James Carron feels insanity beckon as rain and midges conspire to thwart his plans to bag all the Munros between Fort William and Dalwhinnie. Will he succeed? Read on...
Long distance routes are all the rage. The ever-popular West Highland Way attracts thousands of trekkers each year, braving the midges and the elements as they hot foot it from Glasgow to Fort William. All around the UK the picture is the same, from the Cornwall Coast Path in the bottom corner of the country to the most northerly national trail, the Speyside Way. Waymarkers are fine. But there's no reason why you shouldn't create your very own long distance pathway to pleasure. With a handful of maps and a spot of research you can set the agenda, and leave the crowds behind. I did just that, creating my own West Highland way from Fort William to Dalwhinnie. The route would lead me through some of Scotland's most gloriously remote country and because I was planning the line my walk would take I could go just where I wanted.
Setting off from Fort William on a July afternoon, my lift deposited me in the car park at the top end of the public road in Glen Nevis. Picnic people eye me up with something verging on curious suspicion as I hoist my weighty pack aloft. I bade farewell to the world and set off up the tourist path into Upper Glen Nevis, praying my rucksack wouldn't throw me off balance as I negotiate the slippery rocks above the tumbling Water of Nevis in the deep gorge far below. The day walkers dried up as the path cut through a rocky gateway to emerge on the flat, tranquil plain of grass below An Gearanach. The sun was still out and a few foolhardy folk were trying their luck on the wire bridge spanning the river to the wee bothy below the stunning Steall waterfall.
I paused by the tumble-down remains of an old cottage at Steall a little further on and savoured a Mars Bar before tackling the long drag ahead. It was hard going on out-of-condition legs and lungs and the pack was weighing uncomfortably on my shoulders and back. I planned to pitch camp just beyond the tiny hummock of Tom an Eite and as I skirted her flanks I spot a Vango Force 10 tucked down by the burn. It was comforting to know I was not alone in this wilderness.
As I left the Water of Nevis and swapped allegiance to the meandering Abhainn Rath my heart dipped slightly as I find company has its drawbacks - someone has taken the glen's prime campsite, a flat grassy plain nestling in a loop of the river. I pressed on a short way to find an airy spot above a small waterfall.
My home for the week was a Phoenix Phlighter, a one-man tent in green nylon with an A-frame upfront. However, in my rush to get away, I'd woefully under-estimated my tent peg requirement, so was forced to fashion some replacements from bog wood and items of cutlery I could probably live without. Supper was experimental - Wayfarer meals, my first time. I scooped out the sloppy contents of a silver foil bag and, after a thorough heating and some trepidation, found my tastebuds pleasantly tickled. It was too late to tackle the first Munros on my agenda, Stob Coire an Laoigh, Stob Choire Claurigh and Stob Ban, all arranged in a huge horseshoe above me with a winding ridge of tops in between. So I gathered more bog wood and light a small fire to keep the midges at bay.
Next morning, I left the tent after an early breakfast. The weather was dry but a solid band of white mist hide the tops. I kept my fingers crossed and set off up the Allt Coire Easain, taking a wash in one of the pools. I was free of full kit, but it was a still and clammy morning and salty sweat was soon cascading down my face. The chill slap of wind on my face as I crested the ridge was a welcome refresher.
First up was Sgurr Choinnich Mor on the left and then I backtracked to the col to climb Stob Coire Easain. The mist cleared briefly but clamped down all too quickly and I resorted to compass bearings over the rocky ridge to Stob Coire an Laoigh and Stob Choire Claurigh. The compass took me a little too far right on the descent and I ended up clambering down over a boulder field before re-adjusting my route to hit the top of Stob Ban. Still no view. I dropped down into the valley and plodded through wet grass to the tent where a claggy chocolate pudding awaited. Camp was uprooted at lunchtime and I headed east through the glen, picking up a path on the north side of the Abhainn Rath to Meanach bothy where the path became increasingly marshy.
The early uncertainty of the day's weather was soon resolved as heavy gobs of rain crashed down on my hood. It'll soon pass, I tell myself, fingers crossed once again. But it worsens and I'm glad to catch some shelter in the bothy at Staoineag. There's someone staying over - a rolled out sleeping bag and dog-eared Stephen King novel evidence of residence. But he or she was out in the hills getting wet.
I waited for the worst of the rain to subside and headed out again. It was still spitting but the riverside path was a delight and I made good progress down to Creaguaineach Lodge. It was only 4pm but the midges were biting with vigour and it was too painful to stop and rest, even for a second. The original plan was to camp out by Loch Treig and bag Stob Coire Easain and its pal Stob a'Choire Mheadhoin. But the constant drizzle and midge clouds were making life too unpleasant so I pushed on round the end of the loch, cursing the conditions.
My mood is as heavy as the clouds but a chat with another walker lifted my spirits. He's camping here, so I'm not the only madman in the vicinity. Very reassuring when I hear twigs snapping in the dead of night!
I wasn'tbrave enough to face the midges and headed on up the track towards Corrour Station. I scouted out a few potential campsites but the winged warriors were vicious so I stumbled on to the railway line to take advantage of the level sleepers and lack of traffic. By now it was time to draw a halt to the day and by sheer good fortune I found a deserted hut - dry and insect-free. Heaven!
My second full day out dawned dank but there's optimism it will clear and I set off early for Corrour Station. My chocolate bar supply was going the way of the tent pegs but I remembered there being a small shop in the house next to the platform. I find the occupants gone but at the bunkhouse a woman sells me Crunchies and chilled cans of Coke.
The fizzy drink fuels me on towards Loch Ossian where a group of youth hostel guests from Germany are busy completing the famous round-the-loch run, diving into the clear cold water as they pass the finishing post. I leave my kit at the former boathouse and complete an upland circuit of Beinn na Lap, Carn Dearg and Sgor Gaibhre. The weather clears and the sun makes a short appearance. Not bad for July!
The following day I made a late start and headed on towards Corrour Shooting Lodge at the far end of the loch. My rucksack is still uncomfortable and I'm stopping more and more often to rest sore shoulders. At the bridge over the Uisge Labhair I dabbled my feet in the flow and cook up a large pan of rice, flavoured with a ground-up KitKat.
Heading upstream I'm still grappling with my rucksack straps. Finally I get it right and the world seems so much brighter, even though the rain's back on. I contemplate camping by one of the pools at the top of the glen but it's too cold and wet and I decide to push on over the col. There's a small stone shelter at the high point and some aircraft remnants scattered about. With the mist down it feels strangely eerie. A shiver runs down my spine as I drop from Bealach Dubh and pitch up by the burn. The rain continues through the night and it's no better in the morning.
There are still hills to climb and I set off back to the bealach, compass bearings taking me through the mist on to Geal Charn, Aonoch Beag and Beinn Eibhinn. The cloud lifts briefly as I leave the summit of Aonach Beag and the view to Beinn Eibhinn and into the craggy coire on her east face is spectacular, if short-lived. From the third top, I descend south towards the Uisge Labhair and eat lunch in the stones of an old cottage. I'm so damp I spend an hour or so getting even wetter building a dam across the river.
Returning to the tent in time for supper, the sun plays another short cameo role so I head up to a high waterfall above my campsite and scrub off the day's sweat. There may only be cold water, but it's a power-shower with one of the finest views in the country.
The rain is on again so I bagged myself up with an Alistair MacLean paperback and escaped to a world of wartime adventure and espionage until darkness fell.
My hopes of a snug night were soon kicked into touch. I woke at four, gripped in the teeth of a gale. The back of the tent is taking the brunt of the wind. It's being pushed down so hard it looks as if an elephant has parked its bum on my little home. Venturing out in my underwear and cagoule, I found my scant tent peg collection further decimated and the nylon requesting the all clear from air-traffic control. I scurried about, pressing more cutlery into action. Back in my sleeping bag, I had no idea where I'd land. I didn't want to know. I just prayed it wasn't the south end of Loch Treig again.
Miraculously I was still circling below Bealach Dubh when dawn broke. A quick check revealed no major damage and I could enjoy my breakfast. It was still wet but I craved Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil. I tightened the guylines and headed back up to the col. Again, I entered the mist. How could the weather be so grim for so long, in July? The answer? I was in Scotland. The compass guided me over rock-strewn hillside to the trigpoint where I munched an apple in complete silence and tried not to think about the rotting body of a Frenchman found by climbers in a nearby gully sometime earlier. It was spine-chilling.
The cloud was so low and the weather so poor I opted against continuing over Bealach Breabag to Beinn Bheoil and retreated to the tent. I was miserable as I pulled back the rain-soaked flap and crept in. All I wanted was some sunshine, a chance to dry off my boots and socks. But it was not to be. I spent another stormy night below the Ben Alder cliffs, occupying my time reading and attempting to steam the worst of the moisture off my socks using my gas stove. But I ended up frying them and stinking the tent out.
First thing in the morning I walked down to the sanctuary of Culra bothy to cook another huge pot of rice and read through some recent newspapers left to kindle the fire. The rain paused briefly and I set off up Carn Dearg, following a tiny burn upstream and stuffing fresh blaeberries into my mouth. Needless to say the top was in cloud and I caught myself throwing hands up to the heavens. The rains swept back in and the stony summit was unseasonaly cold.
Back at Culra, I had a peak at the neighbouring lodge before returning to the bothy. I contemplated a night there, but I was damp and sweaty and craved a hot bath. I left some spare food and headed up the track to Loch Pattack. A couple of mountainbikers screeched past me and, contemplating the long walk down Loch Ericht, I envied their two-wheel mobility.
I kicked my heels in Pattack's golden sands for a while and considered returning to the bothy. Despite the weather, I was reluctant to leave the hills. But I'd done much of what I set out to achieve. I only wish I'd had a few views to enjoy. Beinn Bheoil eluded me but I'd return and mount an ascent one day.
The peace of Loch Ericht was rudely shattered by construction work at Ben Alder Lodge. It was an ambitious project, judging by the snapshots I caught through gaps in the trees. I was passed repeatedly by works traffic on the lochside road but no one stopped to offer a soggy walker a lift.
Three miles short of Dalwhinnie I managed to grasp a signal on my mobile telephone and made arrangements for the transfer home. My lift was only able to come as far as Perth so I would board the next train south at Dalwhinnie. My mind quickly consumed itself with the prospect of a juicy chicken salad sandwich and a hot sweet cup of tea from the buffet trolley. Civilisation, I guess, has some attractions.
The last stretch was easy and, after chatting with some Italians on the platform, I was soon squashed in with the suitcases as I made my return, smelly and unshaven but quite happy to be home.
Hot bath and bed!
WALK FACTS - Maps: OS Landranger 1:50,000 sheets 41 and 42 and Harveys 'Ben Nevis'. Munros accessible from the route: Ben Nevis, An Gearanach, Binnean Beag, Aonach Beag and Aonach Mor, Stob Coire an Laoigh, Stob Choire Claurigh and Stob Ban, Stob Coire Easain and Stob a'Choire Mheadhoin, Beinn na Lap, Carn Dearg (Loch Ossian) and Sgor Gaibhre, Beinn Eibhinn and Aonach Beag, Geal Charn, Carn Dearg (Culra), Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil. Accommodation: SYHA hostels at Glen Nevis and Loch Ossian. Bunkhouse at Corrour Station. Open bothies at Meanach, Straoineag and Culra. B&Bs in Dalwhinnie. Transport: ScotRail services to Fort William, Corrour and Dalwhinnie. Scottish Citylink bus services to Fort William and Dalwhinnie.