Friday, 28 June 2013

Day 58 - Glen Finnan

My first Munros north of the Great Glen!

I left James' place in the morning and headed up to Glen Finnan as drizzle fell out the sky. All in all a pretty grim morning. I set off up Glen Finnan, keeping in mind that the weather should improve as the day went on.

The rain was drizzly, almost non-existent but the kind of stuff that soaks you right through. I met a guy called Mick in the bothy at the head of the glen, and we had a chat as I sheltered from the rain. He was walking across Scotland from Inverness to Fort William, up to Glen Shiel and back, then down the West Highland Way. I headed out into the rain and up the first Munro, Sgurr nan Coireachan. It seemed to go on forever, and in the past I haven't found this hill a soft touch either.

The rain just fell and fell, carried on a gusty wind I found unsettling. In reality, I wanted the rain to stop! But rain is to be expected in the Western Highlands, it's the wettest place in the UK.

Sgurr nan Coireachan is a rocky hill, Knoydart in character with exposed rock everywhere. It's a good introduction to the north-west.

The rain eased then stopped as I came over the summit of Sgurr nan Coireachan. I continued to Sgurr Thuilm in mist. For whatever reason, I felt so tired today. Every uphill was just hard work, at one point I actually lay back on a rock and shut my eyes. There doesn't seem to have been any good reason for my tiredness: I've eaten well, slept well, and ticked every other box. But maybe some days are just off-days. my only concern is in the big days that are to come. I hope they aren't all like this!

On the way to Sgurr Thuilm (#2), the mist peeled back and I got some sunny views down to Glen Finnan and Glen Pean. It didn't seem to inspire, and the climb to this Munro seemed as difficult as ever. The wind was quite ferocious at times; I was glad to get to the summit, and be getting down to the glen.

I stopped briefly back at the bothy to pick up the bike. There I met a guy who'd just finished working on Skye and was about to spend a few months exploring Scotland. There were also two guys from Belgium about my age who were going for the Cape Wrath Trail. They'd just begun at Fort William, so still a way to go. Outside, the skies were sunny and the mountains warm. I cycled back under the viaduct and back to the car.

Admittedly, my day today was low in enjoyment-factor. Lower than average anyway. The rain I can put up with, but I just felt so tired. I hope I feel better for all the big days coming up in Knoydart, across the Mamores and at Glen Shiel.

The weather for the week coming up is looking pretty rubbish. If I'm honest I'm dreading it a wee bit. There's so much opportunity to go even further behind schedule than I already am! Today I was going to do Gulvain to make up time, but I simply couldn't face going out in the evening. But here is my plan for the days coming up.

Sat 29 - Loch Lochay pair
Sun 30 - Knoydart/Quoich, with Dougie: Gairich to Ciche. Staying at Sourlies.
Mon 1 - Knoydart/Quoich, with Dougie: Knoydart trio
Tues 2 - Knoydart/Quoich, with Dougie: Barrisdale to Kinlochhourn and back to car.
Wed 3 - Mhaoraich/Gleouraich/Spidean...
Thur 4 - Glen Shiel with Andy B
Fri 5 - Glen Shiel with Andy B
Sat 6 - Mamores?

A bit mental, given the weather!

Anyway, I'm sure things will perk up, I think I'm just feeling a little over-awed by the schedule. But it's all good. It's exactly the kind of challenge I expected. Also, I might not be blogging for a few days while I'm in the Knoydart region. It's all quite remote out there, so I'll be blogging once more when I'm back with the internet - not sure yet when that'll be!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Days 56 & 57 - REST!

26 & 27 June

Yes, it's been a lazy couple of days. First of all, I had to get my car checked in to Arnold Clark to fix some stuff needing fixed ... and then today, I just felt like taking the day off. I think that's the first time I've done that! It's cheeky, given the volume of stuff coming up. But it felt good!

So here's where I stand now.

I'm in Fort William tonight and from there I'm working north through Knoydart toward Skye. I also have the entire Mamores to clear up, which should take up the first good-weather day I can find. I'm so much more confident about doing this in a day having completed the Nevis day with such ease.

In general, the weather seems to have broken down a bit, but I feel I can fight it through. A couple days off has done the trick and I'm back up to strength. But I'll be competing with bad weather, and a high volume of mountains in areas of difficult access: look no further than Knoydart for that...

A couple of days off has also inadvertently given me a bit of a mental block after the high-tally soaring of the Nevis day. The solution is, of course, to get out there tomorrow and climb the mountains. It'll all come flooding back into pleasurable routine.

For the first time, I also feel as if the end is (sort of) in sight. Perhaps this is very optimistic at the moment, but it doesn't feel such a far cry. I think my advance up the north-west will only add fuel to the fire, and without a doubt, it helps that my parents are taking their summer holidays to coincide with the end of the Round. Psychologically that's a hell of a boost, because it makes me feel I have just three weeks of self-sufficiency until they're up. And one of those three weeks will be Skye with Steve!

All in all, I've been glad to take another break but for now I'll be powering through an intense section. My Munro total should fly up from here onward, since I'll soon be in the cradle of high-tally Munro link-ups, Glen Shiel. (9 in a day, anyone?) Not to mention the Mamores; 10 in a day.

Tomorrow, I'll have a washout at Glen Finnan, then likely a sunnier Gulvain in the evening. But I'm hardly looking any further than that for now.

Onward we go... :-)

Day 55 - Grey Corries to Nevis

25 June

Immense day.

It's crazy how some days the body just ain't feeling great. Others; I just can't stop it. The Grey Corries to Ben Nevis is one of the most amazing high-level routes in Scotland. Each mountain incrementally builds on the last, across the stony crest of the Grey Corries, up the immense east face of Aonach Beag, across Aonach Mor to the pyramid of Carn Mor Dearg and finally around the Arete to Ben Nevis itself.

At first, I didn't actually expect it would be so good. I was up at 4:20am after a few hours of sleep. After a bleary-eyed breakfast, I headed down to Spean Bridge. Early morning drizzle fell, dull and grey. It didn't seem likely I'd get all these mountains today. But conditions were supposed to be good today, so I parked up behind Spean Bridge at the entrance to the Lairig at the eastern end of the Grey Corries, and began walking in at 6:40am.

I was due to meet Neil and Liam on Carn Mor Dearg after lunchtime, thus the day was 'charged' from the outset. I was walking fast, willing myself just to be up high now, rather than walking in through the valleys. It took a while to reach the Lairig bothy (I left a note in the visitors book), where my route turned up into the hills. I was happy to leave the claustrophobic glens for good.

Stob Ban was the first Munro, a tiny and slender prelude to the immense peaks to come. I headed on and on, always moving, barely stopping, keeping a keen eye on the watch, never letting myself stray too far behind schedule. The slog to Stob Choire Claurigh (#2) was shorter than I'd always remembered it. I took five minutes on top, looking west down the great highway toward Nevis, which in my opinion is one of the greatest of all mountain views. Mountain is layered upon mountain, first the slender, shining Grey Corries, rising, swelling, breaking out in crests and aretes over the Aonachs to arrive at the extreme far end, the monster; Ben Nevis, dark and hunch-backed. It's a hell of a sight.

Grey Corries to Nevis, from Stob Choire Claurigh

I set off along the Grey Corries at a pace, all quartzite blocks, right-angled and sharp-edged to make my ankles twist. (I was wearing trainers...) I jogged the downhills, walked the uphills. Within the half-hour I was on Munro #3, Stob Coire an Laoigh. There was so far still to go, but I felt good. My hope was this pace could be maintained and Sgurr Choinnich Mor (#4) was also dispatched very quickly.

Aonach Beag as a mountain humbles me. I've always felt it rose into that other-level of mountain, above and beyond the norm. It's east face is a geological mess, often streaked in old snow with stone carved into crazy form. The underlying strata here has weathered through to reveal classic wiggly metamorphic (so it seems?) structures on a grand scale. There's a magic you feel simply by being in the presence of these mountains.

The overhanging gully ascent route (see here) was still snow-choked, so I traversed underneath Aonach Beag's east face and climbed via. a grassy gully (by Sgurr a' Bhuic). The grass was damp, so I always kept one hand on the grass in case my flat-soled trainers flew out from under my feet.

I made it to the top of the face without any slippery-grass, death-defying antics as I'd feared. A long walk up the south ridge brought me to the summit, where the Mamores suddenly shrunk and I now felt very high up. Aonach Beag is the seventh highest Munro. It holds cornices better than probably any other mountain - even Braeriach can't compete with the big slobbery cornices that line the summit of this mountain. (And at the end of June, no less.) In general, this year the mountains have held their snow far longer into the summer than is normal.

Tiny people on Carn Mor Dearg. From Aonach Beag. Maybe James?

Aonach Mor was a quick out-and-back up the "runway" - you'll know what I mean when you see this mountain. It's flat topped, with east and west faces sheared off to leave a long thin strip of high plateau. I was happy to get it done, for it left the final two, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis.

Just a rubbish slippery descent to the CMD col and I was back up the East Ridge, on the phone to mum, which took my mind off the weary legs. Hopping along the arete was amazing, from where I could see Liam, but not Neil at the foot of the Nevis cliffs. And they were looking back up at me! Weary legs took me up onto Nevis. All in all, it's a much more amenable ascent than it would look.

Carn Mor Dearg arete
Summit of Ben Nevis - #8!

On top I met James and Zoe, got a picture on top and scooted straight of down the Tourist Track. At the half-way lochan, I met Neil and Liam who'd been around at the North Face doing film and photography. The drizzly rain forecast didn't materialise, and we walked back down to the Visitor Centre car park in Glen Nevis under sunny skies.

Back to James' place, I discovered I'd walked 35km with 3km ascent. I couldn't have envisaged doing this size of day in the past and still feel fresh by the end. I think the so-called easy days always turn out hard, and the days you worry about, and feel anxious over, turn out to be easy: a recurring theme of this trip.

A great day, that won't be forgotten anytime soon. It had that vibe that the Cairngorms had - they were something beyond and above normal Scottish hills. Unique.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Day 54 - The Easains

24 June

I should re-brand a two-Munro day as a rest day, because that seems to be about as close as I'm getting at the moment.

I've been on the trot a while, and I think today it showed. For some reason or another I felt a bit out-of-sorts. The body felt good, but I feel strangely all over the place...

I had a lie-in in Fort William and stopped by the Morrisons for food. Today's mountains, the Easains (as they are known), were waiting and I parked up at Fersit at lunchtime, from where the hills are accessed.

This really felt like the first day that I saw the forthcoming North-west Highlands in view and close-up. That was good to see! I headed up the ridge to Stob a' Choire Mheahoin, a rather long ridge at that, and although it wasn't a challenging day by recent standards, I didn't quite feel right. Physically I was okay, but maybe I got up on the wrong side of bed...

Stob a' Choire Mheadhoin was my 500th lifetime Munro, which was hard to imagine given the circumstances: in the midst of the Munro Round, I'm not in the mood for triumph and success, Munros at the moment are simply the building blocks that build the foundations for the final Munro, Ben Hope. It's all grunt work now, but it was nice to stand and think I've climbed 500 Munros. Next will be 1000! (Some years off I imagine...)

The Easains and Loch Treig from Beinn Teallach, last week

Stob Coire Easain was a quick out-and-back. It's a great looking hill, I've always liked this one. On the way back down to the car, I tripped up on the descent, somehow couldn't pull my trekking pole out the ground to stabilise myself, and fell flat on my face.

Oh dear. It really wasn't my day.

On the positive, it was nice to see all the hills of the month of May. I thought about the huge arc around Scotland I've now created. It's a hell of a thought that I still have all the north-west to go, too. Anyone looking in on my Round from the outside might see great progress. I feel that myself, but it's easy to loose sight of it, too. Being out all day, every day can feel wearing, and it's hard to stand back and see the whole picture when you're in the middle of it. All I ever have in my head is the immediate effort of the day, and a plan of action for the subsequent days. Everything else disappears into oblivion, back and front, not really worth thinking about too deeply.

I followed a path down the nose of Meall Cian Dearg as showers began to move through from the west. I got back to the car in a weird mood. Feeling wasted? I wasn't sure. I think I needed chat and a meal, because I got back to the Fort, and have been happy to sit and watch TV and have dinner at James' place. Anyway off to bed for now. I've got the Grey Corries to Nevis tomorrow (8 Munros!), it's going to be a really early start to make the most of the good weather in the morning.

At the moment, I'm generally quite tired. I've been on the move continuously for 11 days now. Tomorrow will be the twelfth, and those aren't small days either. So instead of pushing the boat out and going for the Mamores (in a oner) in two days time, I'll probably take a rest and then get stuck into moving towards Knoydart.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Day 52 & 53 - Ossian and Alder

22 June

The weather for this weekend wasn't looking good, and I nearly bottled it in favour of an easier option. I'd given two days to climb eight Munros on either side of the Loch Ossian to Culra divide. But with rain forecast (and lots of it), I wondered for a while whether to go for something less risky, like the individual Munros NW of Fort William.

The reason I finally went for it and didn't bottle out, was because Struan was joining me. He'd booked train tickets from Edinburgh, was going regardless, and if anyone could push me on during a hard trip it was going to be him. On the phone the previous night, I said "I'm coming, but don't let me bottle out of doing them"! I sure as hell didn't want to have to come back, that would be a day down on schedule.

I got the morning train from Tulloch to Culra on the 22nd. Struans train got in half an hour later, so I rolled out the sleeping bag and got a bit more kip until he rolled into the station, well keen for another weekend out.

Outside, the hills were grey and rain-washed. We were on our way. We set off for Carn Dearg, which was dispatched in the relentless rain. It hadn't rained quite like this in a while, and soon the water was making it's way through my waterproofs. The last time that happened was in the wet days of May.

We met Robin Howie (11-times Munroist!) on our way up Sgor Gaibhre, and plodded up the long slope to the top. On the summit, the rain unexpectedly ceased falling. When the rain falls, it's always too miserable to really stop for anything more than a look at the map and a picture. So we counted ourselves lucky and had a break. Even Ben Nevis was out of the mist... what's going on?!

We'd made our first day the longer of the two, since the weather would be wilder the following day. From Sgor Gaibhre we headed over to Ben Alder, a huge mountain with long access from any direction. I was amazed that the weather held all the way over this mountain, and it even stayed sunny as we continued beyond.

We slogged over the top of Beinn Bheoil, stopping en route just to curiously sit in the silence, have a break and take the whole place in. We'd done about 20 miles, it was good to sit in the sun and just watch while we could.

But ultimately, it was amazing to finally get back down to Culra. It's a great bothy, always busy and seemingly always surrounding by DofE tents. From here, Ben Alder looks incredible, especially under the veil of rain and covered in remnant snowfields. We met Roy and Steve in the bothy and shared a lot of chat. They'd been up the Geal-charn 4 (tomorrow's hills for me and Struan) and were heading out to Dalwhinnie in the morning.

Pasta for tea, and we turned around to sleep.

22 June

The bothy came to life the following morning when Steve and Roy came in for breakfast. Outside the rain pelted down, the hills were green and covered in mist. The wind had rocked the bothy during the night, but now it didn't seem so bad.

After breakfast, we set off into the weather, and struck straight up the first Munro Carn Dearg. This hill was all rain and wind. The rain would come in pulses, showering us and soaking us right through. The wind wasn't too bad on the way up, yet on the summit ridge it was numbing. The map and compass came out and we started navigating toward Geal-charn.

Geal-charn is an enormous mountain. It's probably underrated in my opinion, a multi-faceted peak with a few interesting coires. Last summer I watched over 100 deer charge away from me on the vast summit plateau. The ridge climbing from Diollaid a' Chairn (our ascent route) is quite west coast in character too.

A compass bearing brought us straight to the summit, and the wind and rain had eased enough for me to bring the camera out. From here, I knew the last two Munros would be fairly quick. That's an understatement: they were rapid-fire and Struan and I got them done in great time. Struan's worries about missing his train home were dismissed, we took a compass bearing off the summit of Beinn Eibhinn (Munro #150 of my Round) and we headed off in the direction of Corrour. The pressure was off; the summits done.

The rain eased up, and we walked down to Loch Ossian dry, but the burns were spilling over with fresh water. The river was raging and dark brown. We pulled off wet waterproofs to let our clothes air out (wet underneath, again), oddly enjoying the smells of the pines and flowers (so not me) and watching swallows dart around above the water and over our heads. We went down the shore of Loch Ossian at a pace, getting to Corrour in good time to get a meal from the Corrour Station House Restaurant. It's a unique restaurant, a great place run by folk not much older than me (stunning place to decide to move to) and it only opened last year.  The atmosphere of the place is nice and the food is great, the perfect blend of restaurant, bar and space to pass the time before getting the next train. It's a shame I won't be back here on this Round, but afterward, for sure.

Struan headed home on his south-bound train, I sat with a book until after 9pm when my train arrived. From Tulloch, I headed to Fort William to stay with James for the next wee while. The trip was hard work, but fitness really takes care of that. It was good to finish a big portion of the Central Highlands, and now I can continue pushing into the west.

Day 51 - East Loch Treig 3

21 June

Loch Treig is a dammed loch in the Central Highlands, a long narrow loch with steep sides rising from each bank up to Munros. Beinn na Lap, Chno Dearg and Stob Coire Sgriodain are the three Munros on the east side and make a good route over the hills on a south-north orientation, parallel to the loch. I used the train to get to Corrour and thus I'd be walking linearly back to Tulloch station, over the mountains. Today was a bit of a landmark day: Chno Dearg was the half-way mark in terms of Munro count; 141.

I stayed at Tulloch bunkhouse last night, took my time about getting up and getting breakfast, and made the train for Corrour at lunchtime. It is a surreal sight to see a train bound for "Glasgow Queen Street" when right now, I feel very far away from Glasgow.

Corrour was an empty spot and the restaurant was shut, so I set off for Beinn na Lap, the first Munro. It's an indistinct Munro, and thus it was a pleasant plod all the way to the summit cairn on top, which was in mist. Corrour station is at over 400m and Beinn na Lap isn't far above 900m, so it's one of the easier Munros. Despite the "over the top and down the far side" style of the day, I'd done this same route a couple of winters ago, and I knew the terrain well. (A bunch of us had done it on a winter's afternoon/evening and I was the navigator)

From Beinn na Lap, I went north, down to the river and back up again. Chno Dearg was just a long plod to the top. Cloud banks broke up and gave life and light to the land. Last time I was here, it was nearly dark and a late-December storm had rolled in. To be here in summer instead was to see a less threatening mountain; just a rise in the landscape, instead of feeling exposed and trapped in a very high place.

On top of Chno Dearg, I took a minute to think about the journey so far. I hardly realise how long I've been away. Today really brought home how long this trip takes, because it's a definite marker-point. I sat on Chno Dearg thinking about the immense amount of time I've been out since Mull. Imagine doing all that again! That's what is coming up and it's hard to imagine.

I've got a theory I climb mountains on a principle of optimism. If I'm only half way up a hill, I'll think "just over that rise, then its the ridge to the summit". Similarly, on a long trip like this, the thinking is "Just get to Fort William and then you're on the home straight". (A crazy thought, but that's how I think of it) Standing on my half-way Munro today, brought it home that there's really so far to go.

Stob Coire Sgriodain was an easy walk around the plateau. I remembered doing painstaking navigation to get here, so I enjoyed seeing it in summer light. It all looked a lot smaller, and since I wasn't on the verge of getting lost this time, I also added in the south top. (Although left out the Top, Meall Garbh - too tired)

Just a long descent remained down to Fersit over heather and bog. I picked up a food package and walked back up the road to Tulloch. The weather had been good in the afternoon, but as I drove back out to Spean Bridge, high cloud blotted out the sun and everything went grey again.

Tonight, I'm back in Tulloch - just a quick meal then off to bed.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Day 50 - Creag Meagaidh 5

20 June

So it looks as if the weather is on the turn.

I've had it pretty easy for the last few weeks. I could count the amount of times I've had a soaking in the last three weeks on one hand and the good weather has lead to a relaxed attitude which I worry I might lose if things turn bad in general.

This morning, the rain had moved back in, and the skies were grey. The idea of going out onto the mountains didn't appeal, but the five Munros of Creag Meagaidh were awaiting, and they were going to be climbed no matter how hard I tried to talk myself out of it.

Dad and I had breakfast in Aviemore, (Coffee Corner: awesome rolls) then headed west to Loch Laggan. This was my last time in the Eastern Highlands. From today it's all west, north-west with a small amount of central Highlands in the next few days.

Having dropped my car at Roughburn, the walk's end, dad left me at the Coire Ardair car park before heading home himself. James and Ailsa, heading back to the Fort, stopped by to drop off a present for me. Thanks guys. :-)

Carn Liath was first, an easy bash up from the car park. In reality, the conditions weren't bad. Once I was out of the humid, still air of the glen, the windy tops gave good walking conditions. I got to Carn Liath in good time, (1h 20m) and began the race along the ridge toward the next two Munros; Stob Poite Coire Ardair and Creag Meagaidh.

On Stob Poite, I got hammered by the wind has hard as I have yet on this trip, but the intensity came and went, so it was bearable. The rain was always light and never a problem, the cloud was almost always above the summits. Yet I had a permanent knot in my stomach, fearing the rains would arrive and wash me off the hills. It sets up a cycle of negativity that can't be broken until that day's hills are complete. The thinking was along the lines of: If I get washed off, I'd have to come back for the last Munros. I'd be a day down on schedule. The skies were grey all day, and the hills were absent of colour. I couldn't see beyond a few mountain ranges due to the murk, and I never knew if a weather front was about to arrive.

But I needn't have worried, the feared drenching didn't transpire. It didn't stop me being on my toes all the time. If any good came from my worrying, it propelled me at speed across the hills and I was on top of Beinn a' Chaorainn in just over four hours.

I've never been a fan of Beinn Teallach since I first climbed it last year. It was the fifth and last Munro of my day, but it still needed climbed. The strength of feeling probably comes across in my text to James from today "4 Munros in 4 hours. Just the sh*** one to go"! I'm no fan of this hill, but it's on the magical list of course (and at 915m, only just!) and I made it to the summit in good time. The best part about this hill is its views: you can see right down Loch Treig, each side flanked by Munros. The hills range off to the south until there are just vague shapes I climbed a month ago: Ben Lui, Ben Starav. The Nevis Range just looks incredible from here and I got a real sense of being in the west.

The walk south back to the car didn't seem to take nearly as long as it did last summer, and I was back in the car before long. Having spent the last week in a real bed I couldn't bring myself to put the tent back up just yet! I headed to Tulloch Bunkhouse where I am now, putting on dinner and looking over plans for the coming days.

The weather for the immediate future looks set to fall flat on it's face - just as I've got some big hills planned! Tomorrow I'll do the hills around Loch Treig, maybe 2, 3 or possibly all 5. I'll just see how I feel tomorrow. Then it looks like I'll get a drenching for the next few days, which will just have to be beared. After the immediate future, I'm hopeful the weather will pick up once more. For now the pressure is back on, but I'm hopeful it won't be too big a deal.

All part of the fun, though, isn't it?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Day 49 - Ardverikie

19 June

The last few weeks of the Munro Round have been fantastic. The weather has been great and I could hardly have asked for better conditions. Today I made my first steps into the Central Highlands with Beinn a' Chlachair, Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh, and I inch ever more closely toward the west coast.

Dad was up for the day, and he dropped me off with the bike by Loch Laggan at 1pm. We'd got up early enough in Boat of Garten, but we spent the morning sorting out gear and getting rolls for breakfast in Aviemore. Two days away from the longest day, I'm not worried about starting out late and anyway, these hills shouldn't take long.

I cycled up to Lochan an h-Earba; an amazing place. Framed by mountains and a sandy beach exposed by the dry weather, I shot some photos and film. Under the sun, it seemed like an ideal camp for the future.

I then headed up the shoulder left of the Beinn a' Chlachair coire; a long slog up an arm of heather and boulders. The summit views were amazing, the Cairngorms look far off now and the west, very near. The elegant Alder peaks were just across the glen. I remember being a week or two into the Round, looking at these mountains from the south and thinking; "imagine being there, so far on into the Round". Predictably, it isn't quite as satisfying as I've had imagined from that more lowly vantage-point, but I do appreciate how far I've come.

Typical for the west coast, I noticed that for the first time in ages, the rain was sweeping in from the Atlantic. I got Beinn a' Chlachair ticked off. Then under sunny skies, I scooted off to #2, Geal Charn, with the wind to my back, telling of worse weather to come.

I got off Chlachair and began climbing to Geal Charn. On my left-hand side, low cloud and showers swept the Creag Meagaidh range. On the right; the Alder range. Beinn a' Chlachair had developed it's own cloud cap and I raced up Geal Charn to try and get the summit before the heavens descended on me.

I made it in time, although I expected to get rained on any moment. I headed to the last Munro, Creag Pitridh, hardly a Munro at all, but still a quirky and independent afterthought to the bulkier, hump-backed Geal Charn.

Then the weirdest thing happened; the rain completely disappeared. Sun shafts broke out over Lochaber, and bit by bit, sunlight seemed to be returning as I made it to the top of Creag Pitridh. No need to rush, then... After yesterday's big day on the Cairngorms, I hadn't felt as wasted as I might have expected, but I did feel sluggish. And the precise, sharp focus that guided me over the Cairngorms was noticeably lacking today.

But I didn't need to worry too much, I'd done three Munros in spot on four hours and all going well, I shouldn't be too long back to the car.

These hills are another range I haven't been on in a very long time, but I've noticed that the Munros just don't feel quite as big or wild as they used to. I've done big rounds of hills before and made big linkups, but it has taken a huge trip like this to really change my perception. The first time I did the Chalchair trio, they felt like wild hills and I remember the anxiety of being in such an exposed position.

Now, despite incoming bad weather, I felt much calmer, much more able to move freely over the hills without worry. It is liberating, but I can never get away from the immense challenges ahead. Today was Day 49. I plan to finish on Day 98, and thus I have completed half of my scheduled days. I'm also pretty sure that I passed the magical 1000km mark today, (I'll work it all out in detail later) and the half-way point in terms of Munro count will be in a few days time and on schedule.

I headed back down the glen from Creag Pitridh, picked up the bike and hightailed it back to the road where dad was waiting. I got back at 6:05pm, just over five hours after starting out.

From now it seems like the weather will break down a little, which is a shame because I'm about to enter some superb mountain regions. I have some big days planned and all going well I'll sneak in a rest day here or there, no doubt.

I'm in Aviemore now (at La Taverna) and tonight will be my last night in Boat of Garten. Tomorrow I'll be in Lochaber at last, no doubt chopping and changing plans to the tune of the weather. I'm looking forward to the following section and fearing it in equal measure, no doubt a good sign. This is how I felt about the Cairngorms before I blasted through them and had the time of my life. As for tomorrow; the Creag Meagaidh 5 is the plan, in the rain, and then I'll work out what to do from there.

For now, back to Boat of Garten and sleep!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Day 48 - Western Cairngorms

Today I finished the Cairngorms, and the Eastern Highlands as a whole.
I'd had this day on my mind for a while. Last week, I climbed all the Cairngorm Munros except for the four western ones. I had decided to save them for later and do them as a round from Glen Feshie. I always knew it would be a big one (34km!) and someday I was going to have to just get on with it and get those kilometres done.
Today was that day, but when I looked outside and saw the skies in the morning, I did wonder for a moment whether I'd go for them. The Cairngorms were covered in cloud, but it was forecast to shift. I set off from Glen Feshie at 10.30am, bound for Sgor Gaoithe.
At first, the weather was pretty poor. High winds were blasting mist over the plateau. Still I continued up at a pace, confident it would clear, feeling very strong. If yesterday was a sluggish day, today was the compensation.
I reached the top of Sgor Gaoithe in just short of two hours, as the last shreads of cloud cleared from the plateau. In any other circumstances, the magnitude of this day would probably intimidate me, yet there was some kind of focus that pushed me onward very quickly, without pause, for hours on end. I barely stopped to eat, and when I did, it took a while to claw the focus back together. So I just kept on going, wondering why I wasn't getting fatigued.
The Moine Mhor is a high plateau on the Cairngorms, sat at an altitude of 3000 feet, miles wide and surrounded by Scotland's highest Munros. It's the kind of place that would frighten if you'd never had experience of it before. In the middle, the surrounding mountains might serve to make you feel enclosed and trapped by the immense spaces. But today, I was motoring, and I really enjoyed my crossing.
The outlying Munros of Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain were both done in quick succession. On Beinn Bhrotain, I actually felt closer to Braemar. Glen Feshie seemed a very long way off, and I headed back across the Moine Mhor, hardly stopping, watching cloud scraping off the highest Cairngorm peaks and shafts of sun illuminating the grey landscape.
I wondered if the reason I felt so revitalised was because I was back in the Cairngorms. No hill is a bad hill as they say, but some (like Drumochter/Monadhliath) aren't the most inspiring! The Cairngorms blow my mind, my appreciation deepens with every visit and today was no different.

Mullach Clach a' Bhlair was my last Munro of the day and I followed a landrover track which climbs almost to its summit. From there, I headed down to Glen Feshie and back to a civilisation which only hours before had seemed so far removed.
Glen Feshie is well known for being a stunning glen in its native woodlands. But I also noticed many areas where young trees are sporting up from the heather. You don't see that very often, but regeneration schemes are a heart-warming thing to see in several Scottish glens I've so far passed through.

I was back at the car just short of nine hours out, which is good going for the distance. I even jogged the last mile to the car (thanks Monty!).

My deepest impression of today was my level of fitness. The focus with which I carried out the day was also surprising and made quite easy what could otherwise have been a drag. As ever, I hope this run of fitness continues.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Day 47 - Geal Charn, Monadhliath (and Fiacaill Ridge!)

17 June

The previous night I'd met James and Ailsa in Aviemore, and among the chat, they were talking about going up the Fiacaill Ridge on the Cairngorms.

I'd nearly finished the Cairngorms and was sad not to be going back (apart from the western ones I still have to to). So, with an easy day planned, I decided to join them! I could do with the extra time to sort stuff out, but why not?

We met at Cairn Gorm Ski Centre at 9am, and set off up towards the ridge. With all the heather/grass plodding I've been doing recently, it reminded me how much I miss putting hand to rock, dealing with height, making moves on rock. It was awesome! I was so glad to be there, up on the ridge, cloud swirling through the Northern Corries which are still holding loads of snow.

At the top, I bagged Cairn Lochain (which I haven't done before), said bye to James and Ailsa who were continuing to Ben Macdui, and set off down Fiacaill Ridge for the car park. A brilliant morning out which I probably shouldn't have done - but hey, it was great fun and lasted only a few hours.

Regretfully, I can't say such glowing things about Geal Charn. I guess I'm nearing the end of my tolerance for rounded eastern hills. Don't get me wrong, I love them as much as anything, but Geal Charn felt like one too many. It probably had a lot to do with having done the Fiacaill in the morning.

I went up by Markie Burn, and walked up by Lochan a' Choire. From last year, I remembered the hill being typical Monadhliath-pudding, but the summit views being amazing. It was the same today, and this was one of the highlights of the day. The way to the west is opening out bit by bit: I could see Meagaidh, Alder, Nevis, and then all the way up to the north-west spine of Scotland from Ardgour to Monar. I could see everything, my entire journey laid out, right there. Behind me, I'd climbed everything. In front, there was so much still to go. Wow wow wow.

I headed back down the way I came, and got back to the car early tea-time. I met James and Ailsa back in Aviemore at the Old Bridge Inn where I am now, finally with internet after a few days unable to get a connection.

Tomorrow I'll be on the Cairngorms doing my last 4 (Sgor, Monadh, Bhrotain, Mullach). After that I'm on my way to Fort William. So much hard work to do, so much good stuff still to come...

Day 46 - Drumochter East

16 June

Another three Munros bite the dust; as does Drumocher as a whole! I'd done the western Drumochter hills a couple days ago and I only had these three left, all of which are quite isolated from one another. The solution: do them as two trips in the same day, although I'd considered linking them all in one.

I started up the first two, A' Bhuidheanach Bheag and Carn na Caim. I good summer conditions all in; cloudy and warm, and ideal for walking in. I climbed the path up to the quarry on the plateau and did each hill in turn.

I first climbed these Munros a couple of winters ago, in proper white out stuff. I always remember finding them really hard hills, endless plodding with nothing to see. (Well, it was a whiteout...) Today I was happy to actually find them quite easy, despite the round of two being 17km. These Munros get a lot of stick for being boring hills, or something like that, but being my first time on them in clear weather, I really enjoyed them.

It's true that down by the noisy A9, they aren't the most attractive mountains, but get up onto the plateau and all that sound disappears. All you're left with, are the distant mountains and big skies. I was really glad to have made it here. Good tracks allowed fast progress, and I got around the two in four hours.

I was back down mid-afternoon, and headed off to Meall Chuaich. This is another simple Drumochter hill, and I felt as if I was climbing it for the sake of it. But it must be done, that's the challenge. Last time I climbed it, I used a bike for the bottom, but now I did the hours' walk in before getting onto the hill itself. A monumental shower passed by the hill and I stayed in the clear, which meant I also got my first summit panorama from this hill, I'd done it in the mist the first time. (This is a recurring theme of my Munro Round)

Meall Chuaich rounded off the Drumochter section, and I was glad to make it through this part. It knocks a chunk out of the Central Highlands and puts me a step closer to the Great Glen.

After the hills, I headed up to Aviemore for a drink with James and Ailsa, where we hatched plans for a scramble the next morning... more of that in the next blog post!

Day 45 - Monadhliath trio

15 June

The Monadhliath is an odd range of hills. I've always thought they're the most non-Munro Munros around. They're a range of big grassy lumps spanning an area as great as any Scottish mountain range, yet featureless enough as to be nearly completely forgotten about. I suspect if there were no Munros here, these hills would be borderline forgotten about. There aren't any precipitous drops, immense corries or even lochans. The Monadhliath have weathered into hills without feature. Stand on the Munros and look north and you'll see heathery hills recede almost to the horizon. I mean none of this in a negative way, it's simply a modest mountain range. On the Monadhliath, you've only got the heather, peat hag and the cry of the birds.

I did a round of three Monadhliath Munros; A' Chailleach, Carn Sgulain and Carn Dearg, on a day of good weather when the rest of the country seemed to be stuck under rain. It might have been the late night the night before (or the subsequent lie in), but for no obvious reason, I felt really tired all day. A' Chailleach is easily visible from the car park, but as I plodded on, it never seemed to arrive. There are few paths on the Monadhliath and I seemed to spend an eternity slogging up through endless tugging heather, which goes almost to the Munro summits.

I got to the summit of A' Chailleach, looked to the fresh horizon, and saw pointed peaks. Everything clicked into position very quickly. First I saw the twin paps of Carn Eighe and Mam Sodhail. Then I saw Sgurr a' Chaorachain in Monar. From a tiring slog, I was suddenly inspired. Those hills are just a couple weeks from the end of my journey! They didn't look so far away, either... There's so far to go, but the sense of progress is heart-warming.

Carn Sgulain was Munro #2 and a lot easier than A' Chailleach had been. It's just a rise in the moorland; one of the most non-descript Munros going. Again, I could see those distant North-west Highland peaks - the most inspiring element of the day.

On the way to Carn Dearg, I had yet another funny encounter with birds exploding into action at my presence. The adult Ptarmigan shot off, and her little chicks (balls of fluff on sticks) wobbled away. She played the broken-wing routine, and let me get as close as I've ever been to a Ptarmigan,

Since I couldn't be bothered doing any ascent I didn't need to, I skirted the side of Carn Ban, and came upon it's rocky southern coire. It's a fascinating place unlike anywhere else I've seen. I'd have missed it if I've been bothered to go over the summit. Tilted slabs were rimmed by a broken cliff at the top. The slabs had great scratch marks all down them, running the same direction, some creating grooves in the rock. They must have been generated by some force. Grass tufts among the slabs were disturbed and uprooted, hinting at avalanche activity. But that doesn't explain the grooves which are perhaps glacial. A fascinating place any way.

Carn Dearg arrived soon after, and I did it without a rucksack to save energy. Another summit with a view. It's probably the most impressive Monadhliath peak and has had one side visibly chopped off by glaciation. But all I could think off was the long walk back, so headed down through the heather, back to the track and away back to the car, which by now was some distance away.

After the walk I headed back to Boat of Garten for the night. I went out to get internet (and failed) and by the time I arrived back, Colin had a party in full swing – pretty awesome to walk in on! Unfortunately I had to get to sleep, for another big mileage day over Drumochter.

Day 44 – Drumochter 4

14 June

The first day with my new car.

I picked up the car around about 11am, but with packing, procrastinating and cups of tea, I didn't get away until mid-afternoon. Strangely, I wasn't too bothered. As long as the hills were done at some point that day, I was happy.

I started from Balsporran at 5:20pm, and pushed a hard pace to Geal-charn, the first Munro of four. The weather was fair – quite cloudy but no rain, for the moment. The one disadvantage of starting late had been I would probably get hit by a front around 10pm.

I got to the summit in under an hour and kept up a great pace over the hills. One of the highlights for me was to see Ben Alder across Loch Ericht. This enormous and remote peak is in the heart of the Central Highlands, and it was exciting to see it so close up. For so long, I've been thinking about reaching this point of the walk. It's surreal that I'm finally taking steps towards it, as small as those daily steps may seem.

The weather began to deteriorate on Munro #2, A' Mharconaich. I reached the summit in spitting rain and clag, a couple hundred metres behind another walker who seemed to get to the summit then simply disappear. I sat here with mist blowing by, trying to drum up motivation for the other two hills. To descend back to Balsporran would make a short day out, but it would commit me to making a second to trip to the other two.

I took the non-lazy option and turned south toward Munro #3, Beinn Udlamain. Mist blew in and out and views opened and closed. The lifting clag meant I didn't have to navigate the majority of the distance, which was a minor relief.

I kept a pace going over this hill to the summit - more mist. After ten minutes on top, I descended down the south side. Views opened slightly, down to Loch Rannoch. Except there were no hills there, just a black wall of mist and rain, coming straight in my direction and swallowing everything in its path.

Oh. My. God.

I looked at it, trying to work out it was the dark shores of a loch or something. But no – a wall of rain was heading straight for me. It's amazing how the adrenaline kicks in at these points, even though in reality a wall of rain is no threat at all, simply a minor inconvenience when you've got waterproofs.

The sky around me visibly darkened in moments (despite being around 8pm – still very light). Rain began pelting down as hard as I've had it so far on this trip.

In situations like these, one half of my brain responds emotionally. It's quite pathetic: “It's cold, the summit will be claggy, the rain is hammering down. Come back another time, please?” It somehow perceives danger when there is none. The other half says this: “No, you've got waterproofs, you're not in danger, and you're definitely not coming back again for a reason that amounts to laziness.” I suppose the real art of mountain climbing is listening only to the rational side of the brain, except when the emotional side is communicating true danger. You can go a long way if you switch off the moany side!

The decision was made and Sgairneach Mhor was dispatched with ease. I had some fun navigation with a map and compass. (It's more fun than just walking up in the clear). In general, I've missed the subtleties of working with the compass. It's been a while.

The hammering rain had stopped by the time I got to the summit, and the wind wasn't too high either. Obviously this rain hadn't been the feared front, just passing showers. I was on top of Sgairneach Mhor less than four hours after starting out, at Drumochter you can get away with this! Then I started the long walk back to the car.

There isn't a whole lot to say, except the summits cleared of their mist and I got a dry walk down the glen back to the A9, and then up the main road to the car. I kept in touch with dad who kept me filled in with what the rain was doing. A front was on it's way, and for a while I felt like I was racing it back to the car.

But all was fine: I got back to the car in semi-darkness, just as the first spots of rain fell. I stayed in Boat of Garten, put on a curry (as ever) and got a pretty late bed.

Day 43 - Enforced rest!

13 June

Today, I meant to be up to Drumochter after a day of rest. Instead, I found myself having a second day of rest. Why? Because I bought my first car, with no small thanks to my parents.

You'll probably have noticed that I've been going with a car on the Round, so this seemed as good a time as any to get my first and finally give my mums hers back. ;-) The reason I had to take a rest day was the car wouldn't be ready until the following morning.

I had a full day off, with nothing planned and nothing I could do hill-wise. I felt physically fresh, what to do? It was a novelty, a very welcome one. Even on my conventional rest days, I always feel slightly edgy, because there was so much to do outside of just walking. You'd be amazed. But suddenly I had a day to myself, with none of that other stuff to do.

So I went to Dumbarton Rock, my home from home, and somewhere I've grown to love. It was very odd being back, seeing faces and things that are so removed from current existence. It was nice to go back. I did some climbing, made some progress on Sabotage and went home after tea-time feeling really tired. A complete shift from the continuous walk thing. I really enjoyed myself.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Day 42 - A post-Cairngorm/Grampian Rest

12 June

I've had quite a run recently. The sunny weather saw me make easy (that's relative...) work of the Grampians and the Cairngorms. I've hardly had to navigate with map and compass, and I picked off summits and covered tremendous daily distances. The best part is that I feel great at the same time.

I've been feeling so good that I crammed two of my Central Cairngorm days into one, and today I've had a rest. Unlike previous rest days, I haven't actually felt tired (or the need to recover), which is great news and bolsters confidence for future exertions.

I've been having a read of Dave Macleod's blog tonight (when I should be finishing my own blog!), and I found a brief quote which I thought apt. "With every grade higher you get, it becomes clearer that you are only limited by your desire to see if you can go further."

And it is so true... After spending the first two/three weeks of my Munro trip permanently tired, I seemed to break through a mental and physical barrier. Funnily enough, it seemed to be the day after Beinn Bhuidhe (Day 22), when I wrote a lot about the mental trials. I suddenly found myself with a fitness I didn't realise I could have so readily. Of course it comes at a cost, but the cost is climbing mountains day in, day out and that is of course one of the greatest pleasures in my life. When I was planning the trip, I'd hoped to gain this kind of fitness. The hills are starting to slide by with ease, though the complete lack of rain might have a lot to do with that, too!

Talking to Monty over the Macdui and Braeriach lot only made this clearer: I don't think I've yet completely realised what I'm physicially capable of. The body has adjusted, but it might take the mind a while to follow. But it's true that any time you raise the bar, you get a glimpse into just how far you could go if you want to. (The problem is often probably working out how to shift the bar!) The only thing that seems a shame to me is there will probably be little way to maintain this fitness once I'm finished the Munro Round. How could you substitute endless days full of non-stop exercise? I might have to nip around the Mullardoch one-day round in August, then...

I've had to make the trip home again because I'm picking up my mums car and going properly car-centric. This always raises the short-term enjoyment to effort ratio. It also feels a shame to go back to seeing the hills in a sort of artificial manner. Three days and nights through the Cairngorms has given me something I could never gain out of a car, an experience of depth and intensity that can only be allowed to mature through days on the hills. But I can't complain: the choice to use a car has been long thought out, and the advantages are mostly obvious and numerous! I have no linked up journey to tie me down anymore. I can chop and change and be more tactical in my approach. And anyway, there will be loads of forthcoming opportunities to disappear into the wilds and use the bothies. There is just so much incredible stuff still to come...

For now, I'm at 116 Munros and half-way isn't far off now (#141, somewhere around Ben Alder). Tomorrow, I'll be starting on the Drumochter hills. The weathers looking good for one day only, and I'll see how many I can cram in. I'm on my way to Fort William, slowly, and then I'll cross the Great Glen. Not long after is Skye... before I know it I'll be blasting up the north-west on the way to the finish-line. So cool!

Day 41 - Devil's Point to Braeriach

11 June

Michael Kerrigan, Colin Lamont and myself were staying at Corrour, and today would be my last Cairngorm Munros for now.

The link up of Corrour - Devil's Point - Cairn Toul - Sgor an Lochain Uaine - Braeriach - Ski Centre is a classic. Privately, I'm so glad I did these summits and went straight back to the ski centre rather than cutting back across the Moine Mhor to get the remaining Cairngorms. I think that would have brought the day down a bit, especially since the weather was closing in for the first time in a couple of weeks. I haven't had any ambition to complete the Cairngorms in one continuous trip this year, probably because this was something I did last summer with Struan.

Michael and Colin in Corrour

After breakfast, Colin and I packed up and said farewell to Michael, until next time! And we proceeded to blast up The Devils's Point with barely a pause, and onwards and onwards and onwards. Going walking with Colin was a bit like sticking a rocket up the bahookey, and that sense of continuous urgent movement was actually very refreshing.

It was good to walk fast and not be too worried about tiring myself out. There was additional urgency in the air, since it was obvious the weather was turning. The big blue skies were gone, now the winds were picking up. The ambience was raw and the air cool.

Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir

But the Braeriach plateau was completely out the mist, so there was no need to navigate and it meant we could see right into An Garbh Choire, certainly once of the wildest bits of land in Scotland. It's amazing, and immense. The photos didn't seem to do it justice, but the sight of those mega-coire's isn't one you'll forget in a hurry...

The first three Munros had passed seemingly almost as soon as we'd started. The plateau to Braeriach was absolutely wild and felt exposed. There's no easy way out, you just walk and walk across miles of high ground, all stone and gravel. Even the grasses seem to have given up trying to grow here. The wind was picking up, and for the first time in weeks, my fingers went numb. It's one of my favourite places in the Cairngorms; and it summarises the way I feel about them now: it's their power that captures me. West coast ridges like the Aonach Eagach etc, are wonderful and inspiring, but there's something about the wide open spaces of the Cairngorms that is inhuman. It's powerful.

Garbh Choire Dhaidh, Braeriach
We reached the summit of Braeriach in good time, stopped for a few photos, then very quickly started the descent. It was getting cold! The wind was biting and picking up it's pace. Just as well; as we headed of Sron na Lairige, rain began to spit and the wind began to blast. Mist closed in on the plateau and conditions would be getting pretty bad up there now. We'd really scooted across the plateau, all thrusters firing and I was very glad that we'd done so.

Lairig Ghru

Now just to make good time back to the car. Colin suggested running back to the car park after the Chalamain Gap. I quietly dismissed the idea, I don't really enjoy running. But we climbed through the gap, bounced across the boulders and emerged out the other side with just a 3km stretch back to the car park where dad was waiting to pick me up.

Then we started a jog. Now this has never happened to me before - to my surprise, I found that a slow run didn't require any more from the cardiovascular system, it was just a bit more painful in the legs; and much faster than a fast walk. If we'd walked it all, it would have become grinding. When we reverted to walking, it was simply refreshing.

So I had a bit of eureka moment: I now get hill-running! It seems more efficient than simply walking, and it seems that a higher all-round fitness has allowed me to enjoy it in a way I hadn't before. I like to feel different activities 'click', and understand what brings people to do them.

Colin and I made it back to the Sugarbowl car park at 4:15pm, 5 hours and 55 minutes after we'd started out at Corrour. A great time, especially with all the camping kit on our backs.

That concludes my Cairngorms for the moment. Those three and a half days made the greatest impression of any section of the Munro Round so far. I can't wait to get back and explore the Gorms - I'd almost be happy going through the valleys, and that's something I say about very few places! Moving on, I've finally broken through to the Spey Valley and Laggan, something I've been looking forward to for a couple of weeks. I'll be going west to Fort William, slowly and then I'll cross the Great Glen. Whoa.

But a rest day awaits, first...

Day 40 - Central Cairngorms

10 June

An exceptional day in every form, and among the best so far.

It was the 'big day', over the meatiest section of the Cairngorms, where plateaux, lochs, and cliffs of stunning severity are all mashed up into this arctic-like paradise. Add to that the brilliant blue skies of this day, and I was onto a winner.

I woke up at the Hutchison, which was clamped down in thick mist - bit of a bummer. After breakfast, I left Ian and his dog Mallie mid-morning for the walk to Loch Etchachan. The cloud base was lifting and very soon it shredded against the flanks of Beinn Mheadhoin and broke up completely, to reveal a fresh blue sky beyond.

The Hutchison, looking vastly improved

Loch Etchachan, 3000 feet up, was silent and still, yet so impressive. The deep blue skies were reflected in the cold waters. Lingering snow fields dipped their toes into the water, turning turquoise. A magic place. But if I was to continue happily, some TLC was needed: brush teeth, drink (lots of) water, eat a lot. I'd traveled 80km the previous two days, and if I were to continue I'd need to get fueled and as comfortable as possible.

Loch Etchachan

My first Munro, Beinn Mheadhoin was a bit of a drag, but only because I wanted to be further on with my day! Corrour bothy, the night's destination, seemed very far away. Down the far side of Mheadhoin, I crossed the River Avon at the loch outflow. The water was fast-flowing, and cold with the snowmelt. That took a minute or two to recover from... I sat on the far bank and ate some more while my legs dried out in the sun.

Bynack More was the real outlier on this route, so I left my rucksack and headed out to it's isolated summit. It felt like effort I could do without, all the way out and back. I wasn't so sure I was enjoying my day yet, but I was sure I would make it whatever the cost.

Ben Macdui and the Loch Avon basin, looking mighty

Back at the Saddle, I picked up my rucksack and started the big plod to Cairn Gorm. From there it would be a long plateau walk to Ben Macdui and then onto Corrour. My brain simply switched off, happy to be making 'real' progress, and I seemed to fly up the south face without much concious thought. Loch Avon looked amazing and by the time I got to the summit I was ecstatic!

Lochan Buidhe, Ben Macdui

Near the summit, I noticed someone striding toward me, shopping bag in hand. I didn't think much of it, then looked back five minutes later: it had to be Monty, with the bag of shopping I'd asked him to bring along! He'd got the bus up and was to join me over Macdui to Corrour and back over the Devil's Point and Braeriach the following day. We reached the summit a short time later.

We raced up Carn a' Mhaim and then plodded down the worst Cairngorm heather-covered boulderfield you can imagine. Corrour was waiting, the day was drawing to a close. Once again, I'd done many miles and was very glad to still feel fresh. Fitness levels are good at the moment.

Braeriach - Cairn Toul. Wow!

Colin, looking fresh(er than me) and carrying my shopping!

And then a couple last surprises - Richard Goodman had given me a "good luck" in the bothy book, much to my pleasant surprise. To top the evening off, none other than Michael Kerrigan came through the front door, completely unannounced and with a bag of Doritos in hand. (I can't help myself!). Thanks guys.

As the light died, the summits grew cloud caps and we settled in for a night in Corrour, the bothy's only occupants.

Day 39 - Eastern Cairngorms

I began the Cairngorms seeing them as a mental block, and ended them with the most fulfilling several days I’ve yet done.

I’d been looking at the Cairngorms for a while. When I first saw them close to hand at the start of June, they looked like they’d stepped straight out of Antarctica. It was sobering to see. I went on my way ticking off the Grampian Munros in perfect weather, watching snow melting off the Cairngorms, the high stony peaks climbing into blue skies. I had so long to wait until I finally got on them! Would the good weather hold out?

On the 8th June, I’d climbed An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidhleir, two Munros still outstanding, and located in the middle of nowhere. I was feeling rushed becuase I had to walk into the Cairngorms that evening. The weather window would end in three day's time - just the amount of time I needed to get through the Cairngorms. Dad and I rushed back to Braemar, got a meal, I typed out a quick blog post (sorry if it showed!) and got gear sorted. Then the clincher: the Cairngorms map was nowhere to be found. Dad needed be heading home – work in the morning. I needed a map quick. The Fife Arms staff couldn’t help, neither could folk at the bar.

The Youth Hostel was the answer. I came out £7 down, happy with a new map, and headed off to Keiloch where dad finally dropped me. After so long looking at the Cairngorms, I was finally going to be on them.

Sunset, Gleann an t-Slugain
With a rucksack bulging and crammed to capacity, I marched off past the old pines into Gleann an t-Slugain. I was speeding to beat the night, (not that there is much nighttime right now) and walked in wonder to the sight of dark pines and sky on fire in the sunset. Deer watched silently from the woods then trotted off. Detail and scale of distant Beinn a' Bhuird was lost among the gathering twilight and curls of wispy mist rolled in across the hills as the light finally failed.

After the long walk in, I settled in at 11pm, candle light shimmering on stone walls, the bothy door shut behind. I cooked a last meal and turned over to sleep.


9 June

The following morning after breakfast, I set off for my first Cairngorm Munro, Ben Avon. The skies were heavy, and a huge black cloud above Beinn a’ Bhuird made me nervous. But I was walking on good paths, all the way to The Sneck, which is the name for the saddle between Ben Avon and Beinn a’ Bhuird. Ben Avon was a popular place, and the atmosphere was suddenly social rather than pleasantly isolated.

Ben Avon summit tor, Leabaidh an Diamh Bhuidhe (try pronounce that!)

Myself and Struan climbed these Munros last year and I was happy to revisit them. They seemed easier this time, which could just be a fitness thing. I was glad to see they were easy walking, lots of flat terrain where I could switch off and go into auto-mode. Beinn a’ Bhuird is a huge, flat mountain with enormous glacially-scooped coires that would repay a lot of further exploration. It's 1197m high: the 11th highest Munro. I've been up it twice and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.

The advantage of the high mountains is that the terrain tends to get easier the higher you go, the grasses and heather thin out. The walking, especially in the Cairngorms is more akin to walking along a beach since the granite erodes into gravelly balls. Once I'd finished the first two Munros, it seemed an inconvenience to dip back to the heather-clad 900m contour and climb the next two of my day; Beinn Bhreac and Beinn a’ Chaorainn. You have to cross the Moine Bhealaidh to complete these: flat miles of heather, peat hag and grass, with a Munro at either end, each just a rocky swelling. I picked them off in turn, starting with Beinn Bhreac, beginning to tire of the relentless heather plodding. Leaving the rucksack each time was a minor relief, Beinn a’ Chaorainn was a simple formality and I descended back to the rucksack and headed off for the Hutchison Hut.

Dark skies from Beinn a' Chaorainn

There, I met Ian, who was bothying in the Cairngorms with his dog Mallie (named after the bothy!). We shared a lot of good chat, I learned yet more about the Cairngorms. As a range, the Gorms are a slow-burner and the meeting somehow made the trip feel much deeper. I got a real sense of the deep cultural history of these hills, of which I’m always learning more. I understand for the first time how someone could spend a lifetime exploring this range. They're like an island on their own, elevated in altitude from surrounding Scottish mountains. Their character is unique, sometimes inhuman and there is just so much depth.

Hutchison Memorial Hut

Reluctant to break the flowing conversation, I packed my rucksack once more after dinner, and climbed Derry Cairngorm that night. I would regret it in the morning if I didn't, when I already had a big day planned. I climbed directly up from the bothy for Derry Cairngorm, light mist rolling in and out, the evening sun breaking through to give life to the blue mist. I enjoyed the fifth Munro of my day, but ultimately it was a relief to descend to the bothy and be done with hills for the night.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Day 37 & 38 - Lochnagar 5 (Munro #100) & Geldie pair

7 June

Yesterday, I climbed the five Munros of Lochnagar. I'd started out from home once again because I'd had to get the car back (Mum needed it)... So it meant that I started the Lochnagar Munros quite late in the day, after the inevitable getting up, packing and driving. Dad dropped me at the Spittal of Glenmuick and I set of at half past one.

I'd meant to go over these hills with Andy Brown, but he'd got there on time, I was horrendously late, and he ended up going up by himself - we never met up on the plateau.

I was looking forward to getting this group done, because it would efficively mean I'd climbed all the hills from Blair Atholl to Braemar. I've done a lot of high-tally days recently and this was the last in the region.

A lunchtime start meant that the sun pounded down on the long walk by Loch Muick. I took the high track to Broad Cairn and worked fast to make up time lost by our late arrival. The air today was hazy and warm, heavy clouds drifted. It reminded me of those dramatic oil landscape paintings.

The walk to Broad Cairn felt long, but the next Munros all made up for it. Cairn Bannoch, Carn an t-Sagairt Mor and Carn a' Choire Bhoidheach followed in quick succession. They're all Munros, but they're big rounded humps; long distances but little ascent. It's easy to walk with speed but you have to walk quite a long time to get anywhere. The plateaux were brown and orange today, the colour of the sun filtered through hazy air. Surrounding peaks were mostly climbed now, and ranged off into murk. At a stretch, I could see Schiehallion. But the Cairngorms weren't climbed yet, it wouldn't be long now until I was there.

Without a doubt, the most spectacular part of the day was coming over the top of Lochnagar, the cliffs opening up right beneath my feet. It was a real high point of recent days. Dad was a mile away on the opposite side of the coire, standing on Meikle Pap taking photos of me on the summit of Lochnagar and sweetest of all, it was my 100th Munro of the trip. A big moment; finally out of double figures! I spent time on the summit, exploring the tops of the cliffs, then staring in awe down at the huge voids of air as I walked around the coire rim.

Dad was on his way back to the Spittal, and I followed in his tracks as the sun set, casting hill and moor in intense evening colour.

And then my day was made: "Well done Kev. 100th Munro". Andy had written it in the ground for me. I stood for a moment figuring it out and then laughed out loud. Thanks Andy! And sorry I was so late.

Dad and I camped in Glen Cluanie, south of Braemar. I scoffed a couple pf curries and had a late bed. I was even too tired to get a blog done. But the weather conditions were perfect: not too cold, dry and not a midge in sight. I keep having perfect camps with dad. Long may they continue; should the midge hold off.

8 June

Today saw me up two Munros. They're the very final Munros of the section from Blair Atholl to Braemar: rounded hills and bog for endless miles. As a group, they've been very kind to me. The weather has simply been phenomenal. In previous visits, I'd occasionally found them quite tedious in their long aching miles. But I've had a great time. Summits have come and gone very quickly, the numbers and the miles have cranked up with me on top of them, almost unaware of just how fast I'm accelerating.

Today's Munros were were in the back end of nowhere, vast humpbacks of heather and snow in the very inner reaches of Atholl. By the standards of most Munros, they are infrequently visited.

I'd planned to climb them on the 1st June, but Steve (my bro) had asked if I'd be back his birthday, so I left them until now. It was also great to do them with James, Struan and Ian, who I haven't seen for far too long!

We cycled up to Geldie Lodge via White Bridge and left the bikes. In the pre-mountain bike days, these hills were an extremely long walk, but nowadays they can be done reasonably in a day. Even then, it was a longer trip than I'd expected. It's typical of the Atholl area that hills will take longer than they appear to on the map. Miles of heather-covered slope are wearisome, and these hills just that!

We did Carn an Fhidhleir first, with the thinking that it would be good to get the far one done first. We headed up long slopes to the summit, with the sun bearing down and the air warm. The Cairngorms, just to the north, were magnificent. Soon I would be crossing them.

An Sgarsoch was another big heathery dome, and we made it in fairly quick time. None of the four of us had been to this summit before. That says something for the inaccessibility of these hills, despite their location south of the Great Glen, where the hills are generally more popular. Outside of the Munro Round, it was also my last Munro ticked off south of the Great Glen, SO quite a special one.

We plodded off back to the bikes. Back at Geldie Lodge we met a team of archeologists. They told me that in their excavations (somewhere west of Geldie Lodge), they'd found a flint dating back to around 8000BC and a hearth. Fascinating! They were all heading back to Braemar for the night in landrovers while we were to cycle back! Never mind - we were almost as quick.

I enjoyed the cycle back a lot. I really felt comfortable on the bike, and could pound out higher intensities of effort than ever before. So although I've always been able to find my way around on a bike, today I really got the pleasure of the effort.

A great day, and really nice to see Struan, Ian and James.

Tonight, I'll be walking into the Cairngorms. This range has been hanging over me for a wee while now and now I'm finally about to tackle it. For the last couple of weeks, I've seen them every day from multiple angles, covered in snow and looking mighty. They're coming into summer condition now, and finally I'll get into the heart of them.

I'd rather not walk in tonight but if I don't, the Ben Avon day would be 35kms - too long! I feel reasonable (if ready to crash out!) so it's for the better to do the easy miles into Gleann an t-Slugain.

I'll be out of touch for a few days: on Monday time I'll tackle the central range from Hutchison - Corrour and then on Tuesday I'll do Devil's Point - Braeraich and back to the ski centre to meet dad.

Wednesday is looking like a washout, so if I can just get the summits done now, I can turn that in to a rest day. I'm sure it will be much needed! So that's all for now: one range (the Grampians) is finished, and I move onto another. I've done a huge amount of Munros recently, and it's been great. I hope the Cairngorms will be as good.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Day 36 - Mount Keen

6 June

More blue skies, more sun. I was staying once again at Jac Johnson's flat and had Mount Keen planned, the most easterly of the Munros.

It's a good feeling to have made it all the way east. I've now made a huge arc from Ben More on Mull in the west, to Mount Keen in the east, even if that route has been very circuitous! The weather was great today from start until end; just heat and sun, but occasionally some heavier clouds

I had the strange feeling today of not really being in the Highlands. The area around Mount Keen is complete Southern Upland/Peak/Dartmoor scenery (take your pick), it's miles of rolling moorland without any real distinct summits. It hasn't the majestic flutings of the White Mounth, nor the colour of rural Aberdeenshire. Not even the intense isolation of the Tarf Basin in Atholl. Just miles of brown moor scored by tracks, and a dome of pink granite that rises from the wastes, called Mount Keen.

I was using mum's car for this area, so parked at the Glen Esk road end and biked up Glen Mark to beyond the Queen's Well. This Munro is certainly one of the easiest in that a good track climbs all the way to the top.  Folk take their bikes over the top if it routinely. I walk much better than I cycle, so I dumped the bike when the gradient became too much, and went up on foot.

Within an hour of starting out, I'd gained a lot of height. Lochnagar pulled into view, an immense mountain. I had context again, I felt I was back in the Highlands.

I followed a good path all the way to the top, some folk were around sitting in the sun. To the east the Cairngorms remained covered in snow - although noticeably thawing now. I spent some time on top on the phone to dad, plans are changing - yet again!

The phone call on the summit was because mum wanted the car back; I'd had it nearly a week. So I came home this evening and I'm heading up to Lochnagar in the morning with dad. I'll be self-sufficient with help from him for the next 5 days, until I'm through to Strath Spey.

So it was another easy day today. I was up and down in just over three hours, and headed back to Kirriemuir, and subsequently Glasgow (for one night!). I continue to feel as if things are falling into place:

  • I've passed a third of the Round in terms of time and Munro count.
  • I've been doing a rough measurement of my heart rate as I walk uphill at speed, based on my pulse and a watch. I seem to be holding around 70bpm, which is great.
  • Tonight I calculated I've passed 700km since I began, just over a month ago. That's just under 20km per day. Hard to believe; where did all those km's go?
  • I sat on Munro #50, Meall nan Tarmachan, feeling tired, thinking how hard that first 50 had been and wondering how hard the rest of the the Round would be. Tomorrow I'll climb Munro #100 on the Lochnagar circuit. The second set of 50 has gone by in a flash; slipped through almost unnoticed.
All is going well at the moment and I'm quite content. For now I can't really see further than getting the Grampians finished and getting over the Cairngorms, and into Laggan. I'm glad to have made it to Mount Keen and now I'm moving back west, ultimately to Sgurr na Banachdich on the Cuillin, in a month's time. Superb.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Day 35 - Mayar and Driesh

5 June

Today has been a pretty easy day, and for once I'm not finishing late and cramming in my tea, before polishing off a bleary-eyed blog post.

I'm staying at Jac Johnson's in Kirriemuir at the moment and today I climbed the pair up at Glen Clova; Mayar and Driesh. These are two fairly non-descript hills, but now I think about it, it's probably that the conditions were non-descript. The weather has given days of high pressure, but it's all heavy cloud and drizzle of the warm and humid type. Still, I can't moan when you consider the weather I had in May. Long may it continue - I've got some big days coming up!

I stopped by the bouldering at the top of Glen Clova for a look. The rock was nice, a kind of cross between Glen Nevis burly slopers and Craigmore basalt crimps, from what I could gather. (That's terminology for the climbers!)

But the hills were awaiting, and I followed a well signposted path ("Kilbo Track") through the forests and out onto the hills above. The mist rolled in for the first time in a week or two, and I kept the compass out just to be sure of my direction.

Dreish had a trig point with an encircling wind breaker, Mayar was a simple cairn. The plateau was in mist and paths showed the way, almost all the way. Not difficult hills. I was around the pair in just over three and a half hours.

When I started the Round, even a short day like today would feel difficult because of the day-in-day-out relentless nature of the walking. Now, a short day really does feel like a rest day.

I was half-tempted to fit Mount Keen in today, too. But the weather has given low grey cloud and it seemed like a pointless exercise. I'll leave it for tomorrow, and as ever I'll fit in An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidhleir somewhere in the next few days.

Another nice thing has been that I've finally found a way to put the Cairngorms together that doesn't feel too committing like it could go wrong. The Grampians have so far been a relaxed range, but the Gorms have been on my mind. I just hope the weather doesn't break, and if it does, that it would be on the easier Drumochter/Laggan hills further west.

So all in all, today's been a bit of a non-day. I'll bet the hills are good, I would just have like to have seen them. I'd like to go back to Glen Clova for the climbing and bouldering, too.

Here is what's happening in the next few days:

Tomorrow - Mount Keen (possible Sgarsoch/Fhidhleir)
7th - Lochnagar 5
8th - (possible Sgarsoch/Fhidhleir) and walk into Cairngorms
9th - Avon 4
10th - Mheadhoin, Derry, Macdui, Mhaim
11th - Devil's Point to Braeraich, Monadh Mor, Bhrotain
12th - Daytrip - Mullach and Sgor Gaoith
13th - Daytrip - Cairngorm and Bynack

Anyway, we'll see about all of that! I'll keep thinking on it.

As for tonight, I'm sorting my gear, doing some major washing up and having curry/pizza (either or both!). Not a bad life, this!

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Day 34 - Glen Shee 6

4 June

Recently, I really feel like I've been cooking. Not in the food sense, but in that everything is working so well. My fear is that it doesn't last, which on the whole isn't a such a bad thing.

The good weather must have a lot to do with it. The last two days have been the first of the trip where it's been properly warm and humid, but I can't really complain about that either, when all I seemed to see in May was rain and snow.

Last night, I camped in Glen Cluanie. There's a minor road running parallel to the main road on the other side of the river and I was surprised to see the riverbanks being abused as a campsite. So I made sure this morning I'd cleaned out everyone else's mess before I'd left. I tend to go to bed quite early at the moment, and one of the amazing pleasures is to wake up in the wee hours, look at the watch, think "only 5am, back to sleep"! I love the drifting in and out of sleep with the birds and river to listen to. I'm thankful that at the moment there are no midges - but who knows how long that'll last.

Today saw me over six Munros, which consolidated an already good morale. They are also easy hills and don't feel difficult for their high total of six. At Glen Shee Ski Centre I bought second breakfast, and set off for Creag Leacach.

Today was a music day, I was just in the mood for Rush in myy ears - which made me walk faster too, because I'd had quite a spectacular lie-in and had to meet Jac Johnson later for dinner!

I make a point of shooting a 360 panorama on top of every Munro that I get a view from. In doing so, I'm slowly building up an archive of summit panos. I've come to realise just how many summit panoramas I didn't have before, and this group of six was yet another area I hadn't shot. By the end of the Munro Round, I might not be far off having all the Munros panorama'ed!

Creag Leacach and Glas Maol went by easily, but on Cairn of Claise, I noticed huge rain showers gathering over Braemar. Quite surprising, when the forecast was for endless sun and light winds. I'm happy to say I just missed the rain, but only by a couple of kilometres: by the time I'd walked out to the isolated Munros Tom Buidhe and Tolmount, the rain was falling where I'd just been, and showed no signs of following me! It then went off south somewhere and disappeared completely.

The last time and only time I did these hills, it was a misty day. Finally, it was nice to see something and I feel like I'm really getting to know these eastern hills. There really is a difference between bagging them, and knowing them. Multiple visits do repay, and spending time in one area as I'm doing really does repay in familiarity. A long journey like my three-month indulgence is easier to process when everywhere feels a little like home.

I also look to the distant Southern Highlands on the horizon, and they seem different from before. I might have recognised all the peaks before, but now there's a deeper understanding. Hard to explain, but definitely there.

My day today ended well. I did my last Munro under sunny skies, and the light quality on Carn an Tuirc was stunning. Lochnagar just looked incredible. In that direction the plateau swells up, one hump upon another until it culminates in the high pap of Cac Carn Beag. A short descent from Carn an Tuirc brought me back to the road and I walked back up to the car.

So in quite a short period, I've worked through a sizeable chunk of the Grampian (some call it Southern Cairngorm) region. For the next couple of days I'll work through Mayar, Dreish and Mount Keen, and soon after I'm into the Cairngorms!

Hopefully the weather holds. I feel like the Gorms could be a stumbling block, and I think it's got a lot to do with the fact that I did them all in five days, last year with Struan. I remember how draining they were! But logically, with my current fitness I don't think they'll be an issue. I might split them up if it's tactically advantageous. Every day, I can see the high plateaux and gaping, snow-choked coires, and part of me wants to just get on them so they aren't hanging over me. But I must just bide my time - I'm sure when I get there I'll be absolutely fine.

But for the moment, I'm staying in Kirriemuir at Jac Johnsons' flat - and for that many thanks! I also feel really good, like I'm settled into the routine. As I said at the top, I would only be worried about losing it. But for now, the numbers are ticking up and all is well.