Open Country with Erica Hume Niven

A HILL-WALKING trip to the Highlands after a winter of heavy snow can be a bit daunting if you are not a self-professed mountaineer. Choosing your mountains carefully is the only sensible way to proceed. Armed with a string of suggestions from my father, a completionist, I sat down to read the route descriptions and times to reach the summits.

I liked the options that had good stalkers’ paths almost up to the ridge. The two seemingly most-manageable peaks – Gleouraich and Spidean Mialach – were on the north side of Loch Quoich in a remote group of mountains near Knoydart.

Loch Quoich sits west of Loch Garry; both lochs form part of the Glen Garry hydroelectric scheme. The project was commissioned by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board in the 1950s and was completed in 1962. The dam at Loch Quoich is the largest rockfilled structure in Scotland, 320m long by 38m high.

Quoich was the name originally given to the river; the loch and glen were named later. Although the loch is a reservoir, it was originally a natural loch, the dam created to raise its level. What it also did was create a thin arm of water up Glen Cloich. The name is from the gaelic chuaich, meaning cup or bowl; for the purposes of landscape it means a hollow.

Gleouraich (1035m) and Spidean Mialach (996m) have long grassy slopes that fall away to the loch’s shore. The topography belies that on the north side, where corries and long rocky spurs strike the ground by Easter Glen Quoich Burn and River Loyne.

The walk starts by Allt Coire Peitireach and heads up the southern shoulder, Sron a Chuilinn. The ascent is by steady gradients to the 850m contour, with only one moment of reprieve, on the col above Fraoch Choire.

From this stance the view to the mountains of Glen Shiel in the north and Knoydart’s peaks in the west is a peek into a forgotten wild landscape; dark and brooding with snowy points; there is no gentleness in the crushing silence.

The blue skies that held strange grey brush-stroke clouds, incongruously whispy visions, were now disappearing as menacing cumulus was building.

Even from the summit of Gleouraich, we could see clearly along the snow-capped ridge to Spidean Mialich. The relatively gentle undulation of the route ahead meant we were at our leisure to stare past the cold blue-white of the cornice into the northern bowls of Coire na Fiar Bhealaich.

All at once we came to a very steep part of the crest that dropped dramatically from 1006m to 700m. The clouds burgeoning in silent menace from the west curled around us, tightening their circle and cutting off the second summit. We had scarcely noticed as we gingerly stepped through rocks, snow, grass and ice to reach the last col.

The final ascent had us gripped in that claustrophobic gloom that only hill mist can achieve. We did not tarry on this summit but took our bearing south-west back down the grassy slopes with small rock rubble to Loch Fearna.

Before the water could be picked out in the grey swathe, I could see raised ground with patches of snow, confusing in the weather conditions.

These are the hillocks guarding the little loch. Red deer have made their home on this barren and boggy moor. I had noted that majority of the faeces looked fresh, so was not surprised to come upon a group of seven does and five mature stags.

That evening, visions of the clouds morphing and building, the mountains stark and numerous, the path gentle then severe, flicked over again and again in my mind. I was not surprised to read the origins of the mountains’ names.

Gleouraich means roaring or bellowing peak and refers to the echoing of the stags’ calls during the rutting season, in autumn. Spidean Mialach most likely means peak of the deer.

The shapes of the hills, the huge expanse of browned grass and heather and the silhouette of the deer in the gloaming are views I will not easily forget.