FOUR weeks ago, I walked the seven Munros of the South Shiel Ridge. The following day it was the Five Sisters.
They are both fairly strenuous days – the former a distance of 17 kilometres and an ascent of nearly 1800 metres, the peaks of the latter around 15km and 1350m – but nothing that proved unduly taxing.
So it was puzzling that two weeks later I found myself toiling on two lesser hills in Cowal.
The circuit of Beinn Lochain and Stob na Boine Druim-fhinn involves a shorter distance and less than half the height gain of the South Shiel ridge yet my time was only around an hour and a half less than for those seven loftier peaks.
There were extenuating circumstances. I reckon I hadn't fully recovered from the efforts of a 12-hour night walk over Ben Starav a few days' earlier, which included paddling there and back over Loch Etive. Even so, on paper this should still have been a relatively easy day out. But I wasn't on paper, I was in Cowal, and the terrain there is a great leveller.
The psychological factor also came into play. When I arrived at Loch Goil, the hills were shrouded in mist and rain battering down, the forecast sunshine nowhere to be seen. A day that should have started in lightweight gear was swathed in waterproofs. The rain soon went off, but the ground was saturated, the damage done. It was a heavy plod along waterlogged tracks and paths, sections of mud and bog and knee-deep, wet grass.
These conditions made it harder to regulate body temperature. My boots were soaked through and even with waterproofed socks my feet were freezing, while my legs and upper half felt overheated because of the need for waterproofs. It was a Goldilocks day. Every time I stripped off a layer I felt cold. When I put it back on, I was too hot. The result was I was never comfortable and every step seemed a struggle.
The final push up Beinn Lochain was relentlessly steep through deep vegetation which concealed deep holes – I was almost bent double continually trying to check my foot placements. By the time I neared the summit I couldn't lift my head; my neck was stiff and sore and I needed to lie down and stretch out to relieve the pressure.
Stob na Boine Drium-fhinn was on the Grahams list until recently when a re-survey found the drop was short of the required figure. It's a fine looking peak though, and the descent of its long, knobbly ridge involves some careful picking down dark clefts which could be 'fun' in winter.
Coming off the end was also interesting in a masochistic sense, and the firebreak which leads to the road involved another wade through the undergrowth. I arrived at the car wet and weary and pining for the simplicity of the South Shiel ridge.
A week later, and I was back in Cowal (yes, I know, I'm a glutton for punishment). Conditions were more favourable, however, and I was keen to see if my last experience was a one-off. Thankfully, it was.
Cruach nan Capull is the most southerly Graham in the Highlands and one of the smallest. There was a cooler, autumnal feel to the day. The grasses were drooping with the weight of water, layers of gauze sitting midway across the treeline and deer were barking and bouncing back and forth across the initial access track.
A small cairn marks the start of a path into the forest, a series of grassy ramps which zig and zag uphill, often overgrown and with the occasional fallen tree to get around or over. Dark in places, dappled in others, it exudes the atmosphere of a Grimm fairy tale.
Another small cairn marks the break-out from the trees and it's easy from there. But make sure you find the right access spot coming back unless you fancy spending the next few hours hacking your way through impenetrable forest.
Some three hours later I was parked beside Loch Eck, ready for the second hill of the day. Beinn Ruadh is a different proposition altogether, a wonderful hill that obscures its modest height with slopes rising almost vertically to a ring of crags. The fence heading uphill is a thing of wonder, some of the posts appearing to be lying horizontal.
A waymarked path broke me in gently and then it was straight up, steep and rough, always angling across to outflank the formidable broken wall ahead. Little ground seems to be covered in the first half; it is all in the vertical.
It never ceases to amaze how one good experience, one good hill day, can totally change your perspective of an area.
Looking across the loch, the long, undulating ridge that links Beinn Mhor and Bheinn Bheag looks like a tantalising prospect now that I've exorcised my Cowal demons. As long as I tackle it on a dry day.