Saturday/Sunday, 18-19th August 2012
Weather/Conditions: Good summer weather. Sometimes the sun was out and it was very warm, occasionally it rained. Got pelted by showers at the very start, on An Riabhachan and while bivvying on An Socach. That was all though, and generally had views on most summits, winds were fairly light asides the occasional strong gust. Couldn't have asked for much better!
18th August: 32.5km / 3150m / 13h 15m
19th August: 24.7km / 1700m / 9h 30m
The Affric round had lingered long in my memory. A group of 12 Munros lie in the heart of the remote Western Highlands and make a long and tough round. I'd previously tried this route in May, solo; and got stopped in my tracks almost as soon as I'd started.
I've had a good summer so far. I've done a lot of big trips that lasted days on end and climbed pretty much everything I'd set out to. After the success of our 18 Cairngorm Munros trip, Struan and I made plans for Affric. Cairngorms had been his idea; Affric was mine. We'd do it over a weekend. We watched the weather and when things looked up, excitement built.
Getting to Affric
I caught the train to Perth where I met Struan. Here we go again, I thought. I've felt strangely lethargic since the Cairngorms. I'd definitely feel on top of things once we got on our way.
The skies at Aviemore glowed orange (one last chippie) and Inverness came and went under twilight. We passed through Cannich without a moments pause and headed up the single track road to Glen Cannich. I'd been here once before, on a day that had truly depressed. Now I was back and this time I was ready. I didn't pine for the civilisation of Cannich. Maybe I should have: we realised in car headlights that the glen was packed with clouds of insects, bubbling and teeming in the air.
When we got out the car in darkness (we shouldn't have bothered), the midges arrived in droves. They covered us and the car, flying in horrific numbers. This would be... exciting? To get them out the car we drove with the windows wide open. When we parked up, the doors would have to stay shut. Instead of pitching the tent, we would sleep with the back seats down.
It wasn't as bad as I'd expected, but sleep came and went. I was pretty uncomfortable, saw the stars and a meteor from behind a window. This would be so much easier if it weren't for the midge...
I woke up feeling a bit rough. Good enough to go. We packed within the confines of the car. Struan then tried packing outside and I listened to the panicked yelps of a guy driven insane by midges. Mental! Last pieces of gear were packed for two days in the hills. Unused milk was stashed in the nearest stream. We were off.
The walk along the lochside is rough going - but not as bad as I had remembered from May. From the outset I had lagged behind Struan, but I hoped I'd pick up soon. Carn nan Gobhar was the first Munro, and when the rain set in as we walked up the coire, I wasn't feeling inspired. The forecast reckoned they wouldn't last. As white walls of rain swept up from Loch Mullardoch, we plodded on. Mist trailed through the coire. The land and my mood were quite bleak in sympathy with one another.
From the midges at the car in the morning, to the bad weather on the hill, to my 'bad' experience in May; I began to find the Affric hills wouldn't allow us in so easily! The only way to pass the block was to push harder. When we reached the summit dome of Carn nan Gobhar, the sun came out, Monar pulled into view and we walked with less effort to the cairn on top of the mountain. Sgurr na Lapaich came into view. We were feeling inspired. This trip was underway.
High winds buffeted as we walked over the top of Carn nan Gobhar and onto Sgurr na Lapaich. I still felt sluggish (the plod up it's east face isn't short) and climbed on the rocks direct to the summit. In the book Isolation Shepard, Iain Thomson talks about Sgurr na Lapaich being a prominent peak from his home in Monar. I looked down to Loch Monar and thought about a history not so distant from now. It seemed a sad place, neglected; but on the other hand my reaction was whoa, I'm looking right inside. I read so much of Isolation Shepard that I almost built up a fiction in my mind. And there it all was, quiet and calm. Today the sun shone on Monar. He wrote so well about the area and snapshots of his time bounced around my head. A couple of boats were on the loch and bright mountains rose around. After rain had pounded us in the first coire, we were grateful for the sun.
We climbed An Riabhachan in the rain. Another shower came and went and I still felt weak. An Riabhachan is a great hill; slightly mysterious owing to it's isolation, another hill that I've known for years and was finally climbing. It was quicker to traverse than I'd expected. We sat on the top, had a look at the map and headed off over it's Munro Tops to the west. The cloud broke open to reveal An Socach glittering in the sun. Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan still looked a long way off and it was a sobering thought to think we were to climb it today.
Struan flew up An Socach, I continued to slog up at a slow pace, still always feeling completely knackered whenever I paused. It wasn't like me and I'd never felt this way so consistently before. Neither could I place why it was so. I didn't have less energy than usual; we did over 30kms this day, after all and I made it to the end feeling as I'd expect to after that kind of distance. But my energy was on restricted drip feed, never giving me enough to feel fresh, but never seeming to run out. It was a frustrating way to be.
The ridge to An Socach is fantastic, a little narrow at the top, where a flat walk helped my aching body. An short walk took us to the trig point. I was still tired. It was good to be at the remote end of a big mountain range, and now we were to head further into the wilderness. The west coast doesn't look so far away from here. A bearing took us off the top and we walked down sunny slopes to the arm of Meall Shuas. We stopped here for a break, I got my feet out my boots which had gone shrivelled and stingy with the damp. Yuck.
Mullach na Dheiragain loomed ahead. It's northern slopes are a 700-vertical-metre-high marathon, bottom to top. We would walk on into the evening to reach Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. With boots and rucksacks back on, we walked down to the river and decided to cook there. A helicopter passed overhead to break the isolation and then all returned to silence. Down by the river, we'd have a water source, and we each ate a solid meal in turn. We could walk till late without having to cook in our sleeping bags - always a frustrating thing to have to do when you just want to sleep. Hills shone green in the sun, even Loch Mullardoch seemed attractive in this weather.
I first saw the loch in winter conditions in May. I remember it's desolation and how it disappeared into the distance, mountain on mountain, to obscurity. The isolation felt mind-bending at the time. Roll on three months and I'd found myself cooking up rice and eating biscuits at the far end of the loch with only brief thought to the remote position we'd gained. No doubt conditions mean everything, though how things change.
South Mullardoch: Ceathreamhnan Group and Bivvy
Struan, as ever, led the way up Mullach na Dheiragain. I can't really say I got much pleasure out of the long toil to the top. We'd given so much energy today, and here I had to give more. Progress was painfully slow, but at least the sun was out. My bad physical situation transferred to physiological torture on the way: I was in that horrible place when every step hurts and there's no way out but to keep on going.
I initially intended to go up the eastern side of the Dheiragain face, but Struan had suggested the west. This turned out to be the best idea, because we broke the long climb into short sections: climbing the face, a short section in the coire bowl, then the ridge above Creag a' Choir' Aird leading to Mullach Sithidh (the north Top of Dheiragain). It may have added a kilometre or two onto the journey, but it was a lot easier to deal with than an unrelenting face climb.
My physical condition improved once we'd gained the high tops, although walking the short distance to Mullach na Dheiragain felt little easier. Ahead of us was our nemesis of the evening, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Perhaps I didn't fully realise it at the time, but I didn't relax before we'd stood on it's summit. Most people that climb it comment on it's beauty and size. I have heard countless people talk about the great embracing arms of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Too tired to care, I plodded on toward, viewing it instead as a challenge.
We walked over Carn na Con Dhu to Ceathreamhnan - ground was flat for once. Easier going. The sun disappeared into high murk and Ceathreamhnan loomed larger and larger. A short break gave us a brief respite and then we began the long plod up Ceathreamhnan.
I strangely 'found my feet' on this climb. It was slow and painful as ever, but energy came out for the first time all day. The last twenty metres or so were a battle and I actually beat Struan to the top. The summit was in mist, but it was calm. I thought to where we were and what how far to go to get back: Ceathreamhnan is effectively the half-way point of the round. I looked forward to a break, but first we would walk without pressure, east toward An Socach.
With settled weather, it was clear we could bivvy out on the ridge. Alltbeithe Youth Hostel had been a consideration, but there was no need for it (let alone the ~£20 each for a bed, which we didn't have in our possession). So we headed along to An Socach, over a bumpy little top called Stob Coire na Cloiche. Another difficult climb to An Socach was completed in the gloom of evening. Bivvy spots were lacking on the summit, but just beyond we dropped the bags in dull grey light for the last time and set about making a bumpy patch of grass at 3000 feet our home for the night.
We rolled out sleeping bags and put them inside bivvy bags. Struan had let me borrow his old one, and it would be my first time using one - and what a location. We didn't eat much, we simply rolled over and tried to sleep.
What a place: in the wildest of mountains, where as in our case, we bivvied out of necessity. Struan's bivvy bag was almost a little tent, mine was open at the face so I commonly woke up with rain lashing my face or the great blackness of vast open space. In the darkest hours of night, I remembered there being a permanent glow of light and wondered where it was coming from: the night was completely dark without artificial light to brighten the sky. Perhaps it was the moon shining through cloud.
Most special were the periods when the veil of high cloud parted and I opened my eyes to the subtle lacework of stars and galaxy. They were all right there, so vivid and intense. I wished I weren't so tired or I would have kept my eyes open. Whatever minor hardships we had pale in comparison to the experience of sleeping out in the open at 3000 feet.
South Mullardoch: Carn Eighe group
I dozed in and out of sleep as light returned. Finally I lay awake convincing Struan he should get up too. It had been a good night but I was very cold. We fired up the stove and finished off our water: one cup of tea each. I felt marginally better after tea. I wondered where we would get water from: if we wanted any, we would have to descend into the coires to a stream.
We arose and packed items away. Struan had left his camera (in it's case) out in the rain - but it was just fine. I'd left my boots out and now the boots and my socks were saturated in cold water. I pulled on sticky socks, followed by rain-soaked heavy boots. I felt rough.
Bags were packed and we set off once more for the second day of our trip. The car seemed a long way away. The walk off An Socach was incredibly uncomfortable, I was still so tired and in need of rest. Surrounding mountains glowed bright in the morning sun and deer ran off down the hillsides. Not that I could appreciate it much. When we got to the bealach below Mam Sodhail, the unspoken decision was made not to go and retrieve water. I was too tired to consider going, Struan didn't seem keen either. I didn't complain. We would simply take what the day offered us.
I lagged behind on the long climb to Mam Sodhail. This was just suffering, but I could never place my finger on why I felt so tired this trip. I thought about Kevin Doyle - the Suffer Machine. Well I was suffering just now and I didn't know if I wanted these mountains enough to suffer so much for. In truth, there was no point in getting philosophical about commitment: we were so far away from anywhere, it was all return journey to the car.
We left our wandering stalkers track and stuck off up the hill to come upon the small top of Ciste Dhubh. Mist shrouded the ridge and a glance at the map confirmed we were heading in the right direction. We had a quick peek at the ruined summit buildings of Mam Sodhail then arrived at the summit cairn. I had a wander around the top.
We came out the cloud on descent. Carn Eighe rose ahead in stunning enormity and Beinn Fhionnlaidh by comparison seemed minuscule out on it's spur. We traversed Carn Eighe and dropped rucksacks on it's north ridge. With a few necessary possessions in hand we headed out to Fhionnlaidh. I left my jacket on the saddle below it (the weather was obviously so good) and took my boots off on the summit ridge, walking barefoot on soft moss and rough stone to the summit cairn. The sun was out, midges swarmed. But it was the most intensely pleasing part of the whole trip. It felt so good to briefly shed the rucksack and walk unencumbered. I realised for the first time I was really enjoying myself. We also acknowledged we might be seeing the best views of the day, too. Loch Mullardoch stretched away down the glen, drowning it in unnatural and ugly size.
When the midges became too much we headed back. I omitted climbing the close-to-hand Munro Top Stob Coire Lochan. I figured I'd be back soon and adding one Top was too much effort to bear. We picked rucksacks up and plodded up to the summit of Carn Eighe: the highest mountain north of the Great Glen. And it's a beast. We were just under the ceiling of localised cloud and everything was in view. I took a panorama - a significant one, owing to Carn Eighe's prominent position. (The 2nd highest peak in Britain by prominence, and the only mountain along with Ben Nevis for that prominence to exceed 1000m)
Trom Carn Eighe, the 'highway' back was clear, all the way for miles across the east ridge to Tom a' Choinich and, eventually, Toll Creagach. The An Socach bivvy had been an isolating place to be, but by gaining the summit of Carn Eighe the world had opened up again and the route to the end was clear.
The physical difficulty of the route had hardly diminished, but perhaps the end goal made the psychological game easier to handle. The pinnacles of the east ridge were a lot of fun and we steadily walked east to Sron Garbh - a peak which held some significance for me. I had failed to climb this one in May when trying to climb it's steep east face. Loaded with snow and avalanching on every aspect, I turned around not so far from the summit due to unstable deep snow. Struan and I found descending it's east face so easy (if loose), that I found it hard to imagine it so dangerous.
We continued toward Tom a' Choinich, first over the prominent An Leth-chreag then Tom a' Choinich Beag. The Munro summit was close and to climb it put us one summit from the end. A lot of people were here and that had been the case in May, too. It must be the most popular peak of the range. We talked to a couple on the top for a while. I must have appeared unsociable, but I was just far too tired talk much.
Toll Creagach took a while to arrive at, though we held a fast pace. I was 'pulling it out the bag'! We passed it's west top (which I'd climbed before. No point in doing it again, when the need to conserve energy and momentum was so strong) and plodded up the summit dome where a cairn and trig met us. It was the final summit of twelve. With the camera on self timer, we got photos together and I stood comprehending, not quite taking in the whole Mullardoch round.
It had been a hard shift. Struan had said afterwards that he found Affric much easier than the Cairngorms. I was the complete opposite: the Cairngorms felt within my ability, whereas I was constantly on the edge of exhaustion in Affric. I don't have any good answers as to why this was, other than to suggest I had never fully recovered from the Gorms. Nevertheless, we'd done it. Water, a valley, the car and eventually home awaited. We passed an old guy who said he was up to see a new lasting snow patch in Coire an t-Sneachda (funnily enough). We cut down into Fraoch-choire, through the grass and heather to the old standing pines by the loch. Magical places, even when they have been degraded, burnt and chopped. I filled up on water, and emerged out to the rocky loch shore, where the bleached pine stumps waited.
We traced a route over the boulders back to the dam. We walked down the road, because the dam wasn't built to enable access across it. A final, eternal, walk brought us back uphill to the car. The loop was closed, the route was complete. What a route.
Struan and I immediately drove back to Edinburgh without anything to stop for. I took a bus back to Glasgow and got back to the bus station where I found mum waiting. From bivvying on An Socach to home; I'd gone a long distance in one day.
For all the exhaustion, the trip was rich in experience and memories. Although on the hills I longed to be finished with our schedule, the magic of mountains never really leaves and the following day I was digesting the trip, recovering and dreaming again of mountains.
Carn nan Gobhar
Sgurr na Lapaich
Sgurr na Lapaich: Monar Detail (180°)
An Riabhachan West Top
Mullach na Dheiragain
An Socach (Ceathreamhnan)
Tom a' Choinich
(0.00) 8.00am Mullardoch Dam
(2.10) 10.10am Carn nan Gobhar
(3.15) 11.15am Sgurr na Lapaich
(4.35) 12.35pm An Riabhachan
(6.00) 2.00pm An Socach
(7.25) 3.25pm Abhainn Mullardoch - break
(8.15) 4.15pm Abhainn Mullardoch - end of break
(10.10) 6.10pm Mullach an Dheiragain
(11.40) 7.40pm Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan
(13.10) 9.10pm An Socach
(13.15) 9.15pm Found bivvy site
(0.00) 7.20am Left bivvy site
(1.45) 9.05am Mam Sodhail
(3.05) 10.25am Beinn Fhionnlaidh
(4.10) 11.30am Carn Eighe
(6.25) 1.45pm Tom a' Choinich
(7.30) 2.50pm Toll Creagach
(9.30) 4.50pm Mullardoch Dam