Thursday, 13 October 2016

Autumn gold rush

An unusual thing happened in October. There was a very long run of perfect Autumn weather, which actually coincided with a couple of opportunities for me to get out into the hills and enjoy it. Highlight of the month - probably the year, quite possibly much longer - was a three day backpack with friends, making our way from Fort William to Glenfinnan through and over the magnificent backcountry of north Ardgour. Three days of sensory overload - stags roaring day and night, golden sunrises and sunsets, billion-star velvet skies - left me slack-jawed through much of the following week. Hopefully this trip will appear in print sometime in the future.

Cona Glen sunrise, Ardgour
The fine weather continued and a few days later I headed back up the A82 to Glencoe. It's a long drive from Edinburgh and predictably the car parks were overflowing as I drove down the glen, dozens of walkers and climbers heading off for the Aonach Eagach, Bidean nam Bian and the Buachailles. However, tucked away on the left, obscured by a powerful truncated ridge and invisible from the main road as it swings round onto the final downhill run to Glencoe village, is Sgor na h-Ulaidh, the peak of the treasure and its lower neighbour Meall Lighiche, the doctor's hill. Curious and obscure all over, these two. There's a parking area near the end of the track that leads in to them. There were only two cars, including my own.

The chill is biting further into the day and the air is starting to nip in the shade but around the middle of the day the sun still rallies some strength. On the open slopes of Lighiche it's all blue and gold, and the sweat is running into my eyes.

Away on the right is the back of Beinn a'Bheithir, better known as a grand mountain cirque of deep corries and long enclosing ridges above Ballachulish, on its far side. From here though it's like something dredged up from a dream, an artifact of the subconscious. At first I think of shark's teeth or snake's fangs, then I think bigger: a leviathan's back, huge fins breaking the waves as it readies itself to plunge. One possible translation of the Gaelic bheithir denotes a huge serpent.

Meall Lighiche stays grassy and easy up to the summit, where I stop for lunch, chilling down quickly. Don't believe the pictures, it really is October out there. I leave the summit in hat, gloves, fleece and windshirt.

Sgor na h-Ulaidh looms across a deep bealach. There's over 1,000 feet of unrelenting climbing. On the descent from Lighiche I scan the opposite slopes, which tend towards craggy and broken. I pick out a long groove on the right, beyond which the slopes seem grassier if still steep. I work my way across to this and beyond, then tackle the climb head-on. It's steep, very steep. It goes but there's a hint of exposure. The ground falls away behind so quickly; I can't see far either up or down the slope. A tiny bit of fear and focus is good as a slip here could mean a long and bumpy roll downhill.

The little summit plateau-cum-ridge feels like the eye in a storm of savage inclines. There are muscular ridges and exposed rock all around, self-contained mountains isolated by deep bealachs. I meet a man on the summit, a convert from coarse fishing to hill-bagging - the one hobby has completely replaced the other. He's got a large dog in tow, wearing its own pannier bags. You wonder how these hills got their names, he says. It's a good question. Was there a legend of treasure buried around the hill, or is the hill itself the treasure, something you have to dig your way out of Glencoe to find?

The Etive mountains are nearby. Bit by bit I'm filling in the blanks, making the links. Getting to know these hills is a lifetime's work and more.

In the other direction, ridge upon crumpled, sun-dappled ridge.

Twilight starts its long gathering,the light is so soft it's almost like a blanket. No time for a brew sadly, the long road back to Edinburgh awaits.

Alpenglow is followed quite quickly by darkness. I waste daylight trying to bushwhack through to the car park, thus avoiding a very short but frightening bit a roadwalking around a blind bend with no pavement (do bring a torch and something hi-viz to wear if you're doing this route, this little bit of road between the car park and the track end is very dangerous and fast). My way is barred by a gully choked with tree trunks so I backtrack and brave the main road. Back at the car I empty the remains of the food bag while a half moon climbs between two pitch black ridges into a blue-black sky. There'll be a frost tonight, then before too long the storms will come.

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