I ARRIVED at the parking area under the massive Mullardoch Dam at midnight expecting to have the place to myself. I barely managed to squeeze in.
Normally, there are one or two vehicles at most: now there were as many as in my previous seven visits combined. It seems solitude in the mountains is a rare thing to find in the current climate.
My planned midweek trip to the north-west had been delayed by a few days due to car troubles. I knew the weekend would be busier, but reckoned that by aiming for more out of the way hills I could avoid the crowds.
The circuit of the Mullardoch Munros is one of the tougher day routes, four big mountains with a lot of ascent and a gruelling path walk in or out along the lochside. It adds up to a very long day.
Many walkers choose to pay for a boat ride along the loch. This knocks off about three hours and a lot of anguish, but the boat hasn't run this year due to the Covid restrictions. I reckoned a combination of these factors would mean a mere handful of walkers venturing in. I was wrong.
Travelling late on Saturday meant reaching Cannich in good time. The final nine miles up to the dam, however, took 30 minutes. It had been a few years since my last visit but the last couple of miles of road has deteriorated significantly.
It was so heavily potholed I had to slow to almost zero to bump over some of the craters. In some places, the surface had collapsed on both sides leaving a strip more suited to bike width. There was the consolation of seeing a couple of badgers trotting nonchalantly along in front of the car like railway flagmen.
When I finally made it through, I found a welcoming party who had mistaken my oncoming lights for an AA rescue van. The road had claimed a casualty. They had called earlier in the day, having had to climb back a fair height to get a signal, and were told someone would be there by 9pm. Three hours later, and still no sign. I can only imagine the wrangling going at AA HQ from everyone trying to avoid that call-out. It meant spending another night in the car park, although help did finally arrive about half an hour later.
I parked facing east and settled down. The sky was the clearest I've seen in a long while; absolute darkness highlighting a brightly mottled ceiling, the windscreen a perfect picture frame. As dawn approached, the distant skyline lightened and slowly coloured, in contrast to the ghostly rolling sea of mist in the glen. The waters of the loch were still and black, punctuated with varying rings of silver where the light penetrated.
The ascent to Carn nan Gobhar confirmed the slipping of the seasons from summer to autumn, a copper glow washing over the slopes in the burgeoning light, the distant roaring of unseen stags. Sgurr na Lapaich, the highest hill in the group, lay ahead, the cradled waters of Loch Tuill Bhearnach a reflecting pool under its mighty faces. The uphill felt constant but never too much, the myriad pools behind sparkling as the light searched them out.
The ridge continues west, the many tops of An Riabhachan stretching ahead under feather clouds to the final summit, An Socach, and the constant realisation that you are straying further and further from home. The other constant was the 360 degree mountain vista; the hills of Strathfarrar, Affric, Monar Torridon, Benula, Killilan, all individually identifiable.
On the final climb of the day, I finally met someone else, more than six hours after setting off. He had come in along the shore and was doing my route in reverse. The discussion naturally turned to that path. He said he preferred getting it out of the way first and didn't envy me doing it at the end of the day. I voted for the other way round, preferring the mountain circuit and subsequent views from east to west.
I met another pair coming off the summit but that was it. The crowded car park numbers hadn't translated to the hills. The drop down An Socach's ridge was swift but the bogs on the floor of Coire Mhaim soon slowed progress. Then I hit the path. From the end of the loch it's some five miles to the dam. It took me nearly three hours. Mullardoch has a habit of sneaking up on you and my earlier efforts were taking a toll.
I've walked this path three times before but like the road, it has also deteriorated badly in the intervening years. A two-kilometre section below the crags of Mullach a' Ghlas Thuill has collapsed dramatically leaving the line difficult, sometimes dangerous, to follow. At times, it meant dropping down to the shore and clambering through a chaotic boulder field. It was tortuous and time-consuming.
Seven hours to tick the four summits and five hours to walk out. No wonder the boat trip has become a popular choice.