Friday, 28 July 2017

Fisherfield: the land of far beyond

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst - that's usually the mantra, especially on a journey into the remotest mountain country in Scotland. But here I was, preparing for the best, sunscreen, shorts and sun hat packed, two bottles of water in the side pocket. The weather forecast was unequivocal. After many, many years of anticipation, this long walk over the mountains of Letterewe and Fisherfield was about to be seared in my memory in green, gold and blue.

I had 36 hours to play with. Two long, rough days of walking, six mountains and one camp. I walked in from the north. As I left Corrie Hallie, the hills were sloughing off the last of the previous day's rainclouds. The road was still slick with water and droplets glittered on birch leaves as I toiled up the track - the start of long trails through to Kinlochewe and Poolewe to the south.

An Teallach under cloud
Past three tired-looking German lads heading north on the Cape Wrath trail, past brooding An Teallach and its cloudy cauldrons, then out at last on to the wide, windy moor, on to the threshold.

Nothing waits on the other side except yourself and what you bring to it. A 'mountain fastness' - this is maybe the closest we have to such a thing, not just a secluded valley or a dead-end but a whole empty landscape of mountains and rivers with no roads, no bridges, no houses. But let's not get carried away. I drop down to the bend of the River Sealga with its little alder wood and grassy flats and find remains of at least three buildings, just the overgrown bases of the walls left now. People once stood here and looked out, just as I'm standing outside looking in.

Up ahead,Beinn a'Chlaideimh, the hill of the sword, looks like it's wielded from on high as it cleaves the cloud.

I wade the broad river and throw down pack and poles at the far bank, ready for lunch. I'm joined by another walker, with a livewire springer spaniel called Genghis whose nose regularly invades my space as I fish things out of my food bag. After lunch the three of us walk and talk our way up the slopes for a bit before parting ways - I want to take the steep route up the prow of the hill for the views of An Teallach whilst Mark with a dog in tow heads south to easier slopes away from the crags.

The cloud is burning off quickly but the wind still bullies with violent localised gusts and eerie thrums and moans amongst the boulders and hollows.

The climb gets a bit steep and sketchy, not a place to slip, but I'm rewarded with a close encounter with ptarmigan, a finely honed ridge and a fine perch for a second lunch. That climb has taken it out of me. In fact I can't keep on top of my hunger all day. I later worked out that total ascent on this first day was over 2,000 metres.

Onwards into the afternoon, a long descent of Sword Mountain towards Sgurr Ban, the white peak bristling with pale boulders making an awkward climb for tired legs.

Then beyond is Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, highest peak on the round. On the way to the next bealach I spot two people descending the steep zig-zag path you can just make out on the right of the picture below, and catch their voices above the crunch of boots on scree.

Yet I somehow miss them - we manage to pass on opposite sides of a huge boulder. Attacking the zig-zags I get a second wind. I measure my progress against the couple now climbing Sgurr Ban and play a game, trying to reach the top of my hill before they reach theirs. It keeps me going until a few dozen metres off the summit where I stop to take photos.

Beyond the Mullach the ridge curves westwards to Beinn Tarsuinn. I'm captivated by this strange little mountain. There's something sculpted, artificial about the blocky tiers and columns of its north face, like an exotic long-abandoned vertical city carved into the rock. Or maybe the sun is getting to me. My water is all gone and the ridge is dry as a bone.

A path bypasses the next rocky lump, Meall Garbh - the rough hill, well named. On the next col there's nothing else for it, I dump the bag and drop some way down green slopes into the corrie where seeps and trickles start to gather and flow more freely. I top up bottles, drain them, top them up again.

The final climb of the day to Beinn Tarsuinn is an easy one...

...but the subsequent descent isn't. I'm dog tired and the ridge is rough and saw-toothed, the 1:50,000 map just doesn't do this level of detail. At one point the route climbs onto a weird, broad, slightly tilted platform of scored slabs, maybe the size of a tennis court. Then a bypass path slightly below a sharp, pinnacled crest and a teeteringly steep descent on jelly legs, as sure-footed on the sloping stones and gravel as a drunk on floor covered with marbles. I dislodge a large stone which quickly bounds down the slope, thwacking off boulders like a pinball. I can hear it long after it's lost to sight... It's getting a bit silly now and I need to stop.

The first piece of flattish ground will do nicely, though it's a bit damp. Then camp set-up and chores, trying to follow the routine through a haze of fatigue, without cutting corners. Soup, two butteries, mac 'n' cheese with smoked sausage barely touches the sides. Hot chocolate and a flapjack and I feel human enough again to venture outside my shell and outside the tarp to just be where I am. A rough and beautiful world of rock, water and sky, a flawless northern summer twilight.

Just before midnight the wind veers from west to south. Changing the Trailstar door is a minor annoyance but as I get into my sleeping bag, it's unmistakeably warmer. True enough, day two is a proper scorcher.

I'm ready to go just after 9 and wend my way across a broad col of rocks, bogs and trickles to the long slopes of A'Mhaighdean. This is the tortured, wildest end of this wilderness - the great cliffs of Beinn Lair, the many lochs cradled at different altitudes, and beyond it all, the sea.

A'Mhaighdean summit at 10.30am is all mine. Here I am - at long last.

An easy winding descent to another wild rocky col - and now the steep red scree dome of Ruadh Stac Mor. I'm feeling rested and refreshed and blessed to be here, burning up the screes to the top for an early lunch. I linger a bit, no rush - more or less all downhill now.

It's a long descent north between some lovely lochans, but it's steeper an more complex than the maps reveal, with bands of broken craggy ground to be negotiated.

My feet are getting hot and chafed in boots. Off the summits, it's really hotting up. I reach the stalker's path that crosses from Carnmore bothy and down towards Shenavall. I stop to change into trail shoes, shorts and fresh socks. Aaah, the relief. I'm practically skipping down the fine, gravelly path though my pack now has nearly a couple of additional kilos of boot in it. The path swoops down in sweeping switchbacks into Gleann na Muice Beag, then by the main river in Gleann na Muice.

Then in the valley flats the path deteriorates for long stretches into mud and bog. Fatigue rises again. I ford the river at Larachantivore and plough laser-like across the swampy flats towards another river crossing, then Shenavall and a brew.
Beinn Dearg Mor above Larachantivore cottage
There are some Cape Wrath Trail hikers in residence, including the couple I missed the day before. I brew coffee and spend a pleasant 45 minutes chatting. All have been through Bendronaig Forest to the south and seen the scars of hydro works there. Will the massive haul roads be removed when the works are done? Non-committal noises hang in the bothy air.

I'm not quite done. In my haste I somehow miss the path on the moor above Shenavall for a mile, then stumble on it again. A second evening is drawing on but it's easy now, down and down towards Corrie Hallie on a track, back through the shivering birches and birdsong. Behind me the mountains sink beyond view again. But they really are there, I know that now. Go and see for yourself.

PS: I got exceptionally lucky this time. Here's what these mountains can be like when the weather doesn't play nice.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Twenty four hours in Glen Etive

Time was tight. It always is, but there was an added deadline: thunderstorms and torrential rain on Saturday afternoon bringing a dramatic end to the heatwave. I had 24 hours to play with. Mental triangulations resulted fairly quickly in a firm plan: the five Munros of Glen Etive. I'd climbed some of these piecemeal - Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mor on a wet and misty July day in 1995; an unsatisfying slog up Stob Coir' an Albannaich in April 2001 when foot and mouth was at its height and vehicles queued near Bridge of Orchy to drive through disinfectant. Now, with perfect weather and long hours of daylight, it seemed a good time to walk the whole round, light and fast, with a brief camp when it was too dark to go any further.

Glas Bheinn Mor - the 'big green mountain'
I'm parked and off around 11am, and the heat is intense. Water is a worry almost straight away; I'm feeling parched after just a mile. But climbing Ben Starav's long northeast ridge, there's a welcome breeze...

...and diverting views...

...and hints of the high route to come.

I'm surprising myself by how fast I'm moving, soon drawing level with Beinn Trilleachan across Loch Etive. With a guaranteed hot, dry forecast - even on the summits, and even overnight - I've ditched a ton of weight: trail shoes instead of boots; shorts; no gaiters or overtrousers, just a light waterproof jacket; no insulated jackets, instead a fleece and a windshirt; down filler bag instead of full-on sleeping bag. Thinking back to winter it's a wonder we manage to move at all!

This has to be one of the best ridge climbs in the country, though. Boredom breeds fatigue, and this climb is anything but boring. Eventually the bouldery summit cone swings into view. The ridge dawdles along on the level for a bit, with small cliffs to the left above a smashed chaos of steep boulders and outcrops. I'm struggling to find many memories of my last visit here. I couldn't see much at the time. Then I hear it: water churning in the high corrie below, amplified by the curve of the bowl, and I click into place: that's the sound of Ben Starav, rain or shine, sighted or blind.

The final steep pitch to the summit is an absorbing clamber over the bristling granite hackles of the ridge. It's as airy a place as you'd expect for a mountain that rises over a kilometre into the sky from the shores of a sea loch.

I had lunch just past the summit. There's a raven - it seems that every summit here has its raven , just as every glen has its cuckoo. A Dutch couple appear up the ridge from a camp in Glen Kinglas.

Stob Coire Dheirg provides an easy scramble on a sharp crest. Shattered quartz is strewn amongst the rough rasping granite.

Looking back up to Stob Coire Dheirg as I descend steeply to the col, there's a vertical white streak of quartz down the rock face under the top. Memories are triggered again, of the quartz band appearing through the mist as I climbed up to Ben Starav.

I drop north from the col towards Beinn nan Aigheanan, hill of the hinds, an outlier from the main ridge. I detour into a wide, boggy bowl to find water. I'm not the only one in need of some moisture - there are many frogs. I find a beautiful burn tumbling over granite stones from a deep gorge further up the corrie, the water sharp, cold and crystal clear. I gulp down my fill, then fill up my bottles. It's a beautiful spot today, a blissful sun-trap.

I dump the rucksack by the path and set off for the outlying hill with camera, water bottle and one pole. So much exposed granite everywhere - rocks, massive tilted slabs, rasping dry grit. Ptarmigan chicks huddle on the path whilst the mother scuttles off low, trying to lead me away. I play along so she can get back to them quickly.

It's a dry heat, not a sapping humid heat. There are bleached white rocks in peat dark pools. It;s been a dry year so far.

Winding on up round the slabs and outcrops, some mild scrambling here and there.

A pair of butterflies chase each other at high speed around the summit. One settles long enough for me to glimpse its wings - a red admiral for sure, but up here at over 3,000 feet? Certainly the mountain tops are teeming with all sorts of curious insects today, drawn upwards by the heat. And it is hot. Even with a breeze and in shirtsleeves I'm perspiring buckets.

Ben Cruachan draws the eye all the way up and down this hill.

Back to the bag, another detour to refill water bottles, then back up to the main ridge. Afternoon has shifted to early evening now. I met a couple on Beinn nan Aigheanan but now the hills are empty, I'm alone, and harsh daylight is decaying into soft shadows and slanting golden rays.

Steady progress up and over Glas Bheinn Mor. I feel good, as long as I keep refuelling - a wrap with cheese and smoked sausage by the cairn, some water and an energy gel and I'm good to go once more, down to another col.

Then a steep pull over scree to land on the big sloping plateau of Stob Coir'an Albannaich, peak of the corrie of the Scotsmen - perhaps named at a time when the 'Scots' were early Irish immigrants. To walk here in the afterglow of such a summer day is magical. The plateau is crisp with moss and lichen and gravel, and studded with tiny flowers. I'm strongly tempted to pitch my tent here - there are springs nearby - but neither do I want the day to end quite yet. I push on.

The day gutters and fades but never quite goes out. I find the way off the sharp summit to the next bealach.

Alpenglow is brushing the ridges as I search for a camping spot. This is the wild side of Stob Coir'an Albannaich, a wilderness of exposed rock still as raw and scoured as the day the glaciers left.

I find a small flat dry patch above the watery maze of the corrie and watch the final fireworks. Then a harrowing 20 minutes, tired and dehydrated and hungry, wrestling the tent in a stiff breeze that flows over the bealach and down the slopes, the sort of wind that seems to come from all directions at times. Should have brought the tarp, or even better, just a bivi bag. Eventually it all comes good - there's shelter, soup, food and drink, and a change of sweat-damp and salt-stained clothes.

The divide between day and night almost dissolves at this time of year and especially in this weather. In my mind this isn't an 'overnighter' really, it's just twenty-four hours outdoors in varying levels of daylight. Nature seems to be slightly losing the plot around me. Peering into the moss and grass around my tent, it's actually crawling with mating crane flies, the smaller males swarming and jostling over the females. There is no rest, no night for these creatures, just a headlong charge to pass on life and expire.

It's not the most comfortable pitch - a few bumps and lumps - but I must have slept because the next thing I know it's 6.20am. I crawl outside into broadest daylight, sun and heat rapidly building again. Porridge, coffee and a buttery, back into a damp shirt and trail shoes, then I'm away before 8. I want to be well off the hills before the promised rain and lightning risk arrives.

I continue up and over Meall nan Eun, hill of the birds. On the slopes there's a group of hinds, the only red deer I see this trip. The summit is like a little plateau, grassy and easy walking, more scrunchy granite grit. Things get a bit more serious as I drop off the other side to the next bealach. It gets steep, scrambly and exposed rock appears. I slow up and concentrate, gradually picking a way down past little worlds in the nooks and angles of the rock - here, a seep of water trickles down beards of slimy green moss and perfect tiny ferns grow in the shade.

At the bealach, tilting granite slabs tip the waters of the waxing burn down into Glen Ceitlin. I follow, winding down from rock to lush grass and the scent of bog myrtle, relishing the contrast between the mountain and the glen where the heat weighs down like a blanket. There's a cuckoo, of course.

There's Stob Coir'an Albannaich appearing again, showing off it's untamed credentials.

Back eventually by the River Etive, the cloud is filling in, the air is still and thick, and it's suddenly so humid I sweat even when walking slowly. As I round the corner on the road and the car comes into view. I hit the central locking button as the first fat drops stir the dust.