Marhofn 212.12 - May 2010

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Jon Metcalf (+49=1111)

Both the year's big trips relied on logistical help to overcome my notorious lack of pace - I'm steady but slow.

Ulva and Gometra's limited scheduled ferry window dictated a different approach. A rain deity in the party caused bivvy gear taken for a week on Mull to be washed out as an option, but Eric Young cracked the problem while we were drying out our hill flippers and snorkels one evening, by discovering the Gometra RIB which halved the route to a comfortable 12 km. The first section wound through delightful woods, and around scenic coves to the main track prominent on the map. Beinn Chreagach followed via gently weathered lava steps. The western descent proved steeper than anticipated, so I cut down to Bearnus to rejoin the main drag. Am Bru didn't convincingly separate the islands, but I hurried past to a rest point below the second Marilyn.

A lady walked past, the first person I'd seen since the ferry, and accused me of being Eric. I explained that I was Eric's slow friend, and that the faster parts of the party would be along in plenty of time. The top with no separate name followed easily. I chalked '15:45' on a block I perched on the trig, so Alan and Eric would know I'd been through at that time. The headland south of Gometra House sported a blow-hole that spouted fountains of water with a great thump when waves hit the caves with enough intensity. At the large natural harbour we celebrated with Gometra strawberries and rhubarb wine, courtesy of the boatman, before an exhilarating RIB ride back round to Mull.

Jon Metcalf enjoys some exhilarating ribbing (photo: Ian Munro)

Jon Metcalf enjoys some exhilarating ribbing (photo: Ian Munro)

The five western Pairc hills comprise a 20km walk and 2000m of climbing - one way. This puts them firmly in the 'inevitable bivvy' class for me, along with classics like Ben Alder and the Tarf Beinn Bhreac. Michael Curtis made a through walk realistic by helping position my car at Seaforth Head, then organising Roddy's boat from Am Bothan to extract us from the carnivores of Caolas Scalpaigh and ferry us to the breezy bliss of Abhainn a'Bhaigh shielings (NB257026). Michael isn't an early-morning person on holiday, so the car element was a supreme sacrifice.

Caiteseal, the maximal Mars Bar Yeaman, is superb. I doubt that anyone approaches from the spectacular southern aspect most years. It sports a flat rocky terrace at 330m with fjord-like westerly prospects of magnificent Todun. The precipitous east flank of the northern ridge made the route onto Ciopeagail Mor frustratingly indirect. The pattern was set for the next 5km, threading from peak to peak round cavernous untrodden troughs. I parted with Michael, Sue and Iain on Ciopeagal Bheag, now committed to the walk out, and at length veered east into the misty embrace of Carn Ban.

Passing the surreal tyres noted by Ann Bowker's website, the mid-distance cairn on Beinn Mhor soon loomed out of the gloom. I may have been known to bitch about mist from time to time, but in the right circumstances it can be a godsend. On Aonach Eagach, many years before, it had provided wonderful psychological insulation from my proximity to my maker. On Beinn Mhor it mercifully censored any visual appreciation of how far there was still to go.

Unstable quartzite rollers dogged the drop to the Muaitheabhal col. There is no more aggressive walking rock. Eventually, unfamiliar Seaforth Island views solidified, and the predator count mushroomed with shelter. The rocky character of the round transitioned to something boggier and more overgrown. 'Welcome to Lewis', in spirit if not quite in terms of political boundaries. The bivvy spot was equilibrium between midges, breeze, shelter and a flat rocky shelf. The midges pressed the strongest case, making the bivvy 80% up the next hill. I texted the others to say I was settled in fine and then settled into my cocoon until daylight. A few hours later I enjoyed being alone on the hill several hours from anyone, moving at dawn, while sane people were still sleeping. The first top wasn't far from the bivvy, and the final hill only seemed weird because the western top, Sidhein an Airgid, was much shapelier than Guaineamol's high point.

There was something poignant about experiencing Muaitheabhal and Guaineamol for the last season before their imminent neutering by access road, and their rape by turbine and borrow pit. They are not the list's best hills, but that will never excuse industrial abuse, or the regulatory capitulation to the bridgehead for the desecration of greater Harris. Pairc is the wildest of Scottish wilderness. The tense will have changed in ten years time, and the prospects from some of Scotland's finest hills will have been irrevocably compromised. Rain set in and wept continuously back to Seaforth Head.

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