Saturday August 8th 2020
Munro since diagnosis #190
13:15 – Sgùrr na h-Ulaidh (M149), 3291ft, 994m
Usually I get my monthly injection of hormone suppressing medication every fourth Friday. At the end of last week’s trip up Beinn a Beithir, Martyn and I provisionally agreed on the following Friday for another day out, but then I remembered that this would coincide with my injection, so I called it off. When I got home I discovered that my appointment was actually on the previous Monday, because of staff holidays at the medical centre. So Friday was back on again, assuming I had recovered sufficiently from the side effects of the injection, severe flu-like symptoms that last for anything up to 48 hours. Perhaps it was because the injection came earlier than usual, maybe there was more of the stuff still in my system, that the side-effects were more severe than usual. I did not really begin to feel right again until Thursday. Throughout the week, forecasts for the end of the week changed every day and warned of a low probability of accuracy until Saturday when the weather was expected definitely to improve. So Saturday it was. An adventurous and perhaps a tad too ambitious combination of Sgùrr na Hoollie with its neighbour Beinn Fhionnlaidh, from Glen Etive, two hills we could see last week from the summits of Beinn a Beithir, next to the mighty Bidean nam Bian.
I know from previous experience that finding a parking spot during summer anywhere in the highlands can be difficult. We agreed therefore to meet at the usual place with plenty of time to get us parked before nine. I also know from experience that the behaviour of traffic round Glen Coe and Lochaber during August can be anti-social, so we were expecting a degree of chaos in Glen Etive. Since the introduction of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC), Glen Etive has become a place of much controversy and conflict. It has a reputation as a location for secluded “wild” camping and it is undoubtedly spectacularly beautiful, although it can become gloomy and spooky when the weather is bad, and it has suffered a great deal from conflict between local landowners and visitors. With lockdown ending and everybody being encouraged by the Westminster government to take their holidays “at home”, many popular tourist spots have been completely overwhelmed, unable to maintain facilities and infrastructures sufficient to cope with the influx of visitors, particularly under the complexity of current restrictions. Judging by news reports as well as my own experience of a nearby seaside town, it is clear that few visitors are maintaining anything like a distance sufficient to discourage the spread of a virus, hardly any are wearing face-masks.
As we turned off the A82 at the edge of Rannoch Moor, it became quickly clear that the glen was very busy and that parking places were going to be hard to find. Every conceivable spot beside the River Etive was occupied by tents and encampments. Some people were already packing up to leave for another day travelling, others were emerging from their slumbers for a day sunning themselves and dipping into the river. All were troubled by midges. Every flat space beside the road was taken up by parked vehicles and very few passing places were not occupied, making traffic flow much more complex. Many vehicles had simply been left beside the road, with two wheels resting on the hard verge and the other two dipping into soft ground, leaving them hanging at precarious angles above ditches and bogs. Most of this “wild” camping takes place in the upper, wilder sections of the glen. The lower glen is more managed, scattered with pastures, forests and fields. The road keeps well away from the river and has been fenced off, either to prevent access or to protect livestock, and passes by several hamlets and estate lodges. Happily we were first to arrive at the limited parking space at Invercharnan where a track curves through the forest towards the mountains.
Despite delays on the way down the glen we were walking away from the car at just after nine. It was a glorious morning of clear open skies with wispy cloud still hanging round the highest summits. The forest between the path and the glen has been cleared to reveal splendid views of Ben Starav and its neighbours. We were at the edge of the forest within an hour, where we flanked slightly right, almost due north towards a ridge bristling with prominent boulders, behind which was a bealach and the start of the southeast shoulder of Sgorr na h-Ulaidh. Though it was squelchy and sometimes troubled by tussocks, the ground was benign, softer on the feet than gravel and rocks. But it was hot. Already I was sensing that I would have to take it slowly; perhaps I was still not quite recovered from the side effects of last Monday’s injection, or perhaps from our expedition to Beinn a Beithir last week. We stopped for early elevenses by some boulders and then for first lunch on the way up the ridge, looking out over a wonderful landscape of soft ground bristling with summer flora, scattered with round boulders and punctured by flat outcrops, with the dark north flank of Ben Finlay in the background.
We reached the summit of Sgùrr na h-Ulaidh just after one, where for the first time since leaving the car we met other people. They had come up from the Glen Coe side along the northern ridge, a shorter but much steeper approach. Despite some fairly precipitous drops to the north, I did not experience any kind of vertigo. There were midges and flying ants. It was very hot, even up here at nearly 1000 meters. The views were incredible in all directions, through clear dry air under fluffy clouds. I find myself now able to name almost every Munro I see and to have climbed very many of them. This is a humbling experience. The vast flanks of Beinn a Beithir. All the ridges from the Aonach Eagach, over the Mamores to the Nevis Ranges and Grey Corries. Starav, Cruachan, Lui, Dorian. Even Heasgarnich peeping its flat top over the ridge between Achallader and Chreachain. And of course Schiehallion. We carried on west towards the start of a steep, grassy descent of more than 500 meters, south from the summit ridge to Bealach Caol Creran where we were to begin the ascent of Beinn Fhionnlaidh. From the ridge on the way up Sgùrr na Hoollie and from the summit, we could see the steepness of the thing and the depths to which we would have to descend in order to climb it. Martyn had brought a photo with him of the side of the mountain with a route up pencilled in by one who described it in a walk report. It followed a very steep grassy gully straight up to a slightly flatter area, then flanked back to the ridge and onward to the summit. It was a daunting prospect.
On the way down, I began to think that I might not make it back up again on the other side after such a steep descent. I was slow and hot, needing regularly to stop to drink and catch my breath. Martyn could tell I was reaching a limit and said that I should not be ashamed to come back another day. Even after a good rest by the burn and only a short start of the steep climb, my pulse was racing at nearly 130 and not declining much, so I said that I thought I should call it a day. Undoubtedly I was stressed out a bit by the thought of the climb, but it really was very hot and my body was certainly still recovering from the injection at the start of the week. We returned to the burn and followed it through a marvellous landscape of massive fallen boulders, grassy hags and peaty pools. My body thanked me for not forcing it up a steep mountain in the heat as we picked up a faint path over squelchy grass back down the glen to the forest.
We were at the car not long after five. Another vehicle had parked beside us and a little further up the road, two were parked (badly) in a passing place. Back up the glen it was even more chaotic than in the morning. Not one single passing place remained unoccupied, convoys of aspiring “wild” campers were heading down the glen in search of a roost for the night, as we found ourselves in a convoy trying to escape back to the sanity of the A82. It became abundantly clear that many drivers simply did not understand that they were on a single track road and that it is always a good idea to look ahead to see if there is another vehicle coming the other way, in order if necessary to allow it to pass. Martyn held back and tucked his car in as far as he could, to allow vehicles behind to pass. Within minutes we were stuck again behind them at the back of a queue. We waited and watched up ahead as motorhomes reversed back up the road in search of room to pass. Martyn tucked in again as the residents of nearby tents tried to relax in the knowledge that their vehicles were blocking the public road. When the convoy coming down had passed he proceeded and not much later had to do it all again. It took nearly three quarters of an hour before we turned south again over Rannoch Moor.
I could rant at great length about the irresponsible stupidity and sheer ignorance of some of the drivers we saw. I could wax lyrical about how if tourists are to be encouraged to come to Scotland, then there should be adequate facilities and infrastructures made available. I could complain that there was not much “wild” about the camping we saw and that to use the phrase “wild camping” to describe putting up a party tent at the side of the road and finding a bivouac above two thousand feet stretches the meanings of words somewhat. I could emphasise that the SOAC does not mean that the countryside can be turned into a massive free campsite, that it demands of those making use of its provisions that they take responsibility for what they do. But what would be the point? I really have no beef with anybody who wants to put up a tent beside a highland river only a stone’s throw from their vehicles, but parking in passing places is not on. It is against the law, dangerous and irresponsibly anti-social. We agreed that the police should cruise down the glen issuing tickets to every illegally parked vehicle and informing the owners that they will get another if they have not moved on by the time they return. We also acknowledged that the police have probably got better things to do with their time and resources than clear Glen Etive of badly parked vehicles. The thing that I do not get though is why on earth would anybody want to camp cheek by jowl along the banks of the River Etive, knowing that their car was blocking the road? Where is the tranquility, peace and seclusion in this?
On the way through Tyndrum, we witnessed more chaos, in the midst of which a gaggle of police, standing by their vehicles, and talking intensely with each other. I imagined them discussing the evening’s duties, drawing straws for who patrols the various glens and single track roads in the vicinity and who gets to chuck out the pubs. I almost persuaded Martyn to pull over so I could tell them about all the tickets they could issue in Glen Etive, but I let it go. It was after all only a minor inconvenience to be held up in traffic there. It had been a wonderful day out. At the end of the day we were both happy not to have attempted Beinn Fhionnlaidh in such heat; Martyn thought he could have made it to the top, and I do not doubt it, for he is extremely fit, but I have never seen him stumble as much as he did today. The heat took it toll on both of us.
The next day I was relieved to discover that I had no significant muscle aches or residual pains, that my exertions stopped at the right moment, happy that I did not push myself beyond my limits just so I could get to the top of a mountain, which is not going anywhere. I also filled in a form on the Police Scotland website describing my experience in Glen Etive, wondering if anything can be done, short of closing off the glen to all but residents, to persuade people to take proper responsibility on single track roads and behave with the necessary courtesy and common sense. It is very possible that many visitors simply do not know about the conventions required to negotiate single track roads with passing places. In which case prominently placed notices explaining it all in several languages might not be a bad idea. Perhaps also requiring hire companies to explain things to those who hire vehicles with the intention of travelling into the highlands. And most emphatically making known that those who park in passing places will be ticketed.
These are structural, political and economic problems, only made worse by the current crisis and sudden influx of visitors. Highland infrastructures and facilities simply cannot cope with the sheer number of people, and yet people are mindlessly encouraged to visit because they spend money and thereby maintain the highland economy, which is just a way of allowing private capital to profit from the overcrowding of public space. At the moment in any case, only the wealthy can afford to stay in hotels, and most campsites are offering only limited space and facilities. So people are falling back on the SOAC, which they believe gives them the right to park and camp wherever they like. During lockdown I have become progressively more cynical about the ability of human beings in this benighted kingdom to engage their common sense or see beyond the edges of their own self interest. It was all going reasonably well until the Westminster Prime Minister’s chief advisor broke the rules and got away with it. If those who govern behave like entitled dicks, is it any surprise that those governed follow their example?
Anyway …. thanks as always to Martyn for a splendid day out and jolly good company.