It can take a lot of plotting, planning and scheming to find a way into one of the most spectacular pieces of wilderness in Scotland.
Unless you have the time and energy to carry a pack for days, you first have to negotiate your way through a padlocked gate which bars entry to most vehicular traffic. Local knowledge and being able to utter the “magic words” overcame that controversial barrier.
But the first 16 miles of bumpy road up the Glen Strathfarrar track were just the beginning. More scheming had resulted in a rendezvous and the opportunity to hitch a lift on a boat all the way up remote Loch Monar.
View from my tent on the shore of Loch Calavie
That gave us a fascinating insight into the way of life for folk who live up here all year round and a summit by summit commentary.
By the time we reached the stalkers’s house at Pait and finally heaved on our rucksacks to walk five miles further to Loch Calavie we had taken a few shortcuts and learned a lot. Choosing a campsite beside the loch was a great piece of advice.
We pitched our tents near the shore and set off on the slog up Lurg Mhor, the 986m hill which rises straight up from the loch. It’s known as Scotland’s most remote Munro and it’s a steep pull up to the summit cairn.
From here we were close to the neighbouring and (to me at least) terrifying Meall Mhor summit. I preferred to turn my back on it and look west instead, over the sea to Rum, Skye and the wonder of the jaggy Cuillin Ridge.
Evening view to Skye and the west from the top of Lurg Mhor
We considered tackling Bidean a’Choire Sheasgaich. It was close but would require another couple of hours of effort at the end of an already long day.
Instead we enjoyed the long walk back across a mossy hillside carpeted with wild flowers to stop for the day and cook down beside the water. I fell asleep to the sound of birds and the scent of a Highland hillside in June. No midges. No phone signal or internet access. Just peace and the stars.
I bought OS Landranger Map 25 today: Glen Carron and Glen Affric.
Which means I’ve spent hours drooling over mountains, stalker tracks and hill lochs, plotting routes, camping places and the key approaches to some of Scotland’s most remote Munros.
In gaelic they sound romantic: Carn nan Gobhar, Sgurr na Lapaidh, An Riabhachan and An Socach. They dominate the high wilderness between Loch Mullardoch and Loch Monar in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, miles from human settlement. If there’s time in our five day hike there’s also Lurg Mhor and Bidean a’ Coire Sheasgaich which stretch above remote Loch Calavie.
But the excitement of poring over the map and finally tackling these hills after talking about climbing them for more than 20 years is tempered with a little fear. Exposed ridge walks link some of them and are part of the deal, so I need to overcome the instinct to stay away from huge drops.
I won’t know how I’ll cope until I get there but (with a lot of teeth gritting) I did succeed in walking New Zealand’s Kepler Track ridge last December – largely because once I’d started the thought of returning over the same ground was too awful to contemplate.
Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull said: “Argue for your limitations and sure enough they’re yours”.
Well, in this year of getting on and doing the things I’ve always said I wanted to do, there’s no place to hide. No excuses.
We leave on Sunday.
When you welcome the sight of an open-sided agricultural shed spattered with wet hen dung as though it’s a four-star hotel you know you’re in trouble.
It had been a long day and Lone Bothy was locked (and uninhabitable anyway), the rain was bucketing down, a gale was howling and we were chilled and hungry. Options were somewhat limited. So we brewed up some soup in the shed and debated what to do. My main objection to sleeping there was the strutting cockered who was proclaiming his presence and would do so again, repeatedly, from around 4am. I also figured the tent could only be warmer.
The stalker turned up in his truck and we chatted about deer numbers on the high hills while we cooked our dinner in his shed. He described the growing pressure from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to cull ever higher numbers of hinds to protect vegetation – something he was reluctant to do.
He seemed pretty relaxed about us using his Argocat as a clothes drying horse and makeshift sitting room then he looked out at his hills, cheerfully forecast more snow, wished us luck and headed off to a cosy house somewhere down the glen. We looked at one another and laughed but the tent ended up doing a great job and we were warm and dry in the morning.
We didn’t take time to search for fresh eggs for breakfast (although he said we were welcome to them if we could find them) but the cockerel and his small harem tucked in to our leftovers.
We looked around and considered. The weather was closing in and we would have no more shelter for another two days so reluctantly we decided to pull out and complete the route another time.
There would be one bus passing through Achfary at 9.30am which would take us to Lairg and from there we could catch a train to Inverness.
I left the glen reluctantly, looking wistfully up to Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven. And vowed I’d be back.
Back in the bothy we were shivering. The air was damp and our bags had been too heavy to carry fuel for the fireplace. Yet our timing had been only slightly out as I’d met people on the hill who’d had a great roaring coal fire and company the previous evening. But we were alone with only matches and a few kindlers to burn. It was barely enough.
We boiled water, made soup and pasta then at 8pm, wearing every piece of warm clothing in our rucksacks, we crawled into sleeping bags to drink hot chocolate. It was bedtime in the bothy.
Just before midnight I woke up. A full howling storm was battering our tiny stone house, torrents of rain pelting down on the noisy metal roof and rattling windows which looked out to the dark hulk of mountain. I lay and listened, absorbing the full might of the weather and idly pondering (as you do through the night) how the modern roof was attached to the ancient walls and just how secure it might be. Occasionally there would be a respite and then the wind whirled around us, sucking up enough energy to batter and blast with wave after relentless wave of fury. Rain soaked in under the shaking doorway and somewhere at the far end of the bothy another door banged all through the night.
How fortunate that we had retraced our steps and not camped as originally planned. It would mean an extra few kilometres walking in the morning but for now we were safe and dry. And finally warm.