I was looking for a decent long distance walk in Scotland. The West Highland Way didn't really appeal, but I found a book describing a route called the Highland High Way which was a high level version of the WHW, and looked a lot more interesting. The book itself described the route as "a magnificent high-level route through some of Scotland's most dramatic scenery and across some of its finest hills". It started in Drymen and finished at Fort William, going in the same direction as the WHW, and sharing many of the overnight stops, but instead of sticking to the valley bottoms it took in high level traverses and summits, including 23 munros. There were 8 one day-stages from start to finish, plus 4 optional 'day-excursions' which came back to the same place so could be done without carrying all the camping gear. It all sounded ideal, and I booked a week and a half vacation at the end of May, on the basis that the weather might be OK then, and it would hopefully be too early for the midges.
I got the train to Balloch, followed by a short taxi ride, and I was in Drymen by 11am. It was raining quite heavily, so I stood in the bus shelter and put full waterproofs on. The route started out along the WHW, through the Garadhban forest, easy walking, and the sun even came out, which made things quite pleasant. After leaving the forest, good views appeared of Conic hill, but my route left the WHW before Conic and started climbing up untracked hillside to the small peak of Maol Odhar. From there I could see across to the hillside of Beinn Bhreac, but had to cross a rather boggy looking moor to get there. I skirted round on a contour line, staying high to try and keep on slightly drier ground. Even high up it was a bit soggy, and it was slow going picking the way through some very deep peat bogs. It had stayed clear, and from Beinn Bhreac there were great views, back to Conic, down to Loch Lomond, and looking back South towards Glasgow.
After Beinn Bhreac, there were some more deep peat ravines to cross, and also a deer fence to clamber over, before starting the climb up the long wide shoulder of Beinn Urd. It was still untracked, through heather interspersed with wet bog, although a bit firmer than earlier bits. From Beinn Urd the route dropped off towards Rowardenan, picking up the main Ben Lomond path, which was much easier going, through woodland, surrounded by bluebells, and quite pleasant in the evening sun.
I reached Rowardenan just before 7pm and pitched up in the permitted wild camping spot. The book had quoted seven and a quarter hours for this bit, so I was about half an hour over that, although I didn't feel like I'd been taking it slowly or stopping too much. The camping spot was a pleasant location by a small river, surrounded by bluebells, the only snag was that it was absolutely heaving with midges. So much for the theory that they wouldn't be out in May! I made a pan of tea, and then got some instant noodles on, which I ate zipped up inside the tent. The tent porch was so thick with midges that I inhaled a load as I went out the tent, and once back in it took a full twenty minutes to squish them all. In the middle of the night I woke up desparate for a pee, but the midges were still massed in the tent porch and I couldn't face the twenty minute tent clearing exercise, so ended up going in my drinks bottle.
The weather seemed reasonably clear went I got up, the midges were still about so I quickly de-pitched and got going. The path heading up the Ptarmigan ridge to Ben Lomond started literally a few metres away from my tent spot, so I was climbing almost straight away. After a few minutes of climbing I passed a chap who had stopped for a drink, but had been besieged by midges, and was quickly packing up and getting going again. He commented that the midges were early this year. Ptarmigan was great walking, pleasant rocky ridge with an obvious well worn track. The track steepened up for the last bit up to the summit of Ben Lomond, it had been clear up to now, but the summit itself was enveloped in thin cloud. I was on the summit just after ten. There was a chap there with a mountain bike, and also a woman sitting with a hot drink from a flask, which I was slightly jealous of. I didn't hang around for long, it was quite windy and chilly so I quickly headed back down, backtracking down the steep shoulder I had just climbed.
The route headed North down a long grassy shoulder, untracked but quite firm underfoot and not too boggy, so easy going, and it was even quite sunny now. Ahead was the dome shaped grassy lump of Cruinn a'Bheinn, and it was a steep pull up grass slopes to get to the top, quite warm in the sun out of the wind, and with cracking views back to Ben Lomond, which was clear now. Coming down from the summit there was a crossing of a deer fence via a strange ramp arrangement, which got you up one side of the fence, but didn't help you at all getting down the other side. The next summit was Cruachan, the book suggested that were often deer hanging about up on the ridge, and sure enough as I got closer I could see a large herd silhouetted on the skyline, at least twenty of them. From the top there was a nice view down into the Snaid burn running down into the valley.
After descending to the road, through some boggy sections, there was a bit of road walking, descending back down to the lake, following a small valley on the left full of colourful rhododendrons. I reached Inversnaid Hotel at about 2pm, there were lots of West Highland Way walkers sitting in the sun at the picnic tables. From here the Highland High Way crossed over to the other side of Loch Lomond so it could take in Ben Vorlich. I checked the ferry times in the hotel, and bought a ticket. I had expected to have to wait for a few hours, but there was one reasonably soon, so I had an hour or so to relax in the sun and sort out the maps for the next bit.
The ferry came in at Inveruglas at about 4pm, I had a quick cup of tea in the small cafe, took advantage of the proper loo, and then pushed on towards Ben Vorlich. Technically speaking I was now on Day 3 of the Highland High Way, so was ahead of the book a bit. The route took the access track up the front of Ben Vorlich, and as I climbed there were great views back across the loch to the Inversnaid hotel, and to almost the whole route that I had taken, the Ptarmigan ridge, Ben Lomond, Cruinn a'Bheinn, and Cruachan. On the side of the road were patches of thick wet moss with interesting plants with green star shaped leaves, and also small sundews. At the top of the access road was a tunnel into the hillside, with an ominous low pitched rumble coming from inside the hillside.
It seemed to take quite a while to get up to the ridge of Ben Vorlich, and even then it felt like took ages to get to the actual summit. The views were superb, it was a lovely clear sunny evening. I pushed on a bit past the subsidiary 931m top north of the summit, and then pitched up in a small sheltered spot at about 800m.
It was a chilly night that high up, I had to wear quite a few clothes to keep warm in my sleeping bag, and getting going at 7am I had all my clothes and overtrousers, jacket, fleecy hat and gloves on to keep warm. The visibility wasn't that good, the clouds were low, but it wasn't actually raining, and it was an easy descent down into the glen, passing a couple of separate herds of deer on the hillside, and then a stiff climb back out of the glen, and heading North-east along an old deer fence. The walking wasn't too bad along the fence, a few peat bogs to negotiate but otherwise reasonably firm ground, some rockier sections, and the small Lochan Beinn Damhain which only appeared out of the cloud at the last moment. Then the descent into Glen Falloch, past some nice waterfalls.
I got to Beinglas farm campsite at 10:30am, and quickly got pitched up, the weather had gone downhill and there was persistent drizzle by this time. In the neighbouring field were three Scottish guys getting stuck into cans of lager, and loudly insulting each other and passers-by, which seemed an odd thing to be doing standing in the rain in a field in the morning. After pitching up I headed out on the first excursion in the book, which did a circuit of Beinn Chabhair and An Caisteal. It was a bit dismal heading up in the drizzle, although I met two guys coming down who reckoned it was supposed to brighten up according to the forecast. By Lochan Beinn Chabhair it was raining more heavily, there wasn't much to see of the tops, so by this time I had decided that unless it brightened up I would only go up Beinn Chabhair and then come straight back down.
It took me a while to find the top of Ben Chabhair in the thick cloud, I approached it a bit too far to the south, but eventually got there about quarter to three. There was nothing to see, and it was raining more heavily by now, and a strong cold wind. It seemed a bit pointless to push on, but I decided to leave my options open for a bit longer and descend down to the bealach, where I could then either push on to An Caisteal, or abandon and descend down Coire a'Chuilinn if it hadn't brightened up. I took a bearing to get off Beinn Chabhair, which got me down untracked hillside to the small lochan at the bealach at 619m. The weather hadn't improved at all, but I thought I might as well climb up to the bealach at 805m between An Casteal and Beinn a'Chroin and see how things looked, I could always backtrack if things didn't improve, and headed up the hillside on a bearing.
At the bealach at 805m the wind was even stronger, and very cold, and the rain had turned to hail. I quickly took the obvious steep path towards An Casteal. Slightly poor show to be so close to Beinn a'Chroin and not taking it in, but I wouldn't have seen anything whatsoever and got even colder and wetter, so I very easily talked myself out of it! On the way up to An Caisteal a couple of very fluorescent guys appeared out of the gloom near the summit. From the top there was a long soggy descent, the hillside was very waterlogged, down to Derrydaroch where it met the WHW. I realised I had hardly eaten anything since I left the campsite six hours ago, so stopped for a trek bar and some water. From there it was much easier walking following the WHW in reverse along the valley to complete the loop back to the campsite. The rain eased a bit along here, and there were even some patches of sunshine.
By the time I got back to the campsite I had dried out a bit. The campsite had been deserted when I pitched up at 10:30 am (apart from the loud drinkers) but now in the Friday evening it was packed out for the bank holiday weekend, quite a contrast to the peaceful wild camp on Ben Vorlich the previous night. I got a pan of tea on straight away, then stocked up at the farm shop and treated myself to instant noodles with added baked beans for tea. There was only one casualty of the rain, which was the Highland High Way book itself, it was a strange shaped book, so didn't fit properly in the freezer bags I had double bagged everything in, and it had somehow found its way outside of the rucksack liner and was soaked through.
The first bit followed a landrover track across the hillside of Gleann nan Caorann, with the small river down below. It was a cloudy morning, but not actually raining. Quite a few 4x4's went past full of workmen. Just before the track reached a huge pipeline, there were signs warning people to keep out of the area, due to removal of lead-based paint from the pipeline. I could see lots of people working on the pipeline, and some people dressed from head to toe in white coveralls with hoods, so it all looked quite serious, and I gave the pipeline a wide berth and skirted across the slightly soggy hillside. After the pipeline, the track continued all the way up to 560m, then it was off across the hillside towards the bealach between Ben Lui and Ben Oss.
It was still dry at the bealach and there were good views down into Allt Coire Laoigh and also up to Ben Oss, but the top of Ben Lui was in thick cloud. I did the out and back to the top of Ben Lui, there were a few patches of snow by the side of the path on the way up. I got to the top about 12:30, there wasn't much to see in the cloud, and on the descent it started raining so I had to stop and put full waterproofs on. It was still raining at the top of Ben Oss, there was no visibility, and there was a cold wind. I pushed on, on a bearing, towards Ben Dubhchraig. There was an unpleasant moment on the way across to Ben Dubhchraig where the terrain didn't seem to fit what I was expecting on the map. I backtracked for 5 minutes to a small lochan, and tried to shelter from the wind and rain behind a rock to try and work it where I was, but after puzzling over the map I was convinced that I had been where I expected all along, and pushed on again. It turned out to be fine, a false alarm, the terrain started to fit, and ten minutes later I came across an obvious path heading in the same direction as me. A few people appeared out of the gloom heading in the opposite direction.
I reached Ben Dubhchraig at about 4pm, it was still raining and I couldn't see anything. I backtracked down to two small lochans near to the summit, and descended down a grassy shoulder. The shoulder wasn't as obvious on the ground as it seemed on the map, there were lots of small features, so I stuck carefully to a bearing. As I got lower I came across an obvious path, which was going in the right direction, which I joined. It took me through a lovely valley with lots of tall old Scots Pines, although very boggy in places, and crossed a deer fence via a huge stile that was taller than me. The Highland High Way route met the WHW a couple of km south-east of Tyndrum, from where it was easy going to Tyndrum itself, and the rain eased off a bit going along this stretch. There was an interesting bit just before arriving at Tyndrum where the WHW went through a featureless stony patch, which was the site of an old lead works, apparently the ground had got so polluted with lead over the years that nothing now grows there.
At Tyndrum I got pitched up at the small 'By The Way' campsite, just in time as there were some heavy downpours just after I had got the tent up. I put my rather damp waterproof socks and gloves in the drying shed, then walked into the village and got a good meal from the Real Cafe, and stocked up on supplies at the Green Welly, followed by a very nice hot shower, the first I had had since starting the walk three days ago. The traverse across from Inverarnan had taken about eleven and three quarter hours, so I was a lot slower than the book on this stage, which quoted nine and a half hours, although I thought I had been going at my normal pace, without many stops. My total up to now was seven munros, of which I had only actually been able to see anything on two of them!
It was raining when I got started in the morning, not particularly inspiring, but I packed away the wet tent and got going at 8am. The Highland High Way route started off following the WHW for the first hour, so it was easy going. It followed the WHW as far as the impressive horseshoe curve of the railway line, before turning off and going up the valley of the Allt Kinglass. There were a couple of fords to cross that I tiptoed across, I could feel the water going into my approach shoes, but my waterproof socks seemed to be doing quite a good of job of keeping my feet dry. After the second ford, the route went head-on up the untracked steep grass hillside towards Meall Garbh. It got steeper and steeper as it went up, there was a short section that was alarmingly steep, and you couldn't afford to slip, but it soon eased off, and then came out on the shoulder of Meall Garbh which was covered with a pleasant grassy and mossy surface. This took me up to a massive cairn, which wasn't actually the summit, and I did the short dogleg, arriving at the actual Beinn Dorain summit just before 1pm. I couldn't see a thing in the low cloud, but at least it was dry, and surprisingly very little wind.
I pushed on along the shoulder towards Beinn an Dothaidh, on an obvious worn rocky path, it was pleasant walking even though I couldn't see much. A few people passed by in the other direction. It was still dry when I reached the bealach where the descent route went down to Bridge of Orchy, but higher up Beinn an Dothaidh was in cloud. I started up it, there was an easy path for a while, which eventually fizzled out in a boggy section, but I followed an obvious stream all the way up to 950m where it disappeared, then a bearing got me quickly to the summit and back. By this time it was raining quite heavily. The descent to Bridge of Orchy down Coire an Dothaidh was very boggy lower down, and it was chucking it down by the time I got there. A couple of people were hastily pitching up in the wild camping area across the river.
The book stage finished here, but it suggested Inveroran as a better start for tomorrows long stage over Black Mount, so I pushed on. The bit to Inveroran followed the WHW for another hour or so, it climbed a bit over heathery moorland, and it was nice to be a bit lower down out of the weather. At Inveroran there was a pleasant and quiet wild camping area by a river, with a couple of other tents already pitched. The rain had eased off by this time. I got the all important pan of earl grey tea on, closely followed by two packets of curry flavour instant noodles. My running total was now nine munros, of which I had still only actually seen two of them!
This stage did a high level traverse across to Kings House, taking in three separate munros, and described in the SMC Munro book as one of the classic Scottish mountain traverses. It sounded excellent, and I hoped that I would have a bit more luck with the weather. It looked like a long day, so I set my watch alarm for 6:30am, and was walking along the road to Victoria Bridge by 7am. Climbing up the Coire Toaig I surprised a small herd of deer as I rounded a corner. So far the weather looked OK, very cold wind, but fairly bright, and on reaching the bealach overlooking Coirein Lochain I was rewarded with some great views back to Ben Odhair and further on to the wet expanse of Rannoch Moor. However in true Scottish fashion, five minutes later it actually started snowing, while I was climbing up Stob Ghabhar, although it wasn't lying, and by the summit it had eased off again.
The visibility seemed to be coming and going from minute to minute. According to the book there was a crucial section going down the wide shoulder of Aonach Mor where it was easy to miss a steep descent down to Bealach Fuar-chathaidh. If you missed it there was no other place to cross, and you could potentially end up all the way down in Glen Etive. On the shoulder there were a couple of small lochans at about 900m which made good landmarks on the map and just to be on the safe side I measured it out and timed the descent from them so that I wouldn't overshoot the Bealach turnoff. I got there close to the expected time, but it was in a temporary clear spell again, so the cairn was easily spotted anyway. At the bottom of the bealach, it started hailing, and my fingers quickly went numb with the cold even though I was wearing gloves. I thought the energetic 200m climb up the steep untracked hillside towards Clach Leathad would warm me up a bit but it didn't help. Up at the shoulder of Clach Leathad the sun came out again, and my fingers painfully came back to life as I climbed the easy rock strewn shoulder up to the summit. There were cracking views from Clach Leathad, across to Creise, and the excellent ridge of Meall Bhuiridh. When you are on it, Clach Leathad feels like it deserves to be a munro, and it used to be, but was demoted in 1981 after it was discovered that Creise was 1m higher!
I had seen absolutely nobody all day, but now looking down there were a party of 7 people making their way along the ridge of Meall Bhuiridh. I made a quick out and back across the rocky rim to Creise, it was still clear and the views were great, I could even see Kingshouse down in the valley, but the freezing cold wind had really picked up so you couldn't hang about anywhere, and had to walk slightly doubled over. But as soon as I dropped off the rim, towards Meall Bhuiridh, it was suddenly totally sheltered, and actually pleasantly warm in the sun, so I stopped for a sit down and a snack. It was amazing how much the conditions were changing, as soon as I started going again and got on the actual ridge of Meall Bhuiridh it started snowing, blowing horizontally sideways across the ridge, it was hard to stand upright, and I tried to keep on the south side as much as possible for a little bit of shelter.
There was nothing to see at the summit in the cloud, and although the snow wasn't properly lying, all the rocks were starting to get a light covering, so it looked quite wintery. I didn't hang around and quickly dropped off on a bearing. Soon after leaving the top I met a solitary walker on his way up, and we stopped for a quick chat and compared routes. It was quite a long descent down through the various skiing installations, over rocky ground in places, although in the gloom I may well have missed a better path. After the middle ski station, there was a marked and very obvious path which was much easier. Compared to foreign resorts, all the skiing stuff had a slightly homemade look about it, as if it was straight out the 1960s. From the large car park at the bottom ski station it was just a short bit along the WHW, the weather was just cold rain by now, which felt pleasantly mild compared to the snow and hail on the tops!
I pitched up in the wild camping area across the river from the hotel, in the small area nearest to the bridge, it was less exposed to the wind than the areas further away, but the ground was very wet, and I carefully fitted my compact tent on to a small raised area between two puddles. Despite the very mixed weather during the day, I had at some point had good views of each of the summits on the Black Mount traverse, so my running total of twelve munros, now included five which I had actually seen, a big improvement and hopefully the start of a trend. The book quoted nine and a half hours for this stage, from Bridge of Orchy, but I totalled eleven and a half hours, despite only a few short stops enroute. I adjourned to the Climbers Bar, which was packed out with people trying to escape the rain, and got a very welcome pot of tea, followed by a Spicy Bean Casserole with rice.
It was raining when I stuck my head out of the tent in the morning, and there wasn't much to see of any of the tops. The next stage in the book was the second excursion, so I could leave my tent pitched at Kingshouse and travel light. The excursion did a circuit of Buchaille Etive Mor, climbing up Coire na Tulaich and then descending back down Coire Altruim and along Lairig Gartain. The book took you along the side of the river Coupall to get to the foot of the climbing, but it looked totally waterlogged, so I followed the much firmer WHW along to Altnafeadh instead, before heading up the rocky valley of Coire na Tulaich. It was a pleasant climb up the valley, climbing almost along the river bed at one point, and then across boulderfields, everything was very wet, but out of the wind at least. If you concentrated carefully, there was actually a well blended in, easy to miss constructed path that kept to the right of the river almost all the way to the shoulder, and then a few easy rock steps at the top.
From the shoulder, it was enjoyable walking up to Stob Dearg on the orangey rock strewn hillside, despite the complete lack of visibility, and I was soon back down at the top of Coire na Tulaich. I pushed on along the long shoulder, it was easy walking, following an obvious well worn path. Although the path did lull me into a false sense of security at one point and I almost descended off Stob na Doire in the wrong direction down unpleasantly loose scree and soil. Judging by the well worn route lots of people make the same mistake. The route in the Highland High Way book only went as far as the col after Stob na Doire and then descended down Coire Altruim, missing out the munro Stob na Broige, which had seemed odd until I realised that it had only been promoted to a munro in 1997, which was after the book was published. Since I had gone to all the effort of getting up there in the rain, it seemed almost criminal to miss it out, so I pushed on along the shoulder. I didn't see anybody else walking along the entire top of Buchaille Etive More, but I did come across a small bunch of path menders as I climbed towards Stob Coire Altrium.
During the descent down to Lairig Gartain it brightened up a bit, and there were good views across the valley to Buchaille Etive Beag. To get back there was a short section walking on the side of the A82, which looked a bit unpleasant but wasn't actually too bad, the traffic was light and there was a half-decent shoulder to walk on, and I soon got back to the WHW and reversed the route out from the morning. The wild camping area at Kingshouse has dried up a bit by the time I got back there, and there were a few more tents up. I adjourned to the climbers bar for another spicy bean casserole, closely followed by a second course of a pan of tea and 2 packets of instant noodles cooked up at the tent. Running total was now fourteen munros, of which I had seen five.
It was another wet morning, and I found it hard to drum up the enthusiasm to get going. I reset my alarm and snuggled back into my sleeping bag for a while, but eventually I de-pitched and headed off about 8am. The stage started off along the same bit of the WHW that I had done yesterday in both directions, followed by easy climbing on the well-graded zig-zags up to the top of the Devils Staircase. From the top of the Devils Staircase I turned off and started along the long shoulder towards the Aonach Eagach ridge. There wasn't a lot to see, which was a bit of a disappointment for one of the best ridge walks in Scotland. I could just about make out steep cliffs looming to my right as I went along through the cloud. I wasn't expecting to see many people up there, but at Am Bodach I was surprised to come across a party of about 20 people going in the opposite direction.
I had carefully read the book section on the tricky descent after Am Bodach so I would know what to do, and I even went to the trouble of collapsing my treking poles and strapping them to my rucksack, but it was less technical than I was expecting, even in the rain and wind, and the route down was quite obvious. There was another short section down a slab with running water over it, which needed a bit of care. I couldn't see a thing at Meall Dearg but I took a couple of shots anyway for posterity. From here the route dropped off down steep hillside towards Feith nan Lab. After spending the last hour or so with cliffs on my right I was a bit wary about the descent, especially with no visibility, but I started down and it seemed OK, some steep grass, and I had to pick my way through some rock fields in places. On the way down I saw a toad, and a solitary deer. Further down, the camera stopped working, which I put down to trying to take shots in the rain. I tried putting in some fresh batteries but it didn't help, a bit of a pity as there were some interesting flowers as I got nearer to the dam.
After the dam the Highland High Way route met up again with the WHW, and there were a few other walkers on the go. At Kinlochleven I walked further along to the Macdonalds hotel because the book seemed to rate it highly, but the campsite there turned out to be full so I had to backtrack to Blackwater which I could have done without. The Blackwater site was quite busy, but I found a spot, and it was nice to get a hot shower after 4 days of wild camping. There was a well stocked Co-op store, and I got some more instant noodles and muesli bars plus some bagels, houmous and tomatoes as a treat, and as an extra treat, a bar of dark chocolate. My running total was now fifteen munros, of which I had seen five.
The third excursion in the Highland High Way book was a circuit of the Mamores from Kinlochleven so I was able to leave the tent and cooking stuff behind and travel light. It would have been even lighter, but I had spotted a mouse scuttling about in the tent porch, so I brought all the food with me to avoid it breaking into the tent. It was a nice morning, clear skies and sunny for a change. The book directions got me out of Kinlochleven without any problem, and I was soon climbing up the stalkers path towards Sgor Eilde Beag. It seemed like such a nice day, and the tracks seemed dry enough that I stopped and took my waterproof socks off, for the first time since the start of the whole trip 8 days ago. I also managed to get the camera working again by switching the (supposedly fresh) batteries for some older ones that were almost dead. It was a relief to get it going again, although it meant that I had to carefully ration the shots until I got back down in the evening and could buy some new batteries from the Co-op.
I got to the top of Sgor Eilde Beag at 10:25am. It was in thin cloud, but there was blue sky behind it and it seemed to be clearing fast. It wasn't too windy, so I stopped for a bit of malt loaf and some water. I pushed on to the unnamed 1062m top, which seemed to be a junction for a few surrounding summits, and then did the out and back to Binnein Mor. It was very windy again now, but clear and sunny, and there were superb views over the whole of the Mamores, I could see the whole network of summits and connecting ridges between them. And looking across Glen Nevis was a clear view of the massive bulk of Ben Nevis. I pushed on over the twin tops of Na Gruagaichean, almost ending up on my backside down the slippy drop-off from the summit, past a couple sitting in the sun between the two tops. At Stob Choire a'Chairn a couple of small groups were arriving as I got to the summit, it was surprisingly windless, and I sat down for a while in the sun and had a snack. While I was there, I laid out my gloves, waterproof socks, and the Highland High Way book (still wet from the An Caisteal excursion) to try and dry them off a bit. From here the rocky front of Am Bodach looked almost vertical, but it was a bit of an optical illusion, and when I got to it there was an obvious route up it, which picked its way through the steep rocks.
After dropping off Am Bodach, I took the descent down Allt Coire na h-Eirghe. It was a lovely valley, with small mountain ash growing round the stream as I got further down. A couple of fell runners passed me, one of them using very lightweight looking trekking poles. The only drawback of the valley was the thought in the back of my mind that I would have to climb all the way back up here tomorrow morning on the route across to Glen Nevis! Back at the campsite there were fewer people about and a lot more space, and I moved my tent away from the river, over towards the car park, where I hoped it would be less susceptible to mouse attacks. The Mamores circuit had bumped up the munro total to nineteen, and thanks to the good weather I had now been able to see nine of them.
It was another good day by the looks of things, and I was de-pitched and fully packed up and on the go by 7am. It took me a whole three hours to get all the way back to the small saddle at the top of Allt Coire na h-Eirghe, the point where I had started descending yesterday. If it hadn't been for the camera problems I might have been better off taking all my stuff with me and staying up there, maybe camping next to the small Lochan Coire Nam Miseach. This would save at least 4 hours over the two days (which might give time to pick off a couple of extra munros). From the saddle it was an easy short climb up to Sgurr an Iubhair, which has been demoted as a munro since the book was published, so you lose one but gain one on the route as a whole (assuming you do the short detour to Stob na Broige on Buchaille Etive Mor).
There were great views across to the dramatic rocky profile of Stob Ban and the ascent route up the east ridge, and I was soon on my way up it, very rocky near the top, walking over shattered white rocks. From the white top I could see right across to the next summit Mullach nan Coirean, where the rock colour changed to an orangey-brown as the quartz gave way to granite. It gave an interesting effect, and part of the way across there was a distinctive cone shaped high point of white quartz sticking out of the surrounding orange rocks. It was quite a long stretch round the rim to Mullach nan Coirean, but easy and pleasant with superb views and passing small rocky buttresses dropping off on the right hand side.
From Mullach nan Coirean it was a long descent down a grassy shoulder, easy at first but then nearer the bottom it got harder going, steep untracked hillside covered in deep heather and strange spongy moss that swallowed up my whole foot every time I took a step, with occasional deeper holes. It was hot work too, in the sun and totally out of the wind, and it was a bit of a relief to reach the easy going of the WHW. The Highland High Way route now followed the WHW for the rest of the way to Glen Nevis. After the very small sprinkling of people on the tops, the WHW felt quite busy, I seemed to come across a new bunch of people round every corner. It wasn't too bad at first, narrow tracks through conifer plantations with occasional tantalising views of peaks, and sheltered from the heat of the sun a bit, but later on it changed to less interesting wide forestry track for the last bit down to Glen Nevis.
I made it to Glen Nevis campsite at about 4pm, and got pitched up and then had a very good hot shower. I had to start thinking about getting back tomorrow, and got a copy of the Fort William to Glasgow train timetable from the campsite reception. There wasn't a lot of choice, one in the morning and one at half five in the afternoon. Tomorrow was the final day-excursion, which was Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg arete, for which the book gave a time of 8 hours 30 mins, so the plan was to get an early enough start to get me back in good time to get de-pitched and into Fort William for the afternoon train.
It turned out I had pitched up next to a very noisy crowd, it was their last day and they were also celebrating making it up Ben nevis, and were at it until about 11:30pm, which didn't bear well for the early start. But in the end I managed to get going at 5am without any problem, it was so light in the mornings that it was easy to get up. It was actually quite chilly at that time in the morning though and my fingers were cold as I started up the Ben Nevis tourist path. I had warmed up nicely after a few hairpins though. I was a bit surprised to pass a family of three heading up after about 10 minutes. At Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe I turned off the main path and headed round to Coire Leis, before dropping down untracked hillside to Allt a'Mhuillin, then climbing up steep hillside to the shoulder that ran up to Carn Beag Dearg.
I soon met an obvious path which took me all the way to Carn Dearg Meadhonach. I was in the sun by now, and there were superb views of the huge buttresses on the North side of Ben Nevis, still with snow in the deeper gullies. Just after Carn Mor Dearg I met a bloke who had just come around the arete in the other direction and stopped for a chat. He had slept overnight in the summit survival hut, which he had found comfortable apart from being woken by 4 blokes arriving at the summit at 7am! The arete was superb, technically very easy, and escapable, but sticking to the top gave interesting clambering over big blocks. After that a bit of a pull up a steep boulderfield, to pop out on a snow covered, and unusually deserted, Ben Nevis summit at 11am. It didn't last for long, after less than 5 mins groups of people started appearing from the tourist path.
After taking a few shots I headed off on the long descent down the tourist path. I must have been one of the first people up on the summit (apart from the bloke who slept there), I didn't see anyone else on their way down for the entire descent, but passed literally hundreds of people coming up, and by the bottom I was getting a bit weary of greeting people. The 5am start had seemed a bit rash when I first thought of it, but now it seemed very sensible, the tourist path was in the direct sun and out of the wind, so the heat was sweltering, and I was very glad I was descending rather than climbing.
I was back at the campsite by 1pm, so had only just overstayed the midday eviction time! I got de-pitched and packed up then sat in the sun and had a lolly and something to drink from the campsite shop. After that it just remained to do the less than inspiring final bit along the road into Fort William. There was still tons of time before the train so I adjourned to the art cafe at the bottom of the high street and celebrated with a large pot of tea and bagel with peanut butter and banana. Two guys arrived who were cycling the Lands Ends to John O'Groats, so we had an interesting chat and compared notes on the various stages.
The following are the stats for the Highland High Way:
The altitude is as measured by my altitude watch which I recalibrated a few times a day, so it shouldn't be too far out. Bear in mind that I squeezed 3 of the book days (Rowardenan to Inversnaid, Inversnaid to Inverarnan, and An Caisteal excursion) into 2 actual days near the start, so the averages above would be a bit lower if you stuck to the book itinerary.
The book describing the route is called "The Highland High Way", written by Heather Connon and Paul Roper. It was published quite a while back, but despite that I didn't find any problems with the described route. Some of the longer stages took me quite a bit longer than the times quoted in the book, although totalled over the entire route I was only 10% over, so on average not too far out. The book itself is not enough to navigate with, but the whole route fits on 5 OS Explorer maps (347, 364, 377, 384, 392), apart from 1 extra tiny bit on 365 on the first day, which didn't really justify a whole map and I printed out the small section from the OS website. I found it useful to carry a West Highland Way guidebook too, to get the rundown of the facilities at the overnight stopping points.
Overall its a great route, getting 23 munros in is good in itself of course, especially when it includes some really classic high level traverses between them. But almost equally as interesting are the bits in-between the munros, often over untracked terrain where you very rarely see anybody at all, which makes you realise just how much relatively untouched open space there is up there. If you are thinking about the West Highland Way, but would rather spend a bit more time up on the tops, you might like to take a look at this, as a more interesting alternative. Bear in mind that you do need to be reasonably fit (the total height gain is at least 4 times that of the WHW) and will need to be able to navigate OK.