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The last ten Munros

Diary extracts from closing a tenth round of Munros, September to November 2018

photo by Craig Allardyce
photo by Craig Allardyce

Written by Hazel Strachan.

Photos by Hazel Strachan, Tim Hall and Craig Allardyce

Beinn Bhuidhe, Beinn Ime, Ben Narnain, Ben Vane, Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne Bheinn, Meall Buidhe, Ben Cruachan, Stob Diamh and Carn an Tuirc

‘Only ten Munros… Just ten Munros. That is all.’, I wrote in my diary in the middle of September 2018. I was on the verge of fulfilling an ambition to climb, to ‘complete’, all of Scotland’s 282 mountains over a heightof 3,000 ft for a tenth time. One ‘round’ of climbing all 282 mountains was never going to be enough for me. I was poised to become the fifth person,(first woman) to do this.

 It’s customary to throw a party or at least open a bottle of Champagne at the summit to celebrate the end of a journey climbing the Munros.

 How easily was Igoing to find it to climb these last hills? Was the weather going to take me bysurprise and prove to be the biggest challenge to planning abilities? It was early autumn, a season which can be counted on to providing some beautifulstill days in amongst incoming wet weather from the Atlantic.

Thursday 27thSeptember 2018.

Diaries out tonight. I’m a bit worried in case work spills over into the weekends because the weather has been abysmal this September to make any headway with outdoor work. I’ve set my ‘compleation’ party date for the 3rd November. The date feels far away just now but I may just need all the available time. I need three days to get into Knoydart to climb Ladhar Bheinn, Luinne bheinn and Meall Buidhe – the crux of the ten mountains. Their remote location and westerly situation could prove to be a problem If the weather isn’t reasonable. It’s agamble which goes with having to climb specific mountains within a time scale. Raincould shroud the far west from Mallaig up to Skye for days. Carn an Tuirc in Glenshee will be my last Munro – an easy short ascent with ample parking so my non-hillwalking friends can come along. It’s a central location to travel to from anywhere in the country, and being easterly there is a better chance of adry day.

Saturday 29th September. Climb Beinn Bhuidhe. 

I changed over the plans for each of the days of the weekend; poorer weather of low mist then rain for Saturday, brighter but gusty for Sunday. I’ll leave the better day to Climb Beinn Narnain, Ben Ime and Ben Ime as it is a longer day out. The views down Loch Lomond and Loch Long aretremendous, a vista worth saving for a good day.

I didn’t expect the mist to swath the hills almost down to the bottom of the glen. Once I left the track at Inverchorachan  I followed the small path up the side of the burn right up onto the face of the mountain. I relaxed and enjoyed the autumnal colours in the small world around me.Conditions were windless. I loved feeling the awareness of my body moving over the rough path. I ascended 3,000ft with ease.  

There was strong wind on the summit so I didn’t linger. Still no rain but the mist was damp.  I moved quickly down into the windless vacuum of the side of the mountain.

Sunday 30th September. Climb Beinn Narnain, Beinn Ime and Ben Vane

The best place to be at moment was lying face down on the steep ground. I hadn’t expected the strong gusts blowing between BeinnChorranach and Ben Vane. Showers blasted in with the wind and stung my eyes. Justas quickly as the wind came it disappeared. I had started walking fromInveruglass in the half light of dawn. The cold wind had been increasing as I had ascended Beinn Narnain. Cloud held off the summit until the last 200ft of Beinn Ime. A quick calculation of a compass bearing and it wasn’t long till I was back out of the greyness of the mist into the dull autumn colours. I had to adjust my hat and hood as the wind was blowing straight into my face. The Tyndrum Hills were shrouded in cloud. I was glad to be on hills so far to the south which, by their nature and location, didn’t hold as much cloud.

I picked myself up only to be knocked back onto to the ground.  I would be back on the ground orelse bracing myself against the wind a couple more times on the gnarly back off Ben Vane. The summit came quickly. Climbing into a notch between two rocks Iwas finally out of the grasp of the cold wind and I have a late lunch. To my amazement, as I descended down the gnarly twisting path, there was very little wind on this side of the mountain.

Saturday 22nd September. Climb Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh.

I’ve not often traversed Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh in the summer as I love saving it for a winter traverse. I walked out from a sea of cloud along the top of Cruachan dam. The summits rose up into the blueness of the noon sky. I hadn’t started to walk until mid – morning as the forecast waspoor. Unfortunately I was to summit Cruachan in thick mist; a band of cloud hadswallowed up the ridge. I climbed down the narrow chimney down onto the path,the usual route in winter as the south face is banked up with snow I followed the distinct path for the rest of my time on the ridge.

looking back to Ben Cruachan – 23rd September 2018
looking back to Ben Cruachan – 23rd September 2018

Not long afterwards the cloud cleared away to above the summits. It is only when  I was starting to descend from Stob Diamh that the summits became shrouded in cloud once again.I’ve been so lucky today, the wind speed is low, the views beautiful all around. It’s not easy fitting such a high west coast peak into a short timescale and getting good weather. I hadn’t been expecting to have left So Many West Coast Mountains until the end of the round but that is how it’s turned out. Today I’m lucky, very lucky.

Wednesday 3rd October.

The weather forecast is looking good; in fact it’s simply fantastic- a weather window sandwiched between days of endless rain and strongwinds.  A consistent line of ‘E’ forexcellent visibility in the weather forecast; wind speeds are dropping throughout Friday into Saturday. A summit bivvy is a distinct possibility; I feel excited at the possibility. Temps will be freezing and below, wind chilldown to -5C on the summits. By 8 pm I’m packed. I’ve remembered my down booties for additional comfort for the two nights I’ll be out. I’ve been through my check list in my head to make sure all is packed; route plans have been discussed with Ian, my husband, and he has a paper copy of my route.

Thursday 4th October.

I can’t remember the last time I was THIS tired after  a short week at work. I need a good sleep tonight. The next two days are going to be a lot of climbing and the last thing I want to be is tired before I’ve set off. I’m parked up at Kinloch Hourn, currently sitting in the boot of the car wrapped in my sleeping bag. It’s raining.

Friday 5th October. Climb Luinne Bheinn and Meall Buidhe.

I walked into Barrisdale Bay in sunshine. This must be one of the most beautiful bays in Scotland. Ladhar Bheinn was reflected in pools of water on the beach which had been left by the receding tide. Nobody around. I felt nervous – not because of the remoteness of this place but because of what walking over these three Munros meant to me. I’m never this nervous in the hills. I need to summit all three Munros or it might be hard finding the timeto get back here.

looking towards Ben Lomond from Ben Vane, 30th September

The first of the big hail showers hit as I was near the summit Luinne Bheinn: a huge dark grey curtain filled the glen. I turned to face theslope so the hail wouldn’t sting my eyes. There were to be numerous showers driving through for the rest of the day; double rainbows would fill the glensby nightfall.

Thin mist was tickling the summit of Meall Bhuidhe as I reached the summit of Luinne Bheinn. I was feeling happy and strong; the views were uplifting, simply stunning.  Another hour and the mist would have dissipated from the summit. I headed down into a wet bealach before weaving my way around bands of rock onto the connecting ridge.

Loitering is the best word to describe my half hour I spent on the summit. A view to Ladhar Bheinn finally opened up. It was beautiful – a huge mountain, ragged ground formed its ridges; beyond the high ground of Kintail formed the distant horizon. More sleet drove in on bands of showers.There was not enough shelter on the summit slope for an evening bivvy so I decided to head back down the ridge as I had spotted a couple of potential places to spend the night if the summit was going to be unsuitable.

lookingto Ladhar Bheinn on 5th October.

Saturday 6th October. Climb Ladhar Bheinn.

There was a light dusting of snow on the summit of MeallBuidhe. I slept right through last night’s weather. Cool morning but I was warm as I packed away my bivvy. Mirrored surfaces to the lochans, cloud starting to tease the surrounding summits as I headed for Mam Barrisdale. By lunchtime I was ascending up onto Stob a’ Chearchaill and cloud was swirling round about me. At times it lifted high above me, only to descend and obliterate the mountains around me. I would have loved to have reached the summit, like somany other times, with a view of the jagged horizons of mountains around me.

Hands on rocks, a couple of long reaches, a step and I was up on the summit ridge.

Sunday 7th October.

The first rain drops on my bivvy bag woke me up. Not even the noise of the tide could stir me from my deep sleep during the night. I wriggled out from my bivvy bag to be greeted by low cloud blanketing the mountains. By the time I had quickly packed up the air was heavy with fine drizzle. Only a two hour walk back to the car. I was changing my footwear at the car when a dog walker greeted me with ‘driving a car is the best place to be today’. It sure was, as I drove home in heavy rain. I feel calmness, a relief at being in a good place with how the month is progressing. What can possibly go wrong now?

bivvy site by Loch Hourn

Friday 12th October.

Storm Callum blew through today, the culmination to a week of incessant rain which was broken by an unexpected beautiful sunny day. An amber, be prepared for flooding warning was in force for wales and plenty of rain forthe rest of the UK.  If I hadn’t managed to get leave on Friday 3rd October I’ve have been toiling to squeeze Knoydart into a period of reasonable weather this month. Tomorrow I’m litterpicking on Ben Nevis on the Real 3 Peaks Challenge.

Real 3 Peaks Challenge 

Saturday 27th October.

A band of snow now swathes the mountains from Lochaber to the Cairngorms in the east. The Glenshee road was closed due to overnight snow.It’s October and this never happens in October! If I had scheduled to‘compleate’ today nobody would have been able to get to the bottom of Carn anTuirc let alone climb it. A lot of weather can push through in a week.

 Ladhar Bheinn

I bailed out of my plans for a bivvy up on Buachaille Etive Beag last night and stayed at home because the forecasted snow would extend through most of the evening. However the weather is stunning for today so head to Glencoe. I have a photo shoot with Andy Coxley from The Sunday Post in front of Buachaille Etive Mor. I never thought that I would be posing under the mountain which I completed on for a first Munro round thirteen years ago.

Monday 29th October.

There is a hint of bad weather for the weekend, the end of Hurricane Oscar is still lingering out in the Atlantic and there is uncertainty how much it will affect the UK.

Wednesday 31st October.

 I think I must have accessed every UK mountain weather forecast several times throughout the day for updates for the weather on Saturday. I’ve seen confirmation that there is a storm coming in on Friday night which would continue through out Saturday. Constant rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph are not conditions to be climbing mountains. By 6pm I had made up my mind to move the ascent of Carn an Tuirc to Sunday 4th November, the following day. It felt the right and obvious decision to make, a relief to take control of a disappointing situation. There can’t have been many Munro parties rescheduled over the years. Friends are travelling from all over. I was nervous messaging everybody about the change. I shouldn’t have worried. The feedback was extremely positive and many people hoping I would change the party day to the Sunday. I finally read the updated MWIS forecast – ‘winds 50-70, gusts 80 mph’ for Saturday – the best confirmation to move the day.

Saturday 3rd November.

A cake and coffee day in Ballater. Rain held off through theday. Wind increased just before bedtime and continued throughout the night. I woke up several times wishing the wind would drop.

Sunday 4th November. Climb Carn an Tuirc – final Munro

I pushed the car door against the wind to open it. The wind is strong but not as strong as what I was expecting. I had been worried aboutthe forecast – no rain now but winds 45 mph, gusts 55mph – still strong; walking still possible although likely to be arduous. Only when I started walking I was able to relax and realise that the day was manageable. I was more worried what the others would think and be able to deal with the conditions.

There were 20 friends with me. Once we had been walking foran hour there was a line of bodies were strewn out across the hillside. As Ilooked to the silhouette of the stony slope I knew just how little of the hill there was left to ascend. Thoughts about the strength of the wind disappeared; I was filled with a sense of happiness and peace.

I dropped my rucksack on to the ground. Not far now – 30 steps. There was the summit cairn before me. People moved and formed an arch from walking poles and then the cheering started.  I walked, focused on the pile of stones ahead. A big smile and a complete feeling of Joy. I touched the top of the pile of stones. All finished, all ‘completed’. A sense of relief that all had gone well today and on all the other days which I had been on the hills. What a marvellous journey I’ve had.