on the hill of the monk

Sun, Oct 18, 2009

With the forecast set fair, I jumped on the ferry to Mallaig and drove down through Fort William and Glenoe to the Kingshouse, on the edge of Rannoch Moor, my intention to head for Beinn Mhanach, or Monk’s Hill, via the lesser known route from Achallader. I’d heard rumour of a stalkers’ path from the top of Coire Daingean and although a longer route than the Auch trade route, it looked much more adventurous, heading into remoter terrain with the promise of a balcony path round the side of Beinn Achallader. So I put up the tent at the Kingie, excited about the next day’s walk and sat back to watch the sun sink to the west of the Buachaille.

Sunset over the Buachaille

There were only a few tents there when I arrived around 6pm but there must have been some sort of holiday on as it slowly filled up and a bunch of dullards with three tents, a huge table and fishermans’ mega brolly proceeded to party from 7:30pm until 4:30 am. Now and then I drifted off to sleep but around 1am I was finally awoken bya motorbike parking next to my head, literally. I could hear the driver’s partner wonder whether the ground might not be too soft and the bike fall over, onto my head presumably. They were courteous enough to get their tent up quickly though and out of the way, unlike the twats who were still partying.

No doubt I was like that at one time but I remember when we partied in the wilds, we played instruments, instead of the dullards who could only manage the ghettoblaster. Why come here I wondered? Why not just stay in the city where you obviously belong? If these are Benidorm Credit Crunchers, let’s hope the recession isn’t too long lived! The Kingie can be a hit and miss affair like that. Perhaps it’ll be fine, perhaps you’ll end up next to a bunch of anti social tossers but one thing I did notice was the zombie like appearance of the clientele. No-one and I mean no-one, said hello. A couple of serious looking types were marching along the road and just marched right past. I glanced across to exchange outdoor pleasantries on such a wonderful evening but they just marched on, heads down, marching away.

My, what a place is the Kingie! It seems to attract a wide variety of characters, from West Highland Wayers with their preponderance for crapping next to every available water source, to city dullards with their tent cities and portable rave machines, to the beardedly serious guidebook perusing middle classers in the hotel lounge, which did look rather warm and inviting I must say. No doubt my smelly person would have been ejected with no questions asked I suspect. There didn’t seem to be much conversation going on in there though and I thought each individual was eyeing up the others, trying to look more serious at the next day’s serious outing. “I’m considerably more serious than yow!”

I did have to chuckle though. As I bedded down for the night, to the thump thump of a bass boom box, I plugged my headphones in and listened to a podcast on astronomy in Anglo-Saxon England, followed by Chaucer’s contributions to astronomy and finishing with a fascinating look at the Vatican’s observatory and how it has influenced astronomy down the ages. Chuckle I did! And to the thump thump, interspersed with the roar of rutting stags on the dark and cold hills, I fitfully slept. Until the biker tried to park on my head.

A frosty morning for the Buachaille

7am next morning I was scraping the heavy frost from the car, noisly bending the tent into the boot, stiff as cardboard and leaving Little Benidorm, heading south to Achallader, across a stunningly beautiful Rannoch Moor, with dense fog drifting across the frozen bogs. As I turned the corner at the highest point, I descended, like a plane descending into the clouds, into a vast sheet of fog which blanketed the frozen land. However, the sublime was still eluding me. As I expected to see shaggy stags with frozen coats stalk the moor, their breaths thick and steamy in the cold morning air, all I could see were verges crammed to overflowing with photographers. They were everywhere. I mean, everywhere. There were cars parked in the most awkward places, made even more dangerous by the thick fog and everywhere I looked were tripods, big cameras and snappers. In the middle of Rannoch Moor at 7:30 in the morning!

Anyway, at Achallader, I stepped from the ridiculous, to the sublime, finally. I pulled off the road and watched another big lensed snapper record the rising vapours on Loch Tulla, while I boiled up the water for breakfast. I thought about shouting across to see if he wanted to photograph the rising vapours from my stove but I suspect he may have taken it the wrong way! So, fed, watered, tired but raring to go, I parked at Achallader farm and headed up Coire Achallader, alone in the hills.

This route to Beinn Mhanach is lesser known but unfortunately the lower part in Coire Achallader is a swamp, quite literally. It really is hard going across the gloup and glaur but once up into Coire Daingean, the views open up and the path becomes less waterlogged although still a bit squidgy.

Looking north to the Blackmount and Ben Nevis

At the top of the coire, a “secret” stalkers’ path heads off towards Beinn Mhanach, contouring round the side of Beinn Achallader. It’s not marked on the map but it starts at a small cairn and is obvious once you see it. It’s also a delight to walk. A bit wet here and there but the views are just amazing as you’re high above Coire Gabhalach, looking down on the trade route to Beinn Mhanach that goes up the Auch glen. I met quite a few people who’d come up that way, cycling, which they said was fine, taking about an hour to get to the foot of the hill but then having a massive unrelenting ascent of the east slopes. One lady said the book advised against the Achallader route as the path was too boggy. Tosh and piddle I say! The stalkers path is fantastic! The coire is a swamp but the high level path is just out of this world.

I’m afraid I became a bit anoraky on the way back and used the GPS to record the line of the path. The route below is the full length of the visible track. Nearer the Mhanach end it peters out and becomes just flattened grass but it takes you almost all the way to the bealach below Beinn a’Chuirn. The best way to reach the bealach is to walk the path until it more or less finishes at an area of boulders, then walk down to the bealach, a descent of about 100m height and cross at the southern end of the bog. The bealach is surprisingly small and easily crossed at that point and would make a wonderful wild camp spot, although water is scarce but you could fill up where the stalkers’ path crosses the big gully on the way. On the way back, you can pick up the path by ascending the edge of the bouldery ground again to a small terraced area where the path shouldn’t be too far away.

GPS track showing the stalkers path to Beinn Mhanach

A snack and I was off again though, up to the steep bit on Beinn a’Chuirn then contouring round to the bealach and up the vast grassy slopes of Beinn Mhanach to the small summit cairn with some of the best views to be had. Away to the east were the big ridges of Ben Lawers and the blue lochs in Glen Lyon. Rannoch Moor swept round the edge of Beinn a’Chreachain and Ben Nevis kept an eye on the proceedings from above the Beinn Achallader ridge. Wonderful!

Ben Lawers and Glen Lyon

People say Beinn Mhanach is a boring hill but apart from the fact that there are no boring hills, only boring people, I’d had a fantastic romp across remote country to what is usually an easily accessible hill and thinking about it, if you were up there in the depths of winter, in a howling blizzard, it would be anything but boring. There is absolutely no shelter up there, anywhere, so it would be anything but boring in such conditions. Also, just down Glen Cailliche, there is Tigh nam Bodach, or Tigh na Cailleach as it’s sometimes known. An ancient, reputedly pagan site where the local keeper maintains the tradition of taking the stone folk out of their Tigh in the spring and putting them back inside as winter approaches. Not many hills can say they have that on their doorstep. Unfortunately there’s a new estate road that seems to go round the east slopes of Beinn Mhanach to the Tigh and further up Gleann Cailliche, making it that bit less remote but opening it up for a possible mountain bike trip. So much to do!

Beinn aChreachain

Eventually, I left the summit, which was filling up with MTBing trade routers and headed back down to the peaty bealach, where I lazed for a bit in the softening light before finding the path back to Coire Daingean, walking high above the green slopes, thinking it would be an exciting route in winter, with the path invisible and vast, steep slopes of iron hard snow to negotiate. Yes, I think I shall do that!

I crossed the stream of walkers again at Coire Daingean. There seemed to be two steady streams of them, going along the Achallader ridge and up Auch glen while I was the only one treading the track less trod, so to speak. I’d managed to leave the masses behind and enjoy a day on crowded hills completely to myself.

So it was back down the gloopy Coire Achalladair to the farm, where I was surpised by how much the cars had multiplied during the day. There were a half dozen when I arrived, most frosted up as their owners were presumably up at Gorton bothy but when I got back it was full. There must have been about 30 cars there. The farmer is kind enough to allow parking at the farm but 30 cars is just too much. Is the credit crunch really having this effect on tourism up here?

Beinn Achallader from Achallader Farm

On the long drive back to Skye it was starting to resemble the Lake District in the sheer quantity of humanity milling around, especially in Glencoe. Every available parking place was parked full to overflowing. A coach had stopped in one of the big car parks up the glen with its’ passenger door flush with the A82 and its’ passengers pouring onto the main road to Glasgow. I ask you! There were cars parked on the verges, flowing out of the car parks, off the road on rough boggy ground and there were people everywhere. I’d never seen Glencoe so busy. It was bedlam. As I drove past the Kingie I wondered how many ravers had crammed themselves onto the limited camping spots and whether there would be a full scale riot that night as the Beardist Lounge Brigade took on the Thump Thump Bassists in a modern day rerun of the Massacre of Glencoe!

Oh well, did I care now? Not a jot, as the miles flowed by in orchre tones and the traffic diminished until there was none at all and I sped past Cluny into the setting sun. Was that a stag I heard roaring from the steep Kintail mountainside? Certainly was. Welcome back it said.

You can see all the pics here.

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