My favourite mountain

Ever since I first climbed to the top of Braeriach at midsummer in 1986, it has been my favourite mountain. The views of it from Speyside are fascinating. It seems to look down on the flat forests and pastures of Speyside like a wise old man with many faces, whose expressions are determined by the weather and the extent of snow in the northern corries. The views from the summit – over the Lairig Ghru to Ben Macdui, south into Deeside, along the ridge to the twin peaks of Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak, and back over the western shoulders to Sgor Gaoith and the distant horizon beyond – are breathtaking. I have been to the top of Braeriach several times (never with cancer) and have yet to experience a mountain to match it.

Or at least, so it was before I started my current campaign to climb the  Munros. During my lifetime I have now been to the summit of more than 100, 80 of these with cancer within the last two years or so. I have seen the summits of more than half of the peaks in the top fifty – those over 1100 meters, more than half of the top seventy – those over 3500ft, and a reasonable sample of the rest. The only major ranges I have not climbed in or through are the Mamores, the Fannichs and the Cuilins.

The reasons why Braeriach is my favourite mountain are not entirely geographical. I climbed it at important moments in my life. It was the first mountain I attempted to climb with cancer; because it was my favourite mountain I wanted to have climbed at least this before the disease took me. This was still in the time when I really believed that my death was imminent. I was with a large party and I was not among those who made it to the summit. If the choice of favourite were to be made now purely by geographical criteria, I would have a lot more experience to assess, and Braeriach’s position might be in danger.

In no particular order, some new contenders:

Once upon a time, on a journey by bike homewards from the far north I had to choose at Spean Bridge whether to take the road through Laggan and then down the A9 corridor, or to follow the coast and climb through Glen Coe to Orchy and then to squiggle my way through the glens of Bredalbane and Stirlingshire towards Edinburgh. I chose the Laggan Road because I thought it would be shorter. It was already mid afternoon and there was a strong rainy wind at my back, which blew me all the way up the hill until it was time to find somewhere to sleep for the night. As it turned out, I found a sheltered clearing in the woods behind the eastern beach of Loch Laggan. In the search, I investigated a track to a derelict farm surrounded by sheep and short cropped grass, but rejected this because it was too exposed and sheepy. It was not until this summer on my way up Creag Meagaidh that I realised that the visitor centre used to be that derelict farm. I had already decided that good camping would be possible on the plateau behind the nick in the ridge called the window. I was right, but scrambling up the loose steep slopes of screes and deluged rocks, mud and melted snow towards the window was more of a struggle than I had expected. All the way, surrounded by massive cliffs and buttresses above a perfect corrie lochan.

The weather was also perfect so after I pitched my tent with a view north west to Knoydart, Kintail and Affric I sprang up to the summit unencumbered by any rucksack and joyous.

The next day I followed the underside of the ridge of the mountain on the northern side, past melting snow banks and down a glen to the back of Beinn Teallach, which I climbed by following beautiful grassy gullies intermingled with boulders and craggy outcrops at a very pleasing gradient.

The views from the summit of this, the smallest Munro, are magnificent! The entire Nevis Ranges, the Mamores, Glen Coe, Loch Treig, the Ben Alder ranges. The drop down to the bealach to Beinn a Chaorainn is steep but short. The plod up the north west shoulder of Beinn a Chaorainn is long and steep, but once up on the plateau, the walking is easy and pleasant with only a slight drop to a bealach to Creag Meagaidh. This is a massive plateau surrounded by cliffs and corries with many shoulders and ridges. At the summit I met some friends. We shared biscuits and tea and watched dark clouds building up over the Grey Corries and Loch Treig, then decided to get off the hill before the rain came down. We said our farewells on a big snowbank. Just as I got back into my tent, the rain came down. The next morning I packed up and climbed up Stob Poite Coire Ardair and walked along the ridge to Carn Liath before descending into the regenerating forest of Aberarder.

In the summer of 2015 I decided that I wanted to revisit my favourite part of the country by bicycle and to bag the most northerly Munros. The weather was not quite what I had hoped for and my ascents of both Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope were wet and windy and afforded no views at all. The day after I climbed Ben Hope I was storm-bound in Durness as an extreme southwesterly flew past. The views from Conival and Ben More Assynt were better but not perfect, as clouds floated past off the ocean at about 3000ft. At the end of the day I climbed these, I packed up and cycled towards Ledmore where I took the left hand fork down to Strath Oykel. At Oykel Bridge, I turned right up an alleged public road, the surface of which was no better than many estate tracks, first following Glen Einig through a mixture of plantation and indigenous forest, past the old schoolhouse at Duag Bridge and then left towards Strath Mulzie, where indeed, just before the lodge there is a sign indicating that here is the end of the public road. I cycled past the lodge, following the track until I found a nice grassy place on the banks of the river on which to pitch my tent.

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The next day was cloudless but for wisps of mist burning off the point of Creag an Duine. Even from this advanced basecamp in Strath Mulzie it is a long walk in to the first slopes of Seana Bhraigh – reputedly one of the most inaccessible and isolated peaks in the country. In guidebooks, a route is described up the front of the very pointy Creag an Duine, but I could not make anything out from the path into Coire Mhor. So I walked past the bothy and round the end of the loch, and then over an ancient forest of bogwood to what looked like a grassy ascent all the way to the point. It was steep and it was a very long slog, but it was grassy all the way to the top.

When I reached the top, I freaked completely. I had emerged onto a series of flat slabs with a great deal of air on all sides but the one I had climbed, and the ridge to the main plateau of the mountain was blocked by an enormous pinnacle with no way round on either side, and no way over the top that made me feel good. Perhaps if I had stopped to take stock properly of the situation, I might have plucked up the courage to traverse the pinnacle, but I freaked and retraced my steps down the slope and then round the underside of the summit pinnacle, looking for a way to traverse an increasingly complex arrangement of cliffs, badly angled slabs and outcrops, until I found a gravelly gully up and onto the plateau. I still do not remember much of this, except that there were moments when I thought I was stuck with no way either up or down. Evidently though I overcame them. After this, the walk to the summit of the mountain round a perfect corrie was bliss. And the views to Assynt, Beinn Dearg, the Fannichs, Fisherfield and beyond spectacular. The walk out was long, but I was glad I had such a comfortable camping place where I could eat and sleep, rather than have to walk back to a car parked at the end of the stony public road and then drive a long way home.

At midsummer this year I completed the Mullardoch Dozen – mammoth journey described here. The westernmost peak on this journey is another of the reputedly least accessible in the country. From my camp in Gleann a Coinich, the traverse of the most westerly three of the dozen was easy in a day, but it would not have been possible at all from any road end. Although I did not see much of it, while I was getting lost on its complex summit I concluded that Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan is a serious candidate for anybody’s favourite mountain.

It is actually two peaks joined together by the merest slither of a ridge, each of which consists of several ridges coming to a point. If the weather had been more clement I would perhaps have seen this, and not scampered over the narrow ridge between the two peaks, not come off the summit on the wrong ridge, not then had to traverse a marvelous corrie to get back onto the ridge to Mullach na Dhieragain and not experienced the mountain’s general awesomeness.

The weather was not good for taking photos, but I hope that one day I can return here in better weather to further investigate this fascinating mountain.

Finally, at least for the moment, Cruach Ardrain and its associated cluster. I climbed all five, with two nights out, in May this year during a period of glorious sunshine, clear blue skies and no wind. The first night I camped by the merest trickle of a spring on the underside of the crag of Stob Glas, facing towards a gap in the ridge, with a view to the gully I was going to climb the next day on the way up Beinn a Chroin.

There was no water noise, no wind, only the occasional croak from a contented grouse or raven. Silence. For the first time in I do not know how long, I experienced real silence. A complete absence of any noise at all. This experience of absolute silence made me realise immediately that it really is a very rare event. The only chaos and disturbance was in my mind. Nothing else was happening. This was a precious opportunity to reflect and meditate on the eternal verities and to dismiss most of what goes on in my head as irrelevant. Not only this, I was able here to glimpse for the first time what is described in Buddhist teaching as voidness – that individual existence has no substance and is but one of an infinitude of perspectives, a fact which, far from rendering it unimportant or worthless, serves only to underline what is known in Buddhist teaching as this precious human birth. Experiencing these mountains in this quiet will remain with me for the rest of my life.

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