I have a confession to make: I find great, some might think perverse, pleasure at times in bypassing Munro summits. It is the source of profound liberation -- once the need to 'bag' is overcome, a whole new world opens up in the hills, endless possibilities for exploring, leading to all kinds of interesting and unexpected places. Plans laid out in advance become mere sketches, to be refined and adjusted on the go and on a whim.
But I prefer to make such impromptu changes because I can rather than because my planning was poor, or because of factors beyond my control (of course, the latter often is just a euphemism for the former!); my ego does not relish that. Which is why today I have a firmer objective in mind than usual, namely Stob Coir an Albannaich.
Let me rewind. Some time back, while pouring over the maps, the satisfying line of Aonach Mor (the north spur of Stob Ghabhar) caught my eye. And so just over a week ago, I set off from Alltchaorunn in Glen Etive with the intention to take Aonach Mor onto Stob Ghabhar, and then follow the natural ridge line over Stob a' Bhruaich Leith to Meall Odhar, Meall nan Eun, Meall Tarsuinn and onto Stob Coir an Albannaich, and then back over Beinn Ceitlein. About 27km with 2,100m vertical, so I am thinking 6 hours.
But for the first half of the day there is thick low cloud hanging about, and above 500m visibility is very poor, wind quite strong. I don't mind being out in such conditions. That is often when the hills are at their most magical, the brief glimpses of the hidden world down below more memorable than endless blue sky.
Also, it's not just me who can't see, and I generally find I have many more close encounters with wildlife in conditions such as these; today is no exception, and I get to see quite a few small waders, and even a curlew. But I end up moving by the needle all the way to Meall Odhar, making slow progress.
The cloud clears just as I am having my lunch on the boundary wall below Meal Odhar. The second half of the day is a cracker. I quickly pick up the walkers' path and jog to the Meall nan Eun summit where four seniors are enjoying the sunshine. They tell me not to stop, that the sight of me is too demoralising; I am thinking to myself that I hope I'll still be able to get up the hills when I reach their age, they must have thirty years on me. The usual Scottish banter; an inherent part of the hill experience, as much as the rain, the bog and the midges.
From here onwards the running is good and flowing. As I am about to start the climb onto Albannaich, I do some mental arithmetic. I am five hours in, the planned descent from Albannaich looks precarious from here, and I have no suntan lotion. I decide to cut my losses, run down the glorious granite slabs below Meall Tarsuinn, and return via the Allt a' Chaorainn glen.
It turns out to be a good call, as it still takes me two hours to get back, and a touch of sun on my neck. Nevertheless, it leaves me with the sense of unfinished business.
And so this week I am back. Not the same route, obviously. Rather, I set off from Victoria Bridge, gain the natural ridge line via Beinn Toaig's south west spur, planning to descend Albannaich either over Cuil Ghlas, or Sron na h-Iolaire. It's a wee bit bigger outing than last week (I am expecting eight hours), but there is nothing like responding to a 'failure' with a little bit more ambition!
The weather is glorious, if anything just a bit too hot, views all around. Yet, looking over Rannoch Moor it's impossible not to reflect on how denuded of trees this landscape is. Just a small woodland around the Victoria Bridge houses, a couple of small sitka plantations, and an endless sea of bright green grass. During the autumn and winter months there is a little bit more colour, but this time of the year the monotonous green drives home to me how little varied the vegetation here is.
I make good progress along the ridge (no navigation required), skip (with the aforementioned degree of satisfaction) Meall nan Eun summit and arrive on Stob Coir an Albannaich in exactly five hours. The views are breathtaking; in spite of the heat there is no haze, and Ben Nevis can be seen clearly to the north.
After a brief chat with a couple of fellow hillgoers I decide to descend down the Cuil Ghlas spur, where slabby granite promises fun.
The heat is beginning to get to me, and I can't wait to take a dip in the river below. The high tussocky grass that abounds on these hills makes the descent from the ridge to Allt Coire Chaorach awkward, and the stream is not deep enough for a dip, but I at least get some fresh water and soak my cap. Not much farther down the river bed becomes a long section of granite slab; the water level is low, and so lot of it is dry to run on.
As an unexpected bonus, at the top of the slabby section is a beautiful pool: waist deep, with a smooth granite bottom, and even a set of steps in. I sit in for a while cooling down, then, refreshed, jog down the slabs. When they run out, I stay in the riverbed; hopping from boulder to boulder is lot more fun than the grassy bank, even if it's not any faster.
The floor of the glen is boggy and covered in stumps of ancient Caledonian pine; on a day like this, it is hard to not pine for their shadow. There is some new birch planted on the opposite side of the glen; perhaps one day there will be more.
34km / 2,300m ascent / 8h