A Night Out in Cluanie

Munros since diagnosis #155 to #159

9th June

14:30 – Carn Ghluasaid (M203), 3140ft, 957m

15:30 – Sgurr nan Conbhairean (M044), 3638ft, 1109m

16:15 – Sail Chaorainn (M133), 3287ft, 1002m

10th June

09:30 – A’ Chralaig (M033), 3675ft, 1120m

10:30 – Mullach Fraoch-coire (M049), 3615ft, 1102m

Munro bagging is fundamentally a matter of logistics, the complexities of which expand as fewer remain on the list to be bagged.

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With experience, pouring over maps, reading walk reports, consulting guidebooks and surfing mountain websites, it becomes straightforward enough judging how long it will take to climb any combination of summits – given favourable conditions. Which of course excludes journeys to starting points, often located at the end of squiggly roads on the other side of the country. Inevitably the peaks to be climbed from the more accessible starting points are predominantly blue on my bagging map, while the furthest away remain red. The country becomes a patchwork of plans and possibilities, of journey times, walking hours, nights out, adventures and expeditions. All of which waiting for windows of opportunity between work commitments and bad weather to be realised.

This cluster is usually bagged in two separate days of about eight or nine hours apiece, each with a similar character involving an initial climb onto a summit ridge followed by a traverse out and back along a northern spur. All five could also be bagged in one go with a night out, fewer hours walking and a traverse along the less frequented ridge between the eastern three and the western pair. The only slight issue might be whether or not it would be possible to organise it all at a weekend, in between finishing work on Friday evening and starting again on Monday morning.

All went well. I finished work, drove home via the shops, packed and prepared, got a good night’s sleep, ate a hearty breakfast, fed the cat and was underway sometime after eight in the morning. Along the way, I was occasionally encumbered by the usual vehicular stupidities – elderly well-to-do tourists in luxury rentals driving with excessive care seem to be joining the summer peloton of motorhomes, coaches and caravans. Nevertheless, I was walking away from the wild car park at Lundie on the north shore of Loch Cluanie at about twelve thirty.

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It was warm and the air thick. The stalker’s path up Carn Ghluasaid is good and despite the weight of my pack, it did not feel heavy. Clouds hung above the summits broiling the sunny air, rumblings of thunder echoed from the west. As I gained height, I could see down Glen Shiel sheets of rain and shafts of sunlight. Further up I could see the storm approaching north of Kintail. The air cooled. Intermittent drops of rain plopped onto the stony ground.

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Suddenly a crack almost above me and the skies opened, throwing down a hail of little balls of ice. In an ecstasy of fumbling I managed to don my waterproofs and seal my pack against the conflagration before either became waterlogged. I was nearly at the summit. It occurred to me that I was now walking along an exposed series of flat shoulders and round ridges during a lightning storm, presenting thus a prominent route to earth for static charges. I did not tarry at the summit, which was becoming garnished with muddy ice ball soup. On the path along to the second summit I became aware of the trajectory of the storm. When it passed directly overhead I ducked down, as if this might decrease the chance I become a lightning conductor.

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By the time I reached the summit of Sgurr nan Conbhearain the storm had passed, opening up bits of sky to sunshine and starting up processes of evaporation and cloud formation. I left my pack at a fork in the path just north of the summit and yomped out the spur to the summit of Sail Chaorainn and back while clouds boiled up in the glens below, pouring over bealachs, clinging to pinnacles and ridges in the distance.

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Now the only goal left for the day was to enjoy the walk in search of a flat well drained piece of grassy ground near running water to pitch my tent for the night. From the map the two most suitable spots were in the bealach on the ridge to A’ Chralaig, and by a lochan a little higher up behind the shoulder in the high eastern corrie. It was a marvellous walk over easy ground with a steep final descent to the bealach, which turned out to afford little attractive camp ground. My tired legs had enough left in them though to continue to the lochan. I was spoilt for choice here in the eastern bowl of A’ Chralaig where the most snow collects, melts and seeps into the ground, to seep out again in pure clear burns spreading over rutting grounds of peat, loose crag and grassy knolls. I pitched camp at about seven thirty.

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I was tired and beginning to feel an a sense of apprehension about tomorrow’s journey. Almost exactly twenty-seven years ago I camped on top of A’ Chralaig. It was the first night out on the second stage of a farewell journey from Glenfinnan to Torridon, just before I emigrated to The Netherlands. I awoke at dawn to a spectacular temperature inversion and then walked along the spur north to Mullach Fraoch-coire as the cloud below dispersed. My memory of this stage of the journey is not specific about topographical details but is overwhelmed by a gnawing sense of dread, which during planning turned any anticipation of a return trip to this mountain into apprehension, and as the moment approached, a deepening feeling of foreboding. Something about that furthest peak scared me in a way I did not understand.

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I ate well and rested. There might have been a sunset worth watching, but I fell asleep long before it got dark, so I missed it. It rained during the short night and then remained misty until after eight in the morning. Throughout the night I was never free of the fear associated with Mullach Fraoch-coire. I knew now from walk reports that it involves at the end a rather sharp section of pinnacles with bypass routes and minor scrambles, but knew also that these would not phase me. And yet still the fear. I told myself that there was nothing to fear, reminding myself of the fear I overcame on the Aonach Eagach, but it persisted. It became at once a real bodily feeling, a visceral knot of adrenaline and nausea, and at the same time a mental challenge, a motivator, something in need of overcoming during what might turn out to be a significant mental journey. The tent was less than two hours walk from the road and I could bottle out at any minute. If the clouds remained down over the summits, or the weather deteriorated, what would be the point of getting to the summits? But that would be to give in to the fear!

Until the moment I left the tent to walk unburdened by any rucksack along this spectacular ridge in the first air of morning, surrounded by high mountains, I still doubted whether I would be able to do it at all.

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The mist did indeed disperse and I was on the summit of A’ Chralaig at nine thirty, looking north along the ridge to see the path before me, feeling only an increasing sense of dread. After the initial descent from the summit, it was an easy looking walk along a series of round shoulders and humps, followed by a dip onto a sharp bealach and a bit of a climb to a serrated ridge of pinnacles, protruding rocks and sheer crags, perched atop very steep and unstable looking scree slopes. Here, evidently, is where the fear was to be found. After that, a short distance to the summit. And of course, I would have to come back the way I came, to face the fear in both directions and potentially to be confronted twice by some impeding disaster.

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Of course I knew that all this was ridiculous, that with every step I should concentrate only on the ground beneath my feet, on the present, here and now. The rest is all imaginary. There was something different though about this feeling, from the fear I overcame on the Aonach Eagach; that fear had to do with the reputation of the ridge, its genuine difficulty and the actual dangers involved in traversing it; this now had to do with bodily memory, with the fact that I had been here before under very different emotional circumstances, powered by the naivety of youth, preparing myself for an new adventure living in a foreign country. Which was ended ignominiously by a diagnosis of terminal cancer and an inglorious return to Scotland to face the inevitable.

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As I walked towards the ridge, every step onto any ground where the fear might reside proved it was not there, that it did not exist. The first climb up the ridge was a little exposed, but there was no fear here. Before it flattened out there was a clamber onto a wee crag surrounded by a lot of air and a little path forward with deep drops on both sides, but no fear. After this the path bypasses the crest of the ridge, firstly on the west over a tumble of broken rocks and scree followed by deep rutted earth. But no fear. At the crossover to the east there is a section of narrow path beneath an overhanging outcrop which then dips steeply down along rough loose rock with a sheer drop to the right. At lowest point the path is subsiding gently and will one day collapse away leaving a bit of an empty space where a path used to be. On the way up the other side there is a scramble over some rocks, and at the crest, before the path dips down again to bypass on the west, some sharp broken boulders. After this there is a straightforward path all the way to the summit. Nowhere along the way did I find any fear.

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Even as I sat at the summit though, when I looked back along the ridge towards the mighty A’ Chralaig, a residue of this unknown fear I had been unable to locate along the way, still niggled. I tarried to take photos and to reflect, but I did not stay long – much as I would have liked to continue north down the shoulder of the mountain as I had done twenty seven years ago, and to enjoy four or five more nights out on the way to Torridon, I had to get back to the tent, pack up and walk to the road, to the car and then drive fours hours home. As soon as I was underway again, feeling the ground moving beneath my feet in the present, all trepidation was gone, all dread and foreboding evaporated. Whatever my body had remembered from the old traverse was now overwritten by new experience. At the lowest point on the eastern bypass path I stopped to examine more closely where it is likely in the future to collapse. It is clearly a place where snow gathers, which means that the steep gravel slope goes through cycles of freeze and thaw, becoming waterlogged and mobile, to form beneath this summit column the upper scrape of a gully and the origins of a watercourse. One day this section will inevitably slide off and present new challenges to passing walkers.

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I got back to my tent at twelve, ate a leisurely lunch, packed up and was underway again at one, skirting the shoulder behind my camp to look down over the route off the mountain. Taking a straight line towards the lip of the corrie below, I found a good route between crags and outcrops, following the beginnings of a burn into a round bowl of peat hag and gathering waters. It was easier going than I had feared; the final section over a spongy watermeadow bristling with cotton grass and orchids. At the lip of the corrie, I met the end of a track that took a sensible route steeply down, firstly through hags and bog, and then into meadows of bracken, flowers and summer birches, alive with insects and birds. It was cooler than the previous day, the air crisper, no longer heavy with thunder, my pack lighter, my emotional baggage less overwhelming. The mountains smiled green all around.

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At the road, I turned east and yomped along the verge, hoping to be able to see at the next corner how much further to the car. At the next corner I continued yomping hoping to be able to see at the next corner how much further to the car. At the next corner, I knew the next corner must be the last before I reached the car, for up on the hill to the left was a mast very near the start of the stalker’s path up Carn Ghluasaid. The next corner was very long and gently curved with a final straight into what was surely now the very last corner, after which I did eventually reach the car, at about three thirty, making the total walking time for the two days only twelve and a half hours, suggesting that a younger, fitter person might be able bag all five in one long day.

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Somehow, I was unbothered by traffic until roadworks round Perth. It was a beautiful journey. Gentle, spectacular mountain scenery, verdant forests, glistening lochs. I am privileged indeed to be alive, to be able to enjoy these mountains and travel through this country. I was home just after seven and arrived safely at work the next morning. Another victory for logistics.

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Author: duncanspence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith.

4 thoughts on “A Night Out in Cluanie”

  1. Hi – I met you on Sunday , I had just done my half way Munro 141 on a chiralaig – I had a flag and was with my friends , we stopped and said hello 👋 we were a bit anxious about the pinnacles too but in the end they made for an exciting Munro. We are heading for the Aonach Eagach at the end of June and I get scared just thinking about it . Anyway love your blog and although I only met you briefly I Did think what a lovely bloke you were.😆👍
    Let’s hope the weather stays dry for the rest of the Munros
    Hetty xx

    Liked by 1 person

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