Friday, May 12, 2017

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Ben Avon & Beinn a’Bhuird

With the weather forecast cheerily estimating "No Rain" in the Cairngorm National Park, along with "90% chance of cloud free Munros", Saturday had to be a hill day! Ben Avon  and Beinn a’Bhuird are two large Munros which mark the eastern edge of the Cairngorm range, and are accessible from the Braemar/Deeside Road, where the Invercauld Estate has provided a walkers car park, but require £2.50 for a 'pay and display' ticket. These two mountains are not the most popular hills in the Cairngorms, and see only a fraction of the footfall of the likes of Ben Macdui, or Cairngorm; but this is not because they lack interest - far from it! Ben Avon is crowned with a series of idiosyncratic granite tors, which are a landmark for miles around. The summit of Beinn a Bhuird is an unremarkable plateau; but the mountain is graced with a simply breathtaking cliff-line, as its' eastern flank plummits thousands of feet in a massive corrie linking its' 'North' and 'South' tops. The emptiness of these hills is due in fact to their distance from the road; any outing to these two sizeable mountains requires a long, and difficult, walk or cycle in. A round of both of them, pushes the days' total to well over 40k, the length of a marathon - over hard ground with a heavy pack! This obstacle almost entirely explains why these two magnificent hills were still on the 'to-do' list of both Stewart and myself - and why my car headed out from an icy Perth as early as 6AM with two mountain bikes on the roof. An undertaking of this size required plenty of time!

The first obstacle of the day was navigating the paths of the Invercauld Estate, in search of Glen Sluggan, which leads out to these hills. A couple of wrong turns on forestry tracks that were unclear, led to our only resort to GPS of the day - and once the correct track was found, route finding was simple, and mostly pathed.
The Sluggan path

The Sluggan track is mostly cycleable, although the steady ascent and rough surface makes going slow and tiring. The glen runs westwards for several miles before a ruin is reached (allegedly there is a hidden bothy here too - but I didn't spot it!). The journey is an enticing one, as the central Cairngorms are visible and identifiable for the first half; and then the massive cliffs of Beinn a Bhuird loom overhead for the upper part.  The middle section, where the track bifurcates for a mile or so by a ruin, is not cycleable; but better tracks further up make dragging the bikes through this section worth while. Thankfully some climbers we met at the car park told us about this, meaning we were able to get bikes far further up the glen than we would have otherwise have realised. The route up the 'The Sneck' (the col between the two hills), is a long slog, and the sight of the weird crenellated rock formations that decorate the ridge seems to take ages to come into view. It is simply wonderful when it does, and the views explode around the walker in all directions.
The Sneck

While it is probably a better walk to dump bikes further down the glen and make the walk a circuit, by including Beinn a Bhuird's south top - including a magnificent cliff-top walk; we elected to join both summits by the Sneck, and shift the balance in favour of more cycling. This was largely because I was still suffering from a badly blistered heel from Seana Bhraigh on Monday.

The Sneck

The Sneck is worth savouring. From here we turned right (NE), up the steep ridge and onto the Ben Avon plateau. The tors, which look intriguing from adjacent hills, look utterly surreal from the plateau itself. They look as if they have been dropped from the sky, random lumps of rock dumped on the surface. The highest and finest tor, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe is the summit of Ben Avon, and it presents a nice little scramble over rough, grippy rock to the top. In wet weather when the moss would be slippery, or when it is icy - this could present the walker with an awkward finish to a long ascent. In blazing sunshine however, it is a simple matter of scrambling up and taking photos. It had been -2'C at Invercauld, but by the time we had lunch on Ben Avon, it must have been approaching 15/16'C, it was certainly sun-screen weather. Incidentally, Ben Avon is pronounced 'Ben A'ahn', which according to walkhighlands, is derived from the Gaelic for 'river'.

Ben Avon Summit Tor

Looking from the summit of Ben Avon back to The Sneck

The treck back to The Sneck is beautiful as it provides views not only of The Sneck itself, but also of Beinn a Bhuird's cliffs. The descent is straightforward enough, and we elected to dump our heavy packs there, and climb up Beinn a Bhuird and back without the heavy load. I seem to dehydrate easily, and so carry a lot of water on days predicted to be hot. I dragged 4litres up this walk  - and needed every drop if it. So an hour or so without the full pack, just a few essentials, was bliss!
Ben Avon from Beinn a' Bhuird

The climb up to Beinn a Bhuird from 'The Sneck' is a bit of a slog, but once the top 'Cnap a Chleirich' is reached, the summit is visible. Finding the cairn is not a problem in bright sunshine, but looks as if it could be a challenge in bad visibility, and not falling over the nearby cliffs (which still hold beautiful cornices into Summer) is also a consideration. Although we had elected to return via 'The Sneck', we couldn't resist exploring the cliff top of Beinn a Bhuird, time well spent indeed! Beinn a Bhuird, is pronounced 'Byn a Voorsht', and according to the guide books means 'The Table Hill' - an apt name for such a flat-topped, and vertical sided hill.

Beinn a' Bhuird, cliffs

The long miles back to the car were eased by the bikes, which eased the last half of the descent considerable, once the rough tracks of the upper reaches of the glen had been negotiated. Stewart is a marathon runner, and is both lighter and fitter than me. I hold him back speed wise, and he pushes my performance out of the slow ambling which is my norm! All in all, this was a 9 hour trek for us, which wasn't too bad! 
The Sneck

These are big hills, set a long way back from the road, which require huge efforts to get to. It's undeniably effort well spent however, and it's almost tempting to cover the long miles again just to sit in the magnificent, massive surroundings of 'The Sneck', and soak in the grandeur.

Photos all from phones, mine and Stewart's!


Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Seana Bhraigh

Seana Bhraigh is a wonderful mountain. Although it is huge, it is well back from the road, and hidden from sight. Certainly nearby Ullapool has no view of it, and yet from it lonely summit, An Teallach is visible to the west, as are the distinctive peaks of Assynt to the North, and the adjacent Beinn Dearg group. While Seana Bhraigh is a lovely hill, it is a one which requires a long walk, from whichever direction it is approached, the summit is miles and miles from any road. Aesthetically, it might be best to attck it from the North-West, but I was bike-less, which ruled that out, as that is the only practical way to get through the long miles on the estate tracks which lead in. 

Instead I took the route from Inverlael on the Ullapool Road. The acces point for these hills is marked by a stone bridge, a phone box, and a new walkers car park which has been added since my last visit to these hills in 2008. When I last walked this glen, there were significant forestry and hydro works underway, which meant sinificant diversions, and mess. The glen has started to recover from the works now, and the trees re-growing over the industrial scarring. 

Navigating this section of the walk is now far easier than it once was. With the trees felled, and the works gone, it is easy enough to follow the track on the right of the river, until it crosses to the left, just before the ruin of Glensquaib - an old house set inside a large stone-walled garden. Access to the Dearg Group continues up the glen, but I turned sharp left at Glensquaib, following the track by the stone wall. Many hill reports recount people getting lost here, looking for the Seana Bhraig path, but it was well marked by a little cairn a few hundred metres beyond the ruin. This steep four-wheel-drive track, zig-zags up through the new forestry planting, to reach the only gate in the very high deer fencing, so it is worth finding.

From here, a long, long, path leads eastwards across the heathery expanses, crossing streams and bogs, until rounding a ridge, the path turns Northwards and ascends into the hill via a series of lochans; the Coire an Lochain Sgeirich.

The trickiest section navigation wise, is the pathless area at the head of this glen, round to Seana Bhraigh itslef. I didn't stay close enough to the cliff edge of Cadha Dearg, which would have been a useful guide. As such, I had an awkward navigate through some cliffs, to get to the col. The sight of a pair of Golden Eagles descending into the glen below, was sufficient compensation however!

It was on this section that I met some members of a small walking club, and spent much of the rest of the day chatting to them. My trusty Mammut boots, which have served me well for years, suddenly began to hurt and blister my feet, and one of them handed me a compeede heel plaster - which was a life saver. I have never needed it before, and never carried it. I think it wil always be in my pack from now on!

The summit is a wide, grassy, (cold and windy) spot miles form anywhere. The views are enormous and expansive and well worth the hours of trudging to reach. As I walked out, with the folks I'd met, th eday got hotter and hotter. Layers were shed, water consumed, and the hills looked amazing. Seana Bhraigh has been on my to-do list for a very long time. It is a long day, but one very well spent. I have to say, I wouldn't fancy doing it on my own in bad weather though...