The clocks went back the week before this walk, and the shortening days certainly have an effect on time on the hills. Almost from the minute you set off, eyes are on the clock. The sands of time trickle away inexorably. Every pause for breath, every photo, every break for a snack, even stopping to loosen gaiters to re-tie loosened laces, all adds up.
I had a few days off which coincided with my mate Jim’s winter holiday week. These three days also coincided with a period of very unsettled weather, rain and high winds were forecast. Nothing unusual there. It’s Scotland, sponsored by Goretex and EDF. Of the three days the 1st of November appeared most promising. By most promising I of course mean least worst. Sandwiched in between two days of more worse, 30mph winds seemed quite appealing. Train times, meet-up location, drive times, all were considered, ruling out Jims preferred idea of a bimble in the Cairngorms. I looked at my list of Munros to see if there were any sticking out on the list, in areas not too far for a day trip. One immediately sprang to mind, Beinn Mhanach, quickly ruled out due to the four river crossings on route. Then I saw Sgor na h-Ulaidh in Glencoe. I couldn’t place it, but a check revealed it was near the Clachaig, at the far end of Glencoe. Combined with the nearby Corbett Meall Lighiche, the Cicerone guide gave it a time of 6.5hrs. There was a river crossing, but it looked as if it wouldn’t present too much trouble. I called Jim, and he was all for it. The alarm was set for 0500hrs, for the first train.
We made good time, the roads were clear, and we arrived in Glencoe, parking up just off the A82, east of the bridge where the A82 crosses the Allt na Muidhe. I had recently read an account by John Sadler, of the massacre in Glencoe of 38 members of the McDonald clan. One paragraph tells of how one woman and her baby hid from the government troops under a bridge over this very burn. The route that we were to take heads south, up into the Gleann-leac-na-muidhe, and this was one of the tracks which surviving members of the Clan MacIain sept of the McDonalds fled, into the pitch black and freezing cold, taking shelter on the slopes of Meall Mor. It is not known how many succumbed to the conditions, although it is known that among them was MacIains wife. I wondered if their remains were ever found and buried, or whether they lay where they fell, for nature to take care of their remains.
The recent snows had gone, and we chatted with the farmer about winter, the one past and the one about to come upon us. He was in the process of placing salt in caches along the track for when the snow comes. Good luck finding it!
The track crosses a small bridge next to a cottage, and the water foamed and boiled underneath, a fantastic sight. Up through the trees, at the end of the wood we found a sign directing us along an alternative route around Glencoe Mountain Cottages, “access rights don’t apply through gardens”. Do access problems follow me about? I seem to come across access issues like Jessica Fletcher comes across murders! Not wishing to cause a stramash, we took the diversion, a series of stepping stones through a patch of boggy, sodden ground.
Once back on the path we continued on up the glen, and after the final shelter belt began to seek a way across the Allt na Muidhe. I recalled reading about crossing at the first “island” and began to pick my across. One of the rocks was slippy, and my right boot went under the water, but otherwise it was fairly simple. Jim hadn’t fancied crossing here and had continued upstream, and I could see that as he went further up it would be harder to cross. I tried to call him back, but over the noise of the water my shouts and whistles couldn’t be heard. I set off on the opposite bank to Jim, and managed to convince him that it was easier further downstream. Back down the burn again, where I crossed over to Jim to show him the route, then back over again- twice without slipping. If I’d done that in the first place I’d have two dry feet, Goretex boots only being waterproof so long as the water doesn’t get over the top. Tick, tick, tick. Time slipped away.
We began to climb steeply onto the spur of Creag Bhan, pausing more than once to catch our breath. The gentle introduction to the day was definitely over! The pauses did give us a chance to look back towards Glencoe, where there were stunning views of the Aonach Eagach ridge.
The promised bad weather was not evident here, sheltered from the wind, bright sunshine playing along the flanks of Aonach Dubh a’ Ghlinne across the glen. Once on the ridge the wind could be felt though, strong but not uncomfortably so. There is a scramble straight up here, but we headed up the north west side of the spur, where faint signs of a path led us up. At one point we saw some deer further up the hill. Creeping up it appeared that we were almost on top of one, for it to reveal itself as a cunningly placed decoy, the remains of a tree.
After quite a slog we could see the remains of a fence line up ahead, and as we crested the ridge we were confronted with a behemoth of a mountain- Sgor na h-Ulaidh, the “rocky peak of treasure”.
Looking at it I thought to myself that there was no way that we were going to be able to that today, and turned my attention back to the first target, the Corbett. At 772m, Meall Lighiche is dwarfed by it’s neighbours, but it still deserves its Corbett status. We left our bags at the point where the fence heads west, and followed the fenceposts up to the summit. The wind was getting up, the clock was tick, tick, ticking, we took in a quick view over Loch Creran and towards Mull, and headed back.
Over lunch I studied the map. There was a steep descent, followed a fairly steep ascent, which from here, didn’t look to easy. Whether we would have time was another concern. This would have to be judged on the hoof.
We began to pick our way down to the bottom of the valley, not easy with so much loose rock around. I was pleasantly surprised to find it hadn’t taken as long as I’d thought. One thing I did recall from the guide book was not to follow the fence, and a squint through the binoculars confirmed that the fence went up at an alarming angle, appearing more like a ladder than a fence! To the south there was a prominent re-entrant leading up to a boulder field, towards Corr na Beinne, the aptly named Steep Hill. We agreed that this looked feasible, and from this angle a lot more manageable. The ascent was indeed steep, but steady and the re-entrant was an outstanding handrail. Where it ended was a small cleft. I had intended going left here but we decided instead that this was probably manageable. It continued the straight line of ascent, and would lead to the ridge, and we started up.
It was an interesting scramble, loose wet rock which came away in my hands. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we were on the ridge. As a line of ascent it can be done, as a line of descent I wouldn’t recommend it.
The mist which had been visible on distant summits now decided it was time to join us. We headed up the ridge from Corr na Beinne, passing the point where the fence reappears, before climbing up to the summit.
The top of the hill has two summit tops, with a dip in between, the actual top being the more easterly top, marked by a small cairn. Care is needed when navigating here as the ground drops away immediately beyond the cairn. As we left the summit Jim threw his poles down ahead and one of them almost went straight down a rocky chute which I’m sure would lead straight to the valley floor!
We descended north west to the bealach then over Stob an Fhuarain.and down to the long ridge of the Aonach Dubh a’ Glinne.
Time was now of the essence. The sun was low and dropping at a rate of knots. Rather than head along the ridge we dropped down, towards the Allt na Muidhe. The going was difficult, we both slipped at times, Jim complained of numerous falls. I, as is my trademark, descended with the speed of Morgan Freeman when driving Miss Daisy, and arrived at the burn as the last of light departed. We had just begun to follow the track when a loud roar made us both jump. The noise of a helicopter building up to take off split the air then was gone. We both looked around and up above. Nothing. No helicopters, no lights, just the noise of the burn gurgling over the rocks. We both agreed on what we had heard, but could not explain its source. Had I been alone and heard that I imagine I’d have made the Clachaig in record time!
By now it was full on dark. We donned head torches, and I led off. I kept my head torch off, preferring to allow my eyes to adjust to the dark. I find it easier to pick out the track that way, rather than shadows. Soon we were on the wide track which led down through the buildings to the road. No diversion this time, we carried straight on, unsurprised to note the path didn’t go through a garden after all. As we passed Meall Mor and approached the road the stars were a sight to behold, yet the lights of the Clachaig created a glow out of synch with the surrounding hills, calling us down towards them, as if to say “Come out of the cold, we have beer…” How could we say no? Sgor na h-Ulaidh may be known as the forgotten Munro of Glencoe, but it’s one I’ll remember for a long time to come.