It was back in early 2011, when out mountain biking with my dad in Arrochar, that I was first drawn to the majesty of the Munros and the idea of hillwalking. I never thought at the time that it would grip me so much and become a great passion of mine, never mind climbing 100 Munros within five years.
All this year, I’ve known that I would most likely reach my 100th Munro before 2016 was over so I was hoping and planning for it to be a memorable one. Having just started wild camping this year, I considered spending the night on top of my 100th Munro and turning it into a longer expedition than normal. Then I considered finally completing the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe with my dad, something we’ve forever been meaning to do but always held off to make sure the weather was just perfect for when we finally done it. As the months passed us by though, various other adventures held my attention such as completing the Skye Trail at the end of summer and then returning to the Isle of Skye again shortly after to interview to be Columbia’s next Director of Toughness. When the time came that I was able to climb Munros again, Aonach Eagach seemed too dangerous in the full winter conditions that we now have so I opted for something a little less wild but it still turned out to be an amazing experience.
The Creag Meagaidh circuit in Glen Spean wasn’t on my list of must-do’s, nor was it even something I had heard of before, seeing as I hadn’t ventured to that area yet in my Munro bagging career. I had faith it would still deliver on my expectations though as there has been a lot of snowfall recently and I hoped it was still lying, so my plan was decided.
Being a fairly long walk for this time of year, I was up at 3:30AM so I could be on the hill before sunrise hit. I’ve seen a few gorgeous sunrises and sunsets in the last few months and it’s something I’m becoming quite addicted to now, so I hoped it was going to be worth the early rise. On the drive up though, my hopes were shattered as the car was pummelled by heavy rain then engulfed in thick fog which slowed what little traffic there was on the roads down to a crawl. When I arrived at the car park, the rain and fog had eventually dispersed which gave me hope again. That was shattered once more though, as through the darkness I could vaguely see the shape of the hills against the sky behind them, noticing there was nowhere near as much snow as I had wished for. I thought this just wasn’t meant to be a special day at all.
Even so, I packed my full winter gear and with my headtorch on, made my way up the track towards my first summit of the day, Carn Liath. Within half an hour, the sun had risen up behind me, on the other side of Loch Laggan and all my worries about the day ahead were gone. It was going to be a good one after all.
I would constantly turn around to admire the sunrise behind me as Glen Spean got brighter and more beautiful by the minute. Even with my countless stops, I was not feeling the cold at all though, quite the opposite in fact. The weather was much milder than I imagined it would be, which would be the cause of most of the snow disappearing but also because I was wearing my new Rab Microlight Alpine Jacket, which turned out to be complete overkill on the ascent.
After tearing myself away from the sunrise for long enough to reach the summit of Carn Liath, I was greeted by the most amazing sight I’ve ever had in over five years of hillwalking; a Brocken spectre! It’s something I’ve wished for and dreamed of for so long, so it was extremely fitting that it came on a day like this. First the amazing sunrise, then a Brocken spectre, the day had suddenly taken a turn for the better. I still don’t fully understand the science behind the phenomenon, but it basically amounts to the viewers shadow being cast on the clouds or mist ahead of them, with a rainbow like halo surrounding it.
For the next few miles, as I walked across the ridge to Stob Poite Coire Ardair, the Brocken spectre would be right beside me the whole way. It was a surreal feeling, seeing this shadow of myself in the corner of my eye, sometimes keeping up with me perfectly and at other times, moving erratically enough to startle me as the clouds suddenly shifted in the chilling gusts of wind.
The clouds were forever changing so I worried I would soon be standing on my 100th Munro with no views around me. As quick as they enveloped me and obscured my vision in all directions, they disappeared again showing the clear blue sky above them. This gave me a full view of Carn Liath behind me, the steep rocky cliffs of Coire Ardair to the south, the final summit of the day on Creag Meagaidh ahead in the distance but most importantly, I could see the summit of Stob Poite Coire Ardair, my 100th Munro, which was now right in front of me, much closer than I realised it was. I didn’t know how I would feel beforehand, but when I finally placed a rock on top of the cairn I felt immense satisfaction and pride with what I had achieved.
Many people have reached 100 Munros faster, and many people have finished all 282 Munros in a fraction of the time it has taken me to get this far. That doesn’t make it any less meaningful to me though. I set myself a challenge five years ago to complete the Munros at some point in my life and as I stood on that summit, I knew I was in the process of doing something special and that I was now well on my way to completing that challenge.
As I sat by the summit, gathering my thoughts and simply admiring the view as the cloud continued to wisp around me, someone appeared behind me that I met in the car park earlier in the morning. His name was Mark and we chatted for a while about the weather, the Munros and photography and then parted ways to each make the final ascent to Creag Meagaidh on our own. The soft grass from most of the walk behind me now turned to lots of small, smooth rocks which were covered in just enough ice to be annoying but not enough to cause any real issues or require crampons. As I crossed the bealach between the two Munros, I admired ‘The Window’, a unique v-shaped cut in the hillside which gives views back down towards Glen Spean and provides the return route for later in the day.
Although Creag Meagaidh was the highest summit of the day at 1128 metres, it somehow felt the easiest. Maybe all the sweets I’d been eating in lieu of substantial food had given me a huge sugar boost. Maybe my legs were only now sufficiently warmed up after the rough and boggy start to the day, trampling up what seemed more like a river than a path. Or maybe I was just running on adrenaline from all the excitement of the day so far.
Again, the ground was rocky and icy and I had a few near misses but made it safely to the top where I met Mark again along with a few others. We discussed the extensive views and noticed Ben Nevis was standing proud to the south west of us. Not being familiar with the area, I was quite surprised to see it so close. Whoever was up there was possibly being treated to an amazing cloud inversion, as it looked to be settling quite flat and smoothly just below the summit. The wind was picking up by this point and we had stood around for too long so it was time to make our way back down.
From here on, Mark and I continued together, talking the whole time about our passion for the hills and things we had seen and done in the past. As we passed through ‘The Window’, the trickiest section of the day appeared below us. The path down Coire Ardair is very steep and covered in loose scree and rocks. I’m not sure if the fact it still had huge patches of snow and sometimes hard ice made it easier or harder than normal. We slowed down dramatically at this point though, partly due to the terrain requiring more thoughtful footing and partly to look up in awe at the cliffs around us. Obviously, we also took this opportunity to perform a few exciting glissades down the soft snow.
Once we reached Lochan a’ Choire, I took advantage of a nearby burn to grab a much needed drink and splash my face as it was much warmer and calmer the further down we went, escaping the biting cold wind above us. There was still about three miles of walking ahead of us and the path was extremely smooth and easy for the remainder of the day. As we rounded the corner, heading south to make our final descent, the sun started to set over Glen Spean to put an end to a fantastic day in the hills. It may not have been the winter wonderland I had hoped for but the day definitely turned out to be a success after being treated to a beautiful sunrise, an awe inspiring Brocken spectre, my 100th Munro, clear blue skies and a stunning sunset to top it all off. Here’s to my next 100 being as fantastic as the first!