Munros since diagnosis #167 to #169
12:15 – Stob Choire Claurigh (M015), 3862ft, 1177m
13:30 – Stob Coire an Laoigh (M038), 3661ft, 1116m
15:00 – Sgurr Choinnich Mor (M052), 3589ft, 1094m
This is possibly the most well-named mountain range in Scotland. A long high ridge, with buttresses, shoulders and outliers, flanked on all sides by steep slopes and corries filled with dense grey scree. From a distance it appears to be permanently snowcapped. Of its twelve named peaks, four are Munro summits that can be bagged in a round traverse with a couple of spurs out and back. My planning for this has always recognised that going for all four at once would be hard work and that any decision would best be left until the moment I got up there.
The usual starting point is at Corrie Choillie, past the end of the back road out of Spean Bridge. I left the car at about 9:15 and walked through the woods, now grown taller than the Wee Minister, almost enveloping him and obscuring his view back down the glen. After the path emerges from the forest, a route breaks off right under a crag onto the north east shoulder of the mountain. This is the steepest section, rising through thick pasture along the edge of a mature plantation. After that the going is straightforward, as a sporadic path wends its way over thinning grass into the first of the scree. At about three thousand feet a sharp southerly wind blew up and continued for the rest of the day to buffet and ensure I navigate with extra care the heaps and slopes of broken grey rock.
Despite the emergence of the wind, it was a pleasant ascent with views opening up west to the ridges of the Aonachs, Nevis and Carn Mor Dearg, east over the Easains to Ben Alder and the high Laggans and back north from Knoydart and Kintail to Ben Wyvis.
Just before the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh there is one of the strangest rock phenomena I have seen. In a wee hollow between the final peak and a round nameless top, there is what can only be described as a pool of rocks. How this came about, I can only speculate – something to do with accumulating snow maybe, or the movements of ice?
I reached the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh in about three hours, where I found limited shelter, stopping only briefly to eat and attempt to hold my camera still against the wind. From here I got the first sight of Stob Ban, the most commonly omitted of the four Munros, and saw exactly why. On the map, the distance does not look so far, but on the ground I could see immediately what that distance would involve and that the final ascent is a steep zigzag up loose scree. I estimated that getting there and back would take at least two hours, so I decided that this one would have wait for another day.
The walk from here to the summit of Stob Coire an Laoigh never drops more than two hundred meters, involves no serious scrambling and afforded spectacular views through watery, fast moving air to Rannoch and over the Mamores towards Glen Coe and Etive.
Despite the scree and the wind, it was relatively easy going and there is always a path to follow. At the sharpest sections, it is clear how all these rocks came to be piled against the sides of the mountain, for the cliffs and crags along the crest are simply cracking up and breaking off – presumably under the continuous assault from high winds and extreme temperatures over many thousands of years.
At the summit of Stob Coire an Laoigh, a little more than an hour later, again I stopped only briefly to eat, sheltered behind the summit cairn, and to attempt to hold my camera still against the wind. After deciding not to take the trip out and back to Stob Ban, and having seen on my way along the ridge the tantalising pointy peak of the other outlier Sgurr Choinnich Mor in the distance, I made sure I was well motivated and in good time to get there and back.
The nearer I came to it though, the more daunting the traverse seemed. Viewed from afar, the peak appears to be the highest point of a very sharp flat ridge, grass growing all the way to the top on one side and cliffs plunging off the other. At the summit of the subsidiary Stob Coire Easain I could see its complexity in greater detail and a path clinging to the crest, dodging outcrops and hanging off its steep slopes.
I decided not to leave my pack here for the journey out and back and on the way was glad I had brought all I might need, for it was a bit of a scramble at times and it became clear that this was going to take longer than I had thought. The broken rocks are more jumbled, the crags more prominent and there is no earth at all on this side of the mountain. There is much less of a path to follow and precious few crampon scars to provide clues. Just before a particularly difficult clamber down over a pile of large loose blocks, I met a man on his way back, who told me that it was a lot longer than it looks. At the bealach, I found shelter looking back at the ridge I had just descended and ate in preparation for the last summit.
At times it was a little scary and the wind did not make it any easier, but there is a good route all the way to the top. At the summit, I crawled up from the grassy side, lest the wind scrape me off and throw me down the cliff. I did not stay long and was on my way back after taking some snaps. The climb back up to Stob Coire Easain was made a lot easier by knowing which route not to take – as always the best way along any ridge is to follow as far as possible the very crest. The section on the way down that had troubled me most was when I followed a bypass path, which from above seemed to be avoiding a sheer drop over a crag. On the way back up it was a fairly straightforward clamber up a series of slabs. I was back at Stob Coire Easain two hours after I had left.
The walk-out curves gently downwards along a shoulder parallel to the one taken on the ascent. At the first flattening, a spring of pure clear water pumps out of the ground to begin its short journey to the sea. I filled my flask, drank and then filled it again. There is nothing else on this planet quite like drinking water fresh from the highest spring under the summit of a mountain.
It is a magnificent descent, but long. The views back across to the length of the ridge and down into the glens beneath reveal the life of the mountain, that it is not just a lump of inert immobile stuff. For from beneath every grey scree slope, the dark stain of water seeping into streams, cutting paths through gullies and down into rivers. The mountains are quite simply part of this planet’s water purification system.
It was a treat to the feet to be walking again over soft ground, although the work done by knees and calves during a long descent, no matter how gentle the gradient, can be more draining than the effort of climbing. I took my time and remembered that at the beginning of the month, I had almost decided not to climb Cairngorm, and thought even, after coming down that it might turn out to be my last Munro. In fact, I have not been well, which in my condition can be a worry. Every “ordinary” infection, affliction or ailment is intensified by the strain it puts on an already compromised immune system. Lingering feelings of unease and discomfort have a readymade explanation close at hand. But any condition that improves, no matter how slowly, means that the disease is not winning, that theories and practices of deterministic, mechanistic medicine, based only on statistics gleaned from medicated populations, are irrelevant to the actual lives of individuals with a will to take control of their own health. By doing what I do, eating well and immersing myself in the life of the mountains, I am healing.
At length the wind dropped and the edge of the plantation came into view, with a gate in a fence into partially harvested trees where autumn colours are beginning to emerge. For the first time, I checked the map to find the right path through the forest and back to the car. Although I was tired, I plodded on without feeling any more than regular fatigue, knowing that I was going to complete the circuit in about nine hours, thereby providing me with external evidence that whatever is going on inside my body is not really preventing me from doing the sort of stuff expected of average fit and healthy people.
I emerged from the forest and saw the route I had taken in the morning, flanking the edge of the plantation to my right, and the car parked up ahead, exactly where I had left it. Here I sat for a while eating the remnants of my provisions, resting before the journey. The road was clear most of the way. I stopped at The Hermitage for a nap and was home before ten. Apart from the small matter of Stob Ban, that is the Nevis Ranges now bagged, all in one summer in glorious weather, and two more of the top fifty ticked off the list. More importantly though, I have no doubt that before the next month is out I will have bagged a few more, that just like Cairngorm this was not my last Munro.