Following a fainter path along the mountain’s spine: Fraochaidh

SONY DSC
SONY DSC

We stood on our summit surrounded by horizons formed mainly by alpine looking summits, peaks that shimmered like silver.

Out west was sublime, in that direction the sombre turrets of Mull and Jura, stood guard over their own little bit of Atlantic Ocean. Closer, the jagged peaks of Ardgour, the nearer peaks of Lochaber and the Mamores, Glencoe and Etive. The Blackmount and the Rannoch Hills looked over by far away Scheihallion; every mountain to the distant haze stood gleaming white on their plinths of the fleeing winter’s tan; the last of the snows would soon be gone.

The Corbett peak of Fraochaidh is an easy climb yet a better viewpoint would be hard to find anywhere else in Britain. I say an easy climb...it is, but first you have to get there!

All the same it had been a good walk in. We’d left the car at Ballachuilish, (renowned at one time for its important slate quarry), walked south through the sleepy village and past the wide awake farm at Larroch. This had been our first ever route onto the ‘Vair Pair’, (Beinn a’ Bheithir), many years ago. Everything around us seemed vaguely familiar, none more so than the stark, quartz and iron impregnated ridge of Sgorr Bhan, which swept down into Gleann Fhiodh, ahead.

What neither of us remembered were the unusual fence posts hereabouts. Instead of the usual wooden posts, we noticed that the dry stane walls had been topped by wires spaced through jagged holes in big roughly hewn slates hewn in the quarry below, a clever idea and so much in keeping with the nature of the land locally.

The initial track, a ‘Right of Way’ over into adjacent Glen Creran, soon gave way to a good path. Gleann Fhiodh is a beautiful glen and, save perhaps in Autumn when the foliage is red and golden, there can be few better times of year to walk here; right now the fresh greens of spring painted the landscape with a magic only seen in Scotland. Even the morose plantations on the flanks of little Sgorr a’ Choise, were lifted by swathes of unseasonable yellow amongst the ubiquitous serried evergreen.

After about one mile a burn tumbles its way down from the heights of Sgorr Bhan, and cascades through a tight little birch lined ravine. When the path begins its clamber up the opposite side, it’s into a different world!

A deepening glen of grass and heather unrolled itself in front of us; watered by the birch fringed River Larroch and its numerous little tributaries, it was small wonder that in some places the ground was quite boggy. Yet delightful nonetheless. After another mile we arrived at a cairn and the parting of the ways; our’s was to head down to the river, easily crossed today on half submerged boulders, and to follow the ancient path up the flank of Fraochaidh’s long north east ridge. This was the steepest section of the day. Muddy and slippery, as most peat traversing footpaths tend to be, and partially hidden amongst hillside stands of birch, it lifted us speedily to the ridge’s grassier crest.

Here, at a stile in the fence, a signpost directed walkers intent on Glen Crenan and the ancient lands of Lorne, beyond and into the dense plantations of the Forestry Commission. With ever expanding views to lure us on we followed a fainter path along the mountain’s spine.

On and on, always gently albeit over numerous shallow ups ad downs, the ridge led us. At one small col like depression, filled in part by a semi frozen lochan, we stopped for elevenses. Although we’d had our summit cone in sight for some time now already, it still looked very far away.

As we ate a pair of jet black ravens flew in low above us treating us to a cavorting aerial dance of rolls and playful tumbles; for a few magical moments their raucous cronks and prukks filled the frosty air. Refreshed, we left our packs and sauntered on.

After a steep little climb on ice smeared boulders we found ourselves on fresh snow; it wasn’t deep enough to slow us down, nor the fox whose single line of tracks betrayed his earlier rambles on the hill. These we followed for a while but nothing of him did we see other than a few bone and fur laced scats, their healthy blackness stark against the snow they laid in.

There came a point where another sharp drop heralded one more quartzy rise, a knobbly saddle and then the final haul up Fraochaidh’s summit cone. We watched a herd of some dozen or so stags ripple their way across the ridge to disappear into the deep glen below; we braced ourselves for the last ascent.

Thirty minutes later we were standing by the snow laced cairn and enjoying those marvellous views afresh.

As we dropped back down the sounds of dogs barking and human voices reached our ears, there was much whistling and the occasional sounds of falling stones. Back in the col we met a shepherd hard at work; we exchanged greetings and left him to it.

Although we’d turned for home and journey’s end, journey’s end was still a long enough walk away. We had no desire to hurry, too beautiful was the scene from up here. It was cold enough to keep us wrapped in Gore-Tex coats and warm winter gloves and bonnets. But not cold enough to make us want to hurry. With those alpine vistas stretched around the compass, we were content to snuggle down among some sheltering boulders and just stare. For a while we were treated to the shepherd, or more precisely, his three well trained dogs, chasing and chivvying recalcitrant ewes along the ridge and out of sight (though for a long time, certainly not out of earshot).

Eventually we started back along Fraochaidh’s long ridge Gleann Fhiodh-wards.

Still no rush, even though it was well on in the evening and the light was dying in the east. That softly fading gloaming was far too good to hurry through.

The entire glen, all the way too Larroch and the smoky chimneys of Ballachuilish, was itself an elongated smoke filled trough. Mists were rising, muting the rich greens of this morning, creeping up the dark flanks of Sgorr Bhan and dwarf like Sgorr a’ Choise. Above us a deepening blue sky, entirely free of cloud at last, was faintly pricked by the first and brightest of the evening stars.

At Larroch the dogs were barking; those wily shepherds knew ways of their hill much faster than we could find; they’d been home an hour or more already. We met the shepherd smoking his pipe at the open door of his cottage. The day being Saturday I asked him if he’d be working again tomorrow; “No no!” he grinned, “I’m off to a ceilidh in Oban tonight...”

What a life, I thought.