An aborted attempt at a long circuit along the Mullardoch ridge and through the western end of Glen Affric.
Date: 29-30th March 2014
Hills: Carn nan Gobhar [Munro], Sgurr na Lapaich [Munro], An Riabhachan [Munro]
Weather: Chill easterly wind, cloud at around 1,000m, hazy views
Route: View on OS Maps
The last few steps along the rocky track, up an embarrassingly shallow gradient, were the worst of the whole trip. 26 hours earlier I had headed down the same slope with a spring in my step, the graceful ribs of the Affric hills running down to meet the slate grey waters of Loch Mullardoch. After gazing down the length of this loch from the summit of Beinn Fionndlaidh on a hot day in June 2010 I'd been eager to explore the long ridge of mountains that run along the north bank of the loch with views north to Loch Monar and Strathfarrar. With a couple of nights available to me I'd decided to try and combine the four Mullardoch Munros with the three western Affric Munros that had eluded me on last year's TGO Challenge.
After an easy drive across from Aberdeen I parked the car up at the Mullardoch dam, the third car to arrive. It was overcast with a chill wind in the air but the forecast had been optimistic for the northwest Highlands and I was expecting it to start brightening as I headed uphill.
I shouldered my pack, heavy with three days worth of provisions and the extra winter kit including both ice axe and crampons. After passing the landing slip and motley collection of boats I paused to visit the memorial plaque to the Chisholm's Stone. Loch Mullardoch was formed by the damming of the River Cannich resulting in the flooding of this broad glen. Somewhere under the waters of the reservoir is the Chisholm's Stone, the ancient meeting place of the clans of this part of the world.
A couple of vehicle tracks with intertwining footpaths wind their way along the undulating lochside until they meet again at the wooden bridge spanning the Allt Mullardoch.
From here a boggy track swung away from the loch and took me up to the base of a gully on the flank of Mullach na Maoile. The gully provided easy climbing and I was soon gaining height, pausing every so often to watch the views open out over the loch and back down Glen Cannich.
There wasn't a great deal of change in the weather and I could see that the high tops were being obscured by a stubborn cloudbase stuck at around 900m. Approaching the summit of Mullach na Maoile I encountered the first snow, deep but slushy. The mist closed in as I approached the top, there being just enough visibility to see three guys starting the long slope up to the first Munro of Carn nan Gobhar.
There was a decent cornice remaining on the eastern slopes but the broad ridge looked mostly snow free. I set off for the summit, overtaking the three guys soon enough and then losing myself in the thick swirling mist that thickened and thinned but never really dissipated again.
The going was rocky, made more interesting by a layer of greasy dampness and patches of snow, but I made reasonable progress and was soon enough on the plateau, passing the eastern cairn and making for the summit cairn at the western side. Here I paused for a bite of lunch with a feeling of sadness that there were no views to be had.
The continuation of the route took me westward now, following a broad ridge down towards the bealach before Sgurr na Lapaich, the highest summit of the Mullardoch four. As I neared the bealach I dropped below the clag again and was glad of some sort of view. To the north there seemed to be sunshine over Glen Strathfarrar with the end of Loch Monar just visible.
Loch Tuill Bhearnach was frozen and well camouflaged against the substantial snow fields present in this big eastern coire. The continuation on up Sgurr na Lapaich's eastern ridge looked interesting but with sunshine to me left and right it seemed the forecast improvement might be coming at last.
The lower ridge was grassy but I soon reached the snowline. It was a different consistency here with the upper layer pretty well frozen. I kicked a few steps but quickly realised it was time for crampons. I rose up into the mist once again, finding the camber of the slope quite confusing. I stopped on a couple of occasions to dig a quick snow pit, finding a very thin powdery layer on top of a substantial layer of consolidated snow. I threaded my way up, moving from rocky patch to rocky patch, keeping as much to the ridgeline as possible to avoid the deeper snow in the coire.
The views came and went, occasionally bright sunshine would stream out from a torn gap in the clouds. Other times I was struggling to see my hands in front of me. It was thrilling as the rocky spine of Sgurr na Lapaich arced upwards, a thinning in the mist revealing the summit just above me, a sinuous corniced line reaching around to it.
I gave the cornice a wide berth and scrambled up the final steep slope to reach the summit itself. An airy perch not far off the 3,800ft mark. Sadly the views did not improve and after a quick snack I found myself picking my way across an icy summit plateau to reach the western ridge and a descent to the next bealach.
The descent was much easier than the ascent and soon enough I was again below the clag and looking towards the sun shining in the coire below the next bealach. At this point I could have descended towards Loch Mullardoch and missed out the final two Munros on the ridge. Progress was slower than expected given the lack of views and the difficult underfoot conditions. However, I decided to continue up the next ridge and only turn back if I felt uncomfortable proceeding.
Creagan Toll Lochan rose beyond the next bealach, a mighty lump of rock with a number of radiating ridges, lochans nestled below its dark eastern face. The ascent ridge looked mostly snow free though there was an interesting bulge in it just before the cloud swallowed it up. I made swift work of the grassy ascent, taking care to avoid the cornices which had some alarming crevasses opening up behind them.
The bulge in the ridge proved to be interesting, a climb up a snowy knife edged ridge with slopes plunging off either side before a rocky clamber on firmer ground up towards the summit plateau.
Again I was swallowed by the cloud and this time it was thicker than it had been all day. Now I could only rely on compass, map and GPS. There were no footprints in the firm snow and I wasn't at all sure of where the cornices were. It was disorientating, disturbing and a little frightening walking forward through a flat light looking out for the telltale signs of solid mountain beneath my steps. I slowed to a crawl, agonising over every footprint, relieved when simultaneously the clag thinned and a grassy plateau appeared from beneath the snow.
I passed the Munro summit of An Riabhachan almost without pause, so eager was I to get off this mountain. Beyond the next top I was back in the clag and the ridge made a confusing turn. I missed the descent path and ended up just to the left of it, making my way down a steep slope littered with slushy snow. I came out from the clag and saw the ridge continuing to snake its way towards the final Munro of An Socach. There were more cornices and it wasn't clear whether the lifting was temporary. Instead I spotted a way off the hill, dropping me into a coire which would lead down to Loch Mullardoch. I decided to give this a go, favouring the steep but grassy slopes over any more dodgy cornices and exposed ridgewalking.
Of course as soon as I was 100m below the ridgeline the clouds fizzled away and I was left looking up at a benign blue sky. I wasn't about to head back up though as the slopes were steep and it took a lot of concentration and reliance on poles to get me down. Eventually the slope eased and I was able to pick my way down through some boulders to reach the stream that wound its way through the centre of the coire.
Although I had planned to continue up Loch Mullardoch to my camping spot below the Affric peaks I was already beginning to doubt my ability to cover the required ground the next day, especially if the underfoot conditions were as bad. Instead I decided I was much more likely to either finish off the Mullardoch ridge and head out, or, if the weather refused to improve, just head back out along the lochside path and back to the car a day early. With all this going on in my head, and my feet weary after a long day I made the decision to camp here in the coire, finding a lovely piece of turf in a bend in the allt with great views back up to the (annoyingly) clear ridge and An Socach, the missed Munro.
Upon turning out my bag I found that somewhere (most likely on the steep descent) my tent bags had escaped from their home in the side pocket of the rucksack. Luckily the Scarp can be pitched with just four anchors and so I made use of my ice axe, walking poles and a Nuun tablet tube to get the tent up.
Soon I was inside with a cuppa and a slice of almond and sultana cake, watching the evening light play out over the hills and enjoying this quiet, wild part of the country. Bliss.
With the year advancing the evening lingered longer even than the camp in Glen Lochay a couple of weeks previous. There was a little colour to the sunset but my view was mostly obscured by the surrounding mountains. As the evening cooled I snuggled down in my sleeping bag, falling asleep just as the last vestiges of twilighted disappeared.
The next morning dawned mild but grey. There was no inspiring sunrise and on sticking my head out of the tent I found the clouds had returned in the night and yet again the Munros looked to be slowly disappearing into the clag.
I'd made the decision not to continue on into Glen Affric on this occasion. Progress was just too slow with heavy boots and the extra weight and time involved with using crampons and ice axe. I'd enjoy it all much more if I returned with better weather and improved underfoot conditions. I was still interested in finishing off the Mullardoch ridge though and so decided to head back up An Riabhachan and pick up where I had left off the previous afternoon.
There was coffee and breakfast and then I was packed up and off. After a better look at the map I'd spotted the much more suitable ridge running south from the Munro top. I should have used this the previous day but my decision-making process hadn't been on the best of forms just at that crucial moment. I got almost up to the ridge itself before the cloud descended and shrouded An Socach in cloud. I wasn't really interested in another misty summit and so made the decision to head down to the loch and start the long walk out.
I dropped down off the ridge, heading back towards the stream and eventually picking up the stalkers track which was marked on the map.
This made it much easier and I was soon down by Loch Mullardoch once again.
Here I met a guy who had come in along the path, intending to return by way of the ridge. However, he'd taken one look at An Socach and decided it wasn't the place to be without winter gear. I confirmed that I had needed the crampons in places and that the snow was pretty inconsistent and unpredictable up on the ridge. After a snack I headed off to find the path, leaving the guy to a quiet lunch.
It proved to be a long and arduous walk out. The sightlines down the loch are long and the path weaves in and out of little inlets and up and down, doing its best to avoid the treacherously steep tideline. In places great chunks of shore have dropped down into the water and here alternative tracks skirt them further uphill. It all made for a very long morning especially as the narrow track and unpredictable terrain meant you always had to keep an eye on your next step.
Eventually I reached the Allt Taige where I dropped down to the lochside and picked my way across the outlet on rocks and gravel. This particularly crossing has a reputation for being difficult in spate but the flow was gentle enough on this occasion. Once over I paused for lunch, starting to feel the effects of the previous day spent in heavy boots.
The last section, back to the Allt Mullardoch and then along to the car were as arduous as they come. My feet were weary and the leftover food weighed heavily on my back. I was barely moving by the time I got back to the car, grateful to swing off the pack and kick off my clumping four season boots.
It had been an interesting trip. Not exactly what I had planned but I still felt good about covering three out of four of these big, unrelenting Munros and enjoying a beautiful wild camp. Lessons were learnt though, about over-reaching when hauling winter gear around and making sure I kept myself well fed even when the weather isn't ideal for stopping, double checking routes of descent and the uncomfortable feeling invoked by sagging late season cornices.
The guy from lunch had almost caught me up and, given his day had finished early, I gave him a lift down to Cannich so he didn't have to wait for his pickup later in the day. The car park was much quieter with just a couple of folks strolling down to the slipway. It was grey and cold looking back down the loch and I didn't feel too regretful about driving away, knowing full well I'll be back on a better day to deal with the unfinished business.