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.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Lucky seven

Despite appearances on this blog, I've had quite a busy and eventful few weeks in outdoors terms - and varied too. At the end of March I was down in London and headed out to the Medway for a walk through the marshes. I followed the Saxon Shore Way from Rainham to Swale opposite the Isle of Sheppey. It turned into a bright and blowy spring day of huge, fast-moving skies and often brilliant sunshine.

I have conflicting feelings about the marshes, because these are conflicted places - semi-industrial, not pretty, yet teeming with birdlife. There's raw ecological value here in spades. Who cares about my offended aesthetic sensibilities? Yet the intrusion everywhere of pylons, bridges, container terminals, power stations... it's hard for the mind to unwind, you're always reconciling jarring contradictions. At one point I see a ship ahead, seemingly cruising over dry land. It takes a minute to realise it's navigating the still-unseen channel between the mainland and the Isle of Sheppey.

And before we rush to hold up these edgelands as proof that we can do what we do as a civilisation and nature will find its way, let's remember that a couple of centuries ago none of this industrial detritus was here. Indeed, much of it was still not drained - it was real saltmarsh rather than grazing marsh. How much richer was the ecology then? Let's protect and appreciate the life that still thrives here, but let's not pretend this is or should be as good as it gets.

Back in Scotland, two half-day walks followed. There was a wander up a suitably obscure Corbett, Stob Coire Creagach, just north of the Rest and be Thankful on the A83 road. Stoopid here forgot the camera for that one which was a shame as a claggy misty morning transformed into a bright and warm afternoon. The Corbett is the highest point of a long ridge with great views. There are also some serious crags here if the UK Climbing website is any guide. On the track back down to my starting point in Glen Kinglas, the north ridge of Beinn an Lochain filled the view. It looks an exciting climb and I've filed that one away for a winter trip.

The following week there was another half-day walk to Ben Chonzie, a southerly Munro that I last visited in December 1988. It's one of the easiest Munros and viewed as a bit dull by some, but I caught it on a good day with spring warmth in Glen Turret later on contrasting with an icy wind and snow showers up top and big, bright and windblown views to the snow-capped Lawers and Glen Lyon ranges. I descended steeply into Chonzie's lovely eastern corrie, a sun trap of heather, broken crags and old rockfall lushly upholstered with moss. Ducks fussed on Lochan Uaine where I picked up the track back to the Loch Turret dam. There was a ring ouzel too and, setting off in the early morning by the loch, numerous skeins of geese arrowed overhead.

The main event of the month was a three day trip with David, Mick, and (for the first day) Fraser. On the Friday we took a long walk along a short ridge to Buidhe Bheinn, an awkwardly placed Corbett overlooking Loch Hourn and Knoydart. Dave summed it up beautifully here.

We camped high and woke next day to low cloud and snow on shelters. Our weather window materialised though and Dave, Mick and I traversed the South Glen Shiel ridge. Somewhere along the way I climbed my 200th Munro. Summit bagging isn't the be-all and end-all for me, far from it. I don't even know if I'm totally committed to finishing them, there are many daunting challenges still out there (most of the Skye Cuillin for example) and many places other than Munros I want to visit. But it was a special moment nonetheless. Not because I'd bagged an arbitrary round number of hills but what it represented, a consistent thread through life and all its changes. It's a link back from the middle-aged me to the fascinated teenager. Even during all my years down south I'd still always return to climb at least a couple of new Munros each year.

It was also great to be there in company. We even had a couple of random meetings with others along the way previously only known through social meedja. I love my solitary trips but as I'm sure is the case for many others, the Munros are also the story of connections made and experiences shared. Learning, developing, pushing the envelope and having a laugh - that's what companionship in the unmediated environment of the hills can be about. It's almost a cliché, but there really is no room for egos here, no spin and no hype. And what a relief that is. Thanks all, and here's to next time.