Monday, 9 June 2014

Stage 3: Dalwhinnie to Tyndrum

I awoke to the sound of rain drumming on the tarp. Opening my eyes I could see the midges massing on the mesh of the bivvy bag's face panel. I was camping at Ben Alder Bay on Loch Ericht. The previous day I'd fought my way over Bheinn Bheoil face first into driving rain and mist. Cold and wet and wary of lightning I'd retreated from Ben Alder to camp by the loch. Eventually hunger and a full bladder forced me to unzip the bivvy bag and emerge to let the midges have their fill.

This was the stage of the walk where I began to run up hard against limitations, most notably the weather, time, terrain, and my fitness and stamina. The close brush with lightning had also affected me more than I realised. On the hill I was constantly on edge. It was threatening to spoil my enjoyment. It quickly became clear that I wouldn't be able to walk every step of the watershed as I'd hoped. Instead I tried to thread together a route that was challenging but achievable within those limits, that stayed close to the watershed and included some key summits.

The fine weather that rounded off the previous stage of the walk didn't last. Walking over the Fara from Dalwhinnie, a heavy shower hinted at the drenchings to come. Next day over Bheinn Bheoil was grim: the highlight was a ring ouzel or mountain blackbird near the summit. That evening I received the first real savaging by midges of the trip.

Despite a poor start the next day turned out well. Early rain cleared and I had a long sunny ridgewalk over the Munros of Sgor Gaibhre and Carn Dearg. The latter hill was one of those pivotal points of the walk where I seemed to be entering an entirely new landscape. Ahead lay Rannoch Moor and the great mountains of the west: Glencoe, the Mamores, the Grey Corries. The humidity was intense the next morning. Ugly black clouds bubbled up and there were distant rumbles of thunder. The day descended into farce as I lost the path from Rannoch to Kingshouse and ended up in the middle of the moor in pouring rain. It was a long struggle over difficult terrain to regain the track and reach Kingshouse. It rained all night. Camped behind the hotel, I awoke to puddles of groundwater inside the tarp. I had wanted to traverse the Black Mount but they were wreathed in cloud and I didn't feel confident navigating the complex ridges in poor weather. I was tired and depressed and needed some respite.

The walk along the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy is a fine one. I caught a bus from there to Tyndrum and stayed at the campsite. The following morning, fully dried out and in better spirits, I bussed back to Bridge of Orchy. The watershed route had fallen to bits but I was determined to have a good three days exploring the hills down to Tyndrum and climb as many watershed summits as time and energy allowed. And they turned out to be great days. On a beautiful afternoon I walked over Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a'Chreachain to camp at a lonely bealach looking out to Rannoch Moor. Next day I was feeling done in after six consecutive days of walking. I had a short day over Beinn Mhanach. I was glad I camped early. The heavens opened in the late afternoon and rain hammered the tarp for almost four hours. Finally on a showery morning I crossed Beinn nam Fuaran and Beinn a'Chaisteal before walking through a green, trackless pass through the hills to Strath Fillan and so to Tyndrum. Three great days and a good rummage through the hills went some way to make up for the disappointment of previous days.

Perhaps the highlight of this stage - and something I might not have seen if all had gone to plan - was visiting the Tigh nam Bodach. This tiny stone house at the head of Glen Lyon is home to a little family of stone figures. Every April they are taken out of the house by a local shepherd, and put back in October. It's an ancient shrine and the ritual mirrors the movement of transhumance: taking cattle to summer pastures in the hills and returning to the lower lands as winter approached.

Sadly, Tigh nam Bodach is threatened. Planning permission has been granted for a mini hydro scheme in Gleann Cailliche. If it goes ahead a road designed for heavy construction traffic will be driven up the glen. With increased ease of access will come more people, and the little stone family and their house will inevitably be lost to thieves and vandals.

Local legend says that bad things will happen if the figures are taken. Maybe this isn't a supernatural threat but a logical assessment of where we're headed when we destroy our connection with the land and our past in the name of money.

Finally a reminder that I'm walking for Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust. Please visit the fundraising page on this blog to read more and donate to two great charities.

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