Beinn Dearg - 1008m
Carn a' Chalamain - 963m

Saturday 11th February 2012

Weather/Conditions: Quiet winter conditions - mist on the summits, settled, cold and white! Had been a thaw so snow was lying in disjointed fields.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 35.4km / 1270m / 10h 50m
Accompanying: Kev McKeown/Alone

Kev was off to Blair Atholl to climb Beinn Dearg, one of the remote tops on the great moorland behind the town. Beinn Dearg was one of his last Munros south of the Great Glen and in his normal ways, he made a bothy night of it too.

Allt Sheicheachan bothy lies in a little dip in the moorland by a river. It lies at the end of a few miles of rough track which can be cycled, and thus we brought a bike. I got a train to meet with Kev just outside Glasgow. We stopped by his house then continued to Blair Atholl. It was dark when we arrived and we bent the rules a bit: Kev parked up the end of the private track beyond the car park and beyond the public road. We'd only be less than 24 hours!

Well at least that cut off a whole lot of cycling. But Kev had loaded his bike with so much coal and gear that it wouldn't ride as a bike. So we walked the distance, pushing the bike. I hadn't brought my own because; 1) it didn't work and 2) I had plans to walk back to Blair Atholl via. Carn a' Chalamain - more on that later.

We'd met some folk heading for the bothy who'd gone just ahead of us, and we could follow their footsteps through the snow all the way up the track. Gloomy mist hung on the moor. Snowbound, a newly risen Moon lit the place in dull glow. It was a hell of a place to be. I felt like we were right on the rim of a great sweep of wild land stretching north and east - and mountain for miles and miles. I already felt a million miles from Glasgow and we'd only left hours before.

I was getting tired of walking and pushing bikes when Allt Sheicheachan appeared around the corner. It was a welcome sight. It was also a cold place. The stove was on and we got a small fire going. But I crawled into my sleeping bag very soon, keen to get a night's sleep.

Beinn Dearg

Annoyingly, I woke up in the morning feeling very cold. It wasn't a comfortable night: I got up only because I couldn't take the cold anymore. Thus, it was very hard to warm up. It was colder inside than out, the bothy had turned into a fridge. A recent thaw had swept the slopes bare and this morning was no exception. Only when we'd finally packed up and started walking did I feel really comfortable.

The whole trip I had wondered whether to go to Carn a' Chalamain and turn an ordinary walk into something greater. Because I hadn't made my mind up yet when we left the bothy, it meant I hauled all my sleeping gear up to the top of Beinn Dearg.

Beinn Dearg must be the most gradual hill I have ever climbed. Miles of grey-brown moorland swept down to an unseen A9, and upward to snow and cloud. Even once we breached the snowline, the hill continued upwards indifferently. The km's ratcheted up and when we reached the summit cairn, there had hardly been a steep section all the way to the top.

Nearly two years ago, Michael died not so far away from here. Kev brought out a dram. I took a sip then remembered the stupid-high alcohol content.

My thought process: I drink rarely. This mouthful will get me instantly pissed. I want to go onto Carn a' Chalamain: miles of solo winter navigation. I can't swallow this! I can't spit it out: Kev will kill me.

And finally, a mutter from a mouth full of Jura: "I can't swawwoww 'iss!!" The summit cairn received a mouthful of whiskey.

Oh, the shame... Kev just laughed.

Carn a' Chalamain

Anyway, I had decided I would do Carn a' Chalamain. Kev and I would go our separate ways from here. He gave me his map (thanks), wished me well, and wished me off safely. Now I wasn't without apprehension, but thought I might as well give Chalamain a go. It was miles of moor and mountain navigation through blanket cloud and snow. I was looking forward to it and my rational head said I was sure I could cope. Conditions were certainly good enough: cold and wintry, but calm enough to take time over navigation.

I headed directly east from the summit of Beinn Dearg, down snowy slopes. I came out the cloud and I could see all of my route across the coire bowl (Chama Choire) to the edge of cloud-capped Beinn Mheadhoin. It was a maze of peat hag, bog and snowfield. With the compass put away for the moment, I slipped and slid all the way, always searching out the most efficient course, winding an intricate route that I wouldn't remember again. I came over to Beinn Mheadhoin, climbed the slopes and spotted the next part of the route. To my left, I could see way into the Tarf wilderness.

This isolation was intoxicating: it became my own world. To my left, the hills were black domes, snow peppered, and rising into blanket cloud. Loch Mhairc sat silently, alone. That loch hiding in the back of the hills became my ultimate beacon for the wilderness. It was a place more remote than where I stood. This place was completely empty; completely silent, and I loved it.

I finally understood what it meant to experience wilderness, It is one of the only times I've ever felt that way. I used to think this point of view; this distain for meeting people, was elitist. Now I understood. I was so self-reliant in a place so bare and empty, but the sight of a single person or track would have broken that 'spell'. The landscape gave me a thrill, it was bleak and monochrome and here I was among it all.

I descended down to Feith an Lochain. This river had given me a run for my money: I hadn't a clue whether it would be fordable, and wondered if the melt-water had made it rise too far? I felt quite impatient about reaching Carn a' Chalamain and started to think about bottling out. Did I really want to cut the day short? No; but these were all stupid thoughts: the river was easily fordable. I started up the hillside to Carn a' Chalamain, where I picked up footprints which arrived out of nowhere. The spell was broken, I was back on terra firma but the magic was gone for the trip.

Still, it was a lot of fun. I walked over Aonach na Cloiche Moire on compass bearings, a task I found completely engaging. The clouds parted at Carn a' Chalamain north top, where I paused and watched the it tearing open. Now Chalamain was in the bag, I rested and took it all in. I walked up to the summit cairn, and found a great deal of respect for the hill. I had given me a lot, after all.

Back to Blair Atholl

But as I'd stood on the summit thinking the day was nearly over, I was wrong and wrong again. I started down the southern spur of the mountain on good tracks, working my way down the line of least resistance. Glen Tilt was below me, which made me feel as if I was close. The greenery was refreshing for starters.

I got down into Glen Tilt as the light began to grow dim. I thought to myself about how I could actually camp out here in winter and feel ok about it. I'd carried such a big weight over the hills today that if I'd had a tent I could almost have camped right there and then. But I started walking. A guy cycled past: we only waved but it looked as if he had been in the hills and was now returning to Blair Atholl. I kind of envied him for the bike at the time, but the envy would get a whole lot worse.

Glen Tilt looks like a long way to walk on the map, but it felt even longer than it looks. The track weaved on and on and it seemed to pull miles out of nowhere just to get me to keep walking. I kept myself well fed, kept my head down and kept plodding on, which of course was all I could do. I didn't reach a fat-burning stage which happens so often in these situations when I don't eat enough. I was a long walk, but I was comfy enough to endure it without too much pain. When the trees lined the roadside, I lost a greater sense of scale, since the trees barred any wider views. I always kept one eye on the map, but the ground just kept coming, and I can't quite describe how long this track felt. Without a doubt, in the future I'll try and cycle it if I can.

I reached the public road at Old Bridge of Tilt as night fell, and slogged back into Blair Atholl under streetlights.

My parents had driven up to Boat of Garten this day, and I'd decided I would join them. I checked the train times and walked into the bothy bar where I got my gear off, got a drink and a really good rest in front of a fire. It felt so good. Once I sat down, moving again was an effort, but I made the train and got off at Aviemore where dad met me.

It had been a fantastic trip. I'd hoped to do a couple more hills while I'd stayed up in Boat of Garten but it simply didn't happen. Colourful Strath Spey was a refreshing change from the grey moors of Atholl, but my high walk from Beinn Dearg to Carn a' Chalamain had left me with something really special.

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 11.00pm Leaving car nr. Blair Atholl (10th)
(2.10) c. 1.20am Allt Sheicheachan bothy

(2.10) 10.00am Allt Sheicheachan bothy (left)
(2.10) 12.15pm Beinn Dearg
(2.10) 3.15pm Carn a' Chalamain
(3.25) 6.30pm Blair Atholl

Written: 2012-07/08-15