Munros since diagnosis #148 to #150
12:20 – Carn Dearg (M225), 3100ft, 945m
14:40 – Carn Sgulain (M271), 3018ft, 920m
15:20 – A’ Chailleach (M251), 3051ft, 930m
After the splendour of the Ben Lui traverse I was looking for a quiet way of smashing one-fifty summits. The three Newtonmore Munros seemed like the most straightforward option. Although not a significant climb, they have the reputation for being boggy and boring, and when combined into a day’s journey, long and relentlessly exposed to whatever weather is flying over the Monadhliath plateau from the encircling giants of Cairngorm, Laggan, Nevis and Affric.
Near the centre of Newtonmore, an unsignposted side street called Glen Road turns west, and very quickly climbs south and west again round the hump of the hill behind the village, passing assorted cottages and smallholdings and suddenly coming out of the woods to gain access to open countryside. It is Newtonmore’s little secret. I parked at the end of a road flanked by pastures scattered with dogs out for their morning walk, beside several vehicles all of which left again with dogs before I began my own constitutional.
Reports of the time needed for this circuit vary considerably; although it requires no scrambling, involves no steep gradients and presents no navigational challenges, it is nearly 16 miles, often over rough pathless terrain. Intending to follow the route described at Walking Highlands, I left the car just before 9:45 and followed a good level track until crossing Allt Fiondraigh on a wobbly wooden bridge and climbing through a gash in the ridge towards Glen Ballach and the corrie in front of Carn Dearg. There was a bit of a path, sometimes, and it was indeed rather wet underfoot, but it did not hold me back.
On the way up the grassy bank towards the bealach between Carn Dearg and Carn Ban, it became clear that the hazy morning sunshine, which had promised so much had now been obscured by thickening high cloud, pushed on by a stiff south westerly and carrying sporadic spatterings of tiny snowflakes and ice crystals. Before I reached the plateau, I had lunch and prepared myself for wind. At the bealach there were splendid views towards Creag Meagaidh, Laggan and Ben Alder, still buried under substantial snowpacks and partially obscured by new squalls.
I reached the summit of Carn Dearg in just over two and a half hours, compleating thus all three CarnDeargs. The cornices on the east of the ridge are sagging and collapsing impressively, but beyond that there was not much to see. From the subsidiary top of Carn Ban, there is a line of metal fence posts stretching along the plateau to the summit of Carn Sgulain. There is also a bit of a path that follows this and cuts off the corners.
But despite being flat, it is difficult terrain, mixing jagged rocks, squelchy bog, peat hag and thick moss, with little in the way of shelter. And it is high, never dropping below 850 meters, except very slightly, at two clefts in the peat hag on either side of Carn Sgulain – which presumably justify its inclusion in Munro’s Tables. Thankfully I had the wind at my back for most of the walk and found places in the lee of outcrops and boulders to rest along the way and contemplate this view of not very much at all.
The summit of Carn Sgulain is no more than the difficult-precisely-to-locate, highest point of an insignificant lump at the edge of a featureless, seldom visited wilderness. The summit of A’ Chailleach is a little more prominent, with a substantial cairn, a bit of a cliff on the eastern edge and views into Strathspey and towards the Cairngorms. But neither is much to write home about. The walk from the first to the last summit was three hours, and slightly less straightforward than I had anticipated, with only occasional glimpses back to Carn Dearg and beyond to assuage the relentless battering from ice needles on the wind, jagged rock and black peat.
The descent from A’ Chailleach is over wet ground, with splendid views into Strathspey, more or less in a straight line down to the floor of the glen, where it picks up a good track back to the start. Just after the steepest section, there is a squiggly tin bothy with benches and a table, wood panel walls and a chimney with a supply of firewood, but no stove. I sat here for half an hour refreshing myself as rain pinged sporadically on the bothy before finally squelching down to the track. I was back at the car at about quarter past five as several parties of dogs were running about chaotically, either waiting for their evening walk or just coming back from it, bringing the time for the circuit to only seven and a half hours, including pauses for reflection and refreshment.
At the beginning of my journey through the Munros, I often climbed mountains and wrote of these adventures specifically in relation to overcoming the challenges of having been diagnosed with cancer. I experienced what I called cancer days, when my mind was so full of the jumbled, unwordable mess of furious emotions the diagnosis brings, that I had to get out and up to a summit, often simply to prove to myself that I am alive and able to do this, and always to remind myself that I am extremely privileged to be alive at all in this beautiful world, thereby bringing me back down to earth and away from the nonsense inside my head. Since my change of tone and style, and my endeavours not to give the disease any solidity, I have been reluctant to describe such days, but they still take place.
Today was such a day. Deliberately, I chose to climb three obscure peaks at the edge of nowhere that people only climb because they are in the tables, on a Tuesday; knowing that I would meet nobody, that I would have no company to distract me from my demons and lots of space to chase them down, knowing that I would experience unmediated exposure to whatever elemental forces the planet had on offer.
After the joy of Ben Lui, today was the perfect anticlimax; a reminder that even allegedly boring Munros present their unique challenges.