The lure of the wide open spaces...

Ben Alder.
Ben Alder.

O.S. Sheet 43, Grid Ref: 639820, Distance: 11. 75 miles/ 19 kil, Height 824 m/ 2703 ft

There are some hills, climbed during earlier days in pursuit of the Munroist’s ‘Holy Grail’, that I have vowed never to climb again; rounded humps and lumps mostly with little to offer other than a number ticked off in a list. Nowadays I prefer to spend my time on mountains with at least some character; there are more than enough of those to keep any hillman happy for a lifetime.

And yet...and yet!

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been through Drumochter Pass. Every visit has me staring affectionately at A’ Mharconaich, Beinn Udlamain, Sgairneach Mhor, The Boar and The Sow, or Meall na Leitreach and The Fara. All these hills I’ve explored often and shall be happy to do so again.

Across the road runs the dull seeming heathery slopes of A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag and Carn a’ Caim, hills I bagged many years ago in foul, viewless weather; then I’d promised myself: ‘never again!’

So what was I doing up there again just a few weekends ago? The answer, I suspect, lay in the lure of the wide open spaces, spaces I’d never properly explored. On the strength of the fact that up there somewhere lurked an un-bagged Top, I persuaded my brother to revisit those ‘drab’ Munros.

There used to be a quartz mine close to the saddle between those two hills; a good track, well maintained (nowadays, I suspect, by deer stalkers and shepherds), still goes there; it makes for a quick and easy ascent.

But we hadn’t climbed far before we had to stop! It was the rising sun. Pausing to look back over the ground we’d covered we saw as fine a mountain sunrise scene as you’ll ever see. A’ Mharconaich is my favourite A9 hill; just now all we saw of her was her broad head and spacious shoulders, shoulders which curled themselves protectively around a fine high corrie; nothing more was needed. The sun had popped the horizon just enough to pierce the cloud and lick those summit slopes of A’ Mharconaich with a wash of pure honey, the mountain’s corrie was a pot of gold.

We arrived at the extensive plateau where our two hills meet; the battle between the sun and clouds was on. To enjoy a walk up here you need extensive views, we had them on and off. The best was the panorama beyond the A9 hills, where giant Ben Alder, separated from its lofty neighbours by the deep cleft of the Bealach Dubh, threw up a wall against the rest of Western Scotland.

The way towards Carn A’ Caim’s summit lay gently, across a wilderness of peat and grass. At a tiny lochan we surprised a greenshank, possibly one of the first of these beautiful waders to have arrived here after its winter sojourn by the sea . A few moments later we startled a lone stag; one look at us and he was off, trotting over the uneven ground with that graceful, high kneed trot that gives the species such an effortless seeming turn of speed.

A thin veil of mist annoyed us as far as the summit’s little cairn; we tapped the crowning stone and wandered over to the nearby corrie lip. This north facing corrie is probably the mountain’s finest feature. A grand heathery bowl, it led our eyes over similar terrain to nearby Meall Chuaich, bleak today save for the little black lochan nestling at its toes.

Betraying wintry showers, a rainbow arced across the farther Monaliath, a range of hills as grey as their name in today’s shifting light, while, in the middle distance, sleepy Dalwhinnie’s distillery pagoda looked out of place.

Not far below us, like a sentry on a plinth of rock, a golden eagle perched, scrutinising the corrie floor with nature’s sharpest eyes. It saw us! Huge wings flapped slowly; easily it rose a foot or two then ponderously floated on the corrie air. I’ve seen many eagles in the hills, but this was the first time from above. We gazed down on this one as it glided at mid corrie height to finally disappear around a corner in the outer bowl.

As we made our way back and on towards A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag, we saw, milling about the distant skyline, a sizeable herd of hinds. The wind in our faces, they hadn’t scented us; they gazed our way though, curious, ears twitching, everything about them thoroughly alert. Soon they disappeared over the horizon; we saw no other deer that day.

The most obvious features of these East Drumochter Munros are the deep, ravine like gullies which claw into the hillsides. We found the top of one of these, a rapidly descending little glen. A little path led down to an obviously artificial collection of stones, a wall built by stalkers to protect them at their lunch. We were glad of the shelter; since leaving Caim’s summit the wind had steadily built and was already at the buffeting stage.

On our first visit to these hills we’d had to resort to compass work, we’d floundered a little. Today the summit was plain to see; as with Carn a’ Caim, a small rise for a Munro. Track and path led us on easily, past the little pile of quartz stones that marks A’ Bhuidheanach’s little rise and up onto A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag’s own stony summit.

Plenty of cloud dulled things down; Loch Garry, stretched out below the flank of Meall na Leitreach, looked gloomy. As did our final Top, Glas Mheall Mor.

We reached this grassy lump over featureless, mostly pathless wastes of peat and heather.

My chief reason for coming to this Top was the view into the east. Those views were tantalizing, reviving memories of long summer days out to An Dun and the hills around Loch an Duin and beyond.

The sun had given up, at least for a while and a wicked wind kept us moving. Summit bagged we retraced our steps to the Munro, by-passing its summit cairn for a feint path through quartz rubble and a slightly more sheltered journey back as far as A’ Bhuidheanach.

And now at last the wind began to lose its venom, the sun made ever deeper inroads into the cloud, always the case, it seems, near the end of a mountain day. We dropped down the west side of the hill on a broad ridge of short, wind clipped heather.

Here and there vestiges of path, probably animal engineered, kept parallel with the nearby track; the going was good, much of the way we ran.

Two other walkers had been on the hill that day, we’d met them near the summit of our second Munro; they’d evidently come up from the south. They reached the roadside just before us.

Our car sat in the lay-by where we’d started, just across the road.

We didn’t envy those other two; their car was some miles back down the A9, almost at the opposite end of the Drumochter Pass!