Not quite the disappointment I expected. Nov 2018
My head torch created a circle of detail in the otherwise dark environment, I kept it moving to sweep the track in front of me, up and down, up and down, spotting rocks or a big puddle a couple of metres ahead of me gave me time to make a correction to my trajectory. The track was steadily rising so I was not travelling that fast but I was peddling hard and enjoying the exhilaration of cycling a rough track in the dark. I was heading up the private track towards the heights of Kinlochewe to access two of the Fisherfield hills that were amongst the few (eight) munros I had left to do.
I reached the fork where my chosen track turned off up Gleann na Muice, I ground to a halt as the track steepened significantly, dismounted and started to push. I could now switch off the head torch, the sky was turning all sorts of colour in the Southeast with the approaching dawn. Startled Red deer bolted, stopped and looked over their shoulders at the sight, accepted it for a human and took off again. I was back in the saddle and grinding upwards in the granny gear, sweating and breathing heavily, again the track steepened and I pushed the last kilometre and hundred or so metres of ascent, My rubber tyred steed stashed in the heather I set off along the stalkers path towards Lochan Fada. Quickly I realised I had missed a real opportunity, the path I assumed would be a rough stalkers one, boggy and difficult, it was actually a recently well constructed one for clients to be ferried in towards the hunting grounds, I contemplated turning round and getting the bike again but decided to settle for shanks pony, the further I went the more I regretted it, this path would have been superb to cycle. Hey Ho, I was where I was.
L to Right, A’Maighdean, Beinn Tarsuinn, Meall Garbh, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and the small ridge of Sgurr Dubh lit by the morning sun.
The sun by this time was peeking over the horizon spewing weak wintery light which was starting to illuminate the peaks around me with a soft red glow, Slioch to the south west was a big lonely mountain, rising above Lochan Fada, proud in its isolation, an iconic image of Scotland. To the north however was the bottom of the Fisherfield wilderness and the two most southerly munros in the horseshoe chain of hills above the magical 3000ft mark.
This is where I come to explain my lack of enthusiasm in getting to these hills, why they were amongst the last ones I had to do, although they are some of the most remote munroes in Scotland and a bit of a journey. My ageing munros book had described these hills as “failing to inspire enthusiasm”, “scenery is less majestic than their neighbours”, “tedious walking with a long way to go to access them over difficult trackless and boggy ground”, they had not been sold to me. However, here I was walking in on a fantastic early winters morning with a cerulean blue sky above and just a light wind which was ruffling the surface of the loch.
My book gave the probable line of ascent which meant going up at least one and coming back the same way which to me is always the least favourable option, I much prefer a circular journey which covers the same ground as little as possible, so with this in mind I had decided to go over a lovely looking little ridge, or at least it looked good from my map and google earth investigations and access the first peak Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair ( MCMF ) via Sgurr Dubh, this seemed like the obvious way to do it so I could not understand why the book or the map for that matter did not show any paths on this approach. I set off from the track with a slight degree of trepidation, was it because this ridge had a difficult bad step or required an abseil that it was not used or recommended, well time would tell I guess and i might be forced to backtrack or find an alternative route.
An Teallach to the north from Sgurr Dubh
The ground I was walking on was indeed track free but it was neither boggy or exceptionally rough, I could see the line that would give me access to the ridge and although steep in a few places looked fine from below. I was in my element, a golden eagle circled above me, the light wind kept me cool and had the place to myself. I was on the top of Sgurr Dubh shortly after leaving the bottom corner of Lochan Fada. Looking along the ridge I could see no sign of any path, no sign of any other human having been this way, it looked rough and rocky with perhaps a bit of a precipitous drop after one of the pinnacles, hmmm, maybe this was not the way to go but there was no point in turning around without having a go. I scrambled up and down a few false summits to get to the top, I looked down the other side, no way down without a rope that was for sure, I backtracked and dropped down the west side to some rocky ledges that looked as if they would give a route around the drop, a bit of hands on scrambling, don’t fall off moments and I was round and onto the ridge that gave access to the summit of MCMF. I sat down on the ridge and took a few moments to soak in my surrounding. An Teallach sat on the horizon to the north its pinnacles and peaks slicing across the view, below me five hinds with a twelve pointer stag ran around the side of the choire in one of those nature program moments, the eagle had been joined with his/her partner and both were scribing lazy circles over the ground between me and Slioch to the south, glorious and made even better by taking my own route not one proscribed by some book.
I made the top of the hill and immediately set off down towards the col in which Meall Garbh sat as a bastion between the two peaks. The day was long enough so I decided to traverse below the top and save my energies for the next summit and the long walk out.
The view between Being Tarsuinn and MCMF towards An Teallach
At the lowest point in the traverse I stopped to take on board some calories, the view north was outstanding, my two hills of the day guided the eye up the heart of the Fisherfield wilderness towards Loch na Sealga and the An Teallach massive, some of the UK’s greatest bit of lasting remote and isolated country, not only on account of its inaccessibility but also due to its rough nature and usual weather, but not today, today the mountain spirits were on my side, they were indeed smiling upon me. The ascent to Beinn Tarsuinn was easy, I was romping, the view from the top absolutely outstanding, how could the view from this hill be described as “less majestic than its neighbours” It was the same view as only 3K separated it from its neighbour A’Maighdean.
A good path took me back down the SE Ridge towards Lochan Fada and the point at which I had left the stalkers path, the stags bellowed in the choire above me like hinges on some vast wooden door, their challenges not aimed at me thankfully, the eagles were still circling in the sky, they had been my only constant companions for the day.
The person that wrote the section of the book I had must have had a bad day on these hills because I would rate the whole day as one of the best journeys I have undertaken in my completion of the munros, I cannot understand why there was no-one else out that day, OK its a big undertaking but the weather, the situation everything was perfect, but hey, I am not complaining, my misanthropic nature revelled in the loneliness.
I made the bike as the sun was going down, I hurtled down the rough track, 7K and 300m of descent in under 20mins of absolute adrenaline filled pleasure. I slid into the car park where my van was and almost bumped into an old friend who knew I was going to be in the area, there was a good crack to be had in the local pub that evening as well then.
A most excellent way to finish and most excellent day on the hill.
Endings and Beginnings, March 2018.
The sign at the start of Glendessary
The wind roared in the trees drowning out any noise of traffic on the nearby road, airborne crows tumbled and wheeled as they struggled to maintain any kind of direction as they sought shelter in the leafless trees, the rain coursed across the field in sheets bringing a softer focus to the grey landscape.
It hit my face and ran down inside my waterproof making me shiver, my gloved hand held onto a strap with a grim determination, my booted feet shuffled to maintain balance against the weight I was holding, across from me my nephew held the opposite end of the strap, between us my mothers, his granmothers, wicker coffin was held above a gaping hole in the ground awaiting the final words of the vicar.
My two sons stood at the head of the coffin in a similar position, a sombre day in fitting weather for a meadow burial.
The words spoken, the coffin lowered, we all took turns at placing some Fife earth in the grave, dirt from Betty’s home county and country, a reminder of her roots as we laid her to rest in a field a long way from her home.
She would have liked this, a simple ceremony in an unmarked grave in a natural field, never a woman for ostentatious displays, surrounded in the end by nature and natural flowers we have yet to plant.
This event still dominates a great deal of my thoughts and emotions some eight weeks later, it creeps up on me and takes me unawares, her corporeal presence gone but the memories of her as a mother all the more vivid for it.
I looked up at the stars still in the sky above and thought of her as I made my way into Glendessary from the end of the Loch Arkaig road, a 21 mile long single track that started at the Commando Memorial above Spean Bridge. My first solo trip of the year, time at last to find space in my head to reflect on many things. My thoughts leapt from my loss and went back to the last time I had walked this track some ten years previously, again I was on my own, a beautiful cold March morning, the river that hand railed the road towards the lodge was frozen then, the ice sparkling in the morning sun. No change in that respect, the ice lined the side of the sluggish water, the boulders wore a hat of snow covered ice, this time however the sky was grey, the landscape muted, sounds muffled, it was no warmer, the grass was frost covered and sparkled as a rent in the clouds let in some early morning sun, I smelt the herd of deer before I saw them, they scattered in a leisurely fashion as I breached their zone of comfort. I reached Glendessary lodge and struck out north to climb into the the wide col between Fraoch Bheinn and Druim a’ Chuirn. Snowflakes started to fall leisurely around me, drifting down in a gentle and unhurried fashion.
Suddenly I had other things to think about, my thoughts turned to the task I had set my sights on and my own personal safety, the sky was heavy and glowering but the forecast I had checked yesterday had been generally OK, there were however Red and Amber warnings of snow forecast for eastern Scotland, squalls being forced in by a Siberian front dubbed ” The Beast from the East”. Driving in to the road end the night before to ensure an early start I had been unable to get an updated forecast, my current position being in one of the more remote areas of Scotland, a place where mobile phone signal is non existent never mind 3G network coverage.
Looking towards the rough bounds from the summit of Sgurr Beag
Once on the coll the wind picked up driving the snow into my face, the wind was bitter and I lost all feeling in my nose and cheek. I knew that in order to get to Sgurr Mor I had to cross the coll and drop down into Glen Kingie before actually starting the climb, I erred upwards on the LHS side of the broad coll towards the Druim a Chuirn, the ground steepened and became hard frozen snow. I ventured into a steep slope and reversed it quickly to put my crampons on, continuing on spiked and firm feet.
It was a mistake to venture so high, I only had to drop further to pick up the path on the other side off the glen, thats what you get for trying to take short cuts. Once over the frozen river I took a direct line up a grade one gulley to gain the ridge below Sgurr Beag, the snow had stopped now and the sun was out beating down on my back. The gulley steepened and I sweated my way in a zig zag route taking as much of the sting out of the slope as I could. I reached the top of the ridge and was rewarded by clearing views into the rough bounds of Knoydart and a stinging Siberian wind coming straight out of the North East. The sweat on my face froze, my beard was covered in ice inside a minute, I donned every layer I had in my rucksack turned face into the wind and bent to the task of crossing Sgurr Beag and thence to the final 250m of climbing.
Looking back towards Sgurr Beag sheltering from the beast in my lofty lunch spot
Spindrift swirled around me, stung my face and found every crack or small gap in my clothing, it got into the sandwiches I was trying to eat and digest cowered in a small reentrant seeking some shelter from the wind just below the summit. I gazed out at the view into the rough bounds, one of the best views in Scotland I think, real isolation, far from any road that does not terminate in a car park in the wilderness. I gloried in it as I chucked the bag back on my back slipped the leash of my axe over my gloved hand and made my way up the rather alarmingly steep and brick hard neve to the summit, amazingly the summit was dead calm, I gloried in it for about two minutes till a bank of cloud engulfed me in an eerie silence and virtual whiteout. Compass directed I made my way East and back down via speedy snow slopes to the floor of the seemingly warm Glen Kingie and thereby back over the col to the van.
Looking down Glen Kingie
Once again I felt alive, freed for a while from my reflective state, cutting edge things to focus on and free my mind from introspection, a day on the hill in whats left of our wilderness areas is a remedy for most things mental, it just takes a bit of effort to get up and do sometimes.
However that was the start of my 2018 wanderings, I am now left with only 10 munro’s to do till I have done my round, its the final countdown, but to what ?
20K, 1000M of ascent