Half way up the A1 it occurred to me that it was rather odd not seeing Reuben on the back seat every time I looked in the rear view mirror. I was heading to the Highlands for five days and I had decided to leave him at home. I had visions of the hills being a tick and midge ridden nightmare for him, plus all his food for that amount of time would be on the heavy side. I have to admit that I ended up really regretting that decision as I missed his easy-going, non complaining enthusiasm!
My destination was the Mamlorn hills which are sandwiched between Killin in the east and Tyndrum in the west. An area of the Highlands which I have never visited. The plan was to use the extended Jubilee bank holiday to backpack around Glen Lochay, taking in as many hills as possible. In the end I managed a respectable five Munros and two Corbetts. Although my daily mileages were low it was one of the toughest backpacks that I have done for a while. This was due to all those closely packed contours, I was constantly ascending and descending with almost no level walking!
The road through Glen Lochay was the usual single track affair with not many options for parking a car. I eventually found a large parking area a few hundred metres from my access point into the hills. Unfortunately nailed to a tree was a hand painted ‘no overnight parking sign’. After a bit of hesitation I decided that it would be much better to park there than in one of the passing places. After the usual faff I set off down the road, the glen around me buzzing with spring life in the sun.
Day 1 – 3.7 miles with 605 metres ascent
A sign on the gate on the bridge over the River Lochay was rather ambiguous as it implied that stalking would be taking place at some undefined time. Being early June I thought that I could safely ignore it and crossed before ascending the track on the other side. The weight of my pack with 5 days food, along with the warmth and humidity meant that I was soon sweating buckets. Whenever I stopped the midges descended, so it was a constant slow plod upwards.
At the 400 metre contour the track dog legged to the west and I climbed into the pathless Coire Dubhchlair, which I soon named ‘valley of the tiny bastard ticks’. I was constantly brushing off little nymph ticks which gathered around the bottom of my trousers. The view north across the glen however made up for the annoyance with the Tarmachan ridge looking rather inviting in the evening light.
I decided to aim high to avoid both the ticks and the midges which landed whenever I stopped for more than a minute. At the head of the glen were a couple of rocky knolls which I set my sights on for a wild camp.
Two huge herds of deer were spooked by my presence and legged it across the hillside converging into one herd. A very impressive sight and most certainly to blame for the eight legged creatures seeking my blood. As height was gained the vegetation became shorter and I was soon climbing the final grassy slopes at the head of the glen.
Above a tiny lochan was a complex landscape of grassy knolls and I sought out the highest and most exposed one. In summer all normal camping rules go out of the window with regards to site selection. A good stiff breeze is essential!
The Trailstar was soon erected on a flat patch of cropped grass and springy moss. I had brought with me my brand new Oookstar which I had received the day before. Sean had kindly supplied me with a diagram showing how it should be attached, which I failed to take much notice of. With a brain tired due to the long drive and subsequent climb I spent a flummoxed half an hour shuffling around on my knees. Suddenly the eureka moment came and I had a lovely spacious inner for the Trailstar. Once water was collected I spent a while admiring the stunning scenery before diving for shelter from the icy cold breeze that had developed. Prior to climbing into my sleeping bag I spent a while evicting several tiny ticks that had latched onto my legs. The joys of backpacking in the Highlands in summer!
This would be the lowest of the four wild camps at 770 metres.
Day 2 – 6.3 miles with 805 metres ascent
Munros: Sgiath Chuil 921 metres, Meall Glas 959 metres
I awoke to light streaming into the Trailstar, surprised at how cold it was. I checked my watch and it was not even 5am, dawn coming early to the Highlands in June. The temperature had fallen to zero celsius and I snuggled back into my down cocoon. The next thing I knew it was 10.00am, a sign that I must have been tired from the day before. A leisurely breakfast with plenty of coffee and it was nearly noon before I was setting off up the grassy slopes of Meall na Samhna. Slackpacking at its best! It was much cloudier than the day before but views still extended the length of Loch Tay with Ben Lawers towering above it.
My map had indicated that the route for the next mile or so would be complicated and convoluted. It did not disappoint as I was confronted with a wide ill-defined ridge covered in a series of hummocks. In mist it would have been a complete nightmare, but in the clear conditions I enjoyed weaving up and around the crowded contours.
The summit of the Munro Sgiath Chuil was soon reached and after quickly touching the cairn I retreated to sit behind a boulder out of the cold wind. Having never visited this part of the Highlands before I was surrounded by a crowd of peaks I could not identify. A complete contrast to the more open landscape I am used to further north. One I could identify was Ben More which towered above Glen Dochart in a huge pyramid. An impressive peak from this vantage point.
The next summit Meall Glas was now visible across a low boggy bealach and it was evident that I could not climb it if I sat on my bum all afternoon.
The descent was horribly steep on close-cropped grass. Thankfully it was dry as a slip on wet grass would probably involve a long slide to the bottom. Two thirds of the way down my attention was caught by the sound of running water and I located a fantastic spring. Water was gushing cold and clear from a blister of moss and it tasted fantastic. A nearby flat boulder the size of a table provided the perfect spot to get comfy for half hour whilst I got the stove out and made a coffee and some couscous.
I have to admit that with the sun shining and the hill providing shelter from the wind, it was difficult to get moving again. The bealach was boggy but easily crossed and I started the long slow process of climbing the second munro of the day. I passed a day walker who was descending and passed a few minutes chatting. I did not envy him having to climb what I had just descended, it would be a bit of a dull slog.
I was determined to get to the summit without crossing any unnecessary contours, which meant missing out Beinn Cheathaich. I ended up doing a lengthy detour round the back where I managed to pick up a nice level contouring path. My legs however were still pretty wobbly by the time I got to the summit cairn of Meall Glas.
Across the extensive summit plateau my eyes were drawn to Creag Mhor which I was hoping to summit on day four.
With a late start and faltering energy I was keen to find a place to camp. I decided to aim for the head of a stream marked on my map, passing a rocky outcrop with impressive views towards Ben More and the Crianlarich hills.
I found a large grassy area which was perfect for pitching a tent. However it was not perfect for pitching a Trailstar due to its huge footprint. Being a fussy bugger it took ages to select a flat area which would accommodate the whole shelter. After the practice of the night before I pitched the Oookstar in a few minutes. Although my campsite was midge and tick free I was glad of the Oookstar to shelter me from the cold wind. I had chosen to have the bottom 50cm of the walls made out of ripstop for this very purpose.
It was a another perfect high level wild camp, something that I could very easily get used to! There is something special about pitching on the side of a mountain at 840 metres with peak after peak laid out in front of you.
Day 3 – 7.4 miles with 1,140 metres ascent
Munros: Beinn Challum 1025 metres
Corbetts: Beinn nan Imirean 849 metres
The temperature in the night fell close to freezing once again and I was glad that I had bought along my winter bag. The morning sun lit up Beinn Challum, a peak that I would be climbing later that afternoon.
It was good to start the day with a descent rather than a lung busting ascent and I soon crossed another boggy bealach en-route to Beinn nan Imirean.
The by now familiar steep grassy slopes were broken up by some large truck sized quartzite boulders. They stand out for miles amongst the greens and browns of the surrounding mountains.
The summit of Beinn nan Imirean itself is pretty undistinguished, but the views are anything other than undistinguished. Surprisingly despite being close to major roads and several villages I had yet to receive any mobile signal. I thought that I would get some on this hill seeing that Crianlarich was not far away. I continued on my way disappointed but glad that I had brought my Spot device to let my partner know all was ok.
The gentle south-west ridge gave speedy progress down to the lowest bealach of the entire route. It was a shame to lose so much height as with every step Beinn Challum my next hill grew ever more imposing. The bealach just above Lochan Chailein is a wide and boggy affair and I surveyed the best route across.
Once across the bogs I had a decision as to how to tackle the 600 metre ascent of Beinn Challum. A stream just to the north of Creag Loisgte looked like a good feature to follow up the rough slopes. I noticed far above me figures crossing the southern peak, the first people I had seen all day. Suddenly the thought of sharing the hills with other human beings really did not appeal after nearly 24 hours of solitude.
My stove was once again called into action just before the stream gave up the ghost, a chance to rest my complaining body and consume calories. I started to miss not have Reuben along for the weekend, apart from the initial midge and tick fest I had not been bothered by them. The cool weather and soft terrain underfoot would have been ideal for him.
With a belly full of soup the wide ridge above was soon reached, the views becoming ever more expansive.
I decided that I would try to meet the main path higher up to avoid people and continue the illusion of being alone in the wilds. It was then that my trailshoe had an argument with a boulder hidden in the grass. A tearing sound as fabric was ripped had me cursing, although there was nothing I could do about it. I continued to climb rather annoyed with myself.
I met the last people descending just before the steep climb onto the south peak. They cheerily informed me that it was still a long way from the summit. Thanks for that! I consoled myself with fine views of Ben Lui, another huge pyramid of a peak.
A pleasantly narrow ridge joins the south peak to Beinn Challum itself, unusual in the rolling grassy Mamlorn hills. It was good to have a sense of space beneath my feet with steep slopes plunging into the glens either side.
As I reached the summit bands of rain showers started to envelope the surrounding hills, softening them as if behind a veil. Luckily they all passed me by and I did not have to resort to waterproofs. I could have sat there for hours staring at the views, I don’t think I have seen so many mountains from one summit before. However it was cold and I was keen to find a decent pitch for the night.
For some reason I expected the north west ridge to have a good path, a logical route to give day walkers a circuit on the mountain. I found no traces down the steep ridge which was broken up by tricky rock steps and boiler plate slabs. Once again I was thankful it was not misty and was relieved to get to the bottom.
The bealach was too boggy and unappealing for a pitch, plus I wanted to make sure the following day did not start with a major ascent. With complaining legs I did a climbing traverse of the southern slopes of Cam Chreag, aiming for the top of a stream on my map. Here I collected water and climbed a little further, finally deciding on a pitch close to the summit.
It was another cold evening and I was soon in my sleeping bag after cooking dinner. It was whilst I was cosy reading my kindle that I noticed a golden yellow glow on the walls of the shelter. Still dressed in my sleeping clothes I exited into a transformed mountain world. The dull flat views had been replaced with a visual warmth, although the air soon had me shivering. I grabbed my camera and ran around trying to capture the perfect moment. Luckily the sun had burst through the clouds just before it vanished behind the mountains, providing a burst of colour on cloud and land. The spectacle was soon over and I returned to my warm cocoon of down.
Day 4 – 5.9 miles with 845 metres ascent
Munros: Creag Mhor 1047 metres, Beinn Heasgarnich 1078 metres
Corbetts: Cam Chreag 885 metres
From packing to summit in ten minutes has to be a record for me, one of the benefits of camping high in the hills. It’s good to reach a summit cairn without breaking a sweat. I had my first glimpse of Loch Lyon, far down in the depths of the Glen. Being on a smaller hill surrounded by giants gives a much greater sense of scale.
The trick of getting off Cam Chreag was identifying a break in the long line of cliffs that fringe its north eastern slopes. The break was found, exactly where it was meant to be but the grass slope looked terrifyingly steep. Close cropped grass at an impossibly steep angle never fills me with confidence but luckily it was dry. I gingerly made my way down, knees and thighs screaming.
Thankfully for once the bealach was reasonably high at 725 metres. Glancing back at Cam Chreag is was evident that lines of descent to this point are few and far between. Navigation could be tricky in mist to find a safe way down.
Once again I girded my loins and put my head down for a long ascent to the summit of Creag Mhor.
The summit was an excellent viewpoint for the hills surrounding Loch Lyon and across to Rannoch Moor. As I sat by the cairn to shelter from the wind a couple came up via the path from Glen Lochay and did their very best to pretend I was not there. They did the same to another couple who summited shortly afterwards and were thankfully a bit more chatty. I tend to get verbal diarrhea if I have not spoken to anyone for a while!
Beinn Heasgarnich appeared as a huge bulk of a mountain in front of me and I knew that the climb to its summit would be long and tiring. There is no direct line between the two hills so I set off first west and then north to avoid a band of cliffs. Then on easy grassy slopes I contoured round until above the bealach.
Sron Tairbh soon began to tower above me as I made my way down. It looked impossibly steep with no real evidence of a discernible path.
When faced with a long and steep climb I did the sensible thing. I found a boulder to sit on, turned my back and cooked some lunch.
After crossing the boggy bealach I plugged in my mp3 player to help me up the initial steep grassy slopes. Having something to sing along to seemed to reduce the effort and I quickly gained height and found a narrow path that zig zagged up. A couple of day walkers were quickly catching up and I suddenly felt the urge to stay in front. In the end I could not sustain my pace and stopped by a boulder in a sweaty panting mess. With my pack off I put my camera on the boulder………………………….
I thought the boulder was flat but it was not and gravity very quickly took hold. With frightening speed my camera narrowly missed the two women coming up and continued on its merry way until about 100 metres below me. I dashed off after it, worried about how many pieces it would be in. Thankfully there was only a small dint in the plastic on the lens. I was relieved and pleased that I had splashed out on a decent camera case.
Reunited with my rucksack I was glad that I did not have to descend right to the bottom of the mountain to retrieve my camera!
By the time I got to the top of Sron Tairbh I was totally knackered and I felt close to collapsing. Beinn Heasgarnich is large and bulky with a long and broad summit ridge. I still had roughly a mile and a hundred metre climb to get to the top.
I don’t think I have ever felt so tired on reaching the summit of a mountain before. It felt like a real effort getting myself to the top. I stood for a while taking photos of the extensive views before finding shelter on lovely soft grass for a well earned rest.
I was joined by a couple of friendly chaps from Newcastle who turned out to be fellow Mazda Bongo owners. Theirs was sadly spewing its innards up in the car park in Glen Lochay due to a leaking hose. One of the hazards of owning a Bongo unfortunately.
Coire Ban Mor on the eastern side of Beinn Heasgarnich is absolutely massive, a big wide and impressive bit of mountain country. I made my way down easy grassy slopes, soon being overtaken by the guys I had been chatting to earlier. I envied their small day packs but they would not have the pleasure of a night spent high on the mountain.
Coire Ban Mor is a complex place full of grassy knolls and rocky outcrops. I wanted to camp high but I could not find a spot big enough to accommodate the Trailstar. I followed the meandering infant stream and was relieved to find an excellent grassy spot exactly on the 800 metre contour.
It was my earliest pitch of the trip at around 5.00pm. The days mileage had been short but I was totally knackered. I took my shoes off and decided on a quick lay down before unpacking. With the sun shining it was nice and cosy and within seconds I had slipped into a deep sleep. An hour later a gust of wind woke me and I felt disoriented. I was soon unpacked and with a belly full of food I retired to my sleeping bag for one of my best nights sleep.
Day 5 – 7.2 miles with 110 metres ascent
I awoke briefly sometime around 4.00am to what looked like an absolute stunning sunrise. However I was enjoying my sleep far too much so was soon cosy and unconscious once more. I was up three hours later and it was evident that I had missed the best of the day. Dark clouds were gathering and the odd spot of rain pinged off my shelter.
I started the day wearing waterproofs, the first time on the trip. As I set off I had the feeling of being watched. There in front of me sheep were gathering on a knoll like a Scottish version of the film Zulu.
The descent through Coire Ban Mor was a delight, the stream falling in a series of cascades and small waterfalls. Looking back towards the summit I got a sense of what a big complex hill it is.
Lower down the Allt Tarsuinn crosses a flat area of peat bog. Rather than follow the stream I headed east across rough and damp ground and down steep slopes above Lochan Learg nan Lunn. I was relieved to reach the security of the tarmaced hydro road which took me with ease down into Glen Lochay.
On the way down I passed a large group of DofE, striding purposefully under some enormous rucksacks. They looked like they had just recently been dropped off. I passed saying a cheery morning and received a giggle in response. I later saw in the mirror a sunburned beardy guy, caked in mud and smeared in suncream. At the time I was clacking along with my pacerpoles supporting my comedy belly and flapping along in bright yellow shoes. I had not washed for five days.
From Kenknock farm the road back to the car seemed endless. After a foot pounding march I was glad to see the car still sitting there under the ‘no overnight parking sign’.