I don’t suppose many people remember the album In and Out of Focus by the Dutch rock band, Focus. I recall them being hugely popular in the early 70’s. So what have a Dutch rock band got to with hillwalking you may ask? Well bugger all would be my reply. But I’m standing on the crag top summit of Sgor Gaoith peering down to the blue of Loch Eanaich some 600m below with my eyes not quite able to differentiate between the solid rock beneath my feet and the huge bulk of Braeriach across the other side of the deep narrow glen. I momentarily focus on the white horses on the water of Loch Eanaich but as my eyes catch the rocks comprising the tiny cairn beside me they appear to wobble uncertainly and then blur making me step back sharply from the edge of the crag.
Oh, there’s nothing wrong with me…it’s just the new varifocals. Maybe it’s not the best place to test them out…600m of plummeting abyss! I’ve never needed distance glasses up until now but I’ve had my new pair on all day which has been quite a revelation. Suddenly I can see the colours in small birds and wonder at the sharpness of the pine needles on the branches at the side of the track. A whole world of until now undiscovered clarity has entered my life…the Resurrection man now has stunning HD.
Having broken myself back in with last week’s easy ascents of Glas Maol and Creag Leacach I decided to up the work load for today’s walk. For the first time since our ill fated attempt at Beinn nan Aighenan in early May, when my lower back decided that descending should be completely banned from the whole hill walking experience, Cap’n Jack was able to come out to play. I decided to be a wee bit more adventurous than I would have been on my own, but still picked a relatively easy hill, though with a bit more meat in terms of distance and ascent. We would be heading for Sgor Gaoith is the western Cairngorms. This walk would provide a relatively easy 14 km, with roughly 1000m of ascent. This would give me a fairly decent check on how things on the aches and pains front were progressing.
We arrived at Feshiebridge about 9.15am having left early to make it through the notorious A9 traffic lights at Bankfoot, north of Perth. Parking in a small car park just of the road before the little bridge over the Allt Ruadh on the road to Achlean, we set off eastwards through the forest and out onto the pine and heather movie set that is the Cairngorm Nature Reserve.
A walk on the red granite gravel paths through the manicured pine forests of the Cairngorms has an unreal quality I’ve yet to experience elsewhere. Nothing appears to be out of place. The tall Scots pines are underpinned with a thick bed of heather and native shrubs, the ensemble creating the impression of an oversized botanical garden. Toss in a bit of blue sky and sunshine and you find yourself walking in a Highland fairyland. A shortbread cottage could appear in front of you and you wouldn’t find it at all surprising…well, not unless the shortbread tasted crap I suppose.
The path climbed steadily from the large engraved boulder marking the entrance to the reserve, through tall pines perched on the steep north edge of the gorge formed by the downward roaring of the Allt Ruadh. High above a lone buzzard circled, it’s high pitched keening making us stop to scan the sky above for signs of movement. The buzzard circled, reckoned we were nowhere near dead yet, then moved slowly northwards continuing to voice its disappointment with life in general through its unsettling cry.
At the older forests edge we passed through more recent planting of 1m high pines before following the path around the west spur of Meall Tionail before reaching the bleak sparseness of the various spurs and corries surrounding the source of the Allt Ruadh.
There was a suggestion of a track cutting south across the face of the slope separating us from the summit but we opted to take the straight up approach. It was a bit tougher than I would have liked with the heather deepening at times, making progress a bit on the slow side. I went for the interminable plod approach while the Cap’n chose the charge and collapse system. It was classic tortoise and hare stuff. About half way up the slope the heather deepened and our pathetically slow speed dropped to a crawl.
Our track eventually ran out about the 800m contour on the western spur of Sgor Gaoith. While we pondered our next move Cap’n Jack opted for a sugar break and tucked into one of Fi’s excellent cookies. I have to say Fi, Cap’n Jack’s partner, makes excellent cherry cookies. The Fatdog is also of the same opinion. I had a stash of them in the car for after which I suspect the Fatdog had already sussed out…judging by the grin.
Some 10 minutes of uphill later the sound of loud gasping behind me was followed by a tirade of abuse.
[i][b]“Hills, I hate the word, as I hate hell, all Montagues and Thee!” [/b][/i]
The last couple of words were aimed directly at me by a glaring Cap’n Jack. Quite frankly this is not the sort of bad language you expect to hear on the mountains these days. Having not been in the hills for a few months the Cap’n was beginning to suffer from a surfeit of indolence and was itching to take a swipe at his tormentor-in-chief…i.e. me. It’s the same every walk, he remembers half way up the hill that he hates hillwalking and one hillwalking parent in particular. On the plus side you have to be impressed at his ability to mangle Shakespeare. It did raise a smile though, on what was to be the hardest part of the day.
What? Of course the tortoise won!
The hill’s ability to continuously extend its height was at best irritating. It didn’t have so much a series of false summits, more a never decreasing horizon so no matter how many steps upward we took there always seemed as much slope to climb as there had been 5 minutes before.
Eventually we cracked it and found ourselves on a broad plateau.
To the south tiny moving dots on a wide rolling ridge suggested traffic either to or from the other Munro, Mullach Clach a Bhlair. They were too far in the distance for us to tell whether they were coming or going. We had arrived a few hundred metres south of the summit, a small rocky rise, but I knew beyond that rise lay a big drop and that’s what we’d come to see…the view downwards to Loch Eanaich.
And, I suppose, that is where this “tail” began with me perched on the edge of the abyss, camera in hand, with my whole world swimming in and out of focus.
The Fatdog had to be consigned to a spot a good 10m from the edge as even on her lead she was keen to explore the perimeter of our lofty perch. For sanity’s sake (ours) she was quickly removed before she started her victory roly-poly antics. Cap’n Jack made a short foray near the edge just before the summit but decided that looking after the Fatdog well away from the droppy-off bits was a bloody good idea…even though FD’s celebratory rolling had now begun in earnest.
By now we could clearly see the crowds charging across the plateau to where we stood on the summit of Sgor Gaoith. It was time to toddle off to find a lunch spot.
As the hordes closed in on the summit of Sgor Gaoith we looked to the north where the deserted ex-Munro (and now Munro top) of Sgoran Dubh Mor beckoned as a quiet feeding station. Off across the ridge we toddled with the intention, once lunch was over, to complete today’s circuit by descending via the Munro top of Meall Buidhe and then another ex-Munro Geal-charn .
Importantly, walking to the other named tops allows me to over-egg the actual extent of the day’s achievements when next in conversation with a fellow hillwalker. For instance it sounds far more impressive to say smugly,
“Yesterday we climbed a Munro and then climbed another 3 tops!”
It doesn’t matter that the other 3 tops were barely bumps on the landscape and by going that way we were taking what was damn near the shortest route back to the car. However status is an important thing when meeting other walkers and indicating that you’re a top bagger as well as a Munro bagger shows you’re real hardcore!
We didn’t hang about long over lunch. Dark clouds were building in the south west and it appeared that the glens west of Drumochter were beginning to fill. There was little doubt that the base of the cloud layer was dropping as it came towards us. We checked the map then cut SW off the summit of Sgoran Dubh Mor dropping down towards the ridge that would take us across Meall Buidhe to Geal –charn. This was at times a stony route as we undulated along the series of small bumps leading to the ex-Munro. The only point of note was the unexpected steep sided channel between the final bump and Geal-charn. It was nothing exceptional, just an oddity given the rolling nature of the surrounding landscape.
As we looked back from the final top of the day we could not but be impressed with our timing as a layer of cloud swamped the summit of Sgor Gaoith. After another quick check of the map we picked our spot on the horizon and took our leave of Geal-charn’s rounded top and began our descent to pick up the west spur down to the path near Allt Coire na Cloiche…straight into a boulderfield.
The Fatdog is now an expert on these obstacles and made short work of the first part of the descent.
The drop through the heather and thick moss was a bit slow. I had my usual routine ache from the lower back but the knees, having suffered a pounding at Tuesday’s circuit class, wanted to complain as well about their harsh treatment so each step had to be carefully planted to avoid any jarring movements. The dense moss proved to be a bonus here as it cushioned a lot of the shock. We made it down to the path without falls or stumbles so all in all I was happy with how the decaying carcass had performed during today’s walk. The lone buzzard reappeared as we wandered back through the pinewood no doubt disappointed that his potential prey had made it off the hill in one piece.