A' Mhaighdean - 967m
Beinn Tarsuinn - 937m
Meall Garbh - 851m
Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair - 1019m
Sgurr Ban - 989m
Beinn a' Chlaidheimh - 914m
Friday 23rd - Sunday 25th March 2012
Weather/Conditions: Stunning weather for March! Shorts and t-shirts and a high bivvy on A' Mhaighdean. Hazy air and warm sun - river crossings were wildly cold though.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 44.6km / 3150m / 22h over 3 days
Accompanying: Struan, Dougie, Craig and Iain
23 + 24 March
I headed east to be picked up by the Fifers - night fell near Aviemore/Inverness and beyond the busy Friday-night A9, the road to Ullapool was extremely quiet. Dark roads silently slid past and the Moon and stars glowed in the night sky overhead. At Dundonnell we packed our stuff - final time - and started walking. I've always enjoyed setting out for Fisherfield - when I begin I always think toward the sacred places I'll have tread by the time I return. We walked by torchlight - the cairn on the moor came fast and a hard section in the dark getting down to the bothy. I was pretty tired when we got to Shenavall - a quick soup, a cup of tea and up to bed.
We took the morning easy - maybe a bit slower than I'd have liked. A first glance out the window was a culture shock. We'd arrived in the dark the night before and I was still accustomed to the city. Outside the window were the empty mountains, bristling with pinnacles and textures of brown. I don't know why this landscape feels so ancient - it just does, especially to eyes accustomed to superficial civilisation.
We had breakfast and packed up - the German guys were good chat: three of them were on holiday for a week and had walked Kinlochewe to Lochan Fada then over the Mhaighdean-Tarsuinn bealach to Shenavall. They seemed to be heading east to 'a bothy' which I took to mean Lochivroan then home to Germany a few days afterward. We mentioned the club were thinking of going to the Dolomites, to which they told us a mountain an hour and a half from Munich - c. 1700m ascent whose name translated as The Punisher. Two guys were upstairs - the old guy was quick to talk about all the climbing he'd done and the fact he was related to Rupert Murdoch. There was also a guy from Hamilton, staying on his own, who later set off alone up Strath na Sealga.
We got on our way - comparatively late actually - and crossed Abhainn Strath na Sealga. Craig had given me the map which I struggled to find a place for. Michael Coffield and I had crossed this river dry without taking our boots off, but although the river was again very low, I realised I'd have to take my boots off or my feet were getting wet. Damn, it was cold. Really cold. I focused on breathing to get across and the water was only up my lower legs. We walked along the boggy marshes which probably don't ever dry out. At the second river, I noticed something: the map. "Shoot me" I said to Doug and Iain: I'd dropped the map! I think it was back at Abhainn Srath na Sealga. Well the guys were surprisingly merciful and we had a spare Harveys from Struan.
We crossed the river - again - cold, and headed off up the track. A couple of things about this section of the walk: we resolved one day to climb Beinn Dearg Mor, and also the sun started to come out as the 'ruadh' murk from the morning was clearing up.
Gleann na Muice Beag was a beautiful walk but also contained the frustration of being low down. I'd been in valleys enough by this point and now I wanted to get up high. The path climbed at the head of the glen and we sweated it out in the sun. This path eventually would lead all the way to Carnmore but we would leave it to get to Ruadh-stac Mor. Mick and I had descended it in exhaustion a few years ago and I'd forgot all the details. The rocky Chaisgein/Beinn Dearg landscape was opening out and looked surreal - pure rocks, pure colour against colour, washed out by a southerly sun.
I'd actually thought for a while that we should continue up this path and head for Fuar Loch Mor - partly to find the place Mick and I bivvied. But the offroad route to Ruadh-stac Mor looked feasible and this is what we did. We filled bottles at Allt Lochan a' Bhragaidh on my suggestion: "Last water for a while". Every time I leaned down near the water I got a whiff of something and didn't entirely trust it. Was there a dead stag upstream? It was enough to plant a seed of doubt in my mind. So I tried not to drink this water but everything was fine in the end.
Lochan a' Bhragaidh was a cool place - the rocks on it's north banks are extremely rough and you can get a bit of hands-on too. The lochan is actually two lochans given one name, it seems. We went around the west side of the north loch and I put some footprints in the sand on the tiny beach. I wonder how many footprints this place sees? Then we began the climb to Ruadh-stac Mor - finally!
Dougie hadn't realised that I'd done all the Fisherfields before, and I filled him in on the craziness of what Mick and I had been up to. On that walk I'd never pulled so much from my body. I was in bed for nearly a week afterwards with exhaustion. He said I must have been thinking about Mick here - and I was. In fact I thought about him everywhere, recalled memories from passing peaks - climbing into the darkness and walking out, exhausted, in the morning. The conversation trailed off as we climbed the flank of the Stac. On the ridge Struan, Craig and Iain were waiting. They wanted to see our faces. The view was phenomenal!
A' Mhaighdean, Fuar Loch Mor, Fionn Loch all the way to the sea, Chaisgein, all of Fisherfield. Unbelievable. Look where you found yourself. It's been too long. Suddenly I was back to this place of August 2009. How much I've have changed; how much water has gone under the bridge. Yet this is just how I left it. Fuar Loch Mor was below. I haven't seen it in a while.
A short climb up boulders and a vague path took us to the trig point on Ruadh-stac Mor. When I was last here this place also seemed so wild. Ruadh-stac Mor was in the heart of the empty lands, and Mick and I were in their grip. Today? It seemed the opposite. It did not feel so wild, and I wasn't so extended myself. I told Dougie about my bivvy and included Fuar Loch Mor means Big Cold Loch. "Yeah, it looks flippin cold." And it did. Even on a sunny day.
We headed to A' Mhaighdean. We descended straight off the summit: a short crag band then big ruadh boulders, followed by a last cliff band down which Struan led the way. At the bottom of Ruadh-stac Mor, there was a nice bouldering crag whose rock was indented with nice juggy handrails and in other sections compact rock.
I bouldered for a while, completely knackering myself in the process. We continued to A' Mhaighdean and I kept my eyes peeled for the shelter stone. I didn't find it, so I don't imagine Mick and I would have, either. The climb to A' Mhaighdean seemed almost effortless and very fast. It was incredible to reach the summit plateau. Again - another place Mick and I had wandered around. The mountains transcend humanity but for me the Fisherfields may always be tinged with his presence.
At the lower top of A' Mhaighdean, we dropped our bags and went for a walk. A' Mhaighdean is a jewel of a mountain and it's flanks drop away with stunning severity. I don't think I've seen the immediacy of these drops elsewhere - they really make your head spin. I got to the summit first, aware that I was at the most sacred of summits. A true untamed, wild part of the world. Beinn Tharsuinn Chaol lies in the middle of all this chaos - there can't be many people treading it's summit often. As for the views of A' Mhaighdean being some of the best - it's totally right. It's just a shame the sun was dulling off again behind high cloud. It looked a bit darker to the south.
We descended east to find somewhere to camp. Struan and I went ahead and at 730m, the guys called us back. They thought should should camp higher since the ground only got boggier lower down. So we decided to sleep on the flat patch of ground at 780m.
And so the A' Mhaighdean bivvy began. By the end of this night I will have slept in the open on both Ruadh-stac Mor and A' Mhaighdean. Funny that they're the only two mountains where I've done this. The evening was completely settled. I lay for a while as I'd got quite cold. The guys had set up a communal eating area around some boulders but I needed to warm up first. Eventually I had my second tin of tomato soup - with Dougie's stove, as mine was giving up. The slightest wind blew out the flame and the gas was nearly empty anyway.
We retreated to bed early. There wasn't quite the sunset we'd hoped for but all was completely calm. Completely. Once it grew dark and everyone settled to bed, I could not hear one sound, only the slightest whirring of tinnitus in my head. As I lay comfortable in my sleeping bag, the mountains turned to dark shapes. In the south, Beinn Eighe and Liathach stood in odd silhouetted shapes. The skies looked darker down there. The four Munros of tomorrow lay across the valley: Beinn a' Chlaidheimh (Edit 2014 - no longer a Munro) Sgurr Ban, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn. It would be a long walk tomorrow... I'd be home my tomorrow night. Best not think about that - just rest for now, that's all you need to do.
Slowly I drifted away to sleep and when I woke up later on an interesting thing happened. I woke but I didn't open my eyes. For a moment I forgot where I was and in my sleeping bag believed for a moment I may have been at home in bed. And then I opened my eyes, and all the stars and open air were spread out above me. I *felt* my spatial awareness balloon uncomfortably to match the eternity above.
For some reason or another, it never got totally dark. There was no moon, but a glow was coming from somewhere and lit the hills ever so slightly. Not that there is much light pollution around here either. I wondered if the haze made distant city lights scatter across the land - it obscured the stars so that the faint ones were washed out. And still, not a sound was heard - complete silence. In a way it seemed normal to be here, but in another way I had to remember where I was - remind myself how special this was. To lay a sleeping bag on the ground and sleep high on A' Mhaighdean is a rare opportunity. Just remember this - and rest.
And then during the wee hours, the wind got up. It was so gradual, but it kept me awake. I had my outer tent draped over me for rain protection but it flapped incessantly in the wind and drove me mad. I'd left my gear strewn all around me and became scared some of it would blow away. I fell asleep again.
Next time I woke up, the wind was stronger. I had to open up my bag to pull my gear closer into me. Asleep again.
At 5am, I'd had enough and as the light returned I decided I could put the tent up. After some fumbling around feeling cold, pulling the tent up, I jumped in and instantly felt warm again. By luck, I'd earlier pitched the door out of the wind. I put my gear inside, got inside my sleeping bag, and at last, slipped into blissful, unbroken sleep.
But I was also conscious that the rest of the guys may be getting up soon. I realised I didn't like group dynamics in this situation - I'd prefer to sleep until I want to get up rather than work with the group. When I woke up later, people were chatting. Dougie had woken up, and when I looked out the tent door, he was smiling, camera in hand, with the sunrise in front. What a spot.
During the morning, the sun rose into some thin cloud and turned the mountains steely and cold. It wasn't until later on that the sun finally broke through. The wind had also risen considerably and the peace of last evening was broken. We decided not to cook breakfast here - it was too cold for comfort, so we packed up and headed for the Beinn Tarsuinn saddle.
At first the pack was heavy and awkward, but it always is on day two. Struan and I went ahead and when we realised we were nearly out of sheltered boulders before the ground rose to Beinn Tarsuinn, we found the nearest sheltered spot. It was pretty good.
With breakfast down, I was satisfied we could move on. Atop the Tarsuinn ridge, the sun had properly risen to another beautiful day and as we came over to the ridge, the rays hits us as we left the shadowy slopes. Beinn Tarsuinn is one of the best mountains of Fisherfield, today it looked at it's best. But I was saddened to see a tent left near the ridge, discarded and left beneath a stone. Anyone without the respect for this place shouldn't be there. If I'd had enough rucksack space I would have personally taken it home, but my bag was crammed to the rafters with my own stuff.
The ridge of Tarsuinn was great fun - little interesting rock steps everywhere. I had a great time and really found my stride up here. I walked over the Table (and forgot all about Mick's picture on it) then headed up to the summit, where the wind blasted with some ferocity.
The following mountains arrived one by one, as the day matured, the sun lifting through screens of haze. Being in a group like this precludes fast movement though it was simply a case of picking each one off. When I first did Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair with Mick, I got quite freaked out by the steepness of the northern slope. So it was surprising to arrive today and find not much more than a little scree slope. How times change.
Over to Sgurr Ban and the shelter on the northern side, the day quietly melted away as the March sun slid across the sky. We'd have to get a move on - there isn't so much daylight at this time of year, but to be here in warm sun was quite incredible.
Writing this in 2014, it's interesting that Beinn a' Chlaidheimh isn't a Munro anymore. When I did my one-summer Round of the Munros last year, I actually left this one out, since more effort expended than absolutely necessary was too much. But of course, in March 2012 it was still a Munro, so there was no question of completing the "Big 6". Additionally, this was the first time I'd got summit views from these mountains and the views were something else! We all collapsed one by one in celebration on Chlaidheimh's summit - the objective complete, and a hell of a long walk back to the car.
From the summit, we headed north then east, down the long flank leading to the land rover track. It was a magical evening, which quietly turned through browns and reds to gold.
A final cold river crossing and we were back on the 'safe side' of Abhainn Loch an Nid (and my god it was cold!) then up the Landrover track on the way back to the road. The sun set behind the Beinn Dearg and An Teallach's yellow fingers were silhouetted against the sky, there for company and inspiration on the long and tiring walk out. We got back to the van late, just in time for a murderously long drive back to the Central Belt. It was too soon.
The following morning, I awoke on Struan's sofa feeling like death warmed up - and headed home on the bus feeling ill with exhaustion. But damn it was so worth it - I got home in the sparkling sunshine with a part of my mind still up on those far-away peaks.
A magnificent trip.
Walk in, 23 March
24 March, Ruadh Stac Mor
Bivvy on A' Mhaighdean
25 March, Sunrise
Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair & Sgurr Ban
Beinn a' Chlaidheimh
Descent & Walk Out
Ruadh Stac Mor
A' Mhaighdean bivvy
Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair
Beinn a' Chlaidheimh
(0.00) 9.50pm Dundonnell
(2.30) 12.20am Shenavall
(0.00) 10.00am Shenavall
(5.00) 3.00pm Ruadh Stac Mor
(5.50) 3.50pm A' Mhaighdean
(7.25) 5.25pm Bivvy site, A' Mhaighdean
- Change to BST -
(0.00) 8.30am Bivvy site, A' Mhaighdean (left)
(2.20) 10.50am Beinn Tarsuinn
(3.05) 11.35am Meall Garbh
(4.00) 12.30pm Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair
(5.10) 1.40pm Sgurr Ban
(7.05) 3.35pm Beinn a' Chlaidheimh
(12.05) 8.35pm Dundonnell
2014 August 5