55 down... only 227 to go
WE pulled up in a lay-by on the shores of beautiful Loch Awe, got out of the car and felt the warmth from the sun which was peeking over the rugged mountains.
It was a beautiful spring day on the west coast of Scotland by the Falls of Cruachan on the long and winding road to Oban.
It seemed hard to believe as we packed up our kit wearing sunglasses and slapping on factor 20, that a few thousand feet above there was a frozen wonderland still in the midst of winter.
We were heading into hostile territory, the fearsome mountains of the Scottish Highlands and there was certainly plenty of snow glistening on the tops.
My pals and I are Munroists, a Munro being a mountain in Scotland with a total height of 3,000ft or more.
There are five mountains which exceed this height in England but a mighty 282 north of the border. To climb them all often takes a lifetime. I’ve bagged 53 summits so far in 10 years, so I’ll have to get a move on if I’m going to complete my round before my knees decide to say ‘no more please’.
We were aiming to bag two on this adventure, the mighty Ben Cruachan and its sister peak Stob Diamh, which lies further along a narrow, airy ridge.
The walk began with a stiff climb up the northern shore of Loch Awe above the salmon farm through a wooded area before emerging beneath the impressive Cruachan Dam. A quick climb up a ladder followed before we headed above the snow line beneath Ben Cruachan. This was mid-April but we were soon up to our knees in snow, searching for a line up the snowfield for the ridge which would enable us to hit the summit. The going became tough and dangerous. At this point it’s worth noting that this sort of activity in winter should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers!
We were aware of the threat of an avalanche following an overnight dump of snow and we were constantly analysing the angle of the slope and looking at the layers of snow to assess the risk.
Ice axes in hands and crampons on boots we made slow progress, traversing across the face of a steep snowfield, taking it in turns to break trail before we eventually reached the ridge where we were welcomed by a fierce blizzard of hailstones. I now know what it must feel like to have a thousand pins pushed into your legs in rapid succession.
The warmth we had felt two hours earlier seemed a distant memory.
Thankfully this blizzard quickly subsided and as we got to our feet the clouds parted and we could see the summit of Ben Cruachan in all its glory, all we had to do was clamber up a steep sea of boulders covered in snow and ice to get there.
It took us an hour to climb just 150m to the summit of Ben Cruachan which lies at 3964ft above sea level, but we were rewarded by the most stunning of views as the clouds broke.
Another bonus of reaching this summit was a walk along a high ridge for about a mile and a half before we hit our second Munro summit of the day Stob Diamh. This was a stunning walk, with 360 degree views for a good couple of hours in between the storms which rolled in from the Irish Sea and over Oban to the west.
After Stob Diamh it was downhill all the way and very steep, but it’s this time (as any walker will know) that thoughts turn to food and usually beer.
And we had plenty to look forward too. After a short 15-minute drive down Loch Awe we came to a small village called Taynuilt and the hotel which gave the settlement its name.
The Taynuilt Hotel is a traditional Scottish coaching inn and has reportedly been welcoming guests for a number of centuries, and thankfully it was ready to welcome three more for a couple of nights.
It’s a small (just 10 bedrooms) inn which has recently been renovated after it fell on hard times under the previous owners. The rooms are all named after Scottish lochs and are extremely comfortable with most affording fine views.
It’s a welcoming place with both a formal dining area and a great public bar where you can also eat and enjoy the fine range of craft beer on offer.
I love Scotland but it’s been a source of frustration over the many years I’ve been up here climbing that you can’t get a decent pint after a day on the mountain. I needn’t have worried, the Taynuilt answered my prayers and featured ales local to the area and those from further north, including the excellent Windswept Brewery near Inverness (grab one of their beers if you can!). Taynuilt is also famed, rightly, for its food under the watchful eye of owner and head chef John McNulty.
They have a range of options to suit everyone, with hearty portions for those who’ve ventured out on to the hill during the day.
The breakfast too was amazing, with the attention to detail impressive. My pal Jon had to wait for his poached eggs as the chef wasn’t happy with his first attempt and sought perfection, which he achieved second time around.
The Taynuilt Hotel is a great place to stay for those looking for outdoor adventure or people eyeing a visit to nearby Oban with is colourful buildings and harbour front.
Me, I’ll be back up this neck of the woods soon. I’ve now climbed 55 Munros, just another 227 to go... knees allowing.
●● Climbing up a snowfield to attain the ridge before the final clamber over boulders to the summit of mighty Ben Cruachan