The Mullardoch 12 in a day

Munros: An Riabhachan, An Socach (Affric), An Socach (Mullardoch), Beinn Fhionnlaidh (Càrn Eige), Càrn Eige, Càrn nan Gobhar (Loch Mullardoch), Mam Sodhail, Mullach na Dheiragain, Sgùrr na Lapaich, Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan, Toll Creagach, Tom a' Chòinich

Date walked: 24/07/2020

Time taken: 19 hours

Distance: 57km

Ascent: 4900m

The 10 Mamores, the Fisherfield 6, the 9 Fannichs, the Cairngorm 4000s, the South Glen Shiel ridge, the Cuillin ridge of Skye. All these classic Highland walks represent some of the most challenging and demanding routes that can be found in Scotland, if attempted in a single day. But all these rounds, exceptional as they are, are but mere warm-up acts for what is – unarguably – Scotland’s biggest 24-hour challenge for the ordinary hillwalker. Namely, the ‘Mullardoch 12’.

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There are a number of factors that go into making this walk so revered and respected. The most obvious is in the title. There are 12 individual Munros and a host of subsidiary tops. The statistics for the round are almost bewildering. Thirty four miles (55km) of walking, as well as the best part of 16,000 feet (4,875 metres) of ascent. It’s the equivalent of walking from Edinburgh to Stirling and climbing Mont Blanc along the way. In short, it’s a very long and extremely demanding day.

For quite a few years I had sized this route up, but the ongoing Covid crisis had, or so I thought, put paid to 2020’s aspirations. However, just as I had given up on the idea, I received a message from hillwalking acquaintance Robert, a man with whom I had done the 10 Mamores a few years ago, that he fancied tackling the Mullardoch 12. It was a way of celebrating (his word) the emergence from our imposed exclusion from the hills. His friend, simply named ‘Beardy’, was also interested in attempting it. (Coincidentally, Beardy and I bumped into each other on the Aonach Eagach last year.) In the end it was all settled quite quickly, and we would watch and pray for a 24 hour weather-window in which to attempt this infamous circuit. Our self-imposed cut-off was the end of July. Any later would mean a prohibitive lack of daylight, given we reckoned it would require the best part of 20 hours to complete.

The days came and the days went. The forecast remained stubbornly awful. Rain and wind appeared almost constantly, with no prospect of even a couple of days of clear weather in the offing. We watched and waited for a few weeks, until – at last – a brief lull in Atlantic low pressures saw a brief gap, with fine conditions and light winds. It was also to be cool. Perfect! Friday the 24th it was, then.

The three of us met up at the head of Loch Mullardoch on the evening of the 23rd. Given that the round would taken at least 18 hours going at a decent lick, driving up on the morning of the 24th simply wasn’t an option. We would need to start the walk early, at 3am, to make the most of the light that was available. But sleep didn’t come easily for me that evening as I lay in my sleeping bag. As I tossed and turned, I fretted that this was too much for me, and that I would be the one who would hold the other lads up. I’m sure that they, too, worried about being that same person.

My alarm sounded at 2.40am, and I as rose from a very broken sleep I tried to force down as much food as possible. It’s not an easy thing to do when your body is still waking up, but I managed enough to get me on the way. I felt a little sick as I headed off, full of Quorn Scotch Eggs and Lucozade Sport. But, with head-torches on we made our way along the marvellously easy Land Rover track which took us into the heart of the corrie that lay below the first peak of the day: Carn nan Gabhar.

There is simply no easy path up onto the shoulder of the first hill, Carn nan Gabhar. It's a case of 'pick a line' and hold true to it. As we summited we were treated to a glorious sunrise out east. One of the best I'd seen. I cursed not packing my good camera, but since weight was key I had opted to leave it at home. We arrived at 5am, bang on target.

The view east from Carn nan Gabhar. What a sunrise

The view west from Carn nan Gabhar to the next hill, Sgurr na Lapaich

The walk to the next peak, Sgurr na Lapaich, was a joy in the cool morning air. The ground was lovely and dry, with some springy turf to ease the initial descent. We made decent progress across and arrived on the summit within an the hour.

The view from Sgurr na Lapaich (#2) towards An Riabhachan (#3)

Once again, the walk between number two and three was easy enough. There wasn't a huge drop, and - in any event - who cared? We were now into our stride and full of energy and verve. The views were magnificent and we were having a ball. Hillwalking at its best. When we arrived at the summit of An Riabhachan we paused only for a view and to take a picture. Onwards...

The summit of An Riabhachan (#3)

Yet again the walk between three and four was straightforward enough, with a couple of scrambly sections to keep us interested. We summited at exactly 8am, and had 10 miles under our belts. Not bad. Four Munros and ten miles walked in just under five hours.

An Socach (#4)

The initial drop off the summit of An Socach was a joy. Soft, springy moss down to the summit of Meall Shuas meant we were virtually running down. None of us were in any way fatigued, although we were beginning to run low on water. The two litres I carried in my back-pack bladder were running dry, and the day was getting warm. Also because psychologically we were prepared for this massive loss of height we didn't really give it a thought. Beardy and I had joked beforehand that reaching the Gobh-altan stream that feeds Loch Mullardoch represented the start of the walk proper. The 12.5 miles to get here had just been the walk-in...

We stopped for a while after fording the river, which was quite low, to eat and replenish our water. We knew from other reports that the 2,300 feet ascent up the Coire Buidhe na Haradh onto the summit of number five, Mullach na Dheiragain, was a stinker. And so it was! This was my first wobble of the day. The corrie was sheltered from the breeze, and with the heat rising the temperature became hard to tolerate. Oppressive, even. The agrocat track we picked up beside the chatty Allt Cam disappeared, leaving us an upwards bog-hop. I had taken on too much liquid and food, and felt a bit sick. But, as I knew it would, the bog gave way to stony ground, and soon we were on the ridge to number five.

The ridge towards Mullach na Dheiragain. Back on firm ground at last

The next section, between five and six (Sgurr nan Ceathramhnan) was some of the best walking of the day. The sun was out, but with a cooling breeze and good terrain we made decent progress along the three-mile-long ridge that links the two. We were back on great form again after the low point of the corrie behind us. The 1000 feet upward pull onto the summit was done without any real issue, and from there we had another break for food and drink.

Sgurr nan Ceathramhnan (#6) summit. Those views...

We were now half-way round, and six Munros down. It was 12.30pm and we had completed over 17 miles. A nice group of walkers appeared on the summit and we had a bit of craic with them. With a full stomach we headed off for number seven, An Socach - another one - with a spring in our steps.

Before long we arrived on its summit, took a couple of photos, and then moved on.

Looking back to Sgurr nan Ceathramhnan (#6) from the summit of An Socach (#7)

The drop down from the summit of number seven (An Socach) to the Bealach Coire Ghaidheil took us to 720 metres, leaving a big pull up to the summit of number eight, Mam Sodhail, of 410 metres (+1,300 feet). Luckily there was a well-constructed path, possibly used for the old observatory on Mam Sodhail, that zig-zagged up the hill at a lovely angle, making progress more tolerable than it would have otherwise been. We were at the summit at 3.20pm, having done over 22 miles' walking by then.

The summit cairn of Mam Sodhail (#8)

By now I was clean out of water, having gulped the last of it down a couple of miles back. My two companions were also running low, so we needed a replenishment. Luckily, the traverse from below the bealach of Mam Sodhail and Carn Eige provided a well-known spring, just off the path. To be honest we didn't see any path, but we did see a spring. A slight deviation in course saw us topping up our bottles and bladders with the most glorious, cold spring water. I took on board 1.5 litres and filled the bladder to full (another two litres). We were good to go again.

This water stop is, I think, the reason why we didn't find Munro number 9 (Beinn Fhionnlaidh) too difficult. We simply couldn't have gone on much farther without any water, so dropping down to get some was worth it. Yes, it's a bit of a pain traipsing out to a 'there and back again' Munro, but the views from the summit were something else. Also, we took the packs off at the bealach below, knowing we could pick them up again on the way back. In the end it was an easy up and down.

Me on the summit of number 9, Beinn Fhionnlaidh

My two redoubtable companions on the summit of number 9

Nine Munros down, three to go. We dropped to the bealach and saddled up again. The ascent up to Carn Eige, the highest hill in the north-west Highlands, was another lung-burster: 1000ft (300m) and then some. We were now about 25 miles into our round, and there's not getting away from it: this was the toughest of the day. A relentless climb, albeit on good ground, saw my highest heart-rate of the day (171 bpm). The three of us were mighty glad to top-out and take a breath. Also, we were now looking down the home stretch. Only two Munros to go, and a 'mere' eight miles or so.

The section between number 10 and 11 (Carn Eige and Tom a' Choinich) is deceptively long. Though there's 'only' three miles between them, there are a couple of scrambly sections and a horrible descent on steep ground off Sron Garbh (the aptly titled 'rough nose'). But some of the rock formations were nice to look at, and the scenery was always a joy. Amazingly we were still in good humour and repair, considering the distance we'd come and the height ascended. A couple from near Perth were shocked to discover that a route they'd taken several days to achieve we were doing in a day.

A nice airy section of ridge between 10 and 11

Barely pausing for breath on the summit of Tom a' Choinich, we made for our twelfth and last Munro of the day. It was now 7.45pm, and I reckoned an hour or so would see us on top of Toll Creagach, number 12. We set off at a good lick, reaching the bealach in less than 15 minutes. Perhaps with the scent of something special in our nostrils, or just summit fever, we absolutely tore up the shoulder of Toll Creagach, going the quickest we'd been all day. All three of us just powered up the hill at a pace we all said later was remarkable.

As we reached the summit of Toll Creagach the enormity of what we had just done over the last 18 hours hit home. I was amazed I had attempted this, let alone completed it. A walk that would last a lifetime in the memory.

The three amigos on the summit of Toll Creagach (12)

Oh, I should mention the descent. It was awful. My feet got terrible blisters due to wet socks rubbing. It was the least enjoyable part of the day. Wading through thigh-high heather and bog is not nice in failing light. Were I to do this again I was almost certainly descend by the Doire Tana ridge, which takes you right on top of the road.

A few notes on the practicalities
Time of the year: Realistically, mid-May till the end of July affords the walker a sufficient amount of light with which to attempt the round. We set off at 3am under torch-light, turning them off at approximately 4.20am. We got back to the cars at about 10pm, taking 19 hours to complete the full circuit. We stopped a few times to chat to folk and to eat, drink and rest. It’s hard to imagine it taking any less than 17 hours, even if you were focussed. Plus we weren’t hanging around. At a stretch it could be done in early May or early August, but the speed would need to be increased to compensate. On this round you don’t want to be chasing the day.

Fitness: Unless a walker is used to a big day, this route shouldn’t even be attempted. A good test beforehand would be the 10 Mamores, or a similar 20 mile+ route. If you can’t do something this big then I don’t think it should be attempted.

Company: Three is the magic number, for several reasons. Bigger groups (5+) mean more points of failure. Even with four people there is a risk that parties can split into pairs, with the stronger walkers invariably pushing ahead. Having a trio eliminates this (or should). Secondly, having a third person there is good to ease the pressure of feeling the need to converse a lot of the time. On such a big walk there can be a lot of awkward silences to fill, unless the person(s) you’re doing it with is a good friend(s). I always feel that three people make silences much easier to negotiate.

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