THE Grahams were supposed to be gentler, easier options for the days when the big peaks were out of bounds. That hasn’t proven to be the case.
I had another sobering reminder yesterday that although these hills may sometimes be less than half the height of some Munros, they can prove every bit as challenging.
The Trossachs rarely provide a straightforward day, and major expeditions are needed to reach some in the likes of the Ardgour, Arkaig and Glenfinnan areas, but in time-honoured fashion, it seems all the difficulties of the most recent mountain ordeal are washed from the memory and the mind clock reset for the next one.
I had been itching to get at the Barcaldine hills, three hills in a handy horseshoe just north of Oban. The ground is complex, especially in the latter half of the walk, so a guaranteed good weather day was desirable and yesterday provided that opportunity - wall to wall sunshine, no need for waterproofs and perfect visibility.
I had read dire warnings about this round; deep foliage, thick woods, concealed boulder fields and hidden gorges. A glance at the slopes of Beinn Mheadhonach from my starting point suggested there could be problems on the descent.
The rise to the first summit, Beinn Bhreac, takes a direct line but there’s no path and it involves the constant task of trying to avoid the boggiest terrain over and around a series of grassy knolls. The consolation is that once on this top, you have sensational 360 degree views that will stick with you for the rest of the day. This small inner circle of modest hills is surrounded by many iconic mountains, and where there are gaps in the hills, the seascapes fill in magnificently.
Mull, Sunart, Ardgour to the west over the Firth of Lorne and Loch Linnhe. Then the hills of Ballachulish and Glen Coe, curving round to Glen Etive with the bold mountain, Ben Starav, living up to its name. And finally, the Cruachans soaring up to caress the inoffensive cotton wool clouds. At one point, the Grey Corries could be seen, their pale screes sparkling like snow, and mighty Nevis peeking through, its unmistakeable scimitar profile to the fore.
More immediately, on the walk across to the main summit, Mam Hael, the deep, dark slash of the Eas Dubh chasm on the Corbett Creach Bheinn across Gleann Dubh grabbed the attention. The next summit, Beinn Molurgainn, just squeezes into the Grahams list by virtue of one metre of a short, sharp reclimb, but it’s the third member of this threesome which could present navigational problems in limited visibility.
The ground between the two is complicated, a series of knolls and lochans, some 3km as the crow flies but this old crow doesn’t fly and it required a lot of dodging around to keep the best line. There’s also a couple of fences and a lot of mossy and boggy ground to cross which takes its toll on tired legs.
By the time I reached the cairn on Beinn Mheadhonach, it felt like a long time since the last summit. Again, though, the views took away any pain, Starav and Cruachan particularly spectacular from this vantage point.
There’s a choice of routes down, but both are typical of the Grahams. The drop north-west from the ridge involves weaving through greasy ground between rock faces and then battling though deep heather, grass and trees before reaching the river.
I had already decided this was the lesser of two evils, however, than following the ridge down to its conclusion. That earlier sight of the wooded slopes of Beinn Mheadhonach had convinced me – that and the fact I would face an extra mile of walking uphill on the road.
There is said to be a faint path across the slopes above the top of the trees, but previous reports suggested this could be a myth. I got lucky. There’s a spanking new bridge across the river, but it’s hard to see why. The track leading uphill is quickly swallowed by neck-high bracken.
I stuck to my line and at crucial moments the path put in a welcome appearance to cross little ravines, but the rest of the time it remained buried deep beneath the foliage. If in doubt, go higher and follow the fenceline. Either that, or take a machete.