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To savour or suffer: philosophical in the Fisherfields
by old danensian » Mon May 15, 2017 3:06 pm
Route description: Fisherfield 6, from Shenavall
Munros included on this walk: A' Mhaighdean, Beinn Tarsuinn, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Ruadh Stac Mòr, Sgùrr Bàn
Corbetts included on this walk: Beinn a' Chlaidheimh
Date walked: 08/05/2017
Time taken: 13.5 hours
Distance: 49.7 km
Ascent: 3040m35 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
8.2km; 350m; 2h
33.3km; 2422m; 13h 40m
Tuesday – walk-out
8.2km; 274m; 1h 50m
Its time had come.
It was time to grasp that nettle, carpe that diem, seize the Fisherfield bull by the horns: all six of them.
Never mind re-surveying, relegation and demotion from the Championship division of the mountain world. Whatever its status, any round of the Fisherfields must include the Corbett, Beinn a Chlaidheimh.
It’s all about aesthetics. Beinn a Chlaidheimh is the front door, the garden gate to the whole property. It’s the first hunk of hill you see as you breast the Sail Liath when walking in from Corrie Hallie: everything flows from its summit. As you look back when you’re more than half way round, it’s the launch pad of the circuit you’re embarked on: you’d have to be a mug not to have included it. On the map at home and on the ground itself, Beinn a Chlaidheimh makes the unified whole.
And talk about ducks being in a row. So far this May they’ve been positively eager as they jostle to get in the queue: the most orderly they’ve been for ages. Clear sunny days, fresh winds from the north or east, dry, midge-free, and the days well and truly stretching themselves at each end. A spot of wild camping beckoned, and maybe those river crossings wouldn’t prove to be too tortuous: or wet. With the prospect of taking a whole day on the hills themselves, this was a walk I wanted to savour and take my time over. The bits on either end needn’t sully the expectation or the satisfaction.
By late afternoon, the parking spaces at Corrie Hallie were full. Verges were taken and even the off-road pull-in half a mile away was occupied: not the best signs to suggest wild, remote or uninhabited. But, with all the superlatives promised in the reports and guidebooks for this outing, I guess the secret’s out.
My last walk-in was trudged in the rain and under grey skies, with optimism resting on the shoogly promise of “better weather tomorrow.” This time couldn’t have been more of a contrast. In the late afternoon sun I was grateful for the dappled shade of the birches as I wandered up the Gleann Chaorachain, gradually gaining height with ease despite the heavy pack. The silhouetted skyline of An Teallach kept appearing through the trees, above an expanse of shimmering slabs that glistened where thin films of water ran down. Little did I realise how much this iconic mountain’s shifting profile accompanies you on this trip. Then, after sweeping zig-zags lead onto the Sail Liath, it hits you: the view. The Fannaichs, the Fisherfields and the ever-present An Teallach. And the forecast until Tuesday was bolt-on, rock-solid sun.
I concluded that an early evening walk-in was a “good thing.” A gentle easing-in to the day ahead rather than bursting from the car and suffering the brutal immediacy of a full-on day.
Shortly after passing the cairn on the watershed, the path bearing right to Shenavall was ignored: a noisy night in a busy bothy didn’t appeal. A riverside wild camp at the foot of Beinn a Chlaidheimh seems to have been the choice of many, so I was looking forward to finding a secluded spot in Strath na Sealga.
The gradually descending track soon gave a view down toward the meandering river as it snaked between banks of gravel, and splotches of yellow gorse that decorated the glen’s floor. As the downward gradient steepened, a solitary figure plodded upward: we stopped and chatted. I suspect he was grateful for the break, while I had the remainder of the day to dawdle. Heavily laden, he’d carried all his gear round the route I was hoping to cover the following day, camping on the tops and keeping well away from other campers, never mind a noisy bothy.
“Each one has its own challenge,” he shared as we parted. “And every one of them is different.” It was a comment that I was to dwell on later.
Accompanied by the setting sun, a concoction of rehydrated couscous, sun-dried tomatoes and pepperami replaced the traditional Sunday roast, and I wandered along the river to chat to a couple of guys who were at the end of their jaunt north. Yes, we talked about hills. But, we also shared recollections about RAF Finningley and the guttural rumble of the iconic Vulcan bombers that occasionally filled my childhood skies. We philosophised about life and we discovered football and family connections. When like-minded souls get together in the hills, the concept of six degrees of separation is far too wide. When you chat these connections float to the surface.
Anyway, a bunch of hills had to be climbed. The plan was to start early and take it easy. The walkhighlands statistics suggested anything between twelve and eighteen hours, and there were clearly going to be three critical elements: the scree slog up Sgurr Ban; the long climb out of the Pollan na Muice to A Mhaighdean; the walk back to the tent from the last Munro of the day. Energy would be conserved during the first half of the day, so I could walk back to the tent rather than stagger or crawl.
River crossing number one bode well for the remainder of the day: I tip-toed across gravelly shallows with the laces on my boots barely getting damp. The cliffs above Creag Ghlas initially appeared to block progress but, on closer inspection, revealed a wide grassy rake heading from bottom right to top left that gave sudden access to the spectacular views to the west, especially Beinn Dearg Mor, Loch na Sealga and the obligatory shifting profile of An Teallach.
After an initial clamber, Beinn a Chlaidheimh’s quartzite cap stretched away to the south, as did the remainder of my day. On its grassy summit, just over two hours from skipping across the river below, I rested; doing anything less would have done the setting no justice at all.
But it was only one-down-five-to-go. I may not have been in woods dark and deep, but there were definitely “miles to go before I sleep.” Sgurr Ban lay ahead. I had to remind myself that I’d yet to set foot on a Munro.
Before descending from Beinn a Chlaidheimh, Sgurr Ban plays a trick. The threat of the long sweeping clatter up the stony slopes appears to be just that: a threat. Surely, you just pop up that grassy nose directly in front. If only.
Once down at Loch a Bhrisidh, it becomes clear that there is no option but to take to the grey slopes above. Teetering, balancing, wobbling and ever-fearful of a twisted ankle, progress is slow to begin with. However, it soon becomes easier as long stretches can be safely trodden on the underlying slabs themselves. A tantalising patch of snow became my target above, and what I thought would take well over an hour to scrabble up, was behind me in forty minutes.
From Sgurr Ban's stony summit even more of the route was now visible: a challengingly steep scree-scramble, the curiously shaped tennis court beyond Beinn Tarsuinn; the final pair of Munros, looking just a skip-and-a-jump close to one another. Fool.
Across the bealach, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair (MCM from now on) presented the clearest path so far experienced. It appeared, as if scratched by nail down a sheet of grey metal, and rose directly to the summit. And this was proper scree, or might have been in some patches if it hadn’t been worn away by countless boots over time.
I’m a real plodder when it comes to scree and scrambling up any kind of loose stuff: virtually every step sussed out and tested before the next. I’ve learned over the years from watching people attack it like a sprinter training on the sand dunes, from numerous bulls in china shops, and seeing the sweat drip from the macho-types who will not be defeated. As they thrash and pound away, as they strive to beat the one-up-two-down effects of gravity, every muscle in their body is straining and taught, burning energy in an ever-failing attempt to maintain balance, prevent falling and achieve the semblance of upward progress. Tortoises of the world unite.
I was still in energy conservation mode, yet fifty minutes from cairn to cairn didn’t seem too bad. It might have been three-down-three-to-go but it was clear I was nowhere near halfway in terms of distance. And with the surrounding panorama stretching away in every direction, I was really getting a sense of remoteness.
From the top of MCM, the blimp of Meall Garbh, sitting astride the ridge between me and Beinn Tarsuinn, looked innocuous. In keeping with the aesthetics of starting with Beinn a Chlaidheimh, I’d expected to traverse it like the pinnacles on an exciting ridge. However, as a shadowy darkness loomed up and the by-pass path tempted me siren-like across, I gave myself the excuse of saving energy for what was to come. I wussed out and stepped into the shadows.
Beinn Tarsuinn had been scheduled for my lunch stop since the start of the day. Despite nibbling on each of the other tops, pangs of hunger were telling me to get on with it as I emerged from the low-level Meall Garbh by-pass path. An uninteresting mix of grass and occasional slabs and outcrops stood in the way of my lunch: and what a place to stop. Airy and precipitous and, once sat on the sun-warmed tennis court slabs just beyond the summit, thought-provokingly satisfying: fluted cliffs above Fionn Loch; the Gleann na Muice leading you eye toward the perfectly framed serrated crest of An Teallach; and along the route you’ve just come.
Apparently, according to one guidebook, the big dipper skyline route of Beinn a Chlaidheimh to MCM “does not inspire much enthusiasm” and the “scenery is less majestic.” Where on earth were they standing? They clearly should have gone to Specsavers. Hey ho, I guess it’s all subjective. But still ...
Fuelled and fortified, I faced what I expected to be the biggest test of the day. Being back down at just 525m was simply dispiriting. The slope above looked dull, uninteresting and long, and it did nothing to thwart that expectation. It took a good two hours to get from Beinn Tarsuinn’s cairn to the perch on A Mhaighdean. The vestige of a track appeared now and then, but for the most part I just zigged and zagged and always seemed to be looking up at the adjacent profile of Ruadh Stac Mor. Eventually, it appeared level, but I wasn’t convinced. And then I knew I was there. And it doesn’t come much better than that.
And maybe then I knew what the guidebook writer meant. One has an aesthetic style and elegance: the other is jaw-droppingly striking, grand in its spectacle, stirring a top-of-the-world sense of achievement. The former suffers simply because of the magnificence of the latter.
Eight and a half hours after leaving the tent, five-down-one-to-go, and at last I was at the furthest point from the comfort of the idyllic campsite setting in the distant Strath Sealga. My evening meal was a long way away and I still had the potential challenge of another two river crossings and the threat of a bog-fest to negotiate. It’s at times like this you know you’re committed, and have to muster or manage the energy to get back.
I wanted to linger, not just to recover but to take it all in. I’d wanted to savour this trip, to enjoy the situations it offered, the landscape it revealed and the achievement each successive top rewarded me with. But I knew I had to keep going, maintain a momentum and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Savour or suffer? By now I knew it wasn’t a simply “either: or.” It was the price we sometimes have to pay. I’d got to the stage that if I stopped for too long, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get going again.
Now, the colourfully contrasting geology of Ruadh Stac Mor had to be faced. A rusty red up-turned boat hull sat above green grey slabs, touched by fingers of scree stretching down through the black crags. Hey ho, one to go.
Whether it was muscle memory or adrenalin, I’m not too sure how the next forty five minutes sped by. Maybe it was just that plodding mantra: small and slow, small and slow. Embracing the trig point on Ruadh Stac Mor I breathed a sigh of relief, high-fived myself and, using the best phone signal I’d had all day, reported in to the other half to reassure her that all I now had to do was “just pop back down to the tent.”
Three and a half hours and fourteen kilometres later I wrestled with the final problem of the day. Behind which clump of gorse had I pitched my tent?
I’d made a beeline from the top of Ruadh Stac Mor to the gap between the Lochan a Bhraghad, found drinkable running water for the first time in hours and followed the burn to the stalkers path heading back down into Gleann na Muice.
Once past Larachantivore, I’d risked crossing the two rivers after they had merged. I was lucky enough to find a point where the underlying gravels dropped a couple of feet and the water ran shallow and speedily rather than sluggish and deep. After a quick fifteen metre splashing sprint, my gaiters dried within ten minutes and my relatively new boots proved their waterproof credentials. The recent dry spell had rendered the bog largely innocuous.
After thirteen and a half hours on the go I found my tent, fell back onto my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. I would not have surprised to have woken in the middle of the night with my feet still sticking out the tent, boots still on, and getting cold. But I couldn’t face cooking. A second helping of couscous and pepperami didn’t appeal. Instead, I made a mug of tea and ate every chocolate bar remaining, finished the peanuts and jelly babies and drank the orange juice I was saving for breakfast. I kept the bag of museli in reserve for the next morning, but if I’d opened it, I suspect that would have been eaten too.
Normally at this stage, bags and gear have been flung into the back of the car, boots changed for trainers and the satnav set for “home address.” While concentrating on caravans and coaches on the A82, or wrestling with the overtaking muppets on the A9, the day’s exploits are often in danger of becoming a blur, with different parts merging into one another. Others are forgotten completely. Then, when you arrive home four hours later, stiff and aching limbs have to be unfolded from the car accompanied by the other half’s sympathy extending to a reassuring “well, it’s your own fault.” And before you know it, life hits you between the eyes, demands your attention and the exhilaration of the day before is gone.
This time however, while sipping another mug of tea, I could relax and replay the day. I could mull over the comments made on Sunday evening about how each hill had its own particular challenge and characteristic. I could wander along the river bank loosening the legs and letting the muscles recover. I could sit and watch the sun set.
The next morning, having packed a tent still wet from condensation, and reduced the weight of my pack by eating the remainder of my food and jettisoning any liquids, I set off back to the car, lighter and more lively than would have been the case if I’d tried to complete the day’s trip the night before. Although the pull back over the watershed and to Corrie Hallie could be taken easily, the cairn on the crest still carried a significance. It was like the last lap bell for a tiring distance runner or the final fence in the Grand National: it was almost over, just a little bit more effort. And downhill too. So, I admired the views of An Teallach yet again and the dappled light of the birch woods as I got nearer to the road.
Then, it was all over. There were still masses of cars parked along the road, yet their occupants were lost amidst that vast wildness. From crossing the river first thing in the morning to passing the Shenavall bothy on the way back to my tent, I’d seen just one couple all day. Plenty of time to think – and I guess that, and the surroundings, is why this report has been so long. I’ve tried to cut down on the repetitive photographs, but when you’re confronted with such an area, where do you stop?
And next? Well Knoydart is still on my list, but I suspect the midges will have got there by the time I arrive.
by Mal Grey » Mon May 15, 2017 3:53 pm
This must remain one of Britain's hardest days out, and in what a place! Its only having been to MCMF and SB a few months back that I can truly appreciate how remote you feel out there. A truly special part of the world.
by BlackPanther » Mon May 15, 2017 5:52 pm
Still to do the rest of Fisherfield Munros... We were actually planning Beinn Tharsuinn yesterday (from Kinlochewe), but I was suffering from some annoying infection and didn't feel strong enough, so we climbed Beinn a'Mhuinidh instead.
Stunning area - can't wait to return for another visit, hopefully no more wardrobe malfunctions
by PeteR » Mon May 15, 2017 6:23 pm
"Tortoises of the world unite" I'm a fully paid up member of that club myself
by Sgurr » Mon May 15, 2017 6:47 pm
by Beery Hiker » Mon May 15, 2017 7:14 pm
by BobMcBob » Mon May 15, 2017 7:31 pm
by Alteknacker » Mon May 15, 2017 8:30 pm
Fisherfield is still on my "to do list", but I feel I'll have somehow to include Beinn Dearg Mor, which I think is one of the most alluring hills in the Highlands....
by jupe1407 » Mon May 15, 2017 8:56 pm
by Cairngorm creeper » Mon May 15, 2017 9:32 pm
by inca » Mon May 15, 2017 9:45 pm
by Borderhugh » Mon May 15, 2017 10:32 pm
by weaselmaster » Mon May 15, 2017 11:15 pm
by region_of_clouds » Mon May 15, 2017 11:43 pm
by Beaner001 » Tue May 16, 2017 8:33 am
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