After a relatively long break from being in the mountains, spending a few weeks up in the Scottish highlands was an absolute treat. Some of my best mountain days were had during this period, with some memorable peaks and many long days in the hills.
It would be quite extensive to write a full trip report, so instead this will read more like a photo journal with notes and commentary alongside.
Aviemore to Braemar on the Lairig Ghru
The fairly mellow route through the Rothiemurchus on the Lairig Ghru made for comfortable hiking, and a gentle re-introduction to the Cairngorms. An evening breeze and gorgeous sunset made my first night back in the outdoors very welcoming.
The conditions going up to Braeriach the next morning all showed strong signs of a temperature inversion. Little to no wind, fog in the valley, and glimpses of light coming through the cracks in the clouds.
To be greeted with an inversion up in the mountains is one of the greatest experiences there is. The Cairngorm’s gentle slopes poked out of the carefully resting blanket of cloud to create some epic panoramas.
An Ultra in the Cairngorms
One of my goals for this trip was to get in a big, long hill run. Depending on the weather and how my body was feeling, the 50km distance was what I had in mind. The plan was to combine the Breariach ridge traverse with a summit of Cairngorm, which would then be followed by a long stretch from Loch Etchachan back to camp near Derry Lodge.
The weather report was pretty iffy for the end of the week, which is when I originally planned to attempt it. With a bit of thinking ahead and a few extra hiking miles I reached my Derry Lodge start point earlier in the week. Morning inversions had been on the forecast for the past few days, where each misty morning had been followed by blistering sunshine.
To make the most of the cool fog in the valley I set off just before sunrise. Unfortunately my feet were pretty wrecked from the days prior, since they had involved big miles and a (relatively) heavy pack. The first few kilometres gave the impression of another misty morning, with a damp fog overhead. As the Lairig Ghru started to head alongside the slopes of Càrn a’ Mhàim, the clouds broke to reveal a golden morning light.
The calm morning was almost too pleasant, since it was soon a stark contrast to the gruelling climbs that were about to be endured. Looking towards Cnapan nan Clach and the Falls of Tarf revealed a stunning morning, the tail end of the pink sunrise catching the wispy clouds.
As I rounded the corner that reveals Devils Point, Cairn Toul, and Braeriach, the true scale of my endeavour became apparent. A trail runner from Southern England doesn’t get any proper hill practice in, since the “hills” rarely reach more than 100m in ascent.
I dipped back down into the fog, across the Dee and passed a few tents near Corrour Bothy. Little did the sleeping inhabitants know of the awesome morning weather conditions that were taking shape around the Cairngorms.
The first true test followed, a steep ascent up Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir. Rather, a horrible, lung and calf depleting struggle up to Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir.
However, upon reaching the summit, the joys of running in the mountains came into full effect. Surely it doesn’t get any better than this. A 10km or so ridge, all above 1000m, overlooking the Cairngorm Plateau. The clouds began to wake from their slumber, lifting from the valleys below. A combination of smothered peaks and rising clouds scattered the horizon in all directions. A magnificent sight.
Passing through Chalamain Gap was when the affects of the big descent made their way to my quads, which were screaming for relief. Thankfully the Chalamain Gap boulder field gave a well received opportunity to slow down a bit and listen to the body. The conclusion from talking to the body was that the legs were absolutely shattered and the feet were already knackered. Thankfully my spirits were lifted after a brief chat with a hiker, who was more impressed by my early 5 o’clock start than the distance I had travelled!
The relaxing trail after Chalamain Gap made for steady running on a somewhat flatter path. Unfortunately this was fairly short lived, as Cairngorm began to loom from above, with Fiacaill Ridge spearing out in front. This was going to be one gross slog.
The climb up Cairngorm was probably the low point, despite taking me to the geographical high point. I was really destroyed physically and had been out in the mountains for several hours already. It’s fair to say I had underestimated the terrain and demanding nature of the route. Now 30km into the run, the hardest section was complete. The problem being, I was depleted, with 20km of mountain running ahead of me. Time to turn on the afterburners.
Somehow the legs continued to function, most of the time with one in front of the other. Despite a few stubbed toes here and there, the path alongside Loch Etchachan was a chance to grind in a few more kilometres. I passed the Fords of Avon Refuge Shelter thankful to be only 10km from the end. Only 100m of elevation left and a steady downhill.
The sight of ‘home’ was a huge relief. It was over. My little white tent between the trees was housing a whole heap of comforts. A banana, a salad, and some mega tortillas waiting to be devoured.
And before I knew it I arrived back at the bridge to Derry Lodge where I started. All 51 kilometres complete.
In theory I was back in time for lunch, with the whole afternoon to seize. In reality it was spent with the legs up in the sun. A fine reward.
Ever since my original plans for this year were scuppered I set the goal of running an ultra marathon. Definitely at the lower end in distance to be categorised as an ultra marathon, but to me, a huge goal that I’d been working towards. To achieve this really meant a lot, and for sure one of my best mountains days to date.
Recovery and Relaxation
What followed after the big mountain run was some fiercer weather. – A contrast to the glorious days prior. Some slightly shorter days and easier climbs gave the opportunity for the muscles to recover and feet to repair themselves. They’d been put through a lot, and the rocky trails were a sharp change to the well trodden footpaths of the South.
With the midges starting to re-enter the equation, the tent’s bug net inner was a safe haven from the passing weather fronts and seemingly increasing midge pressure.
Back to the Highlands
Somehow I found myself back in the Cairngorms for a couple of days, so made the most of the weather and high-camped on the Braeriach ridge. The midge free plateau was a safe haven for relaxation and the blue skies were an absolute treat.
After spending some time in the Torridon hills back in January, the grandeur won me over. The weather was a bit iffy for Liathach so I went for a hill run from where I’d camped in Coire Fionnaraich instead.
The route takes the bealach beside Coire Fionnaraich down to Ling Hut, round the back of Liathach beside the Ahmainn Coire Mhic Nobuil, through Torridon village then back over Bealach na Lice to where I’d camped. Around 35km and 1200m of ascent.
Torridon To Knoydart on the Cape Wrath Trail
The Cape Wrath Trail can be a sensational hike, with incredible views and stunning vistas. Scenery so stark and immense you’ll be hard pressed to find a better long distance trail in the UK. Unfortunately, when wet, it’s a bit of a gross slog. Bogs and river crossings make the route incredibly treacherous and challenging.
The second evening of walking the trail was particularly humid, and it wasn’t long before the weather had closed in. The torrential rain came down in full force. Scotland suddenly started to look very different, with peaks now shrouded in cloud and rivers bursting at their seams. The safe havens of bothies are (justifiably) shut due to the pandemic, so walking past the dry temples of warmth was pretty crushing.
There were a couple of long days from Strathcarron to Shiel Bridge where it didn’t stop raining. The head was down, questioning why on Earth I do this. There were several tough river crossings and countless boggy patches around Maol Buidhe.
Thankfully the clouds finally used up all their water reserves and blue sky broke through the rising cumulonimbus clouds. The Falls of Glomach marked the turning point for the weather, where finally I could take off my waterproofs. Hallelujah.
The remainder of the Cape Wrath Trail to Kinloch Hourn was far more enjoyable than the days prior, with adverse weather only occuring at The Forcan Ridge, where hail sheared in the wind over the bealach.
A couple of slightly sketchy river crossings later I found my way down to Kinloch Hourn, where I was reunited with some friends. These particular friends didn’t have antlers. However they did have a bag of food for me, which was extremely well received.
Ladhar Bheinn Summit Attempt
The food bearing friends and I were planning to summit the most Westerly Munroe on mainland Scotland; Ladhar Bheinn. (Pronounced Lar-ven) Shaped like a hoof, it’s a fantastic range that rises out the side of Loch Hourn. Some say this is Scotland’s most beautiful mountain, and it’s hard to disagree. Ladhar Bheinn is located in the deep depths of Knoydart, so its inaccessibility makes for an epic expedition.
We spent two nights in Barrisdale, hoping for a weather window to summit the mountain.
Unfortunately the bad weather from the days prior only seemed to get worse. What was previously wind and rain turned into a gale and hail. Despite the increasingly harsh conditions we went for it anyway, only to make it to the first peak of the main ridge before turning back. It was tough going and the wind speeds up top were significant. We decided that this is a mountain best kept for easier conditions. A long, dry summers day or an ascent in winter would reveal this mountain’s true charm. Ladhar Bheinn still left a great impression on us, and certainly lived up to its reputation.
These two images are courtesy of Dima, who risked his Fuji in the harsh conditions.
After seeing the forecast for the next few days we decided to leave Knoydart while we could. The weather was somehow about to get even worse, with rivers and land slides becoming a real problem. Those that were still out on the Cape Wrath Trail at the time would have had to really dig deep to get through. We saw a couple of Cape Wrath-ers walking out along the main road from Kinloch Hourn, which suggests some of the river crossings I had crossed days prior had now become impassable.
Stob Gabhar, Glen Etive and Glen Coe
The worst of the downpours had passed so I headed back out to Stob Gabhar via the West Highland Way. Stob Gabhar is a diverse mountain housing one of the greatest corries in the Central Highlands. Stob Gabhar’s Aonach Eagach was an enjoyable little ridge and made for some fun rock hopping. Finally, the weather started to clear up and the clouds began rising off the surrounding mountains. Was this a permanent change in weather at last?
The Lairig Gartain from Glen Etive to the base of Buachaille Etive Mòr and Buachaille Etive Beag was epic. These two monolithic mountains were simply immense up close.
Ring of Steall from Kinlochleven
The brief sunny spells of days prior were short lived, as the rain, wind and fog returned to the Mamores. What was meant to be an airy ridge run on the ring of steall ended up being a wet slippery traverse along what could have been any route in the Western Highlands. The mist didn’t pass so this ended up being another of those routes to come back to in good weather.
Ben Nevis via the CMD Arete
After some soggy, windy walks in the highlands, I was finally greeted with a spell of perfect weather for the CMD Arete. Some friends and I took a route from the Youth Hostel that cuts across Allt a’ Mhuilinn and meets the track up to Càrn Mòr Dearg. This was the final glimpse of summer sun and a mighty send off. A ridge on the grandest of scales that makes the surroundings seem miniscule. The cascading Steall Falls look like a trickle, and before we knew it we had made it up the highest point in the British Isles.