I’d gazed across at the Eastern Mamores from my vantage point high on An Garbhanach.
I was standing in ankle deep snow, staring at high mountains equally pasted with what would likely be the last of any substantial snowfalls this year. Binnein Mor, the ruling peak of the Mamore range, looked like a huge iced cake.
That was ten days ago. The hill I’d come to climb today, though a Munro, was almost 400 feet lower and hiding in the shadow of its bigger siblings; most of the snow that had fallen on its slopes had gone, leaving only forlorn white streaks and smears to brindle the mountain’s flanks. The mountain made up for its loss with a thin covering of ice; Lochain an Coire, at its feet, resembled a bowl of smoky water.
There’s a car park by the church at Kinlochleven; a signpost directs the tourists through the trees to a popular waterfall. I took a side path onto the open hillside, presently to join the bulldozed track from Mamore Lodge. I gained height rather quickly.
In a little over a mile the track levelled out along the foot of Na Gruagaichean, whose steep grassy slopes soared aloft beside me along with memories of a grand day out in The Mamore Hills when winter’s snows lay heavy on the ridges.
This section of the walk is never the most inspiring; make up for this with frequent halts for backward glances over toy town kinlochleven, along the entire length of Loch Leven, itself joined at the hip to Loch Linnhe, and thus beyond to the hills of Ardgour.
And then, beyond a sharp bend and over a little bridge, two things happen all at once! By a cairn a stony path leaves the track for peaty ground, the beginning of its journey into the little fastness of the Binneins and the Eildes, each of which boast big and small, or in Gaelic parlance and as noted on the map: Mor and Beag.
At the same time the lochs leap into view, again the big and the small. Shooting off to frown its glen, Loch Eilde Mor looks for all the world like a long narrow fish. A couple of straight miles of water farther down the glen, its little baby, Loch Eilde Beag, joined to it by an umbilical cord of often boisterous river, seems an afterthought in comparison.
Sgorr Eilde Mor and Sgorr Eilde Beag! The big hill of the hind and the little hill of the hind. I joined the path that separates the two. This path rises quite gently at first but after three quarters of a mile or so the gradient increases to work its way around the flank of Sgorr Eilde Beag. If you wish to ascend to her worthy summit, and thence the grander hills beyond, you must look for a side path which will cunningly zig zag you up that way.
But not for me today. I stayed with my original stalker crafted path to its most wonderful point, that place along the way where suddenly the entire cone of Sgorr Eilde Mor can be seen with its bare feet sloshing in the icy waters of its lochan.
It’s a sight to quicken any hillman’s heart, mine certainly skipped a beat or two! It’s a beautiful vision, even if a wild one, and no less so when gripped in a gossamer film of ice.
A made my way down to the water’s edge, a desolate place of peat and boulders. The path I’d joined snaked its way through the wetness, over and around the rocks to eventually begin its final upward course. And then, amid the frosted boulder scree, I lost it! No matter though, no path was required on the relentless stony slope that now confronted me. It was a matter of head down, grit the teeth and plod a resolute line for up!
And of course it didn’t take too long. Inside half an hour of steady toil saw me on the summit, a small place with monstrous views. As usual the finest views were north and west where the great hills of the Nevis range and those of The Grey Corries argued amongst themselves as to who was finest. Neither could I help them decide; every hill could claim to be the grandest or loveliest or most shapely; amongst them height and girth has very little to do with the argument.
To make things harder, there in the immediate west, lay the rest of The Mamores. Though not best seen from Eilde Mor’s summit cairn, being as she is on the very outer rim of the range, they never the less make for a fabulous picture.
Sgurr Eilde Mor can’t make up her mind! She’s a lady of two complexions. For the most part I’d climbed on grey schisty rock and among the shattered scree that has peeled like unwanted make-up from the old dame’s face. Now she put on rouge. I descended westward on similarly broken ground, but now the rocks were red.
Down below I crossed on flatter ground to pick up my stalker’s path once more. I found my next path, another stalker’s trod which led me by zigs and zags and many a convolution, over the rough grassy ground that at length deposited me on the barren col between the two Binneins. Great scrambly ridges soar up from here to ‘the big yin’s’ airy summit. From up there you can gaze way down on his little brother, another Munro dwarfed even more so than Eilde Mor. Today I would be content with little Binnein Beag.
It was a rough quartzy slope, the way obvious, scratched bare by the boots of a century or more of ‘bagger’s’ boots, that got me to the top. And oh the view! It was all there once again, and in every direction; yet nothing could match that mini range out north, the white draped Grey Corries. Until of course I turned and faced the other way!
As far as miles are counted I’d reached the halfway point. Though all the way home from here was downwards and mostly free of snow, I could not but reflect that it had already been a long tramp, a tramp made heavier by the ice I’d encountered along the way. I dropped back to the col quickly and braced myself for the long miles out.
This quadrant of the Scottish Highlands has become very familiar to me over the past twenty five years or so, and such familiarity can sometimes engender perhaps a tad of boredom, born of either impatience to get where we’re going, or afterwards a foot weary hankering for the bath at the end of the road, that hot meal and feet up in the hotel lounge. But not so much today. For me Sgorr Eilde Mor had proved herself the jewel in the crown, the Kho i Nor of Mamore. When once again she filled the view before me, I didn’t really want to leave her...