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Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby old danensian » Sat Sep 10, 2016 4:23 pm

Munros included on this walk: An Socach (Affric), Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan

Date walked: 06/09/2016

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Route statistics

Total to and from Loch Affric car park: 43km; c.1690m; 9h 20m
From Alltbeithe: 15km; 1150m; 6h

As days shorten, the boundaries of what it’s possible to achieve in a single day close in. Throw in a long drive and the need to be back the next day for other commitments, and they positively shrink.

In addressing this autumnal challenge for some of my far-flung targets, I’ve dined at home in the evening then headed north once the traffic in the Central Belt has died down. Snuggled into a sleeping bag a few hours later I can then enjoy a book, or watch something downloaded to the iPad, and be ready to start a walk reasonably fresh early the following day.

And so it was that I tapped “snooze” on my phone when the alarm went off the next morning having spent the night in the Loch Affric car park. With hindsight I’d lazily sown a seed I was later to regret by wasting almost an hour.

Sunrise over Affric and the promise of a good day ahead

An Socach, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and the distant Mullach na Dheiragain were in my sights. The day ahead was expected to be humid but clear and dry, with the wind dropping from 60kph on the tops. The Milky Way had stretched across the sky at midnight and the forecast showers of rain had passed through during the night. An optimistic brightness shone through the clouds at 6.30am and I was ready to go as the midges mustered for their breakfast just before seven.

Maybe I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep. Perhaps going to the gym the previous day had been a mistake. Or, it might just be a set of ageing legs and lungs that held me back. Whatever: the ninety-minute cycle up Glen Affric and all the way to the youth hostel at Alltbeithe was not the introduction to the day that I’d hoped for. To say I was grateful for the mug of tea proffered when I arrived would be an understatement. The least said, the better; but it will return.

Youth hostel at Alltbeithe with Coire na Cloiche in shadow behind

Looking up to the Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan ridge

Duly fortified and rested I turned to the hill. In comparison to what had gone before, the steady climb upwards brought blessed relief and contained an early a surprise. On rounding a small knoll just before the first deer fence I found myself face-to-face with an otter on the track. Although my camera was out I’d like to have written that our eyes met and it posed for a photograph. But it didn’t, so I couldn’t, and all I got was an image of its sleek back retreating up the path.

Honest: it's the back of a retreating otter

Colourful scenes along the Allt na Faing

Rising from the glen - looking down into Fionngleann and across to Ciste Dhubh

Clear and uneventful, the path wended its way upward, through patches that could be a tad soggy at times, but was by and large dry. Just over an hour after leaving the hostel I broached the wall above Coire na Cloiche and was treated to the expansive views down and across toward Mullardoch.

An Sochach lay a relatively easy twenty minutes or so off to the east, and Sgurr na Ceathreamhnan a tougher hour to the west. I’d already decided to tackle these two before heading out to Mullach na Dheiragain. I suspected that ascending the biggest of the three at the end of the day might not be a good idea: climbing out of Coire nan Dearcag was likely to be an easier, if wetter, option.

However, by now I was beginning to question my ambitions for the day.

The spur out to Mullach na Dheiragain looked enticing. The narrow ridge swooped down from Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan then undulated along to its summit, currently basking in sunshine. It suited a gentle amble, almost like one Lakeland fell leading to another in an outstanding setting. It would occupy another couple of hours or so to get out and back; not too taxing on its own. Yet every report I’d read also described the potential quagmire of crossing the Coire nan Dearcag before clambering up again to look back down into Glen Affric.

But the prospect of repeating that cycle to get back to the car had begun to haunt me. With the best will in the world I knew it wasn’t going to be fun. I didn’t want to be knackered before even starting it. And I had to make a four hour drive after that as well.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, Carn Eige and Mam Sodhail from An Socach

East ridge of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan from An Socach

Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

I pretended I’d shelved the decision and turned to visit An Socach, the first Munro of the day: unexceptional in itself, but providing great views as the occasional cloud scudded past. Sitting out of the wind I began to estimate various times and decided that I didn’t want to arrive back in Ayrshire sometime close to midnight. Neither did I want to scuttle along to Mullach na Dheiragain constantly conscious of the time and racing the clock. That’s neither relaxing nor conducive to savouring the experience or the surroundings.

My conclusion was to simply enjoy two rather than endure three. The old adage remained true: it’ll be there for another day. And a different direction of approach would allow a visit to the as yet unvisited Glen Elchaig.

The die was cast. I was on my way to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Triangular, pyramidal, childishly pointy: it bore all the hallmarks of the airy perch I’m always after.

And an hour and a half later I wasn’t disappointed.

Beinn Fhada from Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

Looking back down the east ridge to An Socach

The summit cairn, sitting at the eastern end of a short crest, gave the perfect lunch stop and the opportunity to test my geographical knowledge of the surrounding ridges and peaks. Often christened “chrysanthemum,” because few people seem to know how it’s supposed to be pronounced, its floral alias seemed apt: definitely a gold star and a mountain that has leapt into the bouquet of my top ten.

Along the summit crest of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan to the West Top

Stuc Mor and the bleached flanks of Drum Bheag from Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan

Almost an hour later, I stirred my stumps and reluctantly left the top to descend the way I had come. Seeing the sun glint off stretches and patches of standing water in Coire nan Dearcag reinforced the decision I’d already made. Mentally I was in downhill mode, and the only regret I had was in not spending another few minutes wandering across to the West Top: but that could wait for another time and a subsequent visit when a descent past the Falls of Glomach could be included.

Coire nan Dearcag - giving it a miss

Descending alongside the picturesque Allt na Faing

There was no knee-jarring or slithering on steep wet grass during the descent back to the youth hostel and, sadly, no otters either. I ended the walk feeling fresh and hopefully still with the energy to face the return cycle to the car park: or so I thought.

Looking down Glen Affric - before the pain began

Rocks, gravel, undulations a-plenty and a fair bit of damage incurred by the hydro construction traffic lay ahead. And my thumb was ready: still black and oily from the outward journey. My chain had frustratingly fallen off four times, while I’d only been jettisoned from the bike once.

Normally the return cycle is quicker, leg muscles are pumped up and generally gravity lends a hand: not this time. Getting back to the car took longer than the cycle out in the morning. On too many upward stretches I gave in and pushed, especially that final slope from the bridge to the car park. Pride be damned; I wasn’t too posh to push.

Although I was technically going downhill, my GPS had nevertheless continued to register a further 242m of ascent since leaving Alltbeithe. I was distinctly underwhelmed by the undulations. The chain count continued to rise too, reaching seven by the end of the day, but at least I didn’t fall off this time.

And so ended a strange day, one of two quarters and a half. The easiest part of the day had been the straightforward pair of Munros in the middle, sandwiched between the price that had to be paid.

But it was well worth paying. Ceathreamhnan, Chrysanthemem, whatever: it’s a blooming brilliant mountain.
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Re: Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby Huff_n_Puff » Mon Sep 12, 2016 7:36 am

Beautiful photos, confirms what I'd always suspected about bikes :lol: :clap: Great to see an otter.
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Re: Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby Borderhugh » Mon Sep 12, 2016 7:55 am

Well done Nigel for perseverance and another great write up!

I have yet to do these 3 but in any book its a big day out. These are stubborn hills as I found out at this time last year when we had to abort when trying to do all 12.

I respect your decision to leave Jerrycan for another day. You might find it easier cycling in from the West up Elchaig.

Big up the otter! :D
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Re: Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby weaselmaster » Mon Sep 12, 2016 8:48 am

Good report, Nigel - nice to get a weather playing ball day for these.
There's a fine circuit to be made of the 4 Tops of Ceathreamnhan (the western spur) then returning over Mullach na Dheiragan if you come in from Iron Lodge - and Glen Elchaig would be a pleasant cycle in.
Just wait til the midges have vacated the premises :lol:
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Re: Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby PeteR » Mon Sep 12, 2016 9:36 am

Really interesting Nigel. I only managed the two myself at a similar time of year last year and have that awkward outlier to bag. I've been looking to do it for weeks (well, months if I'm honest) from the glen at the back as you suggest. I still dream it might be this year :lol:
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Re: Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby BobMcBob » Mon Sep 12, 2016 11:43 am

A most entertaining read. Never been to this area but was thinking of giving it a look in the autumn if I make it u there, now I know there's a big pointy chrysanthemum to climb I'm even more likely to give it a go. Cheers.
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Re: Western Affric: undulations, otters, and oily thumb

Postby denfinella » Mon Sep 12, 2016 3:16 pm

Brilliantly written. And that's a much better otter pic than I've ever managed to get!

Unfortunately the weather's never been that good when I've been in the region, but hopefully someday!
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