Looking down on the head of Loch Avon Picture: Callum Black
Late morning was as good a time as any to brave the 100-mile drive up the A9, and by 2pm I was starting up the strange hill that is Creag Meagaidh. It was tackled from Moy, to the south, rather than the trade route
from Aberarder via the Window, which I’d done a couple of times previously.
The Moy approach was a different game entirely, both in terms of people-quietness and lower-ground squelchy roughness (the two might well be connected).
Ralph Storer, in his Ultimate Guide to the Munros series, writes that “an ATV track proves useful for a while” – but in my case it proved useful for about 30 seconds before vanishing in the summer-growth jungle.
The first 45 minutes, until across the Moy Burn and starting up the much steeper and easier southwestern slope of the outlier An Cearcallach, wasn’t much fun – but things improved markedly from there, with a steady anticlockwise plod round the various tops to the main summit, then down the south ridge with its wall before another dose of tropical purgatory at the bottom.
Despite the warm-bordering-on-hot weather and clear skies, I didn’t meet anyone – the Aberarder car park had been packed, and a few walkers could be seen across on the main rim, but all had gone by the time I got there. I did however see what at first I took to be a higher-than-usual dipper, but later realised was a ring ouzel, at 1,000 metres in the plateau-edge burn above Coire Choille-rais.
Creag Meagaidh is a decidedly odd hill. It’s mightily impressive to look at, with corries all over the place – in which regard it’s a Highland version of Cadair Idris, both hills being geological Catherine Wheels, with ridges spiralling off in odd directions. But even up top, despite the height of over 1,100 metres, the going isn’t as good as might be expected: springy moss rather than firm gravels or boulders.
Standing halfway along the Laggan road, it suffers an identity crisis like no other Scottish hill – part western ridge system, part eastern plateau, without really fitting either format. It’s a hill version of Alan Ross’s celebrated witticism about the New Zealand cricketer Bob Cunis: “Funny sort of name, Cunis: neither one thing nor the other…”.
Overnighted with friends Helen and Bill Cook in Kingussie, then headed for real gravel-and-boulder country: the Cairngorms. A plan to meet another friend on top of Braeriach fell through when he texted to tell of being tied down with family duties in Pitlochry, so I took the chance to fill a few gaps in my central Cairngorms CV.
Having lived in Aberdeen, and having done a fair bit of Strathspey-based walking in subsequent years, these are hills I’ve been in and on a lot. But there are always omissions, and today – again in fine weather, although with a steady south-east breeze that picked up for a spell mid-afternoon – it made sense to chalk off a couple of them.
First came the Goat Track – the walking route out of the back of Coire an t-Sneachda that manages to be both direct and sneaky at the same time. The corrie floor is a great boulder-strewn place with a lovely lochan, and the exit route is only at all steep for 50 metres or so – I was sitting at the plateau-rim cairn in little over an hour from the top car park, with a couple of stops en route. In winter it’s grade II, but in summer it’s just a walk with a couple of metres of damp-but-juggy almost-scrambling at a slabby section halfway up the steep bit.
A local friend told later of a mountain rescue contact having mentioned that he recommended a helmet for the Goat Track, and it does indeed go tight in beneath the verticalities. But despite my increasing keenness for helmets in rough, loose corries, I didn’t feel I was taking any untoward risks by being bare-headed (well, baseball-cap-headed). Perhaps I simply trust Cairngorms granite more than I do Cuillin gabbro and basalt.
Then across to Ben Macdui (what a stroll the path now is – at least as far as Lochan Buidhe – compared with three decades ago), and so down upper Coire Etchachan for lunch on Beinn Mheadhoin, very much the middle hill of its name. This was only my second ascent, the first having been on a youthful full-of-bagging-energy trip with a friend when we walked in from Braemar, camped by moonlight in Glen Derry, then did the odd combination of Derry Cairngorm (via an alarmingly loose gully on its north-eastern top), Beinn Mheadhoin and Bynack More. I contrived to fall in at the Fords of Avon both times.
Both that day and this were dry, and the summit tor was easy enough – but in the wet Beinn Mheadhoin could well be the most technically awkward mainland Munro, given the friction-reliant nature of even easy granite scrambling. In ice it would be a serious undertaking, requiring crampons, axe and nerve – it’s worth recalling that this was the only 1,000-metre summit not reached by Mike Cawthorne during the winter round recounted in his fine book Hell of a Journey. (“Attempting to scale the ice-plating and reach the true summit was out of the question.”)
And so down on an easy diagonal line to the Loch Avon shore path, round the head of the loch via the stepping-stone beaches – all tremendous country, and I had seen no one since the Etchachan outflow – and so up the path on the east side of the Allt Coire Raibeirt, again new to me. This – like the Goat Track – has a reputation for unnerving people, as the steep lower 150 metres is blocky and eroded in places. Easy enough in ascent in summer – although it’s interesting that as far back as 1975, the esteemed Adam Watson advised walkers, in his SMC Cairngorms guidebook, to “take care as the steepest part of the path has eroded badly and is loose”.
What was striking was its directness in good summer conditions. I was starting to feel distinctly puggled, but from the Loch Avon beaches to the summit of Cairn Gorm – around 500 metres of ascent and 2.5km distance – took under an hour of walking time, courtesy of the steep ground low down and the firm, dry, un-Meagaidh-like terrain higher up.
Out with my host Bill for a scoot round the pair of Feshie Munros before the weather broke. In training for the Dent Blanche at the end of July, Bill needed a decent yomp, so we went up by the Allt Ruadh path system, then over Meall Tionail and Meall Buidhe. Sgor Gaoith – how many hills have such a great downward view? – was reached just as conditions started to clear and improve, contrary to what we had been expecting all the way up.
Bill got his proper legstretch on the crossing to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, as on the Moine Mhor section between Carn Ban Mor and the plateau track he opted for a direct line rather than follow the path, and we only met the track where it crossed the Eidart feeder, the Caochan Dubh. Because I stuck to the path slightly longer before realising what he was up to, I was about a minute behind him right the way across and couldn’t close it despite trying quite hard – and he’s 11 years older than me.
Then came a close-quarters dotterel sighting as we left the Mullach, followed by lunch in one of the gully-top clefts above Coire Garbhlach, from where the scree-and-heather view across to Meall Dubhag always reminds me of Grasmoor.
At the Achlean road-end, as the forecast rain finally arrived, we chatted with a group of knackered-but-happy Duke of Edinburgh’s Award trainees – the second time I’d seen them or their colleagues, there having been a couple of groups on Macdui. At the car park itself was a minibus – presumably theirs – with Ampleforth Abbey written on the side. This prompted a thought: Ampleforth is one of the great Roman Catholic schools, so how come its pupils can receive a DoE award but then be denied the chance of a hassle-free marriage into the Duke’s family, due to the Act of Settlement?
A day of rest, recuperation and general zonking. Even half a decade ago I could have happily managed another outing immediately after three routine-length hill days bookended by two 100-mile drives – but not now.
Not for the first time I’m struck by the extraordinary effort and energy of Stephen Pyke’s 39-day Munro round, which ended just over a year ago. Plenty of Spyke’s individual days were beyond my own scope in standalone terms (Beinn a’Bheithir followed by all the Mamores, for instance), but the stringing together of them, day on day without a break, is what really stands out. And he’s only four years younger than me. Scary and very, very impressive.
Donate to us: support independent, intelligent, in-depth Scottish journalism from just 3p a day