Marhofn 171.09 - May 2007

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Case studies in completion:

Case studies in completion: 2. Michael Curtis, Grahams

The focal point for 2006 was completion of the Grahams. Starting the year with 44 to do, and having agreed with Iain Price for a joint completion in November, it was always going to mean adhering to a hectic schedule. However, the remaining hills fell into convenient hot spots, meaning I could maximise the tick count without spending obscene amounts of time in the car once I reached Scotland. In amongst the frenzy of activity there were some great times, especially on hills in remote spots.

Michael Curtis (left) and Iain Price on Carn na Coinnich

Michael Curtis (left) and Iain Price on Carn na Coinnich

In March, my wife Sue and I had a week based in Lairg. With wintry conditions prevailing, the hills we did proved ideal. Beinn Dhorain, along with the Marilyn Beinn Mhealaich, provided an unexpectedly great day. There was some of the best névé I've ever come across, and the scenery was fantastic as squalls came and went. Morven was particularly prominent, a hill we enjoyed later in the week. While Sue had a rest day I did the Loch Vaich Beinn Tharsuinn (approached by Glen Calvie). There had been a lot of snow overnight and the mist was right down. The going was arduous, but I was really enjoying the conditions and the temporary isolation. Approaching the summit dome, the light took on a surreal appearance; soft pastel shades and glinting snow. Very pleasant, but most odd. It was great being able to follow my footprints on the way back.

At Easter it was time for me to get on a mountain bike for the first time in a couple of years and wobble up Glen Elchaig. Having left the bike at Iron Lodge I firstly climbed Carn na Breabaig. To get to An Cruachan I decided to go over the Munro An Socach rather than drop back down to the path. Not the obvious option, but a very enjoyable one as it turned out. Above 750m there was deep and well-compacted snow. It was the first time for quite a while I'd been on one of the bigger hills in proper winter conditions. Spindrift was blowing around at the summit, but the sun was out and the views were glorious. An Cruachan looked a minor pimple from this height. A fast descent down the snow slopes led to a short climb to reach the well-constructed cairn at the summit. I gratefully sheltered from the wind behind the cairn and enjoyed half an hour's contemplation in a deliciously remote spot before heading back.

After Sue's first experience of a Scottish independent hostel at Camas-luinie that night ('alright as a one off', she said) we headed south to Onich for a couple of days. Druim na Sgriodain proved to be a good hill, but the excitement came in crossing the Cona River on the way to Stob Mhic Bheathain. It had rained overnight and the river was running high. Sue boldly opted for the wire bridge traverse while I chose a knee-deep paddle; a process we had to repeat on the way back.

In May the mountain bike was getting another outing for Meall Garbh and Beinn nan Lus down Glen Kinglass. The advantage of driving through the night is the possibility of an early start. It was 5:45am when I set off from Inverawe, having dozed for an hour in the car. I returned 12 hours later beaming because it had been a scorching day and I hadn't even thought of taking any sun cream. A couple of weeks earlier it had been deepest winter on An Socach and now it was high summer in Glen Kinglass? Despite the long day, lack of sleep and glowing countenance, I felt great.

By July I was down to eight Grahams left, five of them in Ardgour. After the usual drive through the night I arrived at the Corran Ferry on a sunny but very humid morning. The first objective was not a Graham, but the island Marilyn Carna. I had arranged with the caretaker to be taken over in his boat and left to wander while he saw to cleaning the self-catering cottages on the island. In the end I was quite happy to walk to the high point and snooze for a couple of hours. It was the one spot where there was a slight breeze to keep the insects away.

The next day the owner of the B&B in Strontian kindly agreed to drop me off at the bottom of Glen Gour (the normal starting point for Garbh Bheinn). From there I was able to enjoy the rare opportunity of a linear walk, over Sgorr Mhic Eacharna, Beinn Bheag, Sgurr nan Cnamh and Sgurr a'Chaorainn. Once height was gained the going was very pleasurable and the first three hills were completed without too much effort. However, to get from Sgurr nan Cnamh to Sgurr a'Chaorainn requires a huge loss in height before climbing back up again. Not quite so easy! I was leaning heavily on my sticks by the time the summit came into view.

The following day I fancied something a bit different so I went to Eilean Shona. With thanks to Jon Metcalf, who sent me the link to get the tide information, I got across the causeway completely dry shod. I found the going a lot harder than anticipated, with head-high ferns probably being responsible for depositing the numerous tics I discovered that evening. Nevertheless it was a pleasant diversion from the Grahams.

After a 700-mile day trip to Blackcraig Hill and Windy Standard, it was one to go by mid-September. It was pleasing to know all my plans had come to fruition, and I now had two months in which to savour the situation. This was in complete contrast to Iain who still had about 20 hills to do, despite being based in Aberdeen. Having acted as a pathfinder I passed on any information I thought might be useful to aid his efforts.

With his penultimate Graham done the week before on Jura, we were ready on 11 November for the final act. Carn na Coinnich down Strathconon was the designated hill. The weather was a bit wild, with fresh snow higher up, but come the time to touch the trig point the sun was out. A fitting climax, we thought, to the effort we had recently put in.

Carn na Coinnich (photo: Lindsay Munro)

Carn na Coinnich (photo: Lindsay Munro)

Both Iain and I felt a bit low having completed. For the two of us it marked the end of 'major league' bagging. Yes, we would do the odd new Marilyn (the Upper Hall beckons), but other lists don't appeal and we knew our philosophy towards the hills would now be different. However, after a couple of weeks of wondering if I would ever feel the same enthusiasm for going to the hills as I did before, a feeling of Zen-like calm came over me. I felt totally relaxed about the situation and began to look forward to repeating hills I hadn't done for quite some time, especially some Munros. A few trips were planned and I knew I was back to my old self when I began looking at my maps again. It took Iain a bit longer to snap out of his reverie, but he too is now looking forward to the hills with renewed vigour.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my wife Sue for her patience and understanding, especially over the last couple of years. This has allowed me to complete the Grahams more quickly than I could have envisaged a few years ago. She will be choosing our walking itinerary for a while to come.

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