Tue 9 July 2013
Sooner or later, every would-be Munroist has to face the challenge of Beinn Fionnlaidh! This is probably the most awkward of all the Munros to get to and entails a very strenuous day via most routes. The standard approach route takes you over two mountain ridges to reach the foot of the hill, one of which has to be surmounted again on your return! I probably chose a bad time to do it as I’d had a long, hot day the day before in Strathfarrar with temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit…
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In my ‘check-in’ call to Richard the night before he told me that it was due to be ‘much cooler’. That decided me on my plan to at least do Carn Eighe from Glen Affric but, as to continuing down the back for Beinn Fionnlaidh – well, I’d wait to see how hot it turned out to be.
As I’d been really tired the night before after my hot walk in Strathfarrar, I’d obtained the details of the new ‘Mullardoch boatman‘ and rung him to enquire about prices and the possibility of getting the boat down the loch to the foot of Fionnlaidh. The price was £60 which, as I didn’t have anyone to share it with, was quite a bit if no-one else was wanting to go down the loch. As it turned out, however, both his boat trips were full the next day so he couldn’t take me anyway.
I was still camping on the lovely Cannich campsite and awoke around 0915 after another peaceful (and cheap) night. Consequently, it was at least 1030 before I got out of the car at the carpark at the Glen Affric public roadend and went to look for a meter to pay the advertised £2 for the day’s parking. I couldn’t see any machines and asked a lady just kitting herself and her dog up – she said that there had been such an uproar about the parking fee the poor old National Trust had had to cover the machines up! Personally, I think £2 a day is peanuts for such a special area – it’s not like the money isn’t going to a good cause.
As soon as I set off down the estate road to pick up my track over the first hill-ridge, I realised it was becoming just as hot as the day before – ugh! I hate this section of estate road with a vengeance for some reason – I think I’d really like to be able to drive that extra three-quarters of a mile to the estate buildings but, unfortunately, it is verboten!
After quarter of an hour or so, I reached the estate buildings where my landrover track turned off up the hillside to the right. Richard and I did this track to Sgurr na Lapaich the year before so I know it well – it takes a nice steady plod up to the ridge of the hill above at around 1500 feet. From there, it continues down very gentle slopes at the back into Gleann nam Fiadh behind. I noted that the ridgeline had a gentle, cool breeze…
As I dropped down into the glen I re-entered the ‘hot-and-airless’ zone. I forded the river (easily as it was very low) and turned left up the glen on a slightly rising track following the river. Being so near to the water was pleasant as I could keep soaking my buff – something I always do when it’s very hot walking – it’s such a relief to stick something soaking wet and cold on your head in hot weather! I also had a few good drinks out of the burn too – very refreshing. I noted that, despite the prevailing very dry conditions, the path was still a bit boggy in places.
Where two burns came down from Coire Mhic Fhearchair on my right, below the obvious craggy ridge of An Leth-Chreag – a top I’d done with Richard previously – I turned uphill on a very vague stalkers’ track. The path goes up between the two burns and keeps close to the left-hand side of the first burn. Slightly higher up the ground flattens slightly and the path crosses the second burn and becomes clear and stony as it heads up the ridge-end to the next corrie.
The path soon became very steep and wasn’t attracting much breeze at all so it was sweltering work – I noted two people ascending above me. Being me, even though I was roasting hot, I still had to put on a bit more speed and attempt to catch them up – even at my age, I still can’t accept that some folk can walk faster than me uphill!
Eventually I reached Coire Garbh (strangely, spelt Garth on my map) and the angle eased considerably across the corrie. As I started my final ascent up a nice path by a dry burn just under An Leth-Creag, I looked round and saw that we’d passed a beautiful loch which, being in a deep hollow, had remained unseen. As I reached the ridge I caught the two folks up as they’d taken a much steeper and more gruelling route up the corrie wall! We all stopped for a rest in the lovely cold breeze on the col and I had a shortcake finger and a quick swig of water (no coffee today – too hot!)
After chatting for several minutes to the nice couple, I pulled a bit of a face at the mean-looking route up onto the end of Sron Garbh – my first ‘top’ at 3705 feet. It looked horrendously steep and was rocky and fairly loose.
Supposedly, there is an old Victorian staircase of early stone-pitching up it but most people can’t find it nowadays – I think I found a few steps of it. There was a good path however and I suppose it wasn’t as scary as it looked from below – I found it unsettling though and rushed up it. I was glad to reach the lovely ridge above.
The ridge over the next couple of peaks was pretty flat and very easy going – mostly on grass. There was a pinnacled ridge ahead though and was hoping it would be okay – I knew there was a bypass path. When I reached the corner at the second ‘top’, Stob Coire Dhomhnuill (3725 feet), the pinnacles hove into view. While the pinnacles themselves looked impossible for the likes of me, there certainly looked to be plenty of scope for bypassing them on either side on grass – I felt heartened…
On reaching them, I saw the path went to their left, staying quite high. I also saw that the slopes on that side below the path were gentle and grassy and there wasn’t much of a drop. In snowy conditions, you could easily drop down quite a bit further onto a wide grassy shelf running all the way below the pinnacles and then ascend back to the main ridge up very easy grass indeed. Having said all that, the path did have its moments… there were a few pretty awkward sections where I was stepping round corners on not much at all above the drop, such as it was.
It was a bit clambery and very rocky up to the third ‘top’ of Stob a’ Choire Dhomhain (3766 feet) but there were no problems.
I kept looking back along the pinnacle ridge – what a superb view. If I’d had more time, I’d have probably gone back along the pinnacles and back just for the fun of it! This section ended up being my favourite part of the whole walk.
After the third top, it was back to the serious and plodding business of Munro-bashing. It was a gentle grassy descent, which fortunately didn’t lose much height, before you had a long, grassy plod up to Carn Eighe.
I’d had a chap catching me up as I set off up the peak so I put on another spurt – I was feeling cooler after the breezy ridge… About half way up I looked round to see if he was gaining on me and was surprised (and slightly perturbed) to see him lying stretched out flat on the grass at the foot of the peak – he didn’t look to be just relaxing in the sun. While I was hoping I didn’t have to go back down again to see how he was, the couple I’d been talking to reached him and stopped by him.
I continued to the summit where, seeing Beinn Fionnlaidh wayyy down the back, I decided not to stop for a break but just to go for it – I knew it was the best chance I’d get to bag the inconveniently-situated peak and the breeze was nice and cooling.
I was pretty dismayed at the route down the back of Carn Eighe. I’d seen loads of photos looking back up it from Fionnlaidh and it looked gentle and grassy – it was nothing of the sort. A path tackled the very steep and stony back of the peak. Eventually, the path ran into a huge field of boulders and I never found it again at the other side of them and ended up descending ankle-threatening boulders at a steep angle for the rest of my descent. Just before the col I eventually hit grass again and peered around for a traverse path to take me back up to the ridge again later. I have to say I couldn’t see anything other than a sketchy path which came up from the col but gave up around the boulderfield. Oh well, I’d better get on with it.
At the col I was faced with the little peak of Stob Coire Lochan before the main Munro which I was hoping wasn’t a ‘top’ but decided I’d better check on my map. I’ve drawn ‘T’s and ‘M’s on the peaks on my maps so I know which I have to do and saw that it was indeed a ‘T’ so had to be bagged. I was the only person to go up it but go up it I did. It was actually pleasant enough and a very easy climb from that side – at least I didn’t have to do it again on the way back!
On returning to the main route, I met quite a few other hardy souls who were Fionnlaidh-bagging the hard way that day and chatted to each of them. The first was an extremely pleasant Scots lady who was staying at Alltbeithe, the remote Youth Hostel down West Glen Affric. She’d had quite a day as she’d done An Socach first and then traversed the very steep slopes all the way below Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe to reach Fionnlaidh! She was now on her way up Carn Eighe and quizzing me whether it was worth her doing the ridge I’d come along earlier or whether she should just do Mam Sodhail and then call it a day. I pointed out she’d have a very long walk back up the glens to the hostel if she went my way – she decided she’d ‘just’ do Eighe and Sodhail then.
I chatted my way to the foot of Fionnlaidh with various folks coming the other way and then set about the hot and breezeless long slog above. It was a good 800 feet and pretty steep – I was again surprised as, from photos I’d seen, Fionnlaidh looked very easy indeed.
At the top of the hard slog, there was quite a long ridge to the summit but it was nice to be back in the breeze again and the views across and down Mullardoch were superb. It was also nice to look at the peaks I’d been on the day before…
I had a few minutes break at the summit to cool down properly and get more water and my final shortcake finger. As well as admiring the views, I also looked where I needed to traverse below Carn Eighe to try to pick out a good line – it all looked pretty awful really though – either boulderfields or very steep grass and no apparent paths.
Eventually I set off back along the ridge for the descent and met up with my first couple again – completely forgot to ask them about the ‘collapsed’ chap earlier! Pretty soon I was tackling the long traverse across the back of the peaks, aiming for the col between Eighe and Mam Sodhail.
The boulderfields weren’t as bad to cross as they had been to descend and there were grassy sections in between but I was wondering when I’d ever get my feet back on straight again – they were hot and tired and completely fed-up of angling across the steep slopes. Below the col I got fed up and just set off steeply uphill for the ridgeline – again quite a slog – the re-ascent from Fionnlaidh to the col is around 1000 feet.
Finally at the col, my feet heaved a sigh of relief to be straight again and I had a quick rest to look back along the long and awful traverse I’d just done – I could see others were following along it equally laboriously. The lady who’d traversed an even worse route all the way from An Socach certainly had my respect now!
Not wanting to do much more traversing, I set off to ascend most of the way up Mam Sodhail. I had two route choices of descent and unfortunately made a bad decision and picked the wrong one for the second day running. I could either go the extra few feet to the summit of Mam Sodhail and then down along the ridge over a couple of fairly small and gentle tops, finally descending from Sgurr na Lapaich to the landrover track I’d started out on. Or I could bypass the summit of Mam Sodhail on a wide grassy shelf to a little roofless hut and thence have a short descent to the col where a stalkers’ path descends to the glen via the corrie. From there I would have a 4 mile walk back along the glen track…
I should have chosen the ridge route – it would have been cooler, softer on my hot, sore feet and shorter. I think the two short ascents up the tops was the thing which put me off as I felt I’d done enough climbing for the day really so I picked the stalkers’ path into the corrie.
At first, I enjoyed the route down into and across the corrie. As I started my descent down the burn exiting the corrie, I decided to bathe my feet in it to cool them off and hopefully make them feel better. I sat with them in the lovely, cool water for a good five minutes or so and they felt much better… until I put my boots back on. Since I broke my big toe last year, my left foot is now quite a bit wider and a tight fit in my boots at the best of times. This is causing me to have, when my feet expand, a lot of pain from a “Morton’s Neuroma” which has formed between my toes. As soon as I put my boot back on my left foot, I knew I was in for a lot of pain.
I hobbled down the steep descent out of the corrie and was initially glad to reach the flattish track through the glen. Of course, being back in the glen, it was breezeless and hot again – my altimeter-watch said it was between around 31 and 34degC – nasty! The track is stony, hard and very long and definitely not the thing for hot and tired feet.
By the end of the 4 miles along the track I was hot, grumpy and in quite some pain. For the last mile and a bit I was also being assailed, yet again, by horrible biting flies (clegs). There were clouds of them and they just wouldn’t leave me alone but followed me along the path trying to get sly bites in – some succeeded
As most insects hate bracken, I pulled some up and waved it constantly as I walked along. This made me even more grumpy as I was quite tired enough without having to wave my arms around all over the place and impede my walking. By now my pace was probably around half that I walk at normally and the last couple of miles seemed to go on forever.
When I finally reached the car I could hardly keep still long enough to get my boots off, the flies were so bad. I tore my bags, boots and socks off, opened all the car windows and quickly dived in and drove off in my bare feet. It was at this point I realised that my left foot was too painful to operate the clutch without causing me to yell out in pain. No matter – I’d just get into fourth gear and stay there… I was a bit irritated to meet an oncoming car – at that time of night down the end of Glen Affric, that isn’t something you’d expect to do really – I wondered whether it was someone driving down to pick up the lone guy who’d been arriving in the carpark but not seeming to have a car as I left?
I yelled a few more times as I had to use my clutch to stop in the passing place to let the car pass me. I was pleased I didn’t meet anything else on the way back. As I was pretty unable to walk any more there would be no refreshing drinks in the pub that night for me. No matter, I had some bottles of adult ‘pop’ in the car (sort of carbonated fruity water – very nice) – I’d just drink that while I had my tea.
As often happens with me after such a hard and hot day, my blood and skin heat up too much for me to sleep at all as I can’t get cool enough. My bites were also itching and I’d actually managed to get my first (slight) sunburn in years on the back of my neck. So, all in all, I had a pretty rotten night’s sleep and was glad to go back to Cumbria the next day…
Stats: 19 miles, 5907 feet of ascent, 9 hours 45 mins, 2 Munros, 4 Tops and temperatures in the 90s (F)!