LOCH Mullardoch is not the prettiest expanse of water. It is held back by a concrete dam. And this morning there is a ferocious wind gusting over the parapet, choppy grey waters and a heavy sky.
I park the car behind the dam and pass a series of sheds from where, I have heard, it is possible to hire a boat and sail to a lodge at the foot of An Riabhachan, thereby cutting a slice off a long walk and making for an entertaining day. The idea is rather appealing: pay a couple of quid to a chap in an oilskin suit, chug a leisurely six miles in an open boat, then hike back along the ridge.
Then I glance at the choppy white waves, the spray bursting over the dam, and the lump of bad weather that’s rolling down Carn Eige on the far side of the loch.
Hmmmm. Perhaps not.
But consider this inland voyage on a good day: picnic basket; bottles of warm beer; straw hats; waxed boots; some old fart talking about catching char on Coniston Water before the war; Janusz Poplawski singing Zakopane on a scratchy record; fingers trailing in cool water; a ripple of laughter; purple mountains; sun on the back of the neck; fragrances of lavender, tar and diesel oil; smiling eyes; and the prospect of a brisk climb up noble mountains and a healthy hike back along a damn fine ridge.
Anyway, dream on. I find the track to the foot of Carn nan Gobhar (not to be confused with the mountain of the same name on the Strathfarrar ridge, which is within spitting distance). The plan is to climb this peak, traverse to Sgurr na Lapiach – the highest in the group – then detour onto An Riabhachan.
Carn nan Gobhar is a frontal assault, and again – like on An Socach two days earlier – I feel I’m firing on only three cylinders. It takes me ages to reach the summit, which is stony and cold.
I descend to a col, from which rises the high east ridge of Sgurr na Lapiach – and the weather closes in. By the time I have clambered up the rocky ridge, I have donned all sorts of winter clothing to keep out the wind and fine rain.
After a cold and draughty lunch at the summit cairn, and with visibility nil, I decide to drop An Riabhachan from the agenda and climb it from Iron Lodge along with An Socach (a different An Socach), at some future date. I don’t feel up to it. For three days now I’ve suffered a complete lack of energy. Slept half the afternoon in the summit shelter on Carn Eige yesterday, and had to drop down to Glen Affric without climbing Beinn Fhionnlaidh. That’s another one I’ll have to do from Iron Lodge.
Three hours later, back at the campsite in Cannich, I’m sitting in front of my tent shelling broad beans (Bunyards Exhibition, by the way, from Kings Seeds – wouldn’t grow anything else) when this elderly chap strides by with a towel over his shoulder. We chat about mountains, and it turns out that, come the morning, he intends to walk the length of Loch Mullardoch and traverse the entire ridge of four Munros – not just the measly two I have blundered up today.
That’s a long walk, I say. Then this lightbulb pings on in my head and I mention the boat. He could hire the boat.
The guy with the towel does his nut. He throws a wobbler. The transformation is astonishing. It’s like watching that horrible scene in 28 Days Later when the taxi driver gets a drop of infected blood in his eye. One minute he’s a bloke with a towel over his shoulder and a tartan wash-bag under his arm, the next he’s a raving member of the Un-Dead.
“I didn’t come up here to mess on boats,” he shouts, “I came up here to walk. If you pay a boatman to take you half way round the loch, you’re not a proper walker. You might as well get a bloody bus and sit in a bloody cafe all afternoon looking at the mountains and eating bloody shortbread.”
Two young women across the way are inspecting rust bubbles on their Volkswagen Camper. They turn around and stare at the man. I just sit there on my collapsible stool with a broad bean pod in one hand and a billy can in the other.
“My God. We have legs for walking,” he shouts. “That’s why we walk. Legs. Feet. Boots. We walk. We put one foot in front of the other and this action, when repeated, gets us where we want to go. We don’t go by boat. Fishermen go by boat.”
And with that he cracks his towel, like a cowboy might crack a whip, and marches off to his caravan.
I cast a glance towards the two women with the Volkswagen Camper and they glance back. I shrug my shoulders and they shrug theirs.
Hmmmm. Obviously some sort of purist; a Munro fundamentalist. The next time he passes my tent on his way to the toilet block, I shall ask him how he intends to get to his starting point at the Mullardoch dam. Walk the 12 miles up the winding tarmac road from Cannich (one foot in front of the other and repeating the action), then walk the 12 miles back again at the end of the day? Or drive up in the big blue Audi that’s parked next to his caravan?
There again, he might turn nasty – and I don’t want a drop of his blood in my eye.