The Ultimate Sidetrack – LEJoG Day 72
Day 72 pre-amble
Well, this is a longer pre-amble than usual, because it includes a rest day. On Tuesday 22 September I woke full of plans for an assault on Buachaille Etive Mor and, if time allowed, a side trip to Glencoe village. The beckoning pyramid of The Buachaille is perfectly framed by the Kingshouse restaurant’s westside window, and so there was no escaping the central questions as I sat down for breakfast at 8am. Can I make the summit in this cloud? How much would rain change the situation? Will it just be a horrible slog? Would it be easier to give it a miss and go to Glencoe instead? (The bus timetables suggested it had to be one or the other, rather than both.)
By the way, the Kingshouse breakfast might have been the heaviest of the week, and I ate two of them. It included black pudding on day 1 and a square of unidentified meat on day 2. I took this to be sausage rather than haggis. Whatever the case, by Wednesday morning I’d begun to feel as if I was wearing eau de full breakfast. Given my evening indulgences and a run of sub-10-mile days, I wondered if I was even managing to burn more calories than I was taking on. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to arrive in Kinlochleven and be presented with the option of starting the final day with smoked salmon and scrambled egg instead…
Back to the weather-watch, and within half an hour of returning to my room, the rain started coming down. Heavily. Passed most of the morning checking maps and guidebook, and playing Through The Ages. The first bus for Glencoe was at 12:25. A return trip from here would be a full day – it’s easier to reach from Kinlochleven. There was always the risk of being stuck outdoors with little prospect of shelter in Covid-restricted times. I decided that, if I was going to be rained on, better get wet tackling a mountain than meandering around Glencoe.
In the final analysis, there was one essential question, which gives this post its title.
If not now, when?
I’m in Scotland for LEJoG and soon moving on. As much as I’d like to visit more often, Glen Coe is too far away for there to be a guaranteed return (and once again I rue letting Mia slip through my fingers). If I didn’t climb The Buachaille today, when would I have the chance again?
And so it was that, around 12:30 on Tuesday 22nd September, I set out in the rain. The three-mile journey to the foot of the mountain at Altnafeadh corresponds to the first three miles of the next stage. So at least I was giving myself a preview…
I’m telling myself that now to give my afternoon jaunt a retrospective veneer of purpose. Having missed out on the Lake District this year, I was desperate to bag a Munro. If the weather was like this for Ben Nevis on Friday, Britain’s highest mountain would be out of the question. Thus I kept going, even as both guts and head were telling me this was a grim, futile exercise. I sat on a very wet bench for 10 minutes at Altnafeadh, noting a couple of souls in the car park but not a single one on the mountain. Instinct told me to turn around and try again tomorrow, but still I continued. At least give it a go, eh? Even if you don’t get far, you may learn something for next time.
So I climbed the approach path, as far as the junction with Allt Coire na Tulaich, a stream running parallel with the main path to the summit. From here it’s a direct but long and steep climb to the main ridge, which you can barely see even in good weather. Today I could see no further than 100 yards, it was still raining, and the stream was inevitably swollen. I’ll be brutally frank: with slippery rocks everywhere, this looked like a suicide mission. I turned round and headed back to the hotel. I assure you it was 100% the correct decision. Incredibly enough, on the way down I did pass a youngish couple heading up, no better equipped than me. Wished them luck: they were sure as hell going to need it.
This is what the mountain looked like on Tuesday:
The Buachaille (north face), from the far side of the road near Altnafeadh
Trudged back the way I’d came, feeling that my rest day was a waste. I wasn’t going to Glencoe and only much better conditions would permit me a second crack at Buachaille Etive Mor. Much-needed pot of tea at the Way Inn as soon as I arrived at the hotel. It was necessary to make extensive use of the bunkhouse drying room this afternoon and evening – with most of my walking outfits in the washbag already and two days’ walking (plus Ben Nevis?) to come, wet stuff simply wasn’t an option. Boring afternoon listening to the rain, and then another (slightly less rich) evening meal. On my best mate’s recommendation, tried a Bowmore 15 year old single malt, which was really interesting and complex.
And, when I emerged from the bunkhouse on Wednesday morning, this is what The Buachaille looked like:
The Buachaille (east face), from just outside the Kingshouse Hotel
Quite the transformation, right?
IF NOT NOW, WHEN?
LEJoG Day 72 (Wednesday 23 September 2020)
Kingshouse Hotel to Kinlochleven (9 miles)
Cumulative: 1,033½ miles
Facts: Time on walk: 3 hours. Average speed: 3.00 mph. Weather: Look at the pictures. As perfect as Day 67. Additional time on Buachaille Etive Mor (non-LEJoG): 5 hours 10 minutes.
Practicalities: Hmmmmmmmmm… this calls for a digression.
A decade ago, when working in Birmingham but living 50 miles away (don’t ask), I spent the occasional night at this cheap and cheerful hotel. One particular Saturday, I came back to my room at 2am to find a naked man in my bed. The porter had let some drunk guy in to the wrong room. Both parties apologised profusely, but it should have been a message. Inexplicably, I continued to use the establishment.
A couple of months later, on an October Thursday, I was sleeping in a room with no en-suite. I got up at around 5am to use the toilet. There are two things to bear in mind here. One: I sleep naked. Two: I forgot to take the room key with me. Yes, once I’d used the toilet, I had no way back into my room without bothering the porter. And I had no clothes on. I stumbled down to the front desk and rang the bell, while desperately cupping and concealing as much as possible. Here’s the third thing to bear in mind: the ironically named Comfort Inn is right beside Birmingham New Street station. Its huge front window would give any passing commuter an eyeful of a weirdo in his nudiness. Fortunately it was 5am, and the porter didn’t take too long to emerge. The embarrassment was crippling enough though, and I never went back to the Comfort Inn.
This morning, by contrast, I did everything right. I went to the bunkhouse toilet at around 5:45am and took my key card with me. I put some shorts on. But when I returned… the key card wouldn’t work. There was no explanation for this. Barefooted, I walked to the main hotel entrance. I was able to access the vestibule, but the key card wouldn’t let me into the lobby. And there was no-one on reception. Had to wait until 6:30 before anyone appeared: even then he didn’t notice a topless man in the vestibule until I knocked. The explanation? Apparently the key cards sometimes stop working on the morning of check-out. Absolutely pathetic, for what is obviously a premium hotel with a captive market. No apology either.
An inauspicious start to the day then. But otherwise, the Kingshouse was great.
Checked out at 9:30.
Start: Kingshouse Hotel, 9:40am. End: Outside the Tailrace Inn, Kinlochleven, 5:55pm.
Buachaille Etive Mor (not part of the West Highland Way): Altnafeadh 10:30am. Ridge attained 12:20pm. Stob Dearg (summit) 12:40-12:50pm. Stob na Doire 1:50pm. Coire Altrium path (start of descent) 2:20pm. Back at Altnafeadh 3:40pm. Re-started main walk 3:45pm.
The whole walk (including Buachaille Etive Mor) can be followed on OS Explorer map 384 (linked yesterday).
Trailblazer describes the now-familiar section from Kingshouse to Altnafeadh, parallel with the A82, as “unpleasant”. I certainly wouldn’t go that far. You’re only close to the road for the last few hundred metres, the path across the bottom of Beinn a’ Chrulaiste is reasonable, and you only need to look across the road for obvious inspiration. Plus, this was a truly stunning morning.
A closer view of Buachaille Etive Mor, from the path overlooking the A82
It’s difficult to believe now, but on the way to Altnafeadh I was still debating whether or not to climb the ‘Great Herdsman of Etive’. Even on a day as splendid as this. As I had plenty of food, water and energy, the only plausible reason not to was time. There were already quite a few walkers on the Kinlochleven leg of the West Highland Way. Oddly enough, they proved decisive. Not one of them diverted to the mountain. It was only 10:30, there were only 6-7 miles of the stage left, the day would be done by 1 at the latest. What a waste. After the wretched weather of Tuesday, how could you not want to spend as long as possible outdoors in one of the most beautiful corners of Britain? Decision made. So long suckers, however long it takes I’m going up THERE.
The Ultimate Sidetrack: Buachaille Etive Mor
I set off from the car park at 10:30am. It took about 15 minutes to reach the point where I turned back yesterday. I remember thinking I could see the ridge from there, but this was an optical illusion. In fact the path to the ridge is much, much longer than it appears. I swear I’d been walking for another 30 minutes and the horizon seemed further away.
It’s steep as well. I mean, that much is obvious from the stream, but we’re talking about a route with the general profile of a typical funicular railway here. There are no flat sections, no zig zag paths. To attain that ridge you need to keep climbing a very slow escalator.
I followed the stream as closely as possible, which often meant changing sides and criss-crossing it safely. Most of the time I was negotiating boulders both large and small. Occasionally it was necessary to climb the embankment, assuming decent footholds, in order to reach higher ground. This was usually because I perceived a particular rock or stone formation to be too wet for secure footing.
By 11:15 it was clear this was going to be a major undertaking. I’d estimated making the ridge within an hour, but it would be closer to two. Put Robyn on the iPod. Within a few minutes, some earth I’d relied on for a foothold gave way, leaving me in a precarious spot above the rocks and stream. The drop was only five feet, but a slip would probably have put paid to this climb and maybe the rest of the WHW. Switched the iPod off (for the rest of the day), threw my map, guidebook and backpack down, and carefully made my way back where I’d come from in order to find an alternative route. Thankfully this was the only hairy moment of the whole climb. Guess I should have expected to be a bit rusty after missing the Lakes in spring. Just grateful this didn’t happen on Sharp Edge…
Talking of rust… as I came within definitive sight of the ridge, a Scotsman around 10 years older than me appeared topside. He told me there was a proper path up the mountain which I’d somehow missed by following the boulder-riven stream. Not the clearest, but certainly preferable. This is why you should rely on other accounts for the most efficient route! I was scaling a small rock wall at the time – the second hairiest moment of the day as it hadn’t completely dried out yet and there were two narrow ledges. Followed him the rest of the way. The first section, on gravel, felt like a space walk due to the gradient and terrain.
Arrived at the ridge and mountain pass a minute or two after the Scot, at around 12:15.
Looking back at Altnafeadh and the Devil’s Staircase, from the pass
It was another (rocky) 15-20 minutes to the summit at Stob Dearg (1022m). The only other people around were the Scot, and two younger women. He was photographing them when I caught up, and did the same favour for me. I slipped slightly here, and hurt my knee. Not enough to walk gingerly, but it was another reminder of how careful you need to be and how quickly things can go wrong.
Some views from around the summit:
Much the same view as above, but from the summit this time
Rannoch Moor, due south-east of Stob Dearg
The peaks around Glen Coe and Glen Etive, due west and south-west of Stob Dearg
The flipside of the header image: Kingshouse Hotel from Stob Dearg
I only stayed at the summit for 10 minutes, resting my knee and eating a mint Grenade bar. The Scottish fellow showed me the route to the recommended descent from Coire Altrium. This meant climbing another peak on the way – Stob na Doire. The pass between the two takes you back to the top of the “funicular” ascent and along another rocky path on open land before climbing fairly steeply to Buachaille Etive Mor’s second highest peak (1011m). It took me exactly an hour to walk between the two peaks, which is a lot longer than you’ll guess from the OS map.
Stob na Doire was quite a bit busier: about half a dozen people in one family and another two or three separately. The Scot from earlier was well ahead now, after my 10-minute stop. Another Scotsman spoke to me though – he said he’d met others who, like me, were trying to conquer the mountain and walk to Kinlochleven in the day. I looked back at Stob Dearg and expressed some disbelief that I’d walked between the two. He said “why?” and probably thought I was less experienced than I am. You could clearly see what a demanding walk it is though, with so many rocks and a steep ascent to finish.
Glen Etive and Lochan Urr from Stob na Doire
The descent from Stob na Doire is steep and requires even more care than that from Stob Dearg. There’s a slight rise before you finally reach the crucial junction with the path to Altnafeadh from Coire Altrium.
The descent via the Coire Altrium path
I started down at 2:20. It’s a fairly typical mountain path, although the first half hour or so includes a bit of scrambling. At one point, it was necessary to descend via wet rocks. I donned my waterproof trousers for the first time when tackling this tricky little section. It helped that I was following another walker, who spoke to me about the challenge briefly later on.
Once you reach the point where Allt Coire Altrium (the stream) meets the River Coupall, the path qualifies as easy. Just follow the river all the way to the road, and then there’s about 10 minutes of (unavoidable) road walking back to Altnafeadh. Rested here for 5 minutes and ate some of that Tyndrum fruit cake before re-starting LEJoG.
A brilliant mountain and an inspiring, classic walk. I would have regretted not climbing Buachaille Etive Mor. You should do so at the first opportunity.
Back to LEJoG
My phone had run out of battery by now, so no more photos. Not far from Altnafeadh, I allowed a couple coming the other way to pass, and they stopped to chat. They were keen to hear about my climbing the mountain and walking to Kinlochleven. I didn’t feel boastful or self-satisfied, just alive. It’s an under-rated sensation in the year 2020.
The Devil’s Staircase…
Pretty much immediately after re-starting comes what I trailed as the toughest climb of the whole week: the Devil’s Staircase. OK, I confess it may not have been quite so strenuous had I not already spent 5 hours on Buachaille Etive Mor. But, even though this is an ostensibly kind zig-zag path, it’s hard going. It took me around 25 minutes to reach the highest point on the West Highland Way. Infernal as the staircase may be, it’s certainly rewarding: great views of Blackwater Reservoir to the east and the Mamores to the north.
Left for Kinlochleven at 4:20: always trending downhill from here. The next 3-4 miles make for superb mountain walking: the gradients are gentle, the Mamores are in constant view, you’re still very high up, the path is clear and the going is easy underfoot. Less fun in the rain maybe, but it feels more like a Highland escapade than either of the previous two short days. And I think I’d have said that even if I hadn’t taken my long detour.
The edge is taken off somewhat when the descent proper begins. You disappear into a small forest, the Mamores now 180 degrees behind you. By the time you’re facing north again, you’ve descended enough to see only the treetops. There have been much longer forest roads, for example between Bellingham and Byrness. Because you’re deprived of the scenery you’ve become accustomed to, though, this one is a real drag on morale. Kinlochleven itself is never visible either, which doesn’t help. Well, I tell a lie: you can’t miss the giant water pipes and then the factories. You cross the pipes, then pass the factories before crossing the River Leven.
The first road has plenty of accommodation, which is certainly more welcoming than the industrial outskirts. A quick path through a wood and you emerge outside the Tailrace Inn. The West Highland Way continues north from here. My guest house, Tigh-na-Cheo, was about half a mile in the opposite direction, so here endeth Day 72.
After the walk
Found Tigh-na-Cheo (off map in Trailblazer, and no phone/GPS) with some difficulty. For a relatively small place, it was extremely welcoming and professional. I took note of the beer fridge immediately: no question that I’d earned some evening indulgences. Absolutely no desire to book a restaurant or wait for a table, so I headed to the fish and chip shop for a decent little takeaway. After that, returned to the guest house and had a couple of beers in my room. This and this. Possibly the only dark craft beers I’d seen anywhere all week.
And then there was one (day to go).
Picture (23 September 2020) of Buachaille Etive Mor’s east face, from near the start of the walk, a few hundred metres from the Kingshouse Hotel.
Next: Day 73 (24 September 2020)… in which the West Highland Way reveals its crowning glory.