Route Report


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Your perception of distance can play tricks on you in the mountains. Perhaps, it’s the unique mountain light that causes your brain to go haywire and pretend that the summit in the distance is closer than you think. More likely the boost of exercise related hormones, that are triggered when you lace up your boots and put one foot in front of the other, have clouded your judgment and estimation of your own abilities. We have all been there, leaning against a summit cairn taking in the panorama around us when our eyes alight on another airy ridge and a temptingly gnarly summit just beyond.  In that moment of “topping-out” euphoria your brain’s normally fairly accurate computation of time and distance fail, egged on by your own sense of achievement you find yourself stepping forward to bag that extra peak. After all, you are so close; it would be a shame to miss it out. If the body produced a reality hormone it would be coursing through your veins by now triggering an involuntary but rational movement of arms to map and then focusing of eyes.  This simple physiological move would confirm that the summit is further than first thought and involve a nastily steep ascent following that knee-crunching descent. All to be repeated in the opposite direction.  In combination with the “let’s be rational about this” hormone this would result in an abrupt about turn and murmurs of, “perhaps I will leave it for another day.”

Setting out to bag the lonely peak of Gulvain there was no risk of overestimating my own abilities but I had lost all sense of distance. Striding out along the track beside the Fionn Lighe, the heat of the early morning sun already rising, I knew that it was a long walk in before we would start climbing. Pausing briefly as we crossed the river I gazed in to temptingly cool, inky black pools as the water lazily slid underneath the bridge. Yet still there was no sign of my goal. I quickened my pace beside the forestry plantation desperate to get to higher ground. There I knew I would be out of reach of the slashing, slicing razor-sharp teeth of the clegs that hovered around me, ready to silently ambush any exposed piece of skin. They had plenty to aim for as I had foolishly opted to wear walking shorts for this outing, providing a Heathrow-sized space for these airborne insect terrorists to hijack my blood. A decision that I came to regret the next day as my legs turned to itchy islands of blotchy, red inflammation and swelling.

The mountain getting ever so slightly closer The welcome first glimpse of the twin-peaked Gulvain, the footpath leaving a clear stony scar on its lower slopes, encouraged me onwards. Yet no matter how many steps I took forward the mountain never seemed to get any closer.

Push forward one hundred metres. Stop. Look upwards. The mountain seemed further away than ever.

Focus on the summit whilst walking. Surely, then it will gradually seem closer.

Another kilometre effortlessly glides by and the grassy slopes obstinately stand still.

Temporary distance perception disorder had definitely kicked in. Then all of a sudden it disappears as the steep slope towers above you, shutting out any view of the first summit. The path zigzags relentlessly upwards, the clegs left safely behind. Instead I am joined by bumblebees heavily laden with ruby red pollen and jewel-like dragonflies, emerald green, sapphire blue and jet-black darting to and fro. Their target the carpets of wild thyme and lady’s mantle providing a purple and yellow fringe to the path. These natural delights divert me from the climb and soon I am leaning against the trig point of the minor top. Glancing at the Munro beyond, I wondered if my brain is playing distance tricks again. The summit looks suspiciously close and the drop before any re-ascent only minimal. Not wanting to risk a step too far I check the map. It’s only six hundred metres with a drop of fifty. No delusional distances.

From the summit of Gulvain On fine summer days you linger at the top desperately wanting to make up for all those days where, blasted by wind and rain you barely pause at a summit. I did just that on Gulvain carefully crossing off the other mountains I could identify, noting the enticing ones not yet climbed. I wanted to remain high for as long as possible as I retraced my steps along the ridge. Even more so, when confronted with a squadron of flying insects primed for their next kamikaze mission towards human skin.

Heat, tiredness and mountain air all contributed to severe distance distortion when I reached the track below. Six kilometres seemed like sixty. The landmarks I had mentally noted in the morning, the tumble-down croft, the fire-break in the trees, the small bend in the track were all further apart than before. The car was never just round that corner or over that hump, instead I was always confronted with just dusty track stretching off into the distance. Eventually that track ran out and slumped against my car I realised that time, distance and space often have no real meaning in the mountains

Recommended Links:

Walk Highlands Route Description

“Cairn in the Mist” Blog Route Report

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The Mamore Loner


If Binnein Beag was a human it would be one of life’s loners. Stuck their in the corner of the playground with its bigger brother Binnein Mor back turned to ignore him, keeping the smaller Beag at arms distance. Why pay any attention to Beag when you can talk excitedly to all your other interesting mates in the Mamores. It’s easy being a mountain when you are the largest in the class. Even the neighbouring bulk of Sgurr Eilde Mor stands to one side a looming, lurking mountain, one you can’t quite trust like the class bully. One moment full of smiles and pats on the back, your best friend and the next a raging temper and pokes in the eyes as you become his sworn enemy, his latest object of spite.


Having larked around with the more interesting boys in the Mamore playground I had seen Binnein Beag from a distance but never up close. I was intrigued, I wanted to get closer, wanted to begin to know this shy, retiring mountain, what makes it tick. My task was to go and introduce myself to this elusive mountain and try and start a relationship. Binnein Beag was not going to make this an easy task. I had a long walk into remote country to even catch a glimpse let alone get up close, but the walk along a fine, airy, stalkers path high above the lonely Loch Eilde Mor makes for a quick, unseen approach. Tip-toeing around Coire an Lochain I get my first glimpse of Binnein Beag ahead of me, trying to hide itself behind the broad shoulder of Binnein Beag My pace quickens, eagerly pushing forward to get closer. Who said this encounter was going to be easy?


Binnein Beag 001 There before me opens the grassy hollow of Allt Coire a’Bhinnein blocking any quick progress towards my target. It is though a deep, fortified moat full of untold horrors has been thrown before me to thwart my onward journey. Not being disheartened I press on, soon descending via zig-zags to the river below, briskly fording it via stepping stones to the path beyond. All the time my goal remains before me.


Perhaps, I have been noticed by my lone quarry as it attempts to hide its face with a scarf of wispy cloud, although it is only a momentary mask soon dissipating to reveal the summit again. There’s no hiding from me now, firmly in my sights I stride on to the high bealach separating Beag from Mor, finally ready to introduce myself.


Hang on a minute, am I rushing things? No loner will appreciate a hasty, over-confident approach – softly, softly is definitely needed on this occasion. I paused awhile on rocks beside a small lochan, to contemplate, over lunch, the life of a loner. I thought this quiet contemplation would be ruined as I saw a group of fellow walkers paused upon the lower ridge of Binnein Mor, but they were to ascend rather than join me in my quiet space. They obviously recognised that today, like the mountain behind me, I was a loner as well.


Close up my quarry doesn’t make it any easier, the shattered slopes of ankle-breaking blocks scattered carelessly in order to catch out the unwary. I am determined though, such defences will only slow but not deter. I make speedy progress nimbly avoiding the loose scree slopes strategically placed to slow and dissuade. The barriers are breached as I reach the small summit plateau and introduce myself to my conquered prey.


Binnein Beag 02


And now I realise that there are sometimes benefits to being an outsider. Binnein Beag’s solitude gives an opportunity to appreciate things from a distance. Those other mountains that you take for granted up close take on a different persona from this angle. The mighty bulk of Ben Nevis dominates Glen Nevis stretching back along the Grey Corries. Straight ahead, the other Mamores snake off into the distance. Glancing behind, you look straight in to the dark barren depths of Rannoch Moor. At this point, as you stare transfixed into miles of nothingness, you understand that perhaps loneliness is all relative.

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 Glencoe Lochan Trails

Wanting to take advantage of unexpected good weather but unable to head high, I opted for a stroll  with the family around a local hidden gem. This is a popular spot for some gentle afternoon exercise and on this occasion even a small tour bus had disgorged its foreign visitors, cameras poised, to enjoy the pleasant woodlands at the foot of the Pap of Glencoe. Even so, a feeling of tranquility remained as we wandered around the small man made lochan, the perfect mirror for the white-capped peaks of Beinn a’Bheitr. Glencoe Lochan 3

This was also the perfect opportunity to try out a new GPS combo with my PDA, as there is a popular geocache hidden at the head of the lochan. If you haven’t tried geocaching then I recommend following the link for more information. It makes a pleasant diversion from time to time and I may write more about it in a future blog.

If you have spent a gruelling day on the Glencoe peaks, had your legs turned to jelly along the Aonach Eagach ridge or need a gentle aperitif before supper at the Clachaig Inn this is definitely the place to meander for a few minutes. 

You can see full route details at the Walk Highlands website.

 

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The Ballachulish Horseshoe

Whenever I drive home from Fort William my eyes are always drawn beyond the Ballachulish Bridge to the scimitar ridge of Beinn a’Bheitr above. The curving knife-edge neatly framing the forestry plantations as they plunge down in to Glenahulish below.

Whatever the season, whatever the weather you always notice something different about these mountains. The setting sun glinting from the wet rocky ridges following a late afternoon shower. The Dragon’s tooth menacingly erupting from the primordial swirling mists carpeting the corrie floor. Sweeping, seemingly virgin, snow fields, as crisp as freshly pressed cotton laid out over the ridge and flowing down into the high corries below. What simple delights the crowds miss as they steam across the bridge eyes firmly fixed on the craggier delights of Glencoe. Beinn a' Bheithir from across Loch Leven

Although I have climbed the two Munros of Sgorr Dearg and Sgorr Dhonuill before, I am not so obsessed with bagging that I would refuse to climb a peak again before completing a round. With limited, low level walking over the winter this was the perfect chance to give some underused muscles a workout.

There is no better way to reach the main ridge then climbing from the north-east to the minor top of Sgorr Ban. In fact this is the recommended route in “Scrambles of Lochaber”, describing it as a straightforward scramble with beautiful views. Instead, as I tramped up the boggy ground to the start of the scramble I had to content myself with imagining the Glencoe summits without their cloudy shroud. The way up is always clear with a few interesting moves but little exposure, making it perfect for anyone who has never scrambled before. As I was plodding along, my companions ahead merged in to the grey fog, spectres floating in and out of sight. There was a real feeling of solitude as I was enveloped in the murky silence.  The fog thickened on the approach to Sgorr Dhearg, the edge of the cornice barely visible and only a hint of the corrie beyond.

A quick check of compass and map at the summit gave us our bearings to descend towards the col before the stiff climb up to Sgorr Dhonuill. At the col it seemed that we might have to descend to Glenachulish as the way ahead seemed to be blocked by an extensive snowfield. Both ice-axe and crampons had been consigned to the car boot before setting off, deemed to be unnecessary on such a day. Fortunately, the snow was limited and where it needed crossing it was soft enough to walk through or in unexposed areas presenting no particular danger. 

Beyond the summit of the second munro we opted for the quicker descent down the “Red Scree Gully” rather than continuing around the ridge. Although steep and unstable in places the gully soon leads to a well engineered path and down into the heart of Forestry Commission land and the tracks leading to the small parking area. A pre-arranged driver to ferry us back to our cars meant we avoided the long trek via St John’s Church to Ballachulish.

 

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Travel a few hundred miles south and you are bathed in warm autumn sunshine compared to the perpetual drizzle that seems to clothe the West Highlands at the moment.

Last weekend the sky was blue and the sun was blazing down on the Brecon Beacons allowing me to walk a delightful linear route. This was from the Llia valley over Fan Nedd and along the high escarpment of Fan Ghyirych before dropping down to estate tracks and then joining the line of an old mineral railway high up on the side of the Tawe valley.

I started near the mighty standing stone of Maen Llia in the depths of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Maen Llia What made our ancestors place these huge monoliths? Why, along with their numerous burial cairns, were they placed high up in these hills? Why was this a significant place for the ancient Briton? Archaeologists and historians speculate and hypothesise but like much of ancient history, with the lack of documented records, it can at best be an educated opinion rather than stated fact.

Leaving the standing stone behind I headed up over two fine peaks, only encountering two other walkers on the way. Then heading down to the line of an old mineral railway. that started high up in the hills by a series of small quarries before descending to the level above the hamlet of Glyntawe. The hundreds of miles of abandoned lines around our country are under utilised, admittedly many have been turned into paths or cycleways but many more lie forgotten and overgrown.

This line I suspect was under-promoted although it was clearly shown on the map. For some reason part of it was left out of the open-access area indicated on the map although the open-access continued either side of the line. This potentially prevents anyone following its course along the full length of the valley. So I was “forced to trespass” by continuing along the line, although others had clearly preceded me, to my destination of Coelbren. 

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A long weekend away with my parents who live on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park gave me the opportunity to walk in a different area than usual. Having my father on hand meant that I could rely on someone else to do the driving and ferry me to starting points and back from the finish.

I headed up into the Black Mountain (not to be confused with the Black Mountains found on the eastern side of the national park) and the peak of Fan Brycheiniog. This was a fascinating walk that makes me yearn to learn more about the geology of the British Isles. Walking parallel to the steep escarpment of Fan Hir, I wondered at the sheer geological forces that shaped this landscape over many millennia. As an amateur I can only guess at what created the tall heavily striated cliffs – was this the site of a large glacial lake – the rising and falling of the ice sheet scouring deep gouges in to the cliff face similar to the parallel roads found in Lochaber?  I really must put an introductory or idiot’s guide to geology on my Christmas book list.

Feeling much fitter and more energetic than my last hillside excursion I soon made good time to the mountain tarn of Llyn y Fan Fawr where some convenient rocks provided seating for lunch.  I was marvelling at the LLyn y Fan Fawrsolitude surrounding me when invading armies of walkers appeared from every angle all homing in towards the tarn. They too had decided this was the perfect place to stop for lunch.

A clear path leads steeply from the tarn to the windy Bwlch Giedd where strong gales awaited me. The path is undergoing restoration by the national park authority and they are doing a very impressive job. Often I have found that path restoration seems to amount to throwing down as many large stones and rocks possible without any thought of constructing a new path. The uncomfortable result encourages walkers to walk to one side along the grass bank exacerbating the existing erosion. New path to Bwlch GieddThe restoration up to Bwlch Giedd is a beautifully crafted piece of hillside engineering and will be a delight to walk on when completed.

I would normally stroll along ridges like this enjoying the wide panoramic views on offer, but on this occasion I hurried along  propelled by my own legs and the fierce wind. I dashed past the summit trig point on to the cairn at the end of the ridge before making an abrupt about-turn retracing my steps down to Bwlch Giedd and up to the Fan Hir ridge. The path skirts close to the escarpment edge giving tantalising glimpses of the sheer cliffs dropping below, but this was not a day to get tempted too close to the edge as one gust could have meant a Mary Poppin’s moment into infinity. Instead I opted for the more conventional descent continuing along the ridge line back down to the river.

 

 

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A substantial gap between weather fronts on Sunday meant that I was able to get up into the mountains and enjoy a long walk without the prospect of getting wet. That is always a bonus when you live in the Highlands.

So I headed off to one of my nearest mountains, Mam na Guillain, that stands beside Loch Leven, to write a walk route for the walkhighlands website. Having not been hill walking for over six weeks,  I was amazed that I had lost a considerable amount of hill fitness in such a short amount of time. After the long walk along the West Highland Way to the beginning of the ascent from the Callert stalkers path, I struggled up the steep grassy incline towards the summit. The warm autumn sunshine did nothing to ease the feeling of fatigue and with great relief I collapsed at the foot of the triangulation point at the top.  Mam na Guillain

Refreshed with a flask of tea and my spirits lifted by views deep into the Glencoe moutains to the south and way beyond the Nevis range to the north, I headed along the ridge towards Kinlochleven. Ahead of me was Beinn na Caillich, “the old man” that towers above the village guarding the upper regions of the loch. This is a far more interesting mountain than the Corbett sized Mam na Guallain. Beinn na Caillich can be seen from all points of the village as it Beinn na Caillich beside Loch Levenbeckons you to put on your boots and head for the hills. In no time I was at the summit and with the last rays of daylight beginning to streak down the loch behind me I headed down the long descent back to the West Highland Way.

I did something foolish during this walk, I only stopped once for something to eat, and I began to regret that on the descent. I started feeling slightly dizzy and light headed, but with the gathering gloom I kept walking. Eventually, I forced my self to stop, devouring a bar of chocolate and a bottle of sports drink. I am sure if I had proceeded much further I would have passed out. Fortunately the peaty shoulder upon which I was walking would have cushioned any fall but elsewhere I would have landed on rocks. This would have been extremely serious as I was walking on my own. The lesson from this walk is to listen to my body when it begins to scream, stop, and rest. Above all I should always carry a quick energy solution in my pocket so that I don’t have to decide between stopping or pressing on.

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