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.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Day 74 - Sgurr nan Gillean

14 July

Back on Skye one last day. A couple of days ago, I got turned back on Sgurr nan Gillean's west ridge. There was a small section of pinnacles so exposed that I couldn't feel comfortable doing them alone. It was the correct decision for the time, but it left one Munro on Skye. A bit of an annoyance.

Dad took me back out to Skye, and left me to my own devices as he headed home to Glasgow. I wasn't sure at this moment whether I'd go for Sgurr nan Gillean. I didn't want to get lost in a tangle of route-finding on the south-east ridge. It would be really easy to drop yet another day and I was completely aware of this. I went for a cup of tea in the Sligachan Inn, balancing the pros and cons of going for Gillean now against going back to the mainland.

The decsion was made when the mist tore away from the Cuillin ridges. I would go for Gillean.

I always find it hard to get going, I spend a lot of pre-hill time drinking tea, organising gear and eyeing up my days hills without actually doing anything about it. And then when I start I just go. And by this point in the Round, I've built up a speed of pace to make up for every lazy start.

While I was sad to leave the Cuillin a few days ago, I now wanted to get them done! I followed the path into Sgurr nan Gillean and the mountain grew before me. It feels a lot further in than it looks on the map. I crossed Coire Riabhach then got up onto the south-east ridge. This ridge is the easiest of the three Gillean ridges, and I was amazed to find it not a lot more than rocky walking by it's easier route. Th mist held off all the way to the summit, I got views across to the north of the Cuillin and down Pinnacle Ridge.

Then a group of three came up the West Ridge and one of them collapsed on the summit and let out a great sigh of relief. I'd already guessed they'd done the complete ridge traverse by the time I asked them. They spoke of waking up freezing cold in the drizzle one morning, and trying to continue. It's a common Cuillin story.

I took their picture, and they got mine. The mist closed right down and I headed off down the south-east ridge, back down the remembered boulder fields, to emerge onto the lower slopes and back out to Sligachan.

I was originally going to do Beinn Sgritheall the same day, too, and I drove around to Arnisdale early evening. But I was pretty damn tired, and even though I was dead-set of Sgritheall, it somehow slipped away. I spent twenty minutes on the phone to Martin (Stillmarillion), and another thirty to home.

I drove around to Arnisdale without a certain place to camp and parked up in the community centre at Corran. The 'no overnight parking' signs were off-putting, I wasn't too sure where to go. I was so tired that I conked out in the driver's seat.

Move on some amount of time, and I woke up to a woman knocking on my window. Jenny, who lived locally, was just wondering if I was ok: "Yes, just absolutely shattered!". I must have looked a sight, knocked out in the front seat. She kindly invited me into her home for a cup of tea and waffles, and it pretty much made my day. It was surreal to walk out of the wild night, unhinged without a place to sleep, and into a warm front room with the kids playing and a TV on.

I eventually slept on a bench in Arnisdale. The weather was wild but I was quite happy in my sleeping bag, listening to the drizzle and the rush of the wind and sea. I went to bed in a great mood. The prospect that I was three days down on schedule, and that I'd have to make them up had been getting to me, and this small encounter made all the difference. So thanks, Jenny.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Day 73 - A' Ghlas-bheinn and Beinn Fhada

13 July

It might have been expected that arriving back on mainland hills from Skye would be a bump back to reality, but it wasn't really the case.

Dad was up for a couple of nights, and so I did the beginning of this walk with him. A' Ghlas-bheinn and Beinn Fhada are two Munros I don't know very well, lying in the back of a glen between Kintail and Affric. They're on the edge of a huge tract of empty land between Glen's Shiel and Carron, an interior full of little-visited mountains, empty glens and bothies.

I got good weather for my day's hills and headed up A' Ghlas-bheinn first. Between the two mountains is a high bealach; the Gaelic name is Bealach an Sgairne. In English, it's gained the name, 'The Gates of Affric'. It's a kind of romantic, Tolkein-esque name for a steep pass leading from west coast Kintail into the upper reaches of Glen Affric.

A' Ghlas-bheinn had many false summits; a bit of a frustration. I got to the top in time, and met a guy there who had spend the last few days in upper Affric at the Youth Hostel. I headed back down A' Ghlas-bheinn the way I came, then around the stalkers track into the coire of Beinn Fhada.

Fhada was a longer hill than appears on the map. I think my legs were just a bit drained, but I just plodded and plodded and sure enough, the top would have to come at some point.

The best part of this day was to see the big mountain ranges open up to the north. Progress is so slow that ranges seem to exist only in the distant future in my mind. Then suddenly, they are only a glen or two away and soon after I'm on them, looking northward again to even more ranges. The Affric mountains dominated my views today, particularly Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Torridon and Slioch were the northern limit to my view, all mountains for the end of the Round. I remember reading Hamish Brown and Chris Townsend talking about this feeling; it's great to experience it for myself.

I spent a good long time on Fhada's summit, and I knew that Michael Kerrigan and Sam Munro had come up to Kintail to see me. So how to get down fast? Curiously, I started running from the top to see how far I got, and then never really stopped. I ran down the summit plateau, onto the stalkers track into the upper coire, down into the glen and all the way back to dad and the car.

I was back down in 49 minutes. A real buzz. I could get into this hill running stuff.

Anyway, it was off to Kintail Lodge Hotel for food: I ate well and had a great time. Sam, David and Michael; great to see you guys, thanks for coming up! I also met Rod (WalkHighlands) in the bar; good to have a chat.

So now I've began my mountains north of Glen Shiel, I still have mopping up to do elsewhere: the Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine, Beinn Sgritheall, and Sgurr nan Gillean. This puts me a couple days behind schedule although I'm hopeful to make it up.

For now, I'm heading back to Skye for Gillean, then the mainland hill-ticking exercise continues...

Day 72 - Northern Cuillin (minus Gillean)

12 July

I always mean to get early starts, but it never seems to happen. Oddly, I awoke to the sound off the tent fabric rustling. Air was in motion. A quick peek outside the tent door revealed thick mist in the bay of Glen Brittle. Dread was my first emotion. I'd wanted good conditions to finish the Cuillin, now we'd had a week of sun, and to think the weather was about to change before I finished them? I lay awake, tense, feeling that the weather was on the change. I still had some Cuillin to complete and I'd heard on the grapevine that a front was on it's way.

So I got up and gave dad a call. That told me what I needed to hear: no, a front wasn't arriving today as some had suggested (chinese whisphers, no doubt) and suddenly the pressure was relieved. Just light cloud and sun for the next few days. Phew.

The Glen Brittle camping was coming to a close today. It was my last day on the Cuillin, Liam was heading back to Glasgow and Jo-lynne was off to Harris. We all met up again at Sligachan and saw each other off. I packed my bags and began up toward my final three Cuillin; Sgurr nan Gillean, Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe.

The walk to Gillean was long; I can see why people coming off the traverse talk about Sligachan never arriving! Oddly, the kilometres don't stack up on the map, yet on the ground they seem endless. The Cuillin seem to have this effect in general.

I'd brought a small rack of climbing gear to pre-empt any difficulties. I was sure Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe would be fine, but I wasn't so sure about Gillean's West Ridge, which seemed to have a reputation for difficulty.

Up close, it wasn't great. There are a series of chimneys stacked together that join the West Ridge. Depending which one your take, a couple of pinnacles have to be negotiated to reach easier ground above. I started with the chimneys.

I went for the obvious option first; a broad gully, about 20m high and polished as hell. I climbed up, down and across in every direction to get comfortable, but I couldn't get over the final bulges to reach the ridge. In the end I gave up, wondering if I should wait for someone to arrive who might know better. Normally I would be able to climb those gullies, but not alone, and not without the protection of leading.

I remembered Hamish Brown saying; "in the Cuillin there's usually always an easier way". So after twenty minutes of bumming around in those chimneys, I climbed back down to safe ground, had a search around, and in an instant; found the correct gully: a couple of metres to the right.

It was easy, I was on the West Ridge in minutes.

But the pinnacles remained, and they stole my thunder almost as soon as I'd got it back. They seemed lacking in holds, awkward and more than anything, horrendously exposed. Again, something I would do with a rope, but not alone. I sat for ten minutes for a think. Nobody was coming that I could get a belay from; I decided quite firmly that it was time to move on from Sgurr nan Gillean. It would have to wait. I'd return later.

Yesterday, I'd been so confident after knocking off 6 Munros in a sitting. Yet the Cuillin had a sting in the tail, and Gillean's West Ridge beat me. Interestingly, I chatted to a guy afterward who mentioned he was happier on the West Ridge pinnacles than he ever was on the Inn Pinn. For myself, it's the opposite way around. I think I was feeling a bit too uncoordinated today to be hanging around above death-drops.

I headed to Am Basteir, which turned out to be easy, despite looking absolutely incredible. Stony slabs led me to the summit, perched on the edge of a void great enough to make your toes curl. I had a quick scramble down toward the Bhasteir Tooth; drops and exposure everywhere. What a place.

But I turned back around to the summit and traversed under Am Bastier's north face. In light of all the excitement, Bruach na Frithe was an easy slog. Walking never feels quite as fun once you've been climbing! I was glad to get this nipped for for it leaves just Gillean to be done on the Cuillin.

I headed down to Sligachan to meet dad, sun-warmed and feeling quite content. Gillean was behind me, still unclimbed. In the past, this continuing loss on schedule might have got me down. But it's happened enough now that I know not to let it. There are always opportunities to make the time back, and so I'll probably combine it with Beinn Sgritheall later on.

Back at Sligachan, dad and I headed to Dornie to stay in a B&B for a couple of nights. Although one part of me wishes not to have to go back to Skye, another part is in love with the Cuillin and I'll be happy to see them once more before finally moving on into unclimbed northern regions.

Day 71 - South/Central Cuillin

11 July

Another day of sun and blue skies awaited and I made sure to get up early. I've had a great morning ritual at Glen Brittle campsite; get up whenever feels reasonable, cook up some food, wander down to the shop and walk back munching on ice cream. Today, I had a big day ahead, and got away just after 10:30am.

It was hot for the walk up into Coire Lagan. I held a pace, keen on reaching my first Munro, Sgurr Alasdair. Liam was going to meet me on The InnPinn (Munro #3) and he would be joined by Neil (depending on whether his vertigo let him) and a woman we'd met in the campsite called Jo-lynne, a Yosemite climber living a fascinating semi-nomadic lifestyle. She was in Glen Brittle on a long cycle from Scotland down to Italy, eventually.

The Great Stone Chute on Sgurr Alasdair has to be one of the most turgid ways to reach one of the best Munros. Every single step, bottom to top was on shifting, energy-sapping scree, save for a couple bits where I could get on solid rock. But it didn't last too long; I soon dropped my bag at the top of the Chute and shot off up to the summit of Sgurr Alasdair; a scramble not as exposed as I'd remembered and a hell of a lot of fun. What a place!

Sgurr Thearlaich was missed out entirely: last year I spent a couple hours and a couple abseils getting lost on this tiny section. So back down the Stone Shoot, I went and up another gully called Bomb Alley, whose name sums it up essentially. I got onto Collie's Ledge, straight across to the ridge of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich (#2) and up to the summit without any hassle.

Inn Pinn next.

The Inaccessible Pinnacle holds the title for being the most difficult Munro to reach in terms of technical climbing. It's the only one where you'll probably need a rope to climb. The mountain upon which it sits, Sgurr Dearg, appears as a whaleback by Cuillin standards. Yet this enormous fin is stuck on the side of the mountain, vertical on both sides, c. 40 metres high, a couple metres wide and rising above the summit of the main mountain by a good number of metres. You can get right up to the base of the Pinnacle barely taking your hands out of your pockets, but this last part requires some climbing.

Liam and Jo-lynne were nowhere to be seen on top of Sgurr Dearg. I tried soloing the V. Diff (rock climbing graded) steep side of the pinnacle (in boots no less... it didn't work out) and hung around, wondering how long I'd have to wait. But no worries; they soon appeared over the ridge, plodding on up towards the summit. It was on.

The plan was for Jo-lynne and I to climb the Pinn by it's east ridge (a Moderate - which in rock climbing terms means really easy) and abseil off the west side as is standard. We waited a couple hours (!) while two parties were on the Pinnacle, then I set off on the lead, clocking that sun steadily sinking in the sky.

The conversation before-hand was hilarious in it's spontaneity:

Jo-lynne: "The route is 60m? How long is your rope?"
Me: "50m"
Jo-lynne: "Oh ok, so we'll simul-climb? I'm solid <moving on rock>."
Me: "Ok...!"

And so I had my first experience of simul-climbing (Google it if you're wondering) at the top of the Inn Pinn, my last gear placed some 10m below. Hmm. One of the wildest moments on the pinnacle was trying to clip the rope into a nut at leg-height, holding on, the rope arcing way, way below out of sight. Wild. And fun, too.

And then, by chance, Nathan Adam, a guy I met through the internet, who eventually moved to Skye to be closer to the mountains (some dedication) came soloing up the East Ridge with his dad. A complete coincidence. We got some snaps, and then all abb'ed off the Pinnacle, allowing Jo-lynne to belay Liam up the west side. And thus Liam got the Inaccessible Pinnacle too.

Time was ticking onward, and after (something like) four hours around the Pinnacle, I was ready to move on, over to Sgurr na Banachdaich for my 200th Munro, and then leaving Liam and Jo-lynne here for my last two; Ghreadhaidh and Mhadaidh. The company had been brilliant, but in that funny way I also appreciated being let off the leash and be allowed to prance off along the Cuillin on my own, on a knife-edge ridge I'd never done before. The ocean on one side, Coiruisg on the other. The sun cast warmth over the Outer Hebrides, I could see the north-west mountains all opened up - many now done, and many more not. The dividing line was at Glen Shiel. Here I was on the edge of it all, on this 3000-foot ridge above the sea. The mountains weren't technical enough to be of concern; it was all just good fun.

With Sgurr a' Mhadaidh done,  I was off down into the coire, back to Glen Brittle, feeling very much at ease with the world and happy to have knocked off a large bit of the ridge. One day I'll go and do the entire ridge traverse, Gars-bheinn to Gillean.

The sun sunk as I plodded down the path to the glen; the black gabbro turned to crimson above. Back in the glen, I only had to walk down the road for five minutes before a car packed with folk took me the remaining km's down to the campsite. I cooked up a curry, Jo-lynne cooked some 'rot'. (take all the food you have, throw it in a pot and heat: in this case, rice, chopped onions and carrots and Dolmio sauce) Sleep came easily.

It was a challenging day, but the day's unknowns proved not to be an issue and I had a great time. One of the real highlights, for sure.

3 Cuillin to go.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Day 70 - A Cuillin rest

10 July

Despite ambitious plans to finish the south/central Cuillin today, I woke up to a splitting blue sky, feeling good physically, but fried in the head. I've felt like a zombie the past few mornings and it takes the feet ten minutes to wake up every morning. I suspect a lot of back-to-back days have been getting to me.

I was all set to drag myself up the Cuillin again, but Liam, Neil and Steve managed to talk me out of it. I'm very glad to have the day off. In terms of schedule, it's not ideal, so I'm committed to a big day tomorrow. I'm in the Old Inn at Carbost right now (great place), and I've made sure to do my research so that a sweep of the six central Cuillin goes well tomorrow. A rest day now ensures I'll be playing catch-up for a while to come, but a respite was what I've needed. A day without pressure is a unique feeling and the weight of the Munro Round has been bearing down recently.

And yet, despite all of that, I'm loving what I'm doing right now. It's just hard to see it when you're in the middle of it! Steve asked me last night if I'd do it again. And I'd honestly answer, yes. I'm getting close to finishing a sub-100 day Munro Round based from a car, so I might look for a variation on that theme. But I'm enjoying it enough that I wouldn't say no... maybe not for another few years, though!

You will probably also have noticed I've been a bit behind on updating my blog. That's because internet access and time have been so hard to find recently. With all this camping at Loch Quoich and Skye, it's been near enough impossible to get power for charging, let alone internet connection. Yesterday was the first time I've done a Munro Round day without a charged phone. But now I've finally found some Skye wifi and I'm catching up on everything that I've missed in the last week.

In general, all is going well and I'm ready now to get back outside and relax in the sun before another big stint. Tomorrow I'll hit #200 on Sgurr na Banachdich. I'm less than a month from finishing. I've got about a week at Shiel and Affric to get through, and thereafter my parents are up on holiday from the 20th July until the end of the Round.

I'm starting to really feel like there's no good reason not to finish now. I'm on day 70 (bloody hell......) and there's no reason why I can't keep going. In just ten days, my parents are on holiday with me and then everything should be a bit easier with that base to work from.

Anyway, now I'm going back to Glen Brittle to enjoy the sun while it's out. (And promise it won't be a week before the next blog posts!)

Day 69 - South Cuillin

9 July

A lazy start at Glen Brittle meant we left at midday. In October last year, climbing with Cameron McIlvar, I did Sgurr nan Eag to the InnPinn with relative ease, five Munros all in. So the plan today was to do as much as possible, starting in the south and working up.

It was another day of big blue skies and inversion-like drifting mist. Liam, Neil, Steve and I headed up into Coire a' Ghrunnda in the direction of Sgurr nan Eag. Coire a' Ghrunnda is insanely rocky, enormous slabs and pinnacles everywhere. It's humbling, but the path through it isn't unreasonable. Sgurr nan Eag is one of the easier Cuillins, and we got an amazing ascent with swirling mist and an immense sense of scale across the ocean.

Progress had been slow though, and we got to the top in five hours. So I wouldn't be doing a big day - that would have to wait until another day. Sgurr Dubh Mor was the last Munro, and I had great pleasure in route finding on this one. Despite having been here before, I still took the wrong routes, and finally stitched together the correct route on descent. Sgurr Alasdair was silhouetted by the sun and lifted off the Earth by the inversion-like mists which swirled around the mountains. The helicopter that had buzzed around the Cuillin all day disappeared; Steve, Liam and I hobbled back to the campsite having had a long day out, two Munros down and plenty more to go. I put a curry on and simply went to bed; pretty knacked.

Two Cuillin down, and plenty more to go.

Day 68 - Bla Bheinn

8 July

Bla Bheinn is a mountain in the Cuillin standing in immense isolation, surrounding by ocean and mountains. Before this day I knew it would be a really good mountain. In truth, it's so much better than I expected. It's absolutely stunning, the ultimate, and a fantastic introduction to Skye.

I did this with Liam and Neil after a drawn-out rendezvous in Broadford. Despite finding the Mamores almost easy the day before, I was pretty zombied this morning, so Bla Bheinn was the immediate choice. We didn't rush: about three visits to Co-op and a visit to the Broadford reptile centre later, we parked up below Bla Bheinn and took the path up.

The east face of this mountain really is humbling. It's just black cliffs, and pinnacles and crazy drops, everywhere. The amount of map reading required to get up was surprising. Like all of the Cuillin, repeat visits repay in familiarity. You can't entirely read these mountains off a map. Route-finding skills and a familiarity with rock climbing come in extremely useful in dealing with the rock, scree, false paths and huge exposure.

Bla Bheinn has two great buttresses split by a great gully in the centre. All of these features provide feasible routes of ascent, although you wouldn't think it by looking at them. And thus in drifting (high pressure) mist we followed a rough path up into the unknown and scrambled up little steps and walls toward the South Top of Bla Bheinn.

Near the top, we came out the top of the cloud, and looked out over the west coast of Scotland, draped in blankets of low cloud, the sun above us splitting the deep blue sky. A perfect day in every way.

To come over the top of Bla Bheinn and see the whole Cuillin spread before you is a special thing to witness. A thin cloud layer was piled up behind the Cuillin on the Atlantic side, spilling over the mountain saddles like waves. I think this view blew everyone's minds, and gave a sobering reminder of the immense task still to come. I've been on the Cuillin before, but they are by no means a known quantity for me. Shocked and humbled by the scenery, we continued to the main summit of Bla Bheinn, down a rock step and up to the cairn.

Typical of the Cuillin in the sun, it wasn't a place to be moving fast. The Cuillin simply make you stand and gawp, and then get back to the task in hand of climbing and clambering. Steve might be getting worried about us, but we didn't rush in leaving the summit of that magnificent mountain. One of the best of the entire Round, so far.

A pounding descent followed, and Steve was indeed wondering where we'd got to. But all was fine, and we headed around to Glen Brittle, with a stop at Broadford on the way. Another day I wish I could get pics on my blog: I will soon enough though!

Day 67 - Mamores 10!

7 July

The Mamores were my last Munros south of the Great Glen, and the last before I finally went to Skye. Liam was heading off into Knoydart to attempt Ladhar Bheinn, and thus left me to my own devices to knock off these ten Munros in a day.

The Mamores are a tight-knit range of mountains just south of Fort William of high ridges, stony peaks and mountains packed with character. The Mamores in a day has been a wish of mine since I began climbing mountains - a bit of an ultimate goal.

And finally, the weather forecast came good. It was the day to go for it by all accounts, but I woke up in Fort William feeling rough. The forecast was for high pressure for the next ten days to a week, and outside the last low cloud was tearing off the hills around the Fort. The early start was hard work and I slugged down drinks and food, willing myself to feel better. It didn't feel like I was about to do ten Munros. It had to be done: there was nothing else in the area to be climbed, and if I didn't complete them I'd have to come back and lose another day on my schedule. Not an option, at the moment.

So I headed down Glen Nevis and parked at the road end. Glen Nevis is an amazing area, one of the truly special places of the Highlands. The depression of Fort William can feel suffocating (if comfortingly familiar for a west coast Scot) and it's easy to forget that this beautiful glen is only a few miles away. It's a place I could spend a lot of time in...

Binnein Beag was up first: a long slog up it's northern slopes. Conditions were incredible, with crystal-clear visibility to match any stunning winter's day. Sgurr Eilde Mor is the outlier to the group, and demanded a bit of grit on my part to get up and down. My thinking was to start with the awkward eastern Munros first, and work westward into a path of decreasing resistance, and west towards the sinking sun.

On Binnein Mor, I finally felt like I was getting up on the ridge proper. Here, it's a very short hop across to Na Gruagaichean, and once you are on the Ring of Steall (the name for the central group of Mamores), you're sorted. The day was hot, often windless, but water wasn't as great a problem as might have been expected. Each peak just fell in turn, with amazing views in every direction. The Nevis Range looks specially good from here, and Aonach Beag is fast turning into a favourite mountain of mine. To the south, I could see all the early mountains of May; storm-lashed at the time, but now dormant in the sun.

In fact, I'd since made inroads into Knoydart and Glen Shiel, and I'd actually done just about every single Munro in sight. A full 360 degree panorama!

I felt the only detraction of the Mamores in a day, was that all the ridges are fairly similar and 12 hours of that feels wearing on the mind. Nevertheless, I romped around the Ring of Steall, over the Devil's Ridge and back, onto Stob Ban and thus to Mullach nan Coirean. All the morning's fatigue was gone toward the end, the legs were just moving on autopilot. This is another day I would have struggled with in the past. It's a continuing pleasure of the Munro Round to feel so damn fit on these big days. They don't really seem to affect me a lot any more.

Steve picked me up by Achriabhach in Glen Nevis, a shade over 12 hours after I started. We grabbed a McDonalds for tea (a mistake in retrospect!) and slept in the cars outside Spean Bridge.

Finally the door is open to Skye. I've thought a lot on my Round about when I finally get to Skye. I always remember thinking that Skye would be such a long way off that there isn't any point in thinking about it. And I thought that when I did get there, I'd be so close to finishing my Round. Well now it's here, and the weather forecast is incredible for the coming days. Now that I'm in this position, there still feels like a long way to go, but I also have so much behind me. For the first time, I'm beginning to feel the end drawing into sight...

Day 66 - Gulvain

6 July

It was a surprise to wake up and see the sun beaming in the tent. Liam and I were camped below the Quoich dam, at the flat areas by the private road. The plan for the day was Gulvain, a lone Munro by Fort William. Gairich was prominent above the campsite, bright and green in the sun. It was so easy just to relax and feel on holiday for once.

We packed up camp and headed south in the direction of Gulvain. I stopped by Spean Bridge to get hot rolls out of the Spar. By the time I was on the way to Fort William, the skies were going grey and it was obvious that bad weather was on it's way. By the time Liam and I were at the start of the route and ready to go, it was warm, humid and fine drizzle was spitting down.

The craic with Liam was great, but the weather was pretty horrible. That warm, damp stuff with low clinging mist to go. I hadn't been on Gulvain before, so it was a novelty to get a totally new Munro. You know you're close to completing them all when new terrain is a novelty!

The approach up the glen was long and then we got started on the hill. Wind picked up, we went into mist, and then the rain fell heavier and heavier. We got high up at the weather got worse. It's a drag of a hill with a (probably) great view. So get it on a good day. For me, it was all about ticking one more off the list. The weather was incessantly wet, but not of the piss-take variety, at first.

Then the skies tipped with water the way up to the summit cairn and back, and we headed down the way we came, every path now a stream, every hillside streaming water. On the way down, we frightened some deer; they charged off and I saw (for the first time) one jump a clear twenty (or more?) feet across a burn. Utterly spectacular.

The rain continued to fall on the way back out. The glen track was a long trudge, for the future; it's best tackled with a bike (if you're me), or a quad bike (if you're Liam). we were completely soaked and my thighs were chaffing again as they had done in the first wet days of the Round. My gear was as soaked as it's been in a long time, and I headed back to Fort William to stay with James, driving down roads in the grey desolation of mist and drizzle pushed all the way down to sea level.

All in all; a good day to get a single one climbed. Thank god I didn't go for the Mamores!

Day 65 - Gleouraich, Spidean, Gairich

5 July

A day of two halves.

Andy and I headed around to Loch Quoich the night before and camped at the dam. Loch Quoich is in the Western Highlands and literally surrounded by Munros. It's typical Western Highland desolation. A lone, single-track road winds from the east into wilder and wilder lands. By the time you pass the dam, you are completely alone in an empty and harsh land. On almost all my visits, the far peaks at the west end of Loch Quoich have been concealed in mist and lost to the far unlit unknown.

In most conditions, it feels a gently hostile place. In bad weather, it could be frightening. But on my visits in the last week, I feel I've come to know the area so well. Kinloch Hourn no longer feels as isolated as it used to. An understanding of the place goes a long way. But even then it's hard to shake off the stark emptiness, the drowned shooting lodges, the stray rhododendrons that are the lodge's only visible remains. A walk by the loch shore showes masses of felled pine stumps. You get a feeling that this place must have looked so different once.

In the morning, Andy and I climbed Gleouraich and Spidean Mialach, a day of cloud lifting gently above the summits. The path up Gleouraich is pretty spectacular, and we headed up to the summit in lifting cloud and eventually sun. It, and Spidean Mialach were simple hills to do - a lot of character, but not a lot in the way of complication. Just two more off the list, and two that I climbed a few years ago and hadn't been back to since.

But all morning, Gairich was over my shoulder. For the benefit of the schedule, it would have to be done today. Dougie and I had missed it out of the Knoydart trip and I'd have to go back for it - it's not a short walk either...

So once off the hill, Andy headed for home. Soon after he drove off, Liam appeared up the Kinlochhourn road to join me for the next bit. We cooked up some food in an area out of the wind, and headed off up Gairich at 5pm. We met a guy at the car park, who asked if we were heading up. "Yes", and then he checked his watch and pulled that face of "bit late, no?". Hehe...

Well, we had 5 or 6 hours before darkness really came on. It was a good walk, but long and boggy, up the long arm by Loch Quoich. I wonder if this hill would have been a lot easier before the valley was flooded by the dam. I'm not sure, but it's often the case that Highland hydro schemes have flooded the area and cut off access to the mountains. If a ferry service operated on these shores as they do on Loch Mullardoch, Sgurr na Ciche would be an easy day out! Gairich would be a much easier mountain (and probably more satisfying) if you went direct across the water in a kayak.

We got to the top of Gairich in semi-gloom and in mist. The summit was gained, and I'd be happy to get down and get to bed. I was feeling pretty tired by this point, as Liam was quick to realise - I didn't say much on the last stretch, just the occasional grunt and reply.

My original plan for the following day was to do the ten Mamores, and then Gulvain the following day. But the weather forecast suggested I switch these days, and thus it was a relief to have a short day (Gulvain) to follow instead of the Mamores, which is a monster 10-Munro link-up.

So much of the Munro Round is about piling on the pressure when there's an advantage to be exploited, and trying to ease the pressure when the time isn't right (due to bad weather or fatigue, usually). By relenting the pressure on the Gulvain day, I could prepare for the Mamores the following day which would no doubt take a lot from my system again.