A wet walk up Ben More

By David J. Hogarth

Ben More is often pictured against a blue sky enjoying good weather. The truth more often than not is different. As the highest peak on Mull it attracts its own weather, and this can be as good or as bad as any on the west coast. When you can see from the top, you get an extensive view of water and islands; when the weather has closed in, you're thankful that there's a path you can't really miss - just as well too since they say that a compass doesn't work owing to the type of rock - but I didn't have to put this to the test owing to a reluctance to get it wet!

Like many people eying up the reducing number of ticks needed for "compleation", Ben More was being kept for the final Munro. Foot and mouth put off completion this year since we were not keen, unlike some well-known writers who perhaps should have known better, to push against the restrictions imposed on walking until the outbreak had died down. It may make a good newspaper article to complain about an estate's wish that walkers should check where they can walk before they start, but this does nothing to endear walkers to those who own and have to live from the land; and such worthy outdoor-persons should perhaps consider their responsibility for encouraging responsible access rather than always banging on about rights to roam. But enough of the soap-box: rather than always getting annoyed at the tone of some of the walking magazines, forget them, ignore the whining, and get on the hill - where you can moan to yourself and the sky about anything with no-one to hear you!

Caledonian MacBrayne's winter timetables provide for fewer sailings on Wednesdays than on other weekdays, and a visit to Mull in mid-November on business was completed on the Tuesday evening leaving the following day clear until the ferry at 5.00 pm (by which time it was already dusk). Tuesday evening saw heavy rain and little prospect on the Wednesday of a dry day; but the sun was shining at breakfast-time and a trip to Iona was ditched in favour of Ben More. "If there's no mist on the point over there", I was told in Tobermory, "you'll see the top of Ben More". And so I did, briefly. Out of season there was little traffic on the single-track road that fringes the side of Loch na Keal - though everyone using it assumed that they would have a clear run. An informal parking place - though marked on the new Landranger sheet - exists on the traigh on the north side of the road at the foot of the track to Dhiseig: when I was there the rain over the past weeks had made it fairly treacherous, but it was not crowded - curiously mine was the only car there! The weather had tired of its earlier promise and clouds were blowing round the top of the hills, though they still appeared from time to time. Should I or shouldn't I? The thought of being accused of pulling a fast one by sneaking up one of the final Munros on my own and the likely worsening weather were balanced by the fact that I was here and it looked straightforward, and could I really spend a day in Mull and do nothing? So I took up my sac - and poles - and walked.

The SMT guide suggests that a circular route starting from the lochside a little to the northwest of the car parking area is the best route. This is followed by other guides suggesting that there are no other routes - which there are. However there is a path marked on the map from the Dhiseig track into the Abhainn Dhiseig which more or less until the shoulder is reached exists also on the ground - not always the case. Nowadays however with so many people ticking off the Munros and (usually) looking for the shortest and simplest routes up and down, there is almost always a path up every hill, not necessarily continuous, but there. A sign at the start suggested that for a two-month period in September and October all walkers should take the path to avoid deer-culling; again a sensible request which hopefully all had observed - though on a day like today, there didn't seem any point in seeking an alternative. It was going to be a gallop (or more likely a trudge) up and probably the same back down, and so it proved.

A track leads off from the roadside to Dhiseig, and shortly before the house is reached an informal sign directs you to the right avoiding the house; after going through a gate, the path then heads up across the bog and beside the burn to start with: it should have been easy to follow despite the soggy ground underfoot, but the combination of a very low sun behind the path line and attempts by most previous walkers to avoid getting their feet wet so early in the day and therefore setting off generally on the right line but not on the path led to an eye of faith being required. However the path rises towards the shoulder to the south of the Coire nam Fuaran and even though it can't always be followed easily over the grassland, the large burn coming out of the coire is a marker and is crossed just below the point where the hillside begins to rise more steeply and a path marked from time to time by cairns is then picked up. Take care however after very wet weather because a little further up the hillside, no doubt the result of people going wrong, the path follows a parallel line to the burn rather than heading straight up the grassy hillside (as I did); no matter, when the slope slackens off, a line of cairns marking the "new" path runs fairly level across the end of the shoulder and joins both routes together before the final well-marked path up the screes of the north-west ridge is reached.

This part of the climb is a case of following the path and the many cairns which mark it up through the screes. By this time however, the top was completely enveloped in cloud which showed no sign of lifting, and indeed crept down the hillside for the rest of the day. I can't therefore describe the views, other than the twenty yards or so of path in front of me; I heard ravens, and once out of the cloud appeared a soaring eagle. That apart, there was no wildlife, natural or human, to be seen - or heard. Once on the ridge the slope steepened, and in the wet mist it was a case of battering on for the top. After the damp plod lower down, this hard-surfaced path was easy. It is not a path on which you can get lost even in the mist, and as it approaches the top it levels out along the summit ridge leading you to the cairn and stone shelter surrounding it. Tantalising glimpses down the crags suggested that it would be a top that was worthy of coming back to. But the weather chose the very moment of achievement to start to rain, and apart from touching the cairn there was nothing to do but retreat. I didn't even get the camera out to photograph the summit to prove I'd been there - the lack of proof was pointed out forcibly when I got home even though any photograph would have shown nothing but grey cloud!

You climb very nearly the full 966 metres of the hill since the path starts almost from sea-level. Having reached the top in a shade under two hours, I felt quite pleased and assumed that I could knock at least half an hour off that time in the descent. A false hope since the path appeared much more slippery on the way back, and I was glad to have the poles for some stability. It stayed misty for two-thirds of the way down, but it's always reassuring when you come out from under the cloud and realise that you are where you thought you were - even though with a linear path and no real opportunity for error there shouldn't be any doubt about navigation. Back at the car, it had settled in to be a sodden afternoon. However it had been in retrospect - as for all wet walks - enjoyable and an outing snatched from a damp November's day.

The journey back was unmemorable, apart from the temporary traffic lights on the road outside Oban failing just as the ferry traffic reached it in the pouring rain, and the fish lorries assuming on the narrower stretches of road that of course they had - always have - the right of way.


Distance 6 miles/10km.
Map OS Landranger 1:50,000 sheet 48.
Start/parking Parkon the traigh at Dhiseig where indicated (grid ref 494360)
Grading Pathover grassy slopes and through screes where small cairns mark the way.
Route instructions Take the track to the house at Dhiseig, diverge on to a hillside path where marked, and follow this to the top. Return down the same path. Enjoy the views which, weather permitting, will be superb. Alternatively, in better weather, follow the Abhainn na h-Uamha to the bealach at the head of the glen, on to the north-east ridge of A'Chioch and thence to Ben More, returning by the route described along the north-west ridge of Ben More.