An overnight backpacking trip to complete the classic traverse of the Black Mount hills from Victoria Bridge over to the Glencoe Ski Centre, completing the loop by following the West Highland Way south
Date: 26-27th September 2020
Hills: Stob a' Choire Odhair (Munro), Stob Ghabhar (Munro), Clach Leathad (Munro Top), Creise (Munro), Meall a' Bhuiridh (Munro)
Weather: Sunny almost the entire time. A chill northerly wind on Saturday. Calm and warm on Sunday
Route: View on OS Maps
Saturday 26th September
In order to complete my Munros in the area between Etive and Rannoch Moor I’d always planned to do the Clachlet Traverse of the Black Mount hills. Traditionally a route that ran between the Inveroran Hotel and Kingshouse Hotel taking in the four Munro summits of Stob a’ Choire Odhair, Stob Ghabhar, Creise and Meall a’ Bhuiridh, it is now more typically done between the respective car parks at Victoria Bridge and the Glencoe Ski Centre! Often done in a single day as a through walk, I wanted to loop back along the West Highland Way to avoid any public transport shenanigans and thought the route would suit a wild camp, breaking up the walk with an overnight stop somewhere around the summit of Creise, possibly even dropping onto the Corbett Being Mhic Chosgaig to the north.
Previous trips in the same area
One weekend last summer I’d packed my bag for this route but had been put off by forecast galeforce winds. This time the weather forecast was looking too good to miss and so I rolled away from home at 6:15 on a Saturday morning and headed for Victoria Bridge near the Bridge of Orchy. Apart from a couple of slow campervans it wasn’t too bad a drive. The large parking area was almost full (of campervans) but I managed to squeeze the car in besides a massive RV, trying my best not to be too noisy as I did a final gear sort and scoffed down a couple of croissants with some coffee.
The path alongside the Abhainn Shira was as delightful as always and I made quick progress along to the Clashgour Hut where a side path leads up besides the tumbling Allt Toaig.
There were strong hints of autumnal colours in the trees and bracken. Although calm down in the glen, as I steadily gained height a strong northerly wind made its presence felt - cold and fresh! The sunshine made for perfect walking temperatures and I made good progress upwards with Stob Ghabhar and Stob a’ Choire Odhair drawing closer.
There was plenty of evidence of heavy summer rains as I crossed the scoured channel of the Allt Caolain Duibh before taking the side track that leads up to the south ridge of Stob a’ Choire Odhair. This climbs up through a deep and rough channel lower down before becoming better constructed higher up. The views quickly opened out behind me towards the Ben Cruachan range. Off to the left a passing shower darkened the skies but produced a brief rainbow over Stob Ghabhar.
The rain didn’t amount to much and as I emerged onto the broader upper slopes the sun was back out. As the views over to Stob Ghabhar developed behind me I came up to the summit cairn.
A pair of walkers who had departed the car park as I arrived were just leaving, so I had the top of this first Munro to myself. Here the chill northerly wind made its presence felt and after taking a couple of photos at the cairn I found a slightly more sheltered spot to sit and enjoy the views out over the Rannoch Moor. The views over the burnished surface of Loch Tulla to the wall of Rannoch and away across the southern Highlands were excellent.
To the north there was a stubborn band of cloud sitting around the summits of the northern Black Mount hills of Clach Leathad and Meall a' Bhuiridh. The cloud was varying in height though and Bidein nam Bian above Glencoe was completely cloud free. Out of the wind I had a short snack break
I headed off the summit, catching a glimpse of the two in front of me who were now heading for Stob Ghabhar. The lochan in Coirean Lochain was briefly visible as I followed the fairly clear path down the west ridge of the mountain with Ben Cruachan visible in the distance.
The cloud had lifted off the Black Mount hills and from the west ridge there were excellent views across the River Ba. Sunshine was picking out the rocks and buttresses of Stob Ghabhar and it felt very pleasant as I dropped out of the worst of the wind.
The path follows the high ground around the head of Coire Toaig, crossing various lumps and outcroppings before gently rising up to the ridge that leads up towards the Aonach Eagach ridge (not quite as fearsome as its near neighbour in Glencoe). Behind me Stob a' Choire Odhair receded into the distance, strong autumn colours along the ridge picked out by the sunshine.
A good path follows the lower ridge with views down to Coirein Lochain and up to the rugged summit of Stob Ghabhar. Once the boulders are met the path becomes more vague and aware of the two people somewhere above me I picked out my own line upwards. The ascent is stiff but soon over and it was a pleasure to emerge on the grassy slopes just short of where the ridge narrows to the Aonach Eagach.
This spot offered a nice view down the winding line of the Abhain Shira to Loch Tulla with the Bridge of Orchy hills beyond. This also brought me back into the wind and made me a little trepidatious about the ridge ahead. Whilst not knife-edge narrow, it also isn't a place for putting a foot in the wrong place or being knocked unsteady by a gusting wind.
There was a gentle grassy pull up to the point where the ridge proper started. I was soon there, and saw that the two folk in front of me were already well along the ridge and didn't seem to be having any difficulty with the wind.
It is a delightful stretch of ridge walking. You could do most of it with hands in pockets, although for the most part I stuck to the crest, where there were a couple of moments where hands went onto rock to steady myself. It is airy and the views all around were excellent. It is also sadly short-lived and I soon found myself approaching the cairn that marks where the normal route comes up from the glen below.
From here there were expansive views out west towards Ben Cruachan and Ben Starav. Nearer at hand the final slope to the summit of Stob Ghabhar beckoned. Looking back over the line of the Aonach Eagach I could see the hazy peaks of the southern Highlands stretching out beyond the Rannoch Wall.
Drawing my attention away from the views I headed up the final slope to the summit, passing the two walkers as they headed back down off the top. This meant that once again I arrived to an empty summit with panoramic views in all directions. Considering it was around midday on a sunny Saturday in September I was genuinely surprised to find it so quiet.
The chill wind was still around so after a few photos I dropped slightly off the summit and found a comfy spot to sit down for lunch. The views were grand and even the clouds that had stubbornly hung around Ben Nevis were now lifting. One of the most impressive views is over the Coirein Lochain and out past Stob a' Choire Odhair to Rannoch Moor beyond.
A few folk had started arriving as I finished off my lunch so it was good to get packed up and way, dropping northwest of the summit which quickly took me away from people once again. The angled summit slopes quickly give way to a rolling grassy plateau that curves around Coire Lochain. Strangely there was almost no wind here and in the sunshine it felt like strolling along on a summer's day.
Peak upon peak stretched out in front of me with the route of the Clachlet Traverse now obvious as it wound its way round to Clach Leathad. I briefly detoured away from the route to a rocky point overlooking the far side of Coirein Lochain. There were now figures strung out along the length of the Aonach Eagach. Down below the blue-green waters of the lochan in Coirein Lochain were ruffled by the strong winds.
I now rejoined my intended route, dropping down onto the undulating ridge of Aonach Mor, leading roughly north away from Stob Ghabhar. There are deep coires on either side and as I picked my way over the lumps and bumps I caught sight of the small herd of goats that are often found around Stob Ghabhar.
As I headed along the ridge the hills of Glen Etive and Glencoe grew a little closer. To the east the buttressed slopes of Stob Ghabhar and Stob a' Choire Odhair looked very impressive, their northern slopes deep in the shadows.
Part way along the Aonach More a loosely defined ridge drops eastward down to the Bealach Fuar-chathaid which provides the link onto Clach Leathad and the northern part of the Black Mount. As I looked over the bealach I could see four tiny figures leave the summit of Clach Leathad and head in my direction.
The ridge was a little steeper than it first appeared, especially in the lower section where it was either a steep grassy gully or a more rocky series of drops. I ended up between the two and was glad to reach the bealach itself. This has a rocky dome in the middle which I skirted around to the north, pausing briefly for an afternoon snack break with views along to Glen Etive.
Through a gap in the hills the dark profile of Buchaille Etive Mor was visible with the Crowberry Tower a distinct feature.
Once across the bealach the equally steep slope up Clach Leathad had to be tackled. There are a number of crags on this hillside but a good look upwards confirmed a line of weakness. There was a faint path lower down but it was quickly lost to a wet and rocky hillside. I just picked the best line up and made reasonable progress. I met the two pairs of walkers coming down and had a good chat about the superb weather conditions and our respective plans.
The steep slope eventually relented and I emerged onto the broad ridge which runs northwest up to the bouldery summit slopes. The quality of light made the day feel like it was far advanced, though in reality it was still mid-afternoon. I enjoyed the views north towards Glencoe and the nearby slopes of Creise. Stob Ghabhar now looked a long way off to the southwest.
There was a false summit and then a further sweep of boulders and windblown grass to cross before I finally reached the large cairn and wind shelter on the summit of Clach Leathad. Suddenly I was looking out over the yawning coire to monolithic Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond.
From here there was a grand view along the sweeping ridge leading to Creise, the actual Munro summit, still some way off. I could also see down to the Kingshouse Hotel far below, and follow the line of the A82, busy with traffic, out over Rannoch Moor. Surprisingly I once again had a summit to myself so I sat down for a snack break in the shelter of the substantial cairn.
The afternoon vistas were grand and I was feeling optimistic about a summit camp, despite the wind. Looking out over the southern slopes of Creise it looked like there might be a suitable area at the head of the ridge that led down to the Corbett of Beinn Mhic Chosgaig. As I was contemplating the views there was suddenly music in the air and a man with a speaker (and a dog) came up to the summit. I had to regretfully inform him that this wasn't the Munro summit (it's just a metre short of Creise!)
I once again shouldered my bag and headed off now almost due north, following a clear trail that followed the edge of the cliffs with grand views across the coire containing Loch an Easain.
At the midpoint of the ridge, a subsidiary ridge drops down to the east leading straight to Meall a' Bhuiridh and my eventual onward route. Creise now stood close by and finally it got a bit busier with a few groups making their way off the summit. As the angle changes Meall a' Chuiridh appeared more pyramid-like, whilst off to the west the Glen Etive peaks were fading slightly into the warm haze that had developed.
In short order I was stood at the summit cairn of Creise, my third Munro of the day. It was about 3:30pm and so had taken me about 7 hours to get here.
Knowing that I was very likely going to be back here, possibly the next morning, I soon got out of the wind and dropped down to find a comfortable spot to sit and enjoy the views. There were a couple of people near the cairn but it seemed that in general most people were now heading back down. From this vantage point the long ridgeback of Buchaille Etive Mor and the deep trench of Glen Etive were dominant features and the lengthening shadows picked out their features beautifully.
I dropped down off the summit to get a clear view of the Buchaille with Ben Nevis beyond it. The light was hazy and magical. Stob Ghabhar was a distant bump at the centre of radiating ridges.
After half an hour of lazying in the sun and enjoying the views it was time to make a decision. I was fairly committed to the idea of heading to the Corbett with the notion that I would likely find a suitable camping spot on the way, and if not, that the Corbett summit offered what looked to be flattish ground with potential water sources nearby. Hunkered down behind Creise it would hopefully be sheltered from the worst of the wind.
After packing up and heading back to the summit I noticed there was another cairn just a little further north which might offer good views onto the Buchaille, so I headed there first. This was when, just a few steps below the summit, I came upon an absolutely perfect area for camping - a small balcony just off the summit with flat, springy turf and sheltered from the wind coming in from the northeast. Even though I still had 3 hours of daylight I quickly decided this was where I would be stopping for the night.
The views from the north top were excellent and after enjoying them I dropped down to my camping area and soon found the perfect spot for the tent with a grand view over Glen Etive and the Buchaille. I soon had the tent up and was able to enjoy a very relaxed afternoon. I did briefly contemplate heading over to the Corbett, or even dropping down and bagging the very northern top of Creise, but once I was relaxed in the sunshine these ideas quickly dispersed.
I spent the next few hours wandering around my wonderful camp site, occasionally popping up to the summit to see how the changing light was affecting the views. I also had some hot food and found a good spot to indulge in a bit of reading whilst looking out over Glen Etive below me where there was still a lot of vehicular activity as Saturday afternoon drew to a close
By around 6pm the light had changed dramatically with the landscape turning coppery in the evening sun. The nose of the Buchaille was now deep in shadow.
I took another walk up to the summit of Creise. The hills were empty by this point, summit after summit fading off into the haze. The wind was still bitterly cold and blowing strongly. Over at the north top there was stunning light now catching just the very top of Meall a' Bhuiridh.
The Moon had risen over the Bridge of Orchy hills which were now glowing with a soft reddish light that spilled out over Rannoch Moor.
The sun dropped ever lower into the west, eventually sinking into a hazy layer of cloud that sadly robbed it of a final show. Gloaming spread across the mountains almost as soon as the sun disappeared.
It cooled quickly after sunset and so I retired to the tent to enjoy a hot dinner and listen to a podcast or two cosied up in my sleeping bag. When I later went outside to brush my teeth the stars were out though it had remained a hazy evening. Mars burned red over Rannoch Moor and Jupiter and Saturn shone brightly in the south.
Sunday 27th September
I went back to the tent and headed to sleep, not waking up again until around 3am when it had grown noticeably colder. Looking outside, the haze had disappeared completely and the sky shone with stars. Orion had now risen over the ridge to the southeast and in the west the Milky Way could easily be seen.
I put on an extra insulating layer and zipped up my sleeping bag against the chill, soon drifting back off to sleep. I next awoke with the faint light of pre-dawn filtering into the tent. Orion could be seen over Creise with Venus shining like a spotlight in the south.
After dozing for a while longer I finally got out of the tent about 15 minutes before sunrise. The views were beautiful with a very light mist filling all the glens and straths around, the mountain tops rising clear above it all. The water on Rannoch Moor was picked out under the rapidly lightening sky.
I headed up to the summit of Creise, soon spotting a fellow pair of early risers on the neighbouring summit of Meall a' Bhuiridh. There was barely any remnant of the strong, cold wind that had been blowing the previous evening and so I was able to stand comfortably at the summit cairn waiting for the sun to make an appearance.
At around 07:11 the sun crested the Lawers Range far off in Perthshire. It was a magical moment. The light quickly spread, lighting up the curving ridge of Creise and the higher summits to my north.
My intention at this point was to head back to bed and get another hour or so of sleep, but the early light was intoxicating and I ended up staying outside and watching as everything gradually lit up. It was particularly apparent as the sun increasingly illuminated the rocks of the Buchaille.
The light spilled over a misty Rannoch Moor, the haze lifting and catching the rays of the sun. Countless ridges and summits were picked up as the angle of the sun changed over the next half hour or so.
Eventually I tore myself from the show long enough to sit down at the tent and warm up with a hot breakfast. It was a pleasure after the cold night to feel the sun hit the tent and start to slowly warm it up. I lay back in my sleeping bag and dozed for about a half hour or so.
When I emerged again it was to find a perfect Highland morning. Light cloud had built up slightly but it was still bright and sunny with barely a breath of wind. I still had a fair bit of ground to cover and so I slowly got everything packed away, happy to be taking down a dry and well-aired tent. I left behind nothing more than a faint impression in the grass - it had been the perfect campsite.
I took a final walk up to the summit of Creise, enjoying the perfect solitude at this early hour on a Sunday morning. I thought the folk on Meall a' Bhuiridh at dawn might have come over here but never saw any sign of them.
I headed south, following the rough trail towards the middle top of the ridge where I would descend towards Meall a' Bhuiridh. As I was walking the quiet morning was punctuated by the thwump of distant rotor blades. I watched as a coastguard rescue helicopter flew low down Glen Etive, disappearing around the corner past the Buchaille.
From the top of the ridge I took one last look at the panorama of hills. In the far distance across Rannoch Moor I could clearly identify the Glen Roy hills I had been on the previous month, with Ben Alder also close by. A few puddles of water gathered in the hollows of rocks were frozen solid, showing it had been an icy night up here.
I dropped down from the plateau onto the ridge. It's steepest at the top and there were a couple of scrabbly steps to negotiate but otherwise the descent presented very little difficulty. The views quickly opened out over Coire an Easain where two or three stags could be heard bellowing, their calls echoing off the steep cliffs on either side.
I made quick progress down to the low point where the Kingshouse could be seen down by the main road, and Meall a' Bhuiridh dominated the view ahead. Behind me the rough ridge could be better appreciated as it climbed back up to Creise.
I regained height quickly. The ridge was again fairly straightforward with a clear path to follow over some rocky ground. At a couple of points there were opportunities for some very mild scrambling. I finally met people coming over towards Creise.
The views opened back out over Rannoch Moor and towards the Bridge of Orchy as I neared the summit. Loch Tulla could be seen, utterly still. I could see the line of the West Highland Way crossing the open terrain on the edge of the moor - I would soon be down there.
I soon emerged onto the rough summit area marked by a small cairn. This marked the final summit of the Clachlet Traverse. The views stretched out across Rannoch Moor.
I had the summit to myself for a few minutes before the strange sight of three people in orange high-vis clothing appeared. It turned out they were Network Rail technicians up here to work on the radio signalling equipment that lives on top of the mountain. A subsequent tweet from Network Rail itself revealed their purpose in more detail.
Other people eventually reached the summit and after a couple of pleasant conversations I decided it was time to head off. The upper part of the mountain is rocky, but a clear track zig zags down on the western side, far away from the ski paraphernalia. A mountain rescue person, evidently out for some exercise, passed me as we descended.
There were good views as I descended but all too soon I came to the top of the main part of the ski centre. Here I lost the path, and not having done any research, decided the best thing would be to follow one of the vehicle tracks down to the main buildings below.
I wound past various buildings and then down the length of a chairlift that was still under construction. I came down to the big building which turned out to be at the top of the main chairlift coming up from the car park. It was very popular with mountain bikers who were coming up in droves, grabbing their bikes and heading back down the mountain. According to the map there was a path that would cut off a corner over to the WHW but now on the ground it seemed that at least the first part of this was being used by bikes going quite quickly. I decided instead to follow the footpath down to the car park and pick up the WHW from there.
The footpath was fairly busy, though less so than the chairlift, and although boggy in places, provided a reasonably quick descent down the last slope. I trooped through the car park and was very glad to pick up a linking path that soon took me to the WHW as it came up from the direction of the Kingshouse Hotel.
Away from the hustle and bustle I found it relatively quiet on the WHW, though it was slightly irksome to have to immediately regain height. The benefit of this were the excellent views behind me into Glencoe, a view so familiar from the road.
The light was fairly hazy now but there were still good views across the Moor. This is one of the highlights of the WHW and I now was able to amble along at a comfortable pace, enjoying the sights of Rannoch Moor from this different and more elevated vantage point.
As I rounded the corner at the top of the hill to start my descent towards the River Ba and the looming Black Mount hills I met one of the couples I had spoken to on the Clachlet Traverse the previous day. After confirming I had had an excellent overnight camp they happily told me it was all downhill for me from here...
The Way is pretty hard going on the feet, being a mixture of vehicle track and embedded rock, but it did make for fast progress. I passed walkers every few minutes but it wasn't really that busy for a sunny Sunday afternoon. The Black Mount hills grew closer and it was fun to follow the line of summits I had traversed heading north. The east ridge of Meall a' Bhuiridh looked fine and would have offered a good shortcut, avoiding most of the ski centre woes.
I passed the ruin of the Ba Cottage and then reached the River Ba where I turned aside briefly to have a lunch stop whilst my feet cooled off in the water. It was exceedingly pleasant in the warm sunshine.
From here it was then a final up and over the last hill, with the hills beyond Loch Tulla growing ever closer. Behind me I had a last view of the Black Mount hills with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh both disappearing.
There was then a final descent along the edge of the plantation which led to a short stretch amongst brighter, more native woodland, with evidence of autumn appearing.
Before I knew it though I was at Forest Lodge, crossing Victoria Bridge and looking west to Stob Ghabhar and the views I had enjoyed the previous morning. The light was very different now and my feet were sore from the WHW so it felt good to roll up at the car, the full Clachlet Loop complete.
The drive back home was fairly boring, stuck in a long line of cars heading from Glencoe back towards the central belt. I did get home in time to enjoy a glass of fizz in the sunshine to celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary!