following day.
Then I came across an area of peat bog that had dried out leaving a perfectly flat, spongy surface, that proved ideal for camping. The peat was still moist enough to pliable, and it reformed naturally to fit my hips when I laid down, like a memory-foam mattress! Such a site would be unsuitable in heavy rain (imagine slowly sinking into the bog as the peat rehydrates!) or high winds (un-vegetated peat does not hold tent pegs well).
Thursday 17th June 2010
After an excellent night's sleep on my bed of peat, I awoke to good weather. There was still some cloud around the peaks, but it was forecast to clear throughout the day. I had to get back to Gerry's tonight before the 8:30pm curfew, so I made an early start.
Crossing the moorland, it was surprising to see large numbers of carnivorous plants. Normally I don't take much of an interest in plants - I can differentiate between various species, but have a poor memory for their names. These carnivorous plants were something special, so I resolved to look them up on returning home.
It turned out that the most frequent was the 'Round-leaved Sundew' or 'Common Sundew'. Insects are attracted to its bright red colour and the glistening drops of mucilage, loaded with a sugary substance, that cover its leaves. They become stuck on the plant, which then uses enzymes to dissolve them, extracting nitrates and other nutrients. It has evolved this carnivorous behaviour in response to its habitat, which is nutrient-poor and so acidic that nutrient availability is severely decreased. There was another species present, although perhaps occurring not so frequently, which looked very similar, but instead has elongated leaves, and is known as 'English Sundew' or 'Great Sundew'.
The only other carnivorous species I identified was the Butterwort. This is less spectacular than the Sundews, but is easily identified by its banana-skin yellow leaves, which the plant uses to lure, trap, and digest insects. The plant flowers once a year with a single elegant blue flower on a tiny curved stem. The Scottish carnivorous plants are certainly a good response to the question "does anything like midges?" Perhaps one day a super-breed of Scottish hillwalkers will evolve with skin that can absorb nutrients from passing midges!
On the far side of the moor I crossed a stalkers' path, before the taking to the steep slopes of Lurg Mhòr. This is another remote Munro and is normally climbed in conjunction with Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich from Craig, Achnashellach. The usual route involves a lot of repetition at the start and end of the day, but for me it was considerably easier, since I only had to cover the ground once as a linear route. The hillside was initially steep, and being south-facing was covered in wildflowers. This soon gave way to an easy ridge, rising directly to Lurg Mhòr. Turning west it was not far to the bealach and the subsequent direct path up Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich.
Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich is affectionally known to all-and-sundry by its joke soundalike name "Cheesecake". Indeed it is part of a very exclusive club of Munros with nicknames, which to my knowledge also comprises Chrysanthemum (Sgùrr nan Ceathramhnan), Looney Bin and Lardy Ben (Luinne Bheinn & Ladhar Bheinn). There are also a number of other nicknames in limited circulation, yet to achieve widespread usage: Mam Sod All (Màm Sodhail), Brer Rabbit (Braeriach), Stop the Ice Cream Van (Stob Coire Sgreamhach) and a new variation on Ladhar Bheinn: Bin Laden! Guidebook writers wisely avoid acknowledging these joke names!
There were now just two obstacles between me and Bealach Bhearnais, the ending point of my circuit. The first was the exacting path down the steep north face of Cheesecake, the second was Beinn Tharsuinn - an annoying little mountain whose sole purpose in life seems to be to frustrate people going to and from Cheesecake!
The initial descent of Cheesecake was easy and soon I was down at a dramatic lochan that would have been a splendid place to camp. The path snaked through dark outcrops of rock to reach another lochan, perched atop Cheesecake's north face. My concern was in locating the top of the descent path. I had very precise instructions in two guidebooks, but both of which unhelpfully described the route in ascent! With perfect timing, two gentlemen emerged from the top of the path and were able to advise on the route! They made it clear that it was not easy - "you could die there". They pointed out the top of the gully that descended the first cliff, then it was important to traverse left first, before picking up the final descent path, always looking out for little marker cairns.
One chap was English and the other was Scottish - they declared themselves "two old farts!" They were on their way to Lurg Mhòr and were considering which route to return by. I suggested a route down from the bealach below Lurg Mhòr, then back up a corrie to reach Bealach Bhearnais. Some recon it is just as easy to retrace steps over Cheesecake and Beinn Tharsuinn. They were also staying in Gerry's Hostel, so we would meet again later.
I gingerly worked my way down the precipitous path, zigzagging into the gully. The path is crumbling in places, and it is fortunate that its remoteness restricts the amount of usage and erosion. It was not easy to balance on this narrow path with a heavy rucksack, and I was acutely aware of the consequences of a slip. At the base of the gully is a wide grassy terrace. The onward route not obvious from the ground, and I was glad of the advice to traverse left.
Soon a faint descent path became visible and I started dropping down. At first I was concerned it might just be a dry stream bed, but a few reassuring cairns came into view. After a short scramble the difficulties were over and the path negotiated a broken area of boulders and scree to reach a bealach. Across this bealach a dry stone wall had been constructed, making an ideal spot to shelter out of the wind for a break. It was a relief to be off Cheesecake, and I was glad to have saved this most spectacular of the Loch Monar Munros to last in the circuit. The route-finding was of a similar level of difficulty to the Cuillin on Skye - if you deviate from the path you are on a rock climb!
The onwards route over Beinn Tharsuinn is inexplicably pathless, and was a real slog, involving 300m of ascent. At the high bealach I came upon three white horses grazing. All three turned to stare at me in as I passed by, which was slightly unnerving! The descent of Beinn Tharsuinn was similarly pathless, made difficult by steep rocks that need to be avoided on its north side. At last I was back at the same point as five days ago, and now it was a simple matter of retracing steps down to Gerry's Hostel. First on a stalkers' path, then after fording the Allt a' Chonnais next to the wire bridge, down the familiar track to Craig.
Back at the hostel I met Andy and Trish from the Ochils Mountaineering Club. Trish was originally from Ireland and had a dreamy romantic attitude towards the mountains. Andy was a seasoned bagger, having already completed several rounds of the Munros and Tops, and had made considerable inroads into the Corbetts, Donalds and Grahams. He had an impressive ability to talk continuously and endlessly, even when there was nothing to talk about. They had just been camping at Sligachan on Skye, where the ferocious local midges had nearly driven them crazy. Andy had been on the point of taking up smoking, in the hope of deterring the midges! One morning he said the campsite washbasins were black with midges! Apparently the cold winter has done nothing to deter the them, and if anything they are making up for lost time!
About 45min after I got back, the two "old farts" returned. It turned out that they had met at the hostel, and being of similar age and ability had decided to do the Cheesecake walk together. Eddie was the oldest at 70, originally from England he now lives with his Finnish wife in Finland, but was over on holiday visiting friends and climbing mountains. He was aiming to climb all the Munros and Tops, but today he had failed to reach the east Top of Lurg Mhòr, so was considering just limiting his activities to the Munros.
The Scottish chap was 65-year-old Ian MacEacheran. He was a minor legend in climbing circles, having pioneered the 1800m "Scottish Northeast Pillar Direct" route up the North Face of the Eiger with Bugs McKeith and Ken Spence on 31st July 1970. Over two failed attempts and the final successful climb, they bivouacked fifteen times on the face. The details are recorded in the appendix of Heinrich Harrer's book on the North Face of the Eiger: "The White Spider".
He was once the number 2 ice climber in Scotland and had climbed with the British climbing elite: Chris Bonnington, Don Whillans and Dougal Haston. He had once stood up to a drunken Whillans, was rather glad that Whillans had backed down! Ian had been invited on Himalayan expeditions, but had known too many people who'd died and not returned, so turned the offers down, the risks being too great.
Ian and Eddie were enthusiastic about my Munro activities, and they said they wished more young people would get out into the hills. It was nice to get such approval, particularly from someone who'd climbed the North face of the Eiger and a 70-year-old still climbing mountains!
I retrieved my food stash from the kitchen, glad that it had been untroubled by the attentions of people or rodents. Tonight's meal was something special - spaghetti bolognaise! This I make from a dried soya mince sauce mix and quick cook (five minutes) spaghetti. The whole meal takes about 15 minutes to cook, so is easier in a kitchen than a tent. Trish kindly gave me a couple of glasses of wine which went perfectly with the meal! I stayed up late talking about the Scottish hills with Andy. Having visited most notable areas of Munros I can now hold my own in such a conversation!
I slept like a baby, but in the morning my limbs were aching from the exertions of the previous two days. I ran a bath using hot water from the shower (probably against the rules) and had a nice long soak. This was definitely a morning for taking things slowly. On the sides of the bath there are a number of large sheets of ancient lino, which Gerry has innovatively glued to the walls to prevent water splashing out from the shower!
Andy and Trish were the first to leave. A friend had come up to meet them, and they were all off to do a spot of wild camping and climb Maoile Lunndaidh. Trish only had a handful of Munros left to climb, and this was one of them. Eddie and Ian were also leaving today, Eddie on his way back to Finland and Ian on his way to climb Slioch. In his climbing days Ian had not got round to climbing all the Munros, and now retired he was making good use of his free bus pass by finishing them off. I agreed to walk with Ian and Eddie to the station, but none of us were in any particular rush.
Gerry emerged in his dressing gown, grumbling about being woken up - "I need my beauty sleep". Apparently we needed to take care to not let the fire doors slam in the morning. I gave Gerry the bag that I had used for the food stash. This soft briefcase was a freebie from a conference and now it had served its purpose, I had no intention of carrying it for the next eight days. Gerry seemed rather pleased and slung it over his shoulder, looking like quite the part in his dressing gown!
Ian and Eddie had some interesting items of kit. Eddie had a collapsible trolley that he had adapted for pulling his heavy rucksack along roads and tracks. He'd got the idea after being overtaken a little old lady using a similar trolley on the track from Corrour Station to Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. Ian had a special device for zapping antihistamine into itchy insect bites. They both had the same ancient climbing pack designed by Dougal Haston. A rucksack purchased today would never last so long.
Mine is a Berghaus climbing pack, acquired specially for this trip for £50, since it was nearly half the weight of my previous Berghaus! It would be hard to find a better pack for Scotland - it's just big enough for a small tent, sleeping bag and a week's worth of food (a perfect Munro-bagger's bag!). It adds little weight in its own right, but is still robust enough for the weather and the terrain. The design is simple - one large main compartment and a single zipped pocket in the lid. The padding is minimal, which is initially uncomfortable around the hips, but absorbs little rain and so is ideal for the damp British climate. The main compartment is deep, but thin, so most of the weight is held close to the body, giving it good balance.
Just as we were leaving, Gerry emerged again, evidently having abandoned the idea of getting any beauty sleep. This time he just had a towel wrapped around his waist, which was quite a spectacle! He was wielding a vile concoction he'd made from boiling up elderflowers in Vaseline. This elixir was supposed to work wonders on itchy insect bites. Ian and Eddie willingly let Gerry apply this substance to their arms and legs, but I declined as I was not troubled by itchy bites. My strategy is to stay inside or keep moving if the midges are about!
Gerry shook our hands as we departed, and he even seemed to have warmed to me! He remarked that he kept the hostel going as he couldn't afford to retire. This really is an excellent facility, being open throughout the year, and long may it continue. Gerry is an unusual character, but it is refreshing to find a hostel like this, with the random décor, eccentric owner and lack of modernisation! On returning home I did a Google search for reviews of Gerry's and found some interesting comments:
"Despite living in the middle of nowhere, the owner, Gerry does not drive. He is always eternally grateful if you do some shopping for him, or even drive him down to Strathcarron."
"Rumour has it that Gerry was a railway worker who managed to buy a couple of railway cottages and turn them into the hostel."
"I was there a few years back when he had to make trip to Edinburgh for a couple of days. He just left the place unlocked with an honesty box!!"
"The man who we spoke to on the phone was Gerry and when he asked what time we would be there, we stated we were going to try for 20:30, the latest time of arrival that it states on the website. The voice retorted down the phone "well then, don't dally!".
"I have only stayed there once and he was a very objectionable to a family group from the south of England that was staying there. Some like the weirdness of the establishment others dislike the place and won't go back. A few females are concerned about him wandering around the bunkhouse in his dressing gown and find this a bit weird."
"Takes a while to understand his sense of humour, & he is intolerant of anything he sees as a misdemeanour at first, but once he knows you he's normally more than helpful & very entertaining ... Having visited him most winters since about 1990, we've become "regulars" & get trusted to chop our own wood & deliver his takings to the bank for him. This is obviously a great honour! ... He makes the best log fire known to man, watch & learn. I can understand some ladies are somewhat perturbed by the view when his dressing gown flaps open..."
The walk to the station passed by quickly, with such esteemed company and pleasant conversation. Ian spotted the antler strapped to my pack, and he told me that once near a bothy he'd seen a deer shedding one of its antlers. The canny Scot figured that the other antler was soon to drop, so contrived to startle the unwitting deer. The strategy worked and after a brief search in the heather, Ian was the proud owner of a complete set of antlers, probably worth over £100.
As we parted Eddie gave me his Myspace web page (http://www.myspace.com/hillwalkereddie) and suggested I check it out for his photos and videos from the Cheesecake walk. I normally take a camera, but just before this trip I had squirted WD40 on it to un-jam the lens cover, but the oil unfortunately seeped inside, interfering with the camera's circuitry. It was actually quite liberating not having a camera, being able to just appreciate beauty directly, rather than feeling obliged to capture it for posterity. However there were a few classic moments during the trip which would have been nice to photograph.
I had several more miles to go along the road before turning off into the Coulin Forest. For this section, the A890 is a single track road with passing places, but the traffic volume was pleasantly low this morning. The road passes scattered Scots pines and birches, and near Achnashellach there was a beautiful display of different colour rhododendrons in bloom. These non-native plants are very attractive, but without careful control they quickly become rampant.
The road then ran along the length of Loch Dughaill, before reaching the hamlet of Balnacra. As I approached the village I caught up with an elderly gentleman walking along the road. He heard me approaching and stopped to talk. He was originally from near Glen Strathfarrar, but had bought a croft here and built a house. He commented in those days you couldn't do things all at once, you had to do things bit by bit as money became available. He had planned to sell the house, but had fallen in love with the area, and had stayed for the rest of his life.
He'd owned a flock of sheep and pointed up the hill to where they used to graze. Gathering in the sheep often required two ascents in a day, the first with the sheepdogs to get the majority, then a second trip without the dogs to collect up the stragglers who might be stranded on crags. He said that if the weather was fine he'd stop on the hill and have a flask of tea, but if it was wet they wouldn't stop. I asked if he ever had a nip of whisky, but he said that would affect his balance on the hill, and whisky was best enjoyed once home by a warm fire!
He commented on the coldness of the last winter - the snow had come right down to the glen - a rarity for this side of Scotland. Next he remarked on vehicles not slowing down when they passed through Balnacra. There is no pavement, and the air rush of a passing truck can knock elderly people off their feet. He had campaigned for the 40mph signs, now at either end of the village, but with no speed cameras this is impossible to enforce. Finally he said "I must let you get on, my name's Colin, drop by if you're ever passing through again".
For a short section near Coulags my route went off the map - I had trimmed off a few panels to save weight! After trying several incorrect alternatives I came upon the right track, soon branching off onto a well-maintained stalkers' path. The sun was shining and the weather was considerably better than my previous visit to the area on the second day of the trip (Beinn Liath Mhòr and Sgorr Ruadh).
A few miles up the glen I stopped for a break at Coire Fionnaraich Bothy. A sign on the door explains that this estate bothy has been renovated by the MBA using materials provided by the estate and is not available during the stalking season. The ground above the bothy has been fenced off, but I couldn't decide if this was to encourage tree regeneration or to prevent people from using the immediate vicinity as a toilet.
Inside, the bothy is atmospherically panelled in dark wood. There are two downstairs rooms either side of a staircase. Upstairs there are two large bedrooms and a small single person "cell" at the top of the stairs. The bothy is wired and has an electricity supply, but all this has been disconnected, and presumably gets used only during the stalking season. One downstairs fireplace has been boarded up, perhaps used only in the stalking season, but in the other room the fireplace is available. Given the amount of exposed wood, this is very trusting on the part of the estate.
Despite the temptations of such a "well presented" bothy, it was too early in the day to stop. Today I wanted to climb, or at least get to within striking distance of Maol Cheann-dearg. My intermediate objective was a 600m bealach, involving a 400m climb from my current elevation. The route initially followed the river up the corrie and past a strange pointed rock - the Clach nan Con-fionn. There are many landscape features in Scotland associated with folk tales and this stone is supposedly where the mythical Celtic folk hero Fionn MacCumhail, father of Ossian, tethered his hunting dogs.
At a small cairn I turned off onto another excellent stalkers' path, this one zigzagging steeply up the hillside towards the bealach. Progress was slow in the heat as I plodded gradually uphill. The path crossed a stream before making the final rise. From my map it was clear there was no running water higher up (just lochans), and since I was planning on camping at the bealach, I filled up both my water bottles. It is rarely necessary to carry two litres of water in Scotland, normally half a litre is sufficient, since there are so many opportunities to replenish supply! The extra weight slowed me down to snail's pace, and I tried to look composed when a day walker on return from the Munro passed me by on his way down.
At the bealach all the effort was amply rewarded by a fine view of lochans sparking in the sun, and the shapely rocky peak of An Ruadh-stac rising up on the far side. I dropped down a short way to reach the shore of the closest of these lochans. There was still plenty of daylight, so I decided to leave my heavy pack hidden behind a boulder, take a few essentials and climb Maol Cheann-dearg this evening.
The initial part of this climb is up a steep ridge, with lots of loose scree and quartzite sand. This emerges to cross a shattered quartzite pavement, which on my map was erroneously marked as 957m (200m too high). The final dome of Maol Cheann-dearg is a huge pile of sandstone boulders, making its name (bald red head) rather apt.
The summit plateau has a large cairn on the far side, giving excellent views over the strange fairytale landscape of Coulin and Damh. Peering over the edge a few metres beyond the cairn, I had a dramatic view down the steep rocky north face of Maol Cheann-dearg to Loch an Eoin. There was also a clear view of the Torridon peaks, but at this time of day the sun failed to illuminate them, and the sandstone fortress of Liathach (pronounced Lee-A-Tuch) appeared just as a dark brooding mass above Glen Torridon.
There are no easier routes off Maol Cheann-dearg than my ascent route, so I retraced my steps, carefully down the sandstone boulders and quartzite screes, to be reunited with my pack after an hour and a half. There was not much flat ground near to the lochan and eventually I chose a spot sandwiched between two bogs. Being tired at the end of the day, I accidently slipped, and narrowly avoided a soaked foot by quickly extraditing my boot from the bog!
There were no Munros on the agenda today, all I had to do was get within striking distance of Beinn Eighe for the following day. The sun was shining, the scenery was spectacular, and it promised to be a fine walk.
The day started with the excellent stalkers' path around the side of Maol Cheann-dearg to Loch an Eoin. After a short break near the loch I was overtaken by around ten mountain bikers. They were camping at Torridon (apparently very midgey) and today were crossing the Coulin, then returning by road to Torridon (via Applecross?).
I was friendly to them, but I really don't approve of mountain bikes on such paths. These paths are not designed for bikes, which was evident since they kept having to stop to carry their contraptions over streams, around rocks and up steep narrow sections. Bikes cause considerable more erosion than walking boots, and it is unlikely the estates will welcome having to spend more on footpath maintenance. Large groups of people in the hills also destroys the feeling of wilderness.
The path ascended to a bealach, then dropped down to cross the head of Coire Fionnaraich for a brief section, before rising to another bealach. One of the mountain bikes had a puncture, causing more delays, then a little further on they all stopped to fill up their Platypuses at a stream. I kept overtaking them, then being overtaken again. At the rise to the bealach they gave up all semblance of cycling, and hauled their bikes up on their backs. I stopped for lunch and was glad to have some peace and quiet again.
Afterwards I had a mile or so of cross-country walking before picking up another path. I turned off too soon, misguided by a promising-looking cairn, and the vague path soon disappeared into a wide boggy corrie. The lesson here is that such corries are inevitably badly drained, and it is better to stick to the side of the corrie. Several streams flow out of this basin, but somehow I picked up the wrong one, and missed out on half-a-mile of perfectly good path! By taking poor navigational decisions I had wasted well over an hour on energy-sapping rough ground!
Dramatic views of Liathach and Beinn Eighe made up for the difficult terrain. A few years ago I climbed the Torridonian giants Liathach and Beinn Alligin with my Dad. Beinn Eighe is the third of these giants, and like the others it is formed of huge beds of red sandstone, but in contrast is capped with grey-white quartzite. This gives the mountain a strange white appearance from a distance, as if it was covered in ash or snow!
My Dad and I had attempted Beinn Eighe from Glen Torridon, but after slogging relentlessly up steep characterless slopes, we were turned back by cold wind and rain before the summit. On this day it was hard to argue with the SMC guidebook's description: "the long scree flanks above Glen Torridon give the mountain a disheartening appearance, possibly suggesting a giant treadmill".
Having learnt that sometimes its better to sneak up on a mountain, rather than tacking it head-on, I searched for alternative routes up Beinn Eighe. The best option seemed to be the well-constructed path up Coire Dubh Mòr, and around the back of the mountain into the dramatic Coire Mhic Fhearchair. This is a rather long route, but has the advantage of a gentle gradient, plus the attraction of a wild camp in Coire Mhic Fhearchair. The walk to the corrie is popular with daytrippers, and since it was now 5pm, I passed by several on the way back to their cars. Views of Liathach were fantastic, including glimpses into its dark seldom-visited northern corries.
Suddenly my left trekking pole snapped in half! The locking mechanism had broken, and with some I effort extracted it from where was jammed inside the pole. After a brief attempt trying to fix the mechanism with superglue, I gave up and strapped it to my pack for later attention. This apparently easy connecting day was actually becoming quite difficult, with 500m ascent to do at the end of the day, and now with only one walking pole! Using two poles allows the upper body to take a larger share of the effort, reducing the strain on the legs. I had actually planned to replace my poles before this trip, but had run out of time, and the ones I were using were a Frankenstein set assembled from the best parts of what I had!
The view northwards looked out across on a wild, wet and desolate landscape, dotted with tiny lochans. The huge steep-sided hills towering up from the wet plateau give the impression that not much has changed here since the last Ice Age. The path curved around Sàil Mòr, the westernmost Top of Beinn Eighe, then a final steep section alongside a waterfall brought me to Coire Mhic Fhearchair. This corrie is by far the finest feature of Beinn Eighe, with the magnificent Triple Buttress looming over the corrie and reflecting on the surface of Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair.
The weather was deteriorating - a strong wind was bringing cloud in from the sea, and low cloud was forecast for tomorrow. Coire Mhic Fhearchair is reckoned to be one of the finest corries in Scotland, perhaps competing only with Coire Ardair of Creag Meagaidh and the Cuillin corries on Skye. I was lucky to have a view of the fine rock architecture before the clouds rolled in.
I had another attempt at super-gluing my trekking pole, but it was no use, the glue just would not stick metal to plastic. Fortunately I always take a supply of gaffer tape, wound around the shaft of a trekking pole, which can be extremely useful for emergency repairs. I taped the two sections together, and the pole was once again serviceable as a tent pole, although was totally out of action as a walking pole! I quickly put the tent up and scrambled inside to warm up. I had gotten quite cold with all the fiddling around.
Finally the day to face up to my nemesis - I was determined to climb Beinn Eighe this time! The distance to cover was relatively short and I had already ascended to around 600m. However from experience I knew progress would be slow on the rocky ridges of the mountain. I followed the loch for a short distance, then the path gradually gained height, following a chain of wild lochans, connected by short sections of stream.
At the back of the corrie there is a steep scree shoot, dropping down from a rocky gash. The best route is to stay to the left of the scree, where a path develops, then higher up there are rock steps to scramble over, eventually terminating at a high bealach.
The bealach is mid-way between the two Munros of Beinn Eighe, so initially I had to do a "there and back again" to reach the Munro Ruadh-stac Mòr. Given the poor visibility I decided against leaving my rucksack at the bealach. In any case the gradient was gentle and it was less than a mile. Ruadh-stac Mòr is off on a spur from the main axis of Beinn Eighe, but is the highest point of the entire mountain at 1010m.
After retracting my steps to the beleach, I followed the ridge around to Spidean Coire nan Clach. On the way I met a group of three middle-aged gents who were up on holiday, staying near Kyle of Lochalsh. They were regretting their choice to climb Beinn Eighe today and wished instead they'd gone for a bike ride. I pointed out that the walking conditions were actually quite pleasant, since the wind was low, the air was not too moist and navigation along the ridge was straightforward. They were heading for Ruadh-stac Mòr, and I gave them some tips on the easiest way down into Coire Mhic Fhearchair.
Just before the summit of Spidean Coire nan Clach there is a false summit, marked by a trig point. I wonder how many people have been fooled by this over the years? This is the point at which the direct route up from Glen Torridon joins the ridge. Shortly beyond the trig I scrambled up to the true summit, then continued over the crumbling quartzite ridge. At one point a pair of crows were making very strange noises at each other, and I couldn't figure out if it was a mating ritual or a territory dispute! This next section is seldom trodden by Munro-baggers; it is normally only visited by people doing the classic east-west traverse of Beinn Eighe, a route which is logistically difficult without two cars.
The onward route to Sgùrr Bàn was fairly level, but progress was slow over the crunchy quartzite. The quartzite pipe-rock seen frequently along the ridge here contains the fossilised remains of early animals, the 'pipes' being the casts of worm burrows. It is from the Cambrian period and is circa 500 million years old. Beinn Eighe really is a remarkable geological structure - remains of some of the oldest known creatures are fossilised in its rocks. It would be fun to make a combined geological and walking map of this area, with red for the sandstone and grey for the quartzite.
Beyond Sgùrr Bàn there was a much longer descent and re-ascent to reach the final peak, Sgùrr nan Fhir Duibhe. To get off the mountain I now had to negotiate the "Black Carls" or "Black Men of Beinn Eighe" (Bodaich Dubh Beinn Eighe). This scramble is graded 2, but I had neglected to bring a photocopy of the route description, so would have to "wing it"! The black pinnacles loomed ominously out of the mist as I peered down from the summit trying to discern the route. I packed away my remaining working trekking pole, so as to have both hands free.
Initially there was a short ridge from the summit, which terminated in a steep drop down to a notch. It was clear that the direct route was not practical, but a broad gully ran steeply down to the right. This 10m drop was quite awkward in descent, but the rock was sound with plenty of reassuring handholds. At the bottom I picked up a traversing path, which I realised could have been reached by a circuitous route much easier than the one I had taken! The onward path gained the notch, then continued by snaking around the pinnacles. There was only one more steep descent, this time directly down a pinnacle, but not exposed and again with good handholds. Normally the Black Carls are tackled in ascent, as a prelude to the east-west traverse on Beinn Eighe, and so would be much easier in this direction.
Once over the pinnacles, I assumed the difficulties were over and continued along crunchy quartzite scree, first to Creag Dubh, then down its east ridge. Now out of the cloud it became possible to start spying potential camping places for the night. My first choice was on the north side of this ridge, but looking down, although flat it was clear that there was too much quartzite scree for it to be comfortable.
Continuing along the ridge, the path disappeared at a steep nose, with scree slopes in either direction. It looked like most people had gone right, so I started along a zigzag path down the loose scree. The ground got steeper and steeper, and the path gradually vanished. A way down to the bottom was visible, but would involve some very steep rocky slabs, covered in shattered boulders and scree. I didn't have the energy to go back up, so carefully made my way down, working left and right to avoid the steepest rock. At the bottom the ground eased up - it was a relief to be off the mountain, much harder than anticipated at the end. The treadmill analogy seem rather apt - it did feel like I had just been ejected off the end of a massive conveyor!
Where I was standing, the vegetation commenced, although it was only a thin mossy layer over hard quartzite scree. There was no water, other than a small pond. The soil was just about thick enough here to accept tent pegs but I needed to find some flowing water. The ridge at this point is bounded on either side by steep rocky gorges - I attempted to reach both for water, but the terrain was too steep to be safe. There was no choice but to follow the path further down, towards the terminus of the ridge where the two gorges meet.
The ground steepened again, but just before the final plunge into the gorges, it flattened for one last time. The spot was a little boggy, but would have to do. I dumped my pack, grabbed my two water bottles and followed the path down the last 100m through Scots pines, with a short scramble into the pure white quartzite gorge, void of any vegetation. Being a sheltered spot it was ideal for midges, and I rapidly filled the bottles, before hurrying back to my pack. The midges were just as bad here, and I quickly put up the tent, wiping them off my face regularly, before leaping inside to take refuge!
Similarly to the gabbro rock of the Cuillin, quartzite is very slow to weather and break down into soil. This gives the mountain a wild untamed character, that nature has been unable to soften. Beinn Eighe has been declared a National Nature Reserve. Not much lives in its upper reaches, other than birds, but its lower slopes are covered in remnants of native Scots Pine woodland, and are a haven for wildlife.
In the morning a cloud of midges laid siege to my tent. Obviously the carbon dioxide seeping out all night had attracted them in large numbers. I packed away the tent as fast as possible, but even with regular wiping, my face still got bitten by the determined midges. Once I was on the move, the midges dispersed. I collected some more water in the gorge, then traversed a short section of crumbling path to ford the stream by a deep pool. On a hot day this pool would be an ideal spot for a dip! After a short scramble up the other side, the path now levelled out, to follow the Allt a' Chulm down to the road.
On the opposite bank there was a lovely stand of old Scots Pines. The area I was walking though has been fenced off recently to encourage regeneration of native woodland. Every so often there were wooden posts with labels such as "photo 12". I assume that conservationists regularly take photographs at these specific points, so the regeneration of the woodland can be recorded over time. It is ironic that grazing deer who were originally forest creatures, now need to be excluded from areas in order to encourage tree re-growth. Whilst on the subject of deer, I found out recently that the deer in Scotland are evolving into a different species, shorter and tougher than their woodland-dwelling European cousins, due to the rigours of the Scottish mountain environment.
I took the single-track "A" road for the last mile into Kinlochewe. In retrospect, a diagonal path could have been taken to avoid most of the road. Kinlochewe has a café, a garage with a shop, a general stores, a hotel & bunkhouse and a caravan park. Quite a lot of facilities for a village in the Highlands! The Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre is a mile north of the village, and a mile further there is a campsite. Plenty of marked woodland trails lead up onto the lower slopes of Beinn Eighe, and there is even a sculpture trail. Kinlochewe can be reached easily on public transport from Inverness, first by train to Achnasheen, then by taking a regular bus from there.
As I was coming into the village it started to drizzle. I was sorely tempted to stop in the café, but I was planning on climbing Slioch today, so really wanted to get a move on. In retrospect I should have stayed at the bunkhouse last night, rather than suffering the midges on Beinn Eighe. I could then have enjoyed a meal at the hotel and used the café in the morning for breakfast. I needed a few more snacks, so tried the garage first. The shop was stacked high with cakes, confectionary, snacks, guidebooks, souvenirs and insect repellent. They did have some trekking poles, but they were crude and heavy. I bought some cereal bars and flapjacks, and the lady serving was very friendly and helpful.
I also visited the general stores, which stocked more outdoor gear than the garage. They seemed to stock one type of everything, and what they did stock was generally of poor quality (no big name brands). They had trekking poles, but it was exactly the same type as at the garage! The shop seemed very dilapidated and an unsmiling spotty teenager served at the counter. Outside the shop a middle-aged lady quizzed me on my route. She lived in the village and was interested in the treks people did through the area.
It was now drizzling hard, so I donned my waterproofs and headed onwards towards Slioch. After following the main road for a short distance, I turned off on a minor road, to cross the Kinlochewe River, before reaching the car park marking the usual starting point for Slioch.
A sign noted this as an entry point to the Letterewe Estate. This large 85,000 acre estate (340 km2) covers the north-eastern shore of Loch Maree and the region south-east of Poolewe. It is one of the wildest, most remote and least populated areas in the United Kingdom. The sign warns that even experienced parties can get into difficulties, and in such circumstances turning back is the best course of action.
The estate was once in the possession of the Clan Mackenzie but in 1978 was purchased by the Dutch multi-millionaire, Paul Fentener van Vlissingen. The Sunday Times Rich List 2005 ranked van Vlissingen as the richest man in Scotland, with an estimated wealth of £1.1 billion. In 1993 on his own initiative, van Vlissingen drew up the Letterewe Accord, working together with major interest groups. This revolutionary agreement gave ramblers freedom of access to the entire estate in exchange for a pledge to respect the land. This predated the Scottish Parliament's own right-to-roam legislation by over a decade. "I don't call myself the owner," he said of Letterewe. "You can't own a place like this. It belongs to the planet. I'm only the guardian of it."
In April 2006, van Vlissingen announced that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and that he would not be having chemotherapy. He said: "in the Western world we mistakenly try to keep death at bay. I look to Native Americans instead. When they see their death approaching, they visit good friends and family to share happy memories and look back at the good things." In August 2006 the cancer got worse, and this led to his death during the night of the 20th-21st August 2006. He left the bulk of his fortune and the Letterewe Estate to his two daughters, Alicia and Tet and to their children.
An obituary in The Independent said that van Vlissingen would sometimes saddle a pony with a week's provisions and disappeared to stay at a remote bothy on the estate (probably Carnmore). It went on to say "he was in the habit of inviting everyone, whether landowners, journalists, birdwatchers or ramblers, to visit the estate and talk about issues face to face." A rare example of a rich man uncorrupted by money and selfish desires. The other estate owners should take note!
Slioch is a spectacular Torridon sandstone mountain. The sight of its castellated rocky slopes rising up above Loch Maree is reckoned to be one of the grandest sites of the Highlands. The only straightforward ascent of this hill is from the east, which is just as well since this is the only direction from which it can be easily approached! The route follows the northern banks of the Kinlochewe River for several miles, before skirting around the swampy wooded delta where the river meets Loch Maree.
Beyond the delta it runs along the shore for a short section to reach Gleann Bianasdail, where the river is crossed by a footbridge. The path does continue around the shore of Loch Maree, but is seldom trodden, and apparently suffers from high bracken and voracious ticks. My path turned off here to follow the river up the glen. This path leads directly to Lochan Fada and the start of the Fisherfield Estate. Incidentally the area covered by the Letterewe and Fisherfield estates is known as the "Great Wilderness" or the "Last Great Wilderness". It has no off-road vehicle tracks and just a handful of stalkers' paths. I intended to camp at Lochan Fada this evening, but first had to traverse Slioch.
Slioch is such an iconic peak and it is remarkable that the OS Explorer map does not indicate any path to its summit. The route on the ground is very well worn. First a cairn marks the turn off from Gleann Bianasdail, then a path follows a couple of streams up into Coire na Sleaghaich. This high grassy alp is surrounded by a horseshoe ridge, with Slioch at its head. The classic traverse of the mountain follows the ridge around in a clockwise direction, before returning to the corrie to re-join the ascent route.
On the way up a young couple were progressing at a similar speed to me, and we chatted for a while. By now the drizzle had stopped and the clouds were lifting. Luckily Slioch seemed to be clearing before any other mountain. There was a good view back to massive bulk of Beinn Eighe, and it was still covered in black cloud, with white scree tongues just protruding around the edges.
The couple stopped for a break and I walked on. Both of my guidebooks recommended turning off to gain the ridge at this point, whereas the path went further up the corrie. I followed the guidebook and struggled up a steep heathery slope, that was quite difficult at the top. After a short climb along the ridge, I gained a minor peak, with hazy views down to Loch Maree's wooded islands (a Site of Special Scientific Interest). There was also a good view of the two high lochans on Slioch, the lowest of which cannot be seen from the main path. I assume the guidebooks recommend this route for ascetic reasons, but it would have been useful to mention the main path!
At the higher lochan, I bumped into the young couple again. They had taken the main path and being a gentler route, had easily caught up with me. The final push up Slioch zigzags up a steep sandstone nose, covered in scree. There are various alternative paths, and the easiest route seemed to be on the left away from the scree. Higher up the mountain broadened out, and now in the cloud, some compass work was necessary to find the summit. Just before the top we encountered an unexpected herd of feral goats!
First we arrived at the trig point, which like on Beinn Eighe is actually a false summit. The young couple weren't aware of this, so I lead them a few hundred metres on to the true summit cairn, one metre higher than the trig! The views were very hazy - it was just about possible to make out Loch Maree, and to see some of the craggy west face of Slioch.
When I visited this area a few years previously to climb An Teallach, the Fisherfield Six and the Fannaichs, I nearly climbed Slioch. However it was covered by a big black cloud with rain forecast, so I left it for another day. Today was not the fine day I was hoping for, but as we followed the horseshoe around, the clouds began to lift, giving dramatic views across the Great Wilderness. The Fisherfield peaks were clearly visible, I pointed these out to the man. He was keen on doing all the Munros, but his girlfriend was not that bothered - she just enjoyed hillwalking and couldn't even recall which ones she'd climbed!
After climbing the Munro Top of Sgùrr an Thuill Bhàin, the couple headed down into Coire na Sleaghaich to rejoin the path and back to their car. They wanted to reach a chip shop before it closed at 10pm. I had to find a way off the mountain and down to Lochan Fada. Peering down the head of Coire an Thuill Bhàin, it looked quite steep, but was grassy, and there was evidence that people and deer had been this way before. The first hundred metres or so required care, but soon the gradient eased. I followed the Allt Leacach downstream, aiming for the point where it meets the Gleann Bianasdail path.
On one section the stream poured across wide sandstone slabs, and over a spectacular series of waterfalls not marked on the map. Soon I was back on the path and crossing the outflow of Lochan Fada on stepping stones. At the end of Lochan Fada there are two shingly beaches. On the previous trip I had camped on the northern beach. This time I stopped at the first one I reached at the southern end. Just at the point where the shingle meets the shore, there was a little grassy patch, perfect for camping. Indeed it looked like this was a popular spot, for the grass was flattened from a recent camp.
I had neglected to gather water higher up, and the streams at this point were slow-flowing and possibly contaminated. Iodine has now been banned by the EU for health reasons, and since Chlorine is not effective against giardia, a new chemical called Chlorine Dioxide has been made available. This is more expensive than Iodine. Two tablets per litre are recommended if giardia is suspected. The tablets made a pleasant fizzing sound as they dissolved in the water.
This camping spot must be one of the most spectacular wild camping places in the whole of Scotland. The long loch is surrounded by wild rocky mountains, on the southern side by Slioch, and on the north side the Fisherfield mountains of Beinn Tarsuinn (another Torridon sandstone peak) and A' Mhaighdean (pronounced Uh Vadgen).
A' Mhaighdean is one of the finest viewpoints in Britain, looking out to the west over a wilderness dotted with tiny lochans, with the sea in the distance. I was sorely tempted to climb it again, since last time I had no view whatsoever! A' Mhaighdean's neighbour Ruadh Stac Mòr is widely regarded as one of the most remote Munros in Scotland. The five (formerly six) Fisherfield Munros are sometimes tackled in a demanding single day's walk from Shenavall Bothy in the north. Now Beinn a' Chlaidheimh, has been demoted, the challenge can be more easily tackled from Lochivraon Bothy at the head of Loch a' Bhraoin. As the evening sky grew dark, wisps of cloud gathered around the peaks and changed colour as the sun went down. It was absolutely magical.
Today I didn't need to climb any Munros, but instead had a very long walk, first three-and-a-half miles across pathless wilderness, then along paths to reach the A832 dropping down to Braemore Junction. The walk was around 16 miles, so I made an early start. Around a headland, I spotted another wild camper, packing up her tent near the northern beach. At this point the path turns sharp right, to follow a couple of glens back down to civilisation. There is no path onwards to the north, east or west. At this point there should be a sign: "wilderness starts here!"
First I ascended to Loch Mcallan an Fhudair, then contoured around boggy ground to Bealach Bàn. This is not a true bealach and seems to have got its name from a section of the Allt a' Bhealaich Bhàin which flows across a section of glistening white quartzite slabs. This would have been an important landmark in days when maps were unavailable. With more contouring I picked up a true pass - Bealach na Croise. On the far side I followed the valley down to join a stalkers' path near the ruins at Feinasheen. Negotiating this pathless corner of the great wilderness had taken most of the morning!
From this point there were some good views of the quartzite slabs on the side of the Fisherfield peak Sgùrr Bàn. Protruding from the slabs is an unusual little rocky knob called Meallan an Laoigh. Apparently a fine day's walk can be spent on these slabs, but they are worth saving for a dry day, when the rock is less slippery.
The path widened into an off-road vehicle track, and cow pats indicated the presence of cattle. I had neglected to fill up my water bottle higher up, but the cows were still some distance, so I assumed the water would be OK. Lower down, the track stayed on one side of the stream, and I crossed to join the path on the steeper right bank. I passed a few deer carcasses, presumably killed by the cold winter.
For lunch I stopped at the shooting lodge and bothy of Lochivraon. The name is probably a corruption of Loch a' Bhraoin on whose western shores the lodge stands. A big herd of highland cattle were grazing nearby beside the loch. The lodge was surrounded by a fence to protect it from the cows and all the windows were barred, preventing people breaking in when the lodge is closed outside the stalking season. The lodge looked like it had recently been renovated, and it had a sparkling white coat of paint.
The bothy has also been recently renovated (apparently in 1997 it was decrepit). I assume the estate has renovated the bothy to discourage people breaking into the lodge. The bothy really is quite luxurious - it has a sink with running (cold) water and washing up liquid, there is a toilet, a wood-burning stove, and a stack of firewood left over from the renovation work. There were several wooden bed frames, for sleeping off the ground, then a flight of stairs leading to a half-loft (minstrel's gallery?) with further sleeping space.
The map shows a path around the shore of Loch a' Bhraoin, but this has now been upgraded to give vehicular access to the lodge. The four mile walk along the loch was very pleasant, with the sunlight sparkling on the water and fine views across to the Fannaichs. I even had views further east to Beinn Dearg where I was heading the following day.
At the east end of the loch there have been some recent changes. The footbridge across the outflow has been replaced (a sign said at considerable cost to the estate), giving walkers access to the Fannaichs. The path has been re-routed to avoid the boat house and ruined lodge, which are due to be redeveloped into "two letting units". The sign says that this area will be fenced off to encourage native tree re-growth, and presumably to give privacy to the new tenants. A little further on a sign noted that a school has been granted exclusive access to the bothy from 18th to 26th May.
It seems that this estate is under new ownership, who are making efforts to rejuvenate the estate economically, but at the same time are are being very accommodating to hillwalkers. The track finally joined the A832 near a car park. From here there were excellent views of An Teallach. I followed the road downhill towards Braemore Junction. This road was quite busy - there were lots of people in expensive sports cars out enjoying the sunshine, and unwilling to slow down. On the bend there is a carpark with a fine viewpoint down the length of Strath More towards Loch Broom and Ullapool. Corrieshalloch Gorge and the Falls of Measach nestle just below Braemore, this nature reserve being very popular with coach parties and day trippers.
Just before Braemore Junction I spotted another backpacker coming up the road in the opposite direction. He'd just got the bus up from Inverness, and was heading to spend several days climbing the Fannaichs, before dropping down to pick up the train at Lochluichart.
I had been to Braemore before - it was the starting point for a trek I did across An Teallach, the Fisherfield Six and the Fannaichs. This time I planned to do a three-day circuit of the Beinn Dearg group to the north of Braemore, before finally returning to get the bus. There is a large lay-by at Braemore, a bus shelter and a workman's hut which could be named the "Braemore Bothy".
I was intending taking a track from the lay-by, through what the map marked as Forestry Commission woodland. However there was a closed gate and a sign saying "private Braemore Estate". In the opposite direction, a number of arrows pointed "walker's access this way". Just beyond the gate is an estate worker's cottage. A man was unloading a car, and there were a few dogs at his feet. I decided to go through the gate, since the "walker's access" signs were pointing in the wrong direction.
As I approached the estate worker said "the owner's made a path for walkers so you don't have to go this way". I said "oh, it was pointing in the opposite direction". He asked me where I wanted to get to, and showed me on the map that the new path went around the forestry, then picked up the track higher up beyond the estate. He told me I could go through the estate if I wanted, but the owner preferred people to use the new path. I said that it would be useful to have a sign showing the route on a map, and he said he'd pass on the message to the owner.
So I set off in the opposite direction to find this new path. At first it was well marked with logs on either side and a new metal bridge across a stream. On the far side of the bridge the path disappeared into a heathery peat bog. I did not have the energy at this time of day to slog over a mile of pathless peat, so headed back to use the estate track. I remarked to the estate worker that it "wasn't much of a path" and explained that I had already walked 14 miles today, and was running out of energy.
After nearly a mile the track approached the lodge and there was another side saying "Braemore estate, private, estate access only". Ignoring the sign, I turned up a short zigzag track, past kennels of caged barking dogs, then exited the estate grounds via a gate in the deer fence. This gate also has a sign, aimed at walkers arriving from the opposite direction, guiding them around the perimeter of the forestry. Such an attitude from the estate is bound to lead to conflict with walkers, particularly considering the so-called alternative path is pathetic. If the owner really doesn't want people going through his estate, then he should build a decent-quality properly-drained path across the moorland.
I passed by Home Loch, which has a boat house and is used by the estate for fishing. I then picked up a stalkers' path following a stream up to Bealach nam Buthan. I wanted to get some distance from the estate grounds, plus gain some height for the following day, and camp above the tick line. I arrived at the bealach totally exhausted from a such a long day.
Some planning was required for the next three days, since I wanted to arrive back at Braemore on the afternoon of the last day. There are six Munros in this area, roughly arranged in a line running south to north, rising up from a high plateau. The ideal route would be to follow this line. However from my starting point I would join the chain mid-way along. From my approach route, the highest peak, Beinn Dearg, acts a guardian to the rest of the peaks, and whatever route I took, it would be necessary to re-climb it, passing just a few hundred metres from the summit, on the way back!
After much deliberation and scribbling on the map, it seemed that the best choice would be to start by tackling Beinn Dearg then the two peaks immediately north of it, thus getting half of the Munros climbed on the first day. The second day would then be a very unusual route, first climbing Seana Bhràigh at the northern extremity of the plateau, then heading cross-country to reach Am Faochagach at its southern extremity. This would leave me in close proximity to the final Munro Cona' Mheall, with only a small amount of re-ascent to return over Beinn Dearg on the last day.
Soon after breakfast and striking camp I began to feel very bloated and slightly nauseous. Initially I thought it was because I'd eaten too fast, then I began to wonder if it was due to drinking some contaminated water. At last night's camp at Bealach nam Buthan, I had gathered water from a trickling stream flowing off the pass. It is quite possible that the pass is a popular wild-camping spot and so has become polluted. Also the previous day I had collected water not far from grazing livestock and a few deer carcases.
I did consider turning back, but these Munros are very awkward to reach, it would be difficult to return again. I was determined to finish off all the Munros in the northwest Highlands on this trip! Walking whilst unwell is not fun, but from experience of spending several days trekking in the Everest region with an illness that was probably pneumonia, I knew that progress was possible with willpower. The only concern was that if the stomach upset was to worsen and my strength was to weaken, I might not have the energy to walk out back over Beinn Dearg on day three. I decided to take things slowly and turn back if it got worse.
A good stalkers' path took me east, then northwards around the sides of Beinn Enaiglair to reach a second bealach. A rounded hill with the unusual name of Iorguill (I couldn't help but call it Iron-Gill), stood between me and Beinn Dearg. From the map, Iron-Gill looked to be pathless, but actually there was a stalkers' path zigzagging up its south-western corrie. The path was a little vague in places, but cairns had been helpfully placed to indentify important turns, plus lines of rocks guided the route across less well-defined sections. The path terminated just short of Iron-Gill's summit, with a few handy cairns to help locate it on the way back.
After a short drop down to a bealach, I picked up the north-west ridge of Beinn Dearg. This ridge extends for three miles and the full length of its northern side is guarded by steep crags. An impressive dry-stone wall has been built along the entire length of this ridge, running almost to the summit of Beinn Dearg then north-east down to Bealach an Lochain Uaine. The men who built it must have been made of stern stuff, for even to reach this spot requires considerable effort, never mind walking home at the end of a hard day's physical work. Much of the wall is formed from enormous blocks, which must have taken several men using levers to manoeuvre them into place. It truly is one of the man-made wonders of the Highlands! The only similar wall I've seen runs along the Garbh Chiochs in Knoydart, but this is not formed from such large blocks.
The wall considerably simplifies navigation across Beinn Dearg. All I had to do was follow the wall, then briefly depart from it to reach the summit. On the ascent I heard a bleating sound, and assumed it was a sheep lost on the crags (sheep do not seem to have a "reverse gear", so they often end up stranded!) Actually it turned out to be a feral goat on the far side on the wall, who had briefly become separated from its mother. Soon the mother appeared and stood guard over the kid, waiting for me to pass by.
Beinn Dearg is crowned by a large pile of boulders stacked into a cairn. Dearg means "red" in Gaelic, but from a distance the Beinn Dearg rocks appear more black/grey than red. It is only when the rocks are broken does the red colour becomes apparent, perhaps from iron content in the rock. A little later in the day I came across some old patches of snow that had been stained red, maybe from eroded rock dust. Unlike their Torridonian neighbours, Beinn Dearg and the Fannaichs are comprised of schist. They are the worn-down roots of the Caledonides, a great mountain chain formed in Late Silurian to Early Devonian time (430 to 390 million years ago) which stretched across Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia.
Having visited the summit, it was then a short walk back to rejoin the wall. The wall plunges steeply down to Bealach an Lochain Uaine and the path keeps close to its west side. Heading northwards, the next Munro of the day, Meall nan Ceapraichean was gained surprisingly easy, rising less than 100m above the bealach.
Just north of this Munro over a small plateau I reached a subsidiary Top, Ceann Garbh. The onwards route from here dropped down over a steep rocky section and it was essential to reach a known point before descending. My guidebook describes this route in the opposite direction: "it follows a grassy ramp through a profusion of small crags" and unhelpfully noted: "it may not be so easy to find if doing the route in reverse". Luckily I found the ramp, and the only difficulty was avoiding patches of melting snow!
From the next lochan-studded bealach, I was once again climbing upwards, this time 200m of ascent to the last Munro of the day, Eididh nan Clach Geala. I was still feeling quite bloated and nauseous. Eating anything sweet made me feel worse, so I had to make do without cereal bars and flapjacks, normally so useful for a quick energy burst. From the summit there were good views across to the Munro defining the northern end of the plateau, Seana Bhràigh, which I would visit first thing tomorrow. From this direction Seana Bhràigh appears as a rounded hump. The rocky peak of An Sgùrr, rising one mile east of the Munro at the head of the Creag an Duine ridge, steals the limelight!
The weather was clearly deteriorating, already strong winds were building up with occasional short showers. Heavy rain was forecast for later in the day and for all of tomorrow. I wanted to gain some height on Seana Bhràigh to make tomorrow easier. Fortunately I was making good time and had less than three miles to go. On the descent I spotted a group of people in the distance, looking as small as ants. During the three days I spent in this group of hills, these were the only people I saw, which shows how remote and inaccessible these hills are. Seana Bhràigh is considered to be one of the most inaccessible Munros, rivalled only by Lurg Mhòr & An Socach near Loch Monar (which I visited the first week of this trip), A' Mhaighdean in the Fisherfield Forest (which I climbed on a previous trip) and Ben Alder.
My onward route across a flattish plateau was made easier by fragments of path and the occasional cairn. I was making for the dramatically-named Gate of Ca'-derg, which sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings! It is the head of a steep glaciated valley named Cadha Dearg or the "red chair", which has eroded deeply into the west side of the plateau. I aimed for a 730m lochan, located very close to the "Gate".
On reaching the lochan, I found it had partially dried up, exposing an area of un-vegetated peat. Thinking of my cunning campsite last week, this seemed like an ideal place for the tent. However I soon found out that the peat here was considerably more parched and studded with rocks, making for an uncomfortable bed. There was no time to move, since the rain had now started in earnest. I don't ever bother taking a sleeping mat to Scotland, since the ground is warm in summer and usually is quite soft. Additional padding can be improvised from rucksack and drysacks holding any spare clothes and waterproofs.
After feeling unwell all day and not eating much food, I was exhausted. I took some painkillers and dozed for a few hours. On waking I felt better and was able to stomach a pasta meal for supper.
The wind was strong all night, and my little tent was continually buffeted by the gusts being funnelled up Cadha Dearg. It rained a lot in the night, and there were still regular heavy showers in the morning. I was just a mile-and-a-half from Seana Bhràigh and in better weather it would have been tempting to leave the tent and do a there-and-back-again. Today, the visibility was good, but nevertheless I preferred keeping my possessions with me! I ate breakfast slowly, hoping that it would digest better today, however shortly after setting off, the nausea and bloating started again.
The ascent of Seana Bhràigh was very gentle and straightforward. Only at the final rise did I dump my pack to climb the short distance to the summit. A daredevil deer was grazing in the steep east corrie and was briefly startled by my appearance, before deftly making its way onto easier ground away from me. Across the corrie there was a fine view to the Creag an Duine ridge scramble, and the rocky peak of An Sgùrr, unmarked on the OS Explorer map.
The next challenge was to reach Am Faochagach at the southern end of the plateau, across pathless terrain, more than six miles away as the crow flies. The original plan had been to visit Glenbeg bothy en route, but this involved a lot of extra distance, plus a considerable amount of descent and re-ascent. Rather than make the detour to Glenbeg, the map indicated a more direct line could be taken over a broad projecting ridge, with just an extra 200m of ascent necessary to reach its far side.
The initial part of this route was easy along the broad two-mile-long ridge running south of Seana Bhràigh. The next section was the most exacting, first a steep descent into a corrie, then a traverse across rough peaty ground to meet the Allt Uisg a' Bhrisdich near a waterfall unmarked on the map. Hoof-marks and worn vegetation at the ford indicated that deer use this precise point to gain access to the ridge. The onward route then climbed steeply up the side of the ridge following a small stream.
Dropping down the far side of the ridge I reached a rough peaty valley. The going was easiest by sticking to the side of the valley, which I followed around to reach Loch Prille. This gem of a loch nestles in a wild hollow surrounded by rocky mountains. The outflow tumbles over a waterfall before plunging into Coire Lair. Most of the shore of Loch Prille is steep, with a lot of eroded peat, but I managed to find a suitable camping spot towards its southern end on an alluvial fan, where two streams flow into the loch.
Am Faochagach was still a mile-and-a-half away, but I didn't have the energy to carry my rucksack any further today, so I decided to hide it behind a boulder and just take a few essentials. The probability of someone discovering it randomly in such a remote spot must be very low, particularly on a wet day like this! Without the weight, progress was much easier and more enjoyable. Soon I reached the subsidiary peak of Meallan Bàn. This is marked by a fine beehive cairn, which perhaps was constructed by the Beinn Dearg wall-builders on their day off!
At last I reached Am Faochagach, then turned around immediately to head back! Instead of heading directly back to my rucksack, I wanted to reconnoitre the outflow of Loch Prille. I would have to cross here tomorrow to reach Cona' Mheall, and from inspecting the map, the water looked rather wide at this point. If the crossing was unfeasible I wanted to know today, since it would necessitate a long detour around the rough shore of Loch Prille tomorrow.
On inspection the crossing point was actually the place where the water narrowed and went over the lip of the waterfall! A few rocks protruded above the surface while other algae-covered stepping stones were available just below the surface. A slip here would not be advisable, since a number of deeper channels flowed directly over the waterfall into oblivion! I decided to "rehearse" the route today, in preparation for a crossing tomorrow with rucksack, when keeping balance would be more difficult. To add to the drama, the wind was whipping water up from the waterfall and soaking me with spray. I made it across with no problems, and got back again with only one slight wobble!
It was then not far around the rough shore of the loch to retrieve my pack and set up camp. It was very windy, so I held the tent in place with my rucksack while pegging it out, then zipped the rucksack inside the tent before finally raising the tent and pegging the guys. In wet conditions a windy spot can be beneficial, since the wind blows much of the rain off the tent, and also prevents condensation from accumulating inside.
I had been taking painkillers going all day to keep going, but still was feeling pretty rough. I didn't have much of an appetite, and forced myself to eat some pasta, giving up before the whole meal was eaten.
Today I decided to skip breakfast and felt a lot better for it. I wanted to wait until I was hungry rather than forcing down food for the sake of it. The weather was clearing but clouds still lingered around the summits. I set off early as I intended to be at the bus stop with time to spare. The wind had now dropped so the crossing of the waterfall lip was now less unnerving, and I used trekking poles to steady my balance as I carefully stepped from rock to rock.
From here a rocky ridge rises directly up to the summit of Cona' Mheall. I knew this would involve some scrambling but the guidebook gave no details. The lower section followed grassy ramps around rocky outcrops, although there were a few nice slabs giving good friction. Higher up the ridge steepened to reach a pile of enormous boulders at the foot of Cona' Mheall's summit crags. The route was not obvious from a distance, but it was clear that a direct assault on these crags would be unadvisable.
On the right of the crags I could see some steep grassy slopes interspersed with rock outcrops. This looked to be the likely key to the summit. To reach it I scrambled over the huge boulders, then carefully picked a way up the slippery wet grass, avoiding most of the rocks, to emerge near the summit cairn. This would be very tricky in descent. There was not much of a view from the top, but dropping down the far side, I soon emerged from the clouds, and was rewarded by a fine view into Coire Granda. Beinn Dearg is a secretive mountain, reserving its most spectacular slopes for its remote north and east sides. The steep-sided Coire Granda cradling Loch a' Choire Ghranda, is its finest feature.
After traversing around the head of the corrie past a large patch of snow, I rejoined my outward route at the foot of the dry stone wall. This final big ascent up the side of Beinn Dearg needed a lot of willpower, and it was good to know it would be the last of the trip. Once again in the cloud, it was now more windy and moisture was being blown onto my clothes. I kept following the wall up, then turned sharp right to follow the wall's traversing route around the side of the mountain, before dropping down to the north-west ridge. By now I was getting quite wet, and grudgingly stopped to put my waterproofs on.
Soon I was out of the cloud into drier air, but kept the waterproofs on as windproofs. The cairn marking the descent path from Iron-Gill was easy to find, and now it would be stalkers' paths all the way back to civilisation. I reached Home Loch with plenty of time to spare, and so decided to try the "new path" from its top end, rather than walk through the unwelcoming Braemore Estate. Initially the route was quite promising, following a track through pine trees. On the far side of the trees the track emerged onto open moorland and promptly disappeared into a large area of bracken. Since bracken is the number one tick habitat, I was prepared to go no further! Braemore Estate it would have to be.
I set the dogs barking again, but luckily the estate worker living in the cottage by the gate was not around today. It would have been embarrassing to bump into him again. The bus stop gave conflicting times and dates to the timetables that I had printed from the internet, but it seemed that a CityLink bus would be coming late afternoon. This service connects with the Ullapool-Stornoway ferry and the timetable includes a proviso that bus times may be altered to suit the ferry. The infrequency and unpredictability of buses, along with the lack of facilities makes Braemore Junction a far better place to start a walk than to finish one.
My boots were soaked from all the wet vegetation over the past few days. I changed into dry socks, then pulled plastic bags over the new socks to prevent my boots making them wet. Eventually the socks still get wet from perspiration, but this trick works for a while.
Half an hour before the expected arrival time I walked out to the edge of the road, to gain a better view of the hopefully approaching bus. A minibus pulled up and I asked the driver if he was going to Inverness. He was on a school run, heading back into Ullapool, but said the CityLink bus should be along soon. Next a charming French couple appeared. They had walked here along the road (probably from the Aultguish Bunkhouse) and were hoping to reach Ullapool today after a further 12 miles of road walking. They were very friendly, but unfortunately I couldn't give them my full attention as the bus was due imminently. There is a quieter track on the far side of Strath More, but there was no chance to explain the route to them.
I spotted the approaching CityLink bus and put my hand out. The driver didn't stop, and cryptically pointed backwards down the road. The French couple suggested that there might be another bus stop, but looking at the map, Braemore Junction was definitely the only safe stopping point. I wondered if I might have to hitchhike to get back to Inverness, or give up, camp above Braemore and try again in the morning. The couple wished me luck and headed off along the verge towards Ullapool. They both had bare legs, but didn't seem bothered by ticks (oh for the care-free attitude of the French!) Ticks are attracted to verges, because they misinterpret the air disturbance and vibration of passing vehicles to be that of animals.
About fifteen minutes later another CityLink bus turned up. The previous bus was presumably full, explaining why the driver had pointed backwards down the road. The ticket machine was broken, so the driver waved me on for free. I would have happily paid double to get back to Inverness, rather than be stranded at Braemore! From the bus there were good views of the Fannaichs and back to Beinn Dearg, now clear of cloud.
After an hour I was back in Inverness, and I made a beeline for the railway station ticket office. It was Friday night and I was hoping to get a bed on tonight's sleeper. The backup plan was to stay in Inverness at a hostel overnight, then take the first train to London in the morning. The sleeper was almost full, but since I had already had a return ticket, this made matters easier and all I had to do was pay a £38 supplement for a bed. A reclining seat would have been free, but I was quite happy to pay for the extra comfort!
I now had a few hours to spare, before the sleeper opened for boarding at 8pm. For the past week I had been fantasising about chips and a proper cup of tea! After a brief search around, I found most of the places serving food were either rough-looking city pubs, or bland chains. Several years ago I had eaten at a wonderful little café near the city centre, run by a comic ginger-haired Scot. This was now gone, but a few doors down there was a new place called The Highland Foodstop. This is run by a wonderfully polite Italian gentleman and a young Scottish female waitress. After taking my order for fish and chips and a cup of tea, he said "please sit down sir".
The Highland Foodstop is open all day and long into the night. All food is available for takeaway, but when "eating in" you get proper plates and cutlery. Even the pot of tea came with a little jug of proper milk. It's fast food with a personal touch, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Inverness. After two weeks living off dried food, it was particularly enjoyable. I gave the Italien a good tip before heading off, which he handed directly to the waitress.
Next I headed down to the river Ness, since there was plenty of time, and I wanted to relax in the sunshine on its banks. The temperature was positively balmy - considerably warmer than in the mountains. I aired my socks which had got rather damp inside the plastic bags.
On the way to the station I stopped by Morrisons to pick up some snacks for the journey, including breakfast for the morning and a celebratory bottle of whisky for the evening. I shared a sleeper cabin with a chap who had just cycled up from Lands End to John O'Groats with two friends. They had taken two weeks to complete the journey, and he'd been surprised by how much of it was in Scotland.
Our hostess then came in and explained that the air conditioning had broken in our carriage. They were moving people into spare beds in other carriages. I decided to move, since I sleep better if the air is cooler, but the cyclist decided to stay near his friends, meaning I got a new cabin to myself! This was probably for the best, since my clothes were rather smelly after two weeks in the wild! It seems that ScotRail don't proactively maintain these sleeper carriages, and only fix problems when they occur.
My journey back to Southampton went smoothly and I got back home by late morning. This time the previous day I was still standing on a Munro! It was an amazingly smooth journey back, considering none of the transport was booked in advance.
The 16-day trek was the longest I'd done in Scotland - I'd covered 173 miles and over 15,000m of ascent! It would have been much easier to omit the last three days around Beinn Dearg. A stop in the Kinlochewe bunkhouse and a meal in the hostel restaurant would have been beneficial in retrospect. This is a tough area for Munroists, as the peaks are well spaced out and the glens are low, making for long ascents.
The trek passed through arguably the most scenically spectacular area in the whole of Scotland. It would be possible to devise an easy trek through this area, keeping to the glens, and following the most impressive mountains. This could start at Braemore, then visit An Teallach, the Great Wilderness, Kinlochewe, Torridon, Gerry's Hostel, the Falls of Glomach, Shiel Bridge, Loch Hourn and finally across Knoydart to Glenfinnan station near Fort William. The walk would probably take two weeks, but could be split into two separate weeks at Gerry's hostel. Mountains could be optionally climbed, but there would always be a low level alternative in bad weather.