Last weekend I was in Fort William, staying on a converted barge the ‘Ros Crana’, base for a long weekend sortie into the Scottish Munros. This is my annual escape to the hills to nibble away at my Munro list – there are some 282 Scottish mountains over 3000 feet and so far I have climbed 65 of them, the last five on this trip. Our party numbered six this time around, on our once-a-year menfolk get-together.
This tradition began as a gathering to celebrate a 40th birthday among the mountains. I was invited by my good friend Graham to join him and his brothers, Phil and Alan and I have been one of the honoured gentlemen hangers-on, ever since. That was over ten years ago. I discussed more on this theme in this blog post last year, marking the completion of MyVolunteer 60th Munro summit.
Ros Crana is a comfortable base, a former cargo barge, completely refurbished with six en-suite twin-berth cabins plus a large dining room and common room. In the summer months Ros Crana takes parties of guests along the Caledonian Canal – the waterway along the Great Glen (which connects the west coast at Fort William on Loch Linnhe with the east coast at Inverness). For the winter it is moored at Banavie, nr Fort William, at the top of Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of huge locks near southern terminus of the Caledonian Canal.
This year I travelled up on the Thursday night by train from York to join my companions in a car-share from Durham. It’s a long way to drive, squished with hillwalking gear and self-catering supplies in a family car. Marginally lighter for leaving behind crampons and ice axes – normally essential at this time of year – but the recent weather had been mild and snow cover was almost absent on the hills.
For a number of years we based our annual excursion in Killin, Central Highlands, until the pickings of un-climbed hills became slimmer…One must keep in mind that we chaps each have our own list of Munros already climbed and those lists do not necessarily tally…so there is an impetus to head into uncharted remote corners of the Highlands…
Day one of three on the Scottish hills dawned wet and misty but at least the rain cleared by the time we commenced the long grinding trudge up Creag Meagaidh (“Craig Meggie”). We tackled this beast of a mountain massif from a lay-by on the Glen Spean road and marched across boggy lower slopes to gain the summit plateau via a steep grassy shoulder. A convenient drystone boundary wall was our guide through worsening visibility as we ascended into cloud. After a compass-bearing traverse of the featureless and mist-shrouded summit we finally found ‘The Window’, a break and safe access point in a great curve of 1000ft cliffs, (some say comparable to those of Ben Nevis). Here we met two other hill walkers who made their ascent to the plateau via Coire Ardair and The Window and together we battled strong buffeting gusts at our backs to follow a switchback ridge. The route took in three subsidiary tops before attaining the third and final Munro of the excursion, then we began our descent to the Creag Meagaidh National Trust for Scotland base and visitor centre. Fortunately the other couple who we met on the walk and were parked here had offered a lift for one of our party to retrieve the car, saving us an uncomfortable walk three miles along the road.
Day two on the Munros, the Saturday, saw our party of six travel a little north of Fort William to tackle a remote, solitary Munro named Gulvain.
Now, I have to come clean – this was in fact Plan B after after an aborted attempt to get a passenger ferry from Mallaig to the remote Knoydart peninsula. Sailings are infrequent in the winter and even the locals we asked in sleepy Mallaig didn’t seem to be sure of its departure times. It transpired that we might have made the half past eight sailing but due to building work in the harbour the ferry was sailing from a temporary jetty across the bay. By the time this was located all was locked up and deserted. Anyway, it was lovely to see the Hebrides offshore, Eigg, Rhum and so on, albeit briefly. It is over fifteen years since I last visited Mallaig.
So plan B, Gulvain entailed a five mile hike-in to the foot of the mountain followed by a gruelling ascent in low cloud and drizzle. Unabatingly steep, with deteriorating visibility as we climbed, this Munro did not give itself up easily and views were best on the return leg as the weather abated. Nine and a quarter hours after setting out, our weary party reached the car again in darkness. Thankfully the five mile track was easily followed in the gloaming dusk. It was almost fully dark by the time we finished, though we managed without resorting to head torches.
Our final morning, the Sunday, with a long drive home ahead of us offered much better prospects. The best weather of the weekend in fact, with blue skies and light cloud, no rain, some wind on the tops but not remotely on the scale of the previous two days. We would need to set off homeward by early afternoon so an accessible peak was required, no long hikes up remote glens.
Our choice was Glen Nevis, which has car parking places at various spots, and the path we took started climbing immediately through forest toward the Munros on the south side of Glen Nevis – opposite site to Ben Nevis. An initially excellent, recently improved path after a kilometre or so became quite different. Obliterated by recent forestry operations, it gave way to boggy slopes littered with brash and a new assault course of fallen trunks, rocks, gullies and so on. Eventually we pushed on through the clear-felled forest, negotiated a deer fence and struck more steeply still up a heathery slopes to reach the shoulder of the ridge leading to Mullach nan Coirean, a rocky, quartzite-topped Munro with a whaleback ridge and dramatic cliffs over the coire below.
The last hour of the slog saw our party separate into two. Those fit and hale enough elected to continue the ridge walk to the next Munro, a more conical peak named Stob Ban, and return via an adjacent ridge and valley to the car park. This was more than I could handle, my knees still suffering from the previous two outings and I was happy to return by the ridge we had ascended at a more sedate pace, with a single Munro bagged for the day. My knees and my sore leg muscles thanked me for this wise decision. In any event there was no way I’d have kept up with wth them and it was a substantial additional distance and ascent to take on Stob Ban. It will always be there for another day.