On a heather mattress sits the peaks; distant and drastic, momentous and unyielding, unworldly. I laugh, remembering those who say a walker’s path destroys the mountain, like the mountain even notices or cares. It is but a hair landing on ten thousand years. I cross this boulder field and it feels like Mars. Or perhaps it’s Tattooine and we are in search of the Jawas who sold us R2 and 3PO.
Ever mindful of the dryness on the dogs paws but he’s far more careful and balanced than I am. Its humans who come to injury here, not animals. The tors, if that is what they are, rise up like misplaced giants, though this is exactly where giants should be. The places where giants live.
But why are they here? Is this Arizona? It sure looks like a John Ford movie. I can’t recall a mountain top as enjoyable as this before.
I climb, the stone on my hands and under my feet. How many people have stood up here? Four or five today, maybe the same tomorrow. Into the tens at the weekend. Then maybe none for a few weeks depending on the weather. How many people have stood here in total? 10,000. Less. More. No one could possibly know. I am at least seven miles from a road and more like 10 or 12 from one that isn’t a single track. This is the way I walked, who knows how far the other way.
This is why I do these things.
Currently listening to: Volkolun: Only Trees Remember Centuries, black dark/pagan metal from Russia.
Memory sucks, do not rely on it. At least mine does. Recently I returned to a remote mountain range I had camped at some twelve years ago, possibly more. I thought I had remembered it well, but I hadn’t, which led to some unnecessary worry and some mistakes. I do a lot of walking and camping with Thorin for company and being a dog, he’s not very good at reading maps, sharing his opinion on routes or whether we’re in the correct car park. Though he is very good at finding his own route to water and easy paths around rocky scrambles.
I had a very different picture in my head of the layby I left my car in twelve years ago than the one I ended up at, and therefore spent the night convinced we were starting off in the wrong place and a morning move would be necessary. This turned out to be not true and I was actually in the right place. I had no memory of the four mile or so walk in, which ended up in us taking the wrong path and walking for the first twenty minutes the wrong way. Only when it turned to the right through some trees and cross another river did I stop to check and found my mistake. The 4:30am alarm was hardly worth it.
My recollections began roughly around that four mile mark by the ruin of an old shieling. For some reason I had tagged it in my failing memory bank as a possible site for a future campsite. Why here and not the vastly superior beach about 200m away I have no idea. The beach I don’t remember.
The things I mostly remember about the first trip are having no dog and squeezing two grown men into my tent, one of us knocking over the stove spilling the pasta, stupidly carrying a massive book on mountaineering in Scotland as my reading material, and not getting any views on top of the biggest mountain in the area because of the weather. My biggest memory is of the wind whipping up across the loch, the whole area being really boggy and being lucky to find the only dry patch late in the day, which was so close to a river it was practically in it.
This is a really remote part of the country sandwiched between two of the roads that go north and is well worth the long walk in for a camp. But this time we were heading for the two mountains that are most easily accessible, and I wasn’t planning on taking too long about it. Hence why I was so annoyed at the morning detour. But we made good time and I wanted to get some height in early which had the effect of making me feel really crap.
I got quite emotional walking up the first mountain and there was a number of factors playing into this. Erratic sleep patterns at the best of times, tiredness, an early rise, a long walk, a steep climb, no food and no coffee made it hard work. Gruelling almost, and I admit I struggled. The ever present cloud came in. I felt worse. I couldn’t see. I got into a spiral of negative ‘how come this always happens to me’ thought; ‘give me a break for once’ and ‘let me just see for a few seconds where I am going’. This was weird. Even ‘what the fuck am I doing this for’, this isn’t fun!
I missed my home, my family, wife, kids. Funny how I’d only been gone just over twelve hours or so and these were all the thoughts I was having. At this same time my friend was spending two weeks in a tent on a crazy cross Europe cycle race and I’m feeling this balls over a walk that should take me less time than a day’s work! All these mad feelings combined into one giant shitty whole.
In order to pull myself through this I stuck on the headphones and continued listening to my audiobook of The Fellowship of the Ring read by Andy Serkis which is absolutely fantastic. The descriptions of the hardships faced by the hobbits journey I imagined mirrored mine. I perked up. At least I could turn back, didn’t have the fate of the world around my neck and I wasn’t being pursued by nine black riders.
And so we continued, still not seeing anything but managing to find the cairns that marked the summit of the two mountains we had aimed for. After coming off the second mountain we could not find the path and came too far down the wrong side. It meant we had to go back up to a bealach that separates the mountains and I just about gave up then. The thought of ascending again was awful, I was just so tired, lost, confused, and discombobulated from being in the cloud. I was fed up that was it, fed up and needed a break from not being able to see a damn thing.
A glimpse of sun can be all you need to find that route. But of course, like Sam and Frodo, we had to keep going; to give up would be to die. Here at the end of all things. Well not quite, but still a hell of a long way from home. An endurance athlete I certainly am not.
Much later on, about three quarters of the way back to the car, as Elrond is extolling the virtues of Frodo, Bilbo and the others as they accept their perilous quest at Rivendell, I was very nearly crying. Clearly all too much for me that day but by that time I was close to completing my small journey. The Lord of the Rings movies have always comes the closest to making me cry since I first saw ET! The line in Return of the King when Aragorn says “My friends, you bow to no one.” is making me well up just writing it. What a scene! What an effort! The hobbits are the total underdogs for the whole series and yet they have pretty much saved the entire world from evil domination forever. Now that is a lasting legacy.
I was very glad to get back to the car and begin my return journey to my own shire. I could not get home fast enough. Next time I’m checking the weather and eating more food.
Currently listening to Otta by Solstafir which appears on the Last Wolf Outdoors Spotify Playlist
This walk began by Loch Cluanie at a place I’ve camped before. That was a few years ago now but it was a good spot by the bridge near the inn and I always remembered it as being the start of the ridge walk. It was the last place I camped with my dad so it holds a special little memory for me. The very first picture shared on the Last Wolf Instagram is of him pitching the tent there.
The other member of the Last Wolf 5:30am Club for this trip though was Stickless Steven. Steven because it’s his name and stick-less because, well he is. The importance of this will come into our story later. We had been up since about 4:45am, after not much sleep in the back of the cars. Steven was in his new car and every time he turned around the alarm went off. He slept with the keys in his hand and I thought he did really well to be so swift in switching it off whenever he moved. It was probably a good idea then that we had decided on sleeping at the layby end point, miles from anywhere, instead of the car park full of tourers and campers.
We made good time as you tend to do at that time of the morning. We crossed the bridge over the loch and fired up the track that eventually goes all the way to Loch Loyne. On the stretch before the Cluanie Lodge my black lab and veteran bagger Thorin spotted the deer herd ahead and went after them. They teamed up with another group until there was around thirty of them all heading the same direction. The lodge and huge estate is up for sale, if anyone has a spare three million pounds.
Branching off the main track to our hill path a few miles later, the start of the heavy work for the day was under way and it was still only just after six am. It was a hard pull getting up Creag a’ Mhaim and I felt all my 44 years but I took heart knowing that the next six wouldn’t involve such a long climb for this is a ridge walk. The Glen Shiel Ridge, 7 Munros in total, one of the finest in all of Scotland. Many times have I made the drive through the glen, the Road to the Isles, and looked up longingly at the ridge, but I had never been up onto it before.
We summited at 7:26 and saw the next one straight away. It was windy with a bit of cloud cover so we didn’t spend a lot of time on the tops. Or even in the bealachs; this wouldn’t be a day for hanging around. You need a lot of speed on this ridge to get it done in good time, especially if any mistakes were made, which are coming. The next couple of Munros were completed fairly easily, though by the third I could feel my legs starting to slow down considerably and the cloud really starting to come in and impede our progress.
Cloud cover is bizarre. I’ve written about it before (www.lastwolf.co.uk/cloud-cover/) and here it comes up as a topic again because the effect it has is so confusing and disorienting. Those who have attempted to traverse mountains encased in cloud will know what I mean and maybe will have made the same mistakes. Even armed with compass and map, your head does funny things and your body feels like it should be going one way when in actual fact it should be going the opposite. Three different compasses showed us three different norths. And none ‘felt’ right.
Unknowingly, we headed off the mountain, confusing Sgurr Coire na Feinne for the fifth Munro and only the briefest of glimpses of a tiny truck driving along the A87 made me notice we were heading the wrong way. This is a recognised route for the mountain so the worst that would’ve happened would be that we were halfway between both our cars and only completed half the mountains of the ridge but it was annoying to have to climb back up a top we had already summited, expending valuable energy and rapidly killing our aching legs.
Then even more confusingly it happened again. On a rain covered summit we missed the path leading to the next mountain and mistakenly thought it was the last one. By this time we were done in. Wet from rain, constant cloud not letting us see where were going, aching legs, the brief sun glimpse that had warmed us briefly had seen seemed a long time ago. Metallica took us up Sgurr an Lochain and Stickless Steven’s phone confirmed where we were. One more still to do. As if mocking us for that whole section of the ridge we hadn’t seen, the cloud cleared enough for us to see where we had come from and finally where we were going, the last mountain of the day.
The walk up Creag nan Damh wasn’t as bad as I had pictured. We just wanted down by this point and maybe this thought kept us pushing on. I was leaning heavily on my stick, it helping greatly with the downhill sections and loose rocks. Stickless Steven did not have any of this extra help, but then I do have nearly ten years on him. The stick was to prove invaluable in the next section though when we came of the top far too early. I blame my eagerness for us to get back, exhaustion and the want to never do anymore uphill as long as I live on us taking what looked to be a path, and halfway down realised it was just a load of scree-fall. Dangerous ankle breakers for sure but there was no way we could climb back up with our shot legs, and we could see where we needed to be so decided to continue down a steep rocky and grassy hillside that has likely never seen any human footprints before.
Following the stream, the Am Fas-Allt to the path we should’ve been on, the stick played a major life saving role in crossing the river many times, flinging it back and forth so we could both balance safely over the slippery stones. We passed a waterfall that isn’t on the OS map. Eventually getting to the path, it really wasn’t much better than coming off the mountain freehand, we had lost time yes but suffered no injuries and saw a completely untouched area usually only seen by deer.
It was a long walk, and reminded me of one of the perils of Scottish hillwalking, getting lost and how good it was to have someone as an extra pair of eyes, to bounce ideas off and reassure you that this is the right decision. And as for the stick, man the stick is just so useful. I can’t recommend one enough. Exhausted, we made for home, the thought of a four hour drive wasn’t a good one.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this shit is easy. Mountain climbers, proper climbers, by that I mean the folks that spend the entire day on the end of a rope to go up the north face, might say that this is just walking. Which it is. I’ve only done a handful of actual ‘climbs’ in my life. These were mostly scrambles, but I have done a fair bit of abseiling in the past and some rope work on Skye. Big thank you to Dan for that; I don’t need to go near the Inaccessible Pinnacle again now, unless I really want to.
But this mountain walking, it is still hard work. I’m looking for the easiest way up for sure, but let me tell you this; there is no easy mountain to walk up. If there was, it wouldn’t be called a fucking mountain. It would most likely be a field. Despite what Google tells you, you still have to gain height at some point. Regardless of how far above sea level the starting point is or how gradual the gradient is, it is still hard work. You need endurance, you need to be able to breathe properly and keep your footing. It is helpful to know where to step and what to avoid, when to stop and for how long, all the while exhaling like a bison. In Scotland there is the added pressures of completely unreliable and unpredictable weather which is usually the reason mountain rescue are called out so often.
I prefer to use the word straightforward about a mountain rather than saying it is ‘easy’ to hike up. A straightforward mountain will generally have a defined path for most of the ascent. A path that is clearly marked and easy to follow immediately from the accessible and signposted car park. There will be zero chance of walking off route, even when covered in cloud. There might even be a river, dam, road, pipeline or fence visible to keep you on the right track. I’m actually all for signposts or cairn markers, on the more popular hills anyway, so the straightforward mountain may have one or two of these as well.
In my opinion all this adds up to what would be an ‘easy’ mountain. But herein lies the problem; the effort is still required. The hard work still must be done. Many times have I been asked ‘what’s the easiest mountain to climb?’ by someone who has barely done anything physical in their lives. This is usually asked as if it’s going to be a breeze and the key is simply in find the easiest one. Going by the amount of results a quick search for ‘easy Munros’ gets you, many other people think the same way.
Using my straightforward definition, a mountain like Ben Lomond would be easiest. Its relatively close to the central belt, has a good car park, an obvious starting route, a well maintained path pretty much to the summit with lots of other people around on it too, Loch Lomond keeping you right by always being on the left… But it’s still going to take around five hours, most likely three of which will be constantly uphill as it’s nearly 1000m high. If you’re not used to that, or at the very least prepared for it, you’re going to feel like your lungs have collapsed and turning back will become very appealing.
However, in saying all that, anyone can do it. There’s no magic, just the impetus to give it a go. If you are unfit, start out small with regular local walks, small hills; whatever is available and within range of your home. Just do it and do it often. Or, if you have always fancied Schiehallion, pick a day and give it a shot. Just make sure you do your research and stay safe. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t, but let’s not pretend that it’s easy either.
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This summer I learned a few things from my most recent mountain trips. The main one is nothing short of a revelation, and something I wish I’d done three or even four years ago. This has completely revolutionised how I visit the mountains. Bear in mind that I am a father of two very young children so this is based on their needs and my own desire to be with my family, yet still indulge my outdoor and hillwalking passion at the same time. I’m going to let you in on my secret. Shhh, don’t just tell anyone…I call it…Sleeping in the Car.
Sleeping in the Car is a lot comfier and straightforward than I thought it was going to be. I get way more sleep than I expected using my rucksack as a pillow and with my legs bent all night. It helps that I am very tired and usually need the sleep, so I use this to my advantage.
Now, I’ve slept in my car many times in the past, countless times, so this is not exactly new to me. In the past, the cars I had were much bigger and there wasn’t a dog taking up the boot either. It is the way I use Sleeping in the Car that is new. I’d leave late, waiting for the girls to be properly fed, bathed and bedded but would still take my time getting north. I’d stop at a garage for coffee and a walk somewhere for the dog. Then I’d park up at the bottom of the mountain I intended to ascend in the morning, get as comfy as possible and go to sleep. I call this Guerrilla Hillwalking.
I pack the tent anyway, but usually I found that I couldn’t be bothered looking for a spot at around about midnight when I didn’t have to, and on a few occasions the midges were absolutely louping anyway. Pitching a tent in the middle of a midge infestation is horrendous. It’s almost as bad as taking one down in the morning, which is a very special kind of torture. Driving along Highland roads late at night was great though. Very few cars around at all.
The alarm goes off at half four, so by quarter to five we’re out and away. One morning we summited at exactly 7:00am and passed the first early morning walker heading upwards just after eight. We were already on the forest track, a mile to the car. To say this was satisfying as fuck is a total understatement. I had been eaten at by the clegs constantly for the last half hour or so of descent and it was only the constant movement that kept them off more. The dreaded midges were ok that day; we possibly managed to miss them but the clegs were out like the Luftwaffe and I was glad to be heading. That day I was home whilst the youngest was still having her morning nap.
So, for the time being at least, this is my new way of getting to the mountains. It’s worked well for me, ensuring I get time with my daughters, see them off to bed, yet still getting the time I need for my own trips, to replenish my soul and clear my mind and do all the other wonderful things that ascending mountains does for your health and well-being.
My point is not, ‘you should be sleeping in your car like me’ though. Only this; do what needs to be done. If you’re passionate about something, you should find a way to do it. Everyone is busy, but squeeze it in somewhere, somehow. Make it work for you. This fits my life right now; it might not in a year, but then I’ll need to adapt and find a new way. But there is always a way. Find yours.
Currently listening to: Little Richard: The Reprise Years
The plan was to get up two mountains. Beinn a Chaorainn and Beinn Teallach sit close to Spean Bridge and even closer to Roybridge where I had stayed only two weeks before. Leaving the car at just before 7:00am meant I had a good jump on my normal start time of 9:00am. Also by sleeping at the car park I was a lot more refreshed than if I had just done an early morning three hour drive to get there.
Some of you may have caught the video I made on IGTV of the morning views during the ascent. If not, you didn’t miss much; there was none. I only got the briefest of glimpses of neighbouring Beinn Teallach before it disappeared into the misty morning. And it kept coming, the result being that when the dog and I summited Beinn a Chaorainn around 10:00am we couldn’t see a thing. We were completely inside a cloud.
Now I knew this cloud would burn off as the sun got higher and the day went on, but it didn’t look like it was moving anytime soon. After a snack at the cairn and a few biscuits for Thorin it was time to move on. We headed in the direction we needed to go in order to reach the bealach, the pass or part of the mountain that connects it to others; in this case the elusive Beinn Teallach.
We walked for a 100m or so and then discovered that we were far too close to the crags on the eastern slopes than I wanted to be. I made the decision then to return to the cairn while we still could. Once there I sat down and wrote this in my notebook. I type it up here unedited.
“Sitting here writing in the summit cairn of Beinn a Chaorainn, part of the west Monadhliath group. The cloud cover hasn’t improved, although I can see round about me at the top here, a little further down where we need to find the path is thick with cloud. It is impossible to see where you are going. I have my compass but I’m still not risking it until I see. May have to leave Beinn Teallach till another day. I know from experience not to push this. It is easy to get disorientated and lost in this cover. I know it will lift later but don’t really want/can’t wait around. Thorin gets restless too. Climbing a mountain directly from a road or obvious landmark is one thing but trying to find paths or bealachs or waypoints in thick cloud is another. Your head starts to mess with you and you make mistakes. I’m not into that.”
I’ve walked many mountains in fog and cloud, and I’m sure I will again but the experience I refer to in my notes there is from one particular day on one of the mountains around Bridge of Orchy. I forget which one it was so long ago, but on the summit plateau a cloud turned what had been a straightforward day into a possible missing person and dog case. I kept on tromping along thinking I was going the right way to get back to the road, trusting in my inner compass which is ridiculously good. Or so I believed.
Luckily I bumped into some other walkers coming from the opposite direction and we talked about where they had come from. I said I was about to head downwards that way and pointed into oblivion. They told me in no uncertain terms should I be going the way I intended. If I was to put their speech into the written word it would look like this. “NO DON’T GO THAT WAY YOU IDIOT!!!” Turns out that the edges and cliffs I was cleverly avoiding by my route down were right in the direction I was heading. Had I continued, I would either be dead or severely injured with no chance of rescue; or if I was lucky, wandering completely lost in the wilds of Rannoch Moor.
You learn from your mistakes. I was lucky I met those folk. I hot footed it in the right direction, the opposite from where I was going and descended the mountain as quick as I could. I came out miles away from where I started but at least I knew where I was. This is how I ended doing a part of the West Highland Way, completely by accident.
Returning to the original story, I made the decision to turn back and descend the mountain. I could still picture the way, knew where I had come from and how to get back. Nevertheless the mind games still continued as I tried unsuccessfully to look for the markers I had seen on the way up. I knew I would struggle in finding that route to the next mountain whilst inside a cloud. I’d just have to come back another day and that’s not really a bad thing. Within an hour and a half we were back down on the forest track and the mountain was clearing. But that head thing where I wasn’t convinced myself that I was on the right route was still with me during most of that time.
Had I been younger and more reckless I definitely would have kept going but I know I made the right choice. Not having anyone to bounce ideas off didn’t help but I’m happy to go back and get up Beinn Teallach another time. In this case the early bird most certainly did not catch the worm.