Having yesterday seen the clouds clear to reveal cloud inversion and then ultimately clear blue skies we were both to say the least optimistic even when we hung out of the B&B window into the overcast conditions. After all if the weather could clear as it did yesterday then surely there would be a great chance of a repeat today. Given this optimism we decided to change our plans and set off down Loch Tay towards the settlement of Lawers.
With the Volvo duly abandoned on the grass verge we set off towards Lawers Burn, but first of all called in to look around the horn carvers shop. This little enterprise had all manner of gifts for sale, all of which had been carved out of discarded deer antlers. If I’d had my wallet with me I’d no doubt have bought Megan some form of memento. As I didn’t we quickly took the track around the back through Ben Lawers farm and beyond onto the open fell side and past the remnants of some old settlement. No doubt these were properties that the English had ransacked during their Highland Clearance programme. To say the least the whole idea made me feel somewhat embarrassed of my nationality. From there on the ascent was reasonably easy and then gradually the tempo increased as we climbed the great grassy flank of Meall Greibh. I had no chance of keeping up with Mark, but for some reason felt quite good. Whether it was anything to do with some form of misguided optimism over the weather I’m not sure. One thing that was certain was that although the clouds appeared to have receded a little we were firmly hemmed in by them and there was no sight of any blue sky. Sweating like a big fat sweaty thing (couldn’t think of anything else that was sweaty) and at about 3’000 feet we reached the shoulder of the hill where slowly there appeared a few breaks in the cloud. Still, we decided that the time was right for our first snack of the day. Afterall the entire summit was well and truly cloaked in the clag and therefore there was no reason why we shouldn’t have a breather in this brief sunny interlude rather than the clag. A further three hundred feet were climbed and would you believe it, the clouds appeared to clear just as we reached the cairn. It seemed that the only patch of blue sky to be seen anywhere was directly over us. Perhaps we were right to be optimistic after all.
No sooner had we started the descent than the clouds came in and engulfed the summit we’d just been on. Well, it was good whilst it lasted. Our descent to the bealach although easy going was quite lengthy and so for the second time in an hour we decided to make for an early lunch break. Sitting there in the shelter of a gully we spent quite some time watching a party of other climbers make their way at varying speeds up the steep slopes of Meall Garbh. The clouds were quite thick near the top, but again for no apparent reason we were hopeful that they would clear for us. With the knowledge that we had a long way to go I set off first and left Mark liggin art at the bealach. Either everyone else was slow or I was on form. Even allowing for a lengthy start I managed to catch most of them by the time the gradient had slowed down. Mark likewise wasn’t too far behind me when I reached this gaggle of walkers. Would you believe it? We were again within a hundred feet of the summit and again heading for the clouds. Perhaps we weren’t to be treated to summit views anymore. Wrong again. Within two minutes of reaching this summit the clouds cleared again and we were once again rewarded with cracking views down a great glen with a snow-capped ridge forming the facing valley wall. Not only that but strutting around near the summit I managed to get a picture of a Ptarmigan.
Prior to taking the descent to yet another bealach we said goodbye to most of the coach party who were just doing the first two hills in this range. Apparently one of their party was a super fit walker and was in the process of completing all five of the Munro’s on the ridge. Five? I thought there was only four. Sure enough when the 1997 update was completed An Stuc was promoted to Munro status. Well, what a bonus, all we had to do now was climb the massive great lump that was threatening our progress. It was almost like a comic book mountain. Big, with uniformly steep sides and from a distance it looked unclimbable. How on earth would we get up that? To make matters worse just before we set off on our ascent we came across a group who had just descended this lump. One woman in the party was shaking and definitely not amused. She was covered in muck and had obviously spent quite some time on her backside. To say they looked pleased to be off the hill would be another thing. Anyway, it was on our route and so we didn’t have any other alternative. Early progress wasn’t too bad and we soon found ourselves making a steady ascent up various snow filled gullies. For some reason Mark went first and seemed to be pretty cautious. One steep snow gully out of the way, another section on loose rock and then a further much bigger section of snow was encountered. Someone had clearly been up it before, however looking at the state of the footprints they must have been made a few days before. Where had everyone else gone? Sod it; this is the obvious route let’s do it. I was anxious for my picture to be taken and so sent Mark up first. In no time at all he was questioning our choice of route. Admittedly it was very steep, very icy and there was a multitude of rocks waiting to catch anyone unlucky enough to take a fall. During Mark’s first period of hesitation I asked him to clarify that in his will he was to leave me his Lotus. Needless to say his response at this suggestion when he was in a perilous position brought an appropriate negative reply. Something like “when I‘m in a position like this don’t make such f**#ing stupid statements”. He must have been concerned to snap like that. Eventually he extracted himself and then it was my turn. A few thoughts of Megan and Shirley rushed through my head and off I went. My first impressions were that it really was cold, slippy and icy. Each step was cut slowly into the icy snow. The view down towards the rocks looked far more of a concern from where I now was. Perhaps I could now understand Mark’s previous response. Slowly progress was made, constantly taking care to kick large secure snow holes and all the time using my walking poles as a pair of ice axes. This was all ok until one of my poles became well and truly stuck. After several great yanks out it came. The problem was, the bottom section of the pole was still embedded in the snow. There was only one thing for it; I’d have to dig it out. My hands were freezing, but somehow I managed to dig a two-foot deep hole and extract the missing portion of my pole. Little did I know at the time, but I had knackered it. Like Mark, I at last managed to extract myself and continue on the remainder of the route to the summit. For once this summit was engulfed in the clouds and no views were seen. Either way we had had enough excitement on this hill already. One thing was for sure. There was no doubt that this great lump merited inclusion in the Munro tables.
Thankfully the gradient of the descent to Bealach Dubh was reasonable and took very little time. Once there we decided to scoff the remainder of our rations in preparation for the 1’000 foot drag up to the summit of Ben Lawers. We could have spent ages there. The sun was out, we had a good view of Lochan nan Cat and most of the ascent to Ben Lawers could be seen. It also looked like the last few hundred feet were shrouded in cloud. In the knowledge that this was the last real climb of any significance I decided to leave early and attempt to climb it in one go. Mark meanwhile was content to hang back and ligg art for a bit longer. Every so often I suffer from a rush of blood to the brain and this attempt, in the sunshine and having already climbed over 4’000 feet was one such example. I was absolutely knackered but in the knowledge that Mark was following behind and would have me, as a target there was no way that I would stop or let him pass me. Thankfully, having staved off his charge I arrived at the top and was taken back by the number of folk already up there. The fact that they had all climbed the tourist route from the visitor centre was evidenced by the comment made to me as I collapsed in a pool of sweat, “Eh, where did you come from? Is there another route up here?” This statement typified the approach that many hill walkers have. They simply pick up a book and follow the regular routes, just like sheep.
Anyway we were now on the summit of Ben Lawers (Mark had stormed up and was now in the recovery stage), the clouds were just starting to clear and what limited visibility we had was amazing. Everything was bathed in a golden glow. It was now time to explore and take in the views down the ridges, into the corries and chat with other folk. One bloke that I started nattering to was somewhat fed up. In his own words “he had travelled all the way from Dunfermline (50 miles away) and had been on the summit for an hour and half without seeing anything other than the top few feet of this mountain”. What planet was he on? This was a wonder world. Where else could you ligg art in the sun and watch the clouds come and go to reveal sections of the various ridges? Whilst exploring the ever-changing views I noticed that the sun was behind me and that as the clouds were starting to descend below me my shadow could vaguely be seen reflected on the cotton wool. A little later on the vague outline of a “broken Spectre” could be seen and sure enough as the cirrus cloud cleared the brocken Spectre became clearer. Mark and I couldn’t believe our luck. For only the second time on the hills we were able to witness this unusual phenomenon. This time though it was virtually ever present. As the cloud continued to descend we were rewarded with the strange sight of other Munro’s starting to appear out of the blanket of cotton wool. Ben More, Stob Binnein, The Tarmachan Ridge, Ben Nevis and nearer to hand Meall Ghlas were all poking out their heads into the sun. It was absolutely amazing, so much so that we spent ninety minutes on the top of this one mountain. Surely a record that proved the quality of the situation. What made us appreciate the situation even more was the fact that we were the only lucky soles up there to appreciate it. Everyone else had disappeared towards the tourist path at least an hour earlier.
In the knowledge that we still had Meall Ghlas to climb and that we were running short of time we eventually took the decision to descend into the cloud covered bealach and make the final ascent to the equally sun drenched last summit of the day. Meall Ghlas was just as stunning a location as Ben Lawers. If anything, due to the fact that the sun was lower in the sky everything was bathed in an even more beautiful golden glow. Reluctantly at ten to seven we took our last look at the ever-present Brocken Spectre and taking a compass bearing set off towards the cloud and hopefully the Loch Tay road.
It really was a shock to the system. The temperature had plummeted; we were reliant on our compass (sorry, mine as I had lost Mark’s last year) and we were very late. That being said it’s amazing what progress can be made when the terrain is suitable. We unbelievably reached the road in about forty minutes. Perhaps this was something to do with having a table booked for a bar snack sometime between half eight and nine o’clock. All that remained now was a trudge of just over two miles along the road. “Perhaps we could hitch a lift?” No chance. I suppose all we had to do was put ourselves in the same position as the drivers who would pass us by. Would we stop to pick up two dishevelled, smelly hitchhikers? It was quite funny really. You could see the car coming, and then hear its engine note accelerate and lastly see it veer into the middle of the road. The lack of a lift had one bonus, as we met a mad Belgium. He had been out on his bike since seven in the morning, was totally knackered, hungry and penniless. In broken English he managed to convey that he needed salt (probably had cramp) and so he gratefully accepted my half eaten pack of salted peanuts. He really had chewed off more than he could manage. Perhaps he was used to the flat countryside of his homeland and quite possibly a road bike rather than a mountain bike with thick tyres.
Once back at the car we made the dash back to the B&B, had an ultra quick shower and dashed down to the pub for our much deserved bar snack. All in all we had made it from the top of Meall Ghlas in an unbelievable hour and fifty minutes. As we scoffed our meal we just didn’t know where to start our conversation. We had enjoyed probably our best ever day in the hills. The anticipation, the timely clearance of the clouds, the climb up the snow gullies, the Brocken Spectrers, the cloud inversion and off course the plentiful supply of sun. Even the effort of climbing over five and a half thousand feet didn’t seem to take its toll.