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The TGO Challenge being my brainchild, I felt I had to take part in the 25th event. I'd done the first ten in a row and other odd ones, but May usually meant working abroad: sun and sanity in the Atlas mountains, where Munros are metric and mules carry the gear. I wanted a quick, short route for the Challenge, so planned Oban to Arbroath and took the chance to go through Glen Kinglass.
A night in Narrachan bothy gave the excuse to tick Grahams Meall Garbh and Beinn nan Lus en passant for Clashgour, the GUMC shack which I'd last used with a school party decades ago. Beinn nan Lus gave an easy ascent up the Allt Hallater, where I'd camped in 1974 on the Munros-in-a-oner trip. I trundled down the east ridge and in for the year's first river dip. I was happy to make this sentimental return; there are plans to hydro Allt Hallater. Bastards! I went on to Gorton bothy and it was there that the great thunderstorm struck. Almost. We stood on its knoll in sunshine while lightning seemed to pour down in a curtain round the horizon, with the Coire Ba hills taking the brunt.
By Rannoch, Aberfeldy, Birnam and the Sidlaws, I never once wore waterproofs, and several nights just slept out under the stars. May 2004 will long be remembered. Sadly there weren't any other new tickable hills on my route, and I'd far too much hot, hard tarmac and forest track for foot comfort. For the 25th Challenge there were, uniquely, two waves of starters, so between welcoming in the two groups, I headed north to tease away at the tally. Hill of Fare was tackled from the west on a dewy morning of delight, and I then drove up to add Waughton Hill; my map antique enough not to show the masts on its eastern top. The hill was surrounded by rape fields, the scent of which had followed me from Birnam to Arbroath, along with the cuckoo I'd picked up leaving Oban. I ended that day in my camper van somewhere near Spey Bay.
The wee road from Craigellachie (Speyside Way) along to flank Ben Aigan gave woodland at its very best. When I came on a viewpoint looking down along the Spey I was puzzled; the track off up the hill should have come before then. It took a bit of teasing away at the problem before I realised the mudslide I'd passed earlier had to be the track I wanted. It was. Higher up it became a clean route again. Makes Aigan remembered. No voie normal footpath aid as on Munros. I then went on for Balloch Hill near Keith, finding the way up from the west no bother. By the cairn someone had planted polyanthus inside a circle of the white quartz rocks.
Fourman Hill rounded off the day and the fun. A Marhofn note had suggested driving up from the east to Fourmanhill (the building). But the slope beyond was all heather. No thanks! I decided to take the track up in the forest to the first crossroads (wide-spaced mature larch) and, if it became bad, head out the wood and up. Before the crossroads a small path wended off up right to go outside the forest and up all the way to the summit - worth noting. The gorse-defended trig was standing on a carpet of violets. The view naturally included Ben Rinnes. Every view did. (Somewhere above the A9 I once found I could see both Schiehallion and Rinnes and they were a perfect mirror image.)
Well, that was section 21 away, with three to go to 1000. The nearest possible tick was Cnap Chaochan Aitinn away up the Avon: the only tick left in section 8. I'd wanted to have it on a good day so as to cycle in, either from Corgarff or Tomintoul. The latter won and the day was one of rare perfection. May 2004 really showed off. Would the natives be friendly? Dalestie looked risky but the bridge there was handy. So the (not-so-old) map indicated, but on the ground there was no bridge and Dalestie was derelict. I paddled across and went up the burn opposite, which gave me dipper and ring ouzel nests, and allowed stalking deer to 70 metres below the summit bunion. Reaching it the view of Ben Avon 'exploded' on me. No other word does. What there is on top I'll let others discover. Not exactly a wind farm.
With a couple of days before needing to be back in Montrose I pushed west again, over the Lecht and up Strath Dearn to spend the night in my van high beyond Glen Kyllachy on the wee road over to Farr, superbly alone in an empty world. With two hills remaining in section 9, 1000 would soon be in the bag. I woke with cloud driving past and the rain lashing the van. My comment was monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon.
However, the next opportunity was not far off. I'd claimed Ben More in Mull for the 'Boots' charity event on 6 June. Jill and I took a five-day offer from CalMac to embrace the day, crossing on the first boat to make the most of Mull. Dull, grey, windless, wet conditions could only mean midges, so we abandoned camping and ended in the luxury of Arle Lodge. Sassenach school holidays proved a fly in the ointment: not midges but a biped pair of clegs. A five-year-old dressed in mother's sixties flower-power outfit looked bad. Joined by an 18-month old brother they soon reduced most residents to thoughts of terminal child molestation.
June 6 was not bright and sunny. Leaving Jill in the van to otter-spot and see yet more sea eagles, I set off from Dhiseag, up a clear path not noticed even a decade ago. Forget the warnings about the compass being erratic on top - with that clear trail you can go up and down without a compass nae bother. I did. If I'd started in shirt sleeves the summit was reached weather-proofed from toe to toorie and leaning on the wind, which swung from NW to SE to W over the hours I was out - as erratic as the compass on top. I didn't see anyone else, so scratched 'Boots 04' on a flatstone by the garlanded pole in the cairn jumble. And set off for 999. To be fair I've been up Ben More nine times; three times in excellent conditions, three average and three manky.
No compass was accidental. I'd swapped rucksacks from big Challenge one to day sack, but hadn't transferred top-pocket contents of knife, whistle, compass etc. Put it down to senility. Glad now for it was fun teasing the way off to reach Coirc Bheinn by map alone. No problem to start, along a cliff edge to a remembered big cairn where one turns down Fuji-like gravels. Glimpses through blowing clouds. More doubtful ground until the splatter of lochans appeared as and where wanted, but with the mist easing it was almost disappointing to drop to the Mam and struggle out of waterproofs. Nice to reach a handkerchief. Eat limp biscuits.
With brolly up for wind, and waterproofs flapping from rucksack, the local deer forgot to flee and stood mesmerised by what they could not understand. With wee Maol Mheadhonach traversed, only an easy grass slope led up to the summit of Coirc Bheinn. Grass! A day with no heather? The long descent put up endless deer. Mull crawls with them. Back at the camper an oldish man (i.e. older than me) came off the hill, mapless as well as everything else. Describing what he'd found on the hill, he was astonished to hear he'd actually climbed Ben More. 'I just went for a wee walk...'
Jill had been with me when I had completed my calendar round of the Munros (a Munro on every day of the year, including 29 February), had finished her Munros on a heaven-sent day on Sgurr a'Mhaim, and had struggled on with scaffolding on her knee, disintegrating bones, missing toe and various other hindrances, but had not been so active lately. She was not giving up however. If her physical state had kept her off Ben More, on the next dry day I was determined she'd do something. We headed for the easiest tick I'd not yet climbed: Carn Ban, 248m, a pleasant long dander up a green track and a finely perched trig with a view. I was so thrilled to have a view that Jill had to remind me I was on the elusive 1000 at last (I'd a new camera to play with). So that was that. Bit flat really. The fun is in the approach after all. Summits only lead down. But no doubt there are other magic numbers to wind one up. Sometimes one curses Dawson. Sometimes one praises him. Thanks, mate.
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