Distance: 20 miles
Time: 9hrs 10mins
Weather: Brilliant sunshine, strong, cold northerly wind
Route: Click to view
The day did not start well. I slept through my alarm and woke up at 7am with the wind blowing a hoolie outside and the cloud low and ominous over the grey city of Aberdeen. My hand left the warm comfort of the duvet only long enough to pick my laptop up. From under the covers I re-read the MWIS report for the North-West Highlands and watched the BBC Scotland weather report. Had last night’s reading of the same information been a dream? Would I really find the sun if I headed for the western hills? Well, apparently I would! The report still insisted there was an 80% chance of cloud free Munros and visibility improving over the course of the day.
Alright then. Out of bed, clothes, sandwiches, cereal, car, petrol, off and out of Aberdeen just before 8am.
Quiet roads got me quickly through to Inverness and just after 10 I was heading south towards Loch Ness. The only dampner during the course of the journey had been the low cloud, particularly over the Cairngorms as I passed Aviemore, and the occasional rain shower. Loch Ness arrived and just as I passed the first viewing point the clouds above me split and suddenly the dull grey water was shimmering in the morning sunshine. My spirits lifted as I turned off at Drumnadrochit and made my way through beautiful scenery down to the Glen Affric turning.
The jubilance lasted until I reached the turning. A traffic warden was rummaging in the boot of his car for a set of cones and in front of the car was a sign: “Highland Cross today - Glen Affric road closed 11am-4pm”. It was 10:55am.
Hazards on, out the car, “Good morning. Am I alright to take my car up the road?”, “You’re in luck, five minutes until I close it”, “Brilliant, thanks!”, hazards off, in gear, drive!
Slightly concerned for any early pacesetters coming towards me I cautiously made my way up the single track road which winds its way down this beautiful glen. The trees were a vibrant green in the sunshine and the waters of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin sparkled a deep, deep blue. At the layby just before a bridge there was a checkpoint for the Highland Cross and a sign saying “No cars beyond this point”. Luckily I didn’t need to go any further as this was my start and end point for the day.
Out of the car and booted up with my light daypack on I set off up the Affric road munching on a brunch bar and marvelling at the contrast in weather compared to the eastern half of the country. I passed the Highland Cross paraphernalia and said “Good Morning!” to the marshals who were lounging around in the sunshine. The track runs alongside the River Affric, and the views beckoned me on with the promise of wild, beautiful mountains in what has to be one of the most stunning locations in the country.
Just before Affric Lodge I turned off the road onto a decent track that immediately climbs up the northern slopes of the glen. The views got better and better as my vantage point changed. I could now see the intimidating nose of Sgurr na Lapaich, my first target for the day and all the way down Loch Affric to the mountains east of Kintail. This is a stunning, magical place.
The track gained me height rapidly and then, as it turned a wide corner to head back east, I left it, finding my way across the boggy land to the east of Sgurr na Lapaich. A track was occasionally found though it seemed to be more frequented by deer then humans. I saw a medium sized stag watching me as I climbed up the course of a stream.
As I approached it, Sgurr na Lapaich changed shape and I began to see a way up through its defences. I picked up its curving south-eastern ridge and soon a track was found, this one more assured, that climbed steeply up the side of the mountain between large slabs of angled rock. This track is of excellent quality and soon had me high above the glen with the views developing all the time.
I reached the cairn and was immediately hit by a strong northerly wind which forced an additional layer on despite the hot June sunshine. The view though was magnificent. I could see the whole of my day mapped out in front of me and to the west peak upon peak faded into a hazy distance. To the south the familiar fin of Ben Nevis could be seen rising above the rest of the Grey Corries range and closer by were the mountains of Glen Shiel.
It was now a matter of following the ridge along to the first Munro of the day, Mam Sodhail. The ridge is straight-forward with a clear track appearing shortly after leaving the summit. It runs along beside the drop of the strange landslip which scars the north side of Sgurr na Lapaich. I enjoyed the ever developing views up to Mam Sodhail, Carn Eige and the continuation of that mountain’s eastern ridge with its pinnacles clearly on display.
I passed a couple of people coming towards me and soon found myself winding up the east ridge of Mam Sodhail, soon emerging on the summit to find a giant cairn/shelter. I scrambled up it to the top and admired the vista. To the north the Coulin and Torridon hills could be seen and away west was a hazy hint of the Cuillins on Skye. Beinn Sgritheall was the dominant feature to the south-west.
It was a brilliant place to sit, in the shelter of the cairn, basking in the sunshine and eating a sandwich. As I was enjoying it a chap came up from the west - he had taken the boat up Mullardoch and was now (having already bagged An Socach) heading along the ridge. He left and I followed soon after dropping down the steep slopes to the col with Carn Eige. The Lochan Uaine far below looked alpine, particularly with the snow still cornicing around the lip of the corrie.
As the track now heads up Carn Eige I turned off and chose a descending line along a faint track that contoured around Carn Eige to the low bealach with Beinn Fionndlaidh. The track comes and gos but eventually becomes more sure of itself. It was rough ground, the going much improved by the views up the glen to Sgurr nan Creathamnas and down to the head of Loch Mullardoch. After the bealach the track is much clearer and heads straight up the reasonably gentle southern slopes of Beinn Fionndlaidhe.
I reached the summit cairn and again the views were glorious. The dark surface of Loch Mullardoch below the massive hills to the north of Glen Cannich. To the west Skye was gradually becoming more distinct, and I could see the bridge against the waters of Loch Alsh. I also looked back towards Carn Eige sitting above another dark lochan.
The conditions were perfect up there and on the sheltered side and I lay back sunbathing for half an hour, eating a little and chatting with a couple of guys who arrived a short time after me.
From Beinn Fionndlaidh I traced my steps back to the bealach and then ascended the 300m or so up to the summit of Carn Eige. The climb was done remarkably quickly and I was soon enough at the trig point. The visibility was improving as the day progressed and by this time Ben Nevis and the Grey Corries were clearly seen without their earlier covering of haze.
Now I had the splendid Affric ridge ahead of me, sinuous and lumpy with plenty of interest even before I got to the next Munro of Tom a Choineach. The first section was wide and gentle but then as it curved around to the south the pinnacles above Loch a’ Choire Dhomhain came into view. They looked like fun!
I tackled the first one head on, climbing up a groove and then around an exposed corner onto the first summit. From here I dropped down to a notch between it and the second pinnacle. Here I became a bit more circumspect. The route looked to be around to the right side and then up a string of needles that stuck out from the rock. The drop below was brutal looking. After a couple of steps along I lost my nerve and backtracked to the notch. From here I dropped to the avoiding path and followed it around the south side of the pinnacle. Once around I climbed back along the pinnacle to survey the route. It turned out I had only been one or two very exposed moves away from safety and will definitely give this section a go next time. The third pinnacle was much less intimidating - just a blocky scramble and then a careful walk along to rejoin the path. Overall these offer an interesting section of scrambling with plenty of foot and hand holds, secure rock and an easy way of getting down to the path at two points. I was pleased with having negotiated the first and third pinnacles and the adventure along the second one had certainly got the heart racing with plenty of exposure!
After the excitement of the pinnacles I climbed up to Carn Eige’s easternmost top which then dropped rapidly down to a low col. There was a dusty track but it was steep and slidy so I took my time getting down. As I descended, far below I could see a group of people have an animated discussion. They finally left the col and began contouring around below me across a steep boulder field heading for the crags below An Leth-creag. What they were doing exactly I am not sure as I soon lost sight of them in the dark shadow of the cliffs.
Heading away from the col I followed the continuation of the ridge along as it climbed up towards the next high point, enjoying the views across to the Mullardoch hills and the changing character of the mountains I had already crossed as the light changed with the slowly sinking sun.
The west side of Tom a’ Choineach is a fairly featureless dome with a faint track moving up through rocky ground. Eventually I reached the summit cairn where I paused only briefly - my final Munro of the day Toll Creagach looked an awful long way off and I wanted to get the final re-ascent over and done with.
There was another steep descent down the west ridge of Tom a’ Choineach before reaching the bealach and the very tempting path downwards. Still, it was a fine evening (albeit getting chilly with the reduced power of the sun and persistent wind) and so I pressed on, covering the last couple of kms up steadily steepening slopes to the summit of the day’s final Munro.
This was another rounded summit with a feeling of wilderness about despite it being the closest to the car. I sat for a fifteen minutes or so sheltered from the cold wind, enjoying the views out west over the wonderful mountain ranges. The sun was still two or three hours from setting but the quality of light was beautiful.
Reluctantly I turned away from the high mountains and headed south, following the broad flank of the mountain which was made up of a series of rocky terraces interspersed with springy grass. I made rapid progress until I hit the boggier terrain as the river approached. As I got lower I found a faint path that ran just to the left of the Allt a’ Choire Odhair which brought me down a gentle slope to the river itself. Here I only had a few meters of bog until I picked up the surfaced track shown on the map.
I saw a tent here and was very jealous of their idyllic campsite. Out of the cooling breeze the evening sunshine was delightful and now I made excellent progress down the track. The mountains, silhouetted against the sun, fell into the distance behind me and then I was into the sparse wood with the blue waters of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin ahead of me.
The track dropped gently down the final slopes and emerged just a few yards from my car. It had been an astonishingly good day. Long, tiring but the rewards far outweighed the effort I had put in. it was a deeply satisfying day and one that easily tops the highlights of my relatively short hillwalking career.
And then they found me.
I tore the boots off my feet, threw my bag in the boot, pulled on my trainers and hurriedly got into the car. Though Glen Affric had been kind to me, the hoard of midges were not so benevolent. With the windows down and my music playing loud I drove rapidly back along the glen road, heading for the cloudy east lands and leaving in my wake the glow of a summer evening and a trail of bewildered insects.
My satnav took me a different way home so I enjoyed a brief leg stretch along the Beauly Firth and some time later (close to midnight in fact, with a brightness still filling the northern sky) arrived back in Aberdeen.