Saturday, 12 November 2016

Glen Strathfarrar - Three seasons in three days

Tucked away north of the Great Glen and west of Inverness, Glen Strathfarrar is long, meandering valley that reaches deep into the hills. Along its length it does in equal measures farmland, woodland, pine forest, lake, river and high peaks. Its climax is the beguiling mountain of Sgurr na Lapaich, whose rocky, pointed nose rises above the lush greens of ancient Caledonian pine forest. The glen is best enjoyed by cycling in along the quiet, single track road which is closed to public traffic and setting up camp for a few nights to immerse yourself in its wildness.

And that’s exactly what I did. I spent three very different days up there in late October. On the first day the air was still and the sun shone like summer. I sweated up the steep slopes of Sgurr Fhuar-Thuill along an excellent stalkers’ path that eased the way. The path stays in the bowl of the coire the whole way so that you don’t get any views until you finally step onto the ridge. And what views. 

The air clarity was perfect and the mountainscape was crisp and clear. Layer after layer of hills stretched as far as the eye could see to Torridon and Coigach and north to the isolated peak of Ben Klibreck. The clear skies persisted and in the evening the stars above the tent looked like the proverbial scatter of diamonds on black velvet. Stags rutted close by through the dark hours.

The next day was winter. A freezing fog hung low in the glen coating everything in a numbing cold and a hoary frost. Even the bike and tent were ghostly white. The sun’s rays eventually chased away the fog but didn’t warm the day much. I clambered up the steep slopes of Sgurr na Lapaich. The head of Glen Strathfarrar is a relatively remote place and, like yesterday, I had the hill to myself. The summit rocks remained coated in thick frost and were blasted by an arctic wind. I put up a ptarmigan which was already mostly in its white plumage for winter and a red fox high on the hill.

On the third day, I stayed low and ambled through the autumn woods as the first gales of the season passed through and shook the trees. In the low-angled autumn light, the bracken-covered hillsides were copper-coloured and the silver birch shimmered gold against the cobalt sky. The rowans were mostly bare except for clusters of punchy red berries while the riverside alders denied it was autumn  and remained dark and green and leafy. Flocks of fieldfares flitted across the treetops and the light played across the hillsides, illuminating patches in turn.

Next day I was blown back down the glen by the persisting autumn winds. They shook the leaves from the roadside birch trees and sent me off in a shower of golden confetti.

Fact File
Start/finish: Beauly train station
Route: Most people don't start climbing these hills from Beauly but I cycled in from the train station there which possibly has the world's shortest platform. The back road over Fanellan Hill is a lovely way to go then the quiet road down Strathglass to Struy to start the cycle up Glen Strathfarrar. For Sgurr Fhuar-Thuill I took the track to the right of the road about 1.5km after Braulen Lodge. Higher up it becomes a super path for walking, passes above the lochan, contours around the coire and pops out on the ridge a little west of the top. I used the same way back down. For Sgurr na Lapaich, I continued over the two dams at the head of the glen to the end of the tarmac, crossed the river by a bridge at the mini hydro plant and picked a steep way up through the birch trees to Carn na Saile Leithe. From there it's a long haul up the northeast ridge but there are views all the way. The last section is really nice. I went down the same way. 

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