A day of awe, magic and anger on Sgurr a’ Mhuilinn

by backpackingbongos

When I peeked out of the curtains the world had vanished.  The glen and surrounding hills were firmly hidden under a dense blanket of fog, the air still and full of moisture.  Would I find blue skies above or would it lift later into low cloud?  Without access to a mountain weather forecast it could go either way.

6.7 miles with 995 metres ascent

I slowly drove down the track to the beginning of the public road and the car park next to Loch Beannacharain.  Here the fog was drifting a few metres above the waters glassy surface, shards of brightness illuminating the other side.  I exited the car for a few minutes and stood by the water’s edge, it felt like the sky had fallen into the glen.  Reuben remained in the back seat, nosed pressed against the window leaving his trademark slobber.

My destination was a few miles further down Strathconon at the tiny hamlet of Strathanmore.  Parking along the glen is generally not in abundant supply with the road being single track.  It is not good practice to park in the passing places.  However opposite the cottages there is a large stone sheep fold with space to park a couple of vehicles against the wall.  As I got out the fog was beginning to shift and break up, peaks breaking through whilst misty tendrils drifted across the valley.  I noticed patches of blue above Creag Ruadh, its slopes we were about to climb.  I began to feel hopeful for the day ahead.

I had read that climbing the Corbetts of Sgurr a’ Mhuilinn and Meallan na Uan involves a long trackless trudge up steep rough slopes.  I can confirm that this is indeed the case.  Initially we followed the deer fence upwards before leaving it behind to ascend towards the Allt an t-Srathain Mhoir.  It was a thigh bursting struggle first thing in the morning.

The pain however was more than compensated by the scene that was unfolding in front of my eyes.  The fog was rising up the hillsides, appearing like a boiling cauldron of steam and smoke.  Constantly shifting, peaks would vanish and reappear, views temporarily blotted out before the world came back into focus.  It would have been amazing to have woken that morning high above the clouds, the mountains rising into a clear blue sky.

I battled up the rough and boggy hillside until the 400 metre contour and dropped down to cross the stream.  The gradient finally eased for a while but became even wetter as we ascended moorland slopes.  My first objective for the day started to reveal itself, its cap of cloud beginning to drift away.  I had not realised that there was still snow on the hills and began to wonder whether I should have left my ice axe and crampons in the car.  Too late, there was no way I was going back down hill to get them!

At around the 600 metre contour we crested the wide moorland ridge and Ben Wyvis came into view, dominating the surrounding countryside with its bulk.  Snow covered and with a mass of fluffy white clouds rising above it was an impressive sight.

An area of peat hags had to be crossed to get to the main part of the ridge, tough walking with patches of wet snow on the ground.  Once we were climbing up the steep nose of the hill it was dodgy going with the rapidly melting snow proving very slippery.  It turned out that an ice axe and crampons would have been useless in the conditions.

Meallan nan Uan was still covered with clouds whilst I rested on a rock to catch my breath.  With height the temperature had dropped so Reuben was dressed in his fetching red jacket.  With such a fine coat (in both senses of the word) he feels the cold, if I can benefit from pulling on extra layers then so should he.

In the meantime the clouds continued to lift into the increasingly blue sky.

The summit cairn was soon reached and I can honestly say that I was blown away by the view, it was probably one of the best that I have ever had the privilege to see.  I have never seen so many mountain ranges with the turn of my head, the view pretty much encompassing from coast to coast.  To the east, high and proud was Ben Wyvis.  This was followed by the Fannichs which really look worthy of exploration.  To their north-west I could make out the hills of the Fisherfield forest and what looked like Slioch.  To the south of Slioch were the Torridon hills with Ben Eighe and Liathach being prominent.  In an arch coming back round to the south were crowds of hills which I could not identify without a map.  It put a huge grin on my face, the following photos not really doing justice to what my eyes and brain were processing at the time.

However the view was tinged with a hint of sadness as it is about to change very soon and very alarmingly.  In between the Bulk of Ben Wyvis and the Fannichs there is consent to build two large windfarms on moorland above Lochuichart.  With my naked eye I spotted a scar high on the moorland many miles away so got out my binoculars.  I could make out a yellow earth mover which I can only assume was there building a new track.  I really cannot think of a more inappropriate place to stick a large number of massive turbines (17 for the Lochuichart wind farm and 19 for the adjacent Corriemoillie windfarm) and there are already plans to extend the site.  It is going to have a huge impact on a large tract of wild land, the views from the Fannichs may no longer be so appealing.  Will it be worth visiting this area in a few years?  Does Scotland not value its wild land?  Is tourism no longer important to this part of the Highlands?  I do actually support renewable energy but this is wrong in so many ways.

Thankfully my ‘disappointment’ quickly diminished when I turned around and spotted Reuben, standing dressed in red with a simply breathtaking backdrop.  A smile was back on my face as I followed him towards the pointy peak of Sgurr a Choire-rainich.

Dropping down slightly I found shelter from the wind behind some rocks and sat eating my lunch with the world spread beneath my feet.

The plan had been to climb to the summit of Sgurr a Choire-rainich which is meant to be the best viewpoint in these hills.  However during lunch I noticed that the sky to the south was looking rather menacing.  The change in weather was very rapid and I did not want to get caught out in a storm.  I therefore reluctantly descended broad slopes towards Meallan nan Uan, via the minor rise of Carnan Fuar through patches of wet snow.

Loch Coir’ a’ Mhuilinn looked inviting nestled deep between the two hills, although the surrounding ground looked too rough for a wild camp from my vantage point.

On my map the long narrow Gleann Meinich does not look very impressive, especially as it appears to be cloaked in a dark dank plantation.  However looking up the glen when driving along Strathconon it does look worthy of exploration.  This was emphasised even more from above with the rocky ramparts of Creag Ghlas falling precipitously towards the floor of the glen.  An endless succession of wild hills rolling off towards the horizon made it appear even more impressive.

The summit cairn of Meallan nan Uan was reached just in time to watch bands of snow track along the length of Strathconon, the hills opposite becoming cloaked in cloud.  With Reuben shivering in the strengthening wind we did not hang around for very long.  The ridge leading to Creag Ruadh looked like a fine promenade from above.

The approaching bad weather made me hurry along the ridge, it was a shame the earlier conditions could not have lasted longer.  What surprised me was how quickly the snow was now disappearing off the hills.  With a last look back it was clear that since descending from Sgurr a Mhuilinn most of it had melted.

With a wall of low cloud quickly approaching I stood looking across the valley for a while, enjoying the sense of space below my feet to the south.

The descent to the car was long and tiring, dropping 600 metres in such a short distance making my knees complain.  Reuben however as usual was bounding along.  When I called to him to wait he did so on a boulder which was perched picturesquely on a sea of moorland.  It’s a shame that my camera was in my pack to protect it from the rain that had started to fall.

As I reached the car I looked up to see the summits submit themselves to grey dampness.  The weather window had closed and I had exited just in time.

23 Comments to “A day of awe, magic and anger on Sgurr a’ Mhuilinn”

  1. Some cracking views there. Proves the point that you don’t need to climb the big hills to get the best views and the far NW highlands are pretty special. I can vouch for the fact the Fannichs are a fine range of hills as are the Beinn Dearg group to their north (a couple of epic days up there back in the 80s). Those landmark photos of Reuben are a superb, there is just nothing better than strolling along a high level ridge in spring sunshine, you’ve captured that immense sense of space superbly.

    • I have always been keen to point out that size really does not matter Andy! I do like the NW Highlands, there is a feeling to the hills that you don’t get anywhere else. I must visit the Fannichs. Passed by the Beinn Dearg group on a backpack a few years ago, looked pretty special from nearby hills. Lots to do and very little time!

  2. lovely shots here, and Reuben does look very fetching in that coat against the snow. You had really good weather for your birthday outing there!

    • First walk in the hills since turning 40, so not bad going with the weather. Reuben and his red jacket does provide good foreground interest in photographs.

  3. As you have shown James these hills provide a fine vantage point with far ranging views.
    Unfortunately I had the weather close in on me as well while up there and so also missed out the tops to the west.
    The approach and return do provide a good fitness test though!

    • I have to admit that I did not enjoy the initial climb onto these hills, it was a right old slog. The views were better than expected, rare to have conditions so clear.

  4. Great stuff and lovely photos. Only a few days and I’ll be up there myself!

    • Thanks Andy and good luck on the Challenge. May the sun shine and a gentle breeze be at your back!

  5. Looks like a grand day out with the bonus of some nice photographic conditions as well. Reuben certainly looks like a true mountain dog kitted out in his red jacket – very photogenic.

  6. Good day and photo’s
    I need to get a job like yours.
    I really struggle getting away to the hills.

    I could of course move a lot further north.
    BUT that might require divorce 🙂

    • Saying that Andy, you are about to walk across Scotland for two weeks. It does not get much better than that!

  7. Superb photos, very atmospheric.

    Dixie says that Reuben suits red very well. Her favourite colour is red too – she wouldn’t be seen in anything else.

    • Reuben says thanks to Dixie for the compliment. Hope you are getting out and about a bit more Chrissie.

  8. I always say you often get the best views of the big hills from the smaller hills.

    I chuckled at your appreciation of Reuben in his bright red coat against the spectacular backdrop. In my opinion a wee splash of colour adds extra interest to an otherwise monochrome landscape. I often say to Neil that he (dressed in green and brown) just does not stand out in my photos; that’s why I usually include more of his shots of me – in my bright read jacket!

    • For someone who lives in the middle of England these smaller hills appeared pretty big to me! The views were huge, a couple of fantastic Corbetts which were well worth climbing. Without his coat Reuben would have been fully camouflaged against the hills.

  9. What an utterly decent collection of photos from a fine trip in the hills – brilliant!

  10. Terrific photos again. The ground surrounding tarns and lochans is often awful for pitching I find, usually very tussocky except in the Lakes.
    The initial ascent to any hill is a right slog nowadays!.

    • Thanks Geoff, the combination of clear air, snow and fluffy clouds made photography a real pleasure that day. To of had a wild camp high in these hills would have been pretty special.

  11. Fine photos, weather and views.

    On the wind turbine front I’ve come to realise many of my non outdoors friends are pro wind turbines in our wild spaces. They seem to think me almost selfish to want my views unspoilt. Needless to say we had a ‘lively’ debate in the pub on this. It seems leaving land wild to be wild is an alien concept to many.

  12. Lovely pics, and what a great day! Just catching up after a very busy spell – sadly work, not play!

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