Into the Highlands - Part One - The Buachaille
1 man. 4 days. 3 nights. 1 wildcamp. 13 summits. 8 Munros. 4400 metres of ascent. 1 failure. 3 successes.
That is one way to sum up my solo jaunt into the Highlands of Scotland this August. If you prefer a qualitative rather than quantitative analysis of my time there, read on...
Over the last ten months, I have been aquainting myself with the Scottish Highlands. The drive beyond Glasgow along the shores of beautiful Loch Lomond has become somwhat familiar and always exciting. The sight of Crianlarich on road signs makes me smile. The first glimpse of Ben Lomond gladdens my heart. Yes, when I visit my family in Cumbria it is much cheaper to drive down to the Lakes, something I still revel in despite being something of a veteran of England's finest mountains. However, you can not put a price on the thrill of discovery, of new places. Couple this with the fact that the Scottish Highlands are in a league above other British mountain areas and you have a recipe for addiction, despite the added cost.
My baptism (neither of fire nor snow as it turned out) was Beinn Narnain and The Cobbler in November 2016, a mere scratch of the surface. The first real head-turner was in February and this time it was a baptism of snow. And wind. A gloriously white Ben Cruachan defeated a group of six of us with winds that were knocking us off our feet. The next day, my friend Tristan and I summited Stob Corie Raineach in challenging conditions on the Buachaille Etive Beag in Glencoe. Ah Glencoe. What a place! I've said it before and I will say it again. Glencoe is truly majestic. The Buachaille Etive Mor, The Bidean and The Aonach Eagach (any place where the mountains have all gained a "The" at the start of their names tells you something of its character) all left a real impression on me that day. I vowed to return. And return I did, in April. Following a superb day on Ben Lui and a washed out day in Kinlochleven, the mercurial Aonach Eagach was traversed. (My previous blog post details the events of that day.) Upon departure, as we drove under the huge sentinel of The Buachaille, I was already plotting my return to The Highlands.
Fast forward to August 2017 and I am ready. This is the (somewhat ambitious) plan... I have a tent, a car, a host of guidebooks and my supplies. I have booked no accomodation to allow flexibility depending on my motivations and the infamous Scottish weather. If a wildcamp is on the cards, I will go for it. If I'm feeling the need to be pampered, I will book a lodge somewhere. Freedom is all part of the idea. The ideal itiniary is as follows. Monday: Buachaille Etive Mor via The Curved Ridge in Glencoe. Tuesday: The Saddle via The Forcan Ridge in Glen Shiel. Wednesday: Liathach in Torridon. Thursday: Beinn Alligin in Torridon. Friday: Ben Nevis via The Carn Mor Dearg Arete in Glen Nevis. Return to England Friday night. I intend to go fast and light with a small hydration pack, waterproofs, a map, suncream and insect repelent. This is Plan A. It did not last long...
It's Monday morning. I'm in Cumbria. Escaping to the wilderness in this day and age is just as tricky as it is essential. See, I am trying to buy my first property alongside my girlfriend and on the very morning of my departure we have an offer accepted. Not only this, but the forecast for the Western Highlands on the Mountain Weather Information Service is fairly bleak for Monday but excellent for Tuesday. I am now in no rush to get to Glencoe and even if I was, there is suddenly business to be taking care of in terms of a potential property purchase. It is early afternoon before I am in the car.
It is a smooth drive up past Glasgow, along the west shore of Loch Lomond, through Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy and onto Rannoch Moor. Encouragingly, the weather just keeps getting better and better to the point where I realise an ascent is certainly on the cards today. Welcome to the Highlands reads a sign, surely an inexcusable insult to likes of Ben Lomond, Ben More, Ben Lui, Beinn Dorain and the other fine mountains passed en route. However, things do go up a notch as peaks of The Black Mount come into view.
And then they go up another distinct notch as a bend is rounded and it is there. The Buachaille. Stob Dearg, the eastern termination of the Buachaille Etive Mor towering implausibly over the vastness of Rannoch Moor in a clutch of crags, gullies and rock towers. Usually there is an intake of breath and an expletive of awe as one takes in the passing grandeur of this unique peak. Today, it is a very different intake of breath. My intended target, The Curved Ridge, is a route that goes up that face. It is glistening in the late afternoon sun - a reminder of the amount of recent rainfall. As the car eats up the distance along the arrow-straight A82, Stob Dearg just gets bigger and bigger and darker and more intimidating. But also more exciting. Welcome to the Highlands indeed.
It's an impulsive decision. It's fairly late in the afternoon but the sun is out and the Buachaille is pulling me in like a magnet. The Curved Ridge is a grade 3 scramble / moderate rock climb (depending on which guidebook you read) and I am fully aware that it is graded higher than any route I have done before. And I am alone. Nevertheless, there is no moment of hesitation as I strap up my pack and stride forward towards the squat, hulking, pyramidal peak. I reassure myself with the fact I have the guidebook and I have seen videos of people doing it on YouTube. I come to the Y-junction where the path goes right for the main hiker's route to the summit and left for The Curved Ridge and the other, more serious, rock climbing routes that take on the face. Left I go. I soon pass into the shadow cast by the face and the day gets markedly cooler. I realise that the next time I would feel the sun on my face would be on the summit.
The way to both The Curved Ridge and the more serious Crowberry Ridge begin from an obvious feature called The Waterside Slab - a large slab of rock with water cascading down its front like an oversized garden water feature. After this the path heads up the face, onto some unstable scree and up towards the obvious Crowberry Tower and its famous Rannoch Wall. One of the main draws of The Curved Ridge is said to be its fine situation, with Rannoch Moor stretching away on one side and the great walls and crags of the Buachaille all around (and under your feet). Looking up towards this rock climber's arena is intimidating. Unlike on Tryfan North, Crib Goch, the Aonach Eagach or Sharp Edge the route is not obvious and the gradient is obviously going to be steeper. I know my first moment of unneasiness but push on. Time is short.
There is some simple, fun scrambling interspersed with short pulls up slopes of scree, until I come to something of a barrier. To my left is a sheer rock wall. Ahead is a steep tongue of stepped rock that looks doable but tricky. To my right is a meeting of gullies that I know I am on the correct side of. Above all of this and slightly to the right is the obvious Crowberry Tower. It is mightily impressive and I feel a sudden respect for those who seek out the Crowberry Ridge. It is currently way beyond my league. I consult the map and the guidebook and am mostly sure I am at the right spot. I look back to the rocky tongue ahead. This must be it, the beginning of The Curved Ridge.
Face on, it looks intimidating, so I skirt around to the left and attack it from the side. This is my first error. At first the handholds are plentiful and the exposure not too dicey but enough to get some adrenaline going. Some of the rock is also slick from the water coming off the face. Soon I become stuck. There is no way up and no way across to where the gradient is kinder. I look back to where I have just climbed and realise that a down climb is going to be tricky. It is. And facing down with the drop below puts my nerves much more on edge than the climb up had when I was facing into the rock.
I start to question. Am I on the right route? Why did I decide to do this route alone? Why am I doing this at all? I still my thoughts and force through a calm. Steadily, I make my way back down, being extra careful on the damp rocks, and return to where the gullies meet. Now the calm evaporates and I feel a certain amount of dismay. What if I can not do this? What if I'm in the wrong place? All of the confidence gained from taking on scrambles over the last year is evaporating fast. But I'm not giving up yet. I consult the guidebook and curse that is is actually slightly vague about this key section of the walk. My map is fairly useless here as well. Then I pull out my phone. 4G. Surprisingly. I google guides on The Curved Ridge. There is a detailed one that suggests I attack the tongue head on, despite appearances. So I go for it.
The first scramble is easy enough and then the gradient steepens. Above me is a steep rock wall with obvious hand and foot holds. But it is no use. I am still shaken from my earlier retreat and all of the doubts creep back into my mind. What if this still is not the correct way? Why are you risking it? What if it gets harder above and you can not downclimb? Don't forget you are on your own Alex. It is also getting late and it is too late for the full ridge traverse that I want. As well as that, I have not made any arrangements as to the night's accomodation. I have read many times that climbing is as much pyschological as physical and today I had stretched my mental reserves too far. The uncertainty of the route, the isolation (I had seen no one since leaving the car), the fact the rock was wet in many places and the nervy downclimb I had been forced into had left me demotivated to take on The Curved Ridge. The mountains will always be there tomorrow. An oft cited but very true mountaineering cliche.
Slightly demoralised, I pick my way down the scree slope and back to the Waterside Slab. I think about the YouTube videos I had seen on The Curved Ridge and the people I had seen do it. I consider that they were not attempting it alone. Someone in their group had probably done it before. I later read in one of my other (but crucially larger - meaning it had more detail but too big to carry on the hike) guidebooks that the pitch that had repelled me feels harder than anything above. I was to take some solace in that. As I stride along the path, I consider that The Curved Ridge has dented my pride and I wonder at whether I will return with someone who has done it before one day. I do not like being beaten. Regardless, Plan A for the week was now firmly out the window. One way or another, I would stand on the top of Stob Dearg, I would conquer the Buachaille. Tomorrow I would ascend the main hiker's trail and get my revenge. Victory would not taste quite so sweet as via The Curved Ridge but I was past caring.
For much of the walk back to the car, I can see an enticing prospect ahead: The Devil's Staircase. An easy zigzagging path that leads to the highest point on The West Highland Way walk. Either side of this highest point are two modestly sized summits. A look at the map reveals them to be Stob Mhic Mhartuin and Beinn Bheag. I imagine the prospect of the Buachaille at dawn and the opportunity of a wildcamp is too good to turn down. After all, the weather is calm and my failure on The Curved Ridge has left me hungry for a summit, even if it is not a Munro. After a quick exchange of supplies in the boot of the car, I'm off up The Devil's Staircase as the evening deepens.
As I snake my way up the devilishly titled path, I raise an eyebrow at a couple of signs indicating that there is a shop ahead. A shop? What is this, Snowdon? I reach the bealach and lo-and-behold there is a shop... of sorts. Two open tents shelter tables with various liquid refreshments at a price of £1.50 each. Of course, there's no full time retail manager waiting at 548 metres, but instead a tupperware box, a sign reading Honesty Tuck Shop and another congratulating hikers on reaching the highest point of The West Highland Way. I silently applaud the entrepreneurship of the venture and bear it in mind for tomorrow. My priority for now is finding a place to sleep. I continue to the west up towards the summit of Stob Mhic Mhartuin.
The ascent is boggy but my common sense suggests that, as water runs down a mountain, the summit should be dry. To my relief the summit is both dry and broad with a couple of flat areas to choose from. As I assemble the tent, the midges give me hell. I've left the repellent in the car - not a mistake I will make twice. After much arm wafting and many grunts of frustration, the tent is up and I am free to move around to keep the midges at bay. Now it's time to enjoy the views. I hasten over to an outcrop overlooking the Buachaille and I drink the scene in. Undoubtedly, true wilderness can make a mountain scene look impressive, but sometimes things as human as an A-road and the tiny, tiny car headlights racing along can add reference points that only add to the context and the sheer sense of scale. My favourite Welsh mountain Tryfan and my favourite English mountain Blencathra both benefit (or not depending on viewpoint) from a similar trick. The Buachaille makes a mockery of the miniscule automobiles below and the vastness of Rannoch Moor only emphasises the mismatch. For a moment, the suns setting rays glow red on the surface of the crags that had earlier repelled me. It is a lovely sight.
Darkness is falling. As I stride back towards my tent I catch a glimpse of a prancing deer on the path that I had ascended before it vanishes behind an outcrop. The primal temptation to stalk it is too great and I hasten up towards a mini summit to watch it. But it is nowhere to be seen. I smile. After the effort of hauling the tent up this far, this is exactly what I wanted: a summit to myself; glorious mountains all around and only highland deer for company (and highland midges). I zip myself into my tent, grab my Kindle, open the latest Robin Hobb novel and dive into the adventures of FitzChivalry for an hour. When it is time to put down the Kindle and turn off the light, I feel my sense of sound has come to the fore. I hear every nuance of the breeze and occassionally hear what sounds like footsteps outside the tent. In reality, I know it is just the way the tent poles are moving in the breeze but I close my mind and imagine that it is a herd of deer passing by. The solitude is more tangible than I had imagined. This is my first solo wildcamp and I do feel very alone and very small.
It is a fitful sleep and it is cold outside my sleeping bag even for August. I am ashahed to admit that I miss the dawn but I am still out of the tent early enough to catch the morning's masterful performance. The clouds are below me, with me and above me but layered so that rather than spoiling the views they are enhancing them. The sun's rays are bright and angular, shining fitfully between the drifting layers of white. The Three Sisters - the projecting arms of the Bidean massif that terminate so abruptly above the Pass of Glencoe - look sublime, as the cloud dances along them revealing and concealing in the same breath. It is a wonderfully dynamic picture.
The most magical moment comes next. As I gaze towards the distant Mamores, I notice movement on the neighbouring ridge. Silhoutted against the white cloud behind are a family of deer moving steadily across the mountainside. I try to take a photo but they are just too far away for the photo to do any kind of justice to what the eye can see, so I spend a moment just watching them before the midges start up again and I decide it is time to pack the tent down.
On the way past the Honesty Tuck Shop I purchase a bottle of water. Circumstances have conspired that I now have only an Asda's own mini sushi pack to eat and a limited amount of water. I have no more change so just stick to the one bottle and wonder if I will regret it later. My eagerness to get up the Buachaille coupled with the early hour means that I will not be buying any more supplies for the day ahead. I get down to the car and eat the sushi pack, throw the tent in the boot, pick up my hydration pack and pour the bottle in. I set off towards Buachaille Etive Mor for the second time. After crossing the bridge over the River Coupall and passing the house at Lagangarbh, I come once again to the fork in the road. This time I turn right.
The hiker's route on the Buachaille heads into the jaws of the Coire Na Tulaich, the obvious breach in the otherwise formiddable ramparts. One can easily imagine the great glacier that once carved out the gully. Today all that remains of this colossal process is the burn tumbling down its centre and the rivers of boulders and scree on either side. The path skirts up to the right of this scene, occassionally joining the boulders for a bit of a scramble. It is a pleasant enough climb but I reflect that it has nothing like the drama that would have been waiting on The Curved Ridge. But hey-ho, the summit and a ridge walk on one of Scotland's finest mountains awaits and I hasten on.
I reach the bealach and a fine view of Creise opens up ahead, as well as the impressive Stob na Doire further along the Buachaille ridge to the right. It's another short pull to get up to the fairly horizontal ridge that leads to that summit of summits: Stob Dearg. As I approach, the ridge narrows and narrows and it feels like I am walking towards the head of a gigantic ship with the great green sea of Rannoch Moor ahead and on either side. As I top out, that green sea stretches away into the clouds on the horizon. A raven takes flight nearby, forming a gorgeous foreground to the scene. I wish it was clearer, though the mist adds a certain atmosphere to the surroundings. Usually it is the appearance of other nearby mountains that I look forward to on a summit, but here Rannoch Moor is the star. I edge down from the summit to look down upon the top of Crowberry Tower below. Yesterday, it had been an immense and intimidating presence way above my head. Today, it is way below my feet. I feel as though I have somehow cheated The Buachaille, that I have not fully earned the right to be stood here. This is the moment that I realise that one day I will return for The Curved Ridge.
But today my business is with the rest of the Buachaille Etive Mor ridge. There are three more lofty peaks, one of which is a Munro - Stob Na Broige. First, though, is Stob Na Doire, a peak that must wonder what it has to do to gain Munro status. At 1011 metres high, it is only ten metres shorter than Stob Dearg and much higher than the Munro at the opposite end of the ridge. From here, it looks every bit an impressive peak. But for a mountain to be given Munro status it must be far enough removed from another, with considerable descent and ascent between them, otherwise it is a mere top. And after what felt like a considerable descent and renascent, I find myself on the summit of Stob Na Doire. And the views are breathtaking.
Stob Dearg has Rannoch Moor. Stob Na Doire has the mountains of Glencoe. Firstly, it is the best summit from which to appreciate the full Buachaille Etive Mor ridge. A look at the map reveals it as the obvious centre point. Stob Dearg still looks brutish to the north-east and Stob Corie Altrium and Stob Na Broige look attractive ahead. Close at hand is the little sister ridge of Buachaille Etive Beag and its two obvious summits. Framed neatly behind the dip in the ridge is the dark, jagged drama of the Aonach Eagach. Behind Beag are the many arms of the Bidean, culminating superbly in its main summits, higher than everything else visible today. Whilst I stand on the summit, nature continues to put on a grand show, as the unsettled weather means it is raining and bright all at once. Again mist drifts by, above summits, between ridges, across bealachs. It is a bewitching scene.
As I drop off from Stob Na Doire, I begin to feel hungry. All the ascent, descent and reascent is taking its toll on my body's reserves and I'm also aware that I've been quite sparing with the amount of water that I have been drinking. I do a deal with myself that, once the ridge has been finished, I will drive to the excellent Clachaig Inn for a pub lunch and a pint of ice cold coke. Hygge the Danish call it (pronounced hu-ga): that feeling of wellbeing and cosiness at the end of a worthwhile day. That is now the image that drives me on, a large slice of hygge when I return to civilisation. I study the map and am thankful that I will not have to reascend Stob Na Doire, as there is a path that descends from the Corie Altrium and eventually joins the A82 not far from my car. The Clachaig beckons...
But not before two more peaks. First is Stob Corie Altrium, which offers similar views to Stob Na Doire. There is a small descent, a narrowing of the ridge and then a small ascent before I find myself on the summit of the second Munro of the day in Stob Na Broige. During this journey, the mountains of Glen Etive had been slowly revealing themselves more and more on my left but it still did not prepare for the vista that greeted me next. Loch Etive is sparkling sapphire at the head of the glen, with Ben Starav standing large and proud on its shores. I have heard it is a beaut of mountain and today is the first time I have properly seen it. From this angle, its shape puts me slightly in mind of Blencathra. Indistinct but impressive in the far distance is Ben Cruachan, a fantastic mountain that I have unfinished business with, having been thwarted by high winds in February. I admire the view for some time before my stomach rumbles once more and I turn to descend.
It is not that far to the bealach and soon I am descending quickly into the Lairig Gartain valley that separates the two Buachailles. Out of nothing, a low rumble grows and grows and suddenly a completely unexpected sight flies into view before my eyes. I am used to seeing fighter jets performing aerobatic mannuevors through mountainous areas but this is something else entirely. A large military aircraft, possibly a Hercules, is low and making its way along the valley. As it reaches the Stob Corie Raineach end of Buachaille Etive Beag it banks left and disappears down the Pass of Glencoe. It is obviously large and going quite fast, but the mountains surrounding it make it look small and slow. It is an incredible moment.
The heavens open as I pick up the pace. A few interesting scrambles down large slabs and an entertaining river crossing are the main obstacles before I am back on the flat. The thought of civilisation, food and hydration spur me on now. It is long since I had ran out of water. When I arrive back at the car I am wet through and have a quick change into more casual attire. I enjoy the drive through the pass, with the Three Sisters on one side and the Aonach Eagach on the other. The sign for the Clachaig Inn is a welcome one and it is not long before I am guzzling a pint of coke, following it up with a pint of water and savouring a beef burger with chunky chips. It all tastes amazing. That is what part of the enjoyment of the mountains is about, the luxuriousness of the return to what we often take for granted, but shouldn't.
So what's the plan now? After this little taste, I am hungry for more luxuries so, rather than plan another wild camp, I ring the MacDonald Hotel at Kinlochleven and it turns out they have space for my tent. It is also the European Super Cup tonight and, as a Manchester United fan, I need somewhere to watch it. The forecast is better for the Western Highlands than the north and I decide that tomorrow I will attempt the Carn Mor Dearg Arete on Ben Nevis. It seems unlikely that I will venture further north on this trip now. Torridon will have to wait. I decide that if the decent weather still holds on Thursday that I will try the Ring of Steall in the Mamores. Another reason these options are appealing is that I have my eye on both the CMD arete and the Ring of Steall for winter. It is often prudent to experience a route in summer before venturing onto it with crampons and an ice axe.
And so it is time to depart Glencoe and say farewell to the Buachaille for now. I had spent a good twenty four hours in its thrall. I had attempted to conquer its famous face and had been repelled. I had climbed to a lesser summit to bask in its glory overnight. And finally I had snuck through the back door, walked its fine ridge and stood on its four summits. I can not say if I am more or less enamoured with it after this experience, as I have quite a mix of feelings. One thing is for sure, the Buachaille Etive Mor is a mountain to be revered and not underestimated. I tell myself that one day I'll be back for The Curved Ridge. Tomorrow, however, my business is with the highest in the land. My business is with The Ben... (Part Two coming soon)
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