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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 Clachaig Inn.
Image via Wikipedia

My discussion topic on the walkhighlands.co.uk forum has been converted in to a reader’s poll where you can vote for the three best pubs for walkers in the Highlands.

 Two of the nominations are mine, one extremely obvious the second probably unknown to many.

1. The Clachaig Inn (NN 127 567)

This had to be nominated as the iconic climber’s and walker’s pub nestled in the heart of Glencoe. With The Three Sisters, the Aonach Eagach Ridge, Bidean nam Bian just a stones throw away most people when they have been out on the hills close by gravitate here in the evening. Good food (try the Venison Sausages), local beer from the Atlas Brewery and plenty of tall tales from the mountains.

2. The Creagan Inn (NM 973 445)

Just before the A828 cross Loch Creran on the way to Oban this pub used to have a pretty poor reputation. New owners and a major refurbishment have transformed it in to a great place for a drink and good food. The picture windows facing westwards out on to the give fantastic sunset views and if it is warm enough you can sit outside on the terrace decking. This is a good place to visit if you are tackling some of the Munros or Corbetts from Loch Creran such as Beinn Sgulaird and Creach Bheinn.

Not surprisingly the ever popular Clachaig Inn is the frontrunner at the moment. You can register your vote here, but you will need to register as a forum member if you are not already. 

Related posts:  Search for the best walker’s pub in the Highlands

Further reading: Forum discussing nominations

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Through the Torridon mountains

This was a seemingly innocuous route on the map but was to prove a long and tiring day. The title should more accurately be, “Round the front of Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg before going round the back of Beinn Eighe having followed the full length of Liathach.” Although accurate such a title is unnecessarily cumbersome.

I joined the other members of the hillwalking club at Torridon Youth Hostel, where they were based, for the first of their away weekends this year. The mountain forecast included gale force winds and snow blizzards so I opted for the lower level walk rather than attempt the Horns of Alligin with the more overoptimistic members. This may have been a low level walk but it certainly wasn’t a level one. As we headed out on the National Trust path up Coire Mhic Nobuil, I was lulled into a false sense of an easy day ahead. Having crossed the river, the path soon deteriorated to the rough, roller coaster like path that is normally encountered in the Highlands. Even so, we still made speedy progress to Loch Grobeig where we departed the path to head across open hillside to the path skirting Beinn Eighe. With the cloud base so low we were unable to enjoy views of the magnificent mountains around us.

 Track-Torridon

Tramping through wet, soft snow took us alongside the crashing waterfalls given fresh impetus by the torrent of water falling from the skies, before a sharp rise into the flat-bottomed Coire Mhic Fhearchair. This imposing mountain amphitheatre provided no protection as the wind funnelled driving rain in through its North-West mouth. Somewhere in the cloud the Triple Buttress loomed down upon us, we could only guess at its grandeur but could still feel its rocky menace lurking unseen.

Triple Buttresses of Beinn Eighe, ScotlandBy now, with sheets of water draining off the mountainside, we realised that crossing the river on our return would be nearly impossible. Sure enough our way across was blocked by a heaving mass of water ready to knock any foolish walker, trying to ford it, from their feet. At the end of a long day your heart sinks at such an obstacle and the prospect of a long diversion, or even having to retrace your footsteps. Will weary legs carry you further than originally intended? Fortunately by following the east bank of the river, although boggy for much of the way, eventually led tired bodies to a rough path down to the Glen Torridon road and a short walk to our shuttle cars. A long sodden day but one with a great sense of achievement even though no mountain top was conquered. Reports from the hostel told us that the hardy low-level walkers had in fact climbed higher than those that had headed to Beinn Alligin.

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Buachaille Etive Mor (from Glen Etive)

This is a somewhat unusual approach to Buachaille Etive Mor, tackling the mountain from behind, starting just east of Dalness and the Lairig Gartain path. The downside of starting in Glen Etive, is that you will be welcomed by hordes of midges and their ferocious bite. So be prepared and bring suitable repellant. (…)

Starting point: Mamore Lodge Hotel (NN 186 629)

Mountains Climbed: An Garbhanach, An Gearanach, and Na Gruagaichean

Munro Count: 2

Corbett Count: 0

Purists may argue that driving your car to the Mamore Lodge Hotel and starting your walk at 200m is cheating. Instead they would advocate starting in the village and climbing through the woods beside the Grey Mares waterfall up to the land rover track heading for Loch Eilde Mor. Let the purists argue that if they wish, I however will continue to make use of the car park at the Mamore Lodge for my forays into the Mamore range of mountains. All of these mountains have a long approach and starting from the village needlessly extends these approaches.

So ignoring the purists I set off on a warm, sunny day along the land rover track skirting around the edge of the Stalkers Cottage before head up Coire na Ba. This is local territory for me, I can see the beginning of the coire from my living room window with the double summits of Na Gruagaichean towering above. The coire is a large bowl with the crags of Am Bodach on one side and the slopes of Na Gruagaichean on the other, at its head the pyramid of Stob Coire a’Chairn. Many days are spent looking out the window longing to be walking along the path that takes you all the way to the ridge line.

The path leading up Coire na Ba
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Am Bodach from Coire na Ba
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Once on the ridge you are treated with a panorama of some of greatest mountains starting with Ben Nevis and stretching across the Aonachs and then on to the fine ridge of the Grey Corries.

I skirted around the back of Stob Coire a’Chairn to a small col and the path that heads up the steep and rocky slope of An Garbhanach where the fun starts. Barely 400m long this airy, exposed ridge provides a fine scramble for hill walkers. For those of a gentler persuasion you are able to bypass the scrambling by following a path, but in one place I found this to be equally exposed with a tricky steep section on loose gravel and rock. On my return along the ridge I stuck to the scrambling with no particular problems. At the summit of An Gearanach you can savour the Glen Nevis vista before you over your sandwiches and flask of tea.

Ben Nevis from An Gearanach
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The path continues down the northern ridge into the glen and the wire bridge at Steall, this makes a fine through route from Kinlochleven. However, I returned to the main Mamore ridge and headed up the scree slopes towards Na Gruagaichean, on first ascent you are deceived by thinking you are nearing the summit only to find it is a minor top and you still have a small dip to negotiate before reaching the true summit. This small dip is indeed tricky, steep and loose gravel call for gravel but once past it is an easy clamber up and over large rocks to the summit. Here another panorama is before you, to the east the shimmering Loch Eilde Mor and Blackwater reservoir with the bleak Rannoch Moor. Then to the west Loch Leven stretches out bathed in early evening sunlight framed by the Pap of Glencoe and Man na Gualainn with the Morvern hills beyond.

You can backtrack to the col and the Coire na Ba path or continue down the southern ridge, as I did, to meet the land rover track that will lead you back to the Mamore Lodge much to the purists disgust!

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You have lot of time to think about the Inaccesible Pinnacle on the walk up from the Glen Brittle Mountain Rescue Post. As you leave the car behind you and wander alongside the Allt Coire na Banachdich you ask yourself whether what lays ahead can’t be as bad as some people make out.

 

Beyond the waterfalls the path begins to rise over the moorland with views across to Coire Lagan with the jawbone of Sgur Mhic Choinnich and Sgurr Alasdair thrusting upwards. Surely the route can’t be as bad as those precipitous crags? Above a grassy slope the path steepens winding through scree and small crags. Suddenly the scrambling begins, nothing challenging at first, but once on the shoulder of Sgurr Dearg the path narrows and you are exposed to the sheer drop into the coire below with a lochan ready to catch an unfortunate walker. At this stage you contemplate whether your will is up to date. However, soon you are concentrating on negotiating the minor bumps as you follow the ridge further upwards.

  

Catching your first glimpse of the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the distance you feel a sense of disappointment, a diminutive jag on an extremely jagged skyline. It is not until you reach the crest of Sgurr Dearg that the full effect of the pinnacle hits you, the imposing obelisk a pointing finger into the sky. Sitting looking at the vertical west ridge you linger on your lunch preparing for the final ascent. Watching a mountain rescue team practice does little to boost your confidence, although their presence at the summit is somehow comforting. I still have no doubts, I have come this far I am going to get to the top.

  

We gingerly slide down the steep scree and slabs at times grasping at the rocks by our side, to prevent us slipping uncontrollably, until we reach the stability of the plateau below the east ridge. A more experienced member of the team continues up the ridge and then we are ready to climb. There is a short steep easy climb to a small platform where we rope up. The rocks tower above us as we make slow and steady progress to the half way point. Here I glance down to my right to see the mountainside plummet down to the valley floor below me. The exposure is significant but I do not feel overwhelmed or nervous, it is an odd mixture of satisfaction and determination that I feel instead.

  

We linger for a long time here as those ahead make sure all is safe, the wind whips around us and it is difficult to find shelter out of the cold. Then it is off again, a few tricky steps at first and then a more obvious route appears before you. At times you think this is no different from crawling up some stairs and then you realise there is a 3000ft drop on one side. Then we are there climbing on to the small flat platform at the top. There is plenty of time to contemplate your achievement whilst sitting waiting for your fellow walkers to make the short and quicker descent from the pinnacle by abseiling down. You also get an opportunity to take in the grandeur of the Skye Cuillins around you, promising many days of challenging hillwalking in years to come.

  

Then it is over, you are down on the main ridge taking off your climbing harness, with more experienced club members congratulating on making it to the top of what must be the most spectacular Munro.

 

Now for the steep descent back to the cars. You have a lot of time to think about the Inaccessible Pinnacle on the walk down…..

This was an anniversary walk for a friend of mine, Arthur Custance, who completed his round of Munros on Stuchd an Lochain twenty years ago. I always take a camera with me when walking but to my dismay at the summit discovered I had not put my memory card back into the camera. So unfortunately for this report there will be no photographs.

 

Our starting place was at the dam at the end of Loch Lyon rather than at Loch an Daimh which is the route in the Scottish Mountaineering Council guide. The weather did not look optimistic having driven through driving rain across Rannoch Moor on our way. However, the mountain forecast suggested that rain would soon pass with a good chance of cloud free summits by lunchtime. So through showery drizzle we set off with optimism that the weather would improve during our ascent.

 

Following an estate Land Rover track soon got us to the 500m mark before we set out across open hillside. Pausing in the drizzle whilst some of my fellow walkers donned overtrousers, I noticed some large rocks in the middle distance. Then I thought they were two cows but decided it was too high up. I was wrong. Two mottled grey cows stood still warily watching us a few hundred metres away. As we climbed further we came across the rest of the herd in a sheltered hollow on the hill side. It is unusual to see cows in the hill, certainly at this height. Plovers circled around us their distinctive calls determined to divert attention from their ground nests.

 

We located the fence that would act as a handrail direct to the summit. By this stage the weather had closed in with visibility decreasing significantly. It looked as though a long, boring slog with no views to the summit would be the result. As our route steepened we caught snatches of crags that only hinted at sheer drop to the north of our walk. Having set a steady pace, I slowed towards the summit as the after effects of a heavy cold I had earlier in the week kicked in.

 

Driving rain and a sharp wind greeted us at the summit cairn curtailing any celebration that Arthur had planned. A quick cup of tea and a banana was the extent of my celebration followed by a hasty descent. No thoughts of lingering at the summit.

 

I have always struggled descending the hills, a combination of weak knees and lack of confidence hindering my progress. Every trip on the mountainside sees that confidence grow and leg muscles adapting and protecting my knees. I set a quick pace down the hill even though the slopes were wet. Now striding downwards the weather began to clear affording views down the steep crags to Loch an Daimh and the summits beyond. Sometimes mountain days are like that you catch glimpses of what may have been at the summit if only it was clear.