I LIKE Beinn Dearg. It’s a mountain with character way out in the backcountry. And I like the sound it makes when people pronounce its name correctly. It’s like the call of a bird or the noise of a rock glancing off another rock. Dye-rek . . .
There’s a Beinn Dearg in the far north, up near Ullapool, which I climbed about ten years ago. On the descent I met a woman and we talked about mountains. She asked me if I’d just been up Bin Dye-rek. She might even have said Bin Derreck, or Bin Derreg. But whatever it was it had a haunting and earthy sound. I can’t remember what she looked like, the colour of her hair, her age or her shape – just the sound of her voice uttering those two words as the wind snatched them away.
Today I’m off to the southern Beinn Dearg, the one tucked in the wild country to the east of Blair Atholl. The challenge is getting to it rather than climbing it, then getting back again before the sun goes down.
There’s a good six miles of stony track – most of which is uphill – to reach Sheicheachan bothy at the foot of the mountain, then a long pull to the summit at 1,008 metres (3,307ft), followed by the whole thing in reverse. It’s a job for the mountain bike.
The track to Beinn Dearg is the old drove route from Blair Atholl to Kingussie over the Minigaig pass. Before General Wade pioneered his military road over Drumochter in the 1720s, the Minigaig route was a major artery. Signs of its former importance can still be glimpsed in the moss-encrusted milestones that nestle in its heather verges.
I dismount to photograph four of these (Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5), because that’s the sort of thing blokes with beards are expected to do. The first milestone (No 1), the nearest to civilisation, is missing. It’s probably found a new and fulfilling career as a garden feature, stuck between someone’s solar tier fountain and a meerkat family.
I expect milestone No 6 and all subsequent milestones lie beyond the bothy. One day I’ll walk all the way to Kingussie just to find out because it’s niggling me and I need to know. I’m a bit like that bloke who cut a hole in his fridge door to see if the light goes off.
It’s a slow and sweaty slog to the bothy. And it’s a slow and sweaty slog from the bothy to Beinn Dearg’s airy ridge. I’m on the summit for 1pm, exactly four hours after starting out – and that includes half an hour for lunch. Not bad going, I tell myself. (This is a half-hearted attempt to boost my confidence – because on the track to the bothy I was overtaken by an old white-bearded lad on a mountain bike who then ditched his bike in the heather, ran to the top of Beinn Dearg in his cycling gear, and doubled past me again on his run down, waving cheerily).
Rewards come to the stout-hearted and the meek. My rewards come on the summit (pictured below) in the form of clear views and time to savour them.
Let’s ponder, for a moment, the reasons why people climb mountains. It’s not the first time I have touched on this subject and it will not be the last, because the reasons are many and they are varied. But here’s one I’ll toss in the pot. It’s the thrill and the satisfaction of gradually becoming familiar with places that at first seemed wild and daunting – sometimes intimidating.
It’s the dawning of recognition – the slow process where strange inanimate shapes with strange outlandish names become familiar; making an almost imperceptible transformation from dark strangers into friends.
I gaze north and east from the summit of Beinn Dearg and the horizon is full of green lumps, brown lumps, and big black lumps shaded by low cloud. And in the middle distance I recognise Carn an Fhidhleir and its neighbour, An Sgarsoch, with the high Cairngorms forming a dark and brooding backdrop. To the right stand Carn Bhac and the steeply rising slopes of Beinn Iutharn Mhòr, then Carn an Righ and Glas Tulaichean. Further to the south, the splendid peaks of Beinn á Ghlo reach towards the sun.
And I think: this is like being a teenager again, venturing into the Cumbrian mountains. This takes me back to the mid-1970s. A few decent fell-walks under my belt and I could recognise the shapes of Great Gable, Bow Fell, Skiddaw, the Old Man, the Langdale Pikes and Crinkle Crags at the drop of a woolly hat.
And here I am in a biting wind on the summit of Beinn Dearg with that same fresh feeling of recognition, of a new dawning in a vast mountain country that is slowly becoming familiar. I’m piecing together the lumps in a landscape far, far more vast and complex than the Lake District – and one that stretches to every horizon. I could sit here all day and, through a process of elimination and crude triangulation, work out the names of most of the prominent summits and the glens that wind around their feet.
In this somewhat philosophical and indulgent frame of mind I plod down Beinn Dearg’s lonely slopes and spend another half hour drinking tea outside the bothy before mounting the bike and rattling uncomfortably down six miles of rough track in the afternoon sun. Back at the car I fire up the Marc Bolan Acoustic Warrior CD my son bought me several birthdays ago.
Eh? Look, I did say I felt like a teenager again.
FOR a history of the Blair Atholl to Kingussie drove road over Minigaig, see James Carron’s excellent Walking the Minigaig Road
For high-res pictures, extra views and the complete set of milestones, click on any of the images below: