Biting off more than I can chew

Munros since diagnosis #171 and #172

12:30 – Ben Starav (M063), 3537ft, 1078m

14:30 – Beinn nan Aighenan (M196) 3150ft, 960m

On the way to meet friends from work at Lochearnhead, while manoeuvring at the 24hr pump in Perth, I squished my front tyre against the kerb, and tore a hole in the side wall. This was not a good start to the day. But it got a lot better.

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There was only one thing to be done, so I changed the wheel, filled up and carried on. Although I was only a quarter of an hour late at the rendezvous, the exertions of jacking up an elderly Volvo, releasing five bolts from their 120Nm of torque and then tightening them up again, sapped energy that I was saving for later in the day, and diverted me from the soothing tones of Edward Sturton on the wireless. The dawn was nevertheless opening into a glorious morning of layering cloud, low sunlight and brilliant orange hues. We arrived at the end of Glen Etive to find a nice place to park before the crowds turned up, and were on our way at about quarter past nine.

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Every walk report ever written about the approach to the clusters accessible from here mentions that it is wet and boggy, and that in spate, crossing rivers is tantamount to suicide. It had been raining hard for a good week, with as icing on the cake, a storm called Callum. So we were a bit trepidatious. But the ground was more or less what I would expect at this time of year, and a great deal more healthy looking than the parched landscapes I saw this summer on some mountains. We circumnavigated an enclosed plantation of trees attempting to conceal an unoccupied building, asking on a notice prominently placed on a firmly locked gate that their privacy be respected, crossed a footbridge and headed towards the path up the ridge to Ben Starav.

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Every walk report ever written about the climb up Ben Starav mentions that it is an unrelenting slog from start to finish. It is. Relentless. From sea level to summit, the path rises more three and a half thousand feet in a distance of only two miles. We had good fun on the way up though, chatting and enjoying the spectacular views opening up around us, of morning cloud swirling around the glens and clinging tenaciously to the summits. As we approached the final rocky scramble, cloud still hung behind the north west corrie. We reached the top at twelve-thirty as wispy cloud flew past just above our heads. The views in all directions were spectacular; hanging clouds, shafts of light, skyscapes reflected in shimmering water.

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We did not hang about – it is an exposed pointy peak with little opportunity for shelter – so we headed over the small plateau to the subsidiary top for lunch, where we could see the crags and corries behind us and the slither of a ridge to Stob Coire Dheirg, our route ahead.

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From here, it was our plan to walk the ridge and climb to the summit of Glas Bheinn Mhor, then through to the next bealach and down the next glen to the start. I had a notion also that I might be able to zip out and back from the end of the ridge in front of us to Beinn nan Aighenan, and then catch up with my friends somewhere later. If I was going to do this, I would have to decide soon. At the lowest point on the arete to Stob Coire Dheirg we came upon a scrape of a bypass path leading down into the corrie and in the direction of Beinn nan Aighenan, the summit of which was still shrouded in light cloud.

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On the map, the terrain and gradients do not appear to be particularly challenging; even as I looked down from above, the ground over the bealach to Beinn nan Aighenan appeared reasonably straightforward. But the details of the ground are in the walking, and the route turned out to be much more challenging than I had anticipated. Almost every footstep on the way down had to be carefully placed to avoid unstable boulders, holes and loose scree. The roar of stags echoed throughout the corrie and once or twice I startled a hind and her young with my noisy stumbling.

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After traversing a southern spur of the ridge, I reached the relatively level ground of the bealach, but the conditions underfoot did not change much. By the time I was on my way up the sometimes scrambly path to the summit, I began to realise that I was never going to catch up with my friends. So instead of yomping on ahead and further depleting my precious resources in an effort to do so, I sat in the lee of a crag and ate some more lunch, while surveying the back side of Glas Bheinn Mhor, looking for a straightforward way up to the summit ridge from this side, and trying to pick out any human forms or colours making their way along it. Just below the summit I met a party coming down, one of whom told me that if I were to attempt the third summit today, I would be walking back in the dark. I realised immediately that he had a point.

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Now that 4G technology has reached the summits of the highlands, if not the glens, communication at these heights is straightforward. I sent a message to my friends saying that I would be returning by the direct route and not attempting Glas Bheinn Mhor, and then sat at the top of Beinn nan Aighenan recuperating, enjoying the views of squall dusted peaks, orange mountainsides garnished with shiny slabs, glistening waters and dazzling sunshine.

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The clouds that had formed on the evaporation of overnight rain and morning mist had now dispersed to make way for light squalls brushing against the coast, fizzling out over land. Most summits – except Ben Cruachan – were now more or less free of cloud, the air was clear and views opened up from Schiehallion to Mull.

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The view back to Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mhor was particularly fine – although the prospect of the return journey back through the bealach between them filled my legs with lead and made me wonder if I had perhaps bitten off more than I can chew.

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I left the summit a little before three and methodically followed the path back down the ridge. Near the approach to the first bealach I met a man who said he was going to climb Glas Bheinn Mhor after Beinn nan Aighenan. When I suggested that he would certainly be walking back in the dark, he smiled and told me he had a head torch. I said that I did not want to keep my friends waiting and that in any case I had only had energy enough to get back to the car. I would be saving the third for another day – perhaps with an approach from the east.

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Before the second bealach, I sat again to eat and rest, watching the sun dazzle through the clouds over Ben Cruachan and listening to the deserted Etive Glens resonate with the sound of stags bellowing at each other. The last climb to the bealach was hard work; so too the steep decent into the complex corrie behind, where the path finds a route above a deep ravine and back down the glen. I looked at the time as I surveyed the long walk out – exactly four o’clock.

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On the way down I overtook the party I had met coming off Beinn nan Aighenan in dribs and drabs, and near the bottom caught sight of my friends, wending their way down the path on the other side of the glen. We arrived back at the car together at about five-thirty, debooted and drove to the Glen Coe Ski Centre for some very excellent home cooking.

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Every Munro guidebook and walk report states that separately, both the circuit of Ben Starav and Glas Bheinn Mhor and the walk out and back to Beinn nan Aighenan take a reasonably fit walker in favourable conditions between seven and nine hours; estimates of how many more are needed to combine all three in one day, cluster around two hours. Why I ever thought that this might be possible at this time of year, after such a stressful start to the day, I do not know. But in the end, I sussed this out and did the right thing.

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Sometimes I experience a degree of haste, a desire to get as much out of every moment as possible. It seemed such a pity to have come all this way on such a beautiful day as this and not to walk out to one of the most remote peaks in the area, a summit that would hardly be visited at all were it not included in Munro’s Tables. The mountains will always be here, and this is a cluster I will gladly revisit, maybe next spring from Victoria Bridge in the east. At times like these I have to let go of the haste, not allow my desire to tick boxes before I die to obscure reality, and remember again the moment, to look outward to where I am, to celebrating this chance to be alive and breathing. By maintaining a steady pace with sensible stops for rest and food, I returned safely and happily knackered, in a little more than eight hours. As always, rejuvenated, already planning the next new adventure into these magnificent mountains.

Thanks to Eva, Richard and Kev for a fantastic day out!

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Author: duncanspence

Retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith.

4 thoughts on “Biting off more than I can chew”

    1. Loved reading this and what stunning images! A welcome distraction from a day’s work. I relate to your blogs so strongly – I was diagnosed with cancer at 24 and again at 33. Hillwalking (our ’empty nest’ project) puts all of life’s ‘stuff’ on an equal (or unequal, depending how precarious it is) footing. You write beautifully: “At times like these I have to let go of the haste, not allow my desire to tick boxes before I die to obscure reality, and remember again the moment, to look outward to where I am, to celebrating this chance to be alive and breathing.” When is the book ‘The Mindfulness of Mountains’ coming out?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lesley. Thank you for your kind words. I am taken by the sentence you quote, since it is constructed around the title of a Foo Fighters song and the pivotal text in one of Tool’s less inaccessible tunes. The book? Maybe this is already the book. An actual book seems like such a finished item …. perhaps a not altogether appropriate format to examine the many journeys a mindful life may take, which are never finished 🙂 There are always lessons to be learned and I enjoy sharing these in this more open and informal context.

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