Sunday, 11 August 2013

Day 98 - Ben Hope: Journey's end

7 August

My apologies for holding back on this one.

I've been thinking about this day for a long, long time. As you can imagine, it sometimes seemed unbelievably out of reach, the idea of Ben Hope a distant dream. In the last few weeks of the Munro Round, I suddenly realised it was close and I was going to make it. In the last few days, it was of course, just around the corner. Talk about stuff creeping up...

The hills were desolate the morning of Ben Hope, the air drizzly, still, midgy. It was surreal to arrive at the bottom of Ben Hope and find the car park rammed with cars - whoa. It turned out that a fair few folk had turned out despite the fact my chosen last Munro was right at the top of Scotland! Everyone who came, expected and unexpected; I appreciate it much.

It was a sizable crowd who started off up Ben Hope. Rain at first; the midges were everywhere; but it eased and the skies lightened. Exactly what I wanted for my final Munro. We got up the first steep bit, and on the long gradual climb to the top.

Ben Hope was to be one of the easier Munros of my trip and this seemed fitting for my last one. As much as anything it was Munro everyone could do.The experience was a little surreal: I was well aware that I'd thought about this day pretty much every day for the last two years. Now that I was here, that huge passage of time didn't register in my head beyond rational understanding.

Even in the last days of the Round, I didn't have a sense of the aftermath, it just felt like I'd keep walking and walking. I didn't have a sense of disappointment that the end had come, I only felt that things had run their course, the goal had been achieved and it would be good to focus on something else for a while.

The mist came down and a bit of rain started, but it was all harmless stuff. There almost wasn't a breath of wind. Then, the trig point came into view not far ahead; 100m or so. I stood and waited as folk gathered at the top, waiting for those who were behind. I wouldn't want them to miss the moment, having come so far. When everyone was up, I walked over, then jogged up to the trig and gave it a very satisfying smack on top.

282 Munros in 98 days - finally done.
Top of Ben Hope. Me with the silly hat! (See blog post #1)

Champagne was opened, the mountaineering club guys presented me with freshly cooked margherita - how did they know I like pizza? ;-) Photos were taken, "like a wedding". Its not every day you stand on top of your last Munro of a summer Round.

So the time came to head off, I bounded off down my last hill, wondering where things will go next for me, thinking about how this really is the end of my trip. Then what...? It's a question I'm still mulling over several days later.

We all got back to Altnaharra - I stopped by the B&B then headed off to the Inn to see everyone. Thanks everyone who came up. It was great to see so many folk at the very north of Scotland for a summit which means so much to me.

In the beginning, this trip was naturally a gamble: I had no experience of something this big. I knew I wanted to do it, but didn't know if I really wanted the baggage that went along with that. With everything now complete, I can honestly say I've enjoyed it enough to think about doing something in a similar vein in the future. That isn't just in retrospect, I've had it in my head for a while. This trip was a taste of the long haul, the big push, and I enjoyed it a lot. Without a doubt it was seriously challenging, but I learned to deal with pressing issues, gained control over stray emotion through self-awareness and positive introspection. I greatly enjoyed the focus, which I now realise made mountain climbing easier than it'd otherwise be by taking away the temptation to take the easier option (thus fail). My estimations would say it was a 10% physical, 90% mental challenge by the end.

Naturally, I'm left thinking; "where next?". I've learnt so much about myself that I can place myself doing things that weren't on the radar before; but I couldn't say too much about that now. I have thoughts!

In the next post; some thanks (probably quite a lot), some meaty stats no doubt, and more Munros...

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Day 97 - Ben Klibreck

6 August

My day began in Lochinver, and I took my time about getting up and getting ready. I felt the pressure was off: it wasn't an intense day, I'd simply head up the hill when it suited me. So I had an easy breakfast, drank cups of tea, set about some necessary business at the harbour, got stuff from the shop, etc. My body took a long time to really wake up, and it really was sore now. I'd given it a good beating in Monar!

Ben Klibreck is one of a few Munros in the real far north of Scotland. It's all the way up beside Ben Hope, and it was the second-last Munro I hadn't yet done. On the road north of Lairg, the weirdest thing happened... I passed a cyclist and as I drove past, it completely unexpectedly turned out to be Dougie. He'd managed a few days of work! Mental. We threw the bike in the back of the car and headed off to meet Liam and Neil just north of the Crask Inn. The four of us set off for this, my penultimate Munro.

Klibreck's actually a better hill than I remember. When I last did it, nearly four years ago to the day, we went up the huge heathery slope to the west of the summit. This time we followed the actual path, which gives a really nice ascent and aspect on the whole mountain. Being here was like having walked straight into a Lewis-landscape, with mile upon mile of bog and subtle hills rising from moorland like the swell.

The day was still and calm, and we climbed the mountain at a gentle pace, which was really what I needed after the hard days of the previous week. Ben Hope was clear, and right in view. 280 Munros lay behind me. I thought about that a hell of a lot, but it's actually hard to comprehend.

The other nice thing was to see the Orkney Isles appearing out of the haze. It's a place I haven't seen in a while, I should get back one day. We all stood around on top getting cold and getting footage, then headed back the way we came. I took a moment on the top to think about the significance of where I was. Not a lot came. I might take a while to grasp it!

Before the whole mental adventure started back in April, I'd get random butterflies in my stomach at what I was about to do. Now I seem to get giggly at random points when it hits me in wee bursts what I've just done. It's hard not to get excited. The greatest happiness has been to channel so much effort into something that I've always loved so much.

A wee part of me is sad that it'll be over. I had one moment a couple of days ago where I felt I'd be losing so much. In reality, I have a lot of good stuff to go home to. I've gained so, so much from my summer out on the mountains. I've enjoyed it immensely, even when it had moments of stress and difficulty that were hard to swallow.

When I began, I set out with a plan to do them all completely continuously. That plan evolved over weeks, then months, into a nearly-continuous crazy car-based Munro round. It's surprising that a few folk get their pants in a twist about this point, but I'm actually quite easy concerning it. (Ah, but was it 'continuous'?) The trip evolved as I discovered my own core motivations were different to what I'd expected, regarding the continuous travel.

I've stayed in so many bothies, camped out above 3000 feet, crashed in houses, hostels, in the car (always a bad move). I went to a gig during it and even found myself at a couple of parties. With a car, I probably removed some of the stress and a lot of the isolation, which was probably in no small thanks to Facebook.

My mobility during the round allowed me to play a good tactical game: I could swap days out, move things around and give myself the best shot at any range I went to. I always maintained that I wanted to keep the spirit of the journey by moving around Scotland in the same order as I would have in the original schedule. I maintained this to the end, and I've always enjoyed that sense of journey. It was always a very important element. Maybe some day in years to come I'll go back and do that self-propelled thing... I've enjoyed this one enough! But I'm saying nothing right now. ;-)

The mountains have been (nearly!) always inspiring and I see them so differently now. They're all unified into one great mass in a way I could never see through weekend trips. I've given them all their own due time, seen each and every one. I can't say there's a bad one among them. This is what I wanted to get out of the whole thing. I just love climbing the mountains, whatever way: I don't think I could walk (approx!) 2000km on the flat - it's got to be the mountains. I think I've wanted to do this kind of thing for many, many years, and tomorrow Ben Hope awaits to finish it off. There may be no surprise to discover that tomorrow feels like much more than the conclusion to 100 days; more like six years. It's a fitting end. Ben Hope gazes out over the north coast, the mountain at the end of the mountains. It's the last gasp to end the endless waves of peaks that came before it. I've tread every single last one... above 3000 feet.

I'm in Altnaharra at the moment, up a bit too late for my own good. It's been amazing to see all the folk who have come up this evening to share this with me. It's very heart-warming; I couldn't have picked a further-away Munro! I'm looking forward to a good day tomorrow up and down Ben Hope. Then it'll all be behind me. A bit freaky to think from 12 hours from now I'll be done, time to party.

(note for future: finished Klibreck 8:05pm)

Day 96 - Monar 5

5 August

The day that broke the Munro Round's back.

The Monar bunch were the last big day I'd still had to do, and somehow through circumstance I'd missed them out all the way to the end. They seem to have this effect: I know several people who all didn't do these until the very end of their Munro round because Monar had just slipped unnoticed under the radar.

Well, they are really awkward of access. I don't think any other mountains are quite as awkward as this bunch and mention should be made of the two at the very back, Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor, which are nothing short of bloody hard work. Get out to those ones and back in a day, and you're doing well.

I woke up at Glenuaig Lodge, and looked out a bright sunny morning. I opened the door and soon retreated inside; the midges were absolutely horrendous, and they'd all piled around the door no doubt following my escaping carbon dioxide.

I knew I had a big day; 32km it turned out to be, but when I woke up, I knew it would be a slow one today. The legs were sore, the feet were sore, everything was all over the place, and now I had six mountains to do. Well, this was the last push, so go for it. Don't look back. It wouldn't be ideal, but at least I knew I could mess myself up if needed be, because there would be two easy hills in two days to the end. Just get these done!

So I headed up Maoile Lunndaidh, a big flat hill in the back end of nowhere, a secretive hill, seldom-seen form any road. I really like it. I like the area it occupies and the stark loneliness of the area. It was a long haul and I felt pretty rotten, so I kept munching on the bananas; the cairn arrived in good time, even though it had felt like a hard push.

I was knackered, but when I guess I was also pretty bloody fit.

Sgurr a' Chaorachain was next, and the drop toward it felt enormous - down for miles and back up the long grassy slopes to the top. Nonetheless, it's another mountain I'm really fond of; the centrepiece is the fang of Bidean an Eoin Dheirg; a shapely rocky prominence in summer, and absolutely spectacular in winter.

My first trip into this area was with Struan last November. It was most often wet, cold, dark or snowing. The place had this immense vibe of complete desolation. It was powerful, but harsh. It was nice to see the hills again, but in less threatening clothing.

Over Sgurr Choinnich (#3), then I dropped my sleeping kit at the triple bealach. Here I met Fi for a quick chat. The last two Munros of the day were Bidein a' Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor, those two really inaccessible ones all the way out in the middle of nowhereness. It would be a push to do them, but there was no doubt about it now. My body seemed to have pulled itself into action and now I'd do these hills whatever the cost.

The only thing is, you have to go over an essentially non-optional Corbett (mountain 2500-3000 feet) called Beinn Tharsuinn. But I took this as a nice tick, before getting onto the meat; Bidein. It was good to push hard, get these hills done, over to Lurg Mhor at a pace. I was on top of that one just before 4pm. Just two Munros left and I'll have completed the lot.

The walk out was hard work. To get out from Lurg Mhor, you first have to descend the north slopes of the mountain, down to about 1300 feet. Then you've got to climb back up a trackless glen to the triple bealach at over 2000 feet. I met a guy called Paul up in Monar on a Munros/camping trip. We talked Munros for a bit then I got on my way. Wasted would describe my physical state - I'd never let myself get that bad this summer, but what the heck: this was worth it, and there was only two Munros left. I picked up my camping gear and headed down for the two hour walk-out to the road.

Some hills. Hard work. Despite Slioch being my last Munro of my normal Munros outwith the summer Round, I always felt the gentle pressure of Monar bearing down. Now I'd effectively cleared out Monar, I could relax for the first time in ages. For around 100 days, or more, there's been the upcoming effort to concern myself with. With Monar done, it's all behind me. Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope will be absolutely fine; they're not hard hills. And here for the first time, I'm without pressure. The end is in sight.

I headed back to Lochinver where my parents were staying. The drive was nice, I was cruising it, and arrived just in time to get a curry in before bed. A big day done, it's all cruising form here to the end.

Day 95 - Ben More Assynt + Convial

4 August

The end is definitely in sight. I had breakfast with mum and dad in Lochinver then headed off to Inchnadamph, where there are two Munros; Ben More Assynt and Conival.

The weather was good and I headed off from Inchnadamph alone. It was windy though, which took the edge off the sun. These two feel like a long way in, easven though they really aren't. It's good to feel so near to the end of the Munro Round, yet I carried a discontent feeling all the way across these mountains. When I got down, I'd have to drive two hours to Achnashellach, then walk two hours into Monar. That put a time pressure on my day, thus I was walking, knowing there was still work to be done in the evening. I've felt exactly the same in the past.

After a long walk in, I was glad to get high on Conival, where the wind blew with ferocity and the views were huge over the northern peat moors. Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope were both clearly in sight; right there on the horizon. Sure, I have to go back to Monar and pick up 5 Munros there, but the end really is right there.

Waves of mountain ranges have now receded to the southern horizon, and now I'm standing at the north of Scotland, looking right onto Ben Hope. Wow.

I did the ridge from Conival to Ben More Assynt in brutal winds. It wasn't the most ideal place: the rock is broken into angular blocks that are hard on the feet, and you need to keep good footing. Occasionally gusts pushed me over, sent me onto scree and I'd fall over onto the ground to wait out the gust. All in all, it was quite fun. I've always liked fighting high winds.

Contrary to expectation, the summit of Ben More Assynt was pretty calm. There were some folk about doing the same walk, and I sat on top thinking '7 to go'. Three months ago that thought was a distant dream!

I followed the ridge back to Convial in high winds, then contoured underneath, balancing over boulderfields, where blocks shifted and collapsed under my feet. I'd been here before and this really is one of the more dangerous boulderfields around; it must be the way the rock weathers.

A sunny walk back down the glen brought me to Inchnadamph, where I met mum and dad, to collect the audio recorder which I wanted for my trip into Monar. In the fuss of sorting stuff out, I forgot the audio recorder, and rushed back to mum and dad, who were at Ardvreck Castle.

And so I drove south to Achnashellach, under the most amazing sunset. Sgurr an Fhidhleir was absolutely jaw-dropping. Near Lochluichart, Dink phoned from America, so although I was best  to get going, I sat and had rock climbing chat for 20 minutes. Monar could wait...!

Anyway, I got to Achnashellach, packed a bag and headed off, up the track from Craig, into the gloom of tomorrows mountains. The walk took 1 hour 45 to Glenuaig Lodge where there was a place to sleep. I forced a banana down and got to sleep in the creaky bunkbed, anticipating my last big day of the Munro Round: the five Munros of Monar.

Day 94 - Slioch

3 August

I'd left Slioch for my last Munro of my normal Munro round, and this was finally the day. (I should point out this wasn't the last Munro of my continuous Round, on which there are now 9 left. I've climbed those 9 in the past, thus Slioch became the last one I'd never done.)

The previous day, I made a big push on the Ullapool hills to get those Munros done. Seana Bhraigh was the remote outlier of that group, and there was a hint of relief to have those Munros done so efficiently. I had company coming up for Slioch: Dougie and Craig from the mountaineering club were up, and Pete Swales also joined.

Despite having all my plans in place, the weather didn't play ball and conditions could have been better. As I drove down to Garve from Ullapool, the rain was heavy and horizontal, blasting by with frightening ferocity. I began to feel I'd be glad to just get to the summit of this mountain!

Anyway, I was a bit late to Kinlochewe, so I got my stuff prepared and assumed the guys had gone on ahead of me. So I began walking down the path to Slioch in the wind and (occasional) rain, assuming that the others had gone on ahead. I had strangely never imagined I'd be setting out for my last Munro alone.

After an hour walking in, I caught them up and we all continued together. I met another guy who was up with his dog, climbing Slioch: thanks very much for the donation to my charity! (I've got a JustGiving for anyone so inclined:

Slioch was a windy hill, but not as bad as it might have appeared from the road. It was definitely a surreal experience, climbing my last Munro. It was something I've wanted to do for years and years. But with the final mountains of the continuous Round looming, I was caught between feeling a sense of completion and a sense that work still needed to be done.

A steady plod up the track brought us to the summit area, we passed the trig point and continued to the cairn. My final Munro. The guys congratulated me and pulled out the bubbly. I made a hash of opening it. Amazing. Hard to believe it was my last Munro.

A sense of satisfaction accompanied me down the mountain, a sense that some challenges I'd set were coming to a close. No doubt I'll go and do them all again, in time. We got back to the car park and went for a quick drink. Craig and Dougie went home, Pete stayed in Kinlochewe. Guys, thanks for coming up to share my last Munro.

My original plan had been to walk into Monar the same night, but we were to have one more day of low pressure bringing high winds. Monar would be possible but difficult in those conditions, so I swapped things around a bit. I'd drive to Lochinver, stay with my parents, do Ben More Assynt the next day (and easier day), then do Monar the day aftr when things had calmed down a bit with the weather.

I got to Lochinver and met mum and dad at the Caberfeidh. They bought me a drink, I was pissed and giggly in no time. I was pretty damn over the moon. Just a few more days and I'd have done the Munros non-stop, too.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Day 93 - Ullapool Hills

2 August

The tension has dissipated, some extent, and I feel much more relaxed. After all the ups and downs, I had a great day on these mountains.

Yesterday I turned back from them because the weather wasn't looking too good. I was disappointed that I'd effectively wasted a day, but I knew nothing could be done about it. I really should have kept Fionn Bheinn for a day like yesterday. But nevermind, I shot myself in the foot on that one, and now I'm paying the price.

Dad took me up to Loch Glascarnoch, and took some great film of me doing the river crossing. The skies were grey and the wind whipped through the grasses. Almost as soon as I'd started, a chink of blue appeared from behind the colourless cloud. Carried on a brisk wind, the blue patch opened up, until the entire area was bathed among sunshine and warmth.

Walking conditions were almost perfect. The sun was out, the wind blew strong enough to keep cool. Am Faochagach was a great hill, just romping up moorland to it's bulky rounded summit. It doesn't get great press, but the bogs were almost totally dried up. My coming hills were in view, the first time I'd ever really seen this range.

Over the top of Am Faochagach, I headed onward to Cona Mheall, a rocky peak that looks immensely impressive from the road, a winding rocky spine leads to the top of it's summit. But first the outflow of Loch Prille had to be crossed, which wasn't a problem in itself. But the outflow immediately plunged over a waterfall, and the wild winds of the day were sending all that water straight back over the top in great plumes of spray, 10 metres in height, rainbows dancing and shimmering.

By the time I'd crossed, I was completely soaked.

I sat and had my first break here, watching the spray firing into the sky. Cona Mheall was a long rocky plod, and I followed slanting rock shelves up to the summit. It got worryingly steep just below the summit, but all was fine.

The central hub of these mountains are amazing: lots of exposed rock, big cliffs, weird landforms. I met Matt & co. on the summit of Cona Mheall and enjoyed having a chat.

Beinn Dearg, Meall nan Ceapraichean and Eidih nan Clach Geala (3 Munros) were all in this wee central area, and I climbed them all really fast, usually little more than half an hour between each. All day, the views were amazing, the hills that had once been in the far north were now in the far south, and I was looking north to the mountains of the end, an area once so far away I might as well have not given it any thought at all.

It was all here in front now, Ben More Assynt, Ben Klibreck and up in a tangle of hils in the very north; Ben Hope. The end! Sure I have to go back to Monar and get five there, but the end is very much here now.

Seana Bhraigh was the last Munro of my day, and it's a long, long way out. Today it was so much easier to process what was going on with the terrain: it makes such a difference to see where you're going instead of following compass bearings all day. I was glad I hadn't bothered with these mountains in the bad weather yesterday. This was amazing.

I spent about 40-50 minutes walking to the base of Seana Bhraigh. It's really in the middle of nowhere, but you're just surrounded by mountains. I had a strange sensation here; a buzz of being out in the middle of nowhere, with just the colour of the land and sky and the whistle of the wind to accompany me. I vividly remember feeling this on the Campsies six years ago; the colour and light.

Seana Bhraigh opened out as I climbed to it's summit, then the huge Luchd Choire (and Coire Mor) came into view. The coire drops off straight after the summit in crazy steepness. I sat in the cairn, glad to have made it this far. I wouldn't have to come back, though I was very grateful to be here.

I spent a while at the summit, then headed the long way back to the road. It really is a long way back, but even after all these kilometres (the whole day came to 36km), I didn't feel tired. Sore; yes. But fitness is amazing and I found myself able to cope with an intense 10 hours of hard work and still feel absolutely fine. As with many hills in recent days, mum and dad joined me for the last bit to the car. For the first time all way, cloud came over and rain fell. But it didn't matter; that elusive Munro Seana Bhraigh had ben knocked off and I was very glad to see it in all it's immensity in the sun.

What a day. A genuinely fantastic day and one of the highlights of the summer.

Later on, Dougie and Craig arrived at Leckmelm to stay with us. They were up for my last Munro, Slioch, (of the normal Round, not continuous) which would come the following day.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Day 92 - Ullapool Hills... or not

1 August

The first day of my last month, and I've had a strange day. I intended to wake up very early, and head off up the six Munros by Loch Broom. A front was forecast to arrive around lunchtime, so if I could get these hills done cleanly and early, then I'd have taken an enormous chunk out of the remaining Munros.

It didn't quite happen like that. I got up around 5am, naturally, having slept in three hours beyond my alarm time. I got up, got breakfast, then looked out the window. It was pishing down with rain: not the bright, breezy morning I'd expected. After a bleary-eyed cup of tea, my body definitely said get back to bed. So I did.

I got up again at a more conventional time. The rain from the early morning had stopped, and I made sure I was well ready to go.

Then as I was about to leave, there seemed to be rain moving in from the south, heavy and persistent. I decided to go anyway, and dad dropped me at Inverlael car park mid-morning.

I set off for Seana Bhraigh, and headed through the forestry tracks and up onto the stalkers track. I barely stopped. I was so focused I didn't pause for anything but the essentials. The wind was blowing mist across the moors, and I began to feel as if there was something wrong. Something wasn't quite right.

After two hours on the go, I was disappointed to see I was only half way to Seana Bhraigh - sure a remote Munro if there ever was one. I'd phoned dad earlier, who'd said a band of heavy rain was advancing north through Glen Shiel. I knew that I could physically do these hills, even if the legs were burning a little; the tendons tender.

But I just wasn't feeling right, and instead of having a solid plan in my head of what was to come, I was staring onto a blank canvas. I didn't know what was coming up. I'd never been here before and Seana Bhraigh seems a tough one for navigation.

I sat on the moor for a while for a think. It soon turned to 10 minutes, then 15, unsure what to do. I was trying to listen to my gut, since it always knows best. I was sitting on the fence, and felt no compulsion to keep going higher. Like shooting for a target I couldn't see. Moreover, it would take a couple hours yet to get to Seana Bhraigh and by the sounds of it, this rain was the real deal. I've always had problems keeping warm in bad weather and I didn't like to think I'd be stuck out on Seana Bhraigh when the shit hit the fan. The winds were as persistent as they had been for a while, I just didn't have a good feeling about this.

Maybe if it had been any other hills, I would have gone on, but these hills were unknowns. I didn't know what to expect and today just wasn't the day to find out. Even with Seana Braigh completed, there would be so far to go. Not to mention a river crossing right at the end of the 35km day, right beside the road, at the very moment it will have been raining all day.

It was too much. It didn't feel right, even though I felt okay now and was only pre-empting something that may happen. I phoned dad to say I was coming down, and headed back the way I came.

A content decision turned to a burning annoyance. Soon it turned to a brief flash of anger. Then Liam phoned, which was refreshing. It sure brightened my mood.

Back at the Inverlael car park, I took time to talk it over with mum and dad, then felt much better. I hadn't quite worked out what I'd do yet.

I took time to relax in Ullapool, went for a meal. A plan formed. I'd go the Ullapool hills tomorrow, so they didn't come a lasting mental block, then I'd go for Slioch (my final Munro of my 1st Munro round!) and subsequently Monar and the Far North. All crammed into six days. It'll be mental but I'm giving it my best shot.

Anyway, got to get to bed - it's just passed midnight. Oops. Anyway the Ullapool 6 tomorrow. Fingers crossed!

Day 91 - Eastern Fannaichs

31 July

Originally, I was going to climb the 6 Munros of the Ullapool Hills, but I was slow to get going in the morning. After many cups of tea, I decided I better do something shorter for the day, rather than the huge day on Ullapool. I really should have gone for the Ullapool Munros, but I went for the eastern Fannaichs instead, Munros with easy ridges that link them. It shouldn't be too difficult.

Dad dropped me at the Loch Droma dam, and I headed up towards the hills. Like yesterday, I was on mountains I'd never done before. It makes such a difference when you haven't done them before. It's actually really nice to go somewhere new; refreshing. Repeat visits to old hills creates a comfortable familiarity, but 'shock of the new' is also good.

I also put some music on for the first time in a while. That was really refreshing, and gave me something to focus on and enjoy. Some folk seem not to like music in the hills, probably preferring to soak up the silence, but try going without for three months. :-)

Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich was my first Munro, another Fannaich lump. I had some views, and got a bit of perspective on the area.

High ridges link the Munros to one another, and I continued to Sgurr Mor, the highest of the Fannaichs. Some cloud moved in, the views disappeared, and I sat by the summit cairn in that silent mist you get, a little drizzle falling out the sky. 2 down, 2 to go.

The mist stayed down for the last Munros, Meall Gorm and An Coileachan. They were good hills but they were quite non-descript. Some compass bearings brought me over the winding ridge and on An Coileachan, I could enjoy the fact I'd completed the Fannaichs in two days. Awesome.

The walk out from An Coileachan, back to the road, is known for being a bit of a drag. Strangely, I found this bit enjoyable. I must have got into a rhythm of dodging bogs and managing to avoid getting caught up in the heather. I put some music on for the final km's back to the road, and mum and dad came up to meet me for the final bit.

So a good day, and strangely unremarkable. It was good to get another day done on schedule. But it did mean that I couldn't put the Ullapool ones off any longer

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Day 90 - Western Fannaichs

30 July

Off the back of the Fisherfield trip, I found I'd actually become quite tired. My plan for the next three days was to complete two mountain ranges: the Beinn Dearg/Ullapool group, and the Fannaichs.

I began with the western Fannaich's, a loop of low mileage for it's total of five Munros. I'd climbed the western pair before; A' Chailleach and Sgurr Breac. But I'd never done the other three, which nowadays is a novelty, since I've climbed everything except a small group.

After an easy morning, I headed to the Fannaichs around about lunchtime. A' Chailleach felt like a long way in, a feeling I had the first time I did it. The hill encloses it's own lochain, which you traverse above to reach the summit ridge. I saw some lizards and a couple of amazingly tame mountain hares. One stood a mere 10 feet away from me, just watching. He didn't seem too bothered, then dashed away and soon as I thought to get the camera out.

The views from this mountain were stunning: all of the crazy north-west mountains were lined up beneath a sky of piling cumulus. All now climbed, except Slioch. (And Monar, further south.) For now, I was occupied with a group of yellow grassy domes which piled up to the east; the Fannaichs. Sgurr Mor is the most distinctive of the lot: a giant grassy cone, and quite symmetrical in form. The other Fannaich Munros petered away in ever-more gentle waves of grass and scree.

All in all, it was a tired day; but that was to be expected after my big Fisherfield walk the day before. I got over Sgurr Breac, sat in the windbreaker on the saddle below my next hills, and then set off for Sgurr nan Each.

The next three Munros lie in a straight line back to the road, so they hardly took long. I was glad to be over them, and enjoyed looking down long drops to the wild coire of Sgurr nan Clach Geala, Munro #4.

The rain moved in over the last Munro, but it wasn't too heavy, or prolonged. Meall a' Chrasgaidh is a little lump of a Munro, definitely not the most distinct. I motored up this one, called my parents from the top (they were picking me up), then headed down long slopes, back in the direction of the road.

Down at Loch a' Bhraoin, the cloud had piled up into a dark scene, yet the loch itself was lit by a sun of amazing intensity. Up here on the moors between the west and east coasts of Scotland, it doesn't ever really seem to feel like summer. Not when I've been here anyway.

Mum and dad were half way down the access track to Loch a' Bhraoin when I met them. We all walked back to the road together. Although a slow day, I'd done five Munros with minimal fuss and that is always something to be glad of. If anything, the terrain on the Fannaich ridges was easy enough I could have just kept going on and on.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Days 88 & 89 - An Teallach and Fisherfield

28 July

Having used up all my easy hills last week, I've been left with a solid week of upcoming big hill days. An Teallach and Fisherfield were to be the first two that I tackled.

I didn't head out early for An Teallach - it rained solidly. Struan left in the morning for Fionn Bheinn, and I waited and watched An arc of rain was sweeping up Scotland, but after lunchtime, it began to fizzle out. Time to go.

When I did Affric last week, my rucksack seemed far too heavy, even though I was really just carrying essentials. For Fisherfield, I was keen to trim the weight down even further, so I took a day rucksack, plus a sleeping bag, and nothing more. Instead of tins of food or pasta, I just brought bread, bananas, apples, etc.; nothing hot that would need to be cooked with a stove and pot. This reduced-sized rucksack, combined with a pair of trainers (which now have gaping holes) meant I was actually carrying little weight for the size of trip I was about to do. Mum and dad finally saw me off from Corriehallie at 4pm. It was a bit late for comfort, but I knew myself well enough to know I'd get over An Teallach fine.

For those who don't know An Teallach, it is commonly ranked among the top two mountains in Scotland. It really is absolutely magnificent. It may have been the time of day that I climbed it, but not often have I been so humbled by a mountain. I did feel a sense of unease all the way up, as if I were treading on 'it's patch'. It was a mountain content to the gloom of its own making - the Torridonian Sandstone here weathers into a especially sick style of turret and pinnacle; the soils are dark rusted red.

I went into Loch Toll an Lochain first, until the cliffs were closing in all around. The leaden sky didn't help either. I slogged straight up the flank to the first Munro, Bidein a' Ghlas Thuill, and the mist swirled in and out.

Sgurr Fiona followed shortly after, and from there, the celebrated pinnacles of An Teallach were very close by. I did think about putting them off in favour of a non-exposed descent to Shenaval but since the Cuillin days, if I threaten to bottle out of climbing something in favour of an easier option, I have Jo-lynne's words ringing in my ears: "Nah, keep it real!" I had been half-temped to bash down grassy slopes to Shenaval but it really had to be the pinnacles.

They were good fun. I hadn't done them in a couple of years, but with vague memories of the route to draw from, I got over them with ease. By the line of least resistance, they were actually easier than I'd remembered, a lot easier than Liathach and hardly a scramble at all.

I phoned my parents from the far end to let them know An Teallach hadn't claimed me, and also texted Steve my mountains for the Facebook update. Then I headed over Stob Gobhlach and down the scree and heather to Shenaval. It's a relentless, trackless slope of 3,000 vertical feet. Lower down, I disturbed some deer. They let off an amazing throaty grunt when communicating, a lot different from the call of the autumn rut we're used to. More slipping, sliding and climbing, and I arrived at Shenaval in twilight.

The bothy was occupied by three others, and I sat up chatting to a couple of Germans. One guy seemed to be bumming around the Highlands; the other was doing the Cape Wrath Trail. We all got to bed fairly early. I found a spare sleeping mat since I'd left mine behind, and set my alarm for 4am.

29 July

Trying to get up at 4am wasn't as easy as hoped, and I slept in until quarter past five. Thankfully, the morning outside looked clear and sunny and I was away by 6am.

The Fisherfield Munros are as remote as they come. Knock these ones off, and I'd have scored a big win. They've long been known as the 'Fisherfield 6', but Beinn a' Chlaidheimh got taken off the list last year (it was lower than 3,000 feet.) and now there are only five. 'Fisherfield 5' doesn't seem to have the same ring, but it would make my day easier!

Before the Munro Round, I'd been prepared to do the 'Six' out of tradition's sake, until I realised that I might be better off leaving the high tops at Sgurr Ban (#5) and going east towards the road at Loch a' Bhraoin. This would allow me to do a through-route instead of a loop, too, and I'd get to see some new ground.

The morning was amazing. Despite being slightly under-hydrated and under-fed, I held a solid pace to Ruadh Stac Mor, which takes so much effort to get to, no matter how you look at it. This hill was the scene of a wee epic when I did them with Mick Coffield. We'd been on the go for 17 hours when we essentially ran out of steam between A' Mhaighdean and Ruadh Stac Mor. We slept out in the open at 2,000 feet on the shores of Fuar Loch Mor, and woke up at 4am, shaking with the cold. We then knocked off Ruadh Stac Mor and spent the whole day just getting back to the road. Crazy times.

A sunny morning at Shenaval, 6am. Raudh Stac Mor (#1) is in shade in the background.

On this Round, I've noticed that the whole place (naturally) doesn't seem as wild as it had when I first visited at 17. I got across to A' Mhaighdean in good time and thus stood on the most remote Munro. It took a long time to get here, and it would be a long way back to the road. I was quietly thrilled to be alone in such an 'exposed' place as this but logically, I was quite happy with the idea. I was on A' Mhaighdean before 10am whereas when Mick and I did it, we didn't get there until well after 10pm!

One of the most remote places in Scotland: the summit of A' Mhaighdean.

The last three Munros were more like hard work than pure pleasure. They have the Fisherfield magic, but none as much as A' Mhaigdean had. These were a bit of a come-down. Each ascent was hard work, and ultimately I was glad to be on the last one, Sgurr Ban. The good weather was holding and I had plenty of time to get off.

I headed eastward down the huge quartzite slabs and boulderfields, down to the glen and out by a rough track to Lochivraon bothy - which isn't a bothy anymore. I sat at the locked front door, under overcast skies and spitting rain. I could smell the fresh paint. Someone must have turned it into a second home or something.

Having a break outside Lochivraon.

By the time I'd reached Lochivraon bothy, the magic of Fisherfield had gone. Sometimes in very special areas, you get a sense you're looking at something greater than another Scottish scene. You might feel this in places like the Cairngorms, Ben Nevis, or on Skye. I'd walked into one of these places in Fisherfield and finally had walked back out of it. Loch a' Bhraoin seemed just another slightly drab Scottish glen.

A very long walk eventually brought me back to the road. Mum and dad had walked up the track towards me and I met them 15 minutes from the end. Judging by the relentless nature of the walk-out, I could just as well have walked out to Corriehallie, with An Teallach in view to ease the miles.

I was back by 4pm, a shade less than 24 hours since I left the road. It was an outstanding time to get out of Fisherfield. I was back in the Ullapool digs soon after, with A' Mhaighdean feeling like a long time ago - longer than a few hours anyway.

An Teallach and Fisherfield gave me a crossing of the greatest quality. My fitness and Munro Round momentum has allowed me to get over these ranges with the minimum of sweat. My hope would be that this continues for the remaining remote northwest mountains that still have to be crossed.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Day 87 - Ben Wyvis

27 July

This must have been one of the more unique days of the Round!

In May, near the beginning of my walk, I met Ron, Pauline and Mark (from Walkhighlands) on Beinn Heasgarnich. Ron had mentioned he was going to spend his summer finishing his Munros and his last would be Ben Wyvis on the 27 July. He invited me, it sounded like it would be amazing. I shifted my plans accordingly to be there.

Today was finally the day. My week based out of Torridon was over, and I headed east into blue skies and sun. I didn't feel too well, but I expected it wouldn't be a problem on Ben Wyvis. I turned left at Garve and pulled into the Wyvis car park.

I was one of the first there. Cars arrived; one after another until the place was rammed with folk, all there for Ron's completion. It turned out a woman was completing on Ben Wyvis the same day. I've never been to a completers final Munro before, now I was at attending two at the same time!

Soon the place was buzzing and we set off; the sun out, the skies bright. There must have been 30-40 people there in total. For once, for myself, a chilled out ascent. You will have noticed I've been a bit high on the stress side recently.

I think the day gave me a bit of perspective away from the self-contained world of solo mountain travel. It was great to see everyone, faces known and new ones too.

In the afternoon, under bright skies, I stood on the summit. More importantly, Ron stood on the summit, thus completing his Munros. Everyone had a great time, we took it nice and easy, cracking out the bubbly and gawping at vast northwest views.

Big congrats Ron. I'll join the club next week!

One of the most notable aspects of the day was that it was completely different to most Munros I've been doing. Some celebration was refreshing, and the WalkHighlands bunch made sure it was a party. What a great bunch of folk.

We headed down the hill and back to the cars. I saw everyone off and drove to Ullapool to meet mum and dad. The place we've got for this week is brilliant, it's very easy to chill out here. I had chips for tea in Ullapool with Struan and then we came back to the house.

Ben Wyvis also marked my 250th Munro of the Munro Round. I remember sitting on Meall nan Tarmachan a long time ago (it feels), and thinking there's so, so far to go. When I got to 100, I was glad to be out of double figures. At 150 I tried not to think about the fact I was only just past half way. On 200, I was on Skye, having a great time, and was beginning to taste the end.

For the moment, I'm down to my last batch of Munros. The Round is going to 'go' now: for the first time, just tonight, I can see a very clear passage toward the end. I've got a day-by-day plan of action and there's a good chance that will be on the 7th August as intended.  It better be - I know folk who are coming up just for it! It's a good incentive to keep pushing hard... Motivation tends to rise to the challenge.

The weather forecast has improved, as they've removed most of the thunder. Phew. I still feel a bit sicky, which will be my only real barrier to keeping on schedule. The new base is refreshing. I had dinner with Michael Kerrigan last night and Struan is staying over this evening.

So I'm in a much better place mentally than I have been recently. I've finally got the easy hills out the way and I'll be happy to get stuck into some tough mountains. That's where the real progress is made. I prefer to stare the hard ones in the face than have them hanging over me for days. The only problem is, my timidness earlier this week meant I've climbed all the single northern hills; in retrospect a stupid move. If I'm really tired some day next week, I've got no easy escape option. Oops. Oh well.

Tomorrow I'll be going over An Teallach to Shenaval bothy. Then I'll do a big walk through Fisherfield, and back to the road in a day. After that, there are big days on the Fannaich's, Beinn Dearg group, and Monar. Then the pressure eases and the job is almost done. What a thought.


Plan for the coming days:

28 SUN - An Teallach (to Shenaval)
29 MON - Fisherfield
30 TUE - Fannaichs
31 WED - Ullapool/Beinn Dearg 6 (w/ Monty?)
1 THU - Fannaichs
2 FRI - Monar (camp Glen Fhiodhaig)
3 SAT - Monar
4 SUN - Slioch
5 MON - Ben More Assynt + Conival
6 TUE - Ben Klibreck
7 WED - Ben Hope

Friday, 26 July 2013

Day 86 - Beinn Eighe

26 July

From the despair of the past few days, I finally suspect I might have broken through a barrier. Time will tell whether I really have.

I got up at 4am this morning. I knew I had to, since Beinn Eighe needed done imminently. Thunder was forecast for the afternoon and I was wasn't hanging around just to find myself stuck. I was up sharp, despite finding it hard to sleep last night. Too much thinking.

I didn't have a lot of breakfast, just a bowl of cereal, since the appetite was a bit supressed. I drove up Glen Torridon in the dull light and headed off pretty sharp: I was on the hill by 5:10am.

Negativity accompanied me all the way around to Coire Mhic Fhearchair. This is one of the most mind-bendingly-blowingly magnificent coires in the Highlands - just Google it.

It's a million times better in person.

I'd been to Coire Mhic Fhearchair before, but the head-screw of the Round was preventing me from really seeing the beauty. It's been a common theme the last few days. The land looked desolate without the sun to give warmth, and then shafts broke out here and there, breathing life back.

I didn't have the patience to go up to the back of the coire, so I contoured up the scree direct to the summit of Ruadh-stac Mor. I was heading toward the summit, when a sight to the east caught my eye: an inversion blanketed the glens, backlit by the sunrise. Fionn Bheinn poked out through the cloud, wrapped in haze. It looked incredible.

The most surprising part was that I realised, for the first time in days, that I had relaxed.

The early morning start had removed the fear of the afternoon thunderstorms. The air had been humid and still, but not relentlessly hot. At last, I had settled and for the first time in a few days I saw the mountains for all their intense beauty, colour and texture. I walked off Ruadh-stac Mor and couldn't help but giggle out loud. I'd finally found a tactic, a way through the circumstances. Took a while.

There is a (small) cost: I'll have to get up very early, every morning and get down by lunchtime. All the northwest hills are still to be done, but my attitude to them has turned from "how the hell will I do this?" to "this will be hard but I can see it happening." My mindset has moved back to what it normally would be.

On the way to Spidean Coire nan Clach (#2), I interrupted a herd of deer who were crossing the ridge, from one coire to another. They'd see me, freeze, and tread cautiously along their intended route. They kept coming; it was like a traffic jam of deer on the ridge.

The rest of Spidean Coire nan Clach was uneventful, and I got to the summit with a feeling of lightness brought on by a lack of worry.

I headed back to Glen Torridon and was down spot on 10am. Not bad! I walked back to the car as cloud began to shroud the hills. This afternoon, the region echoed to the rumble of thunder, the first time that's happened in Torridon.

For the rest of the day, I've been snoozing, eating and enjoying the time without any pressure to climb mountains. I'm so grateful to have found a tactic that might unlock the rest of my big days. It's as simple as an early start.

Day 85 - Fionn Bheinn

25 July

As the end of July approaches, I've been in the Torridon area, doing all the single hills I can while the weather creeps me out.

Today was also mum's birthday, and so I kept my day short. They don't come much shorter than Fionn Bheinn.

In general, the recent weather has been making me really anxious. Here's the thing - the threat of lightning has been there just about every day. Yesterday, I was nervous on Liathach until I realised on Spidean that conditions wouldn't deteriorate. I enjoyed the second half of the hill. In the evening, I was nervy on Beinn Alligin when I ended up being rained upon under dark clouds. That stuff passed, I got to the top, and enjoyed the descent.

Today, dad dropped me off for Fionn Bheinn and I hated the first half of the hill - the adrenaline made me go really quickly. Black clouds were piling up and the air was still, humid and muggy. I got to the top and realised I should be fine. I enjoyed the descent.

See the recurring theme?

I hate how the thunder screws with my mood. I've probably got a bit of a phobia going on in general, but to be forcing myself up mountains is exactly not what I need right now.

Then I saw the forecast for the coming week, and the same theme seems to apply. Just that now BBC aren't forecasting sunshine and showers, they're also forecasting lightning for the NW. Argh.

I'm not fussed about this side of Saturday. I'll get up early for Beinn Eighe tomorrow, get it done before the afternoon when possible thunder comes through. I'll do Ben Wyvis on Saturday just fine because the forecast  then is looking good.

But I've got Monar, Fisherfield, the Fannaichs, the Beinn Dearg's, all next week. Everything is ramping up for August 7th on Ben Hope around about me and suddenly I'm not sure I can keep up. Take the lightning out the equation and I'm pretty sure I'll make it. Put the thunder in, and I'm worried.

It's now midnight and I'm up because I can't actually sleep with all this stuff going around my head. So I might as well get up and put it down in words.

The only thing I can do is take one day at a time and hope the weather changes for the better. (I don't hold my breath.)

Anyway, today Fionn Bheinn was a non-descript ascent: just a fast climb of its big grassy slope, and an even faster descent. I was up in just over an hour, about ten minutes on top, then back down in half an hour: I ran! Dad was waiting for me and we headed back to Torridon, eventually to go out for dinner for mum's birthday in Shieldaig.

I'm steadily eating up all my easy options...!

Day 84 - Liathach and Beinn Alligin

24 July

After my far-too introspective rest day the day before, I was back out on the hills. Hamish Brown talked about days beginning in despair and ending in joy. This was one of them.

It feels like the stress has suddenly piled on out of nowhere. I think completing everything up to Affric made me feel as if the back of the trip was broken, and subsequently everything beyond would be a come-down. So, so wrong...

To add to that, I realised yesterday I wasn't feeling 100%. That carried across to today, and if I haven't been walking I'm quite literally conked out somewhere, either in a car, on a sofa, or usually in bed.

Once we'd done some morning filming in the glen, dad left me at Liathach. Although I made it up to the summit ridge in good time, I just felt I'd had the arse kicked out of me (excuse the francais). How the hell would I do Alligin today too? I eyed up the sky cautiously: the forecast of lightning scares the bejeesus out of me... luckily the Northwest has been the one part of Britain that has escaped it, so far. I hope it stays that way.

I slogged up to Spidean a' Choire Leith, Munro #1 on Liathach, and then Am Fasarinen appeared ahead: the pinnacles of Liathach. I headed along the ridge, scrambling little corners and climbing over the pinnacles, looking down plunging cliffs, turning to drops of thousands of feet, completely unaware of the exposure. This is a great example of how mountains seem to work magic sometimes. I just had a lot of fun, filmed some good footage, and ended up at the far end of the pinnacles, my mind buzzing.

My legs remained heavy, but I felt great. I was electric. My crossing of the pinnacles was really easy - a fact I was glad to see. Without a doubt, Liathach is easier than the Aonach Eagach. It would be fun in winter...

On top of Mullach an Rathain (#2), I phoned the folks below. They were on their way to Shieldaig, so they pulled into a car park and got photos of me on the long lens, standing on the summit. Well, maybe Beinn Alligin would go today, too.

For now I was definitely dehydrated, and since I wasn't feeling too great I decided that I was going to descend back to the glen and do Alligin later via the normal route.

I was down Liathach in 45-ish minutes and soon after, dad picked me up. We all went for lunch and I stocked up on food. The sole advantage of not feeling well is that the body is completely unaccepting of a deficit of food. So I ate well, and made sure I was on form before I headed back out.

The sun had been out all afternoon, but as I started up Alligin, the skies began to pour. Luckily, I just missed the worst of it, but it made me very thunder-anxious. I also missed the Tom na Gruagaich path, instead heading up the other side of Alligin, to the Horns.

Admittedly, I chose to miss out the Horns, bypassing them on the wee path that winds around the side. It's about the Munros right now and nice extras are just bonuses. Heavy rain clouds hung worryingly close to Alligin, so I scooted to the top of Sgurr Mhor and phoned dad again. He was on the other side of Upper Loch Torridon, thus I got a photo of me on top.

The skies cleared up as I headed around to Tom na Gruagaich, and the views to the west were just immense - a sunset over the Outer Hebrides. On descent, the peaks of Coulin Forest turned incredible shades of orange and gold, and the sunset put my mind at ease. For all my worrying about the days to come, a feeling came over me that all would be okay.

Day 83 - Rest, Badachro

Despite feeling strongly to the contrary, I decided to take a rest today. It seems to be that I go through a cycle of about 12 days of getting progressively fried, until I sense it's best just to relent for a day and make the time back up later. Actually, I'd go as far to say I enjoy this process of getting behind and pulling the time back.

I'm just over two weeks from the finish line. Last week, I was three days behind schedule. In the past couple of days I've got back on schedule, but today's rest drops me a day once more. The last week has been mental: I crammed eight planned days into five to make up time through Glen Shiel and Affric. It worked, and put me back on par. The price was huge days in Affric getting tired and fried by the sun which has beaten down over all the country. The heat made me lethargic and weary, and this morning I decided a break was in order.

The prospect of the final two weeks is feeling a little stressful. The sole reason is the weather forecast. For the foreseeable future, there's going to be afternoon thunderstorms arriving on the back of heavy showers and sun. Lightning seems a cruel turn of events so close to the end of my Round. I've got a couple of overnight trips coming up (Monar and Fisherfield), and it's easy to trade that exposure to the weather for single-day walks. That would leave me with overnights very close to the end. I feel as though I might be getting backed into a corner.

The good news is my parents are up until the end, and it gives me a base to work from without worrying about where to sleep and what I've got to eat. But I can't lie - a big part of me is at a point where I'll be quite happy to have it all done. In my head, new challenges and projects await. The intensity of the Shiel-Affric bagging marathon has dropped me north of Glen Carron with a sense in my head that it's over. Of course, it most certainly isn't. Persistence pays more than ever and I'll have to maintain the pace right to the end. The lyrics to Marathon come to mind. (Another Rush song, sorry.) My rest day today probably deepened the momentum slump, but I expect this. I'll get up some mountains tomorrow and it'll certainly disappear.

The good news is, as of yesterday, I've got 40 to go. I should do the Fannaichs in a oner - that would mean there's 31 to go which is a really nice prospect! But no, I'll save them for next week.

My plan for the next few days is to get up early and get my hills done. It seems the thunder will be triggered by afternoon heat, so it would be nice to get my plans done by midday. Right now, I'm at the Badachro Inn with my folks and Uncle Jim. Today has been spent eating, resting up, and not much else, gladly.

Day 82 - Coulin

22 July

My original plan had been to finish off Monar and thus finish all my Munros south of Loch Carron. Yesterday, I was up Moruisg and I decided quite definitely that with the heat and weather coming in, I would delay Monar and do something that could be done in a day.

I spent last night in Gerry's Hostel in Achnashellach. I always remember thinking how far I would have come to have made it here. And I've made it! (Though to be fair I still have Monar to do.) I meant to rise early to beat the sun, but when it came to it, I just slept in until I woke naturally. Probably no bad thing. I spent an easy morning chatting to a woman about mountains (didn't get your name, sorry) then headed down Glen Carron to Coulags.

The three Munros of Coulin Forest are arranged in a slightly unhelpful way in that it's not obvious how to do a (reasonable) round trip that takes them all in. But when I met up with Lorraine McCall for dinner a few nights ago, she showed me her maps, which helpfully had a round-trip of Coulin marked on them. Despite countless times looking at the map of Coulin, I'd never thought to do her route: do Maol Chean-dearg from Coulags, go around the back of Sgorr Ruadh to Beinn Liath Mhor on a stalker's track, then cut back to Coulags over Sgorr Ruadh. Very simple and strangely not obvious. Perfect.

The morning had started out cool as I walked up the glen to the bothy below Maol Chean-dearg. Beyond that, the heat built up and I was sweating buckets all the way to the summit. The clegs were out and I think I killed a record amount of them - about 20 or 30 over the course of the day.

With the burden of tiredness, I slogged around the back of Sgorr Ruadh to Beinn Liath Mhor and cut a route up it's west buttress. The route finding here is quite deceptive, and sometimes I just had to stop, sit and take down some water. From this summit; more great views of Torridon and beyond. But I was so damn tired.

Sgorr Ruadh was now one of the few Munros I'd never done. I paced myself to its summit and sat in the shaded corners of the cairn, getting out the sun as best as I could. With this one done, I'm down to 14 Munros that I've never climbed. (in my normal round of the Munros, outside the continuous one).

The theme of the day was tiredness. Enjoyment factor was low, and although I wasn't in any doubt I'd get the summits, I never actually found it much fun, which is a shame. I'll come back to them another time, perhaps feeling fresher. They are amazing mountains.

I came off the south flank of Sgorr Ruadh to arrive back at the approach path near the bothy, then back down to the road at Coulags. I drove round to Shieldaig, where I met mum, dad and Uncle Jim for dinner. It was a day that could have been a whole lot better than it was; but hell, you can't win them all.

Day 81 - Moruisg

21 July

With the heat of recent days continuing, this was almost a rest day for me. Day 81 seems to have marked the beginning of the end of the Round. My parents are up from this point onward, staying until I finish on Ben Hope on (hopefully) the 7th August.

The Affric Round had knocked it out of me, so when I got up in the morning I could hardly walk! I was breaking in trainers on Affric, and for unknown reasons they gave pressure points on my feet, created blisters in places I haven't had blisters for years, and meant I couldn't walk properly on the morning of the 81st day.

Myself, mum and dad went to Sheildaig and sat in the sun at the Sheildaig Bar. It was a day made weary by the pounding sun and I could happily have passed it as a rest day. But no, mountains needed done.

So I took the laziest course and went for the absolute easiest option on the plate: Moruisg.

This hill is on the edge of Monar, and it's a big round lump. The hill isn't too memorable, but the views are mind-blowing, caught between the great empty mountains south of Glen Carron and the weird formations to the north.

Mum and dad saw me off from the layby on the Glen Carron road, then left me to myself. Moruisg is one big slope, but it's even bigger than it looks. It really took forever.

Once on top, Sgurr a' Chaorachain in Monar looked especially spectacular; the stratified schist was crosslit by the sun. Monar was so close you could almost touch it, but I wouldn't do these mountains for at least another week.

Looking souh from Monar. The mountain on the right is Bidein an Eoin Dheirg,
a subsidiary top of Sgurr a' Chaorachain. An Riabhachan at Mullardoch holds a
snow patch.

Regretfully, some of the beauty was masked by the mounting stress of the approaching north, and the lethargy induced by the hot sun - even at 9pm. It's hard to appreciate when your head is somewhere else. I headed off down the slope and without pause made it to the car (in very fast time) and ultimately to Gerry's Hostel at Achnashellach.

I'd dropped a food parcel at Gerry's in April. Back then, I was so over-awed by what I was trying to do, and knew I'd have cracked it when I got to Gerry's. Now I was here.

I got in late, but put on a curry (yes Struan - another ;-) ) and had a chat with a nice lady from Carrbridge who had been up doing the Monar hills.

A short day, that felt more like a holiday than a Munro Round day.

Days 79 & 80 - Affric and Mullardoch

19 July

There's a ring of 12 Munros encircling Loch Mullardoch near Cannich. They're mountains charachterised by their sheer enormity and emptiness. They're at the heart of a tract of the Highlands that contains little but mountains, rivers and hydro-raised lochs.

I first did the Mullardoch round in two days, and found it really tough, as in; one of the hardest trips I've ever done. But in retrospect I think there were reasons for that and I was hopeful to knock them off in 2 days once more.

The sun was already hot when I woke up in Glen Cannich. I packed reluctantly, and set off under a blazing sun at 9:40am. That was my first mistake: if I'd realised how relentless the sun would be, I might have started a lot earlier.

The first Munro, Carn nan Gobhar was a complete drag. I was carrying a (far too) heavy rucksack, the sun was pounding down and the clegs made stopping nearly impossible. I've never seen them this bad. On a round like this, progress is slow and steady and can't be measured across one or two Munros. So I continued onto the summit and a couple hours later, collapsed by the cairn in a daze of heat and dehydration. It took ten minutes just to recover enough to take pictures and phone home.

The heat made conventional progress impossible, so I continued over my next mountains in a bit of a sluggish haze. The good news was that I felt physically well, but the heat just sucked the life out of me. Loads of folk were out on Sgurr na Lapaich and An Riabhachan, and then things became quieter toward An Socach. Back here, I really was committed to doing the full trip: a good feeling.

Time seemed to melt this day. A high and dazzling sun froze the mountains absolutely still and silent. I don't often have this feeling. I sat on An Socach in the late-afternoon sun with a guy from Newcastle who'd come up from Glen Elchaig. We chatted mountains, looking out across the Western Highlands and Islands. I liked his thoughts and opinions on what we were doing here, and it was tempting to sit around all evening.

But I had a schedule to keep. I wanted the Affric round in two days: that would put me back on schedule. There's a huge drop from An Socach, to the next Munro, Mullach na Dheiragain. You drop down to the head of Loch Mullardoch, which is essentially the same altitude as the car! (Best not to think about it.) I felt that if I could climb about out the other side to Mullach na Dheiragain tonight, I stood a really good chance of making the end tomorrow.

Strangely, it went on forever, but when you have your head down and you're just plodding, the miles go by and you accept them. It continues to amaze me that the difficulty of mountains so closely linked to expectation: if you anticipate something to be difficult, you'll get there, do it, and carry a sensation of lightness. If you assume you are in for an easy ride, the effort of climbing the mountain will be a shock and it'll hardly be the easy ride you imagined. Thus, difficult endeavours can paradoxically feel easy... in retrospect, always!

I got to Mullach na Dheiragain as the sun sank in the western sky. I was now completely alone, with the freedom of the mountains on my heels and nothing to worry about but where I walked and where I went to sleep. I continued to see how far I got. Half-way to the monster mountain of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan (if you can pronounce that then shame on you) I decided enough was enough and pitched my tent at 3000 feet with the sun a ball of red. The mountains turned to orange and were streaked in long shadows. Darkness settled over; I set my alarm early and sleep came as soon as my head hit the bed.

20 July

I woke up sharp, without tiredness. The brain was switched on from the outset. Lets go.

I peeked out the tent to see a band of fire on the horizon. The sun would be up soon. My day would take in the seven remaining Munros of the Affric round, and I was sure I was going to make it.

I packed up and headed off to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan (#1). I dropped my rucksack to go to the summit unhindered. I felt wrecked at this point, but I got to the top, glad to see the cairn, and looked around at a newly-risen sun and every glen filled with mist.

I got water from the coire beneath Ceathreamhnan and continued over An Socach. It had been worryingly warm, even before the sun came up. The air was absolutely still. Deer ran off down the slopes of An Socach and mist filled the base of Gleann a' Choilich. The scene was so similar to how I saw it last year, but the difference was I actually felt pretty good this time. Last year I was completely wrecked by this point, and there were still five mountains to go.

More by accident than design, I got the long haul to Mam Sodhail in the shade of the sun. The ascent was long and steady and this brought me way up above 1100m - An Socach looked tiny now, I could nearly taste the end of the trip.

But Beinn Fhionnlaidh awaited, first.

I bypassed Carn Eighe, dropped the rucksack and headed out to Fhionnlaidh, which is out on an arm. It gives a great view down the desolation of Loch Mullardoch. Although some may grudge the need to go out and back, both times I've enjoyed getting rid of the rucksack. On linear ridges like these, you're usually stuck with hauling the weight around.

Carn Eighe, at 1183m, is the highest mountain north of the Great Glen. The Affric ridges form a kind of rooftop to the northwest. It was all downhill from here, I suppose. The last two Munros lie out on a huge east ridge, and are a bit of highway back to the dam, and ultimately, the car. By now the sun was giving me a grilling and the uphills were becoming hard work.

I didn't really enjoy the last two Munros. I was breaking in a new pair of trainers on Affric, and they made my feet hurt to the point I couldn't really walk properly. I arrived at Toll Creagach, #12, more relieved than joyous, and soon fell asleep in the shade of the trig point. It was good to be done these hills, and it took a huge chunk out of the Northwest Munros.

I woke to my phoning ringing: mum and dad were calling. After Affric, they'd be up on holiday for the rest of my Munro Round. They were on their way up the A9, so I thought I'd better get going. Am Fraoch-choire was hard work with a heavy rucksack, and I pounded out the miles back to the dam. Tired, dehydrated, frustrated and hot, I reached the public road and dropped that b****** of a rucksack once and for all. I walked the final miles to the car, attacked on all sides by clegs, picked up the car (which was an inferno inside) in order to return to pick up the rucksack, and headed out of Glen Cannich for good.

To be honest, I was glad.

I met mum and dad in the sun in the centre of Beauly. For the next week I'd be in Torridon. I was a bit too spaced out for the drive west, so mum took me in their car and dad drove mine.

The Affric round had been good; and tough. I'm of the opinion now that these hills are very hard for their quality - if that isn't too critical. I wonder if the best way to approach them, fitness permitting, is to go with a daysack in c. 18 hours. Carrying a camping rucksack 55km (with 5km ascent) is very hard work. Physically I was in much better form by the end of this one than I was last year. The only thing I could have done without was the absolute grilling.

Day 78 - Strathfarrar 4

18 July

After the days in Glen Shiel, I was ready for something lighter. The plan had been to go straight to Loch Mullarodoch, but I realised that might not have been the best idea in my physical state. Strathfarrar it was then: four Munros strung above a beautiful glen.

Glen Strathfarrar has a strange access situation. The road through it is controlled by a gate at the entrance, opens (usually) at 9am and closes (usually) at 8pm. It's a public road built with public money, but it seems the estate would want to keep the traffic out. I'm sure they've got reasons. This odd access arrangement was agreed; a compromise, and the Strathfarrar gate was the result. So the hills would have to be done in this time frame, not too difficult though as they don't take too long.

I first visited Glen Strathfarrar last November and it's an amazing place, a subtle glen, and well balanced. Despite all the hydro works, it maintains an unchanged aura and the lack of traffic makes it very quiet.

I'd slept outside Cannich and arrived at the gate about 8:30am. On discovering the gate didn't open until 9, I drove up to Beauly, got breakfast and headed back to the gate. When I got back, a line of cars were being let through, one by one.

I parked up underneath Sgurr Fhuar-thuill at the western end of the range, and headed up the track to the first Munro. I felt pretty sluggish: I'd had a couple of big days, now I'd come here looking for an easy day. Every time I expect that, it always turns out to be a hard day!

Sgurr Fhuar-thuill went by hardly noticed - just a cairn in the clag. Each successive hump wasn't very inspiring. I headed up Sgurr a' Choire Ghlais, where I met Gerald from Gloucester, up for some hills.

The conversation was good, and to be honest, joining up with him was a solid kick up the arse: my lethargy disappeared altogether and we steamed over the two remaining Munros, the hillsides breaking out in colour under the sun, the views eastward opening.

He very kindly gave me a lift back up the glen to my car, too, which saved a long walk and gained me a lot of time to prepare for Affric.

Back in Cannich, I went about getting myself prepped for Affric: I got a meal from the Slater's Arms (great place - I owe the guy that runs it) and drank a lot to get hydration back up. The clouds blew themselves away and a big blue sky appeared. It was the start of a prolonged heatwave. If I'd felt cold in Glen Shiel the day before, Affric was to be the polar opposite: unrelenting heat.

I drove to the Mullardoch dam, and pitched the tent. To my surprise, the midges were almost non existent, despite the still warmth. I settled in, ready for a big couple of days ahead.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Day 77 - North Shiel 7

17 July

Glen Shiel finished! I began this day at Lundie, surprised again that the weather didn't seem to be as bad as forecast. This day took in the seven Munros north of Glen Shiel from Ciste Dhubh, over the "Brothers" (3 Munros), and to the Five Sisters (3 Munros). It was a day I'd also done a couple of years ago. It was a hard day back then and I hoped I wouldn't find it too difficult today.

Ciste Dhubh (Munro #1) was the natural outlier, and it was a drag to have to go all that way out before getting into the rhythm of the North Shiel Ridge proper. The walk up to Ciste Dhubh was a mixture of hard work, sweat and a head thinking “Oh god, there's still so far to go.....”. After the nice weather in the morning, rain sheets came up Glen Shiel and the sky darkened. That'll be the good weather gone, then.

While the rest of the country was bathing under stifling heat, the Northwest Highlands were misty and wet. And I was up on Ciste Dhubh getting blasted by wind and rain. At one point, I got very cold. If the whole ridge out to Sgurr Fhuaran was like this, was a I going to make it? My mindset was a bit negative and I was almost tempted to head down after Ciste Dhubh. But then I thought, there's no good reason to head down after one, why not just try the Brothers, on which there are three Munros? If I did one, I'd definitely do three.

I started the long plod into the clag up onto the Brothers. The weather had eased after the initial spurt of rain on Ciste Dhubh, and when I got onto Aonach Meadhoin (Munro #2) I got a good feeling that the day would 'go'. If it stayed like this, only patience would limit me.

The remainder of the ridge was a blur of silent mist, paths, rocky steps and compass bearings. The saddle between the Brothers (3 Munros) and the Sisters (3 Munros) is Bealach an Lapain. I stood here, four Munros down, knowing it would be crazy not to finish now.

More compass bearings brought me to more cairns, each one identified on the map, each one expected. There was no joy of reaching the summits of these spectacular Munros: the joy was in knowing there was one less to go.

But after the mental block on Ciste Dhubh in the morning, I carried a sense of lightness over these mountains, and finally dragged myself up Sgurr Fhuaran; an immense mountain which holds a degree of secrecy despite it's position right beside the road to Skye.

I headed direct down the west ridge, which drops in crazy steepness for 1,000m directly to near-sea level. You don't quite realise how big Sgurr Fhuaran is from the road until you go up or down it's west ridge! The bottom was deja vu, like being back in the Campsie Fells just north of Glasgow: sheep grazed land, with bracken growing silly-high, and the basalt bedrock showing here and there in boulders or scree. Very Campsie.

A final crazy river-wade (nearly up to my waist!) and I was back on the road. I spent half an hour trying to hitch, but no one would pick me up, despite standing beside a layby. Rain was threatening, the air was stuffy and humid... to be rained on was the last thing I needed. I couldn't hope to walk back up the glen.

Just as I was on the phone home, looking for a taxi, two woman from Edinburgh finally pulled in and gave me a lift back up the glen. I made sure they knew how appreciated it was!!

I told them I'd been waiting half an hour.

“Aye, no one gives folk lifts any more these days.”, the woman said.

They dropped me back at the Cluanie. I got a change for clothes and a freshen up, and I headed out of Glen Shiel for the last time, a wee chapter of the Munro story finished. I headed to Cannich and changed plans to do Strathfarrar the next day instead of the killer Affric round. Rush was loud on the car, and I was quite content though getting tired. When it transpired there was absolutely nowhere to camp around Cannich, I finally parked up in a layby not far short of midnight and tilted the seat back and fell asleep in the car.

In my experience, sleeping in the car is never a good idea, but it wasn't so bad...

Day 76 - Cluanie Horseshoe

16 July

I awoke at Cluanie, surprised to see the weather was not as dreadful as had been forecast. It's always a good way to start the day.

This was a good day from the outset. A couple of things happened. Before I began my Round, I got an email from a guy called Alan who had finished his Munros and logged them all on his website. His site had been an inspiration to me when I was 16 years old and getting into mountain climbing. He told me he'd left something underneath the cairn on Carn Ghluasaid for me, and sent pictures showing it's location. I remembered this almost as soon as I'd woken up and immediately looked forward to the day.

Then Lorraine McCall texted me; would I be around to go out for dinner tonight? Hell yes! You can't do much better for a walker on a long trip than to go for dinner. Suddenly I had the focus to get the day's hills dispatched really quickly.

I first did the Cluanie Horseshoe last October. It was a day I immensely enjoyed, and the 30 kilometres was a boost to confidence. They're strange mountains, because when you look up from the roadside at Loch Cluanie you just don't see a thing. The mountains might as well not exist. But when you get high up on them, they gradually open out until you're looking at mountains of immense form and beauty. I could almost go as far to say they're my favourite mountains in the Kintail region. I tend to think the peaks of the main Glen Shiel ridges lack a form and individualism.

I got up onto Carn Ghluasaid in good time (just over an hour) and was really glad to have the sun shining down on me. The wind was pretty strong, but I don't mind that. Rain can seem depressing but wind seems to bring the mountains alive. I got to the cairn and lifted the stone. And there was a wee bottle of Bunnahabhain that had sat there for three months, just waiting for me to pick it up. Many thanks, Alan!

The next two Munros, Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Sail Chaorainn, went really quickly. In fact, I had my three Munros done within just over two hours. I was steaming today. The prospect of dinner in the evening was an amazing drive.

The route to A' Chralaig crosses some rough ground, traversing grassy hillsides and avoiding crags. Keeping the speed of the first few Munros, I went into an automatic state of moving, just processing the ground ahead and working with it. In such states, you forget where you are, and look around and realise you've made great progress. A long haul up the ridge of A' Chralaig brought me to the summit cairn. I'd broken the back of the day; just Mullach Froach-choire to go.

As is usual, this is another hill that didn't seem as big as before. I'm sure I was out of steam last time I did this one. At this pace, it was an easy addition; five Munros completed with surprising ease.

At the top of Mullach Froach-choire, I met a woman and her two sons, who impressively had just done A' Chralaig and Mullach Fraoch-choire at the ages of 10 and 11. We chatted for a short while and I saw them off, eventually spending nearly half an hour on top of the hill, then back to Glen Shiel, down to the road.

Half an hour of unsuccessful hitching later, and the family from Mullach Fraoch-choire arrived back and gave me a lift back to Lundie.

Lorraine and I ate in the Cluanie. Thanks Lorraine for the evening – and the map.

Lorraine did a continuous Munro round a few years back, over a horrendously wet summer, walking the entire way, including paddling out to the islands. She has an utterly inspirational article on, which boosted my enthusiasm for the whole idea before I began. Have a look. She's also in the process of writing a book about her trip, too.

It's surreal to identify experiences that have otherwise been so personal to me, with someone else. It was chill-out time. The hills for the day had been done and I had a few precious hours just to sit and think about nothing else.

I told Lorraine about my coming days: North Shiel Ridge, and the Mullardoch/Affric round, all within three days. It was a sobering thought for myself, but if I could do it, I'd be back on track.

It was like a barrier between me and the rest of the Munro Round. I felt that if I could just get through Glen Shiel and Affric, I would only have northern Scotland to go. A nice thought.

Day 75 - Beinn Sgritheall, The Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine

15 July

The morning was like winter returned to Arnisdale; fast, shifting grey skies and a wild wind. Where did summer go? The air was warm (always the primary concern) and Sgritheall turned out to be a relatively painless, in spite of my morning despair; just a cloud base down to 2,000-odd feet, and a few compass bearings. If anything, I was glad to get this single one out the way, as it's a lot of leg-work to climb two completely independent mountains in the same day.

Due to being behind schedule, this is exactly what I did. I was finished at Arnisdale, and headed back around to Shiel Bridge, rushing to keep as much time as possible. The hours always slip away so fast. On Sgritheall, I'd realised I'd lost my phone cable, which is a bit of a necessity. I had a lot of big days ahead, and it was bad news not to have a means of charging my phone.

When struggling to work out what to do, it always helps to talk it over with someone. So I phoned home. The Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine needed to be climbed, and I really couldn't afford to leave them out today. So I rushed back to Kyle of Lochalsh in the car, picked up the much-needed cable from the computer shop, and rushed back to Glen Shiel.

This was the first time I'd really seen the 'peninsula effect'. Kyle of Lochalsh was nestled under a patch of permanent blue sky, but the surrounding mountains were hidden and black in the cloud.

I set off up The Saddle, my head not really in the game, just walking to get it done. It didn't help that I hadn't done The Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine before, and it's always harder to walk to a schedule, under the pressure of not knowing what to expect.

I picked up the stalker's path leading to the base of the Forcan Ridge, and warm, stuffy air of the glen was replaced by a brisk wind, cold air and spitting rain that soaked. Sweat built up from the inside - an unpleasant combination.

I wasn't going to take a chance on the Forcan Ridge today. It's probably well within my capabilities, but I wasn't in the mood for risking it. It was the afternoon and these hills needed to be done - now. So in the mist and falling rain, I navigated up between my two Munros and cut a line up towards The Saddle. It was somewhat intense; looking at ground features in the mist, working out where I am; taking a note of ground markers, lochans and fence posts, keeping them in my mind in case I needed to pull back.

On the side of the Saddle, I began picking up a path of footprints which actually took me all the way to the summit. It undercut the Forcan Ridge and brought me up to the trig point where I got some photos and moved on. Rain fell persistently, the clinging mist swirled. It wasn't a place to be hanging around.

I was shocked to see ice floes in the summit lochan. It's July... I took a picture and moved on.

Sgurr na Sgine was easier on the navigation. It's just a long slope, leading to a ridge, leading to the summit. I took each bit of navigation in turn, getting steadily more soaked in the rain that didn't stop falling. Cairns in the mist have been a rarity of this trip, I've generally had summit views. So I didn't get a view, just turned around on myself and escaped back to the sanity of Glen Shiel down the huge wedge-shaped mountain Faochag. This hill drops in one massive slope to the Glen, and I was down just before darkness came on.

I headed up to Lundie on the shores of Loch Cluanie, pitched my tent, put on a curry and went to bed.

My first day of getting back on schedule was complete, but there's still a long way to go.