This is one I’ll have to chalk up to experience ... ten and a half hours’ walking, with just a couple of “ticks”, a right good soaking and assorted photos of Clag to show for it . Still, some useful lessons learned (or maybe re-learned), and I got Beinn Mhanach out of the way, a rather remote Awkward Customer that actually turned out to be a finer hill than I’d expected. Not bagging a’Chreachain was a disappointment, but at least I’ll have an excuse to go back and do Achaladair again in better weather sometime...
Due to on-call issues, a week away and suchlike nonsense, I hadn’t managed to get out walking (well, unless you count levada walking in Madeira ) all August, and was getting a bit stir-crazy. When I checked the forecast on Friday via the www.mwis.org.uk website, Sunday the 9th sounded relatively promising: “rain unlikely” and an “80% chance of cloud-free summits” for the West Highlands . There were some sinister mutterings about possible cloud in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, and also about “possible rain coming in from the west late in the day”, but on the whole it sounded like being a pretty good day by 2012’s admittedly low standards.
Ever since doing Beinn Dorain / Beinn an Dothaidh about 5 years ago (my fourth and fifth Munros, I think), I’d been keen to go back and have a look at Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a’Chreachain, which had looked spectacular hills when viewed from Dothaidh. As I hadn’t got out all August, I’m a bit behind my Munros target for the year (the hope is to get to 50 by the New Year but it’s getting ever tighter now) – I therefore thought I’d attempt something a bit epic by my standards, and go for the Beinn Mhanach / Achaladair / a’Chreachain trio from Achallader farm. Although there are potential stalking-season issues with this approach to Mhanach, it was a Sunday (therefore no stalking) and I was out on my tod yet again, so I thought it should be OK. I certainly didn’t see any deer all day; hopefully they didn’t see me either...
There is a handy big free car park at Achallader farm. Apparently it used to be right up at the farm buildings; it is now much further down near the A82 end of the farm track – however, as it’s very generous of the farm to provide a car park at all, who’s complaining? I managed to get a fairly early start, and at this stage the weather was looking quite promising, with Beinn an Dothaidh and Beinn Achaladair both wearing rather picturesque wee hats of cloud:
It looked like it might have the potential to burn off later in the day. (Aye, right.) So off I stoated up the track to the farm, which turned out to be very pretty, with a ruined seventeenth-century Clan Campbell castle tower and all. Apparently the MacDonalds burned it down in 1689. Despite the Glencoe Massacre and all that, the Campbells clearly didn’t have things all their own way ...
On reaching the farm buildings, there is an obvious continuing path firstly just to the left of the farmyard, then straight on through a fence marked with signs “TO HILLS” (a toast, maybe?) and “PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE HORSES”. Fairy nuff. My first objective, the Dothaidh – Achaladair bealach, now came into view, and a very scenic parabola it looked from down here:
A farm track continues as far as the West Highland Railway Line, where a wee gated bridge crosses the railway:
From the far side of the bridge, there is a path that continues straight up Coire Achaladair to the Dothaidh – Achaladair bealach. Although it has a bit of a tendency to boggy-wallowness in its lower reaches, the path isn’t too bad overall, and at least it remains very obvious all the way up to the bealach. On the map, this is marked as a double corrie, being Coire Achaladair in its lower reaches and then Coire Daingean higher up. In practice, the distinction between the two corries is pretty subtle, and it really feels more like one long glen. It remains extremely pleasing to the eye, though.
As I got higher up, the cloud definitely looked to be clearing, and I thought I was going to be in for a fine day’s weather. Alas, how wrong I was...
I was quite surprised by how rugged and interesting Beinn an Dothaidh looks from this angle; when I climbed it from the bealach with Beinn Dorain, it appeared a rather rounded hill, but in fact it is a sort of half-sphere, rather reminiscent of a mini- Ben Nevis, with a craggy north-east face.
The upper reaches of Coire Daingean were a delight, with the path very much improved from a muddy plod into a proper rocky wee mountain track, and the Allt Coire Achaladair tumbling attractively in a rather impressive series of wee waterfalls.
It was now mid-morning, and the cloud had almost completely burned off. Beinn Dothaidh was looking even more impressive:
The arrival at the Dothaidh – Achaladair bealach was probably the highlight of the day, with a rather wonderful panorama suddenly opening up over the five Bridge of Orchy Corbetts, and a wee glimpse of the western end of Loch Lyon in the distance. A real “Also Sprach Zarathustra” moment actually; unfortunately my first-generation digital camera really doesn’t do it justice...
Now, where was that pesky Beinn Mhanach? Mhanach is a real grumpy old hermit of a hill, hiding away right at the far end of Auch Glen, right behind the arc of the other four higher Bridge of Orchy Munros, in the far corner of Ordnance Survey Landranger map 50 where it is marked “HERE BE DRAGONS...” or suchlike. It therefore involves a Long Walk In from any direction. The standard route is probably straight up Auch Glen, but that makes it almost impossible to link up with the other Bridge of Orchy Munros. The approach from the Dothaidh-Achaladair bealach doesn’t get a good write-up (in his “Ultimate Guide to the Munros”, Ralph Storer only gives this route one star out of five “for the summit views alone”), but I actually quite enjoyed it. Beinn Mhanach itself isn’t even visible from the Dothaidh-Achaladair bealach, being completely hidden behind its subsidiary Top of Beinn a’Chuirn, but for me that just enhanced its general air of Reclusiveness and Mystery. Here is Beinn a’Chuirn as viewed from just north of the bealach:
The two rounded tops of Beinn a’Chuirn and Beinn Mhanach present a famously mammary profile when viewed from the south up Auch Glen: virtually all the hillwalking books describe this Munro as “bosomy”; definitely more Marilyn Monroe (or even Dolly Parton) than Sir Hugh Munro... And so, quietly whistling “Jolene” to myself, off I set.
There is a nice wee path (apparently a stalker’s path) that makes a gentle downhill traverse from the Dothaidh-Achaladair bealach north-east to the Achaladair-Mhanach bealach, which goes by the name of Beallach a’Cailliche, “the old woman’s bealach”. I’m not clear exactly who the Old Woman in question was, but she must clearly have been some sort of low, swamp-dwelling type, for the bealach is certainly pretty squelchy. Here is a distant view of the Old Woman’s Bealach:
And a close-up:
As the path traversed round the eastern slopes of Achaladair, it gave some lovely views out over the Bridge of Orchy Corbetts, which looked very fine indeed from this angle. These two are Beinn nam Fuaran and Beinn a’Chaisteal, I think.
And tucked behind Beinn a’Chaisteal, Beinn Odhar was visible in the distance:
Presumably out of sheer cussedness, a wire fence cuts across the bealach right at its boggiest point, continuing uphill in the direction of the Beinn a’Chuirn / Beinn Mhanach bealach. Not having packed my flippers and aqualung, I had to bypass the wee boggy bit just to the south of the fencing – fortunately this wasn’t difficult. I then rejoined the fence to take a zigzagging route up the northern slopes of Beinn a’Chuirn. Unfortunately the weather had deteriorated, with an unpleasant lid of Clag blowing in from the south, and settling around the 800 metre mark. On I plodded, with Beinn Mhanach itself still nowhere in sight. Frankly, I was very much beginning to doubt its existence, when finally something loomed vaguely up ahead through the Clag to the east of Beinn a’Chuirn...
From here it was an easy plod up through the thickening Clag to Beinn Mhanach’s summit cairn, which unexpectedly turned out to be the Place to Be around lunchtime on Sunday 9th September ... I met a party of two and a bigger party of five, both just about to leave the summit. They had come up the Auch Glen approach; no doubt much more sensible. They kindly took my photo at the top before moving on :
Strangely, they turned out to be the only people I would meet all day.
I plodded back down first to the Mhanach-a’Chuirn bealach, and then to the Manach-Achaladair bealach, reversing the route I’d come up. There was a nice view north-east up the Glenn Cailliche, with Beinn a’Chreachain to the north:
Unfortunately the last Nice View of the day. The weather was now deteriorating steadily, with the cloud base sinking ever lower. I pressed on straight uphill from the Mhanach-Achaladair bealach, towards what would hopefully be Beinn Achaladair’s South Top if I was reading the map correctly. It was a long plod with nae views whatsoever, but eventually the cairned South Top did come into view through the drizzly rain.
Given that Achaladair and a’Chreachain are both fairly popular hills, I was surprised not to find a better path along Achaladair’s summit ridge. There IS a path “of sorts”, but it is very much an intermittent luxury. The nature of the terrain is probably to blame: it varies between broad, grassy, walk-where-you-like ridge and sections of quartzite rubble, and is therefore not conducive to good path formation. The weather was also now really closing in; it was blowing a gale with driving rain. So much for “80% chance of cloud-free summits”... Nevertheless, it was enjoyable enough traipsing along Achaladair’s broad ridge up from the south Top to the true summit, with a sense of what a fine hill this must be in better conditions – it must have spectacular views both east and west at this point, although I saw nothing but the inside of a cloud.
Achaladair’s main summit ridge has two cairned points: apparently the first, smaller cairn marks the true summit.
Just a wee bit further north, there is a bigger cairn, sitting just above the crags of Achaladair’s NE corrie.
It was at this point that things started to turn pear-shaped for me ... the path had fizzled out yet again between the two cairned tops, and I couldn’t find the continuing route on to Meall Buidhe and then Beinn a’Chreachain. From the map, it looked as though heading east off Achaladair’s “north top” should get me there. The various Munro guides all warned that the next bit was quite steep, although there was mention of a path. After a fair bit of moseying about looking for a path, I found a very steep grassy ramp, generously littered with scarily loose quartzite rubble and patches of scree, between two big lines of crags.
Still no sign of a path, but I thought this might be the way down nevertheless ... The first bit was very steep indeed , but I had enough visibility to see that the gradient seemed to ease lower down, so I bum-shuffled my way very gingerly down. I sent occasional big lumps of quartzite clattering down into the depths: I almost expected Gandalf to pop up behind me, muttering “Fool of a Took”... Well, Fool of a Took indeed, because when I eventually started to get clear of the Clag, I discovered that I had descended into Achaladair’s NE corrie rather than descending its true east ridge, and I was now at about 700 metre level, a bit north of the bealach between Achaladair and Meall Buidhe, which is called Bealach an Aoghlain. In theory, I could have made a steep scramble up grassy ramps between crags for 150 metres or so to get up to the bealach and re-gain the true continuing ridge to Meall Buidhe and a’Chreachain, but the very angry-looking black cloud that was now sitting right down to about 800 metres, the driving rain and the fact that it was now quite late in the afternoon, all meant that this wasn’t a very attractive option. Clearly my only safe choice now was to give up on a’Chreachain and head for home. But how to get down from the rather random spot I now found myself in, high on the northern slopes of Achaladair, to cross the West Highland Railway Line legally and find my way back to Achallader Farm?
The map did suggest one potential option – following the Allt na Crannaich right down to the West Highland Line, there was a bridge marked on the map where the railway crosses the stream, and I hoped it might be high enough to walk under, getting me past the railway into Crannach Wood. That would only (?) then leave the problem of making a pathless descent down through Crannach Wood to try to pick up the wee woodland path that tracks along the south side of the Water of Tulla to eventually join a farm track to Achallader Farm.
This all looked fine on the map, but it took me over three hours. It was pleasant enough at first, descending through a savannah-like landscape of isolated hawthorn trees standing in heathery heathland, but then I had to cross a big ladder stile into the wooded area around the lower Allt na Crannaich. From here on in it became a total obstacle course: dense woodland; nipple-high bracken; challenging wee side streams to negotiate in their own miniature river gorges; frequent crossings of the main burn to avoid its own sections of gorge that were too steep to walk ... The one plus point was that the railway bridge over the burn was indeed high enough to walk under fairly easily, although the terrain just got even rougher on the far side of the railway: I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it did. Eventually however, after a particularly “entertaining” scramble up a very steep slope of high bracken to escape yet another river gorge, I came upon a wee path, which I was ready to get down on my knees and kiss by now. I’d love to have included some photos of all this “fun”, but my camera by now had got so soaked that it had given up the ghost (thankfully it revived after a couple of days drying out once I got back home). From here I found my way down fairly easily to the muddy path along the south side of the Water of Tulla, and back to the farm.
Some learning experiences here, definitely.
Firstly, there was no excuse for my poor navigation off the north top of Achaladair. If I had looked more closely at the map, it should have been clear that the true line actually cuts SOUTH-east for a couple of hundred metres before curving east and then north-east towards Meall Buidhe and a’Chreachain. Dodgy navigation on descent from Munro summits is exactly how nasty accidents happen. I landed myself with an unnecessarily steep route in craggy terrain in very poor visibility: really not clever.
Secondly, unscheduled and pathless escape routes tend to cause Very Rough Terrain issues once down below the 300-metre mark, particularly if they include sections of woodland ... a better option would probably have been a long horizontal traverse of Achaladair’s north-west slopes at around the 350 metre mark, right back to the vicinity of Coire Achaladair where I could have picked up my ascent route for a considerably less strenuous route back to the farm.
Thirdly, always re-check the weather forecast the day before ... Friday’s forecast for the Sunday looked good, but if I’d re-checked on the Saturday I’d probably have seen that the outlook had deteriorated a lot (this is Scotland after all), and I wouldn’t have tackled such an ambitious walk.
All the same, two “ticks” is two “ticks”, and it was good to get Beinn Mhanach done at least.
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