The Monadhliath Mountains occupy a huge tract of the Scottish Highlands. This is not an area of soaring ridges and fearsome pinnacles. It is a much more understated landscape, one of vast open moorland and hidden river valleys. A place where you can walk for days and not see a soul, where eagles sour in big sky country. Apart from the Munros close to Newtonmore it does not hold much appeal to the casual day walker. Instead it is a place which needs to be explored over several consecutive days, nights spent sleeping out far from civilisation. A chance to move slowly through a landscape that makes you feel small and insignificant. A place where the journey is more important that any particular destination.
The large area and the fact that there is no one single location that demands a visit made planning a backpack rather difficult. Places on the map do no instantly leap out at you. I left home with three rough routes in mind, I would make a last-minute decision as I left the car. As it turned out I did none of them. With fantastic weather I ended up making up a route as I went along, exploring places on a whim. My slackpacking tendencies were forgotten. I had no idea how far I had walked each day or what I would be doing the next. Arriving home it turned out that I walked eighty glorious kilometres that Easter weekend. I had a smile on my face for every single one of them.
Day 1 – 10 kilometres with 350 metres ascent
I was knackered before I even put on my rucksack, the long drive being rather tiring. During planning I had the inspired idea of parking at Kingussie and getting a taxi to Laggan (there is no public transport between the two). However when I got to Kingussie there was no answer from the taxi company, I suppose I should have booked in advance. Instead I shouldered my pack and headed towards Loch Gynack under threatening skies.
The walk along the tarmac parallel to the golf course was a bit of a plod. A climb through woods and I was on the southern shores of Loch Gynack. This is on the route of the well signed East Highland Way meaning that I could disengage my brain for a while and enjoy the surroundings.
At the edge of a forest plantation the long distance path was left as it took a dogleg to Newtonmore. I continued on a cross-country yomp to connect to the track leading up Allt na Beinne. Here I was hit by a series of vicious squalls; hail, rain and snow blown down the glen in great sheets. When they came through I had to turn my back and wait a few minutes until they had passed. A face full of weather is never much fun.
The security of a track was once again left to follow a side stream across rough ground until the Allt a’ Chaorainn was reached. Here the full force of the wind buffeted me as I set a course above the lively river.
I dropped down to a grassy patch next to the river hoping that I would get shelter from the wind. It was not much better to be honest but it was forecast to drop during the night to give a calm and frosty dawn. I find the Trailstar a bit of a faff to erect in the wind but I had soon wrestled it into shape.
It was the evening of my birthday and I was billy no mates. For some reason my wife did not find the thought of spending the Easter Weekend exploring remote moorland very appealing. With five days off work I felt the need to put them to good use. The glorious weather that followed meant that I was glad that I had.
Although a short day mileage wise I was knackered. I did not even need to switch on my torch as I was asleep by 9.00pm.
Day 2 – 18 kilometres with 660 metres ascent
(You can click on the map to make it bigger)
The wind did indeed drop during the night and so did the temperature. I woke sometime before dawn and glanced at my watch by my head, it registered -2 C in the inner tent. My platypus was fill of ice when I took a sip from it. I shivered and burrowed further into my sleeping bag. Although fully awake I decided that I would not move until the warmth of the sun had hit the Trailstar. Being next to a high bank that did not happen until 9.00am by which time I was fast asleep again. One of the pleasures of backpacking alone is that you can set your own schedule. With the days getting longer I felt no urge to get up and begin walking at the crack of dawn.
I enjoyed bumbling around camp, both the location and weather were spectacular. I did not think that it was possible for the sky to be so blue. It was tempting to stay there for hours and laze about but I was determined to make the most of the weather. It was gone 11am by the time I had packed and found a point to cross the river.
As I ascended the Munro of A’ Chailleach I could make out tiny figures on the main path above. I took a pathless route alongside a small side stream, the heather becoming shorter and crisper with height. I stopped often to take in the views. As well as the skies being free from clouds the visibility was near perfect, the horizon being filled with snowy peaks. There were so many that it was hard to get my bearings and identify them.
The main path was picked up on the final rise to the summit, which was marked with a large cairn. The Cairngorms across the Spey Valley looked spectacular, however my attention was drawn to the north and west. The wilds of the Monadhliath was what I had come for, endless waves of high hills rolling towards the horizon.
I could make out several groups of people either on or heading towards the summit of Carn Sgulain across the deep trench of Allt Cuil na Caillich. I had visited the summit many years ago and did not feel a need to do so again. Therefore a feint path was followed to the north-west, a circuitous route being taken to avoid steep snow banks on either side of the stream. Instead of making a beeline direct to the summit ridge ahead I contoured around a shallow coire, reaching the line of fence posts just west of Meall a’ Bhothain.
I regretted leaving my sunglasses in the car, especially when crossing the extensive snow patches. Even with a cap that sheltered my face, the snow was dazzling under the strong sun. Leaving a snow patch my vision would be like what you get when you walk into a dark room on a bright summers day.
Carn Dearg had some fine cornices along its eastern facing cliffs. However it is another Monadhliath Munro that I had previously climbed so decided not to bother with the detour.
I was tempted to contour around the northern slopes of Carn Ban but that area was still covered in extensive snow, including the fringes of Lochan Uisage. Without sunglasses my eyes would be fried walking that way and the snow was becoming soft and arduous in the warm afternoon sun.
It is not often that you get to stride out at such a height in the British hills and I relished every moment of the day. Often the going was easy across a mossy and stone covered tundra. This would be interspersed by bare areas of peat and networks of peat hags. I decided not to climb Carn Odhar na Criche, instead dropping into the headwaters of Allt Odhar. Here the peat was still wet and the snow deep, often giving way, hard work on tiring legs.
There was not much shelter on the plateau but the weather forecast for the night was good. I picked a spot that was covered in a luxurious carpet of moss on which to pitch. At 830 metres the temperatures quickly started to drop as the sun slipped towards the horizon. Unfortunately I had pitched in a such a spot that the setting sun was not visible. Feeling cold and tired I crawled straight into the Trailstar to get a hot drink and make dinner. It was below freezing long before I fell asleep.