An aborted attempt at a circuit of the Munros of Mamlorn in the southeast Highlands with an overnight camp below Ben Challum.
Date: 15-16th March 2014
Weather: Mild, very strong winds, low cloud
Route: Click to view on Social Hiking
After the initial steep ascent up the east ridge of Sgiath Chuil the gradient eased for a moment. It was enough to give me a chance to take a rest and see what was coming next. Here at almost 900m in the teeth of 65mph winds whistling around from the northwest it was difficult to stand still, let alone stand up straight. I peered forward; through thick, swirling mist it was hard to discern the slopes. To my left snow-clad buttresses of rock seemed to arc out into the void. Directly above where I stood the ground steepened rapidly to a snow slope streaked with grimy fall lines. Glancing at the map confirmed we less than 100m from reaching the summit plateau but in those conditions it could have been 10m and we would have stood just as little chance of reaching it.
Rich came up behind me and we retreated into the lee of a crag to discuss the situation. Our progress was much slower than expected and there were several miles of difficult terrain ahead before we would drop down and get out the wind. Weighing everything up - the terrain, the wind, the lack of views, and the proximity of an easy descent to the glen - we decided to turn around and leave the Munro for another day
We’d left the car at the car park just east of Kenknock in Glen Lochay a few hours earlier. Although breezy at times on the drive over from Aberdeen it was mild and relatively calm as we booted up. After a slight delay involving forgotten poles we were away back down the road to the bridge crossing near Innischoarach. There was a slight scare when I found the pedestrian door padlocked closed but Rich spotted that the vehicle gate was open and so we soon through and following the hydro access track up the hillside.
Going was easy and we chatted as we gained height with the views starting to open out further down Glen Lochay. Once away from the trees and riverside the breeze started to pick up and by the time we reached the top of the hydro road it was very blustery indeed. Behind us the upper slopes of the Munro Meall Ghaordaidh disappeared up into the cloud. Towards Beinn Hearsganaich though there were patches of sunlight although it seemed like the higher tops were all attracting their covering of cloud.
We took to the hillside, following the rise of the land as it led us towards the broad ridge on the west side of the Allt Dhubhchlair. Below the snowline it was boggy but we picked a way up, following the odd deer track, reluctantly drawing closer to the ever present cloud.
The wind strengthened even more as we got towards the shoulder leading up towards the start of the ridge above Coire Dhubhchlair. Shreds of mist were being torn across the ridgeline and it looked less than inviting. Patches of brown, wintered grass were separated by patches of snow. These proved to yield easily to a kicked boot but it was slow going, fighting against the wind and the underfoot conditions.
Slowly we rose into the cloud and lost all views, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and fighting to stay upright in the gusting wind. It was a relief when the ridge finally gave out to a broader plateau and we could take some shelter. The wind was incredibly strong, blowing us around and our progress was slow but we decided to continue along the ridge towards Sgiath Chuil.
The terrain was complex and the wind made it difficult to stay on any kind of bearing. It was a GPS navigation kind of day as we followed the rise and fall of the wide ridge, sometimes crossing extensive snowpatches, other times making good progress down grassy slopes. Every time we were exposed to the north or west it was a struggle to stand. Eventually we drew towards the next bealach and as we descended the slight improvement in visibility showed we had strayed too far south and were about to get into steep snow slopes. We backtracked a short way and picked up a better route, dropping down to the bealach.
Any thoughts that we might be sheltered here were dashed and our plans for the evening changed towards definitely seeking the shelter of the glen for a campsite, anywhere up high was going to be a non-starter. The slopes to the right looked nice and gentle and we quietly filed away the easy escape route from the high ground before continuing west, looking to make it towards our first Munro of the trip.
The terrain here is complex and initially I thought we would be better heading south to pick up gentler slopes. However the ridge rose up from the bealach and seemed to offer a good way up. We started the climb, making our way up the steep slopes as the wind gradually increased again.
In the circumstances retreat was the sensible option. After double checking the escape route back down from the bealach we paused for some lunch. It had been several hours of hard work with very little opportunity to stop and take on energy. We reluctantly retreated, picking our way back down the ridge and to the bealach were the gentle fall of the land guided us downward through an utterly white world.
The escape route worked out perfectly and we were able to amble downward somewhat sheltered from the wind. It had been disappointing to get so close to the summit ridge and retreat but given the booming of the wind above us still felt the right decision. The snow slopes began to break up and gaping chasms started to appear as the rush of water below told a story of rapid snowmelt. We gingerly crossed a couple of these to reach the heather on the east side of the Allt Innis-Daimh.
FInally we were below the clag the views were restored, sunshine still teasingly handing over Glen Lochay. Here we stopped for a proper lunchbreak, enjoying the much improved conditions and looking across to the pass leading to Glen Lyon.
We hadn't descended much further when a new obstacle stopped us. The burns were in spate, snowmelt swelling them to torrents of white water. We scouted out downstream and then upstream but it took a while to find a safe crossing point. From here we followed the burn down towards the hydro intake and down towards the access road as the sunshine turned golden; the day was advancing and we realised just how long it had taken to cover the short distance we had managed.
We stopped above the intake and plantation to admire the crepuscular rays breaking over the winding thread of silver that marked the River Lochay running down the glen.
Then it was down the zig-zagging road to reach the glen floor itself where we assumed we could make rapid progress down to a planned campsite away west below the slopes of Ben Challum.
We were now on a vehicle track winding its way westward through the glen and whilst we expected progress to be easier now, it turned out to not quite be the case. The wind was still incredibly strong here in the open glen and we were walking face into it, once again struggling at times to put one foot in front of the other.
We ticked off the various landmarks of the glen, plantations and farms, stopping occasionally to watch the torrents of white water pouring off the hillside. The sun gradually faded as a gloomy grey cloud drifted in from the west. The snow-speckled peaks grew closer, circling around the head of the glen and guiding us towards our end point.
Just before the Allt Challum we started to look around for a sheltered spot to pitch the tents. It was frustratingly open but after some searching we finally settled on a spot that was slightly less boggy and with some protection from the gusting wind.
The tents were up quickly and it was a relief to finally get into somewhere truly sheltered from the wind. The evening passed pleasantly with cuppas, dinner, chatting and a final hot chocolate before retiring to the sleeping bag for a podcast.
Although it had been much calmer during the evening the wind strengthened in the night. The tent shook under its force and you could hear the gusts booming further down the glen. Our semi-sheltered position didn't lead to any damage but it wasn't exactly the most undisturbed night of sleep.
The next morning dawned. Though there were scraps of blue sky above the glen it was clear the high tops remained shrouded in cloud, and the wind had strengthened in the night and was blowing just as hard. After our experiences the previous day we knew it was futile to try and get anywhere near a Munro so we made the decision to retrace our steps down the glen and back to the car.
After breakfast we packed up and enjoyed walking with our wind to our backs at last. We made good progress in the warming glen, stopping to chat to a couple of folk who were braving the elements. Beyond the plantation there was another group (who tried for one of the Munros but turned back just short of the top) and then, near Lubchurran, a hillwalking club who appeared to have just forded the river.
After a pleasant amble east we were back at the car around 11am and enjoyed a relaxed drive through the breezy sunshine back to Aberdeen with a break for a delicious lunch at the Watermill in Aberfeldy. The wind never eased but there was plenty of sunshine around and Loch Tay in particular looked dramatic with the light skipping off its choppy waters.