Posts tagged ‘Corbett’

May 1, 2012

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.

April 28, 2012

An Sidhean and Bac an Eich – a Corbett too far?

by backpackingbongos

On the journey up to Scotland I kept checking the weather forecast on my phone for the week ahead.  I was pleased to see that our first day in Strathconon was meant to be calm and sunny, before unsettled conditions took over for the rest of the week.  With body and mind brimming with enthusiasm I decided on a big day on the hills.  My planned destination was An Sidhean, a remote Corbett above Loch Monar.

13.5 miles with 1,210 metres ascent

I was up at 7.00am, very early for me to be honest especially seeing that I was on holiday.  Opening the curtains I was pleased to see that there was not a single cloud in the sky and a slight frost on the grass.  I was out of the door by 8.00am, the still air already feeling pleasantly warm.  I have to say that I enjoyed the novelty of setting off with a daypack from somewhere so remote and without having to jump in a car.

I headed right at the bottom of the drive, in the direction of the West coast, many miles away across the mountains.  The cottage of Corrievuic looked inviting and slightly ramshackled.  Each time I passed by I thought about who owned it as it would make a splendid retreat in the hills.  Once across the Allt coir a Bhuic the track climbed away from the River Meig and crossed an area of glacial remains.  The river was rejoined higher up, the glen being stunningly beautiful.

Huge swathes of close-cropped grass provided many spots that looked inviting for a wild camp, the river providing pools suitable for a dip.

The track soon petered out and became a path which passed between rough bog and heather and further patches of perfect turf.  I enjoyed the stillness of the glen and could not believe how good the weather was.  I crossed the River Meig lower than originally planned at a point where it widened out.  The water level was low and I hopped across from rock to rock, finally getting to the other side without letting water into my boots.  Reuben who is now fully proficient at river crossings simply splashed his way across without a care in the world.

A large boulder on the other side provided a convenient spot to start my flask of coffee.  Reuben jumped up to join me and we both leant against each other in the sun.  It was then that I noticed an unwelcome visitor crawling up my trouser leg.  It was a rather large deer tick, which as soon as I managed to get a photo was evicted back onto the ground.

Ticks are the nemesis of Backpackingbongos and I appear to attract the little devils in large numbers.  The evening before as I walked behind the cottage I attracted about 10 on my trousers within a few yards of going off piste up the hill.  Thankfully though as far as I am aware none got attached during the week in the Highlands.  I highly recommend wearing light coloured clothing as it is easy to spot and flick them off, anyone wearing shorts are inviting trouble.  Reuben only had one which I put down to using Frontline on him before leaving home.

Tick aside it was an excellent spot to sit and pick fluff out of my navel.

We crossed a few hundred metres of rough ground to pick up the path that ascends alongside the Allt an Amise.  After a short climb the steep-sided valley soon enclosed us and the path crossed the stream several times as they both fought for space.  At the watershed we followed a narrow path to the east, a good view of Maoile Lunndaidh opening up behind us.

The path was difficult to follow as it snaked its way up the hillside, vegetation covering its zig zags.  It became a bit of a game as I tried to work out where it was going when it disappeared.  I felt pleased with myself whenever I relocated it further up the hillside, guessing the route of its original creators.  As we gained height the views to the north opened up, the Fannichs standing proud and snow-capped against the horizon.

I have to admit that my unfit legs and lungs started to feel the climb and I began my technique of walking a few paces before stopping to stare at the view.  I came up over a small ridge and my jaw dropped to my knees, the view in front of me was breathtaking.  An array of snowy peaks spread into the distance, floating on a sea of brown above Loch Monar, the sky a deep blue.  The Mullardoch hills looked like impressive beasts, I’m keen to do a high level backpack there.  It’s just a shame that the strong sunlight made it difficult to capture the vast dramatic emptiness of the landscape.

I continued climbing, grinning from ear to ear, my wobbly legs finding renewed energy.  I did keep on stopping to look back at Maoile Lunndaidh, its numerous corries looking like the earth had been removed by a giant ice cream scoop.

At the summit cairn it felt like spring had been firmly left down in the glens as a cold wind tugged at my Paramo.  The snow-clad Strathfarrar hills rose above the huge wild gash of Glen Orrin.

I stood at the summit cairn for a while, slowly turning to take in the huge panorama, mans influence on these wild hills invisible from where I stood.  Then my eye glimpsed movement far to the east, the highest turbines of the Fairburn wind farm quickly destroying my illusion of wildness.  I cursed and ambled off to find a sheltered spot to enjoy coffee and sandwiches in the sun.

An Sidhean sits on a large upland plateau and I needed to cross high featureless ground for a few miles.  This is amongst my favourite type of walking, a sense of spaciousness and gentle contours.  A place where you can stride with hands in pockets across tundra like vegetation.  Perfect for clear sunny days but a nightmare test of navigation when the clouds blanket the hills.

The going was easy and I did my best to follow the contours rather than climb them.  Mountain lassitude crept in at one stage when I spotted a deep dry bed of grass sheltered from the wind.  Both myself and Reuben lay there for a while.

The views down the Allt na Feithe Riabhaich caught my eye with open country appearing to zig zag off into the far distance.  The air clarity was stunning with what appeared to be most of the North West Highlands at my feet.

Further along the plateau my contour avoiding technique failed as I attempted to not climb the 80 metres over Sgurr Coire nan Eun.  Instead we skirted to the north and were soon caught up in a series of peat hags which ran across my chosen route.  I lurched and cursed across the rough boggy ground which Reuben bounded across with canine ease.  Thankfully where the ground steepened on its final descent to Drochaid Coire Mhadaidh I spotted a stalkers paths zig zagging down the hillside.  Unfortunately whilst trying to reach it I slipped in a vertical bog and was caked in slime from head to toe on my left side.  Thankfully no damage was done though.

At the col I had to make a decision.  Would I return directly back to the cottage via a good stalkers track or continue on over the Corbett of Bac an Eich?  Seeing that I was already high in the hills and the weather was so good I decided that the extra 300 metre climb would be worth it.

Ten minutes later and with less than 100 metres climbed I found myself sprawled in an exhausted heap on the ground.  I was in a situation where my brain was keener than my body.  I was well and truly knackered!  However it was not too bad a place to sit and admire the view.

With energy slightly restored we slowly made our way to the summit, the soft snow patches becoming larger with altitude.

At the top it was cold and windy and I wedged myself in the summit shelter whilst I refueled my tired body with sugary snacks.  The views were once again extensive and I wished that I had a larger scale map to identify the array of peaks filling the horizon.

Although Ben Wyvis was easy to spot as it dominates this part of the Highlands.

I did consider descending via the well-defined north-west ridge but I knew that I would then have to cross a steep gorge lower down.  Instead we took a direct line down very steep slopes to the north, seeking out the easiest ground.  There was a huge patch of rock hard snow on a convex slope which we had to climb back up to get around.  A slip on that would have sent us hurtling down the mountain.  It was then a case of following a stream through peat hagged ground to the start of the gorge that the Allt Coire Dhughaill flows through.

An old overgrown vehicle track then gave an easy rapid descent down to the floor of the glen.  It was great to spot our cottage nestling on the other side of the river.  I quickly began to look forward to lying in a hot bath before lounging in front of the fire.

The ruins of Corriefeol were a sad sight, the roofs long gone and the elements slowly taking their toll.  I spent a while exploring before crossing the bridge over the river Meig and walking the track towards our ‘home’ for the week.