Saturday, June 27, 2015

An Socach, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan & Mullach nan Dheiragain

The essential silliness of Munro-bagging is exemplified in this: Carn Aosda and Mullach nan Dheiragain, are each weighted equally as "a Munro". The former is a an uninspiring amble between ski-tows from a car-park and a cafe up to a flat, and bald-top; while the latter is a beautifully sculpted ridge miles and miles from the nearest road, hidden by other mountains from almost every approach. "I've bagged a Munro" is therefore as vague a statement as, "I've read a book".           All very well........ but which one!?

Essential silliness aside, Munro bagging remains a hugely enjoyable hobby which has taken me all around Scotland, and all over many kinds of landscape. However, I am aware as I look at my Munro map, that all the "easy ones" are coloured blue (ie. "have climbed"), while most of the really difficult ones are coloured red (ie. "not yet climbed"). During my few days in Kintail this week I decided that I should attempt at least one of the walks I had noted as "challenging". The one I chose was the combination of An Socach, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan & Mullach nan Dheiragain which lie on the North side of Glen Affric. Although this would be a good day out from Altbeithe Youth Hostel in Glen Affric; from where I was parked near the Cluanie Inn, it was a fearsome prospect!

If you are ever tempted to 'take the short cut' and walk into beautiful Glen Affric via the An Caorann Mor from Loch Cluanie: DON'T! The OS map gives the impression that a path gently glides from glen to glen without interruption, and that the walker will find themselves effortlessly conveyed into the lovely wilderness of Glen Affric. In truth the path is not as distinct as the mapmakers appear to believe. The problem is that at every obstacle (bogs and rivers) the path splits into a wide array of slimy alternatives as countless boot-wearers have attempted to navigate their way without stepping into the oozing, mucky bootholes of the unfortunate who went that way before them. After heavy-rain, the worst mile of this perilous route is not so much a path as the quagmire of a thousand boots. Not only do parts of this place resemble The Somme, but there is a very high likelihood of aquireing trenchfoot here too. 

If I could nominate one path in whole of Highland Scotland to get an upgrade, and be made like the amazing routes which bisect The Cairngorm National Park, it would be the An Caorann Mor. It is slightly strange that the National Park designation has such a huge effect on the money spent on access to the hills. Is the Lairig Ghru really that much more beautiful or special than Glen Affric?

It took two hours to reach Altbeithe Youth Hostel, where I planned to stop and have some breakfast. The warden was outside shopping wood, and came over for a blether. I was slightly wary about this encounter. It
 Altbeithe Hostel and Footbridge
is a well-known fact that some SYHA wardens do NOT let anyone sit on the benches by their hostels unless they are paying guests. This has been the case even in some quite remote places, such as Loch Ossian, believe it or not. This warden was quite different however, not only did she not mind me resting my rear-end on the youth hostel bench, she actually handed me a coffee - and added that if I was passing that way again I would be welcome to have another cup too!

Cheered and refreshed I took to the hill behind the hostel. The path climbs Northwards from the hostel door, before swinging easterly and entering a large area fenced off to protect young trees from the hundreds of deer which roam Affric. It's a reasonably steep climb, but my progress was encouraged by the music of birdsong all around me - which was something of a surprise. Since leaving the car over two hours previously, I had walked in near silence (except for the squelch of boot-in-bog, obviously). Inside the deer-fencing however, there was life everywhere. Rather than just grasses and bogweeds, the enclosure contained a whole variety of trees and shrubs - perfect places for birds, and other small animals. When I was young, and wanted to get away from London's noisy suburbs to experience the freedom of space, the best available place was Windsor Great Park. It offered traffic-free roads to cycle, woods, fields and some fresh air. Of course, in Windsor they have plenty of deer roaming around, and lots of deer-fencing to control where they go. The difference is that Windsor deer are not wild, and the fences keep them 'in'; while Affric deer are very wild, and fences are required to keep them 'out'!

I think walking through the fenced-off enclosure made me understand for the first time why some people want to restore natural predators, such as wolves, to The Highlands. Overpopulation of deer, clearly diminishes the environment. On balance though, I'm not sure it is a viable or realistic solution to the problem. I am at a loss as to understand why a sensible wolf would expend huge effort stalking venison, high in the glens, when lamb is so readily available on farms and around villages further down! I'm not sure wolves would do the job as cleanly and effectively as the combination of marksmen and fencing-contractors currently do. Now sheep have a poisoned history in the Highlands, it was after all for the profits they brought that the clearances were enacted. Nevertheless, that history is hardly the fault of current sheep-farmers, and re-wolfing the land could simply lead to a new set of clearances as the costs of wolf-fencing for them would be prohibitive. At the top of the anti-deer enclosure another gate led me out onto open-land, away from such thoughts and up onto a high and windswept ridge, nestling under the first Munro of the day, An Socach.

There are three hills named An Socach, one each at Braemar, Mullardoch, and in Glen Affric. This one
usually provides a delightful view down Glen Affric - along the route taken by those with superhuman strength (or superhuman lack of sense) who competed in the gruelling Highland Cross endurance run and cycle the previous weekend. Sadly this famous viewpoint revealed nothing more than a summit, a cairn, and billowing cloud, which restricted visibility to the extent that I even checked with my GPS to make sure that I actually was on the true top of An Socach.

A scratchy path took me down from the summit of Socach to the bealach at which I had first made the ridge. From here I continued westwards along the high, and at times narrow ridge of Stob Coire na Cloiche, and its four tops, and on to the big pull up towards Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. Even though we are only a few days away from July, in a couple of places I found myself kicking steps into snow and ice, which lay in a thick sheet right across the ridge. Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan is a really impressive mountain, its' fine peak lies at the conjunction of three beautiful ridges sweeping in from the east, west, and north-east. Sadly, as I climbed it, I couldn't see it, as I was well into the cloud at that altitude - but the ridge just kept on going up, and when you thought it couldn't go higher, it did!  One of the highest points in the Affric area, Ceathreamhnan presents a good challenge to the walker - and I ploughed into the climb with some determination. At this point in the walk I was clock-watching intently. Having checked the sunset time and not left myself much margin for error, I had to turn back towards the car by 2:30/3:00PM at the absolute latest - or face a very lonely night in the hills. I wanted to get out to the really remote Mullach nan Dheiragain, but knew that unless I walked at a good speed it would elude me.

The summit of Ceathreamhnan was deserted and cloudy - but I was there on time to move onwards.
Slapping my compass down on the map, and walking from the cairn to the NE, I soon discovered a path leading down onto the NE ridge, down into the Bealach nan Doine, and up onto Carn na Con Dhu. The long, long ridge out to Mullach na Dheiragain I heard referred to as 'the ridge that never ends'. With the clock eating the time, faster than my legs were consuming the miles, I had to abandon my rucksack and run some of the way to the distant cairn and back.  Mullach nan Dheiragain is not a hard Munro in itself, the challenge it presents is simply getting to to it, as it is so far from the road, and has such huge mountains guarding access to it. I was delighted to have managed to reach one of the 'hard ones'  - and turned to face the gruelling walk out.

Of course the long walk out began with a tough re-assent of Ceathreamhnan. As I turned Southwards the clouds began first to break-up and then to lift. In front of me was the intimidating bulk Ceathreamhnan, which at first glimpse through breaking cloud looked impossible to climb. The peak appeared through the cloud substantially higher up than I had anticipated too! To my left was the vast rocky amphitheatre of the Coire nan Dearcag basin, surrounded by all three of my day's Munro's, their tops and connecting ridges. It was a hugely impressive sight - but somewhat focused my mind on the sheer length of my homeward march. The return ridge-walk in sunshine was a different experience than the cloudy, cold inward trip!

Descending back through the deer-fencing, I remembered the hostel warden had offered me more coffee on my way back through Glen Affric. The heat and humidity rose all afternoon - and I was still having to walk fast to make my schedule safely, and actually had started to dehydrate and feel a bit rough. As I reached the hostel the friendly warden called out, "coffee, no sugar, just a dash of milk, wasn't it?!". Indeed it was. Loading up with water from the hostel tap - and adding a rehydration tablet to it helped a bit, and I moved off again towards the ghastly boggy track out.

I discovered though that the worst obstacles on this route can be avoided by taking the upper path on the eastern side of the glen. It proved to be a lot better than the lower path I had used on the way in, over ten hours previously. This path can be found by following the deer-fencing above the footbridge over the river Affric by the hostel. Despite this better path, I struggled on the last two hours. Having walked the best part of 30miles, and climbed almost 3000m, I was tired. I was also dehydrating again - and soon used up the water refill I had taken at the hostel. The car was a truly welcome sight, and the removal of my boots an act of utter joy!

Once back at the Kintail Lodge, I must have drunk two coffees and about five pints of water - and till felt thirsty. I was really pleased with my day's efforts, and turned my alarm off before collapsing into bed. A day-off was in order!

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