An Socach (Mullardoch) – An Exercise in Unorthodox Navigation

15 07 2011

Tue 21 June 2011

Sunny start but a bad forecast so decided it was a good day to do An Socach (Mullardoch) via Glen Elchaig as it is a navigationally plain and simple grassy hill and I was sure I wouldn’t see anything – I was right on all counts…

I set off cycling from the Killilan carpark around 0930 for my first foray up Glen Elchaig – discouragingly, I was the only car parked there. Richard had come with me as he was going to walk back along the nice, quiet and scenic lane beside Loch Long to our cottage. Other than it was an 8 mile cycle ride, I had no idea what else to expect but the map contours (as far as my eyesight lets me see them) said it was reasonably flat. I knew it was tarmac to start but had no idea how far that would last. In the event it turned out to be tarmacked for around 3 miles which was great 🙂

There is a bit of a hill through the estate buildings which, annoyingly, had speed bumps just where you could have got going nicely down the far side of the hill – speed bumps on a bike definitely aren’t nice for the bum or the bike! At this point it was nice and sunny and two guys were stood outside the barn and wished me a good morning as I passed.

The tarmac ended where a drive went up to a house on the other side of the river. For the next couple of miles I found the track to be quite hard cycling as, for one thing, I was pushing against a moderate wind, and secondly, the track was a mixture of loose sandy grit with stones loosely spread on top of it. The bike slithered and bounced all over the place on the loose stones and the loose grit was pretty hard going. Luckily it was a bendy glen and the ever-changing scenery was lovely – it was also still flat at this stage.

There is just one hill on the track through the glen, quite a long ascent but probably not steep enough to force a good mountain biker to get off and push… but I’m not that biker so I got off. I find it far easier to walk up the hills and not much slower really. Patches of old tarmac had now started to show on the track, the stones had abated quite a bit and the loose surface had now changed to a much firmer one so the going was much more pleasant.

At the top of the hill, Loch na Leitreach came into view with the cream cottage of Carnach at the far end and what should have been my hill in the distance. I could see where the Pait Lodge track wound up the pass in the distance to take me up to Loch Mhoicean – the key to the start of the ascent. The cloud base was just above the height of the pass so I could see I was due to test my unorthodox navigational methods on the invisible hill just above it.

It was a fast and pleasant cycle along the loch in the warm sunshine. After Carnach the track deteriorated again and became much more stony – I saw there was a large herd of Highland (longhorn) cows to the side of the path with their calves. I wasn’t worried by this as I’m very used to cows (coming from a hill-farming area) and know how to act around them. However, I noticed a black and muscly individual amongst them – the bull! He was quite a way from the track so I thought I’d probably be okay but avoided direct eye contact (while keeping an eye on him surreptitiously) so he didn’t think I was challenging him. He looked across for a while but then decided I wasn’t of interest and busied himself grazing and chatting up his harem.

About a mile or so after Carnach I’d nearly reached Iron Lodge and was adjacent to a fenced section of forest which I’d already planned to chain the bike to. After the bike was safely cabled up to the fence I set off up the rising track towards Pait Lodge and Loch Mhoicean. The track rose gently at first and was very pleasant until shortly after a junction when it then started to climb in earnest and the surface became very stony and loose. By then I was climbing beside the pretty burn of the Allt na Doire Gairbhe however, which had lots of little waterfalls so I had some distraction as I climbed.

After about two miles the path flattened out and the loch eventually appeared – with the cloudbase hovering just above it. Just before the start of the loch I left the landrover track and headed up towards the grassy col across pathless, long, wet grass. It was a gentle rise to the peat hags of the col and the start of the cloudy easterly climb up to the ridge of Meall Shuas. By now I was tramping along with my compass in hand and nothing to look at but the needle. It was about a thousand feet up to the ridge, still pathless and still long, wet grass which all made for very boring plodding which seemed to take forever.

When I hit the ridge, just left of the summit of Meall Shuas on the end of the ridge, I headed roughly northwards – the ridge was defined enough not to bother with any particular heading. I decided I would time this section – I knew it was around a mile so should take around 20 minutes before I hit the steep, grassy wall of the main hill. Exactly 20 minutes later the wall of An Socach stretched across my route. I decided I’d need a compass heading for this section as I would need to hit the end of the ridge I’d just come along on my descent as, if I missed it, it may necessitate a re-ascent which I definitely didn’t want. I picked 60 degrees as my heading which would take me to the summit ridge just to the right of the summit (aiming off).

I don’t navigate very precisely for several reasons: one is that, if the weather is bad, I pick an easy hill to navigate and one where it doesn’t have many dangerous obstacles and has handrail features which I can use. Another reason is that I find ‘proper’ navigation very time consuming and I don’t consider bad weather the best time to be hanging around standing about on the hill with a map and compass for very long. I suppose further reasons are that I’m too lazy to bother, can’t be bothered to keep up with whatever the current magnetic variation figures are, and I’m not that confident a navigator anyway.

I plodded up the further thousand feet or so on the plain, grassy slope. There were occasional boulders which I noted the shape and configuration of as checks for my descent. The ascent was quite tedious (although not as bad as the previous ascent to Meall Shuas) and seemed quite long but wasn’t as steep as it had looked from the contours.

Eventually, the summit ridge hove into view and I was surprised to see that there was a very sharp drop into a misty void over the other side of the ridge. Still, that gave me a superb defined escarpment to trudge along and there was now a path. I timed this section again so that I knew exactly where to leave the ridge on the descent and also made a note of various rocky features near where I’d hit the ridge. In exactly five minutes I hit the trig point – a round concrete pole with rocks around it. I’d originally been toying with the idea of continuing to An Riabhachan, the next Munro along the ridge, but decided I’d had enough plodding about in the mist for one day.

As there was nothing to see at the summit I returned more or less immediately. I strode back along the ridge for exactly five minutes and then headed back down the long grassy slope. This is where my navigation gets really unorthodox. Instead of working out the exact opposite bearing to the 60 degrees I’d come up on, possibly leading to mathematical errors when you’re feeling tired, I don’t bother doing that. I just use exactly the same bearings as I ascended on but just put the south arrow in the north arrow’s housing – much easier.

I bounded back down the slope checking for the boulder features I’d seen on the way up and was pleased to hit the end of my ascent ridge smack on so no unnecessary re-ascent was needed. I then timed the 20 minutes back along the ridge and headed off down towards the peat-hagged col. The mist had lifted slightly and the col was actually out of the cloud and I could now see the loch below. I splodged down towards it, by now with very wet feet from all the long wet grass – as I reached the loch, the cloud lifted still further – I still couldn’t see anything much of An Socach though!

I took a few very poor photos on the way back down the Pait Lodge track and was pretty pleased to get back to my little bike and unchain it for the cycle back – now with the wind at my back – much better. The cattle had gone much further away and were now down by the river. It was again reasonably sunny by Loch na Leitreach so I stopped for a short break and took some more pictures, ate half a slice of Richard’s tea loaf and had a quick coffee.


Glen Elchaig from Pait Lodge Track Descent


Pait Lodge Track (looking back up)


Iron Lodge and Mullardoch Pass zig-zags

Loch na Leitreach and my little bike

I then flew back along the track to Killilan where my lonely car awaited. The cycle out was much quicker and easier with a tailwind.

Stats: 26 miles, 3531 feet of ascent, 7 and a quarter hours

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