Inspired by a successful trip to Lochay with a night in the campervan, motivated to reach two hundred Munros before the end of the year and to complete the top fifty, I had a very powerful urge to park up on the Dirrie More and traverse the eastern ridge of the Fannaichs, this time staying away for two nights. This route is renowned for long boggy approaches, but the reward is a traverse of nearly eight miles from the top of the first shoulder over easy ground that never drops again below 750 meters and takes in four Munros, of which Sgurr Mor, the highest mountain I have yet to climb and the last of the top fifty. When I presented my plan to Martyn he was initially rather unenthusiastic, but said he would get in touch. I was swithering about whether or not to take advantage of the predicted weather window at the end of the week, still not sure if I was up to such an arduous day out on my own, then Martyn called to offer support, saying he could sleep in his car. I offered to supply him with boiling water from the campervan stove for tea and his flask and to make porridge in the morning.
I left home in Fife at about half past one. After a stop at my favourite outdoor store in Perth, I drove to the parking place by the meteorological station at the west end of Loch Glascarnoch, where there was space enough to park and wait. I made myself some food and relaxed. After the rest of the vehicles departed, I moved the van into a more sensible position for the night with the door opening out south to the moor. The voices of rutting stags echoed in the dark. Light was still visible under cloud past the peaks of An Teallach to the west. Martyn arrived (without Coll the dog) after nine, having waited for traffic lights in Garve for nearly an hour. I boiled him a kettle and we planned the next day. The weather was forecast to be good, but Martyn had downloaded a route into his Garmin just in case, and I had spent the previous several days scouring the map, and playing with the perspectives of Google Earth, getting a feel for the topography of the land and learning the route. Although it would be long and boggy there would not be much steepness, until the end on the way down from the ridge. We agreed to get started as soon as we could motivate ourselves.
The first vehicle arrived in the car park at six thirty. I was awake but not yet out of bed. Another two arrived. Then Martyn tapped on the window and I got into gear. We had cups of tea and porridge as more vehicles arrived and then left at eight, the last of several parties, all looking forward to the forecast good weather. The route rises from the road through a new forest of mixed trees before dropping steeply down to bridge the burn, and then follows a muddy ATV track along the southeast flank of Creag Dubh Fannaich, before turning north onto the start of the ridge. Although we could see all the tops surrounding the glen and the impressive profile of the Beinn Dearg cluster to the north, the weather was not looking promising. Earlier in the morning the cloud cover had been broken with tinges of colour at the edges, suggesting that as the sun rose it might burn off, but we could see now squalls and showers approaching from the east and south.
The cloud thickened and dropped over us as we walked over the flat shoulder to the round summit of Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich. All views into the distance disappeared. We arrived at eleven, just behind a father and son, Iain and Stuart, with their two exuberant dogs. It was suddenly very cold and wet. We all fumbled to protect ourselves with gloves and full rain gear. The dogs also got coats. For the rest of the day we walked together through mist, cloud and rain along an easy to follow route, starting under the summit of Beinn Liath Mhor Fannaich along an immaculate stalkers' path hollowed out of scree. No doubt the views from here are quite spectacular. There are outcrops on a gentle slope to the south and sheer cliffs to the north; from time to time the path passes great chasms into misty nothingness and curves eventually round to the summit of Sgurr Mor, skirting sheer cliffs, buttresses and gullies. On the way, we disturbed flusters of ptarmigan, wings dazzling white among the greys. At the top, the grasses were decorated with frosty dew, there was about a bucketful of fresh snow nestling in a hollow facing north east, left over from the last squall, which the dogs promptly gobbled up. While taking a screenshot of my position, for the record, the battery on my phone gave up the ghost from the cold. We hung around for long enough only to adjust our clothing, fill our pockets with munchies and take a bearing for the next stage, which was back the way we came for a few hundred meters and then to veer south.
This slope of Sgurr Mor is decorated by a series of steps or terraces. The surface layer of peat and gravel is subject to freeze/thaw cycles under a process called solifluction. Some of the steps are several feet deep and they are remarkably regular. On the way down we met a party of three going round the circuit in opposite direction, one of whom was heading for her 200th Munro. (I later worked out that if I include the four Munros in Fisherfield I know for sure I climbed in my youth, but have not yet climbed again, then Sgurr Mor was also my two hundredth. But that is not how I am counting now.) The weather did not improve, though the walking was easy over the subsidiary tops of Meall nan Peithirean and Creachan Rairigidh, gradually descending to only 830 meters before the screes on the side of Meall Gorm loomed out of the mist. The ascent was less steep than appeared and on the long round summit, the ground was garnished by many slabs lying flat on the ground, making for very pleasant walking. We were at the handsome summit cairn of flat slabs at about one fifteen, and again stopped no longer than necessary before continuing along the round hump, passing by a tumbledown stalkers' shelter made from flat slabs, then down again to the final bealach. It was good to be in a group under these conditions; we kept to our own pace, looked out for each other. Martyn and Iain discovered along the way that they had a mutual friend, and found much to talk about. What a small world it is.
I had prepared myself mentally for the final section, which I thought would be the most difficult. It was getting on in the day and the flanks of the final summit, An Coileachan, were rocky and steeper than the others. There was only a very sporadic path up through challenging boulder fields and the weather was still not pleasant. But we all made it to the summit in less than an hour since the last. In better weather this complex tor would certainly be a good place to hang out in preparation for the descent, but not today. We took a careful bearing before descending again under the watchful presence of a pair of ravens, first into the little corrie under Bealach Bàn and then to rocky outcrops at the start of a long path back, where at last we stopped for long enough to rest and eat properly, now out of the rain and infuriated by views of the ridges we just traversed emerging from rising cloud. My phone battery came to life again out of the bitter wind. We looked out over the depths of Loch Gorm to the sheer cliffs of Meall Gorm, with both Sgurr Mor and Beinn Liath Mhor Fannnaich in the background, still miles from the road.
We were in the middle of a vast wilderness of bog, echoing with bellowing stags. It was still only half past three but we knew we had a long walk back. There was a path of sorts; the ground is boggy and rough, so it was hard going at the end of the day. Eventually we crossed back over the burn at a bridge not marked on the map, and then followed the north bank downstream through more boggy peat to the first bridge, where we crossed over again and climbed steeply up the track back into the forest. We were at the carpark at about five thirty. It had been a great day out, despite the weather, and it was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of Iain and Stuart, who have now completed 190 Munros together and the previous day climbed the five Munros of the western Fannaichs, two very big days in a row. I was glad to have the van and immediately started to prepare my recuperation. The others changed out of their wet clothes, we said our farewells and they drove south in time to get past Garve before the start of the nightly roadworks.
I could not have driven to Garve, let alone all the way home. I ate well, gave myself a standup wash, warmed up and prepared for the night. No other vehicles were parked up, the road remained quiet from about eight-thirty, coinciding presumably with the works at Garve. Stags bellowed and grunted all through the night. I slept as well as I could with the massive experiences of the day running through my mind. In the morning I tidied up quickly, ate breakfast and was on the move again before nine, south through the spine of this beautiful little country, with a sense that I had left something behind, that I had unburdened myself, taken off the pressure from my ambitions. Compleating the top fifty has been a burning desire for a few years, and now also only two more to go until I reach two hundred, which is eminently achievable before the end of the year. I had been very anxious about this trip, not only because I knew it would be a very hard slog through desolate country, but also because I could hardly believe I might actually be on the verge of such a significant accomplishment. The colours of autumn on the mountainsides and woodlands overwhelmed my eyes; the benign tranquility of the planet banished all anxiety. Sometimes we climb mountains not for the view, but to teach us who we are, what we did not realise we can do.
Many thanks to Martyn for support and friendship, and to Iain and Stuart for sharing this awesome day!
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