Marhofn 196.11 - May 2009

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Poll Opinions:

Poll Opinions: Jon Metcalf

What seems best or worst is dynamic. Development will doubtless blight some that currently seem very special, but other places obscured by clag first time may turn out to have been misgraded in my diary ramblings. With these reservations, here's how the 30-year journey has been so far:

Best Scottish hill over 900m: A'Mhaighdean. Grand Canyon-like in exceeding its own hype.

Best Scottish hill 600-899m: A nearly impossible choice. Cir Mhor, Sgurr an Airgid, An Ruadh-stac, Garbh Bheinn (3A), Askival or Trollaval (Rum), Ben Mor Coigach, Sgurr an Fhidhleir, Uisgneabhal Mor (Harris) or Beinn Mhor (South Uist)? The Uist hill narrowly wins, as few will choose this gem.

Worst: No vote. There's nothing in these categories that I couldn't face again. Apart from the ****ing midges on Creise.

Best Scottish mainland hill under 600m: Beinn Dubh an Iaruinn has sumptuous Monar views, Cruban Beag (4B) surprisingly intricate summit cliffs, Cruach Mhor (19A) fantastic complex knobbles, thoroughly enjoyed despite pissing rain. An Lean-charn (16B) has an ace cliff start and nice steps at end. Ben Laga (18A) is a gourmet hill, with rocks, turrets, gullies and pools. Beinn Sgluich (3B) had layer after layer of challenge, surprisingly complex for its size. Stac Gorm (9B) is a marvellous tiddler, with huge boulders, a narrowing ridge and top-rate surroundings. Meall an Fhuarain (15A) has epic Ben Loyal views but is being ruined by new tree plantings, while not even a wind farm can completely spoil Cruach nan Cuilean (19C). Ord Ban has a fantastic reward-to-effort ratio. Deadh Choimhead (19A) is one of the most amazing hills for its size on the list - easy tree walk then crag threading. Beinn Lora is an excellent hill; loved the woods and waterfall into the sea. Cairn William is a happy memory as it was Rachael's first Marilyn; she was on my back at the time asking why daddy couldn't keep up with the men on the bikes. And the final vote goes to... Deadh Choimhead.

Worst: Going that is unfit for human consumption is the defining quality of my really bad low Scottish hills. Crap weather and the local carnivores can really accentuate the experience, along with that special welcome from some of the tourist industry après hill. Binnean nan Gobhar (1C) has suitably hellish heather thrashing and multiple candidate tops. Hill of Stake (27A) was tussocky shite. Cairnsmore (27B) has dire heather only broken up by hideous tussocks, with futile detouring looking for anything solid to break the toil. Steele's Knowe (26) is an industrial hell hole that I hope recovers. How can people do this? Beinn Donn (3B) was a shitty clagged plod to an indistinct summit, enlivened by an unmapped ravine on the descent. Tom Bailgeann (9B) has a Goml sign and a liquid mud 'path'. Knockan (21A) has some of the worst going in Scotland, while Largo Law (26) has the stickiest and most unpleasant blend of clay and cow shite to wallow through, before escaping onto slippery steep wet grass. Like many others I took the wrong approach to Torr Achilty (12A), over unmapped streams, humps and jungle defiles, with snow everywhere. Cruach Lerags (19A) has a horrid route, guddling about in trees, undergrowth and bog. Newtyle Hill (6B) was simply vile going; my diary isn't sufficiently negative about this horror. So it's a very difficult choice but Cairnsmore wins, as I don't think there's any remotely enjoyable way up this, unlike others. Knockan and Newtyle Hill get the runners-up spots, just missing out on glory through lack of scale making the suffering insufficiently long.

Best Scottish island hill under 600m: On Lewis, Mealaisbhal has an excellent scrambly boulder field; Cracabhal also has wonderful scrambling and lochans. On Roineabhal (Harris) I was deprived of what must be a brilliant view, but still chanced on the best garnet field I know. Also on Harris, An Coileach and Heileasbhal Mor are a classic pair, with superb slabs and plates for skipping between them, while Todun has sensational views of Seaforth and all round. Orval (Rum) had wonderful Canna and Skye views.

Glas Bheinn (Jura) was intrinsically good, with a set of weird new-age stone sculptures near the top. Sgorr nam Faoileann (Islay) has a superb last km or so (top five in this division). Triuirebheinn (South Uist) was great fun, bluff dodging on the way down. Eaval (North Uist) has an astonishingly good route round the encircling lochs; among the best viewpoints in the UK. On Mull, Cruachan Min has a nice route threading lava tiers and a gorge; 'S Airde Beinn has an interesting flooded volcanic vent that makes up the summit. Sgorr an Fharaidh (Eigg) is nothing special on top, but the extension around the plateau rim, the delightful route down to beach level from the north, and the singing sands, made this a much better hill than An Sgurr. Most aspects of Dun Caan (Raasay) are good, notably black sand in lochs near the summit. Ben na Cro on Skye has a nice grassy ridge in awesome surroundings. Beinn nan Carn was nothing special until I unexpectedly I hit a surface limestone pavement outcrop. On Sron Romul (Scarp) I enjoyed the village remains even more than a good hill with tantalising views to St Kilda. Carnan (Mingulay) isn't startling, but everything it is embedded in is why I love Scottish islands; must return to explore and absorb the island. Sotan (Berneray) has wonderful cliffs at the end of the world and a poignant graveyard. Noss Head (Shetland) is magnificent from top or bottom (by boat). I needed five attempts for my first visit to the Shiants, but have now been twice. Epic route up Mullach Buidhe, brilliant atmosphere, top ten probably. This category was the hardest choice: Todun, Cracabhal, Eaval, Sotan, Noss or Shiants? My vote goes to Todun, just.

Worst: Stulabhval (South Uist) was a disappointing rump to end a great ridge, with a blister-inducing rubble track out. Ben Cliad (Barra) was spoiled by an eyesore rubbish dump at the start. Ben Lee (Skye) had a dull start, dull middle, and dull top. Sgurr na Stri by repute is brilliant, but I didn't see any of this on a foul day, so must return. On Knap of Trowieglen (Hoy) I wasn't sure if the spongy start or the bonxie attack higher up was worse. An Sgurr (Eigg) was indescribably disappointing when actually on it, compared to how magnificent it looks like from any distance; the Eiffel Tower of hillwalking. On Jura, Beinn Bhreac was the usual horrid figment of a shitty path in tangled rank grass over bog - better going higher up, but not enough to rescue this one. I made an awful route choice on Ben Garrisdale on a severely crap day; terrible going, missed the unmapped track, jumped a river that had a perfectly good bridge and got no view. Then there's Lewis. On Caultrashal Mor I got both boots full and bitched with my companion much of the way. Muirneag has the worst bog ever; fractal progress making this definitely bottom five material. Beinn Mholach is also shite but easier than Murneag. Do I hate Lewis or Jura more? Probably Jura. In the end I vote for An Sgurr on Eigg. In a class that holds Muirneag and much of Jura, this vote shows just how disappointed I was with this hill.

Best English hill over 600m: Great Gable is iconic, better than most Scottish hills and nearly all Welsh hills. Illgill Head is also pretty wonderful, with the added bonus of far fewer people. I also like Rogan's Seat, for its mine and gorge, and Cross Fell for its scattering of Blue John (fluorite).

Worst: Helvellyn isn't bad for any rational reason, I just don't like it. On one winter visit a stranger broke a thigh bone before leaving the car park, slipping on bottle ice. My party had too few crampons, so we all tried to get up the hill without them. I abandoned this gesture as it became increasingly stupid and had to put mine on. Another time a friend of a friend went over the summit cliffs, unable to stop a slow slide. Can a mountain have an evil spirit? Back with the conventionally awful, Burnhope Seat was recorded as a 'grassy drag'. Parking fees and enforcement methods for Kinder Scout are scandalous and its summit is pathetic, but its fantastic edges and boulders compensate enormously. Cold Fell has a cruddy track that peters out, but one of the best cairns I've seen. My winner though is the awful Great Coum; no parking, bad bog, barbed wire, an ambiguous summit and rotting dead sheep. It could almost be a bad sub-600m Welsh enclave.

Best English hill under 600m: Vixen Tor is top five material, but not under consideration by accident of topography. Mellbreak was a fine mini mountain to complete my Lakeland Marilyns. Pendle Hill is another nice little viewpoint. Cringle Moor is intrinsically fine, and my visit was enlivened by a drugs bust in the car park. Stiperstones is really exceptional for the effort; Caer Caradoc Hill has interesting conglomerates and great views of the Ludlow area; Burrow has a fine fort. Hergest Ridge is my Ray Mears hill; the ideal place to collect stuff for crab-apple jelly and toasted monkey puzzle kernels. Dufton Pike is another beautiful larder, with a fine crop of sloes. Hutton Roof Crags is incredibly wild for its scale, and Swinside shows how good a hill can be packed into 244m. I love the limestone exposures on Whitbarrow and the view of Grange from Arnside Knott. But my winner here is Hallin Fell. I loved it on my first ascent, despite the kids bitching, and I hope to be able to climb it regularly in retirement.

The summit of Sighty Crag (photo: Richard Mclellan)

The summit of Sighty Crag (photo: Richard Mclellan)

Worst: Hoove is mogadonic; poor going with zero uplift on arrival. White Hill has trackless tufts which you wonder why you endured. S(h)ighty Crag combines liquid slutch forest tracks and dire heather thrashing. Hail Storm Hill raises boring to an art form on all scales, it has an ambiguous top, little view and poor access. Hell will freeze before I waste further time on its crapness. (AD: It's not too bad if you just wait until the summit plateau bog freezes over, as it did for weeks last winter. Even better if you like watching a phalanx of motor bikes dodging wind turbines). Freeholds Top is similarly tedious (bar trig 4444) but not quite as ugly. Bardon Hill is an abysmal and unsafe mess of excessive exploitation and deserves a 'lifetime crapness award' even more than badly-neglected Dundry Down. The Seager Hill Gomls could warrant its inclusion except that the walk starts in Woolhope Cockshoot, for which all can be forgiven. Crowborough has to be mentioned for the garden trespassing required. Hardown Hill was a strong candidate, for its wall of thorns and ambiguity, but North Downs was worse. And the winner in this class is Gisborough Moor for its Gomls, bogs and sheer feeling of being cheated into making the effort to get there for no reason at all on arrival. Short of suicide the journey has to be reversed.

Best Welsh hill over 600m: Tryfan. World class. Soul-raising to look at from all directions, infinite route possibilities according to taste and wonderful surroundings. Purely on summit view the panorama is a shade less perfect than from A'Mhaighdean, but Tryfan wins all other criteria hands down.

Worst: No vote. Everything I've visited so far was worthwhile to outstanding. I can face the prospect of the Upper Parks etc that are still to be visited, because there must be further gems in Welsh high country that I've yet to experience. There are even a few high places from which a turbine can't be seen.

Best Welsh hill under 600m: Good memories of Sugar Loaf, Moel Famau, Aberedw Hill, Carneddau, Rhiw Gwraidd (great views despite agricultural access), The Begwns (the best seat in the world ever), Trichrug (positive note for a small Welsh hill that isn't a razorwire fest), Bryn Arw, Foel Cae'rberllan (all features positive), Carn Fadryn (primrose-coloured trig, ace Lleyn views), Mynydd Carningli, Garn Boduan (ace fort and cloud inversion), Moel-y-gest (amazingly wild for its size), Mynydd Enlli. In the end I go for Ysgyryd Fawr, which I recorded as magnificent despite awful weather.

Carneddau summit celebrations (photo: Colin Crawford)

Carneddau summit celebrations (photo: Colin Crawford)

Worst: Whereas bad low English hills mainly qualified through their general anaesthetic qualities, access hostility is at the root of most of my low Welsh picks. The Gomls of Gyrn Moelfre and Garreg Lwyd spoil these; Moel Gyw was tough going, with Goml sign on top and a good chance of food poisoning at the bottom. Mynydd Marchywel has abysmal mapping - I broke out of thick forest onto a wide unmarked track, with the trig accessible via a stroll of about a third of the agri-yomping and arboreal combat that my route required. On Frenni Fawr I was already wet on a crap day, stumbled up a mound of no special merit, saw nothing, and wouldn't have bothered if our holiday let hadn't been 572km closer than home. Allt yr Esgair has a really cloying bridle path for your inner mud freak. Cefn Eglwysilan and Mynydd Machen have nightmare approach roads; Caeliber Isaf is a shite fence hopper; Hope Mountain has more fodder for the barbed wire fetishist; Ffridd Cocyn is pish unless you collect dead sheep, and Wentwood was a tangle of thorns, flies and bracken. Myarth has to be included for its Goml sign and obvious pun value. The Brandy Hill trig is deeply submerged in thorns, between a barbed wire fence and communications compound with 3m fence and treble barbed wire overhang. The trig overtops the compound, but the water reservoir mound within an inner compound overtops the trig a little. I got cut up during access gymnastics.

However, beneath all these, the magnificent Mynydd Allt-y-grug is a prince among crap road and hill access experiences. A lower gate is marked 'No access to mountain', one higher up is marked simply 'No access' (at all), then a higher track is bottomless liquid mud, overgrown at the start, then has rocks and a fence to block it off higher up. It was replete with decaying cars and numerous uncleared dead-falls. A bloody disgrace that also takes my vote for pit of the entire list.

(AD: Actually I quite liked it. I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was particularly effective, in the atmospheric November mist. Apart from the dire mudbath at the start, obviously. It was a whole lot more fun than Brandy Hill, which has five different hazards, all within 25 metres of the main road, and a sodding twin miles away that takes much longer but involves extensive dodging of hidden houses, herds of heffers and hellish head-high hawthorn hedges. Maybe that is why far-away Frenni Fawr later that day seemed so ffantastic).

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