Fri 24 June 2011
I’ve no idea why I found this particular day so hard but I did, even though I’d just had two rest days in a row prevaricating about the weather… maybe it was just cumulative tiredness at the end of what was a pretty hard fortnight for an old ‘un? Having said that, the guy I kept meeting up with on the walk was about my age and he was having a much harder week.
I really couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed at 0800, partly because, on the last two days I’d had as rest days, builders arrived bright and early at the house we were staying in and starting banging loudly on the roof above my bedroom. So I rose quite late at 0830 and didn’t reach the parking for the cycle up Glen Elchaig until after 0930. This was my second cycle up the glen – the first one was on the Tuesday when I cycled up as far as Iron Lodge on a grotty day and did Mullardoch’s An Socach in complete clag. This particular day I was only cycling as far as Carnach – 7 miles instead of the 8 to Iron Lodge and my Munro objectives were Mullach na Dheiragain and Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.
The day was calm and my ride only took me an hour this time as opposed to 1.5 hours on the Tuesday. I passed one bike at the outflow to Loch na Leitreach so surmised they would be descending via the Falls of Glomach. My plan wasn’t to descend that way (as suggested in all the walking guides) as I could go and see the falls any time, I planned to do what I termed ‘The Tops Ridge’ and pick up the four western tops of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan on the way back. I chained my bike up to the fence of the river bridge by Carnach Cottage and set off walking to Iron Lodge where I saw there was another bike – goodee! I like company on the hills.
On the day I did An Socach this way a couple of days before, I’d met the Elchaig herd of Highland Coos (longhorns) with their calves around the path near Iron Lodge. I wasn’t at all worried about them as I pretty much know how to act around cows but then I saw they had a black Highland bull with them – hmmm… He was quite a way from the path so I passed as unobtrusively as I could and he looked once but then continued to graze. This particular day however, he was (as I predicted on the way out), right in the middle of the path. I felt discretion was the better part of valour and detoured to the forest edge to avoid him.
So far I was going really well… I ascended the steep and fairly loose zig-zags up the pass towards the end of Loch Mullardoch and soon found the owner of the Iron Lodge bike – a quite elderly gentleman who, it turned out, had the same plans as me. He said he was camped by the Glomach Falls river-bridge but I didn’t notice his well-disguised little green tent until my return much later. He told me another guy had just passed him – I was assuming the owner of the other bike.
Soon after, I’d branched off onto the path which headed towards the foot of Mullach Sithidh – an extremely steep and craggy looking monster! The various guide books just had you go straight up the craggy and steep grass on the north-west corner of the mountain – there was no way I was tackling that. I found the owner of the other bike sat with his dog by the new bridge over the Abhainn Sithidh. I was very pleased to see the bridge as the guide books had suggested the river could be tricky in spate and it was fairly in spate this particular day!
I had a quick chat with him while I asked what his plans were and we discussed how the imposing hill in front of us could be tackled. I’d already decided from looking at the map the night before that I was going to skirt around it until I almost reached the Allt Cam where the contours were much less severe and the route looked crag-free and grassy. By now I’d already seen a grassy shelf to traverse on and pointed it out to him. He agreed it was probably the best way but was still debating the merits of the straight-up approach.
I set off before him but noticed he more or less followed my route. Boy was it steep! My desired shelf was a few hundred feet up the mountainside, there was no path whatsoever, and the going was rough and lumpy. I didn’t fare too badly until I’d attained my shelf, traversed round it and set off up again on equally horrid and pathless steep ground. Now I started to really feel the ascent and was hot and tired. This section went on for quite a while – more or less 2000 feet – before it finally levelled out momentarily just before the Bealach Sithidh. I looked round periodically and could see the man and his dog plodding up behind me but there was no sign of the older man.
From the bealach there was at least a path. I had a look over the edge at the route I was supposed to have taken if following the advice of the guide books – there was no way on earth I’d have come up something like that! The day was turning out quite sunny and was getting pretty warm for strenuous climbing but there were another few steep sections to climb before I finally puffed my way to the cairn. One top down, five tops and two Munros still to go – I was feeling giddy with tiredness – not a great start to the walk.
The first Munro, Mullach na Dheiragain looked pretty near to hand so I staggered on – it wasn’t quite as near as it looked and its ascent was short, steep and clambery. At the summit I had a quick break for a coffee but then continued straight on down the easy descent to the broad ridge to the second top of Carn na Con Dhu – I was fine going downhill and on the flat…
Carn na Con Dhu looked to have a quite scrambly ascent but it was fine – it was a long way across the peak to its summit though. Not being sure where the actual summit was (but suspecting it to be at the far end), I expended some extra effort clambering up various bouldery peaks to see if they had a cairn. The summit was right at the far end and when I reached it I found I was still staggering with tiredness. The ridge up to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan was about 1000 feet and looked fearsomely steep and rocky – I thought it prudent to have a rest when I reached the col.
Checking behind for the other guy’s progress, I saw that, after he’d had a decent length break on Mullach na Dheiragain, he was now on his way to Carn na Con Dhu. I hoped he’d be near to hand when I had to do the ridge ahead as I wasn’t sure whether it would be scary or not – it looked it but then I thought there had been many ridges which had looked bad and been fine so decided I’d have to wait and see. I stopped on the col and had some of Richard’s tea-loaf and a coffee but couldn’t make myself wait any longer as I was wanting to get to the ridge and see how bad it was – waiting around makes me nervous!
I set off up the ridge which was absolutely fine for the first half, just steep and tiring. After that it did indeed get very rocky and a little bit scrambly. There was a good path though and the left-hand side was generally fine so I just concentrated on that side and where I was putting my feet and clambered on upwards. I checked on the following guy and he was already starting the ridge – good.
As I ascended and became more tired, I got dizzier – all very worrying. Uncharacteristically for me, I decided I’d force myself to have a much longer break on the summit and try to feel better – I’m not generally one for taking frequent breaks. That would also give the guy behind a chance to catch up in case I needed him for the narrow ridge between the east and west summits of the Munro. I can’t have found this particular ridge very worrying though as I stopped a couple of times to take photos back down it – I won’t do that if I’m scared.
I finally reached the summit after what seemed like ages and, after a quick look at the top I’d missed out (I’m hoping to collect the eastern top from An Socach) and the lovely, easy-looking ridge coming up from it, I slumped down behind some rocks for a long rest.
I found this summit pretty airy, not helped by already being dizzy with tiredness and so ensured I was completely surrounded by rocks – that made me feel much more secure. I’d had a quick look at the narrow ridge across to the western summit – it didn’t look too bad.
The chap with the dog was quite a while before he joined me on the summit – we agreed it had been a very hard slog up the ridge. He’d said he’d enjoyed its scrambliness though. I told him I’d have preferred it less scrambly, acquainted him with my mountain cowardice and asked if he’d mind if I crossed the next section just in front of him when he’d had a break. He was fine with that and we discussed what we’d been up to over the last week or so. He’d been having a very busy and strenuous time indeed but was on his first week of two – I told him I was on my last day of a quite hard fortnight.
Amusingly, we also got to discussing how we were both eager to get the Munros finished so we could get on with doing other things. We were both saying things like, “and I want to go to the Isle of Man again” “and I want to do some coastal walks… and some FLAT walks”. Anyone listening to us would have thought we were being forced into Munroing against our will! He told me one horror story from his past week where he and his dog had got stuck on a scary ridge and he’d had to throw his dog onto a ledge! We both also expressed worry about the following gentleman as we hadn’t seen him for ages…
Still chatting, we then set off for the narrow ridge. Although I was very wary at first, and characteristically careful all the way across, using my hands all the time (probably quite unnecessarily), I admitted part way that it was okay really and I was quite enjoying it. The climb up to the other peak looked easy… until we reached it. Then I wasn’t so sure – there was a steep and muddy ‘ladder’ going more or less straight upwards… Oh well, it wasn’t far and we had to get there so I bit the bullet and clambered rapidly upwards – he walked steadily up behind me while the dog gambolled about everywhere.
From there I could see ‘the tops ridge’ stretching out before me and his route further west along the ridge. Both routes looked fine – we said our goodbyes and set off.
I had a good path to follow towards the tops so obviously other people do go that way too. There was an easy descent and then a short and easy ascent to the first top of Stuc Bheag. It was then quite a rocky descent and then another easy ascent to Stuc Mor a very short distance away. The descent from this one however was awkwardly rocky and I totally lost the path. It also looked a long and rough route to the final top of Stuc Fraoch Choire.
Now feeling totally knackered I plodded on, luckily finding the climb up the final top quite easy. However, from there, my intended path was the other side of a final lump, Creag Ghlas, and that looked far bigger than I wanted to tackle and even further away. I knew there was another path down in the valley to my left past Loch Lon Mhurchaidh but that my original route had a better stalker’s route back down at an easier angle. I kept going up and down the hillside trying to make myself go for the Creag Ghlas route but each time thinking it was a peak too far. In the end I just couldn’t face the extra climb and descended the steep, pathless ground to my left into the valley.
Of course the valley was horribly wet and I was a long, boggy way from the path at the other side of it, however, I soon saw a vehicle track crossing the bogs in the direction of the valley exit. I squelched off along it… Near the end of the hanging valley, there was a divergence as the vehicle track obviously couldn’t take the steep route down by the waterfalls. I should really have followed the vehicle track as I wanted an easy descent but it headed uphill and again I couldn’t face the climb.
I was by now on the walkers’ path heading down for Carnach so stayed on that. What a mistake to make! I don’t think I’ve ever walked a more dangerous (to my mind anyway) path in my life! I’d heard horror stories about the Falls of Glomach Path but suspect this was probably worse. I emerged from the hanging valley to a very steep drop down to Carnach – where on earth did the path go? I looked around and eventually saw that it set off in little zig-zags below me down a precipitously steep little grassy rib. Everything around me was equally steep and it was at least 500 feet down – it looked straight down to me and the bottom disappeared so was obviously either crag or even steeper!
I was absolutely horrified but really didn’t want to have to reclimb the hill and take another route so tentatively started down the zig-zag, going very slowly indeed. After a while, and not looking any lower down the hill, the path then decided it had had enough of that particular rib and it was going to change to another one – across a severe landslip! Obviously, it being a landslip, there was no firm footing whatsoever to cross to the next rib on – neither did I trust the earthy handholds above me as obviously they would be the next to go and probably with very little encouragement, let alone 10 stone of female clinging to them. Swearing all the way, I edged very cautiously across until I regained the next grassy rib where the steep downhill zig-zagging continued for a while – ugh!
Not long after there was, joy of joys, another landslip to cross. I swore some more but, as I edged across I could see the path then started to traverse less steep slopes and soon dropped down to join the vehicle track – which had taken a perfectly sensible route if I’d seen sense and continued on it!
When I regained the vehicle track I looked back up where I’d come down… if someone had pointed that route out to me from below there’s no way I’d have taken it, either to ascend or descend!
I was very pleased to get back to my bike and cycle in the very pleasant evening sunshine back to the car. It was 2030 before I made it back to the accommodation where Richard could see from my very pale face that I’d had a very hard day. I was still totally exhausted two days later!
Glen Elchaig – nice glen – I’ll be back
Stats: 10.5 hours, 31 miles, 5151 feet of ascent