Sgurr na Fearstaig - 1015m
Sgurr Fhuar-thuill - 1049m
Creag Ghorm a' Bhealaich - 1030m
Sgurr a' Choire Ghlais - 1083m
Carn nan Gobhar - 992m
Sgurr na Ruaidhe - 993m

Saturday 3rd November 2012

Weather/Conditions: In some senses benign winter conditions. But in other ways, the place felt truly wild. Summits in the NW Highland were primarily clear, but the light had this odd, invasive quality that set the place ablaze. I'd also forgotten how damn cold it gets on the mountain summits, so the first Munro was spent getting really cold until I put enough layers on!
Distance/Ascent/Time: 25.3km / 1600m / 7h 50m
Accompanying: Struan

Glen Strathfarrar is the most northerly of the three great glens running on an east-west orientation through the North West Highlands. These three glens cut through an area often reckoned to be the greatest tract of wild space in the Highlands. Many in the hillwalking world aren't even so aware of this region, but for those that know, the mountains carry a weight and presence not often found elsewhere.

Glen Strathfarrar itself is a stunning glen. A tarmac road runs the length, but it isn't fully open to the public. The road was paid for by taxpayers money to facilitate the construction of the Monar dam, but the estate still wished to keep the land private. A compromise was reached, and at the glen entrance, a gate controls traffic, keeping vehicles to a minimum and preserving a peace that would not exist otherwise.

Struan and I headed up to the north west and camped out on a stunning night, with white mountains that shone in the moonlight. It was a stunning camp, and we set the alarms early.

The drive up Glen Strathfarrar is beautiful. We'd got the combination for the lock through the MCofS, and drove up the glen. Morning light would replace moonlight incrementally and we left the car near Inchvuilt, at the foot of the access track for Sgurr Fhuar-thuill.

Sgurr Fhuar-thuill

I felt pretty wasted in the morning. This seemed to be a consistent theme of the last little while. I really felt deeply tired on the ascent and every step was hard. Maybe it's a morning thing, or maybe there was something else in the second half of 2012 that was making everything harder? Perhaps hillwalking is just hard work!

Sgurr na Muice was framed by the moon in a pale, weak sky. The hill was covered in a virgin covering of snow, picking out the little crags and overlaps. We walked a fair distance before meeting the snowline ourselves. The sun broke out at this point to turn the hills orange, and soon we'd be on the summits themselves.

We gained the ridge line where the views broke open and we could get massive sightlines right across to Monar, the air crystal clear with wavy, ominous clouds piling up in the sky. The sun would break out here and there, turning the mountains bright white. Beinn Eighe on the horizon gleamed bright white, a vision that seemed surreal as almost not to exist in this reality. What a wild place.

I also forgot how damn cold the winter was. You forget these things after a summer! I was freezing in a harsh wind, so piled the layers on which improved the situation. Out the north, the moors were rich brown, the hills peppered white. The summits seemed to fall in quick succession beyond this point - first we crossed Sgurr na Fearstaig then gained the summit of the first Munro of the day, Sgurr Fhuar-thuill. These summits take on beautiful pointed triangles when seen on a far horizon - they're really nice hills to look at, distinctive in form. They always remind me of that gentle, peaceful glen below of Strathfarrar.

Sgurr a' Choire Ghlais

Sgurr a' Choire Ghlais is the highest point of the group. We went over Creag Ghorm a' Bhealaich in some mist, and plodded up the Sgurr itself. This mountain has a cairn and a trig point on top - we visited both. But unfortunately we were denied views - I would have liked to have got panoramas from these hills, but the cloud rose and fell throughout the day. Nonetheless, it gave a genuine atmosphere to the day. The snow makes a hell of a difference, too. Visually, it creates a break point between the world below and the world above.

Carn nan Gobhar & Sgurr na Ruaidhe

All in all, Struan and I were making great progress. The morning's lethargy had worn off and we were now rocketing over these peaks. Carn nan Gobhar was next, a great humpbacked hill which shares the same name and height as a hill just a glen away, above "Maol Ardaich" (Mullardoch!). The summit is a boulderfield and cairn.

Sgurr na Ruaidhe was the fourth Munro, the last of the day, and also a great humpback like Carn nan Gobhar. It is an uncomplicated hill from the west, just a romp up it's long western slopes. But the eastern side appears to be the site of a monumental landslip. I really must check it out one day - it was only when I got home and looked at Google's satellite imagery that I saw it, because the maps give essentially no indication.

Descent & Walk through Strathfarrar

We headed straight off Sgurr na Ruaidhe (the least sgurr-like sgurr that I ever knew!) and into Coire Mhuillidh. This golden, sun-washed (and boggy) coire was the start of a new division of the day: leaving the white summits and into the glens below. Lower in the coire, you'll find Clach Mhor an Ruighe Riabhaich which would give a highball boulder problem or two for anyone so inclined...

But the real glory of the day was reserved for the afternoon. We got back to the glen and headed along the road on foot. I don't know why it catches me so much, but there's something about the golden winter sun, the island on the loch (Eilean a' Mhuillidh) dripping with lush growth, the Scots Pines shining in the light of the sun - everything seemed so alive and vibrant, with high cliffs sheltering straggly pines pointing skyward. It was like walking into another world, I was almost beside myself at the beauty of the place.

This is the aliveness of these remnant corners of the Highlands - there's something so profound and it pulls at the emotions. I was so highly tuned into all the details of the roots, the leaves, mosses, rock textures. Light dappled in little pools, so delicate. The sentinel pine of Strathfarrar overlooks Loch a' Mhuillidh and overlooks the glen. It is, to me, a symbol for the calling of the wilds, the 'crashing silence', the peaceful purity of a Highland glen on a sunny November afternoon: a brief window of warmth and light in an increasingly cold and dark winter world.

It remains one of the most amazing hill experiences I've had to date, and one of the most joyful. A wholeness had overtaken me. Struan had been ahead for the entire walk back to the car, leaving me to enjoy the place and be open to it on my own terms, at my own pace.

The drive out was also magnificent, with Sgurr na Lapaich a beacon in the evening sun. It seemed a shame to leave so quickly, but I knew I'd be back soon... We headed south to Aviemore to meet everyone in the mountaineering club, and the following day we all did a fantastic round in the Monadhliath.

360° Panoramas

Sgurr Fhuar-thuill

Carn nan Gobhar
Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 6.50am Parking near Inchvuilt
(2.00) 8.50am Sgurr na Fearstaig
(2.20) 9.10am Sgurr Fhuar-thuill
(2.40) 9.30am Creag Ghorm a' Bhealaich
(3.20) 10.10am Sgurr a' Choire Ghlais
(4.00) 10.50am Carn nan Gobhar
(4.50) 11.40am Sgurr na Ruaidhe
(6.23) 1.13pm Strathfarrar, by Mulie
(7.50) 2.40pm Parking near Inchvuilt

Written: 2015-08-06