Scottish Hills (7) – Ben Nevis

the route up ben nevis (scotland's highest peak) is an immaculate trail

The path from the youth hostel meets the Mountain Track

When, last summer, I was making a list of Scottish hills to climb on my upcoming trip, I picked those that had intrigued me when I hiked beneath them on my The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain journey in 2011. I chose handsome hills, remote ones, and summits likely to command magnificent views. Two hills made the list because I had once begun to climb them and now wanted to finish the job.

Ben Nevis doesn’t really fit with any of these criteria. Handsome? Perhaps, but more like bulky. Remote? No. It’s right next to Fort William. Views? Far more often than not The Ben is wrapped in cloud. I certainly didn’t catch even a glimpse of its upper reaches on the days I spent nearby on my 2011 adventure. No, I put Ben Nevis on my list simply because it is the highest peak in the British Isles, the highest for 400 miles in every direction in fact. We are drawn to superlatives.

I arrived at the foot of The Ben on Thursday afternoon, and as I looked at its lower slopes through the panorama window of the youth hostel, I developed two concerns about the climb. Would the weather really clear? It was pouring with rain now and cloud sat low on the mountain. Secondly, even if the weather were perfect, Ben Nevis is a long climb. The youth hostel—my starting point—sits more or less at sea level, the summit of The Ben 4,406 feet higher. The high mountains of the US Northeast are loftier than Ben Nevis, but you usually start your climb 1,000 feet or more above sea level. Would I have the stamina for The Ben?

DATE: Friday, October 5th, 2018.
START & FINISH: SYHA Glen Nevis hostel, 2.6 miles from Fort William.
ROUTE: Up and down the Mountain Track, aka the Tourist Track.
DISTANCE: 9-10 miles.
TIME: 6-7 hours (starting around 7:45 a.m.)
TERRAIN: A very good path for much of the way but, higher up, rougher—a mere route through rubble and scree. Even so, I found the climb relatively undemanding and stamina was not an issue. I reached the summit in under three hours.
MAP: Ordnance Survey map downloaded to my tablet.

WEATHER: Changeable! Mostly cloudy to about 3,000 feet. There, I entered the clouds and it began to snow. There were no other climbers here and I wondered if I should turn back. I didn’t, and completed the climb in snow showers and mist. On the way down, the mist cleared (again at about 3,000 feet) to reveal a bright afternoon.
WILDLIFE: Do sheep count?

BREAKFAST: The SYHA’s continental option.
LUNCH: Trail food as I felt the need.
UPS: After 50 years with Ben Nevis on my radar, finally climbing it.
DOWNS: A clear summit would have been nice.
KIT: More even than other Scottish hills, the summit of Nevis is a different world from its base—waterproofs and warm layers.
COMPANY: When it started snowing, I thought I was the lead hiker on the mountain today. But, nearing the summit, I met a group climbing for charity (the highpoints of Scotland, Wales, and England in 24 hours). I took their Ben Nevis group photograph for them. Thereafter, a steady stream of hikers arrived at the summit, and I met an even steadier stream as I walked down. These climbers may have enjoyed a better view than I did as the day improved.


My 2018 Seasonal Highlights

It’s the time of year again when I look back and—whatever else the year has brought, good and not so good—feel lucky that the outdoors was always within my reach, available to recharge, to rebalance, to be inspired, to share. For four years now, I’ve remembered this good fortune by picking a hiking highlight for each season. The exercise is a great reminder that, no matter how much I wish I could spend more time outdoors, I hike plenty. Without taking anything for granted, I hope 2019 will be another great hiking year—for me and you. Happy New Year!

(For fun, here are my previous seasonal highlights—2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.)

WINTER: A perfect winter’s day with my eldest on the western sections of the Ives Trail, Ridgefield and Danbury, Connecticut.

Ives cabin site, Ives Trail, Ridgefield CT

View from Charles Ives cabin site, Ridgefield CT

SPRING: Mid-June in Baxter State Park, Maine. I spent a week in the Park divided among the South Branch ponds area (north), the Pogy Notch Trail (middle), and the Mount Katahdin area (south).

Katahdin from the climb to Center Ridge

Katahdin from the climb to Center Ridge

SUMMER: Mohawk Trail woods, late July, Cornwall, Connecticut. I hiked the Mohawk Trail in four outings between April and August.

Mohawk Trail, Cornwall CT

Coming off Red Mountain, Cornwall CT

AUTUMN: October in Glen Coe, Scotland, start of the hike up the mountain of Buachaille Etive Mòr (mostly out of picture, left).

Trail into Lairig Gartain

Stob nan Cabar, Glen Coe

Scottish Hills (6) – Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan

The track into Glen Affric

The track into Glen Affric—“sun and showers”

Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan (skoor nan ker-uh-van, approximately) is a remote peak, no road winding conveniently close to its base. Unless you are an athlete, it is a two-day project. But since the approach to the Sgùrr passes through one of Scotland’s most beautiful glens, the trek to “basecamp” is anything but a chore. Basecamp is the Glen Affric youth hostel, open from April to sometime in September, but closed for the season by the time of this hike.

I had planned to pitch my tent beside the hostel huts, where there is smooth grass and shelter from the wind. But, arriving at the hostel on a cool and showery evening, I found a dorm room—the women’s—left unlocked as an emergency shelter. There was no power or other amenities, just bunk frames and a mattress or two. I had no emergency, but what harm could I do staying here? I decided to save myself the task of taking down a wet tent in the morning, and spread my sleeping gear out on a mattress in the dorm. As far as I could tell, there was no one else for miles around.

In the middle of the night, I was woken by a sound like someone scraping a stick along railings. I became immediately alert and thought at first that some idiot of a nocturnal hiker would soon push open the dorm door. But the noise ceased and nobody came. Next I decided the din was likely deer scraping their antlers on the walls of the main hostel hut—a short distance away—as they grazed or tried to shed velvet. The sound resumed, now directly outside. I considered leaving my bed to look outside and check my hypothesis. But what if it was not deer? Since I could think of no other benign explanation, I decided to keep to my theory and my warm bed.

In the morning, I was in for another surprise. When I reached the mountain ridge behind the hostel and looked west toward the Sgùrr, the high ground shone gray-white above the moorland greens and browns. At first, I thought it was frost or even an effect of the light. But easing upward along the ridge, it became clear that snow had arrived on the summits with October.   

DATE: Sunday/Monday, September 30th/October 1st.
START & FINISH: Walker parking at eastern end of Loch Affric, 11 miles SW of the village of Cannich on a single-track road. Cannich lies 12 miles west of Loch Ness at Drumnadrochit.
ROUTE: Sunday: Track west to Glen Affric SYHA hostel (closed for season). Monday: Footpath north—a bit elusive higher up—to mountain ridge; ridge path west to the top of the Sgùrr; return to start by outward route.
DISTANCE: Sunday—8.5 miles; Monday—about 16 miles.
TIME: About 28 hours (noon Sunday to 4pm Monday).
TERRAIN: Track to SYHA hostel sticks mostly to the glen floor, and ups and downs are modest. The track itself is puddled or muddy here and there (see DOWNS for a burn-crossing). Climb from hostel to ridge is 1,750 feet, accomplished over a mile and a half on a rough, but mostly visible, path. The ridge-walk to the Sgùrr is up-down-up, ascending a net 1,000 feet.
MAP: Ordnance Survey map downloaded to my tablet.

WEATHER: Sun and showers—mostly showers—on Sunday. Monday, overcast but drier, cloud descending at times to cover the summits. Light snow cover above 3,000 feet.
WILDLIFE: A roaring stag on a vast evening hillside.

ACCOMMODATION: Hostel dorm room left unlocked as winter shelter (see above).
SUSTENANCE: Trail rations—pita bread, cheese, mini-pork pies, peanut butter, nuts, high-cocoa chocolate, etc. After the hike, Fort Augustus fish & chips consumed in the car.
UPS: Finding snow on October 1st; mist-scapes; 24 hours of solitude.
DOWNS: A burn that is usually easily crossed but, on Sunday, was in flood. I spent a lot of time and energy going up and down its banks looking in vain for a dry crossing place. Finally, I returned to the track and waded across in bare feet.
KIT: I should have packed “burn-wading” footwear.
COMPANY: A few groups circuiting Loch Affric but, beyond the loch, naebody.


Scottish Hills (5) – Ben Lomond

Ben Lomond

Ben Lomond — two thirds of the way up

These Scottish hill-walks are becoming ancient history. This one is two months old. Others, by the time I post, will be even older. But ancient history is just as interesting as what happened yesterday, so I post without apology.

On Thursday afternoon, I climbed Stob a’ Choire Odhair and afterward spent the night in Crianlarich (the SYHA hostel). I rose before dawn to reach the Ben Lomond trailhead—a 52-mile drive—still early. I wanted to be off the Ben by lunchtime to give me plenty of time to drive to Ayrshire, find a room and a meal, and clean up for an evening event. The event, at Tidelines Book Festival, was a chat by Cameron McNeish, a huge figure in the Scottish outdoor scene. Cameron had been kind enough to give my book a nice review, and I wanted to meet and thank him, and find out about his new book, There’s Always the Hills.

But back to Ben Lomond: In 2015, I attempted a winter ascent. It fizzled out in deep, wet snow, wind, and ice a third of the way up the mountain. Today’s hike could hardly have been more different.

DATE: Friday, September 28th.
START & FINISH: Ben Lomond parking area just north of Rowardennan, east shore of Loch Lomond.
ROUTE: Straight up the Ben Lomond path and back.
DISTANCE: 7 miles.
TIME: About 4 hours (8:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.)
TERRAIN: A 3,196-foot ascent, but on excellent trail and seldom very steep.
MAP: Ordnance Survey map downloaded to my tablet.

WEATHER: Clear and cold (near freezing) to start; clouds increased but it remained fair.
WILDLIFE: Nothing of note.

BREAKFAST: Trail food at the parking area.
LUNCH: Some time after the hike—Burger King in Port Glasgow. Does it get better?
UPS: (1) Loch and ben views, (2) completing a climb I began, in a sense, four years ago.
DOWNS: None.
KIT: Layers and hood definitely appreciated on the summit.
COMPANY: Generally, plenty, especially hikers coming up when I was going down. Specifically, I was joined on the summit by Archie and we nattered all the way down. Archie, 40s, was an ex-soldier truck driver from Paisley with a love of the hills.


Day Hike Notes – Cobble to Caleb

Fuller Pond, Kent CT

Fuller Pond

In spring this year, hiking to Pond Mountain via the Appalachian Trail in Kent, CT, I conceived the idea of “Caleb to Cobble”—a hike “from views of the Housatonic River valley to a panorama of the distant Catskills”. Seven months later, on Black Friday, I took the hike; except it became “Cobble to Caleb”, for the simple reason that parking is better in Macedonia Brook State Park than it is beneath Caleb’s Peak on Skiff Mountain Road. I am delighted to say that the views—west and east—did not disappoint.

I was hiking alone, so this was an out-and-back. A point-to-point variant would be to park beside the Housatonic on River Road, scale St. John’s Ledges to Caleb’s Peak and end up on Cobble Mountain (second car spotted in Macedonia Brook SP).

DATE: Friday, November 23rd.
START & FINISH: Parking near Macedonia Brook State Park pavilion (41.768129, -73.494803).
ROUTE: Cobble Mountain and back; yellow, blue, and green trails to Fuller Mountain Road; Fuller Mountain Road to Pond Mountain Natural Area; Entry, Pond, and Red Gate trails to Skiff Mountain Road; very short stretch of Skiff Mountain Road to Appalachian Trail; AT to Caleb’s Peak. Return by same route (except, in Macedonia Brook, I used the green and orange trails on the return leg).
DISTANCE: About 11 miles roundtrip.
TIME: 5.5 hours (8:30am-2:00pm).
TERRAIN: Steep 650-foot up-and-down of Cobble, followed by climb to Macedonia Brook’s eastern boundary. A mile of tranquil Fuller Mountain Road. Mostly gentle grades on Pond Mountain NA trails. Caleb’s Peak is a few hundred feet above, and 0.7 miles from, Skiff Mountain Road.
MAP: CT Deep Macedonia Brook SP trail map (on my tablet); Pond Mountain Natural Area (paper, obtained from trailhead on a previous outing); AT official map (not necessary).

WEATHER: Sunny and cold (single digits rising to mid-20s F)
WILDLIFE: A couple of white-tailed deer hightailed it from me in a field beside Fuller Mountain Road. 

BREAKFAST: My traditional coffee and bagel at J.P. Gifford, Kent (bagel eaten half in the café and half on Cobble Mountain).
LUNCH: Turkey (of course) sandwich on Caleb’s Peak.
UPS: Beautiful places in sunny weather.
DOWNS: Wheezing a bit ascending Cobble in very cold air despite wearing a clava.
KIT: Katie, my eldest, lent me a Hydro Flask to test. I filled it with tea at home (6:30am) and opened it on Caleb’s Peak five hours later, and after three hours outside in cold temperatures. The tea was warmer than lukewarm, but cooler than hot.
COMPANY: A threesome climbing Cobble as I was coming down and, in the afternoon, a couple dog-walking beside Fuller Pond. That’s all.

Scottish Hills (4) – Stob a’ Choire Odhair

Burn flowing off the Stob and Beinn Toaig

Burn flowing off the Stob and Beinn Toaig

On Tuesday, it stormed all day long. I drove around Skye in search of the Gaelic tongue. On Wednesday, the clouds stayed thick and low and it rained intermittently. I took a low-level hike in Glen Arnisdale and afterward went in search of Gavin Maxwell’s Camusfeàrna, both outings on the mainland adjacent to Skye.

The lousy weather continued overnight and through Thursday morning. But it was forecast to break around lunchtime, and I was determined to be in place when it did. I could have headed for any number of hills, but I wanted to be in Ayrshire for Friday evening, which made south the way to be heading. Friday’s weather looked good too, and my plan became Stob a’ Choire Odhair now and Ben Lomond on Friday morning before driving down to Ayrshire.

So, Stob a’ Choire Odhair (stop a hoy-yer oar, very roughly):

DATE: Thursday, September 27th.
START & FINISH: Parking area just south of Victoria Bridge, near Inveroran, which is in turn a few miles from Bridge of Orchy, Argyle. (Parking GPS: 56.536887, -4.814138)
ROUTE: There is no point in my describing what someone else describes very well. I followed stages 1-3 of this Walkhighlands route, out and back. (I did not go on to Stob Ghabhar for lack of daylight.)
DISTANCE: 7.5 miles at a rough guess.
TIME: About 5 hours (1:30 to 6:30 p.m.)
TERRAIN: Flat, smooth track beside the Abhainn Shira (river); then a rougher path for the climb beside the Allt Toaig (stream); finally a sometimes heart-pumping ascent of the Stob’s south side to the 3,100-foot summit.
MAP: Ordnance Survey map downloaded to my tablet.

WEATHER: Dry, cool, decreasing cloud (though only gradually and erratically).
WILDLIFE: Nothing of note.

BREAKFAST: Well before the hike but, for what it’s worth, coffee and croissant in Fort William.
LUNCH: An early burger & fries at the Clachaig Inn, Glen Coe.
UPS: Moor and mountain views from the summit.
DOWNS: None.
KIT: The summit required extra layers.
COMPANY: Not a soul.


Scottish Hills (3) – An Teallach

Driving toward An Teallach, Wester Ross, Scotland

Driving toward An Teallach

[These climbs took place on September 21st and 24th this year.]

An Teallach was near the top of my Scottish hills climb list. Seven years ago, walking Scotland end to end, I had admired from below its “dark, jagged peaks swept by translucent mist”. Now, I wanted to see the view from on top.

An Teallach is more massif than mere mountain—ten 3,000-foot-plus summits rising near Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross (Ullapool is the nearest village of any size). I wasn’t sure which of those summits I would climb. The middle peaks looked potentially precarious, the flanking summits—Bidein a’ Ghlas Thuill and Sàil Liath—less jagged. I decided to head for the Bidein (which means pinnacle in Gaelic).

Even before leaving the US, I had thought about taking a two-day approach to some Scottish hills, not because they require it, but for the pleasure—or so I imagined—of spending a night in my tent halfway up. I decided now to take this approach to An Teallach—an afternoon climb, a night camped in a cirque, an early start for the summits in the morning.

I set out from near the Dundonnell Hotel about 3:30 and, climbing, the prospects seemed fair. The clouds stayed reasonably high and there was no rain. By 5 p.m. I was beneath the cliffs of Glas Mheall Mòr at perhaps 1,800 feet, and pushed on, following a stream up. I don’t know if it was my ascending or the cloud descending, but soon I entered mist and rain showers, then hail squalls, all driven by a gusting wind. I looked for a place to pitch my tent, ideally sheltered and on firm ground, but compromise was needed—a little shelter, ground a little less soggy.

Before sunset, I was zipped inside my tent and sleeping bag, eating, reading, listening to podcasts. It would have been a pleasure if the tent were not being assaulted by wind and rain-hail, bending double in many blasts. And it did become a pleasure of sorts as my confidence grew that Big Agnes would not be ripped to shreds, leaving me exposed on a cold, dark mountain.

At dawn, the weather was still wild and there was no point in continuing to the summits.

Two days later—an interlude filled in part giving a talk in Ullapool about The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain—I returned to An Teallach, and set off for the other flanking summit, Sàil Liath. Approaching the mountain on fine track then rough path, its summits were hidden in mist, then clear, then unseen again. Climbing and scrambling the long slope of Sàil Liath, the views south were superb, a bird’s eye view of a route I had hiked seven years ago—Strath na Sealga, the river Loch an Nid, Loch an Nid itself.

Higher, I entered mist, and thereafter was in and out of it, the mountain appearing and disappearing at the clouds’ whim. By lunchtime, I was on the summit, 3,130 feet. An Teallach’s precarious tops stood ahead, a cold, strong wind covering and uncovering them. They were magnificent—precipitous, pointed, jagged, devoid of any company. I decided this view was enough and returned by Sàil Liath’s smoother angles.