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Munroes and Midges: Scotland Part II

5 September, 2010

(continued from here)

Day 3: Loch Ossian to Kinlochleven

More conversation over breakfast led to a relatively late start. Initially very midgey, we broke out our stylish midge nets, only to discover that the mesh isn’t really fine enough to keep them out. Bugger. We climbed away from Loch Ossian and met up with the train line which we followed down towards Loch Treig. The landscape around us grew steadily more mountainous, and the vista from the shores of the loch was stunning. Had we made it here last night, it may well (depending on the wind) have been a pleasant place to spend the evening.

Great look. Utterly ineffective.

Talking with the woman at the hostel who had just walked up Glen Nevis, we decided against that route to Fort William. It sounded like yet more boggy, midgey walking following a river along a valley floor. We’d had enough of that yesterday and, as the weather forecast was positive, we decided to attempt a more ambitious route, following Glenn Iolarean to Kinlochleven and then crossing a range of mountains called the Mamores to drop into Glen Nevis just near the road’s end.

We turned off the main path at the point marked by this rather foreboding sign:

Sign reads: "Take Care: You are entering remote, sparsely populated, potentially dangerous mountain country. Please ensure that you are adequately experienced and equipped to complete your journey without assistance."

Immediately, we responded by following the wrong branch of a stream up the valley and then had to cut across the hillside when I decided, after much frowning at the map and scratching my head, that all the mountains were looking wrong. It certainly did feel remote, with not a soul in sight and the grand scale of valleys and mountains made us feel like a very small part of a very large landscape. After a few bends, we were over the path and had magnificent views down over Loch Chiaran towards the mountains of Glencoe, now clear of clouds.

Scenic map check.

We paused for a while to rest by the bothy. Sadly, while empty, it was filled with a lot of rubbish; despite its remoteness, it’s evidently still a bit too close to “civilisation” and used as much for pissups as for shelter. Protocol suggests that we carry litter out, but given that we don’t intend to return to civilisation ourselves for a couple of days, this isn’t really feasible. Oanh tidied up a bit and we moved on.

Our route now climbed up over some modest crags near Blackwater Reservoir, where we were rewarded with unexpected panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Our thoughts turned to camping again, with several likely spots suggesting themselves. We decided to push on however, as we anticipated a long day crossing the Mamores tomorrow, and wanted to start as near to them as possible. Unfortunately, once we dropped down to the next loch, all of the ground was impossibly wet and marshy. There wasn’t much to be done except to push on, hoping that something more suitable presented itself.

The mountains of Glencoe, with the dam on Blackwater Reservoir just visible in the lower left.

As dusk drew nearer, the wind dropped. Hoping to repeat our success of night one, we made a detour up one of the crags above Kinlochleven. Frustratingly, the entire hillside was boggy and the air remained still. Eventually, we settled on a patch that was somewhat less boggy than the rest and prepared dinner. The views were stupendous, but as the final rays of sun disappeared, midges emerged in force. We barely managed to throw the tent inner up and dive inside before we were carried off. Quite a few midges got into the tent with us, so we killed them and then ate dinner. Through the mesh of the tent, the surrounding air was dense with tiny beating wings and biting jaws. All our gear and bedding lay abandoned outside, beyond our reach.

Beautiful view over Loch Leven. Shame about the midges.

Discarding (but only after serious consideration) the notion of sleeping in our clothes, sans sleeping bags and mats, I nobly volunteered to sacrifice myself (hah!) and ventured out to finish pitching the tent and retrieve our belongings. The next fifteen minutes (seeming ten times as long) were the least pleasant of our walk. I was immediately covered by hundreds of thousands of tiny mouths that resisted all efforts at deterrence (clothing, nets, repellant). Eventually, everything was recovered, the tent fly was pitched and I collapsed into a self-pitying, itching heap.

Day 4: Kinlochleven to Glen Nevis

I woke early the next morning, with the idea that we could beat the midges up. Around 4.30am I woke Oanh, who surprisingly accepted my plan. Alas, it was not to be. These midges are early risers. It was a still and muggy morning: clouds drifted around us and mist rose off the loch below. Breakfast was entirely out of the question; we scoffed muesli bars and hit the trail, relief coming only with motion.

Loch Leven the next morning, shrouded in mist. Still midgey.

To add insult to injury, while camped at approximatley 400 metres altitude, we had to drop down 200 metres or so before beginning our ascent to the ridgeline of the Mamores. Our ascent path was up another stalkers’ track through Coire na Ba. There was absolutely no wind, and the peaks were covered in dense cloud. Only our trust in the forecast of clear weather (now two days old: an eternity in terms of British weather) suggested that this was a good course of action.

Eventually, we managed to pause long enough to cook breakfast, which restored our spirits somewhat. The midges tracked us down before we could make coffee though, so we continued uncaffeinated. Fortunately, as we climbed, the clouds lifted, and occasionally we got clear glimpses of the pass we were aiming for. The sides of the corrie got increasingly steep and the path zig-zagged precipitously until, suddenly, we were on the pass: a broad sweep of grass, scattered boulders, and — mercy of mercies — a breeze!

Rejoicing on the ridge.

Rejoicing, we cast off our packs and boiled up water for coffee. Checking my watch, I noted that it was only 10.30am: it felt like we had already done a days worth of exercise. Four hours of climbing with barely a pause for breath left us well knackered. We sat back a while, relaxing in midge-free splendour and enjoying the views. While there was still plenty of cloud around, it was moving, and so we were treated to ever-changing vistas as the various peaks appeared and disappeared.

The ridge between Am Bodach and Stob Coire a' Chairn, along which we would soon be walking. If you look real close, you can see two people in the middle already.

Considering our options from here, several routes down into Glen Nevis presented themselves; we decided on one of the longer, but less steep, paths, hoping it would be kinder on our knees. Eventually rested enough to greet the idea of further climbing with eager anticipation, we set off toward the summit of Stob Coire a’ Chairn. On the ridge, the path was broad, clear and relatively easy, and the surrounding views were sufficicent to distract us from any residual discomfort.

Oanh on the summit of Stob Coire a' Chairn.

The next mountain along the ridge is Am Bodach. The OS map shows the path traversing below the summit, so I figured it must be a more technical ascent and that we would skip it. (Ideally, I could have done more research on this section of our route…). As we approached, we saw other people scrambling up what, from our perspective, appeared to be sheer rockface. “Aha”, I thought, “that must be the technical ascent, the turnoff to the traverse should appear soon”. Next thing I knew, we too were picking our way up a steep, though easy, scramble, this route evidently being a bit more heavily used, and hence clearer, than the one marked on the map. It was actually rather fun doing some proper scrambling, although we would have been happier without full packs.

Stob Ban, one for next time.

The summit, alas, was currently within cloud, so no views; however, there was a small cluster of people up here, grumbling good-naturedly about the inaccuracy of the forecast, so we had an opportunty to canvas opinion about the safest route down to Glen Nevis. Turned out our current choice was the best. I suppressed a pang of envy when I realised that everyone else had several more summits ahead of them for the day, while our path led mostly down. However, this was the sensible option — we’d been going for about eight hours already and were both starting to flag.

After following the ridge line for another hour or so, we reached the turn off for our descent path. What followed was several hours of fairly gruelling downhill. The path was reasonable, but worn down to bare stone, which exacted its toll on the soles of our feet. Distractions took the form of rushing streams, more wildflowers and butterflies, and contemplation of a pub dinner.

Our descent route, through Coire a' Mhusgain to Glen Nevis.

The final remaining barrier between us and aforementioned dinner was about five kilometres of tarmac. It was hard to think of any less pleasant way of ending our walk. As we came off the mountain, our path intersected with that of two blokes who strode past our increasingly feeble shuffle. Intercepting them in the carpark, we asked whether they were heading towards Fort William (given that the road goes nowhere else, it was a fairly safe bet). They apologised that their car was currently full of camping and climbing kit, but offered to rearrange and squeeze us in too if we were happy with a tight fit. Happy? Ecstatic!

They were from Southampton too (small country) and worked at Calshot, the centre where we have occasionally gone indoor climbing. They kindly offered to wait while I dashed in to enquire about availability at the Glen Nevis YHA (success!) A shower before we caught the overnight coach back home the following day was imperative.

Soon after, much cleaner, we enjoyed great beer, delicious burgers and friendly service at the Ben Nevis Inn. Walking back to the hostel, we saw rows of head torches bobbing their way down the Ben Nevis path.

Day 5: Glasgow

With a whole day ahead of us before our coach departed, we decided on a slight change of plan. We were walked out and, while the scenery around us was still beautiful (and the weather was the best we had) we realised that we’d drunk our fill of the highlands on this occasion and any more would seem anticlimactic. After a bit of research, we decided to take an earlier train back to Glasgow, stow our bags, and spend a bit of time exploring the city.

Wandering slowly into Fort William, we stocked up on antipasto lunch ingredients but failed to find anywhere open for coffee. The train journey was fantastic. We passed through some of the areas we had recently walked through and gained a new perspective on Loch Treig. By the time the journey was over, we passed through so many stunning landscapes that I was a bit jaded and buried my head in the newspaper.

Loch Treig again, from the train (the Glasgow to Fort William line is simply stunning).

Glasgow was bustling with happy strollers and shoppers all making the most of the glorious summer weather; we joined them (well, the strollers at least) and meandered down Sauchiehall Street, marvelling that a city that spends so much time in rain and gloom did outdoor living so well. Eventually we discovered that we were near the Glasgow School of Art and decided to see if there were any exhibitions open to the public. It was already closed, but we managed to squeeze onto the last tour of the day and enjoyed a marked change of pace, learning about the whimsical design experiments of Charles Rennie Mackintosh; such as a stairwell that grows dark and foreboding as you climb upwards, and yet unexpectedly light and airy as you descend into the basement; and the magnificent library, designed to resemble a forest glade.

Glasgow School of Art. The tall windows illuminate all three levels of the beautiful library.

A bit of art deco.

After a bit more strolling, we had a relaxed dinner of antipasto (more!) and pasta at an Italian Restaurant called Antipasti before we made our way back to the coach station, and thence home (and thence, for me, straight back to work, but that’s another story).

see here for all the photos


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