The sacrifices we south of the Border have to make at times to indulge our passions! As ever last minute hitches at work meant that I was leaving home later then planned on the Thursday evening. The aim was to climb both Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird together with all of their Munro tops. My companion for the trip was Jet, a three year old blue merle border collie who now is the only member of the family who will willingly come with me into the hills.
So the plan was to drive as far north as possible that evening/night, kip in the car and then make as early a start as possible the next day. If I went well I could perhaps stash the tent, stove, sleeping bag and some food somewhere to lighten the load and skip around the circuit and back to the tent.
The forecast was good for the Friday. But the weather was due to deteriorate late in the day with winds strengthening and the cloud lowering. The forecast for Saturday was not good with rain, strong winds and an MWIS 30% chance of a cloud free Munro.
As with most people I guess I was to approach this task from the south. So I parked at Keiloch, paid my £2.50 fee and used the facilities. I was off just before 8am having had to pack the gear that I had almost literally thrown into the car the previous day.
For the first couple of miles the route takes the form of a tarmac road past Estate buildings, including the Estate Office. It then passes around Invercauld House that is partly hidden by trees down to the left. It was a sunny prospect with white puffy clouds, though a bit chilly. After a while the route becomes a well graded land rover track which is why many cycle the approach. I had done this pair many years ago with the help of bikes with my wife and a friend. This was on a mad long weekend that involved Mullach na Dheiragain and the Glenfinnan pair, but that is another story.
The road is well signposted with paths off to Tomintoul via Loch Builg and to Linn of Quoich. It first passes though pleasant pine forest. Then after a wiggle around the holiday cottages it leads you through a further stretch of forest protected at either end by a deer fence and gates.
It was a perfectly pleasant track to walk along. Although I was carrying a load that was heavier than normal I kept a good pace. By now the dog was off the lead and happily investigating the various scents that lurked in the vegetation either side of the path.
The track leads past a further section of less attractive fir trees and the glen broadens out a bit and becomes a bit more desolate. The track undulates slowly gaining height. During this stretch a guy on a bike passed us. We said a few words and he was on his way, his aim Beinn a’Bhuird and perhaps Ben Avon.
Half a mile before Slugain lodge the track splits. The lower one turns into a path after a short while and leads past the ruined lodge; the upper one continues as a rougher and steeper land rover track for perhaps 600 yds beyond the lodge. The bottom of the glen narrows and is very attractive at this point, contrasting with the bare openness of the valley before and after this section.
Prior to reaching the lodge I registered a couple of spots that looked good for camping, including a part of the glen where the stream disappeared underground. In the vicinity of the lodge I hid the overnight gear, Jet fascinated with what I was doing and wondering if any of the food I was depositing was for him. It had taken 1hr 50mins to this point.
I continued on up the glen, still making quite good progress I thought with the lighter load. A couple hundred metres beyond the lodge the path makes a rising traverse above a reed filled lochan to meet the land rover track which then becomes a very well made path with drainage ditches. It passes over a broad col at around 1,960ft and loses a little height as it drops into Glen Quoich. I saw the cyclist a quarter of a mile off to the west. He had just crossed Quoich Water en route for his first objective. That was the last time I was to see anyone that day.
My first goal was Creag an Dail Mhor, the most southerly top of Ben Avon. The map shows a path running eastwards along its southern side. Indeed there is one, the junction with the path marked with a cairn. It looked a bit wet and was certainly rougher than the main path up the glen. In any event I had decided I would approach this top by leaving the main path further up the glen where it crosses the stream from the col between this top and Carn Eas. I stopped at this point briefly and refilled the water bottle.
There was a short steep pull up a soggy stretch. The terrain eased as I made my way on to the broad west ridge of Creag an Dail Mhor. There were a couple of small cairns en route but they did not seem to be significant in terms of direction finding. It was a little rocky underfoot but the weather was still great with a cool southerly breeze to keep any heat off.
I did not stay long at the first top and made my way quickly north to the col. There is a stream coming off Carn Eas just to the east of the col. I made my way there for a further refill and something to eat. It also avoided the steepest part of the slopes on and up.
Wider views started to open up to the south with the Lochnagar and Glenshee hills particularly prominent.
Approaching the top of Carn Eas the weird and wonderful landscape that is the summit plateau of Ben Avon came into view.
And off to the west the eastern corries of Beinn a’Bhuird displayed themselves in their splendour.
The main summit of Ben Avon is almost 4k across the plateau from the top of Carn Eas. The going is great with largely gravel and rough grasses. I found it straightforward enough just to make a bee line towards the summit. This took me across a stream just south of its source and then to the low point between the summit and the west top.
Time seemed to be moving a lot faster than I was by now – or perhaps I just underestimated the time it takes to cross these wide open spaces. My estimated arrival time at the summit had gone by. High clouds from the advancing front were moving in from the west. And the wind was strengthening, as was indeed forecast.
Well we made the base of the summit tor at just after 1pm. Time for some more food, oh and how to get Jet to the “real” summit. Well with some cajoling he did it. He wasn’t happy, but he made it kept on a tight lead. The panorama was, well, stunning.
Well I guess I am pleased with the SMC for having culled quite a few of Ben Avon’s tops from Munro’s Tables. But they did leave the two furthest outliers on the list. So now I had the small matter of visiting West Meur Gorm Craig and East Meur Gorm Craig. You only have to look at the map and the proposition appears daunting. It is a 4½ mile round trip with almost 600ft of re-ascent on the return to the main summit.
The dog was happy. And I guess I would have been but for the fact that the wind was strengthening, the clouds gathering and time continued to slip by. You cannot actually see the summits of these tops from the main summit. But the route is interesting. The ground becomes mossier and you pass by a series of tors. And whereas there is a bit of a motorway of a track leading to the main summit from The Sneck, all trace of human paths vanish as you trend eastwards, at least until you pick up a stalker’s path that runs over East Meur Gorm Craig to Big Brae.
I did West first and East second. I can tell you, you are a long way from anywhere once you get to either of these tops. And I was tired. Thank goodness Meall Gaineimh is not 10 feet higher.
I had toyed with approaching these tops from the north, but that would have left the southerly tops to deal with. So here I was on the outer reaches of the Ben Avon plateau suffering from just 5 hours sleep and a long walk to the middle of nowhere. To be frank the return back west became a bit of a plod where you summon up a gritty determination to proceed. I followed the stalker’s path back towards Big Brae. There is then an interesting feature where the stream has created a cutting where the going was good and I was sheltered from the wind that I was now walking into.
I had a further food stop on the final rise on to the main Ben Avon plateau. The dog curled up in a ball – not a great sign because that meant he was tired. And he never gets tired.
The climb up to and around the summit tor was not as bad as I expected, and into the wind. I munched dried fruits and nuts to keep the energy levels high. But I was not going fast. Just about two and a quarter hours after we had left the summit we were now by-passing it, a little to the north and on to the drop before The Sneck.
The path is quite eroded off the west top and down to The Sneck, a function no doubt of the fact that most Munro guidebooks take you up that way to Ben Avon. Even if you are not after all the tops, I would suggest that the approach via Carn Eas is of more interest, even in foul weather. It will then test your navigation skills!
The southerly wind was howling over the ridge. A decision had to be taken. I hunkered down behind some rocks. It was 4.30pm. My next objective was Stob an t-Sluichd which I could see temptingly a mile or so across the upper reaches of Garbh Coire. But there were also now a few spots of rain in the air and the clouds had gathered somewhat. On the other hand there was still plenty of daylight, but I reminded myself that the last forecast I had seen was not good for later in the day. But it was also not good for the following day. I had also not planned for two full days out in terms of food. My tent was three and a half miles to the south. And I was knackered.
What to do…?
…I had slept surprisingly well, that is after the battle with the zillions of midges that had frustrated attempts to put up the tent. They even had a go at the dog such that his coat became a writhing black mass.
I had chosen a nice spot just south of the ruins of Slugain Lodge to camp. This is where the stream disappears for a short distance underground. I had hoped that the relative lack of dampness there would mean that the little b*****s would be less bothersome, particularly as up in Glen Quoich there was a stiff breeze. It was not to be.
Fortunately a combination of insect repellent and a brief increase in the wind allowed for a hasty demolition of a meal and a hurried retreat into the confines of the tent unaccompanied by the terrors. I had bailed out of my intended sweep of Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird with all their attendant tops. Tiredness of body and mind, lack of motivation and deteriorating weather had clinched it. The three and a half miles from The Sneck to Slugain Lodge had passed by pleasantly enough. The clouds lowered and curtains of rain passed by to the south by way of justification of my decision.
There had been a respite whilst I was fighting off the be-toothed hoards and eating, but as I lay in my tent listening to the rain pattering on the fly that justification was confirmed. And I dozed off even though Jet had nicked my thermarest.
We were briefly disturbed around 11pm by lights passing by and Jet let out low growls, hackles raised. By then the rain had stopped. Oh well, I would have to hope the weather would be OK in the morning.
Decamping was swift because the enemy was still at large. I was off by 8am. Dark clouds hung heavily as I passed by the ruins…..
…. and the reedy pool a little further on.
A little beyond the junction with the land rover track that takes the high route above the Lodge, I met the threesome that had been responsible for the lights. They had dumped their bikes back by the Lodge and were finishing their breakfast. We had a brief chat and I continued.
The path towards Beinn a’Bhuird leaves the one that goes towards The Sneck at a small cairn and is a peaty trail through the heather. After the rain it was a bit squidgy. It takes a bit of a circuitous route down to a ford across the river. Although there had not been much rain, the water was quite lively. So I imagine that the crossing here can be difficult when it is truly in spate. I managed to get my left foot wet slipping off a rock. Meanwhile Jet happily splashed through the obstacle.
On the far side, I decided to have some breakfast whilst the clouds briefly broke up and allowed some patches of sunlight to slide along nearby hillsides. The main path down Glen Quoich is improved like the one towards The Sneck from here. But the way up Beinn a‘Bhuird continues along a further peaty path immediately on the other side of the river. At the start it looks more like a drainage ditch but as the heather shortens it becomes more pleasant to walk along. The path swings to the right, to the left and then to the right again and makes a long ascending traverse up the side of Carn Fiaclach on a good path.
With the added weight of the tent and other overnight gear it felt a bit of a grind up the slopes. Occasional showers passed by. Ahead the cloud base was just about at the level of the col between Carn Fiaclach and the main bulk of Beinn a’Bhuird. The poor dog plodded along just behind me. He too was out of energy.
The wind strengthened with the height gain. Just before the col I set bearings for the south top and from there the top of Coire an Dubh Loch. The slopes here are uniform and wide. The bearing kept me away from the steep broken ground shown on the map to the east and eventually to the cairn of the south top on the broad expanse of level plateau. I did not stop and set off northwards. I recalled the last time I had crossed the plateau on a day in May. Then the ground was two inches deep in snow melt. Today the ground was fine for my weary limbs. Shortly before reaching the corrie rim Jet disappeared in order to round up four walkers who were overhauling me.
There is a path along the corrie rim. This peters out as you cut across to the top of Coire nan Clach where it re-appears and takes you to the more substantial cairn on the main summit. “Summit” is a bit of a misnomer as it is just another high point on the plateau. It provided little shelter from the wind. The cloud remained down and beads of water from the dampness of the cloud covered Jet’s coat. We were glad of the break and joined the foursome. It was just midday.
We spent a good 20 minutes resting and feeding. There were hints of brightness but it was very chilly. Another walker joined having come from the east.
So the next objective was Stob an t-Sluichd, a top almost 2 miles to the north east. I set my compass to a point between two spot heights intending to pick up a stream that would then lead to the head of Garbh Choire. As it happened, that became superfluous. About 15 minutes after leaving the top the cloud broke up. There were clear views across to the east to Ben Avon and to the north. The top of Beinn a’Bhuird remained in cloud for the time being though. The terrain was easy, as were the gradients. It was as well.
Stob an t-Sluichd lies about 10 miles from Keiloch, which was my destination for the day. So there was a bit of a psychological barrier to overcome to generate the will to proceed that way – a 4 mile detour. From that northern arm of Beinn a’Bhuird Ben Avon presents it bulk across Garbh Coire with its tors on the skyline like castles.
Although it is such a long way off the normal bagger’s territory there was quite a strong path along the ridge of this top.
The western slopes of this top are the site of an aircraft crash. Pieces of the wreckage from 1945 remain there.
Nearby there is a memorial plaque.
The following sites provide more information on the circumstances surrounding the event.
I left Sron an t-Sluichd at around 1.35pm. There is around a 300 foot climb back over Cnap a’Chleirich. As I was fairly tired I thought about skirting this top to the north, but in the end (as the weather was improving) I thought I would take it in. So there follow some of the views from that top.
After a further intake of food (the last I had), it was off to the east on a good trail which led to the eroded section down to The Sneck. I had been here 16 hours earlier pondering whether I should be climbing up the way I had just come.
I knew I was tired. Because of this I did not take any more photos! My pace grew slower and slower. At Clach a’Chleirich, the erratic boulder at the end of the defile between Cnap a’Chleirich, Jet ignored a German Shepherd that bounded over playfully to him. He was shot too. It was still 7 miles back to the car.
From this point you reach the improved path. The old direct route up to the boulder is replaced by a sweeping zig and zag of the new path. The new path drops a couple of hundred feet to the valley floor. The scenery was splendid but I did not really appreciate it as different parts of my legs took turns at hurting more than others. A couple of pairs of walkers passed me, commenting on my large pack (I know). On the return I took the upper route around Slugain Lodge and met a threesome looking for the secret howff. The lower route is certainly the more picturesque.
On I went. And went. And went. I just wanted to be back at the car now. I sat down to rest on a couple of occasions. Even a couple of cyclists with flat tyres managed to overtake me! More cyclists came past. I was sorely tempted to relieve them of their bikes – but I would not have been able to move fast enough to do this. On I went passed the holiday cottages, eventually by Invercauld Lodge, and then into Keiloch.
The car park at last! Even then there was no relief. The midges would not allow me to deboot in peace. So sack and dog were thrown into the car (well not the dog) and I made my escape.
These are fabulous remote mountains – perhaps not as shapely as those in the west. But they have grand open aspects and plenty of interest to them. The original plan of mine was perhaps over ambitious. These mountains demand respect, and time, to appreciate.