Rewards

We were trudging through warm, wet cloud, sliding on slushy snow, mud and grass. We were hot, we couldn’t see anything and we were asking ourselves why were we doing this.

I had even climbed this munro before!

But was the cloud brightening? Why did I feel like I wanted to put my sunglasses on when visibility was so low? Could we see blue above us or was it a trick of the light?P1020919-COLLAGE

Yes, that was definitely a glimpse of blue sky…. And of a snowy mountain side….oh, but it vanished back into the cloud again.

Our trudge was definitely more hopeful and expectant now!

Then quite suddenly it happened: we popped out above the cloud into a fantastic world of sunshine, blue sky and sparkling snow and ice.

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The sun was actually warm and there was little wind, so we had to strip down to our t-shirts. And the views……they were incredible…..mountain tops poking out of a fluffy white sea as far as we could see in all directions.

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Often, summiting a munro involves dashing to the top, looking around for half a minute while being blasted by wind, and being blown back down to find some shelter before having a sandwich, with all your layers on. Not on this day though: on this day we spent 40 minutes on the summit, enjoying our lunch and gazing around in wonder – without even having to put gloves on – before descending back to the damp, grey world, everyone else was spending their day in.

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Just occasionally, we experience an extra special reward for our uphill struggles.

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A Ptarmigan: spending all year high up on Scottish mountains, it must be one of Britain’s hardiest birds?!

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Whisky & Mountains

Last week we made the fascinating discovery that the Dalwhinnie Whisky Distillery is running free distillery tours until March. We quickly formed a plan to tour the distillery as well as bag a couple of munros over a weekend.

Carn na Caim and A’Buidheanach Bheag were our hills of choice as they were conveniently placed across the road from the distillery: whisky on Saturday and mountains on Sunday, the plan fell into place.

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After a civilised start on Saturday, we loaded up Bruce (the camper van) and headed up the A9 to Dalwhinnie. There wasn’t quite as much snow on the hills as we had hoped but it is still early in the season and there was a good dusting of the white stuff, so we were not too disheartened.

Amazingly, we found a perfect spot for Bruce within walking distance of the distillery and there was even time for a cup of tea and a sandwich before our tour. I have always enjoyed the Dalwhinnie whisky, ever since drinking it in a cold and wintry Shenavall Bothy a good few years ago, so I was really looking forward to the tour. Rightly so as well, as the tour was super and the whisky and chocolates at the end were excellent: a huge thank you to the staff at the Dalwhinnie Distillery for a great time.

We headed back to the van for our classic chorizo, vegetable and tomato sauce and tortellini pasta and settled in for the night. It was a cold night which even included a bit of down jacket action in bed!

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A stunning morning

In the morning we tentatively got out of bed and made our final preparations for the day ahead; this included defrosting the inside of the windscreen as it had frozen during the night. It was only a short drive to the start of our walk at the Balsporran car park about 5km south of Dalwhinnie. We planed to follow a circular route described in an old edition of Cameron Mcneish’s Munro book. His route takes you straight up the west slopes of A’Buidheanach Bheag and down the land rover track that connects to the A9 about 3km north of the Balsporran car park. In the interest of not wanting to walk along a road at the end of the day, we did this route in reverse, which turned out to be a brilliant idea…

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Summit just up ahead (!).

It was a stunning morning and, although we were walking so close to the A9, it was a pleasant stroll north up to the path that would lead us into the hills. We gained height fast and thought we deserved second breakfast just before reaching the vast plateau of these mountains. At a track junction a path leads north towards the summit of Carn na Caim. This is a very undramatic summit and you only know its the top because of a small cairn, otherwise you would probably miss it if you were not paying  attention. We were paying close attention though, the clouds had been following us since the track junction and by the time we made the summit, we could have just as easily been in a steam room, although a lot colder!

So cold in fact that we needed to keep our primaloft jackets on as we made our way off the summit following our compass bearing. Thankfully by the time we had made it back to the track junction the cloud had lifted and once again revealed the vast open space towards the second munro of the day: A’Buidheanach Bheag.

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The vast plateau

The walking was simple due to the big track and flattish ground, meaning we quickly covered the 2.5km to the summit. It was on our way to this summit that we saw our first hare zooming across the open hillside, we would see two more by the end of the day.

The A’Buidheanach Bheag summit is even less dramatic, if even possible, than the previous one, but at least it was not in a cloud so we could enjoy the superb views across to Glen Garry and Ben Alder.

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Views across to Ben Alder

After enjoying the summit and some more flapjack, obviously, it was time to head back to Bruce. That meant descending the west slopes of the mountain, which certainly added interest to the day. The steep, half snow-covered, half wet grass and heather made for a tricky descent, then there was a small river crossing before slogging over the last bit of muddy ground under the huge electricity pylons before returning to the van. During the decent I couldn’t help thinking “I am so glad we didn’t try to walk up that!”

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In the end we had a lovely time bimbling across these hills but I would not recommend ascending or descending the West slopes of A’Buidheanach Bheag. Descending them isn’t horrendous but ascending them certainly would be. It may be worth heading back to the track junction and walking NW back down the track to the A9: not as adventurous though.

Details

Time: 6 Hours 15 minutes

Distance: 12.8Km / 8 miles

Munro summits: A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag (936m) & Carn na Caim (941m)

Ascent: 610m

 

 

 

Winter has arrived in Scotland: Meall Ghaordaidh

As winter approaches, what constitutes a “good forecast” has a tendency to change slightly. Take yesterday for example: 30-40mph winds with difficult walking conditions on high ground and severe wind chill might sound unpleasant but there was also 80% chance of cloud free munros and excellent visibility. Actually not so bad for a Scottish winter day (we can always turn around if it’s too bad!).

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Another thing to remember when planning routes at this time of year is the dramatic change in daylight hours; in about six weeks, we’ve gone from nice long days to pitch dark beofore 5pm. It can catch you out!

Sunshine through the spindrift

So Kirstie and I decided to stretch our legs and enjoy a bit of sunshine and possibly some snow (!?) with a wander up Meall Ghaordaidh. It’s not a particularly exciting munro, but the route is fairly short, important as we weren’t starting early and Kirstie is recovering from an arm injury. Situated north-west of Killin, it was also in an area we haven’t explored much.

And it was most definitely worth it: a long steady climb but wonderful views of snow-capped hills and great to be out in some snow for the first time this winter (I think it can officially be called winter now!).

Summit views appreciated very quickly!

On the last stretch to the summit, we were bent into the wind, with heads down to protect our eyes. We remained at the summit for about two whole minutes, which was all we could take with the spindrift being blasted into our faces.

A short way down again and we were out of the wind and able to sit and savour our lunch, sweet tea, the views and the simple fact of bring out on such a fine day.

Details

Distance: 9.5km (5.9miles)

Duration: 4h50m

Munro summit: Meall Ghaordaidh (m)

Ascent: 895m

A solo van adventure and Buchaille Etive Mor

A few weeks ago I decided I should take Bruce (our campervan) for a trip on my own; I haven’t done this before as I’ve only recently started driving it.

The Scottish forecast was best in the west on the Sunday, so I decided to attempt Buchaille Etive Mor. This is the magnificent mountain that dominates the entrance to Glencoe, where it looks virtually impregnable. However, there are two common (non-climbing) routes up: Curved Ridge, which is a wonderful 240m grade 3 scramble, and the walkers route up Coire na Tulaich.

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View from the van door: early morning mist over Loch Tulla

I had been looking for simple munros to try on my own, but I thought that although these munros have the potential to be challenging, I have climbed Stob Dearg twice (once via Curved Ridge and once in a blizzard), and with a good forecast it was likely to be busy so I wouldn’t be on my own up there.

On Saturday afternoon I drove up to the view point situated just before Rannoch Moor, where there are three large car parks. I spent a very pleasant evening reading and writing in the van, wrapped up in my down jacket and watching the sun go down behind the mountains.

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Buchaille Etive Mor in the sunshine

As night fell, it definitely felt autumnal and I had to get all the blankets out for the first time this year. It was a little strange being in there on my own and I had to tell myself a few times that the noises outside were really not likely to be axe-murderers creeping about!

I got up early and drove to the layby at Altnafeadh in Glencoe used by everyone heading up this mountain, but at 7.15am it was already packed! I always love the drive over Rannoch Moor and that morning it was the most beautiful I have ever seen it: mist was caught on the water and the rising sun was shining through it, turning everything pink.

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The route up Coire na Tulaich

I managed to get a spot in the next car park but that was also filling up fast. I had breakfast and set off at 8.30 feeling excited but a little nervous, as despite the sunshine in the valley, the ridge was shrouded in cloud. As I passed the main parking area, I was informed by people with bells that it was the Salomon Glencoe Skyline Race that day!

I headed off past the Lagangarbh hut and up the walkers route onto the ridge. It is a steep and fairly relentless climb up Coire na Tulaich, but a good path has been constructed and there were lots of people to say hello to. As I reached the ridge, the cloud was still clinging on, but through occasional breaks, the stunning views were revealed. The path to the summit of Stob Dearg was helpfully marked with little red flags for the runners. However, near the top I met the pair who had the job of removing them all.

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West to Buchaille Etive Beag (the Wee Buchaille) on the way up

I sat on the summit to have a few sandwiches (cheese and chilli jam), and was soon joined by a magnificent raven, who watched from a nearby rock. It has obviously learnt that walkers are a soft touch, as it soon hopped very close to me to take some sandwich crusts I threw down and, as the summit got busier, it moved from group to group, with it’s finest prize being half a ham sandwich from someone generous!

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North across Glencoe

Happily the cloud did lift a little more, permitting a few glimpses of Rannoch Moor to the east and Loch Leven down the valley to the west. I then returned back to the spot where I had joined the ridge, but rather than descending the same way, as we had done on a previous winter ascent, I continued west before turning south-west towards Stob na Doire. Despite being on my own, I was having a fabulous time!

The descent from Stob na Doire requires a little care as it is very rocky, then there is the final section of proper ascent up to Stob Coire Altruim. From here, it’s a simple walk along the ridge to the second munro, Stob na Broige. This summit was very busy, so I found a comfy seat among the rocks to the west of the cairn, to eat my final sandwiches and admire Loch Etive and Buchaille Etive Beag.

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Loch Leven through the clouds!

A misty drizzle settled on us, so I headed back to the path that descends the north side of the ridge between Stob Coire Altruim and Stob na Doire. It is mainly a steep grassy slope with a gravelly path worn into it, with a few badly eroded and steep sections. About halfway down, I also discovered some steep slabby areas that had to be crossed carefully. One section made me a little nervous looking at it, and had Chris been there, he would have gone first to “spot” me (stand below to catch me if I slip); as it was after a good look, I put my poles away and headed calmly down backwards. A few bum shuffles and careful foot placements were all that was required; I was pleased with myself as I really dislike down-climbing.

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My raven friend

There are stepping stones across the stream at the bottom and I paused for a last snack on the other side. It’s a great valley, surrounded as it is by such steep mountain sides, but the midges soon had me moving again, following the excellent path down the Lairig Gartain and back to the carpark.

I returned home invigorated and full of excitement about my first proper solo mountain trip!

Details

A fabulous ridge walk in a stunning location!

Distance: 13km/8.25 miles

Time: 5.5 hours (Walkhighlands suggests 7-9 hours)

Ascent: 1110m

Munro summits: Stob Dearg (1021m) & Stob na Broige (956m)

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