Monday 24th October 2016
Summits: Carn nan Gobhar, Sgurr na Lapaich, An Riabhachan, An Riabhachan SW Top, An Socach, Mullach Sithidh, Mullach na Dheiragain, Carn na Con Dhu, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, Stob Coire na Cloiche, An Socach, Mam Sodhail, Beinn Fhionnlaidh, Carn Eighe, Stob a' Choire Dhomhain, Stob Coire Dhomhnuill, Sron Garbh, An Leth-chreag, Tom a' Choinich, Toll Creagach
Weather/Conditions: Great weather all day, and a lovely pre-dawn and sunrise on An Riabhachan/An Socach. Freezing level was about 1100m, so hovering just below the highest tops (and consequent hoar frost and slippery rocks). Some cloud around, almost inversion-like, blowing through on an easterly airflow. Mist cleared up more in the evening thus I got more panoramas. At last light, the setting sun casting hillsides in deep red (didn't get a photo of this unfortunately), then dimmed to reveal a starry sky of stunning clarity. Quite a way to finish a 55km round - knackered and ready to finish but with this magnificent night sky. Amazing all in. Temperatures in the minuses that night as I slept in the car near Culloden - woke up with frost on the windscreen, and the hills south of Inverness all turned white in frost.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 55.7km / 4700m / 16h 50m
This October's weather has generally been pretty settled, and I realised sometime in the days preceding this that I might have an opportunity to make this work before the winter drew in. First thing was first - there wasn't enough time to do it all in daylight, so if it was to be now, I'd accept doing at least some of it at night. What better than to do the night part at the beginning, when still physically fresh and alert, then slog out the rest of the day with the sun still up?
The previous day I'd climbed at Auchinstarry with James. When I'd left home that lunchtime, I'd been pretty ambivalent as to whether I'd go for Mullardoch. I packed the car up, and decided to make a judgement call at Auchinstarry. The climbing there was great, and the weather good - though feeling autumnal, for sure. I had no good reason not to go north and so the call was made, stopping en route by James' new house at Stirling, then Aviemore for dinner and fuel, and Inverness for the weekends snacks.
Heading west to Cannich, the roads were dark and quiet, and I found myself in good spirits. Whether it would be achievable was still unanswered, but it always helps to start in a good frame of mind. Down Strathglass, then up Glen Cannich, I watched badgers scuttle off, and into the open upper glen see the deer panic in the headlights then run off. After an eternity, the dam appeared in my car headlights. At last.
I got out in the cool night air to make my bed. No midges this time, either! It was actually quite pleasant. It seemed unbelievable that in only a few hours I'd get up and start walking off into the black hills...
Carn nan Gobhar
2am. Bang. The alarm went. If this happened any other time, I'd roll over to sleep. But I was ready for this, motivation was there, and the body was ready. Here we go... I gave myself one hour to get packed, thus leaving at 3am. Breakfast down as fast as possible, I got packed, checked everything over, and got on the move at one minute past three. There were no stars out. The night was dark, but there was a kind of light filtering from an unseen slender moon.
I was off like a shot, a new hydro track taking me into the base of Carn nan Gobhar. This was the time for switching the mind off and just putting in the physical work. You are beholden to your schedule, you just must work as hard as you can to keep on top of what you have set yourself. At first it all went well: my route choice up Mullach na Maoile turned out to be a really good call (compared to the coire!). But as I found myself striding skyward through the long grasses slowly thinning, the mist closed in around me. I was hell-bent on speed, and minute upon minute, I became more and more disorientated.
I eventually came over the Mullach, but exactly where I did not know. Soon, I found myself dropping slightly into a coire. A chill breeze had picked up, and somewhere along the way I'd grown cold. I was rushing too much and now I was just getting lost. The map and compass came out, the jacket went on, and only slowly did the ground start to make sense again in this mist.
I had to get my act together. In my head I'd started to play with the possibilities of chopping today's route down. The wandering, unconscious mind will tell a lot if you listen to it's signals. I arrived at one cairn, assumed to be the south top. I took a bearing and paced northward: bang on cue, another cairn appeared. The summit of Carn nan Gobhar.
I switched my torch on for the first time, upon where a whole world opened out, the ground stretching away ahead, then a hole in the sky - straight through to stars in a night sky. The headtorch and mist had been fooling me into claustrophobia. My world had opened out and in a moment my day's chances looked much improved.
I was a good bit ahead of schedule, and on Carn nan Gobhar had a round of photographs, food and drink. The terrain was perpetually confusing in the dark, so a compass bearing all the time allowed me to keep the ground making sense. Ahead, Sgurr na Lapaich was more felt than seen: a great black wall in the night. A faint path wound up through the crags, and I followed it carefully. Even still, I ended up forced onto the buttress to the right and finished the climb by a climb over a prominent little pinnacle - you can see it on the OS 25,000. If nothing else, it gave a good moment's scrambling.
The summit trig arrived. Photo. Eat. Drink. Take a bearing. Don't stop too long, you'll get cold.
There is a knack to this.
Dawn was making itself known. First descending Sgurr na Lapaich, I got stuck into An Riabhachan without delay. Over Sgurr na Lapaich now behind me, the sky was becoming light. On an easterly breeze, cloud sailed by in the glens. I was among it all, really 'there'. You must take time to watch these things, sights as such are given to few, even among those who make the effort.
Stars were in the sky - a flushed glow of dawn on the horizon - the few stray lights out to the east hinted at human habitation. It's amazing how connected you feel to human signs when they are slightly removed. To my north and south was all darkness - the empty centre of the north-west Highlands. I snapped some pictures against a rock, getting cold, then hurriedly moved on. I'd only just make my split time to An Riabhachan.
I took long strides over the plateau of An Riabhachan. Out west, lighthouses winked at me by Skye. This hill was perhaps the highlight of the day - fresh and strong enough to enjoy, yet with the freshness that this route really would 'go' today. Until now, the whole thing had been a gamble. Now it was almost certain, and how refreshing for circumstance to fall in my favour.
An Socach itself seemed just a formality - not too long, or high. I still felt pretty good. The trig arrived in good time, just prior to the sun breaking over the horizon. The summit was half-concealed in yellow mist, I could feel the sun was close. I raced the falling shadows down the hillside, quickly out of the mist, and on open slopes to the long arm of Meall Shuas. The sun never quite got to me, but in my descent, it turned the surrounding hills to fire. How amazing to be almost six hours in and still heading off into the wilds.
I got to the river, Gobh-alltan, five minutes ahead of schedule. Here I took a break: food, drink, changed socks and watched mist close in around Mullach na Dheiragain. The ass-buster was coming up: this 700m climb has always hurt, and disproportionately so. As I plodded off up it at last, the first half seemed fine. I broke through the mist and gained the ridge leading up from Creag a' Choire Aird. For whatever reason, the legs felt like they were giving up. But I also knew the following ridges would be more forgiving. Just get this bit done!
Almost as a contrast to my physical struggles, a little Argocat motored up the coire and quietly climbed the opposite ridge. It likely came up from Gleann Elchaig, whoever inside probably not having done a scrap of physical work to reach here.
I crested Mullach Sithidh, the sun hitting me for the first time. I really noticed it's warmth! Partly relieved to be at the top of the treadmill, I continued promptly to Mullach na Dheiragain. Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan was ahead, but it didn't seem an unreasonable distance away. This was a good sign, for it meant I was psychologically ready for it. And after all, the mental is tied to the physical - a further hint that things were going my way and I would eat this terrain up today.
The gentle walk off Mullach na Dheiragain was a relief, and enjoyable. I felt I got a lot back here, and managed to put some good miles in efficiently. Once over Carn na Con Dhu, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan was a far easier proposition than the Dheiragain north flank had been. And yet when I sat down on the summit cairn in the sun, I still felt pretty busted. This is also significant as it marks the half way of the route - all return journey from here.
I found the physical side of things not too bad today, but I really didn't enjoy the way that I felt sick. Ever since the river, and all the way to the end it would transpire, I carried a feeling of nausea around. Eating food was hard work, and descending was hard work - I found I couldn't run properly: my insides were getting so jangled about by the movement.
But I headed toward An Socach, which really felt quite incidental. It's not the most prominent of hills. I was amazed how with how close Mullach Fraoch-choire and A' Chralaig looked from here - it was obvious I'd travelled a long way now. Bogs glittered in the noon sun down by Alltbeithe. I'd brought £30 along, just in case I needed it's convenience in an emergency. Of course I wouldn't need it now, and it was only later I learned the hostel had closed for the winter anyway.
I got over An Socach, and bypassed it's east top on the right.... which led to some steep ground, but maybe still worth it. In doing this, I passed the 2012 bivvy site with Struan. Then I'd been in a pretty advanced state of bodily destruction. Here now, I still felt pretty good.
Mam Sodhail, Beinn Fhionnlaidh, Carn Eighe
Mam Sodhail has a lovely stalking track winding up it. I'd forgotten the extent of this track - you pick it up almost immediately and follow it almost to the summit. I followed it essentially to it's conclusion today, and found it likely an easier way to Mam Sodhail, just because it misses out the shattered ground on the crest. However it itself isn't much of a track. Shots rang out across Gleann a' Choilich - no doubt the stalking taking place (I thought it ended 21st October!), linked to the Argocat that climbed the slope earlier this day.
The great monolith atop Mam Sodhail was wintry, covered in hoar frost. I didn't spend long here. In my mind since around Ceathreamhnan, I'd been consumed by the feeling of leaving out Beinn Fhionnlaidh, caught between being so shattered I'd like to do so, and the ambition of not being able to get out of completing the 12. Thus it was almost a relief to cut across Carn Eighe and cut out the internal babble of what-ifs. Beinn Fhionnlaidh would happen today.
It was a nice hill, it always is. I dropped the bag and enjoyed the walk out. I felt tired, but in a way I still felt good. I certainly didn't feel absolutely trashed, or anything like it. And it was here I bumped into Helen. We had a quick chat, enough to know that she was going along the same ridge to Toll Creagach as I would shortly - I'd perhaps catch her up.
Beinn Fhionnlaidh seems to be the best viewpoint of Loch Mullardoch from these hills. The other Munros summits are so far removed you often see very little of the loch, but here it is visible in all its glorious desolation. I could also see the dam again, at last. It was still some miles away, but there nonetheless.
Carn Eighe was a gentle plod to the top. Tiredness has many faces. Here I was without doubt tired, but the legs were also on autopilot, moving with little brains of their own that gave the walking a kind of effortlessness. I doubt I have felt this sensation since 2013, and it makes walking feel incredibly pleasurable.
Eastern highway: final summits to Toll Creagach
With skies clearing and cloud breaking off the summits, I got a panorama from Carn Eighe. More food, more drink. I didn't feel like eating, but I couldn't take the foot off the proverbial gas. I must keep eating, or risk getting wasted. I then headed east. I'd also began to feel incredibly tired: sleepy tired. Normally it was too cold, so the urge to shut my eyes had to be ignored. But at one point in a shaded corner on the broad open slopes of Stob a' Choire Dhomhain, I lay down on the ground and shut my eyes for some moments. I was finally startled awake by the sound of my own snoring!
Get up again and go. This was a long ridge, and I just slogged the thing out. The afternoon was wearing on, and I could see Helen usually quite a bit ahead. Half way up An Leth-chreag, I finally caught up with her. We shared mutual interest in climbing, and the good conversation also took my mind off a worn down body.
Tom a' Choinich gave another panorama, then just one to go, and straight ahead. On the way up this final hill, Toll Creagach, I let Helen go ahead - I just had to stop, stand and stare, for the body was really starting to go slow. Still, I didn't feel horrendous, just weary. I saw Helen off by the summit, then finally stood on the last top in evening silence. It felt damn good, but I just couldn't wait to get down.
Out on the moors I saw little wind turbines, and some construction work linked to Beauly-Denny. I hate to see these things on the wild lands, but in a strange way it made the place feel like a living landscape too?
In a half-light, I nailed it down to the head of Am Fraoch-choire, and when the angle eased sufficiently, I dropped into the coire. I couldn't run anything, my dexterity was long gone - 50kms of mountain had seen to that. But a fast walk would do. Am Fraoch-choire is a rough place, doubly so on a tired body, in damp, slippery trainers.
Despite having come down this coire twice before, I was almost amazed at the prominence of the river, as well as so many features I'd obviously forgotten over time.
Vegetation thickened down into these wonderful old, mature pines. There is nothing else quite like them. Some of these must be hundreds of years old, and I'll bet they've seen some change in their lifetime. By headtorch, I picked up a small track and followed it among the pines. This turned into a bit of a bog, which soon became an absolute morass. I was slipping and sliding, sometimes catching myself, sometimes falling over. This would be the easiest time to get injured, I had to just stay with it a bit longer.
And where's the dam? I could see the water glinting in the very last light in the sky, but as for the location of the dam; that was a bit more difficult. Eventually figuring I might be walking right past it in an easterly direction, I ploughed straight downhill, coming across tracks, paths, linking them together in some way to finally emerge at the southern side of the dam.
Down to the foot of dam - cross the river at the outflow - scale a fence in to the wooded enclosure. The track in here allows the quickest access to the far side (where the car was). Under a black starry sky I ploughed out the final metres to the car, opened the door, and fell into the driver's seat.
In the middle of the day, I'd been driven on by that thought of what it would feel like to have done it and sit in that seat at the end? Here I was. Done.
Driving down Glen Cannich, the sleepiness started to overtake me again, and I feel asleep in a layby for an indeterminate amount of time. Waking up again, I headed back into Cannich, then up Strathglass bound for Inverness. I was impatient, in need of food, a wash... Tesco's answered all of that, and I felt much better for it afterward.
That night I slept in a Forestry car park outside Inverness. The morning brought frost on the windscreen: first of the season, and a bubbling inversion covering Inverness. Fields around Moy were deep in white frost, but in spite of another beautiful day, I was homebound.
So that concludes things. In 2013, I wondered whether it would be easier to do these hills with a day pack and in a oner. Having done it, I'm not convinced it is any easier. But it also didn't feel especially tougher than two days with a camp/bivvy. As always, a tremendous set of hills, and a tough set as well.
Mullach na Dheiragain
Tom a' Choinich
(0.00) 3.00am Mullardoch Dam
(1.40) 4.40am Carn nan Gobhar
(2.40) 5.40am Sgurr na Lapaich
(3.55) 6.55am An Riabhachan
(4.55) 7.55am An Socach
(5.55) 8.55am Arrived Gobh-alltan
(6.10) 9.10am Left Gobh-alltan
(7.28) 10.28am Mullach na Dheiragain
(8.37) 11.37am Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan
(9.35) 12.35pm An Socach
(11.00) 2.00pm Mam Sodhail
(11.58) 2.58pm Beinn Fhionnlaidh
(12.43) 3.43pm Carn Eighe
(14.15) 5.15pm Tom a' Choinich
(15.10) 6.10pm Toll Creagach
(16.50) 7.50pm Mullardoch Dam