The hills we climbed this week are what I call ‘picturesque’ hills-you look at them, particularly from the eastern approaches, and you see a classic mountain view of steep-looking pyramids and sinuous ridges.
But the Strathconon Corbetts are a long drive from Montrose, we had to leave before five in the morning! Not having to drive, I slept most of the way. Just after Inverness my companion woke me to inform me that I’d missed a beautiful sunrise over the Cairngorms...
A little later saw us snaking our way along the narrow lane into the heart of Strathconon, with dawn’s rosy fingers still stroking the sky behind us, chasing the shadows from the hills ahead. This beautiful little glen of river and loch is idyllic.
We parked at Strathanmore, a little group of holiday chalets, and took to the open hillside. Our first objective was the spur of 734 metre Creag Ruadh (red crag), the prelude to a wonderful aerial walkway that would lead us in a circle, of sorts, all the way back to the car some seven hours later.
Although the ground at first was steep and boggy, making for tedious going, the grass eventually made way for more heathery, firmer ground. But not before I managed to repeat one of my least favourite antics on this kind of terrain! The black, peaty hole was completely hidden by an innocent looking tuft of heather. Down went one leg, up to the thigh, allowing a gallon of filthy ooze to pour over the top of my gaiters and into the depths of my boot! My companion looked on in fake sympathy.
All was forgotten when we topped out on Creag Ruadh’s fine summit. With a predominantly cloud-free sky the vistas that greeted us were immense. South and west lay snow-laced ‘biggies’ such as the huge, flat dome of Maoile Lunndaidh and the Munros of the Forest of Monar.
More hazily, the great hills of Benula Forest and, farther round, the hills of Strathfarrar, all jam-packed for us with memories of great days out, put on a snowy show.
But along with the views had come a vicious, biting wind, a wind strong enough to toss us about a bit and cold enough to make our nostrils numb. We covered every inch of skin we could and battled on.
Across the deep and wild glen to our right rose the cone of our day’s final hill, Sgurr a’ Mhuillin; way down at its feet a black lochan nestled sombrely. But that was still a long walk away, our next stop would be the steep looking cone which loomed a mile ahead along the ridge, namely 838 metre Meallan nan Uan (little hill of the lambs).
We let the gale blow us along what turned out to be a lovely ridge of short grass, little rocky outcrops and more superb views. As we neared the toes of the final pull onto our first Corbett we realised that up there would be no place for a cuppa-and a cuppa was sorely overdue! Casting around for somewhere out of the wind’s teeth, we found a little hidden cranny protected on all sides by convenient slabs of rock. Breakfast!
Fortified, we made the short ascent up Sgurr nan Uan’s bouldery east face. Although we’d intended to climb five hills today, there are actually six in the group; Creag Ghlas, which hangs over the fine wooded gorge of Gleinn Mheinich, to the south, is rather out on a limb. Since to get there one must cover extremely rough ground, it is seldom visited. But it’s a fine looking hill, certainly the craggiest of the six.
But definitely not to be missed are Sgurr a’ Ghlas Leathaid and Sgurr a’ Choire Rainich, the twin peaks that now loomed out of a suddenly lowering cloud cover that had crept up on us as we walked. These fine hills stood two miles north east of our present stance.
To reach them we dropped to cross a wild and wet tract of bog land, today a land of yellowed grass and darker heather. There were sphagnum mosses that came in colours varying from reds, purples and oranges all the way to the brightest greens and yellows. Though in its own way beautiful, it was a wet and lifeless traverse until, approaching the col beneath three mountains, we surprised a small herd of hinds.
We were able to get quite close to them but then, suddenly, on surprising a hind near the edge of the herd, we put the entire group up to a pell-mell flight which soon had them somewhere else and uncannily out of sight.
Leaving our bags at an easily recognisable rock, we made the quick climb to the saddle between the two hills. The 844 metre Sgurr a’ Ghlas Leathaid, with its substantial remnants of snow, fell to us quickly. The going was mostly on a carpet of thick, springy moss which in summer would tempt me to walk barefooted.
Sgurr a’ Choire Rainich, though four metres higher, gave us an even speedier ascent, albeit on somewhat rockier ground. The views from both hills were over the distant River Bran and Achnasheen, and across to The Fannichs.
Back to our bags, lunch and then the longer though gentler climb to the summit of 879 metre Sgurr a’ Muillin (peak of the mill). With the sun once again shining we found the conditions underfoot pleasant; there was much springy grass and here and there a little rocky outcrop. There was even a little lochan to enliven the broad east ridge’s personality.
The way off was steep, rocky in places, and narrow...fun! Directly below, dirty-looking in February garb, a great drab stretch of inhospitable looking land hid the road just a couple of miles away. This morning’s hill, Creag Ruadh, and Meallan nan Uan, looked huge and brooding across the glen.
When I first started serious hill walking, back in the early 1980s, ptarmigan were thought to inhabit only ground above two and a half to three thousand feet. This seems to be no longer the case. As we lurched our way down we heard the familiar ‘burping’ croak of a ptarmigan and then saw the bird take off, a brilliant flash of white against the dark heather backdrop.
A path of sorts led us down to the Allt an t-Strathain Mhoire, (alt ant strain voyra), which we crossed onto a proper, if sometimes treacherous, peaty path, (chewed up in testimony to the popularity of this fine round), which led us all the way back to the road and our waiting car.