This weekend I had an incredible hike above the clouds on Schiehallion (blog post to follow). The skies were blue above the inversion and the clarity was crystal clear with views from one side of Scotland to the other! It was a near perfect day, but not a 10/10. The reason for no full marks is that it is mid January and we only crossed two patches of snow (10m in size!). The hills were very black and reflect the mild winter we have had. This mild weather means that when the cold snaps come along we need to be ready - and I was certainly at the ready last weekend after a rare snow fall blanketed the Highlands.... Camera in hand headed to th Blackmount.....
Drive along the A82 towards Glencoe and at any time of the year and in any weather, you will hit a piece of road that has numerous photographers standing and waiting with their tripods! The stretch of road I am referring to is just before reaching Glencoe from the south where it crosses the infamous Rannoch Moor, the views here from the road side are stupendous and photographers flock here (and rightly so) to capture reflections of the Blackmount or the endless expanse of Rannoch Moor to the east.
I’ve driven past this spot many times and have stopped at Loch Ba myself to snap the early morning mists rolling over the Am Monadh Dubh. However, Munros and Corbetts aside, I have never ventured into this area to explore it a little further. The fearsome reputation of Rannoch Moor is legendary with hidden bogs and deep peat lochans ready to swallow you up. This maybe another reason I have steered clear! Well after this week’s return to winter I decided I would remove this trip from the tick list. Snow had fallen for three days prior to the weekend but the winds on the high tops were forecast to remain relatively high and this was the excuse for me to try out my route – “The Loop of Achlaise”. I had done a bit of research on the web but couldn’t really find any information on this loop. My plan was to link the four 500m peaks that surround Lochan na h-Achlaise, starting with an ascent of Glas Bheinn to capture the sunrise.
Sunrise was at 08.39 so the alarm was set for 5am and I was out hiking by the back of seven. I suspected that I would be on pathless ground until I reached the WHW, and from the off this was the case. A slight hiccup saw me returning to the car after only 5 minutes walking, to pick up the cameras I had forgotten (seeing as I was wanting to explore other viewpoints and photography angles of the Blackmount) this may have been rather annoying had I realised further from the car!! Second start and within 10 minutes I had already been floored twice by ”The Swamp”! This snow was fab and had blanketed the landscape, but it soon became obvious that in the days preceding the snow, the weather hadn’t been at freezing point! Thus the snow covered unfrozen ground, insulating it from the subsequent frosts and this led to rather treacherous underfoot conditions. Focus was now on my feet. “The Swamp” was in charge and I hadn’t even stepped foot on Rannoch Moor yet!! I was beginning to think this may be a tougher day out than the ascent and length indicated! Windless when I left the car, the marked increase in wind was noticeable as I reached the summit of Glas Bheinn. Unprotected from the moor the Northerly swept across Rannoch’s lochs and burst onto the summit. Undeterred I set about getting my camera gear out and it didn’t take long for my fingers to numb! However I was treated to a grand dawn and sunrise, with the first light hitting the Blackmount and turning the summit ridges pink – it was perfect and worth the numb fingers!!
Photos taken I then started to think about the hike again. I had spent 1.5 hrs on the summit and time was marching on. I headed back down the hill, skirting the forest and managed to avoid the hidden dangers (one bog pool revealed itself and lets just say it wasn’t shallow! Vegetation was key as I picked my way around flat snowy patches which had hidden dangers lurking beneath!
I crossed the A82 and headed for a telecoms station before striking uphill towards summit two – The Mon. I was still taking my time as the snow was soft and the ground pathless (not to mention the views – that were stunning and also hindering my progress!). However I eventually reached the summit, and the views – in all directions – were fabulous. Loch Tulla stretched out to the SW and Rannoch Moor with its Lochans dominated the Eastern horizon. The Blackmount also look great and this also gave me a different aspect from what I was used to. A couple of summit cairns and I then noticed another – this time it was a memorial to a fallen climber who passed in 1962, a poignant reminder that this landscape can be cruel and must be respected. The views from this memorial were amazing.
On to objective number three – Meall Beag. I dropped down to the Bealach and found a sheltered boulder to have my first food break. The solitude was intense, a Saturday with fine weather after a cold snap, not many hills would offer this magnitude of wilderness so close to the A82. With food in my belly, the hike up Meall Beag wasn’t too bad and I soon found myself on another top, dumb founded by the views but also back into the whistling northerly!
The next part of the adventure was the part that was going to require the most concentration – Crossing Rannoch Moor to find The West Highland Way. Map and compass out. Although the clarity was crystal and no clag was in, I need to dog leg around a water course and a number of lochans marked on the map. From the high point of the summit, I could see where these should be, but the snow hid them. Wary of what lies beneath, I proceeded with extra caution as I dropped in to The Swamp proper! As earlier, the drop in height also meant a (significant) drop in wind speed. I got to my first waypoint, took another bearing and started to head towards the WHW. The weather conditions were now superb. Blue skies and no wind and it felt Alpine with the rising Blackmount ahead. I spotted a Drumlin rising from The Swamp and headed for its summit. Once there I stopped again and spent an hour basking in the sunshine and taking photos – doesn’t get better than this. Absolute solitude with stunning scenery with the weather gods smiling down – the sunglasses even made an appearance!!!
Eventually I dragged myself away and picked my way through the last of The Swamp. The WHW was a welcome sight after all my bog trotting! I headed past Ba Bridge until I reached the ruin of Ba Cottage. Originally I planned on taking the track marked on the map from here back to the road; however the weather was so good I decided on completing the four hills and headed up Beinn Chaorach. I was knackered and must admit to not enjoying the swamp fest between the WHW and the summit. I thought I had left The Swamp behind but the summit plateaux was just as bad if not worse than what I had experienced previously in the da. Added to the fact that I hadn’t eaten in hours, I felt relieved when I slumped on the summit. It was now 14.30, and I needed to be home before 18.00 for family commitments. Cue my emergency supply of wine gums. These were devoured and the sugar rush saw me with a spring in my step as I headed toward the A82. The sun was now threatening to fall behind Stob a Choire Odhair but its lower rays lit up the watery landscape revealing strings of Gold that ran through The Swamp below me- a fine sight!
Soon I was padding back along the A82 – just in time for sunset – so along with all those photographers that I passed I managed to snap the iconic view to the Blackmount too. Reflections galore as the skies changed colour for the final time before darkness fell. Back to the car and back home – in the nick of time!!
You know it’s been a long day with a heavy pack when you are in pain holding the steering wheel and changing gears!!! The hardest and toughest outing for some time….. Never under estimate “The Loop of Achlaise”!!
Some thoughts and reports from my outdoors activties...