I WAS asked recently by a friend for my thoughts on his plan to tackle Beinn Tulaichean from Inverlochlarig.
I told him my preference has always been to climb it from Glen Falloch, passing over the shoulder of Cruach Ardrain, an interesting ridge with a good path all the way.
Ah, but I’ve already done Cruach Ardrain, he said. And there lay the crux of the matter. He was looking for a simpler, quicker ascent. No matter that it was an inferior route, a monotonous slog up steep grass slopes, it was shorter. But experience shows that shorter doesn’t necessarily mean quicker.
There’s a reason it’s said there are no shortcuts to success. That’s because most of the time there are no shortcuts to success. As soon as you start trying to cut corners, the wheels will likely come off.
We’ve all been there. You have climbed a couple of mountains and are ready to retrace your steps when someone suggests: Hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t we just take a shortcut to avoid some of the reclimb?
The thought of some respite for tired legs gets the vote. The reality is that it then degenerates into a struggle across exposed slopes, awkward traverses or deep bog. And don’t even mention the ones that involve cutting through forestry. Then there are the recriminations, the finger pointing and a great day on the hills disintegrates into a great huff. This is how wars start.
Never mind gales, lightning, floods and anything else the elements can conjure up, it’s the word ‘shortcut’ that can cause grown men and women to break out in a sweat.
I could understand my friend’s Beinn Tulaichean reasoning. He’s closing in on a Munros finish and, like so many with that final goal on the horizon, he’s walking with tunnel vision. Ascending Cruach Ardrain again seems like a lot of effort when there are still unticked peaks.
Every round has its odd ones out, the mountains that had to be abandoned when time ran out or when the snow or wind forced a retreat. These cantankerous lone wolves then seem to sit there mocking for weeks, months, years on end, a reminder that you have failed and will just have to go through the whole cycle again.
I stuck to my guns. I told him I find the pull up from Inverlochlarig on steep grass uninspiring, and that it probably doesn’t save much time over the other route. In the end, he came round. I’d like to think it was my inspirational speech about mountain aesthetics, but I suspect it was more to do with the fact I’d reminded him about an outing earlier in the year.
On that occasion he set off to tidy up Beinn a’ Chroin. He had already done its partner, An Caisteal, years earlier and had decided to give it a miss this time. Nice short day, nip up Coire Earb and back the same way.
It didn’t work out that way. Coire Earb holds a lot of waterlogged ground. Even in the upper reaches it’s a mix of long grass, greasy moss and wet boulders. There’s a lot of dodging around, a lot of unpleasantness, constant sideways movement to find a line, a mountain more suited to crabs.
The bedraggled figure who finally reached the summit cairn was then dismayed to find another walker, who had left the car park at the same time and taken the path over An Caisteal, sitting having his lunch. The longer route had once again proven shorter.
We recently walked in to Glen Affric over Mullach Fraoch-choire. I suspect it wouldn’t have been any slower going over A’Chralaig as well, and we would have avoided some of the bog trot through An Caorann Mor and the steep grassy pull up to the ridge.
We can all look at maps and try to figure out ways to make life easier, but 99 times out of 100 we will end up following the obvious path. They are obvious for a reason.
The old stalkers’ paths are wonderfully engineered. Some may seem to be meandering all over the place, even heading in the opposite direction at times, but they all come good in the end.
They were designed to use the land’s contours, to take a less strenuous route. These are real shortcuts. Don’t be tempted by cheap imitations.