Ben Macdui – the Munro for families

 

Ben Macdui used to be a hill with a reputation.  Its distance from roads meant that any problems could become serious.  Now, the funicular on Cairngorm and the easy mountain biking approach from the south have opened the summit up to families – three on my visit.  Its not only the hill which has become tamer.  One of the mums chatted to me, which suggests solitary men in their sixties don’t look as scary as they did before their few remaining tufts of hair turned grey.

I had started the day at Bob Scott’s Bothy and finished under my Trailstar in Coire an Lochain.  The formally permanent snow patch has gone but the coire is now home to large numbers of ptarmigan.  Next morning, I hiked down to the ski centre and arrived just in time to use my free bus pass for the ride down to Aviemore.

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There is no such thing as ultralight backpacking!

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This rucksack, with trekking poles strapped to it and with a full one litre Platy inside, added less than a stone to my weight, according to my bathroom scales.  Just thirteen pounds of gear was enough to keep me comfortable in October despite a bitter wind.  I don’t know what the skin out, base weight was for my overnight trip but the Wikipedia definition for ultralight was probably met with ease.

Light and ultralight are generally defined as base pack weights below 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) respectively in the US; elsewhere the definitions are commonly given as lightweight being under 10 kg, and ultralight under 5 kg.

My memory of that night out is of pulling my bivvy bag halfway out from under my SpinnSolo so that I could look at the stars while still being sheltered from the wind.  With Alex Machacek’s Improvision playing in the headphones of my Samsung Solid Extreme, it was a great night.

But it wasn’t backpacking.  Overnight trips are like backpacking but they just aren’t the real thing because the penalty for going stupid light is minimal and consumables add very little to the pack’s weight.

By the way, to all those who use stupid light in their rants against ultralight backpacking, it just isn’t a thing in Britain.  We found out years earlier in our backpacking careers, before we could afford decent waterproofs, that taking liberties with Britain’s wild weather brings too much suffering.  Stupid heavy is much more likely to be an issue.

So, for real backpacking, for example, Cluanie to Strathcarron via Cannich over a nice selection of Munros, Tops and Corbetts, I don’t take the SpinnSolo.  Nevertheless, a Golite Cave 1 doesn’t add much to the pack’s weight.  At home, a spreadsheet had told me that my skin out base weight was under 5kg, but my pack definitely wasn’t light when I set out from Cannich.

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This photo shows my overnight gear near Glen Affric.  My Big Three, another subject I could rant about, consisted of the Cave 1 with a few titanium pegs, a Golite Jam 2, an MLD Bug Bivy, a sheet of polycryo, a torso-sized foam pad and a PHD Piqolo, a respectably light collection.

However, I had used up the food packed at home while backpacking into Fort William.  Resupply at Morrison’s went fairly well for the hike over the hills to Cannich where I bought food and midge repellent from the village shop for the trip to Glen Carron.  Getting the quantities that I needed and no more was impossible.  On the platform at Strathcarron, waiting for the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, I was out of some essentials but still hauling silly quantities of other things.

This is the reason for the title of the post.  In a real backpacking trip, equipped to survive at least two consecutive foul nights and with at least two days of food in the bag, after a start from a village instead of from home, the rucksack just isn’t that light.  Consumables are heavy.

The trip I mentioned here was a learning experience.  I had some of the best ultralight gear with me but my pack was heavier than I would have liked for the slog up the side of Mullach Fraoch-Choire and for Bidean an Eoin Dearg.  After that trip, I remodelled my spreadsheet so that it now lists only consumables and packaging.  If the overnight gear and the summit ridge clothing are good enough, consumables will be the biggest controlable factor affecting the pleasure of a backpacking journey.  Consumables need a lot of thought.

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To be honest, I don’t actually use the spreadsheet.  I’m a nerd who enjoys designing spreadsheets and learning how to make them do new things but I actually use a cereal bowl.  The usual quantity of muesli goes into the bowl and I add a bit more to allow for the exercise.  Then I package the helping into a small plastic bag.  Repeat for the appropriate number of days and take similar steps for the other food items that will be needed.

For my Kintyre to Cape Wrath trip, I made up day bags and it was a system which worked really well.  Cherry-picking tomorrow’s treats doesn’t happen because tomorrow’s food is down at the bottom of the rucksack.  Also, the day bag reminds me when I haven’t eaten enough.  Best of all is the feeling of virtue which comes from preparing properly.

And that’s the take-home message.  Ultralight is an attitude, not an excuse for retail therapy.  Just look at Ryan Jordan’s posts on the BackpackingLight.com website if you can afford the subscription.

Eventually, I settled into a core framework that has been the foundation of my writing, instruction, clinics, seminars, and schools for more nearly two decades:

  1. Take inventory;
  2. Simplify;
  3. Limit contingencies;
  4. Value core function;
  5. Consider multiple use;
  6. Build systems;
  7. Develop your skills.”

I’m not sure what much of that means.  No. 3 probably means take a few plasters rather than the whole box.  Perhaps I should pay to watch the video but, clearly, precious little in the free preamble is about buying expensive equipment.

The Wikipedia definition of ultralight, along with discussion of the Big Three is just a starting point.  Getting those key pieces of equipment right doesn’t mean that a rucksack will feel light at the start of a decent trip.  In fact, if all you do is shell out for cuben and titanium, your pack is most unlikely to be light.  Time and thought put into preparing the consumables is the key.  As Hamish Brown said, you have to fight every ounce of the way.

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Munros between Rannoch and Dalwinnie not so Boring

Irvine Butterfield called Meall Ghaordaidh quite the dullest hill in the Southern Highlands, and a backpacker famous for gear reviews and exploits in North America was down-right rude about the Drumochter  Puddings in one of his books.  Surprisingly, these very hills provided the highlights of a fortnight spent wandering from Glen Lyon to Glen Doll whereas the area’s most celebrated summit failed utterly to live up to its reputation.

Wednesday 28 May

After a packless ascent to the splendid viewpoint of Meall Buidhe and a long lunch, I left two friends, Graham and Phil, by the Loch an Daimh dam and headed for the Allt Laoghain.  This burn descends between the two massive buttresses which dominate views along Glen Lyon.  A couple in wellies and jeans walked down on the other side of the burn as I climbed up between the buttresses.  The lovely afternoon turned cold and drizzle greeted me to Meall Ghaordaidh’s summit pyramid.  I could see many familiar tops, one with a quartz intrusion to match Ghaordaidh’s.  The extensive views included showers coming down glen’s Lyon and Lochay so I didn’t linger.

Irvine’s recommended ascent is from Tullich, which may account for his negative comment as Meall Ghaordaidh’s southern slope is a tilted heather moor.  The moor gave an easy descent to a field of heifers.  These bravely galloped over to check me out only after I’d left their pasture and reached the road.  Once the showers had passed on, the evening sun warmed my back as I plodded down Glen Lochay to Killin Youth Hostel.  This lovely glen has old woods, interesting hydro works and cup-marked rocks.  For me, the highlight was a snack-stop by a craggy bend in the river where the still water, stained oil-dark by peat, reflected lichenous rocks and birch trees.  A wonderful reward for my long effort.  After a rushed supper in the hostel, I joined Graham and Phil for last orders.  They were subdued.  For the second time they had been rescued by a tractor after sticking their car in mud.

Sunday 1 June

Four days later, following a disappointing ascent of Schiehallion, I left Duinish bothy for Sgairneach Mhor.  Clouds were hanging low over a boggy tableland formed by the intersection of three fault lines.   No risk of sunburn today.  The bridge across the Allt Shallainn uses natural abutments which reminded me of the Gates of Kinder.  I turned up beside the Allt Coire na Garidha, staying on the well drained strip of short grass beside the stream.  Meanders forced numerous crossings, but the lawns cut through by the burn were still far more convenient than ploughing through the heather on either side of the pleasant green corridor.

At one point a delicate snow bridge spanned the stream.  I tried to climb round it but just touched the edge with my right foot.  Cracks spread across the snow and then the bridge crumpled into the stream, the central section falling first.  The noisy demolition set off a small herd of deer, which soon reduced themselves to beige backsides bouncing away into the murk.  I was saddened by my unintended act of vandalism.

Staying beside the stream simplified navigation as the weather deteriorated, and then the next four miles across the tops gave the drubbing promised by Iain MacAskill.  I dropped off A’Mharconaich past the biggest patch of liverworts I have ever seen and traversed Geal-Charn before pitching on one of the few small lawns in the heather above Balsporran Cottages.  Grouse go-backed all evening long.

Monday 2 June

Next day summer arrived.  I celebrated by doing some laundry.  Clothes drying slowly on the heather gave plenty of time for a classic brew session and mild caffeine poisoning.  A late start was guaranteed but the hours of daylight were so numerous that a long day was still on the cards, and what a day it was to be!  The allegedly boring hills to the east of the Drumochter Pass were the scene of genuinely exciting events as local gamekeepers hunted an egg thief.  Guess who blundered into the middle of the chase!

Homework had not been done.  Was Glas Mheall Mor a tickable summit or not?  Tearing myself away from the views of snow-filled corries near Lancet Edge, I wandered out and back without my rucksack.  Then I headed north along the regional boundary towards Carn na Caim.  A red pick-up with a white back was parked above a small quarry and the pick-up’s occupants were clearly not prepared to let me pass without having a word.  After establishing my harmlessness, the head keeper agreed that it was the best day of the year.  A little further on four Londoners swept the broad ridge in extended line.  Their camera gear explained their scowls.  They had little chance of finding birds to film with so many people on the hills.  An elderly couple’s bright clothing and Jack Russell can’t have pleased the film crew, but at least these two were as delighted as me with the weather change.  The final meeting on the slopes of Carn na Caim was with a man in camouflage gear.  He was lying on the ground near a small cairn and gave an aggressive glare in response to my cheerful hello.  I had sandwiches on the summit and then descended via Allt Coire Uilleum to a Wade Bridge.

My map failed to show a new plantation beside the road and that meant two unexpected fences to cross – with the pick-up’s occupants watching.  It seemed they intended intercepting me again.    A water-gate through the second fence made it more convenient to walk under the A9 and clamber up on to the A889.  The watchers must have interpreted this as an attempt to avoid them.  They shot round from the trunk road, leapt out of the pick-up and began interrogating me.  It was some time before they realised we had already met.  Their aggression was a result of losing track of the camouflaged man.  They said he was an egg thief and found it hard to accept that I had not seen where he had gone.  My own drab clothing might not have helped this discussion.  Eventually they allowed me to head along the road for Dalwhinnie.

The day’s final encounter was with a LEJOG cyclist who was suffering from hunger knock.  He kept pace with me till the garage, where he was able to buy a chocolate bar.  The chocolate put life into him and off he went, with the intention of reaching Inverness.  My destination was the Cuaich bothy.  Tackling the track HM Brown-style, with a book, eased the last few miles of a long and eventful day.  Perhaps tiredness was the reason for my failure to remove the compass from my trouser pocket.  The trousers made a good pillow but next morning the compass had a crack and a large air bubble, which could be used to make the needle point in any desired direction, including north.  The entertainment level was destined to remain high as I worked my way to Blair Atholl, via Gaick and Tarf.

Various people have claimed that there is no such thing as a boring hill.  They reckon that any fault lies with the walker’s inadequate attitude and not with the hill’s morphology, geology, panorama, flora, fauna and history.  However, I cannot criticise Chris and Irvine for their negative comments about hills which gave me so much fun.  The criticism would be hypocritical because Schiehallion, from the south, in thick fog and drizzle, was just a boring slog.  In my opinion, it is a thoroughly over-rated hill.  Who cares if it gave us contours and an accurate estimation of the Earth’s mass?  I didn’t enjoy climbing it and have no desire to return.  Sgairneach Mhor!  Now, that’s the ticket.

Admission

Anyone who has battled this far will realise that this is an old piece.  My only excuse for posting it is that I like it.  You could use cal in a terminal window to work out when I hiked these hills.  Alternatively, I could admit that it was 1986.