Thursday 14 June 2018

A High Camp, Finding A Path, Wild Flowers

Having finally finished the book on my Scottish Watershed walk and with a visit to the giant OutDoor Show in Friedrichshafen coming up a night out in the hills to clear my head seemed a good idea. With no plans I spread some maps out on the floor – always a pleasure in itself – to see if anything sprung out at me. It did. Beinn a’Chlachair. Or rather the long broad summit ridge of Beinn a’Chlachair. I remembered it was one of the many places stored in my memory as a potential spot for a night out ‘one day’. For Beinn a’Chlachair that day had come. The forecast sounded perfect – barely a breeze, perhaps some mist but mostly superb visibility. Ideal for a high camp and definitely not good for a low one in midge season.

Beinn a’ Chlachair is in the Central Highlands, opposite Creag Meagaidh, an hour and a half from home – well, it would have been but for a delayed lunch in Aviemore. I set out late under cloudy skies for the long walk-in. Beinn a’Chlachair sits well-back from the road. 

After weeks of dry weather the streams were low, the ground hard and dusty. Great swathes of white cotton grass covered flat marshy meadows. Ahead I could patches of snow high on the walls of Coire Mor a’Chlachair. Leaving the track I headed for the eastern arm of this corrie, a steep but easy way to the summit ridge. This is normally boggy ground. I was in mesh trail shoes. My feet stayed dry. 

Looking back I could see a band of golden orange light on the far horizon as the sun started to cut below the clouds. A sign of good weather for the next day. Maybe.

On the ridge I approached the final stony rise to the summit then pitched the tent on some mossy ground. There was no sound. Nothing. Not a whisper of wind, not a distant bird call. Just silence amidst the vastness of the hills.

The quiet wasn’t to last. The gentle patter of light rain woke me during the early hours. I peered out. Mist enveloped the tent. No dawn colours to get me up early. A few hours later I woke again. Still mist. Drops of moisture hung on every speck of moss, shimmering in a gentle breeze. I felt very peaceful.

The mists were beginning to lift as I wandered up to the summit of Beinn a’Chlachair. Distant hills appeared, flat and grey under the clouds. Looking back my tent was a tiny dark speck on the huge expanse of the mountain. 

Back in camp I had a look at the map before packing up. My plan had been to continue on to two more Munros, Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh, before descending back to Glen Spean and my car. Why? Because I’d always done these three hills together in the past so it seemed obvious without thinking about it. Between them lies the deep cleft of the Bealach Leamhain. The descent off the eastern end of Beinn a’Chlachair to this pass is steep and rocky – easier going up than down – or steep and grassy if you go off the northern side. On the map I spotted a path I didn’t remember from earlier trips going down the southern side and linking with the path through the bealach. Curious I decided to look for it.

Finding the top of the path was quite difficult. Even using Viewranger and GPS. The latter told me I was standing on the path. Maybe. I couldn’t see it though. I set off, smartphone in hand. I was on the right line and soon indications of a path appeared and then became clearer. It took a slanting line across the slope until the angle eased and then headed straight down. Mostly it was clear though little-used. Very occasionally there were cairns. An old stalking path I guessed, cleverly built. It deserves more use.

Soon Loch a’Bhealaich Leamhain appeared with Geal Charn rising above it. The path through the bealach runs high above the water, along a terrace through steep craggy slopes. Another fine line in a grand situation. Rocks, water, steepness, the circled head of the loch-filled corrie. Elemental. White stars caught my attention. I looked down. Four-petalled, dark centred flowers looked back up. Dwarf cornel. Masses of them spread over the hillside.

Emerging out of the rocks above the bealach the view opened out and gentler slopes spread out to the forests of Glen Spean with big bulky Beinn Teallach and Creag Meagaidh rising above them. There was just the long walk out left. I’d lost any interest in the other Munros. The day was hot now and plodding up more stony slopes didn’t appeal. 

The walk out was flower-rich but bird-poor. Yellow tormentil, bird’s foot trefoil, coltsfoot. The cotton grass dominating from a distance. Pale purple orchids rising through long grass. Purple wild thyme on stonier ground. Lower down tall foxgloves, white and purple. An occasional little frog hoped across my path, managing to stay green and wet despite the arid conditions. Damselflies and dragonflies skimmed over the flowers. Clegs tried to bite me but were easily swatted away. They weren’t as determined as they often are. Maybe the heat made them lethargic. There were no midges. A few meadow pipits fluttered across my path, brown and inconspicuous. Twice a skylark rose straight up, singing loudly. Up on the hill I’d seen a flock of a dozen ptarmigan. That was it for birds. No grouse in the heather, no waders in the bogs. I wondered why and came up with no answers.

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