Bruce’s Journey to Compleation

In awe of his achievement (I just go along for the walk and fresh air occasionally), I formulated a list of questions for Bruce and last night got him to humour me and share his journey.

When and how did your Munro journey begin?

August 2009. Clare and I used to do a lot of mountain biking and regularly went to Fort William. On hearing we were going to Fort William on holiday, we were often asked if we were going up Ben Nevis, so on one trip we decided to. We got views, didn’t injure ourselves falling off anything, unlike on the bikes, and enjoyed the experience. (Clare: although not so much the following day when we couldn’t get down the stairs without walking backwards)

Although it took a further 3 years to do the second munro, we decided that climbing munros would be a very good way for us to see Scotland. 

What have been the highlights over the years?

There are too many to mention, but becoming an awful lot more knowledgeable of my home country and making a lot of new friends along the way.

Do you have a favourite Munro?

No, I think the munros very much depend on the conditions that you climb them. Some days are better than others and your favourites tend to be on the days with the best conditions.

However, doing the Aonach Eagach Ridge (this is the U.K. mainland’s narrowest ridge, linking the munros of Meall Dearg and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh) was one of my favourite days and a turning point as I realised rather than being scared of scrambling and exposure I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. (Clare: There’s no way you’d get me near the Aonach Eagach; I feel sick looking at these pictures!)

This was to prove invaluable experience when tackling the Black Cuillin on Skye. 

Are there any other highlights? 

Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe on a beautiful May Day holiday when you could see for miles:

Slioch beside Kinlochewe after a night of heavy snow:

Lochnagar on New Year’s Day with the supermoon rising as we walked back along the edge of Loch Muick meaning we didn’t need to use the head torches:

Ben More on Mull where we climbed through the cloud and got a 360 degree cloud inversion:

Geal Charn, beside Loch Laggan, when the American Thunderbirds (US red arrows) flew right over our heads:

Beinn Alligin, my first trip to Torridon, such a spectacular area:

I’ve been really lucky to have so many highlights.

Have there been any low points?

Thankfully not many. There have been a few days where the weather started badly and got worse, with days turning into a wet boggy trudge, but we generally used these days with poor visibility as a test of navigation.

Probably the low point was when I witnessed a companion slipping and falling around 60 feet down cliffs on the Black Cuillin on Skye. I had no idea of the extent of his injuries and spent a highly emotional few hours walking back to my car as our guide waited with him for Mountain Rescue to make a helicopter recovery. Thankfully I discovered later that evening that his injuries, albeit serious, were not life-threatening and he’s since made a full recovery.

What was your longest day in the hills?

Fourteen hours, when I did the Fisherfield round covering 5 munros in one day. We walked out, wild camped, then climbed the 5 munros before having to make 2 river crossings, the first of which I fell into, to make the return to our camp. We waded across the second in the dark, so I was rather wet by the time I got back to my tent.

There have also been two 12 hour days – one covering the Ben Alder 6 with a cycle out and back in high summer (Clare: When it was first suggested that we might consider the 6 munros rather than the planned 4 there were various thoughts in my head, none of them polite! However, it turned into one of the best hill days I’ve experienced):

Another was when I did all 9 of the Fannichs in a day, the most munros I’ve covered in one go. It poured all day and we got no views at all! That day certainly tested map and compass skills.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in taking up hill walking?

  1. Learn the basics – how to use a map and compass.
  2. Spend the most money you can on boots as you could be wearing them for a long day.
  3. Never be afraid to turn back. The hills will always be there another day. 

On that note, have you ever had to turn back on a day out?

Thankfully not too many times but I turned back on Beinn Bhuide during a complete white-out, despite the fact that it was a very long walk in before we even started ascending. We turned back at just over 700 metres, probably less than an hour from the top. I went back a few weeks later and had one of the best winter walks I’ve ever had with blue skies and great visibility which I’d have missed out on had we continued that first day.

What’s been your best purchase – clothing and kit?

On clothing, possibly my Berghaus Light Hike waterproof trousers. They pack down really small and are so light you hardly notice you’re wearing them. They’re a perfect fit for me and despite several holes and a repaired 6 inch split after an ice axe arrest practise went wrong (Clare: duct tape is your friend!), they’re still totally waterproof and going strong. They don’t make them anymore, so when I saw a company on Amazon selling them off last year I had to buy another pair for when my current ones finally get binned. 

On the equipment side, I bought a basic Garmin GPS (eTrex 10) many years ago as a back-up to using a map and compass. It’s clarified positions and routes we want to travel many times and is worth it’s weight in gold.

What’s in your rucksack that you wouldn’t be without?

Everything! I regularly go through my rucksack to make sure everything is being used. Other than First Aid stuff, if there’s anything I’ve not used in the last 2 or 3 walks it gets taken out.

Do you have any favourite walking websites?

WalkHighlands is a fantastic source of information on all things hill walking: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk

MWIS is my go to for what weather to expect, along with the Met Office that now has forecasts for individual munro tops: https://www.mwis.org.uk https://www.metoffice.gov.uk

SAIS (Scottish Avalanche Information Service) is an essential site to check before going into the hills in winter: https://www.sais.gov.uk

Hill Lists is a fantastic App for tracking which hills you’ve climbed.

I’m sure there are others, but they’re my go-tos. 

What’s next on the agenda?

Next on the agenda is to re-climb some of the munros that I didn’t get any views from, along with revisiting some of my favourites. A few non hill walking friends have expressed a desire to climb a munro so I’ll be making a point of joining them on some of their initial ventures out into the hills.

For anyone reading this who’s inspired to try a munro, what’s a good hill to start with or what should they avoid? 

Know your limits. Consider your experience and fitness levels. Initially go out with someone with experience. Start with something small and easy and work up from there. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a munro as a lot of these are long days. Make sure you enjoy it before committing to a long and strenuous day. 

Finally, which munro are you most looking forward to climbing again?

The next one!

Tyndrum, Days 4-6 (‘Spring’ holiday)

Day 4: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy
Having very much enjoyed the last few days but feeling somewhat tired, I’d resolved last night that today would be a day off. The original plan had been to have breakfast, read my book (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) and go for a run along the West Highland Way. The weather forecast went in my favour though as with high winds and rain to come, Bruce opted to have a ‘rest’ day too so I had company for a walk instead.

Thus, after another excellent breakfast (freshly baked trout for him & porridge, fruit, scones and yogurt for me, no chance of starving when staying with Heather at Tigh-Na-Fraoch, we headed off along the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy. This is a fine easy walk, all the more so when the legs are weary, and we made good time.

At Auch we diverted to recce the river crossings for Beinn Mhanach, a potential walk for the coming days. Our concern was that the river may be in spate due to the rise in temperatures, and while it wasn’t excessively high it was quite fast flowing. The decision was made to leave this for a summer day instead.

West Highland Way: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy
WHW Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy

Heading back onto the trail, we passed the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and continued up the WHW to get to the viewpoint, stopping for photos before heading back to the bar.

As always along the way, there were some friendly folks to chat to – these three turned out to be in the same boat as us, walking the hills and staying lower because of the weather.

Heading off we went out early to catch the bus. Having successfully hitchhiked from this point previously I suggested that we should try to thumb a lift ahead of the bus to save a few bob! In the ten minutes we had two cars stop – the first, a mountain biker who was willing to rearrange his car (and bike) to fit us in – we declined as with the bus being imminent it seemed rather unfair on him; the second was two ice climbers who’d been on Ben Nevis and were heading back down South. We were delighted, simple pleasures, and enjoyed the chat on the road back to Tyndrum. As we walked back towards our B & B the bus passed. Thankfully their car was long gone!

To complete the circle, I can now add retrospectively that we came home via Bridge of Orchy in order to return the favour, giving a lift along to a lovely young American couple who had decided to knock a few miles off their long day. Balance is restored!

Day 5: Beinn Achaladair & Beinn a’Chreachain
It was one of those perfect hill days according to the weather forecasters (Met Office, I hasten to add, not MWIS) – not too windy, foggy for starting out but due to clear with the prospect of sun. It was therefore a no-brainer for us. We needed to do something scenic and may as well go for a big day out!

Off once agaain the first challenge of the day was to be the river crossing at the Water of Tulla. We walked up and down for a bit trying to find a good crossing place.

Heading out to Beinn Achaladair (in search of a crossing place)

Options were limited, with deeper water in places and a lack of stones within jumping distance; I can run but I’m not blessed with the ability to jump or throw! Bruce eventually bit the bullet and crossed, only dipping one leg in to the knee which with his gaiters on wasn’t too bad. Me, being a bit more cautious and accident prone, walked further upstream, walked some more, and finally had to strip off more of my clothes than I’d like in order to don a spare pair of liner socks and wade across, very grateful that there was nobody else around for all our sakes. It wasn’t as cold as anticipated but seeing the supportive husband capturing the moment on camera tipped me over the edge and provoked an impressive array of colourful language!

Safely across, I dried off and dressed. We proceeded to follow the path around, eventually starting to gain some height. The path went on to climb pretty relentlessly and unfortunately there was no sign of the fog burning off.

Eventually reaching the ridge of Beinn a’Chreachain, still in the fog and with tricky underfoot conditions – lots of snow which was a little slidey in places – we opted for the precautionary measure of both the ice axe and crampons. This should have been spectacular but instead was somewhat scary; the ridge narrowed, the wind got up and it wasn’t clear how far the drop was due to the lack of visibility. Once again I was venturing out with my comfort zone.

Heading up Beinn a'Chreachain

The ridge soon widened and we made it up to the first munro summit of the day. The wind was still strong so we chose not to linger here, instead just pausing for a quick photo before battling on.

Summit of Beinn a'Chreachain

Dropping down was easy enough, the snow assisting with a quick descent before the steep climb to our second summit, Beinn Achaladair began. This was really daunting, appearing just to keep going up into the fog. The fact that the drops were again not visible, combined with a gradient that would challenge me on a fine day, never mind a day like this with snow covering the slopes, again led me to feel a little less than delighted to be here. Ultimately there wasn’t a whole lot of option but to keep going as the prospect of trying to retrace our steps did not appeal either!

Tricky navigation between Beinn a'Chreachain and Beinn Achaladair in snow & fog

Climbing into the cloud we did finally reach a flatter plateau and found the summit. Again, only time for a quick photo stop. Shortly after we paused to put on our waterproof trousers to try and combat the windchill. It really was getting quite bitter and any pause led to slight shivering and feelings of cold seeping in. Top tip for putting your waterproofs on a windy summit: sit on your rucksack; that way nothing’s blowing away, even if there is the danger of squishing any remaining food!

The hard part over, the crampons came off. The snow had softened again which meant that going downhill our feet sunk in well. I felt comforted by this as I figured that worse case scenario I could sit down and stall myself by sinking in should I slip, hopefully not going too far. Thankfully this wasn’t required.

Very snowy descent from Beinn Achaladair

The descent was fairly quick with regular checks of the bearings to ensure we were headed in the right direction. Finally we dropped out of the fog and could see the path ahead which was very refreshing indeed! By this point we only had a few miles left and I was no longer phased by anything! Stream crossing? Wade through it! Snow covering a burn? I’ll take my chances, fall through it and sink in to my knees. What’s the worst that can happen?

Coming off Beinn a'Chreachain

I can’t begin to express how happy I was to see the road appear in the distance and to know that the end was in sight. The day, according to Walk Highlands, should have taken around 7 hours. They’re usually pretty accurate and we finish within their forecasted times, but today was an 8.5 hour day for us.

In all honesty, it’s probably one of the toughest days I’ve done in the hills and again one that pushed me to my limits. Am I glad I did it though? Definitely yes, especially when safely home reflecting on the day with a glass of wine in hand. Amazing how a couple of hours can change perspective on things!

Day 6: Beinn Fhionnlaidh
We headed for Beinn Fhionnlaidh as it was an ‘easy’ munro – relatively short distance and not too long.

A fine easy start, we began by heading along a road towards the estate houses. From here it was quite a steady ascent which felt steep, but this could be due to the miles already in the legs. Mercifully, and for reasons unknown, this was incredibly dry! This was a real treat after all the boggy ground we’ve had.

Progressing upwards, we were slow and steady. It was around 500 m before we started to get cold as it was very windy indeed! The jackets went on here and the hood went up as it’s a struggle to see with hair all over your face! It’s one of the rare times I envy my follically challenged husband!

Heading up to Beinn Fhionnlaidh, decent paths for a munro

The route continued climbing steadily, we passed a couple of wee lochans, and the ground became stonier. The surprising thing was that there was very little snow. Thus, we’d carried our crampons and ice axes for nothing – this was in itself a pleasant surprise.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, summit cairn approaching

Continuing to the summit, the views were absolutely stunning! We saw Ben Nevis, Mull, and so many mountains around the Glencoe area. Beautiful! While Bruce captured the views I sat down having been blasted against the trig point by the wind, increasing my sense of vulnerability.

Amazingly enough, as we turned and made our way down the wind completely died. It was quite surreal having been buffeted all the way up. This allowed us to progress at a leisurely pace and stop to enjoy lunch in the sunshine. Beyond this it was a fairly easy walk, quickly descending back towards the estate houses.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, descent from the plateau

What a way to finish the holidays! A truly spectacular day!