Saturday, 23 August 2014

'Summer' in the Scottish Highlands 2014

I was introduced to hillwalking when I was at secondary school. I had two teachers who were knocking off the Munros (Scotland's hills over 3000' – 914.4m in modern currency) and our school 'expeditions' invariably took us to parts of Scotland that had hills they needed to climb, dressed up with names that excited the teenage imagination - the 'Trans-Highland Journey' seems to stand out for some reason. My first Munro was The Saddle in Glen Shiel, climbed on a sunny day in the early 1990s via the Forcan Ridge, which the Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook describes as a 'superb rich ridge [that] involves some exposed scrambling'. I remember straddling a knife edged arête with several hundred metres of nothing beneath my feet. It was bloody good fun and I was hooked.

By the time I'd done my A-levels I'd climbed over 40 Munros – mainly in the Western Highlands, and including all the remote Knoydart peaks and pretty much everything around Glencoe and the Ben Nevis area. The great thing about Scotland's hills – Munros or otherwise – is that you can have a long day of walking / scrambling / climbing and still be back in the pub by closing time.

The downside, of course, is that the weather can be decidedly iffy, something that I experienced at first hand last week when I was stepped off the train at Loch Awe with my bike, camping gear and a week's food supply. The rain was lashing down, and the week of halcyonic summer walking that I'd envisaged wasn't exactly on the cards. This was rammed home after I'd stashed my gear under a bush and walked up Ben Eunaich. I could feel the wind whipping past and throwing me off balance as I climbed up, and on reaching the summit I turned around to feel the full force of rain and hail slamming into my face. I pushed on up Beinn a' Chochuill and raced down the mountainside to escape the weather – and savouring the wonderful moment as I emerged from the clouds to see the route down the valley floor. I spent a wet night sleeping under the shelter on the Loch Awe railway station platform, and caught the first train of the morning to Tyndrum, where the campsite has hot showers and a drying room. Bliss.

[On the train ride north from Glasgow]

[Halfway up Ben Eunaich]

[Feeder gates for the Cruachan hydroelectric power station]

[On the summit ridge of Beinn a' Chochuill]

[Coming out of the clouds on the side of Beinn a' Chochuill]

Scotland had been enjoying a glorious summer, and I'd planned to do a big off road tour down Glen Lyon, but the weather for the coming week wasn't great, with a particularly foul weekend forecast, so the comfort of the By The Way campsite massively outweighed any thoughts of wild camping – I even had WiFi in my tent. I decided to have a couple more days of climbing the few Munros I had left in the Crianlarich area – starting with Ben More, which had a couple of rock steps I had to climb over on my way up. Great fun with the wind buffeting me around! Ben Dorain was another hill on my list – again, the weather didn't allow for much of a view from the summit, which was a pity as it has a commanding position over the A82 and railway line to Fort William. I've passed it on my way north countless times, and so it is great to be able to look at it having been on the summit.

[Bike tucked away in the trees...]

[Climbing Ben More]

[Summit of Ben More – 1174m]

[Sheep near the summit of Ben Dorain]

[Looking down on the A82 and West Highland Way from the summit of Ben Dorain]

By this point I'd run out of enthusiasm for getting soaked and eaten by midges, and decided to make the most of the last day of good weather and ride down to see my relatives Ken and Shena in Stirling, with a lot of the 80km-or-so on the old Callander to Oban railway line which is now a fantastic mountain bike route. It was great fun – mostly coasting gently downhill, but with some steeper single track sections to liven up the ride.

[The old Callander – Oban railway track]

[Overlooking the Falls of Leny]

I spent a few days with Ken, Shena, Carrick and Jodie. We climbed Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin on the last day before I headed back to London. These can be seen from their kitchen window, so Jodie and Taiga (the family labrador) joined me for the day. Jodie is a ferociously good tennis player and pretty much raced me up both summits. It was the perfect day for her first Munros – the weather held out and we could just about work out where her house was to the south-east, and the traverse between the two summits was steep enough to get a sense of how big the hills really are. I didn't want to spoil things by pointing out that on the basis of the past week this was a bit of an anomaly!

[Taiga spoiled the party by not wearing a headband]

[On the steep eastern side of Stùc a' Chroin]

[Taiga and Jodie on the summit of Stùc a' Chroin]