open country

The Rough Bounds – na Garbh-Chrìochan. Is there a more evocative title for an area of land anywhere in the world? I do not believe so. Recently I found myself in this area looking into the core of this wilderness. Man and man’s creations will come and go but I cannot comprehend that this mountain range will not last for eternity.

The further we drove from Loch Garry the colder I felt and I shuddered even in the relative warmth of the car. The forecast had shown high pressure settling over the British mainland, which should have ensured settled clear skies – not where we were going. This group of mountains clasped between Loch Quoich in the north, Loch Arkaig in the south and Loch Nevis in the west cowers in its own weather systems.

In this vast arena of hard rock, thick cumulus clouds build and push their way through the valley floors and cols. The sun is a weak globe in the lower regions, in the higher regions it is eclipsed so that the day is a night without starlight.

Gairich, on the south-east bank of Loch Quoich, though relatively low at 919 metres, is a solitary Munro so it looks grander than its size should allow. This hill had looked striking the day before with gashes of snow between its huge north-facing buttresses. On this day, the steep sides were hidden behind the ominous low cloud.

Gairich means roaring. The word can be used metaphorically for mountainscapes, but, it is likely that in this instance it really refers to noise. The Gaelic word gairich, when used in mountain names, tends to refer to the noisy grunts from the stags’ autumn rut.

The 8km to the summit begins by crossing the top of the dam – unfortunately the iron gates, topped with a thistle, were locked. The only way is to climb them and watch you do not catch your leg on the metal flower. Following on from the solid dam wall, the ground becomes extremely boggy as you take the stalkers’ path to the woodland at the east end of Glen Kingie.

From the woodland, the route heads west along the dreary shoulder of Drum na Geid Salaich. The only part that I can translate with confidence is “drum” which is Gaelic for back. This is a broad ridge that in the thick mist sitting below 400m, the scree, occasional groups of rocks, the rich brown-red of winter’s upland landscape means that getting an idea of slope aspect was difficult.

It took more than 2km on the shoulder to see any hint of the steep eastern buttresses of Gairich. The mountainsides start to rise sharply without warning in the claustrophobic gloom but only from this point did it feel like there was a roaring hill above us.

The three men who had been in front of us the day before came into sight round a sharp bend in the path; laughing and smiling, they said we had broken their solitary two days. They passed out of sight quickly as we ascended and they descended – divided by the thick gloom.

The final section follows a path that zig-zags up the glowering summit, eventually becoming a worn stony trench that cuts its way through ever-steepening rock steps. Up here I could hear my breath as bit by bit I moved upwards and held on to the rocks. Twice I had to work my way up the ridges and bumps of sheer rock.

The land that we cling to had become a tiny world; the only other creature I heard was the strange muffled belching call of the ptarmigan. Coming out of the rock steps, where few come at this time of year, a small snowfield led us to the cairn. A metre or so from it was a low structure only large enough for one, possibly built to afford a mere shelter.

Despite the speed of our descent from the summit cone, we still had about 7.5km to go over the claggy moor. We stopped once to look back at the northern buttresses both harsh and molten in the moisture-clogged air. A ptarmigan flew out of the snow-filled gullies then disappeared.