My 1st solo munro: Ben Chonzie

I climbed my very first solo munro on Saturday. This may not seem a particularly big achievement but it was a new experience for me to be out in the hills on my own, since almost all my hill walking and Scottish mountain adventuring has been done in Chris’ company.

I picked what I’d heard was a simple and boring munro to try on my own: Ben Chonzie is a lonely munro surrounded by heatherclad hills south of Loch Tay. It also isn’t too far to get there, as I have just started driving and this was just my third proper distance journey on my own in the car.

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The track up from Glen Lednock

The drive up Glen Lednock was lovely, although very slow and windy, and the walk, which starts from an obvious parking spot before the road becomes private access, was much more pleasant than I expected. I imagine that this might be the best time to climb this munro as the heather is in flower so the lower slopes are a mass of purple, which is beautiful. It’s quite a steep climb but also short! I reached the summit in 2 hours, despite sitting in the heather and blaeberry for a while (the blaeberries are also ripe and tasty now).

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Vast swathes of Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris)

Most of the route is on landrover tracks; there is short section of path that could possibly be hidden in poor visibility or snow, then there is a fence to follow to the summit, so route finding was ridiculously easy. The long string of people and dogs also meant it would have been hard to get lost!

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Relaxing in the warm heather

I would definitely recommend this as a good munro for anyone wanting to build up their hill walking confidence, as I was.

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Nice views west from near the summit

Details

Munro summit: Ben Chonzie (931m)

Distance: 12.5km / 7.75 miles

Ascent: 712m

Duration: 4 hours

Braeriach: Testing my limits

We climbed Braeriach in April and I will always remember it!

Braeriach is the third highest mountain in Britain, but also very remote and difficult to reach. It is situated in the Cairngorms, south-east of Aviemore and can be accessed a variety of ways: one is as part of the Cairn Toul – Braeriach traverse, which encompasses those two munros, in addition to The Devil’s Point and Sgor an Locahin Uaine; another is as a circular route from Whitewell. As we have already climbed the other three, we chose the latter route.

The forecast wasn’t too bad although MWIS advised that it might be quite windy (up to 40mph), but we wouldn’t be going over any particularly difficult terrain, so we thought it was worth a try. As a long route it would also be good practice for our TGO Challenge.

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At the Cairgorm Club footbridge in the forest

We parked at Whitewell and set off early through the Rothiemurchus Forest on excellent forest tracks. These Caledonian pine forests are wonderful; they are home to capercaillie, red squirrels and pine martin and definitely worth a visit themselves. We navigated the tracks to the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, then followed the path south-east towards the Lairig-Ghru. We continued gradually climbing upwards through the forest above the Allt Druidh. The forest thinned and we were no longer protected from the wind; Braeriach was hidden in cloud ahead of us.

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The Lairig-Ghru looking ominous ahead

The path eventually drops down to the burn and the path from the Chalamain gap comes in from the left. We crossed the burn and started to climb steeply up the ridge on the west side of the Lairig Ghru, still on a fairly good path. However, we soon hit snow, it was still windy and the visibility deteriorated; we could see down the steep cliffs into the Lairig Ghru but not much else. We pushed on but the wind got stronger and stronger; we decided it was time for a break and lunch in the red cafe (our group shelter). Finding a flat sheltered spot on the steep rocky ridge wasn’t easy, and keeping hold of and getting into the shelter was even less easy!

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At this point I couldn’t raise the camera above my waist….

A group shelter gives tremendous relief from difficult conditions, and this was no exception, except that the material violently battering the back of our heads was a constant reminder of what was waiting outside. We were also sitting in a lot more snow than we had anticipated. We had already come a long way, but we started discussing our options: the strong wind and poor visibility wasn’t a good combination, so did we want to head back or carry on? We decided to continue a little further and see how we felt: we were well-equipped, we had lots of time and we could turn around at any point. So after a short but vigorous battle with the shelter which didn’t want to go back into a rucksack, we headed on up the ridge. The clouds had actually lifted somewhat while we were resting, which gave us more confidence, but as we approached Sron na Lairige, the wind roared down the valley pummeling us relentlessly. We had a further battle to get our waterproof trousers on, which stopped the wind biting our legs, but it was starting to become mentally challenging for me, as well as physically challenging. We began to walk for a few minutes, leaning heavily into the wind, then stop and turn our backs to the wind briefly, while I regained my breath, before continuing in this manner.

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View on the summit of Braeriach

As we got closer to the summit, we changed direction, the ridge narrowed considerably and we moved quite carefully. Suddenly the wind dropped. It was an incredible relief. My hair had been flying about my face, making it difficult to see, so I quickly took my hood and buff off ready to re-tie it in the calm, when a huge gust hit us and knocked us both onto the ground. I was shocked: I had never felt wind like this. Whenever I moved, the wind picked up the snow and shot it in sharp spikes into my face, while my hair whipped my eyes. It was awful, so I crouched on the floor with my eyes closed waiting for it to calm down. It did a little. We moved forward cautiously. Then there were more gusts; we tried to move down north off the ridge slightly but having been driven to the ground again, the wind pushed me across the snow even while I sitting down! This was terrifying, I had never felt so out of control. I rolled onto my side and dug my elbow into the snow to stop myself from sliding, unable to see much due to the snow in my eyes and face. Chris wasn’t struggling so much, possibly because, unlike him, I was wearing my large backpacking rucksack to get get used to it before the Challenge and it was acting like a sail; he came and crouched behind me. We couldn’t stay there, so we crawled forwards: the ridge was broader ahead. By this point I had had enough, I wanted to get down.

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How we’d been feeling a few minutes earlier!

I honestly have no idea how long we were in this wind but it suddenly disappeared again. We walked calmly but warily to the summit, where there was no wind at all and we could take our gloves off and have some food. However, we could hear the wind roaring like a massive waterfall around the corries just over the edge, it was very strange. Once again we discussed the options: earlier in the day, we had decided that we should return by the way we had come, rather than complete the circuit, as we knew the way and could follow our prints if necessary. Now, we looked at the map and decided the fastest way down and out of the wind was to continue east and descend into Gleann Eanaich as planned.

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As we left the summit, the wind hit us again, this time pushing us downhill from behind. It was difficult not to go too fast and to prevent my rucksack from coming round to my front! However, we descended quickly and soon it was just a surreal memory. The slope was steep, and we “skiied” in our boots down some gullies still full of snow. We lost the path and picked our way down the steep hillside to the track clearly visible below us, passing a couple of reindeer on the way. We didn’t even get too wet crossing the bog to get to the track. Then it was simply a trot in calm weather along landrover track all the way back to Whitewell, occasionally looking back and thinking “did that really just happen?!”

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Desending steeply down into Gleann Eanaich

Back at the van, we had tea and hobnobs before driving up to Glenmore Lodge for a delicious dinner to celebrate another successful adventure.

Once home, we checked the reports from the Cairngorm weather station, which had recorded gusts over 80mph at lunchtime and reaching 90mph by mid-afternoon.

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Proof we were actually fine despite a little too much excitement!

I think I tested my limits further than I ever have in the mountains that day. However, I didn’t panic, I didn’t cry, I didn’t freeze: we were fine, I was fine. I’m proud to know we can cope with difficult situations. Chris actually enjoyed himself!

However, when MWIS forecast 40mph winds two weeks ago, I changed our plan from climbing a ridge on Ben Nevis to rock climbing at Dunkeld…..

 

Munro summit: Braeriach (1296m)

Distance: 26km / 16.25 miles

Ascent: 1217m

Duration: 9h 15mins

 

Ring of Steall

The Ring of Steall: it just sounds amazing. It is a classic route and as such is one I heard about soon after entering the world of Scottish mountains and one I have been very keen to do ever since.

Chris had done it before, early in his mountain career but couldn’t remember it well, so with a break in the weather forecast and a free weekend we decided Bruce (our van) was well overdue an outing and that this was the ideal route.

Encompassing four munros in the Mamores, it represents a fairly long day, but we currently have plenty of daylight up here so that wasn’t a problem. Most route descriptions suggest starting this walk from the car park at the very end of the road up Glen Nevis to follow the path to the Steall Falls; however, this means a 3km walk along the road at the end of the day, which we decided we wouldn’t fancy. We therefore parked in the lower carpark (where you emerge from descending the final munro) and walked the road section at the start when it didn’t bother us at all: we were very happy with this decision at the end of the day! It is also possible to walk the route in the opposite direction and we saw many people doing both.

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Chris crossing the Wire Bridge. Dan Bailey in his book “Scotland’s Mountain Ridges describes this flood plain as a “perfect wild camp spot , were it not a sodden sponge beloved of midges”

From the Steall Falls carpark, it is a wonderful start to a walk, and definitely worthy in it’s own right (details of this walk here). The first obstacle of the day is the wire bridge across the Water of Nevis: a single wire for your feet, with two wires for your hands; it is even a challenge to get up onto it when you’re quite small!

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Steall Falls

Once across, you pass a private hut and head towards the falls; there isn’t much of a path and it is very muddy. We paused in admiration at the foot of this spectacular waterfall and then had to cross the water. This could have gone worse: the rocks were very slippery and I’m happy I put my gaiters on, otherwise I would have had rather wet legs.

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An Gearanach, the first munro summit

You then follow a faint path that meanders through the trees and boulders around the base of a steep slope, and brings you back out into the open before starting to climb steeply upwards. The path zigzags back and forth up the unrelenting slope as the views gradually reveal themselves. Eventually, after what feels like a never-ending ascent, you finally reach the summit of the first munro, An Gearanach.

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Brilliant ridge walking

A narrow rocky ridge leads to the another summit, An Garbhanach, and then the second munro, Stob Coire a’ Chairn, which was amazingly busy. The views are spectacular: to our north, on the other side of Glen Nevis, Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud all day, whereas in all other directions layer upon layer of mountains stretched away into distance.

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Looking back at the route we had taken over An Gearanach and An Garbhanach, as we climbed the second munro

We moved east to a second cairn, away from the other walkers and had a bacon sandwich, before tackling the steep descent down to the bealach below Am Bodeach, the third munro of the day. As we descended, we looked ahead and I was slightly appalled by the size and steepness of the slope we had to climb next; when you’ve already climbed two munros, it’s quite a forbidding sight!

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“Really? Do I have to?!” Looking up at Am Bodeach

After a short break out of the wind on the south side of the bealach, we were ready to take on Am Bodach. It doesn’t start off too badly, but got progressively steeper and steeper, until we were almost scrambling up the path, which became loose, stony and rocky.

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It was worth it for the view!

Again the views are tremendous! From the summit, you can see down Loch Leven and away out to the sea and to Loch Eilde Mor to the south-east.

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Chris enjoying his bacon sandwich on top of An Bodach

A broad grassy ridge stretches between Am Bodach and Sgurr an lubhair (a munro-top, despite being higher than the first two munros). The route turns north at this point and some further descent and ascent takes you to Stob Choire a’Mhail.

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Walking over Stob Choire a’Mhail with Stob Ban behind….we want to go up Stob Ban now, it looked amazing.

From here you cross the ‘Devil’s Ridge’, a very narrow mostly grassy ridge that drops away spectacularly on either side. As we left Sgurr an lubhair, the wind picked up, which made the traverse of this ridge especially exciting! The buffeting was making me stagger and I therefore crossed some of the most exposed bits with a sort of half crouched gait, ready to brace myself against the gusts, which must have been quite amusing to watch.

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Looking back at the Devil’s Ridge

A last push then takes you to the top of the final munro, Sgurr a’ Mhaim. We had some final summit snacks, a last look across at the impressive Stob Ban and headed down the northwest shoulder, avoiding the risk of death that comes with going back to Steall Falls.

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Munro number four!

The descent was long, draining and quite tough on the knees; fortunately we had saved the chocolate raisins for exactly this situation! We reached the van at about 6pm, enjoyed a cup of tea and oatie biscuits, and reflected on a brilliant day out.

Details

Distance: 16km / 10 miles

Duration: 9h45min

Munro summits: An Gearanach (982m); Stob Coire a’ Chairn (981m); Am Bodach (1032m); Sgurr a’ Mhaim (1099m)

Ascent: 1676m

Ben Vane

Having been busy for a few weeks, the first Sunday we had free, we headed out. The forecast wasn’t too bad particularly for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, so we decided on Ben Vane: a little munro that was new for us both.

Situated just the east towards the top of Loch Lomond, it ought to have nice view and isn’t too much of a trek from the Central Belt. However we didn’t get to see those views: constant heavy drizzle and low cloud accompanied us the whole way!

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Sustained ascent that gets increasingly rocky towards the top

For a hill that only just makes munro status, it packs a punch. We started from Inveruglas on the banks of Loch Lomond and followed a gently ascending road surrounded by pylons, into the hills. Then you just have to go up, steeply, right the way to the top. There are a few especially steep and rocky sections, where we needed to use our hands,  to keep it interesting though.

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Wet but happy in a cloud at the top

The summit was a large flat area with two cairns so we went to both to be sure, but nearly froze in the process, as the wind was howling across it, so we beat a hasty retreat to a drippy sheltered area just below the summit.

Sadly we didn’t even have hot chocolate to warm us up because I’d decided we didn’t need to carry a hot flask in summer….

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The views must be great when you can see them!

We did enjoy it though, it felt great to out in the hills again and I only got one midge bite.

Munro: Ben Vane (915m)

Distance: 11km

Duration: 4.5 hours

Ascent:  930m

Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 4: Braemar to Tarfside 

Our 10th day was the longest we had planned: 30km from Braemar to Ballater. We strapped up my leg, got all our things together and, after saying goodbye and good luck to all the other challengers, left the hostel at 8.10am. The first stage of the walk took us through some lovely forest and past the Lion’s face. There were signposts as we entered the forest and at one point in the forest, but in between the navigation was quite tricky as there were lots of paths.

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The woods around Braemar

We emerged onto the A93 and followed it south-east. We crossed the Invercauld Bridge over the Dee, built as a result of the Battle of Culloden. Then we followed tracks through more forest to the south of the river. There were lots of big mounds of ants nests swarming with great big Wood ants. At one point, we stopped for some food and I quickly found my legs covered in them having paused in the middle of one of their trails! We quickly found a new spot to sit down. As we approached Balmoral Castle, we passed fields of beautiful ponies and immaculate stables and farms.

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The river Dee

We took a path along the river around Balmoral Castle and managed to stomp right past it without really realising or getting a good view, which was a bit of a shame. Instead we stopped at the Balmoral Distillery, where they kindly gave us a taste and topped up our water!

Then it was just road and more road for the rest of the day. It had also become really quite warm which made the walking more difficult  too. By midafternoon, I was getting pretty tired, so we stopped on the verge of the B976 to eat lots of chocolate (thank you Jen and Ade!) And drink the beer Chris had picked up from the free food shelf at the hostel.

Further on we had to refuse a lift from a very nice lady who made sure we knew we still had quite a way to walk to reach Ballater. By the time we reached the town, I was suffering from blisters and walking very slowly, so it was a huge relief to make it to the campsite. Despite the distance it was only 6pm, so we had made surprisingly good time and our longest day was over!

We hardly ever use campsites and when we’ve had to we haven’t enjoyed them much. However the campsite in Ballater is very nice with really good facilities, which we were actually pitched very close to; I don’t appreciate having to pay to stay somewhere where I have to walk miles to go to the loo in the night, rather than pay nothing and be able to just pop outside the tent! There were even bluetits nesting in the cigarette boxes on each end of the toilet block!

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A risky nesting box!

Once we’d showered and set the tent up we went into Ballater to hunt down some food, and by happy coincidence we chose the same hotel as all the other Challengers. We both had steak pie, which isn’t something I’d usually choose but was one of the most satisfying meals ever! The heavy rain storm even waited for us to get back to the campsite before starting.

We were pleased we’d planned for the next day to be a short one. We shared two bacon and a sausage roll for breakfast (there were three whole sausages in one roll!) And stocked up on food in the Co-op. Walking began again at 10.30am when we headed back to Bridge of Muick.

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Can anyone tell us what this is about?

The path towards Mount Keen was well signposted, along landrover track and past a strange little statue. Once up quite high, the signs directed us off the track and across the heather moorland, which was novel for this trip and very pleasant.

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Navigation was very difficult

We had a few nice stops in the warm sunshine, and enjoyed relaxing in the heather. As we descended down into Glen Tanar we found two large antlers, but sadly decided it wasn’t very sensible to take them both with us so we just chose one.

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What a stag!

We had planned to stop in Glen Tanar, leaving Mount Keen for the next day, and our camp sight soon came into view: a perfect flat grassy area above the river and below the munro.

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The path down to our wild camping spot and then up the Mounth Road to Mount Keen

We reached it at 2pm and made ourselves a cup of tea, before having a wander around our camping site, watching the birds, rabbits and hares. It was such a nice spot we were amazed to have it to ourselves. Later in the afternoon we timed erecting the tent perfectly, as it started to drizzle just as we put the bags inside. We had a slightly odd dinner in the tent, of flavoured couscous with beef and broccoli rehydrated stir-fry, and lazed around until bedtime.

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Dinner out of the rain; it was tasty at the time but looks awful now in the pictures!

It was a fairly nice in the morning if a bit grey, but Chris wasn’t feeling 100% (the stir-fry didn’t agree with him! ). We set off up the path to Mount Keen at 8am. We had been wondering whether to bypass it but my leg felt ok and it didn’t look too difficult. However, it actually turned out to get steeper and steeper with what felt like endless false summits !

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A very pleasant pitch all to ourselves

It was very windy at the top but the views were great: we could see across the Cairngorms to Lochnagar and beyond to the west and to the sea in the east. It was too cold to stay at the top for long, so we soon headed down the much nicer path on the other side.

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We made it to the summit of Mount Keen: the only munro on our route and Chris’ 100th munro!

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Summit selfie!

It warmed up fast and we started shedding layers and getting the suncream out. As we reached Glen Mark, it had become really hot and we stopped to paddle in a stream. This glen was lovely at the top but it was a long, sweaty and tiring walk out of it.

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Glen Mark: it was weirdly hot despite the clouds

The road was a little easier thanks to the shade of the trees but we were soon exposed again as we took a track east past Westbank and passed through fields and over the hill to Tarfside. Those fields were absolutely teeming with lapwings though, which were making their crazy calls that can sound like a computer game!

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Last stretch before Tarfside (note the antler!)

We were given an absolutely amazing welcome at Tarfside! After introductions, tea, squash and a bacon roll, we headed off to set up the tent before coming back for a shower and dinner. This revived Chris who had been feeling tired and out of sorts all day. In fact it was a wonderful evening and if we do the challenge again, we’ll definitely make sure we pass through there again!

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Thank you very much to all the volunteers for making us feel so welcome and feeding us so well; we had a brilliant afternoon and evening in Tarfside!

After a very sociable evening with the other challengers and volunteers (all of whom had completed the challenge previously and seemed to know everyone) we headed back to the tent with just two more days of walking remaining.

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Our last wild(ish) camp of the Challenge in a field in Tarfside

Day 10: Braemar to Ballater –  30.1km / 18.7miles (10 hours)

Day 11: Ballater to Shiel of Glentanar – 11km / 6.8 miles (3.5 hours)

Day 12: Glentanar to Tarfside – 16.1km / 10 miles (6 hours)

 

Glen Lyon: Last Munros of 2016!

With a busy Christmas and New Year period ahead of us, we thought we should definitely squeeze one last adventure into 2016. We decided on Glen Lyon, a place we have never been before, and to tackle an 18 km loop taking in four Munros! We packed our bags and the van before heading up on the Friday night, looking for an early start on the Saturday morning, knowing that the short days would be a factor if we didn’t get an early start.

From the car park, the sign posted path takes you through recently torn down woodland and out onto a Landover track. From here, you can see where you will be descending, four Munros and 18km later. But first you must skirt round more woodland and cross a dodgy bridge to get your first glimpse of Munro number one, Carn Gorm. It was a cold morning, bringing to mind the “be bold and start cold” philosophy, but you soon warm up by gaining the ridge of Carn Gorm and heading for the summit of the mountain. Behind you there are lovely views down Glen Lyon, but the view was short lived as, typically, the cloud came in just as we gained the summit.

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I went first to test it out…

By this point the wind was blowing hard and a compass bearing off the top was needed to gain the ridge onto Meall Garbh; here we moved down off the path for a few minutes of shelter, food and to revive the icy fingers. A good mountain track and fence posts lead you to Meall Garbh, where a strange cairn of old fence posts greets you as you reach summit number two.

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Cairn of fence posts

From Meall Garbh you head east and gain a large plateau as you approach Carn Mairg. From here be sure to take in the superb views of Schiehallion to the north east and we were also lucky enough see a Brocken Spector! The Carn Mairg summit seems to made up of broken down tors, these crumbled rocks would have been broken down by years of freeze – thaw cycles cutting through cracks of the old stones

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The sun trying it’s best.

Unfortunately though, the cloud had once again come in, only offering us a short glimpse of the terrain ahead and the final Munro of the day. From Carn Mairg you head east down a ridge to a saddle, and then south before you must take a dog leg in order to reach the summit of Creag Mhor. The cloud persisted, not allowing us any views as we reached the saddle just before the summit, with only map and compass leading the way to the top of Munro number four! Wahoo! They also lead the way down, heading west to the ridge leading to the torn down woodland and back to the van. As we dropped down out of the cloud and views opened up, there was time before it got dark to get a few pictures of the River Lyon and the Ben Lawers range as they came into view.

 

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Glen Lyon and the Lawers group

This was a lovely walk and great for ticking off Munros. But the views, when we could see them, where terrific and I really appreciated getting a great view of Schiehallion, and the Brocken Spector made it extra special.

 

Distance – 18km/11.25 miles

Time – 7.5 hours

Ascent – 1310m

Summits – Carn Gorm (1029m), Meall Garbh (Carn Mairg) (968m), Carn Mairg (1042m), Meall nan Aighean (Creag Mhor) (981m)

Top tip – Layer up! With it being winter, it’s important to stay warm, and having a good layering system also allows you to manage your temperature a lot more easily.

Snow on Beinn Ghlas!

Winter has well and truly arrived in Scotland!

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By the end of what felt like a long week, I was not impressed at the prospect of getting up at 5.30am on Saturday morning to make our way to the hills known as the Lawers group. All the photos of snow covered mountains we were seeing were very good motivation though, and we were soon extremely happy we made the effort.

Having collected Kirstie at 6.30am, we drove through a dark and frosty morning up to Killin. We arrived with half an hour to spare before meeting another friend Jen, so we shivered and yawned our way to a coffee shop that was just opening for tea, coffee and orange juice. Once Jen and Siula (Jen’s gorgeous dog) arrived, we piled ourselves and all our gear into her Landrover to get up to the Ben Lawers car park. The road doesn’t get gritted, so we thought it might be a bit treacherous in our car.

The hills were completely plastered in snow, much more so than we had anticipated and the weather was beautiful, so we were already very excited. We set off through the snow from the car park towards the nature reserve felling very happy!

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Photo by Chris

Upon entering the reserve, we saw lots of red grouse sitting in the snow, looking very conspicuous with their dark plumage – why don’t they change colour in winter like the mountain hares and ptarmigan?

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Photo by Chris

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Photo by Jen

We made our way slowly up the hillside, with plenty of pauses to admire the view and take pictures. We dug a seat out of a snow drift, so we could admire the spectacular scenery while having lunch.

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We reached the summit of Beinn Ghlas, just after 12 where Jen generously supplied some Port and delicious chocolate as it was her birthday.

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Jen and Siula near the summit (photo by Chris)

As this was our first winter day of the season, we decided not to push on over the steeper slopes to Ben Lawers (which had just disappeared in a big cloud!) and risk descending in the dark, but instead to enjoy our success and head back down with plenty of time for playing in the snow, making snow angles and drinking hot chocolate back in Killin.

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Photo by Chris (on Jen’s phone)

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Jen’s panorama

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A happy birthday girl!

Well-done Jen for excellent driving over steep ice! It was a brilliant day, finished off perfectly with burgers, beer and wine at home.

Details

Distance: 7.5 km (10.5km if you include Ben Lawers)

Duration: 5 hours (due to much dog and snow-induced fun)

Ascent: 858m (968m if you climb Ben Lawers too)

Munro summit: Beinn Ghlas (1103m)

Comments

The hills of the Lawers group are nice munros if you don’t want too much ascent, as the car park is nice and high! Killin is also a very nice village to stop off in on your way to or from the hills, with some really lovely waterfalls.

Note: do not forget your camera when it is beautiful and snowy!