Posts tagged ‘Monadhliath Mountains’

May 2, 2015

Stronelairg – 5 snowy days in the Monadhliath pt1

by backpackingbongos

I had spent a couple of weeks meticulously planning a route through the Monadhliath for the Easter weekend. Mileage and ascent had all been taken into account to give me some realistic TGO Challenge training. However whilst just south of Glasgow on the drive up I changed my mind. Instead of starting from Loch Killin to the east of Loch Ness I decided on the easy option of a Garva Bridge start. It cut out a large chunk of driving, however it did mean heading into the hills without much of a plan. The Monadhliath are perfectly suited to this sort of aimless wandering though. As it turned out the change of plan was a good one. The high plateau was buried under deep snow making walking slow and tough. The long days I had planned would have been almost impossible.

The reason for a visit to this underrated part of the Highlands was to see a large area of wild land before it is buried under tonnes of steel and miles of new roads. Time for a stravaig through the site of the proposed Stronelairg wind farm before it is too late.

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Map of whole route – a bit of a slackpack in the end!

There is room for several cars just before the historic Garva bridge. Strangely, although the Stronelairg wind farm has been consented SSE (the developer) have not done a great deal of thinking how they will connect it to the grid. A recent proposal is to build a large electricity substation close to this spot, right on the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. Add this to the giant pylons for the Beauly Denny line plus new pylons to the wind farm and you have one ugly environmental fuck up.

If you ignore the towering pylons and the huge scar of the access track it is still a beautiful spot dominated by the towering snow-clad peaks of the Glenshirra Forest. Crossing the Spey I passed the last person I would see for five days. He was operating some sort of surveying equipment, no doubt a plan to build something else tall and monstrous.

I was glad to leave the industrialisation behind as I climbed alongside the Feith Talagain, the track soon becoming a narrow trod through the snow-covered heather.

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I had to continue up alongside the river for a while before I could find a suitable spot to cross dry-shod. It was then a case of putting my head down and gritting my teeth on a tough climb through soft snow. This was not made any easier by carrying a heavy winter pack. At least the scenery gave me plenty of opportunities to stop and gawp whilst I got my breath back.

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After the long drive and a slow ascent it was getting late by the time I reached the Corbett summit of Meall na h-Aisre. The air was crystal clear below a thick layer of cloud, the sun shining through in a halo of light. The snow was crisp to walk through at height, the cold wind nipping at bare skin. I looked down at the area I would be walking over the next few days. A vast high snow-covered plateau, the west coast Munro’s providing a jagged backdrop. It was sad to think that a wind farm the size of Inverness could soon be filling this wild land, the earth torn up for the many miles of access roads that will need to be built.

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I descended north into this vast bowl, keeping east of the snow-covered and invisible Loch nan Sidhean. As I got lower the snow got softer and I would often find a leg disappearing up to the knee and occasionally up to the groin. It takes a bit of effort to extricate a fully buried leg when one remains above ground and with a pack on your back. Swearing seems to be the best way of getting out. I gingerly crossed the outflow of the loch which was buried under a drift of snow, snow bridges would be a common feature of the following few days.

I began to lose hope of finding a patch of ground that was either not covered in snow or frozen so solid that pegs would not penetrate. Finally a lumpy patch the size of a Trailstar was discovered and I wasted no time in erecting my shelter, fetching water from a mostly frozen stream and diving inside to get out of the wind.

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I spent much of the night cursing the fact that I had brought the Trailstar, rather than a four season tent with a full solid inner. All started off well but after dark the wind picked up. This was initially ok as the wind was from behind and the Trailstar is bomb proof in wind, even when pitched high like I had it. The problem started when the snow began to fall. The snow came in the form of tiny sand like grains, the wind blowing it through the gap along the bottom edge. This would whip around and settle on the netting above my head, body heat melting it. I lay there dreaming of a nice cosy tent. There may be a Trailstar with Oookworks inner for sale soon.

Morning came with big fat wet flakes of snow as the temperature rose, this finally falling as rain. I had considered heading east to the headwaters of the Allt Cam nan Croc, a spot I had passed previously and which looked idyllic to camp. However with low cloud and deep soft snow the cross-country walk there would be more ordeal than pleasure. Instead I decided to head for the more sheltered confines of Glen Tarff.

The Allt Creag Chomaich was partially frozen in many places and completely covered in snow in others. I dismissed any thoughts of attempting to cross it, instead following the east bank to the security of the new hydro road.

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I had seen the scar of this road in a previous visit but this time it was covered in snow, the surrounding landscape hidden under cloud. At least it prevented me from lurching from snow filled hag to tussock and I made reasonable progress through the eerie landscape to the new reservoir. This was also half-frozen, the wind pushing the ice floes towards the eastern shore.

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I peeked through the windows of a building near the dam, the kettle, heater, table and chairs looking very inviting. The locked and very solid metal door prevented access and I had a snack shivering in the damp and cold instead.

The route down to the headwaters of the Tarff was as tricky as it looked on the map when you added in wet snow and low cloud. I slithered about for a while before finally picking up an old stalkers path into the shelter of the glen.

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There I set up a basecamp as I decided that I would leave most of my gear the following day and head for a nearby hill. It was a damp and gloomy evening with a fine drizzle in the air. However I spent a much more comfortable night without snow filling my shelter!

The following morning I just packed some spare warm clothing, food and maps and set off down the glen on a narrow but well engineered path. It is obvious that it is now little used and it won’t be long before much of it is reclaimed by nature. Much of the snow had melted at this lower level, the burns crashing noisily down the hillside. Glen Tarff is a magnificent place, hidden and well off the beaten track of the nearby Corrieyairack Pass.

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I climbed up the steep south western slopes of Carn Chuilinn, the summit being easy to find even in the snow and mist. A simple case of keep climbing until you get to the highest point. The walk east across the plateau however was anything but easy. With low cloud and the ground covered in snow my mind would play tricks, what I thought were towering cliffs would be a few boulders close by. It was difficult to judge distances and tell where the sky ended and the ground began. It did not help that the high plateau was dotted with numerous Lochans. All of them were completely frozen and most covered in snow. I was anxious not to accidentally walk across any of them. It was a very challenging hour or so and that was with the assistance of GPS mapping on my phone!

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It was with relief that I managed to locate the outflow from Loch Carn a Chuillin, nervously crossed by a snow bridge. The river was in spate and would have been difficult to cross otherwise. Walking down back into the glen the sun put in a welcome appearance, a good omen for the following day when I would set back off across the plateau and hopefully a high level wild camp.

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April 28, 2014

Four nights alone in the magnificent Monadhliath pt2

by backpackingbongos

Day 3 – 18.5 kilometres with 340 metres ascent

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I don’t think that it is very often that you have to drag yourself out of a shelter in the morning because it is too hot, especially whilst located at 830 metres¬†in¬†April. ¬†After another sub-zero night that is exactly what I had to do. ¬†OK so I had lazed around in my sleeping bag until gone 9.00am and the sun was getting high in the sky. ¬†You have to relax and take things easy when exploring wild areas on your own. ¬†So I dragged out a groundsheet to sit on whilst I drank coffee and ate noodles.¬† The air was particularly cool and¬†fresh without the Trailstar to keep it at bay. I have to say that I felt rather smug and pleased with myself as I made another coffee and had a lie-down on a blanket of soft springy moss.

It did not take long to pack and I was soon on my way up the Northern flanks of Geal Charn.  This gave a great view of the way I had walked the day before, across big empty hills.

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With a high starting point I was at the summit cairn in no time at all.  Even with a late start I had it all to myself.  On such a clear day the views were superb.  When conditions are like this you realise just how small Scotland is.  I got the impression that I could see a fair chunk of it.  The western hills on the other side of the Great Glen looked large, clear and snowy.  The bulk of Ben Nevis looked close enough to touch, whilst the Cairngorms loomed close by.  However my eye kept on being drawn to the high brown plateau nearest to me.  This was the hidden heart of the Monadhliath, which after a snack I set off to explore.

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A line of fence posts led across easy ground towards Loch na Lairige, snow patches still firm after a frosty night.

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The area around the Loch itself was a maze of peat hags, groughs and hidden gurgling streams under the turf.  It took a while to navigate but still much tamer than my local stomping ground of Kinder Scout and Bleaklow.  I was still cautious not to disappear up to my waist in a bog however as help was a long way away.

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The going got easier once I reached the outflow of the loch and followed it downstream.  One of the secrets of the Monadhliath are its watercourses.  These are usually (but not always) pleasant grassy linear routes through the heather and bog.  A way to make easy progress and find good places to camp.  This one was no different with easy banks to follow.  Large patches of snow were still covering the stream at some points, fragile snow bridges waiting to catch the unwary.

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The feeling of wildness was lost when I reached the Chalybeate Spring, the start of a vehicle track.  It was not visible down by the stream so I sat for a while and had lunch in the warm sunshine.  The track is part of the Hydro scheme, a new addition to the landscape.  I followed it south before taking a branch that contoured high along the hillside visiting several concrete weirs.  To be fair to the developers they have at least made an effort with regards to landscaping, I have seen much worse in the hills. Vegetation is already claiming the surrounding scars.  I would still prefer it not to be there though and there may be much worse to come for this wild and lonely area.  The tall narrow spires of the wind monitoring masts stood like watchful invaders ready to claim their prize.

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The hard surface of the track was not kind on my feet in the heat as I followed it to its terminus at the Allt Cam Ban. ¬†I crossed a well hidden footbridge below the weir and took to boggy ground as I followed the stream upwards. ¬†My intention had been to continue along the north bank but I changed my mind and climbed to the 801 metre summit which is unnamed on the 1:50k map. ¬†Here I sat by the cairn and removed my boots and socks to let my feet steam. ¬†I was totally lost in my thoughts when there was suddenly a smiling figure coming towards me. ¬†It totally startled me to be honest as it was the last place I expected to see anyone. ¬†The thought was mutual as the chap who came and joined me really did not expect to see¬†anyone on a¬†unremarkable hill in such a remote area. ¬†A pleasant half hour was spent chatting with a fellow backpacker and lover of lonely places. ¬†He was spending a few days in the Monadhliath ticking off all the SIMS. ¬†I can’t remember the criteria but there are about 15 million such hills in Scotland. ¬†He had done most of them.

As we parted ways he headed towards Burrach Mor at a cracking pace whilst I descended into a high level bowl where the Allt Cam Ban meets the Allt Cam nan Croc.  My earlier companion had already pitched for the night next to the river, I could just about make out his tent below.  A splendidly wild and remote spot.

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I dropped down close to where he was pitched and followed the stream for a bit.  A green strip led easily though rough ground over the shoulder of Burrach Mor into the rocky headwaters of Coire an t-Sreatha.  The going then became tough and unpleasant for a while, the late hour and a spot of fatigue not helping matters.

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I was relieved to see the roof of the Eskin bothy below me, hopeful that the place would be fit for habitation.  Upon closer inspection is was a ruin, fit only for the desperate to spend a night inside.  At best it is a handy brew spot for when the weather is bad.  The bothy sat at the top of one of the largest cornices that I have ever seen, a huge crevasse showing that gravity would soon release it.  I took a circuitous route down to the valley floor, marvelling at a twenty-foot high snow bank dripping away like a dying glacier.

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From up above the ground looked like it would be perfect for pitching.  However on closer inspection the close-cropped grass was wet and spongy, the snow only recently melted.  It took a while to find a relatively dry spot.  I quickly got the Trailstar up as I was extremely hungry and felt the need for a long lie-down.  Although I was pitched on a valley bottom I was still located at 650 metres, my lowest altitude for many miles.

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April 25, 2014

Four nights alone in the magnificent Monadhliath pt1

by backpackingbongos

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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November 11, 2010

Across the Monadhliath mountains

by backpackingbongos

It has now dawned on me that I have actually got to walk coast to coast across the Highlands of Scotland.  The possibilities are almost endless with a dizzying array of glens and peaks between the two coasts.  There are some bits that I really want to walk, the problem is in joining those bits together.  The Monadhliath mountains are definitely on my hit list.  There is something about high boggy rolling hills that appeal much more to me than sharp pointy mountains.  There is a backpack from Fort Augustus to Carrbridge that I have had planned for a while now, 50 miles following remote glens and vast plateau.  If I can work out a satisfactory walk to Fort Augustus and from Carrbridge it may just fit into next years challenge.

Now, how to you pronounce Monadhliath?