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.
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.