It was to be a lazy Saturday, the morning set aside for pottering about, attending to those little domestic tasks that had been put aside for another day and in the evening I had to give a talk to the Munro Society in Birnam in Perthshire. That left me with an afternoon to climb a hill, to make the most of the unseasonably warm sunshine and clear weather.
The obvious choice was somewhere along the A9 and with its easy high-level access from Drumochter Pass I plumped for Sgairneach Mhor, the big stony hillside, 32351ft/991m.
Despite its name, Sgearnaich Mhor doesn’t have a lot of rock on its slopes although its big north-facing corrie, Coire Creagach, does boast a few mini-crags. Indeed, it’s that big corrie that gives this hill its character, a huge wind-scoured bite out of the hillside that always looks quite dramatic in winter when big snow cornices hang over the corrie lip.
A number of years ago I was ski touring over this hill with a couple of friends, John Love and Bob Telfer. Thick mist covered the summit slopes and we were convinced we had skied past the summit cairn. We followed our ski tracks back, peering through the mist in search of the cairn, when Bob suddenly vanished from view. He had skied over the cornice.
Shocked, John and I peered over the edge to see Bob, legs and skis spreadeagled, hanging on just a few feet below us. Fortunately he hadn’t skied over the edge at the corrie’s steepest point. If he had, the outcome wouldn’t have been so happy. John, being the remarkably forthright guy that he is, told me later that the first thought to cross his mind was; “ Damn – I think Bob’s got the car keys!”
It was a far cry from winter when I left the A9 and took the recently resurfaced path between the two porcine hills of Drumochter - the Boar of Badenoch and the Sow of Atholl. Already I was stripped to a tee-shirt and the early afternoon sun shone from a cloudless sky. A good track runs up through the glacial moraines between the two hills, a track that gives easy access to the north-eastern slopes of the well rounded Sgairneach Mhor
The Dalnaspidal deer forest boasts four Munros - Sgairneach Mhor, Beinn Udlamain, A’Mharconaich, and Geal Charn, an area once known as the Druim Uachdair, the ridge of the upper ground. Tackling the four hills in one outing isn’t a difficult proposition, but the logistics of the approach does mean a walk along the A9, either at the beginning of the day, or at the end, depending on where you park. A Sustrans cycle track that runs adjacent to the A9 means you don’t have to actually walk on the busy main road.
After seeing to my few odd jobs in the morning I was still in a pottering mood. I knew I wouldn’t have time to wander round all four Munros and was happy enough just to climb one, and make my way back to the car via Coire Dhomhain, the long rising glen that separates Sgearnaich Mhor from the other Drumochter Munros.
I found an easy river crossing before the long climb up Sgearnaich Mhor’s grassy north-east ridge. I was moving easily, feeling relaxed in the sun, cosseting myself by adjusting my walking stride to those pottering rhythms of the morning and in no time at all I was wandering along the lip of Coire Creagach, recalling Bob’s little ski trip.
Cornices still hung over the edge, and great swathes of snow still lay in the corrie below. A pair of ravens kept me company, calling to each other as they performed show-off acrobatics. A wheatear bobbed on the summit trig point as I approached, its white rump feathers gleaming in the sun. To the south, Schiehallion stood proud, and the jumble of the Cairn Mairg hills and the Lawers hills were still swathed in white. Beyond lay the celestial twins of Stobinian and Ben More, and further north, through the haze, rose the Wall of Rannoch hills, the Glen Coe hills and, closer at hand, the snow streaked Ben Alder massif.
There wasn’t a sigh, or a breath of wind - the stillness of the high places. I listened to try and capture a sound, any sound, but couldn’t, other than the faint pulse of the blood coursing through my own veins. Such silence is rare on a mountain top, and after a quick bite of lunch I lay back in the sun, closed my eyes, and instantly fell asleep. It was wonderful…
On the long descent down the path in Coire Dhomhain the world felt like a good place. Meadow pipits and skylark sang their sweet outpourings of song and high above me a great herd of deer moved across the hillside, grazing contentedly in the warmth of the afternoon sun. I felt pretty content too, the exercise raising the levels of certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain. Research has also shown that exercise may also boost feel-good endorphins, release muscle tension, and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Indeed, it was the Harvard academic E O Wilson who once said: “Wilderness settles peace on the soul because it needs no help. It is beyond man’s contrivance.” I’ll go along with that.
Photo: The Ben Alder massif from Sgearnaich Mhor