othing beats heading up into the mountains for an overnight expedition. There is something about pitching your tent and camping wild. Maybe it is the isolation? I am not sure. A camp gives you options. A camp gives you the ability to join peaks together and create some great routes. Indeed, in the past I have had some pretty epic overnight expeditions. My first trip to the Mamores, Ben Avon, Cairnwell Munros, Loch Arkaig Munros to name a few. And what about one of my top rated trips of all time? Bin Laden and the Grey Corries! So when Kev suggested a weekend in Glen Affric to get involved in some Munro Action I was keen.
Sandwiched between Loch Affric and Loch Mullardoch there are eight Munros. Additionally, there are also eighteen Munro Tops. That is a whopping twenty six peaks over 3000 feet. Would it be possible to knock all of them off in one go? Always up for a challenge, I consulted the map. Climbing just the eight Munros was definitely achievable. With the exception of Beinn Fhionnlaidh you would only have to ascend each peak once. To knock of Beinn Fhionnlaidh you would have to climb over Carn Eige first, drop down then up Beinn Fhionnlaidh then re-ascend Carn Eige to get to Mam Sodhail. Throw in the Munro Tops and you have a different proposition. For a start, Mam Sodhail has four tops. These are located on three spurs running off the main ridge line. The only way to nail them would be to head down each spur then retrace your steps back to the main ridge line. To climb just those four peaks would involve a 13.9km hike and 860 metres of ascent just from the main ridge line. The problems did not end there. To get to Mullach Sithidh you would have to climb over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Mullach na Dheiragain twice. There was also four Tops belonging to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Once again, no option but to head down the ridge and then back again.
I plotted a quick route in Memory Map. I was looking at something around 90km with over 5000 metres of elevation. Wowzers, that was not going to be easy. Especially if we would be humping heavy packs on our backs. A different approach was required. How about hiking up onto the ridge and setting up a series of camps where we could leave all our gear, travel light and run the awkward tops? At least it would make it easier to get up and over the peaks. I suggested this Kev. He was happy to give it a go. Nothing set in concrete, just head up onto the ridge and take it as it comes.
With the loose plan formulated, we set aside two weekends. If the weather forecast was awful on the first weekend, we would defer to the second. As we approached weekend number one, the weather forecast seemed ‘reasonable’. By this I mean there was not hail, snow or gale force winds forecasted. We also had the bonus of both being available on the Friday as well. The earlier we could get up onto the ridge, the easier it would be. We bit the bullet and committed, it was game on.
FRIDAY – 2 Munros, 6 Munro Tops, Distance: 18.8 km, Ascent 1493 metres
It was a decent drive up to Glen Affric, 187 miles in total. For once I was actually organised and ready in plenty of time for the rendezvous at Chisholme Bridge parking area with Kev at about 14:00. The journey up the A9 towards Inverness was pleasant enough. Since they have installed the average speed cameras I think that the journey north is far more stress free. Just crank the cruise control to 60, lie back and enjoy the journey. Idiots up your backside and crazy overtaking manoeuvres banished.
I arrived at the car park with about fifteen minutes to spare and set about getting my kit sorted whilst I waited for Kev. Upon arrival, Kev surprised me with an amazing gift. A bottle of a mighty fine anCnoc Highland Single Malt. Additionally, he also gave me a snazzy looking hip flask, full of course! Emma says I am spoiled, I tend to agree. What a great surprise. A wee dram or two is tradition on our trips and Kev had promised an extra special treat for this expedition. A 60 proof malt that is so strong it dissolves in your mouth. I could not wait!
The midges were out in full force so we did not hang about. The plan for the remainder of Friday was to knock off Toll Creagach, head westwards over Tom a’Choinich and work our way along the ridge towards Carn Eige. Basically take it as it comes. It has been a while since I have had a heavy pack on my back and although all my gear was lightweight it still weighed a ton. Humping this bad boy up and down peaks was not going to be fun.
From the car park we followed the well-defined path that would take us into Gleann nam Fiadh and then up to the bealach between Toll Creagach and Tom a’Choinich. The walking was pleasant and it gave us lots of opportunities to catch up. My recent job change saga, the Lakeland 100 and most importantly Kev’s wee daughter, Martha who was born last Christmas.
We made steady progress and two hours after setting off we arrived at the bealach. Situated at 872 metres it was only just over two kilometres to the summit of Toll Creagach via Toll Creagach West Top. We dumped our packs and I stuffed my emergency bivi sack, some energy bars and water into my Salamon running vest. Without the encumbrance of my heavy pack I felt super light on my feet. In fact when we set off, I was initially somewhat dizzy. This soon passed and ten minutes later, we were passing over the summit of Toll Creagach West Top, the first of our twenty six 3000 foot peaks. Our spirits may have been high but the cloud was not. In fact ‘pea soup’ would be a better description. The cloud was low and visibility was awful. I hate climbing peaks when you do not get a view but when you plan big trips there is only so much you can do to mitigate against bad weather.
It took us just over an hour to hit the summit of Toll Cregach, head back over the Toll Creagach West Top and then back to the bealach. With our packs back on our back, we headed up a steep path towards the summit of Tom a’Choinich. From here it was 5km of amazing ridge walking over five Munro Tops (Tom a’Choinich Beag, An Leth-chreag, Sron Garbh, Stob Coire Dhomhnuill and Stob a’Choire Dhomhain). Never dropping below an elevation of 1000 metres, the path twisted and turned offering a good amount of exposure that in the misty conditions gave a real sense of foreboding. In good weather conditions it would have been stunning. In misty conditions? Still stunning!
By the time we dropped off Stob a’Choire Dhomhain it was getting on for 20:30 and we decided that this would be a good time to seek a camping location for the evening. On the map there seemed to be a pretty decent flat area at the bealach between Stob a’Choire Dhomhain and Carn Eige. Situated at 1100 metres this would also give us the opportunity to get up on the summit of Carn Eige lightening quick the following morning. As luck would have it, not only was there a nice flat area but also a couple of small lochans nearby that we could utilise for water.
There is something great about pitching your tent in the wild, especially high up on a mountain ridge. We placed our tents facing each other so there would be minimal inconvenience when we got stuck into Kev’s 60 proof malt later on in the evening. With the tent erected it was time to consult the menu. Either chill con carne or a tomato pasta dish followed by rhubarb crumble and custard or rhubarb crumble and custard. So easy decision on the pudding then! I had premade the food and vacuum packed it using one of those machines you see advertised on the shopping channel (not that my evenings are spent watch such things, honest!) The good thing about making your food up this way is that you can just boil it in the bag so there is no messy pans. The downside is that it is pretty heavy so not ideal when hiking. Not that I have much choice. There are not many vegetarian hydrated meals you can buy and the ones you can usually contain milk or cream.
I cranked up the stove, made a coffee, selected the pasta dish and put it in the boiling pan. Food always tastes better outdoors and tonight’s offering did not disappoint. When the culinary activities were done and dusted we settled down to the main event of the evening; Kev’s 60 proof malt and some top tunes courtesy of Blood Groove & Kikis. What a great way to finish the evening! Today had been a great introduction, but I knew the real work would begin tomorrow.
SATURDAY – 5 Munros, 10 Munro Tops, Distance: 38 km, Ascent 2872 metres
I awoke shortly after 5am to activity in Kev’s tent. He had been cold all night having decided to take a lighter sleeping bag rather than his usual thick bag. There is nothing worse than trying to get to sleep in a tent when you are cold. I suffered a similar situation back in 2006 when hiking up Kilimanjaro with my mate Ed. He had a super thick toasty sleeping bag and slept like a log every night. I had a flimsy lightweight number and was chilled to the bone every evening. Never again!
I stuck my head out of the tent. Unfortunately, the cloud was still low. No need to rush then. I brewed a coffee and cooked my breakfast, rice and baked beans. I must have dozed back off to sleep because next thing it was 8.00 and when I stuck my head out of the tent the cloud seemed to have lifted slightly. More importantly there was a small patch of blue sky. Let’s get the show on the road!
We dismantled the tents and packed our gear away in crackerjack time. Seven minutes after breaking camp we were on the summit of our first Munro of the day, Carn Eige. The cloud was swirling in and out and down the southern ridge we could see Mam Sodhail quite clearly. Before Mam Sodail, we had a ‘there and back’ to take in the Munro Top, Stob Coire Lochan and Munro, Beinn Fhionnlaidh though.
Once again I swapped my heavy pack for my running vest (this would be a regular occurrence throughout the day) and we set off down from Carn Eige. The path was clearly defined and very runnable. At the bealach it actually deviated away from Stob Coire Lochan, skirting around the side instead. Obviously, the majority of people are just interested in the Munro and do not think the Top is worth any effort. There loss is our gain. It was only about fifty metres to the summit which took me to the milestone of 100 Munro Tops. Just 128 to go! We paused for a while to take some photographs and enjoy the views.
The mist had moved from the summit of Beinn Fhionnlaidh but by the time we ran down from Stob Coire Lochan and climbed the 170 metres to the summit, it had returned. It was four Munros down for the trip and four in the mist. Not great in all honesty but I was not that disheartened. There was patches of blue sky appearing and I was hopeful that by the afternoon the cloud would have shifted and we would be in business.
We ran down from the summit and took the ‘bypass’ path around the side of Stob Coire Lochan and then headed back up to the summit of Carn Eige. We had now been moving for just under two hours and had already got two Munros and a top under our belts. Next stop was Mam Sodhail and its four subsidiary tops. The tops are situated on three ridges and there was nothing for it but to run down each one and run back. A lot of effort and my rough estimation was that in total it would be about 15km. Not doing the tops was not an option in my mind though. I would kick myself if I had to come back and hike in just because I had missed one of them. In for a penny in for a pound!
We slung our packs back on and headed down from Carn Eige and then up to the summit of Mam Sodhail. There is a huge cairn on the summit which, if you climb onto is actual hollow. We dumped our bags inside, clambered back over and set off down the first ridge towards Mullach Cadha Rainich. It was about two kilometres but easy running. Unfortunately, Kev was beginning to have trouble with his toe. His shoes were rubbing and he was having doubts on whether to continue. We knocked off the top and continued along the ridge to Sgurr na Lapaich. We turned around and headed back over Mullach Cadha Rainich and up to the summit of Mam Sodhail. It had taken us just under two hours to nail the ridge and the good news was that by the time we reached the cairn on Mam Sodhail, the cloud had lifted totally. The bad news was that Kev had decided to throw the towel in and call it a day. His foot was hurting and with plenty more miles to go he was probably concerned about what would happen if he continued. I was really gutted that Kev was leaving and I wondered if some of the reason was he was missing his wife and young baby? He had still knocked off five Munros and nine Munro Tops in less than twenty four which was a great effort none the less. There was a great path down through Coire Leachavie so it was logical place to head off the ridge.
We spent some time on the summit and with the cloud lifted I could look west towards Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. It must have been a good six kilometres as the crow flies and I still had Mam Sodhail’s other two ridges to tackle yet. The enormity of the route finally sank in and for a second I considered heading down with Kev. There again I did have all the afternoon, the evening and the following day so there was plenty of time. What was of concern though was the food situation. As usual, I had totally underestimated my rations. I had remaining
- One Hummus muffin
- One boil in the Chill con carne
- One boil in the bag rhubarb and custard
- One boil in the bag baked beans and rice
- Two trail bars
- One hip flask half full of whisky
I scrounged a cliff bar from Kev but that was still not much to last me. I would have to ration my supplies. So it would be the chilli con carne followed by rhubarb and crumble for my evening meal and a trail bar for supper. The following morning I would have the beans and rice for breakfast the hummus muffin for lunch and the trail bar as a snack on the walk out to the car. I would save the Cliff bar as an emergency ration.
I said my goodbyes to Kev and watched him head down the path into the Coire Leachavie. At some point I would have to make a decision on where I was going to camp, how I was going to tackle the outlying peaks (Mullach na Dheiragain and Stob Fraoch Choire) and how I was going to get off the ridge and out to the car. For the time being I needed to knock of Mam Sodhail’s remaining peaks; An Tudair and Creag Coire nan Each. Although on separate ridges, it was not a long run so I was able to run there and back and knock them both off in just over an hour. Once again the views were spectacular, especially from An Tudair which offered amazing views into Glen Affric.
I had now ticked off eight peaks for the day and I decided it was time to study the map and make my plans for the remainder of the day and tomorrow. In total I had three Munro’s and seven Munro Tops remaining to climb but due to their location that would still be quite an effort notwithstanding the huge walk back out to the car. My main target was Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. From the summit of this Munro there was three ridges. The eastern ridge that I would be approach from my current location via An Socah, the northern ridge which would enable me to knock off four Munro Tops and the north-eastern ridge which would give me access to the Munro, Mullach na Dheiragain. Situated on the eastern ridge and sandwiched in between An Socach and Stob Coire na Cloiche was a great looking path that dropped down to the YHA in Glen Affric. That was my way out. If I could pitch my tent somewhere near that path then I could us this location as a base camp and climb the remainder of the peaks from there which meant that the amount of time I would have to carry my heavy pack would be minimised.
I decided to pitch my tent just past the path that dropped down to the YHA on or near the summit of Stob Coire na Cloiche. This meant all I had to hike with my heavy pack was one more Munro (An Socach) and a Munro Top. The pack was really beginning to give me problems. No matter what I did to adjust the straps, it was digging in my shoulders and every time I put it back on after doing a run it seemed to weigh more! I calculated that it was only about five kilometres to my camping location. I had taken a line around the side from Creag Coire nan Leach which saved me some climbing but meant I had to tackle a tricky scree section. It was awkward and it may have been better to take the hit on the extra ascent and get back on the path. Once the scree was out of the way, it was then a three hundred metre descent followed by two hundred metres of ascent to get on the ridge that would lead to the summit of An Socach. I slogged my way up and did not even stop on the summit, just put my head down and focused on getting to my camping location where I could ditch the pack. Another descent and then up onto the summit of Stob Coire na Cloiche. Nearly there! I continued along the ridge and found some flat ground to pitch my tent. I had run/hiked 28km and felt whacked. Time to relax and recharge the batteries.
I made myself a cup of coffee and resisted the urge to get eat the food I had put aside for my evening meal. I knew I would have to go out and nail one of the two remaining ridges this evening because I would be pressed to do both ridges the following morning and then hike back out. If I went out this evening I would definitely be hungry when I got back regardless of whether I had eaten or not so would probably eat my breakfast! With that in mind I put my hunger pangs to one side and considered what to do this evening.
I had eight peaks remaining. Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and two ridges with four peaks on the north ridge and three on the north eastern ridge. Both ridges would involve a climb of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, there was no getting out of that. In fact, I would have to ascend it four times. If I did the north ridge then I would climb up and over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, head along the ridge and climb four Munro Tops (Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan West Top, Stuc Bheag, Stuc Mor and Stuc Fraoch Choire). At the far end I would retrace my steps over the Munro Tops, back over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and down the east ridge to my camping location. If I did the north eastern ridge then I would climb up and over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, head along the ridge, climb the Munro Top Carn na Con Du, the Munro Mullach na Dheiragain and finally the Munro Top Mullach Sithidh. Once again I would have to retrace my steps back all along the ridge, up and over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan again and down the east ridge to my camping location. I contemplated a circular route by heading from Stuc Fraoch Choire directly to Mullach Sithidh but it would be rough going and there was not enough light left in the day and I just did not have the energy for humping it cross country across rough, boggy ground. So it would have to be a ridge tonight and a ridge first thing in the morning.
I decided to tackle the northern ridge first and do the north eastern ridge the following morning. The north ridge was the furthermost from the tent and would potentially offer a great view across to the west as the sun would begin to set later on in the evening. I put my running pack together, threw in my head torch just in case it was dark before I got back, my emergency bivi bag and packed my sandwich that I had earmarked for my lunch tomorrow. I did not plan to eat it but it was there just in case! It was about two hundred metres up to the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan but the path was great and it did not take long to get to the top. I bumped into a couple climbing up from Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan West Top but they did not seem interested in chatting so I pushed on and dropped down to the bealach then up onto the west top. I calculated it was just over five kilometres to knock off the three other Tops and retrace my steps back to the west top. Unfortunately there was no path but the navigation was straight forward and I took my time, mainly walking and enjoying the views as the sun slowly began so set to the west. By the time I summited out on the last peak, Stuc Fraoch Choire, I could not handle the hunger pains anymore so I ate the sandwich. I knew I would regret this the following day. Maybe I should have just eaten my tea before I set off? Too late now, I would have to suffer the consequences the following day.
I retraced my steps back along the ridge towards Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan west top. It taken me one hour and forty five minutes to nail the ridge which was not bad considering I had pretty much walked most of it. The sun was beginning to set and I took some great photographs. I would have liked to stay longer on the summit but it was getting cold and all I wanted was some food and my bed. I dropped down from the west top, up and over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and down to my camping location. It was 9pm by the time I got back to the tent. I cranked the stove and made a brew and heated my food. I was ravenous and at the time it tasted the best meal I had ever eaten. So far on the trip I had climbed seven Munros and sixteen Munro Tops. Just one Munro and two tops remained.
SUNDAY – 1 Munro, 2 Munro Tops, Distance: 34.4 km, Ascent 1173 metres
I decided that the best course of action the following day would be to get up at 5am with a view to heading off at about 5.30am. I estimated it would take me about three hours to nail the three peaks and get back to the tent. I could then hike out and get back to the car for sometime early afternoon and back in Dunfermline for tea. The thought of humping it back over Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan twice though did not exactly fill me with much enthusiasm. I had been toying the idea of an alternate route that would bypass Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Rather than climb up the east ridge, over the summit then down the north east ridge I thought about dropping down into the Coire nan Dearcag and head straight for the bealach between Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan and Carn na Con Dhu. The plus side of this approach would be that I would save myself about 400 metres of ascent, the downside would be that the terrain within the coire would probably be rough and wet. I decided to defer decision until the following the morning.
At 4am I awoke. I stuck my head outside the tent fully expecting clear skies and stars but was instead was greeted with thick cloud. What the hell is this all about? The weather forecast had said that Sunday would be the best day! I tried to get back to sleep for an hour but it just was not happening. I was knackered and had hardly any food left. The thought of humping it thirty odd kilometres in the clag was about as appealing as scooping my eyeballs out with a rusty spoon. I contemplated knocking it on the head right there and then. Pack my gear and hike out. If the remaining ridge just had Munro Tops and not a Munro then I might have been seriously tempted but the thought of driving back home and leaving a Munro in an awkward location unclimbed was not an option. I would just have to get on with it and hope the weather improved.
When I awoke the tent was shrouded with mist. The excellent weather forecasted had failed to materialise.
At 5am, I got myself out of my sleeping bag and got dressed. I looked at my food for the day. One boil in the bag rice and baked beans and a trail bar. Hmmmm. I cranked the stove into action, warmed the boil in the bag meal and wolfed it down. It hardly touched the sides. I made a coffee from the water, necked that down and stepped outside the tent. It was damp and cold. The big question was do I sacrifice ascent and have a go at traversing across the Coire nan Dearcag or take the extra elevation? Visibility was not great. The clearly defined path won. I set off running and quickly made progress. The climb was not that bad. In fact it felt good to get some air in my lungs. I headed over the top and took a bearing for the north eastern ridge. The path was pretty obvious but this was not the time to make a stupid navigation error.
The path snaked down towards the Bealach nan Daoine. I was making good progress and felt surprisingly good. At the bottom I came face to face with the biggest deer I had ever seen. It should there in the mist, totally undeterred by my presence. What a magnificent beast. We stood staring at each other for about ten seconds then it turned and trotted off. I continued along the path and passed a tent. It must be the ‘grumpy couple’ I had met the previous evening. No sign off life in their tent. It was only about 140 metres to the summit of Carn na Con Dhu. The summit plateau was long and rocky but it did not take long to start the descent down to the bealach na Con Dhu. My tummy was rumbling so I ate half the trail bar. Fortunately the summit of Mullach na Dheiragain was only 982 metres so nothing major to climb. I reached the summit at 7:30am. I had been travelling for two hours. Just a quick out and back to my final peak, Mullach Sithidh and it was job done.
The cloud was breaking and I guessed by late morning it would probably clear the tops. I just wanted to finish so flew down to the bealach and up to the summit of Mullach Sithidh. Mission Accomplished! Twenty Peaks, happy days! I celebrated by eating the remainder of my trail bar and reflected on the trip. It had been an epic but unfortunately I still had work to do. It was seven kilometres back to my tent then a good twenty kilometres back to the car. I headed down from Mullach Sithidh, up and over Mullach na Dheiragain then over the rocky summit of Carn na Con Dhu. The ‘grumpy couple’ had emerged from their then but they did not speak. No surprise there. I looked back along the ridge and the cloud was lifting. I took a photo and looked into the Coire nan Dearcag. It was still claggy but I could not face another ascent of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. I decided to chance the Coire traverse. I looked at the map. If I used my altimeter and stayed on the 860 metre contour line until I was travelling in an easterly direction, I would then be in position to climb directly south and would arrive on the path that lead down from the summit of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.
I headed into the coire and contoured around the side. I kept an eye on my elevation and ensured that I remained at 860 metres. It was actually quite hard to do. I think the tendency is to loose elevation when contouring. Something Scott and I have experienced on Mountain Marathons. It actually felt as though I was climbing up rather than staying at the same height. Fifteen minutes later my compass informed me that I was now travelling east. Ok, time to ascend. I turned south and scrambled up the grassy bank. It must have been fifty metres of ascent. Eventually I reached the top. I was on the path. Bingo! Just a kilometre back to the tent.
I got back inside the tent and had a speculative look in my rucksack for some food. Maybe there was an energy gel or something that I had overseen? Hardly, but I looked anyway. I had a rummage in the pockets then down the back pouch where you could store a hydration bladder. Hold on, what is this? I pulled out a silver foil packet. Inside there was two boiled sweets. I recognised the packet. It was from an army twenty four ration pack. Probably from my recruits course in 2003. The packet had seen better days and it had a date stamped on it. 2004. Was that a ‘Best Before’ date? Was I about to eat sweets that were eleven years out of date? They were definitely old. The wrappers stuck to the sweets but when you are so hungry that you could a scabby horse what is eleven years? They actually tasted pretty good but did nothing much to satisfy my growing hunger.
I packed up my gear and threw my rucksack on my back. What I would give to ditch the bloody thing. Maybe toss it down into the coire. Now that would feel good. Oh well, at least it was a decent path all the way out. I headed up and over Stob Coire na Cloiche then picked up the trail down towards the YHA at Allbeithe. From here it was a case of just following the path out through the glen. I tried running but it was just too hard with the pack on my bag. I trudged along and tried to ignore the fact that I was ravenous. I was so hungry that I had stomach ache. All I could think about was food. It was a nightmare. My watch told me I was averaging 5km an hour. It did not take a rocket scientist to work that out. 20km at 5km an hour will take me four hours. On another day it would have been a great walk. The scenery was out of this world but I had had enough and just wanted the comfort of my car. Slowly but surely I made progress along the track. When I hit Loch Affric I had just 10km to go. At Affric Lodge just 3km. I hit the road, just 2km to go. After what seemed a lifetime, I arrived back at the car. 90km, 5538 metres of ascent and 26 peaks. Epic!