Written July 2009
It was only two weeks since I returned from my last Scottish excursion. The advantage was that the lessons learnt from the previous trip were still fresh in my mind. The priority was to fix the tent, which had struggled against all the wind and rain last time. The floor was no longer waterproof - when the tent was pitched on wet boggy ground, water seeped through in places when pressure was applied. I picked up some thin plastic sheeting from a carpet shop and trimmed it to fit inside the tent as an internal groundsheet. The extra weight was negligible. I also painted the outside of the tent with waterproofing fluid, which was not an easy task inside my tiny flat!
The tent has no poles and instead uses two trekking poles for support. The pockets to hold the poles by the roof of the tent are quite broad, and in windy conditions the poles have a habit of slipping out, causing the tent to collapse. I bought some hair bands and attached them next to the pockets, so the poles could be more firmly held in place. The only issue I could not resolve was condensation in the narrow "feet end" of the tent, which makes the end of my sleeping bag rather damp. Despite these problems, I am rather fond of this little tent and am loath to replace it!
The rest of the weekend was spent bagging up food into daily rations. It is surprising how long this process takes, but it is important to get it right, since I expected there to be no shops for the duration of the trek.
My walking trousers were looking a bit worse for wear and I started sewing up some of the holes. My sleeping bag silk liner had also become torn, and I began repairing it on the train journey from Southampton to London, then finished it off while waiting from the sleeper at Euston, which departed at 20:07.
This time my train tickets came to £203.20 in total. This was for two single journeys, since my outward route involved travelling up to Corrour on the West Highland line and the return route was from Newtonmore on the East Highland line.
Monday 8th June 2009
I was brought a complimentary cup of tea and shortbread in the morning by a rather frosty eastern European hostess. I was told that breakfast boxes have now been withdrawn as a cost-cutting exercise!
Views from the cabin window were fantastic in the morning sunshine. Beinn Dorain presented its familiar conical shape as we rounded the bend to Bridge of Orchy. The next section was across Rannoch Moor with splendid views over to the Black Mount and Glen Coe, including the iconic Buachaille Etive Mor. The West Highland line has a strong claim to be the most scenic railway line in the country.
Rannoch Moor is barren, bleak, desolate and inhospitable. It is the largest moor in Britain and stretches for over 50 square miles. The moor is a triangular plateau of blanket bog, surrounded by mountains. It has a base of granite about 40 million years old and was shaped in the last ice age, when it served as a vast gathering area for ice. Since then, the area's exposure and high rainfall have caused the poorly drained ground to become covered in bog and lochans. The moor holds so much water that it is said to be possible to swim across in summer and skate across in winter!
The train reached Corrour Station just after 9 o'clock. At 409m above sea level, this is the highest and most remote mainline station in Britain. It cannot be reached by public road, although there is an estate track serving the station house, which now operates as a B&B, bar and restaurant. As the crow flies it is not far to Fort William, but to travel via estate tracks it is double the distance! Corrour Station was used in the film Trainspotting, when they head off from the station to climb Leum Uilleim (William's leap), a 909m Corbett (nearly a Munro). Before leaving the station house I took a photo of the menu for later inspection.
I followed the estate track to Loch Ossian, situated the north-east corner of Rannoch Moor and one mile east of Corrour Station. The loch is named after the bardic son of the great Fionn MacCumhail, better known in Scotland as Fingal. Compared with the bleakness of Rannoch Moor, Loch Ossian is quite hospitable, nestling amongst the high hills with its shores softened by woods.
At the western end of Loch Ossian there is an old boathouse which now operates as a SYHA "rustic" youth hostel. I had booked into this hostel for two nights (£16 per night), as there were five Munros in the area that could be tackled as day walks. I wanted to make an easy start to the trip, after the exertions of the previous one. The hostel is closed during the day from 11am to 5pm. I arrived at 9:30am with the intention of dumping the majority of my kit and heading off to climb some Munros.
I met the warden Nick Priest. He was rather brusque and told me to be as quick as possible since he wanted to set off for the day in search of a bird that had not previously been recorded in the area. Apparently the area is host to over 100 species of bird. I asked Nick how long he had been warden and he said five years. I said "lucky you" and he said "I like to think the SYHA is lucky"!
I picked a bunk and quickly emptied all the non-essential items from my rucksack, then headed off towards the first Càrn Dearg of this trip. It felt strange walking in Scotland with such a light pack! I soon reached the touching memorial at Peter's Rock:
In memory of Peter J. Trowell Born Sept 1949 - Died March 1979 at Loch Ossian I have a friend, a song and a glass Gaily along life's road I pass Joyous and free, out of doors for me Over the hills in the morning
On the ascent I disturbed some mountain hare and red deer in the corrie. I came across a baby deer lying curled up in the heather. It was not possible to tell if it was just sleeping, but it is quite common for parents to wander several miles from thir young. On the ascent, the views across Rannoch Moor were fantastic, the eye being drawn to Glen Nevis, flanked on one side by the mighty Ben Nevis and the Aonachs and on the other by the long Mamores ridge. Already clouds were building and it wasn't as sunny as it was first thing.
I dropped down to a high bealach, before ascending the second Munro of the day, Sgòr Gaibhre. On the way I met an old couple who had set up a wild camp in one of the glens and were climbing all the Munros in the area as day walks. They said the weather had been so good that they were running out of sun cream!
From the summit of Sgòr Gaibhre there were excelled views across Rannoch Moor to the symmetrical triangular profile of Schiehallion. In 1774 Schiehallion was used in an attempt to calculate the earth's mass, by measuring the gravitational pull of the mountain. During this work, mathematician Charles Hutton began to connect points of equal height with lines, thus inventing contours.
On the return journey I passed over the nearby Top of Sgòr Choinnich, before dropping down to the eastern end of Loch Ossian. The loch is four miles long and has tracks on both its north and south shores. The track on the north shore is the main estate track and is rather dusty.
I chose the southern track, which is very pleasant, particularly on the section near Corrour Lodge, which has been planted with rhododendrons that were all in bloom at this time of year. There were a few showers on the way back, which I mostly avoided amongst the trees, although the midges discouraged me from lingering too long.
When I returned I said hello to Nick. He was in a better mood, having found his rare bird. He got me to sign in and went through the "house rules":
The hostel operates on eco-principles and in addition to the back boiler, there are solar panels and a wind generator.
The kitchen/dining room of the hostel was a hive of activity. The largest group were a strange bunch and I couldn't quite figure out how they were all related. The main characters were an American lady from south Carolina, a Scottish lady who'd done all the Munros and an old man who "hadn't even walked around all of them"! Some of the group had walked here up Glen Nevis from Fort William, and some had arrived on the train. They soon headed off to Corrour station house for some food and beer.
This left a couple of blokes from the Peak District, who were doing a tour of the "rustic" hostels and had already visited Raasay (an island off Skye), Ratagan and Glen Affric, all on public transport. There were also two sisters from Germany, one of whom had been coming to this particular hostel for many years and had even spent her honeymoon here! They had a bottle of white wine which they generously shared with all present.
Tuesday 9th June 2009
Beinn na Lap is normally climbed on its own, and is rated as one of the easiest Munros. I decided to climb it in conjunction with two more Munros which are normally climbed from Fersit on the opposite northern side. This looked to be a long day, so I made an early start and was up before everyone else. People were just getting up as I set off on a bright sunny morning.
The ascent of Beinn na Lap was rather steep and vegetated. Little black and grey moths kept fluttering up out of the heather. Looking across Rannoch Moor there were good views of the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe.
I didn't linger long on the summit as I had far to go, and soon was plunging into the depths of Coire Odhar Ruigh Phail, losing around 400m of height. On the way up the other side there were some fine examples of butterwort. This unusual plant has bright yellow star-shaped leaves, resembling a starfish or a miniature-banana skin. The leaves are sticky and attract insects, which the plant uses to supplement its diet. The butterwort in this corrie were in flower, with tiny stems cumulating in a single blue flower.
It was not long before I was on the spine of Garbh-bheinn, a Corbett who's summit I didn't bother to visit. By now the high clouds were building above me. A mile of ridge walking led me to the rise of Meall Garbh, a Munro Top.
I decided to save some energy by skirting around the side of Meall Garbh to get closer to the second Munro of the day. After a short lunch stop in a sheltered spot, I continued along the ridge towards Stob Coire Sgrìodain. I skirted around its south Top, then left my pack to climb the final rise to its higher north summit.
Just before the summit I bumped into a walker coming the other direction. We recognised each other simultaneously! It was someone who I had met twice in the Mamlorn Hills a few weeks earlier and now he introduced himself as Tim Webb from Leicester. This time he was up for a long weekend, climbing the Munros either side of Loch Treig, staying at Lairig Leacach Bothy, before tackling an epic day walk across the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, Càrn Mòr Dearg and Ben Nevis.
Tim waited for me to visit the summit of Stob Coire Sgrìodain, then we kept each other company as we headed towards the next Munro, Chno Dearg. The next mile was already familiar ground for me, although we did visit the south Top of Stob Coire Sgrìodain this time, rather than skirt around it.
Tim's told me his inspiration comes from the website of a guy in Edinburgh who does a round of Munros every year. Tim had a lightweight Mountain Marathon rucksack, where a sleeping mat can be inserted as back support. He had a Rab "top bag", which is effectively the top half of a sleeping bag, with a slot for the sleeping mat to cover the bottom half.
Tim also told me about multi-fuel stoves, which allow you to take the exact amount of liquid fuel required for the trip. For this particular excursion he had even abandoned the stove and was relying purely on cold food. Incredibly Tim celebrated his fiftieth birthday this year, although he looked about ten years younger than fifty.
At the large summit cairn of Chno Dearg we parted company, and I headed down towards the estate track in Strath Ossian, whilst he dropped down to Fersit. It was still seven miles back to the youth hostel. I had expected day hikes to be more pleasant, but it was actually quite limiting having the constraint of returning to a start point, rather than stopping and camping wherever. On the descent to the track, I spotted a large herd of red deer, who were evidently keeping an eye on me!
The track was very dusty an unpleasant, despite the magnificent surroundings. A vehicle would go past every fifteen minutes, some courteously slowing down, a some tearing by at top speed, smothering me in clouds of dust. I listened to my mp3 player which made the journey much more enjoyable.
At Loch Ossian I abandoned the estate track and headed for the quieter track on the south shore, repeating the same route as the previous day. There is a memorial plaque beside the track on the east end of the loch:
To commemorate Sir John Stirling Maxwell 1866 -1956 Whose pioneer work On the planting of peat at Corrour Led to the successful afforestation of Large areas of upland Britain
At last I know the man responsible for defacing large areas of upland Britain with ugly, impenetrable, plantations of non-native conifers! I hope he didn't get his knighthood for this deed. Once again the showers started at Loch Ossian. This time I was beyond the trees when a heavy shower hit and I had to don my waterproofs, less than a mile from the hostel. I was really beginning to flag on this last section and was glad to sit down at the end.
I got back to the hostel at the same time as two ladies from London, who had climbed the two Munros that I'd visited the previous day. The two blokes from the Peak District were still in residence. There was one chap on his own who'd climbed the same Munros as me today, but had taken a more linear route, coming from Tulloch station on the north side, with an illicit walk along the railway line. He was considering going to Knoydart next, but was unsure of the weather. He worked as a guide for children's adventure holidays abroad, but also had a job as a decorator to supplement his income.
There was a group of Scottish gentlemen, who were planning to climb Leum Uilleim (William's leap) the following day. One of them had an accent that sounded exactly like Sean Connery. The last arrival was a rather wild-looking balding bloke from the north of England who had climbed all the Munros in the Grey Corries today, with the assistance of a bicycle on the tracks.
I spent the evening sorting through my things and packing my rucksack for the next five days. I arranged with Nick (the warden) to leave the rest of my food in the outside store cupboard. I booked into the hostel on 14th June as a courtesy, but also because it would be nice after four nights out in the wild! The hostel has no shower, but it does have plenty of hot water.
Wednesday 10th June 2009
My morning involved repeating the same track along the south shore of Loch Ossian, for the third time in as many days. I met the old couple that I'd seen on the first day - they had packed up their wild camp and were heading out to Corrour station.
Near the end of the track a Scottish gentleman caught up with me. He was from Milgavie (near Glasgow) and had taken the morning sleeper up to Corrour and then cycled along the track. He was planning to climb Ben Alder, then cycle back to the station to catch the evening train. He'd hidden a bottle of wine in the heather and was looking forward to retrieving it to enjoy on the train home. His name was Lindsey and he was a retired dentist. He'd already climbed all the Munros and is now on his second round, climbing all the Corbetts at the same time.
He told me that recently he'd been on Ben Lawers and had helped save a man who was having a heart attack. He'd phoned mountain rescue and gave them GPS coordinates allowing a rescue helicopter to pluck the man from the mountain, despite atrocious weather conditions. Lindsey took the man's car keys and delivered his car to the hospital in Glasgow where he was recovering.
Somehow we missed the path along the Uisge Labhair and ended up on rather boggy ground. We parted company at a prominent burn when I stopped to fill up with water. My plan for the day was to follow a long ridge which lies in the heart of a wild, remote and beautiful part of central Highlands that few visitors get to see. The ridge has four Munros and I planned to climb three of them today. No doubt with a lighter pack it would be possible to climb all four, but I was in no hurry and quite fancied a wild camp high up on the ridge to really appreciate its atmosphere.
Beinn Eibhinn was rather dull until I reached the edge of its northern corrie, which was still rimmed with snow. Just after the summit I met a youngish chap with a beard, coming in the opposite direction. He was camping at Loch Pattack on the east end, so was doing a "there and back again" along the ridge. I stopped for lunch at the bealach before Aonach Beag and he overtook me on his return journey.
This was quite a cold day. At one point I was hit by a hail shower and a bit later there was a small snow flurry. Showers were very localised and their locations were easily spotted from the ridge. After Aonach Beag, the ridge sloped gently up towards Geal-Chàrn. I met an old lady on her way to Aonach Beag who'd come up Lancet Edge, an exciting scrambling route. She was also camping at Loch Pattack near the chap I'd met earlier. She said that she'd given up camping on ridges after being caught in a storm in the Cuillin which destroyed her tent. She'd lost her waterproof jacket, but returned some days later and managed to retrieve it!
In total there are no fewer than 19 hills called Geal Chàrn in this part of Scotland, four of which are Munros. I climbed three of these on this particular trip, the remaining Geal Chàrn Munro is by the Drumochter pass near Dalwhinnie. Geal Chàrn means "white hill", so perhaps this area was surveyed after a heavy winter! Today's Geal-Chàrn has the distinction of a hyphen in its name, and is probably the most spectacular of the lot!
The summit plateau of Geal-Chàrn is a tableland which holds a great deal of snow in winter. The vegetation was decidedly arctic-alpine, with grass growing in strange swirling patterns that I'd not seen before. The deep gash of the Bealach Dubh looked inconsequential as the great bulk of Ben Alder reared up beyond.
Geal-Chàrn has an impressive line of cliffs on its north-eastern side, with two fine lochans at the base of the cliffs, separated by a narrow ridge. The only safe descent route in this direction is a path that drops off the summit plateau 50m north of a burn that cascades down the crags. There is no path on the plateau but it does appear quite abruptly and winds down steeply but easily to safe ground. Had I read the guidebook I would have taken this route, but instead I descended next to the burn, ending up on steep poorly-vegetated soil. On the opposite side of the burn there was considerable amount of snow and blue ice - an infant glacier! Soon I was on less steep ground and traversed leftwards to join the correct path, dropping down to join the narrow ridge between the lochans.
I'd avoided the worst of the showers for most of the day, but now it began to rain more heavily. As I was nearly down to Loch Coire Cheap I didn't bother putting on waterproofs. However by the time the tent was up I was quite damp. The location was splendid with great cliffs looming up above the loch. At 800m it was quite a high campsite and I was able to watch clouds drifting by at eye level through An Lairig.
Thursday 11th June 2009
The morning was misty but dry and soon I was back up on the ridge. There were occasional views of the north-east face of Geal-Chàrn with cliffs and waterfalls plunging down to Loch an Sgoir. The second Càrn Dearg of this trip was just about mist-free by the time I reached the summit. I got a brief view down to Culra Bothy on east side.
It was then a 500m drop into the classic U-shaped glaciated valley of An Lairig. By the time I reached the valley floor all the mist had cleared and the sun had come out. All the height had to be regained to reach the summit of Beinn a' Chlachair. I chose an unknown route up a nose, that looked to be quite steep on the map, but was actually quite tame. The summit plateau of Beinn a' Chlachair was strewn with loose stones, making walking very tedious. Normally Beinn a' Chlachair is climbed in conjunction with Creag Pitridh and a second Geal Chàrn. The approach from Glen Spean involves a long section of estate tracks, which is normally cycled.
Just before the summit I met a father and son who were staying at Culra and were continuing on to climb Creag Pitridh and Geal Chàrn today. I considered doing the same, but was rather tired after the last couple of days walking. After the summit I followed after them as far as Bealach Leamhain, then made an early stop. I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and finishing off repairs to my walking trousers.
Friday 12th June 2009
The night was clear and I was cold in my 750m camp despite a down sleeping bag. There was frost on the tent in the morning. As soon as the sun rose it warmed up to a beautiful clear day. This was very surprising since rain had been forecast for today. I suspected that this was the calm before the storm.
Today would be an easy day's walk across two Munros to reach Culra Bothy and it was nice to be up in the mountains with relaxed weather conditions.
A well-constructed stalkers' path leads up to the bealach between Creag Pitridh and Geal Chàrn. Creag Pitridh really is just a minor bump on the side of Geal Chàrn and it is surprising that it has separate Munro status. I dumped my pack at the bealach and en route to its summit I disturbed a herd of deer. From the top there were splendid views down Glen Spean to Loch Laggan and across to Creag Meagaidh on the other side. Running parallel to Loch Laggan are two smaller lochs, both with the same name - Lochan na h-Earba. Each loch its own little hill separating it from Loch Laggan, one hill by the name of Binnein Shuas and the other by the name of Binnein Shios. The symmetry is remarkable.
I retraced my steps to the bealach, retrieved my pack, then headed up towards the second Geal Chàrn of my trip. The summit is a little rocky pimple on the summit plateau. On the map this mountain is also labelled Mullach Coire an lubhair and it is surprising the SMC selected Geal Chàrn as its "official" name, given that the other Geal-Chàrn in the area is only five miles away.
On the descent there were fine views of Loch a' Bhealaich Leamhain, surrounded by steep cliffs. I had camped above this loch last night, but the loch is not visible from above, so it was nice to finally get a view of it. A good stalker's path lead me down to the Allt Cam, which was easy to cross, but looked like it could be difficult in spate. After the crossing I picked up a track that lead first to Loch Pattack, before curving around to reach Culra Bothy.
The views up the glen were tremendous, with Ben Alder and Beinn Bheòil on one side and Geal-Chàrn on the other. Particularly prominent was the steep and narrow arête Lancet Edge, the popular scrambling route up Geal-Chàrn. I would have to come back again to try this route.
Culra Bothy is comprised of four unconnected living spaces, all with separate external doors, and two of which with fireplaces. It is a very popular bothy, as its location gives convenient access to nine otherwise remote Munros. Most people cycle in along Loch Ericht from Dalwhinnie, following a ten mile long track. When I got to the bothy three of the rooms had evidence of habitation, but clearly everyone was still out walking for the day. I chose the only unoccupied room. Soon a chap arrived and we settled down outside to enjoy the sunshine. He had nearly completed all the Munros, but had left all the remote ones until last. It turned out that he had lived in Bristol for some time and he used to work for BT in Horfield, the suburb where I grew up!
Shortly after another chap returned, who'd been up on Geal-Chàrn today. He reckoned this to be "the" viewpoint of Scotland. Like me he was heading up Ben Alder the following day. We discussed the TGO challenge held every year in May and how it causes overcrowding in certain bothies at bottlenecks in the west to east coast traverse of Scotland.
I didn't have a room to myself for long as two lads from Edinburgh arrived by bike in the evening. Their plan was to climb Ben Alder the following day, then cycle back and catch the train from Dalwhinnie to reach Edinburgh in time for a party in the evening!
Saturday 13th June 2009
In the morning I woke to heavy rain. Looking out the door, most of Ben Alder was hidden by cloud. The weather was unfortunate, since Ben Alder was one of the finest mountains on my itinerary and I was hoping for fine views. At least I got a taste of the wild character of the mountain!
Ben Alder is one of the great remote Munros, its summit being at least 10 miles from a public road in all directions. Only A' Mhaighdean (Great Wilderness), Seana Bhràigh (near Ullapool), Lurg Mhòr (near Achnasheen) and An Socach (Mullardoch) are as remote as Ben Alder.
From Culra there are two prominent ridges ascending Ben Alder. The Short Leachas lies to the south-west and directly above, while the Long Leachas is reached by a traverse further west. The Short Leachas is steeper and involves frequent scrambling, while the Long Leachas is easier and has better situations. Given the weather conditions I opted for the easier Long Leachas.
The water levels in Allt a' Chaoil-reidhe were still low, so rather than walk back to the footbridge, I hopped across the water on stepping stones. I followed a well drained stalker's path along the river, that soon veered off towards the mountain. At the point where it began zigzagging up steeper slopes I branched off to follow a sketchy path through the heather towards the Long Leachas. After crossing the Allt a' Bhealaich Bheithe the path petered out, and I struggled through boggy heather before the path re-established itself on the well-defined ridge. Despite the soggy conditions and poor visibility, I enjoyed the mild scrambling up to the summit plateau of Ben Alder.
Navigation was relatively straightforward, using the cliffs on the left as a handrail. Since the summit trig point is a few hundred metres back from the cliffs, I used GPS to help hone in on it. After the summit, I continued following the cliffs, occasionally getting glimpses of the remains of the winter cornices on the steep east face. At one point I passed through a narrow passage, with an old cornice on one side and a frozen lake on the other. Following the cliffs to the end of the ridge leads to steep difficult ground, so I used GPS to guide me down to the bealach.
The rain finally stopped and I took the opportunity to have lunch. On the other side of the bealach I picked up a good path to the Munro Top of Sròn Coire na h-Iolaire. The clouds were beginning to clear and there were dramatic views across to Ben Alder and Garbh Choire, a mile-long curve of broken cliffs falling 300m to the dark Loch a' Bhealaich Bheithe, where rock buttresses rise from the corrie floor.
The mist was mostly clear on my left now, but was still rolling up from Loch Ericht on my right. I reached the summit of Beinn Bheòil at the same time as a father and son from southern Scotland. Soon after the chap from the bothy arrived listening to music a pair of headphones. Then two old gentlemen arrived, making the summit a rather busy place, despite its remoteness! Everyone was following the continuation of the ridge back to Culra, apart from me and the two old gentlemen, and we were all heading for Ben Alder Cottage. This bothy is on the south side of Ben Alder, on the shores of Loch Ericht.
The two old gents had climbed Ben Alder the previous day with their even older friend Gerald. Gerald was taking an easy day today, doing a "coastal" walk along Loch Ericht. We retraced our steps towards to the bealach, passing back over Sròn Coire na h-Iolaire. In the SMC guide to the Munros there is an evocative photo taken from here, looking along the great trench of Loch Ericht. I very much wanted this view and lingered on the summit waiting as the mist cleared by the minute.
On the way down Sròn Coire na h-Iolaire I missed the path and ended up on a more tedious route with loose stones. I caught up with the two old gents at the bealach, who had also missed the path. The bealach itself is pathless, despite what is indicated on the map, but the path soon picks up on the descent by the burn to the bothy. On the way down one of the old gents introduced himself as Roger. I don't recall the name of the other guy. Roger was a supply teacher of history, art and French.
The bothy has three rooms for sleeping. The old gents had occupied two of them. The third room was occupied by today's new arrivals - two Scottish blokes and presumably all their children, I didn't count how many. The children were having great fun playing around the bothy. One of them asked me if I lived in the bothy! They had all travelled from Dalwhinnie by boat and were fishing for "brooon trooot". They planned to leave the following day and trawl for more brown trout on the way back.
Charles Edward Stuart aka Bonnie Prince Charlie passed through this way in 1746 after his defeat by Cumberland's troops at Culloden. Hard walking brought him from the Great Glen, over the Laggan hills and past Loch Pattack to Ben Alder. Here he was welcomed by Cluny MacPherson, another Jacobite in hiding. Cluny lived in a cave on the south-facing slopes of Ben Alder and it was here in "Cluny's Cage" that Charlie found shelter. Soon word was brought to Charlie that a French frigate awaited him off the western shores to carry him back to France. Charlie spent his later years in exile, dreaming and reminiscing about the heather-clad hills of Scotland.
Cluny's Cage lies amongst the rocky slopes above Ben Alder Cottage, but I didn't have the energy to go hunting for it and the location wasn't entirely clear from the position of the text on the map.
The old gents had a wicked sense of humour and it turned out they'd been rock climbers in their youth. The Cuillin on Skye had been their playground and Gerald still lived on Skye. I took a photo of them sat outside the bothy, and one of them quipped it looked like scene from Last of the Summer Wine!
It was still early and now the sun was out I headed off for a wander across the Alder Burn, which now has a bridge. Many guidebooks give warnings about this burn, advising the use of a safety rope for crossing the burn in spate conditions in the days before the bridge. Facing the bothy is a hillside covered in scattered conifers, which are much prettier that those found in dense plantations. I gathered some sticks for firewood, then crossed back over the bridge.
As dusk fell we got the fire going and lit some candles, making the room very atmospheric. The bothy is allegedly haunted, but I found out later this is probably just a rumour spread by the estate staff to discourage poachers. The old gents had brought whisky in a platypus and generously poured some into my pan (I didn't have a cup). I was sharing a room with Roger, who had been isolated the previous night on account of his snoring. I was so tired that it didn't bother me, and I soon dropped off to sleep.
Sunday 14th June 2009
The old gents were heading back to Loch Ossian by the same route as me. I set off before them, following a beautifully-constructed stalkers' path up the Alder Burn to Bealach Cumhann. They caught up with me at the bealach, but I pressed on down boggy pathless heather to pick up the path along the Uisge Labhair. This was the site of a horrific accident at New Year 1951 where four experienced climbers died in a ferocious blizzard, not far from the safety of Corrour Lodge.
I stopped for a lunch break by the river, and the old gents almost caught me up, but I was keen to get back to hostel. There were a few scattered showers, but I dodged the worst of them under the trees by Loch Ossian. I followed the familiar track along Loch Ossian's south shore for the fourth and final time.
At the hostel there was a temporary warden, since Nick was now away on holiday. The temporary warden had just washed the floors so I couldn't go inside, but I was able to retrieve my food bag from the store cupboard and was glad to see mice hadn't got into it. I left my things in the store cupboard and headed off towards Corrour station house, which opened at 4:30pm for beer and food. There were many hungry walkers waiting outside and I sat down on a bench with the old gents. Roger had rushed on ahead and had got in a round of beers before the station house closed at 3:30pm.
I ordered lentil soup, scampi and chips, washed down with a delicious pint of Trade Winds ale. For desert I had apple pie and another wonderful pint. The old gents were busy planning a traverse of the Cuillin ridge later in the year. They were all getting the train back to Tyndrum. Gerald was hoping to stay in Strathfillan Wigwams before driving back to Skye, stopping at Fort William en route for a haircut and food shopping. We spotted antlers for sale on the wall. The prices were startlingly high, with an extra markup for every antler point.
The lady running the station lodge was a real dragon! There was a note on the toilet saying that "The toilet is for use by (1) Customers (2) People who have brought toilet paper, toilet cleaner, soap, paper towels, floor cleaner and sanitary bags. If you are not one of the above, please do not use this toilet." She quizzed me twice about where I was staying, and rather pointedly said "you know we close at 6.30 don't you" shortly after handing me a bill for £19.75. The evening train soon showed up and carried most people off, while I headed back to the hostel feeling extremely full.
The residents of the hostel were decidedly youthful this evening. There were too lads who'd done the Pembrokeshire coast path the previous year. They'd found it too hard carrying all their things, so this year they decided to establish base Loch Ossian and do day hikes instead. They were planning on doing the same route as me the following day, and at the end of the walk taking the train back from Tulloch to Corrour. The weather forecast was not very encouraging and they asked me if I thought it would be ok. I said it would be wild, but navigation would be straightforward and even if it was misty there are often dramatic views through gaps in the cloud. They kindly gave me some red wine.
There were two girls who had found the warden Nick to be "scary" when he went though the "house rules". Apparently Nick's previous job was working as a casino inspector. They had some mangos that needed eating up, which they generously shared with me. I offered to carry out the skin, but they told me about a compost bin around the back of the hostel (Nick hadn't mentioned this to me).
Monday 15th June 2009
I set off early on a dry but overcast morning, hoping to cover some distance before the rain started. The track followed the railway line north-westwards to the southern shores of Loch Treig, a six mile long trough hemmed in on both sides by Munros. The scenery in this area is more bleak than beautiful, and is not helped by the shoreline of Loch Treig. The loch forms part of a great reservoir system constructed to meet the demands of the aluminium industry in Fort William and the water line rises and falls leaving an untidy rim. In 1929 a fifteen mile tunnel was built from here, through part of Ben Nevis and down to the aluminium works. It was the first tunnel of its type in the world.
I followed the shore around to the start of the Lairig Leachach. By the shore at this end there is Creagualneach Lodge, heavily locked with a couple of outbuildings. Presumably the lodge is used during the stalking season. There were two tents pitched on the lawn outside the lodge.
I crossed a well-concealed bridge then headed up steep slopes following a path overgrown with bracken. Bracken is the tick's favourite habitat and since I'd now dropped to 300m for the first time in a week, I expected there to be ticks here. Sure enough there were soon some large black ones crawling up the bottom of my trousers. I also found a toad on the path.
A sketchy path veered off up the mountain and I followed this for a short distance before it disappeared in the bracken. This area was terrible for ticks and I kept having to stop to remove them from my trousers, some quite small and hard to see. The area was full of wild orchids, which did compensate for the ticks. Soon I was above tick territory and I stopped for a final trouser check and some lunch. It then began to rain and I was glad to have escaped the ticks and have covered so much ground whilst it was dry.
After lunch I ascended steep slopes to emerge on a rocky ridge. A short distance along this level-ish ridge the mountain reared up into the clouds. The ascent of Stob Coire Easain was quite a slog in the heavy rain. After the summit I dropped down to a high bealach, and on the way down to the bealach I met a couple coming in the other direction. They had just been hit by a hail shower! Soon I was up the other side of the bealach and on Stob a' Choire Mheadhoin. The onward route was an excellent path following a long gently descending ridge. There is a steep drop off at the end of this ridge which involved some scrambling and some sections of boot-swallowing boggy peat.
I was feeling quite tired, since my pack was heavy with provisions for the next five days and I'd been walking a long time. Soon I found a water source an excellent spot of flat ground with views over Loch Treig. An hour after setting up camp I heard voices - it was the two lads from the hostel. They were too far away to say "hello", but I was glad they'd made it over the mountains. I wished I had something to offer them since they looked quite bedraggled and I hoped that they'd make it to Tulloch in time for the last train.
Tuesday 16th June 2009
The map showed no paths down, but I found a well-defined path that ran in the direction of the road. I met a surprised walker coming in the other direction who said "you either must have got up very early, or you camped here last night". Almost at the road, the path disappeared into woodland overgrown with bracken. I used my walking poles to beat back the bracken and slightly damaged one of the poles in the process. There were a few black ticks crawling at the bottom of my trousers, but soon I was on the "safety" of the tarmac. It was good to find wheelie bins in the car park, so that I could get rid of a week's worth of rubbish!
The next section was a long walk along minor roads to cross the river and railway and reach the busy A86. On the other side of the road a few hundred metres of cross-country would have lead to a high track running parallel to the A86. I knew this route would be tick infested though, so instead opted for a walk along the A86 road for a mile, past Tulloch station to reach a track that zigzagged up to the same place. This route was significantly longer, but I was glad to avoid the ticks!
When I reached the high track I turned right. The map indicated a path traversing to the main ascent route up Beinn Teallach. There was no evidence of this in reality, so I was forced to continue on the track into a forestry plantation. Ten minutes into the trees and the track deteriorated into a marshy firebreak. Eventually I reached a burn and rather than ford it and continue, I turned left to follow the burn upstream out of the woods to open ground. There was a beautiful red and gold plant here that looked to be carnivorous. Once home I identified it as the Round-leaved Sundew.
I was concerned that there would be many ticks in this area, but in reality only found one on my trousers. I crossed a high style over the deer fence at the edge of the woods, jumped across the burn and followed a stream to higher ground where I could relax and have lunch.
I continued up the stream and stopped to top up on water when it finally petered out. There were some beautiful wild orchids here on the banks of the stream. The final rise to Beinn Teallach was gentle and easy underfoot. At the summit I met a Scottish chap who'd driven up from southern Scotland for a day hike. He'd climbed the adjacent Munro Beinn a' Chaorainn already today. He said he'd completed the Munros and was on a second round, doing all the Corbetts at the same time. On the way down I visited smaller and definitely lower cairn, which apparently is often cited as the highest point.
High winds were forecast for this evening and tomorrow, so I found a sheltered spot among the peat hags at the bealach before Beinn a' Chaorainn. I did consider continuing over this Munro before stopping for the day, but all the road walking and route-finding had tired me out, plus I didn't expect to find any sheltered spots on the other side of Beinn a' Chaorainn. The camping spot I chose was actually really nice and I had a little stream and "beach" immediately outside my porch, although it was quite tricky getting in and out of the tent over the water!
Wednesday 17th June 2009
My original intention was to traverse the Creag Meagaidh (pronounced krayk megee) range all in one day, but I awoke to high winds and heavy rain. I really wanted to see Coire Ardair below Creag Meagaidh, since its cliffs are reputed to be spectacular and its lower reaches are lined with beautiful native birch trees. Given that there was no prospect of a view from above, I decided to leave Càrn Liath to the following day and instead drop down to camp in Coire Ardair this evening.
The day started with a long slog up Beinn a' Chaorainn, the hill of rowan. Until very recently the southern peak was taken to be the highest point, but the latest mapping has shown the middle top to be slightly higher. I visited the north top first, and did a "there and back again" to the central summit. The route then dropped down to Bealach a' Bharnish before climbing up onto the Meagaidh plateau. "Creag Meagaidh" apparently means "crag at the bog", proving that the names always sound better in Gaelic!
Many people have been lost on the high featureless plateau of Creag Meagaidh, which is comparable to the Cairngorms and Ben Alder for navigational difficulties in poor visibility. Half way across I found a line of old fence posts (marked as a fence on the map), which led me safely through the mist to the summit. About 100 yards north-east beyond the summit I came across the mysteriously named Mad Meg's Cairn (perhaps the name is a corruption of Meagaidh). The cairn has been described as "resembling an Inca sacrificial mound or some such monument" and is of obscure origin. It is a large pudding shaped mound of stones surrounded by a "moat", with a rock "drawbridge" leading to the centre, where there is a smaller cairn. The cairn's location and prominence have been known to cause problems when it is mistaken for the true summit.
In clear weather views from here stretch from Cairngorms, to Ben Nevis, Knoydart and Torridon. Today I could see not more than ten metres in any direction, it was still raining and the wind was blowing hard. I continued along the ridge and came to the Window. This is the only breach in the cliffs of Coire Ardair. The Window was used as an escape route by Bonnie Prince Charlie on his post-Culloden epic walk from Cameron country to the hospitality offered by his Jacobite compatriot Cluny MacPherson in Badenoch.
I left my pack by the Window and quickly nipped up to bag the summit of Stob Poite Coire Ardair, before retracing my steps. I had been high up in inhospitable weather for quite some time and I was glad to be descending from the Window into Coire Ardair. The descent was spectacular, but required great care amongst the slippery rocks.
Creag Meagaidh is one of the finest mountains in Scotland. What makes Creag Meagaidh so special is the one and a half miles of sheer cliffs surrounding Coire Ardair, in places plunging 450m to the corrie floor. This is one of the most impressive corries in Scotland, the cliffs being second only to Ben Nevis in scale and grandeur.
Coire Ardair is only breached by a long winding glen which approaches the cliffs, cumulating in the "Window", forming a pass across the ridge. Soon I could make out these famous cliffs, although the tops were still wrapped in cloud. There was an impressive amount of snow still lingering on the face.
Creag Meagaidh's interest to climbers in strictly a winter one. Then the cliffs of Coire Ardair boast some of the finest snow and ice climbs in the country. Standing in the central part of the Highlands, the cliffs hold a great deal of snow which lasts well into the summer.
Corrie Ardair is one of the most magnificent winter corries in Scotland both scenically and from a climbing perspective. This was the playground of the late great climber Tom Patey. The cliffs are only climbable in winter when plastered with snow and ice. In summer the horizontally stratified mica-schist is badly frost-shattered, rotten and vegetated.
Creag Meagaidh was declared as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1975. Nearly a decade later a private forestry company announced plans for mass afforestation of the lower slopes of the mountain, potentially endangering the beautiful native birch woodland in lower Coire Ardair. This prompted the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC, Scottish Natural Heritage's predecessor) to buy Creag Meagaidh estate and Aberarder Farm in 1986.
The National Nature Reserve of Creag Meagaidh was one of the first areas in the 1980s in which a major attempt was made to reduce the number of grazing deer and sheep. In 1986 the remnants of native woodland were very sparse and the NCC were keen to protect the woodland and its associated flora and fauna and committed itself to restoration.
Most of the Aberarder Farm buildings date from the nineteenth century, a time of intensive sheep grazing. This dwindled after 1918 and never recovered apart from a brief revival in the late 1940s. All surviving sheep were taken away after the National Nature Reserve was created.
Another policy was to substantially reduce the red deer population. The way deer are managed in this reserve, with heavy culling, is a fairly radical departure from traditional methods. Despite the drastic reduction, deer (very territorial creatures) from neighbouring estates have not moved into Creag Meagaidh. It has been shown that big culls can be achieved while still allowing access to walkers all year round.
The restoration has been outstandingly successful and also has shown that nature conservation can provide a worthwhile number of jobs. As a result of the culls and the subsequent management policies, many native tree and wild flower species that had been virtually wiped out in this area have begun to thrive again. With this enrichment of the habitat the range of insects, birds and other wildlife has grown substantially. In addition to the birches there are also plenty of rowan and willow, some alder and hazel and many smaller flowering plants.
I followed the well-constructed "tourist" path down from the Lochan a' Choire into lower Coire Ardair. I stopped to fill up my water bottles, and the water was full of grit washed out of the soil by the heavy rain. Soon I found a reasonable spot amongst the birches and hurriedly put up the tent to escape the rain. The ground was actually very uneven and the tent was quite saggy, causing a lot of condensation in the night. I saw many unusual insects outside the tent, including a small luminous green miniature grasshopper. Black slugs seemed to be the dominant species and I kept having to flick them off my tent.
Thursday 18th June 2009
In the morning it was still raining and very windy. Fortunately I only had one Munro to climb today and it was right at the start. I followed the "tourist" path a bit further down, then turned left up slopes of steep heather. I soon came across the main Càrn Liath ascent path and found the boulder-strewn summit to be clear of cloud.
The onward route followed a line of fence posts along a seldom frequented long ridge. There were excellent views down to Loch Laggan backed by the characteristic little hills Binnein Shuas and Binnein Shios. I was glad when a track appeared on the ridge, since I was wondering about the best route down, and the track led in the right direction.
By now the rain had developed into showers and I saw a small rainbow on the left of the ridge. The track was extremely waterlogged in its lower sections, but I soon reached the road. I found a rather fine antler specimen just before the road and attached it to my rucksack. The next stretch was along a road flanked by snow poles - the snow must be severe here in winter. I passed the farm at Garvamore and said hello to a horse in the opposite field. There were some deer grazing high up on a hillside. The last heavy shower of the day hit and I sheltered for a while under some Scots Pines near the farm.
The River Spey was in spate with churning white water and a loud roar. I crossed the river on the well-constructed Garva Bridge. This old bridge was built by General George Wade and it marks the start of the Corrieyairack Pass. In 1731 Wade started work on the link road from Dalwhinnie to Fort Augustus, taking advantage of the old drove road that made its way past Corrie Yairack and up over the shoulder of the prominent Corrieyairack Hill. Four working parties began construction of the road in April 1731 and by October of the same year most of the road was complete. The total cost was just under £3300.
In the eighteenth century the vast mountainous area north of Perth had few roads. With rebellious clans threatening the king, and the Jacobite uprising in 1715, the Government considered it imperative to build a network of roads linking key garrisons. In 1724 Irishman George Wade was appointed Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's Forces of Scotland, with responsibility for surveying and building a road network. Ironically one of the first to use the new road was Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army! When Thomas Telford began the first real civil road system in Scotland, he chose to ignore the high Corrieyairack, instead preferring the link road to the west from Laggan to Spean Bridge.
I crossed a prominent tributary on another bridge. The tributary was also in spate and was stained brown with peat. It looked like the river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I followed the banks of this burn for a few miles until I found a reasonable camping spot by the burn. The wind was still very strong and this dictated the direction to pitch the tent, with the more robust "head end" pointing into the wind. Now the rain had stopped and the wind helped dry out my soggy possessions. Unfortunately I had pitched the tent at 90 degrees to the slope and I kept rolling downhill in the night!
Friday 19th June 2009
I was now in the Monadhliadth or "grey mountains". These hills have a rather more remote feel than their illustrious neighbours. Interestingly the nearby Cairngorms were once known at the Monadhruadh or "red mountains" on account of the pink granite there. The path up the third and last Geal Chàrn of my trip followed the roaring burn up the mountain. At one point there was a view of an impressive rainbow. I came to a tributary, also in spate, but with sufficient stepping stones to hop across. I then lost the path amongst dense boggy heather, picking it up as I neared the top of Geal Chàrn, capped with a prominent cairn.
The next stretch was across a high, featureless, pathless, desolate and seldom-visited moorland. In the summer months the going is tough, having constantly to circumnavigate areas of boggy exposed peat. In winter this area comes into its own, and is a haven for cross-country skiers. In places there were wooden frames over the exposed peat, presumably part of some experiment. The single high-pitched call of the golden plover was relentless and after a while I found it to be quite annoying! I found another deer antler, this one quite small, and the tip had begun to rot, but I did decide to keep it.
I tried to count the minor bumps on the ridge to keep track of my position, but it proved impossible and I fell back on the GPS. The cloud was only just above the tops and I felt like a sandwich filling! Every so often there was a light shower. Despite being the middle of June, it was actually quite cold today and I had trouble keeping my hands warm.
Halfway to the next Munro, the third Càrn Dearg of this trip, I picked up a line of old fence posts that served as a good guide. Once again these are marked as a fence on the map. I contemplated climbing Càrn Dearg today, but that would have made the following day very short, so instead I left the fence posts and dropped down to a corrie just below its summit, and camped on a level grassy spot beside a burn. A bit later I saw another rainbow - this area is truly rainbow country!
Saturday 20th June 2009
My 800m camp was rather cold first thing in the morning, but at least it wasn't raining. The mist was dense outside, but by the time I reached the summit of Càrn Dearg at 8am it was beginning to clear. There were some fine views down to the glen on the far side of the hill. Càrn Dearg is on a side spur from the main ridge, I followed this spur back to the main ridge and rejoined the reliable line of fence posts to follow onwards. Initially it was quite rocky, but then it was pleasant and grassy. There were a few boggy bealachs to cross, but otherwise the going was good to Càrn Sgùlain, despite the irritating call of the golden plovers.
Càrn Sgùlain is separated from the next Munro by a steep incised valley. I disturbed a few grazing sheep on my way down and back up the other side. On the way up I spotted a male and female ptarmigan. There was a lovely Austrian couple on the summit of A' Chailleach, who gave me fruit tea, chocolate biscuits and an apple. They now lived in Milton Keynes and came to Scotland as a substitute for the Alps. They were involved in plastic bottle manufacturing.
A well-defined path ran down the ridge, but it was not on the map. Instead we followed the path marked on the map, and soon were struggling across boggy ground in a soggy corrie. We were compensated by spotting a group of mountain hares at very close quarters. The Austrian couple stayed with me until I reached the bothy where I planned to stay the night. I didn't expect it to be in good condition since one guidebook described it as the "remains of a tin bothy" and another as "a small stalkers hut".
In fact it was quite dry, with a wooden bench and table, but no door and a window covered by loose planks. There was a fair amount of rabbit (or hare?) droppings inside, but I used a plank to scrape most of this out. I had my plastic groundsheet to cover the floor anyway.
The bothy used to have a wood-burning stove, but all that remains is the chimney. The chimney was rocking in the wind and making a tapping noise, so I stabilised it with the help of a shoelace.
The walks of the bothy were covered in graffiti, some of the genuine entries dating back to the 1950s. The entry "Mallory and Irving July 1929" was obviously a fake though! The afternoon and evening were wonderfully clear and there were good views across to the Cairngorms and Rothiemurchus Forest. It was still quite windy and I managed to dry out most of my things by holding them in the wind.
A few more people dropped by to say hello on their way down the mountain. One interesting couple were from Romsey, just outside of Southampton. The last people I saw were a pair of blokes with heavily laden packs heading up the mountain. I asked them if they were stopping at the bothy, but they preferred to press on and find a wild camp site. It felt a bit strange sleeping somewhere without a door, but I soon dropped off.
Sunday 21st June 2009
My train was at 10:35 and it was over four miles to Newtonmore, so I made an early start. It was much quicker not having to pack up a tent. The first part of the descent was slow going over boggy ground with vague paths. I forded the burn, rather than continue down to the bridge and soon picked up a good track. Eventually this track reached the road, which I followed into Newtonmore. There were nice views of beautiful native birch woodland on the banks of the River Calder on the way.
Being Sunday I didn't expect there to be any shops open, so it was a pleasant surprise to find a Co-Op. I bought some apple juice, a salmon sandwich, a prawn noodle salad, a packet of crisps, chocolate chip cookies a fruit salad and a Sunday Telegraph. I arrived at the station just before 10am so didn't have long to wait. The two old station buildings are now residential houses, and instead there is a rather unattractive yellow shelter.
There was a hilarious posh couple waiting at the station. The English lady was loud and brash and the man was a sort of Scottish Hugh Grant and was very soft spoken, frequently stumbling over his words. The lady had consumed rather a lot of "champers" last night and was quizzing him on how she looked when she had to go to bed early and what the people at the party had talked about after she left - "was it the usual champers and chat?", she asked. She also wanted to know what he talked about when he went walking with one of his mates. She was chain smoking and the smoke was blowing right it my direction. Quite a shock after the peace of the Monadhliadth!
The train arrived on time, but was an hour late getting into London. I finally got back to Southampton around 10pm. It was nicer taking a morning train home, rather than waiting around for hours to catch a sleeper in the evening. Overall I found the trek to be very enjoyable with much variety and many interesting people. Most of the summits were clear of cloud, although I was unfortunate to have bad days on Ben Alder and Creag Meagaidh. It is always good to have reasons to come back again!