I met Paul, Andy, Vilma, Rita and Christine at the car park at the Cluanie Inn, along with Hugh, who is a trainee Mountain Leader about to take his assessment. He was looking for what are known as Quality Mountain Days, or Q.M.D's, which are a pre-requisite of a Mountain Leader assessment as demonstration of experience and learning. I knew we would indeed have two quality mountain days!
We set off along the road to warm our legs for the grassy climb up Route One onto the SE ridge of A'Chralaig, our first munro. The weather was cool but sunny, with a fresh NW breeze, ideal for keeping the midges off. Rita and Vilma are from Lithuania, and I was surprised they were so well wrapped up, as I presumed living alongside the Baltic, they would be accustomed to the cold. They are of course, but see us Brits as quite eccentric in our ability to withstand the cold and wear little, rather than defend against it as they do. I promised them they would soon be stripping off layers, and sure enough they did, and even got down to only three layers, whilst I had on a vest!!
The views got ever better once we gained the ridge, with Ben Nevis's silhouette clear to the South, and the whole of Kintail looking stunning with the definition from the clouds. The summit soon came, with the most splendid cairn, and we rested a while taking in the views, before setting off for the narrower Mullach Fraoch-coire. The ridge is a high promenade with big coires either side, and finishes with a little light scrambling on a narrow path before the summit. The team enjoyed this immensely, with plenty of time for photos.
After a break on the summit, it was down the broad N ridge in a direct line for the hostel. Beautiful Glen Affric stretched out to our right, and the mighty Sgurr nan Ceathremhnan in front, our objective for tomorrow. We sent a large herd of 50-60 hinds off in a run as we descended, and they circled us warily. Once through the thriving area of woodland regeneration common in the area, it was over the well-engineered bridge to the hostel, and a very warm welcome from Audrey the warden.
Alltbeithe is a gem, removed from the internet and mobile phone signals. Warmed by a wood-burning stove, and equipped with cooking facilities and clean water, it has all you need for a cosy evening's rest. The girls had brought some whisky too, (along with enough pasta to feed an army), so we slept soundly after a communal dinner and chat!
We set off early on Sunday, aware we had a big day ahead. The weather was cooler, maybe 12c, and around 8c on top. There was much lower cloud, so we only had brief glimpses of the grand coires, and we were in and out of waterproofs incessantly. We maintained a good pace all day, practicing timing our legs and other bits of navigation with Paul who was keen to learn. We bagged An Socach, then the long ridge of Mullach na Dheirigain, which is one of the most remote munros, as well one of the hardest to get to. A good prize for Hugh, Vilma and Rita as munro virgins! By the time we had reversed our steps and were on the NE ridge of our highest summit Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, we were beginning to feel it in our legs. Christine was steady and determined as usual, and had told us earlier that as she was a new Grandmother, she was to known as Grannie Mountain by her grandchildren. I didn't need encouraging to ensure she was reminded of her new name as we toiled up the final slopes, with a distinct running order randomly yet naturally decided by age!
As we topped out, we were almost above the cloud, and we were treated to a fog-bow, where the sun casts a shadow of the mountain onto the cloud, and you get a bright white arc. Poor Chris didn't manage to see it as we whooped, hollered and pointed as she climbed. After the group high-fives and photos on the summit, we set off down, but I suggested we should be on the lookout for brocken spectres, where the same phenomena gives an eerie halo to the shadow of a person on a cloud. Within minutes it happened, and this time Chris was lucky enough to see it, along with Paul, before the sun went in again.
We took Route One down into the coire before crossing over Stob Coire na Cloiche, and soon picked up the descent path back to Allbeithe. As we got below the cloud it warmed up, and even Vilma was down to just a base, mid-layer and down gilet! Once back at the hostel, we had a quick cuppa and snack, collected the gear we had left, said goodbye to Audrey, and set off for the Cluanie and the cars.
Now the walk from there over An Caorann Mor is wild and beautiful, but unfortunately dreadfully boggy. Add that to the fact we had heavy packs and legs that had been working for 9hrs already, and it would be fair to say we didn't exactly enjoy the walk out. It just goes on forever....and a wee bit longer than that! We made the Cluanie for 20:30, so only a wee bit outside our target time, but we joked that to look at a 12hr route in the comfort of your home weeks before seems fine - Once you have done it, you know you have earned your rest and ticks on the munro chart.
The steak and ale pie and pint in the Cluanie was a perfect end to a cracking weekend. Upper Glen Affric is not an easily won group of mountains, wild, remote and demanding. They feel all the better for it however, and I will remember that fog-bow summit for a good while. The company was excellent, and even despite that brutal walk out, I feel we may have some more mountain addicts in the making in our Lithuanian ladies. Welcome to the madness!