The Big Routes: Black Mount Traverse

© Dan Bailey

From thrilling ridges to long distance endurance fests, we all like to push the envelope sometimes. Every mountain hit list has its essential big ticks, and for this instalment in our series on the UK's gnarliest routes, Dan Bailey heads to the Black Mount for a classic Munro traverse high above the watery expanse of Rannoch Moor.

Some mountain views are so familiar that they've gone beyond mere cliche, becoming visual tropes that we're not always even aware of using. In this age of social media, when images and their locations are more than ever public property, gaining thousands of likes and endless imitations, originality seems rare. And yet there's nothing wrong with the odd cliche; views become popular for a reason. Case in point is the Black Mount. If you've ever driven the A82 up onto Rannoch Moor you'll have seen it, a big muscular range of hills looming behind the splatter of roadside lochans. Gaggles of keen photographers will generally be in-situ - they've become an expected part of the view - and you'll certainly have seen their handiwork on biscuit tins, calendars and a thousand Instagram posts. More than most, this is a view that says Scottish Highlands - a modern stand-in for the Victorian painter's noble stag.

Evening on Stob Ghabhar - time to start thinking camping spots  © Dan Bailey
Evening on Stob Ghabhar - time to start thinking camping spots
© Dan Bailey

Of course there's something far better than looking at the Black Mount from a distance, and that's getting up there amongst it. The four Munros here might be most easily picked off as two pairs, but as ever going for the full house in one go is an order of magnitude better. With its bird's eye perspective on Rannoch Moor it's a well known hillwalker's challenge, covering some tough ground and clocking up a respectable set of distance and ascent figures.

Hot work on stob a' Choire Odhair  © Dan Bailey
Hot work on stob a' Choire Odhair
© Dan Bailey

Alternatively known as the Clachlet Traverse (after the central summit, Clach Leathad, not itself actually one of the Munros), this big walk is typically done in linear fashion, and traditionally as a one-day challenge. But having traversed the range twice over the years, in different one-day permutations - and with the pretext of having some camping gear to road test - I opted this time for an overnighter. Between you and me, Munro two, Stob Ghabhar, has some cracking high level camping spots. For logistical neatness, and to boost the distance, I planned to make it a circular round, using one of the best stretches of the West Highland Way as my return leg.

Clach Leathad and Meall a' Bhuiridh from the A82  © Dan Bailey
Clach Leathad and Meall a' Bhuiridh from the A82
© Dan Bailey

As usual I started late, passing several groups already leaving the hill on my mid afternoon walk-in through the woods at Victoria Bridge and up the well-trodden trail along the Allt Toaig towards Munro one, Stob a' Choire Odhair. In the past I've seen this smallest of the hills as a bit of an afterthought, and once even cruelly ommitted it from a guidebook description of the Black Mount Traverse. With a heavy overnight pack it's a grind of an ascent, at first on a zigzagging stalker's path, and then further than you expect over the stony upper slopes. But on reflection missing it out would be a mistake; its watchtower-like command of the brown-and-grey expanse of Rannoch Moor is well worth the effort.

Stob a' Choire Odhair - small Munro, big views   © Dan Bailey
Stob a' Choire Odhair - small Munro, big views
© Dan Bailey

Between here and Stob Ghabhar there was more down-and-up than I'd remembered, and it's a rough old plod on steep scree too. Ribbons of snow clung on in the clefts of Stob Ghabhar's monumental eastern corrie, arguably one of the great corries of the southern highlands, but it wouldn't be lasting long if this heat kept up for days. In the windless shelter of the hill an early season midge gang had an exploratory nibble, then came in for more. I couldn't out-walk them, but on cresting the ridge a blast of wind saw them off. This is the other Aonach Eagach, and though Stob Ghabhar's version can't quite match up to its infamous namesake, it's still a pleasantly narrow little ridge with some scrambly character.

The Black Mount's own Aonach Eagach  © Dan Bailey
The Black Mount's own Aonach Eagach
© Dan Bailey

An impressive mountain that wraps itself around a huge central corrie, Stob Ghabhar has to be the main highlight of the Black Mount - for my money one of the best hills south of Glen Coe. The summit dramatically overlooks the corrie cliffs, home to the historic winter climb of the Upper Couloir - yet another entry to my uncompleteable bucket list. Time was running out on the day - funny how it always does - and though it's not the halfway point of the traverse, and I'd intended to make up a bit more ground... well, there was always tomorrow. Thoughts were turning to setting up the tent, and a big pot of noodles. With the evident threat of midges on sheltered ground, I took my chances on a high camp exposed to the gusty wind.

If Carlsberg made places to pitch a tent...  © Dan Bailey
If Carlsberg made places to pitch a tent...
© Dan Bailey

Essential info

Start/finish Car park west of Loch Tulla, near Victoria Bridge (NN270419)

Distance 29km

Ascent 1879m

Time 10-12 hours would be a steady walkers' time

Maps OS Landranger (1:50,000) 50 & 41; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Ben Nevis & Glen Coe

Guidebook Great Mountain Days in Scotland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)

Terrain Plenty of rough rocky ground, and elsewhere quite boggy. Very steep gradients in places, both in ascent and descent. Paths are sketchy at times, and in places non-existent. Some very easy scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge of Stob Ghabhar, and the ridge connecting Creise to Meall a' Bhuiridh.

Winter A very big and testing route in full winter conditions, nudging graded mountaineering on the scrambling sections, and with appreciable steep ground elsewhere to be aware of too. The entire east side of Creise can be heavily corniced, and typically holds snow well into spring. The top of the connecting ridge to Meall a' Bhuiridh should usually be cornice-free, but there are no guarantees.

Overnight options Camping or bivvying up on the summits is a great option, with plenty of scope up on the high plateau of Sron nan Giubhas (exposed to wind), among the lochans and hollows of the Aonach Mor ridge, and down on the central bealach.

Shortcuts and escape routes As far as the summit of Stob Ghabhar it's easy to make an early return to the start at Victoria Bridge, but in the central section of the traverse the escape east down Coireach a' Ba to the West Highland Way is long and boggy. Once up on Creise, your most feasible descent route entails going up and over Meall a' Bhuiridh. Once underway, it's a fairly committing traverse all told.

Sunset over the Glen Coe hills  © Dan Bailey
Sunset over the Glen Coe hills
© Dan Bailey

The grassy plain of Sron nan Giubhas, just under the main summit, might be purpose made for camping. You could host a festival up here. I pitched by the corrie edge, back to the wind, and set about boiling water from a nearby pool. My weather gamble paid off, and as the sun gently set behind the peaks of Etive and Glen Coe, and shadows crept up the hillsides, the wind died back. It wasn't exactly a warm night, but I'll take cold over midges every time.

Lie-ins and tents don't really go together; I was awake by five, brewing coffee from the the coccoon of my sleeping bag as the first dazzling rays of sunrise beamed straight through the open door. This early in the day the sun cast light without heat, and it was a while before I could bring myself to emerge. But once out there was no sense hanging about, and I was walking before seven. One advantage of a high start is that you're miles ahead of any other folk before you've even broken sweat, and I had most of the remaining traverse to myself, only finally meeting more people on Meall a' Bhuiridh. Call me a misanthrope, but I love the solitude of the hills!

Room with a view...  © Dan Bailey
Room with a view...
© Dan Bailey

The long northwest ridge of Stob Ghabhar soon goes from smooth to rough. As I wound through the knobbly ground an eagle took flight. I watched it soar off, straight-winged, over Coire Chaolain, before circling lazily upwards on a morning thermal. Suddenly it was in a stoop, hurtling down towards some unsuspecting breakfast. A success? I strained my eyes, but I'd lost it against the granite jumble of the hillside.

Let's hear it for Cliff and The Shadows (no one born this century will get it)  © Dan Bailey
Let's hear it for Cliff and The Shadows (no one born this century will get it)
© Dan Bailey

It's a long descent to the Bealach Fuar-chataidh, losing you a dispiriting amount of height before the even longer climb onto Clach Leathad. But this big central col at the mid-point of the Black Mount Traverse is a great spot, with a remote little-trodden feel. There's a path of sorts on the lung-busting grind up Clach Leathad, but you could be forgiven for losing it among the steep grass and scree patches. By now the sun was fierce; the scree shimmered in a heat haze and I'd sensibly swapped from duvet jacket to shorts and t-shirt. To prevent my brains boiling I periodically scooped a handful of wet spring snow to plaster on my head as a refrigerating cap. Drinking water would be at a premium on the high stony tops, so I filled up at the last possible trickle.

The Buachaille from the central bealach  © Dan Bailey
The Buachaille from the central bealach
© Dan Bailey

Though it's the most prominent bit of the Black Mount in that classic roadside view, the hulking form of Clach Leathad fails to meet Murno status, a title that goes to neighbouring Creise instead - a whole 1 metre higher according to the map. But the high point is just a pretext for the journey there, a grand high level ridge stride of nearly 2km, up at around 1100m. With the snow almost gone, today it was easy going underfoot, and the view out over Rannoch Moor to the central highlands felt huge. Ben Nevis crouched on the northern horizon, while away east the high wave of the Cairngorms was snow-capped and incongruously white.

Cornices can be big here in winter, but there wasn't much left by May  © Dan Bailey
Cornices can be big here in winter, but there wasn't much left by May
© Dan Bailey

The final rough and slightly scrambly ridge connecting to Meall a' Bhuiridh is always fun, and while not the prettiest of the summits, it is the highest, with an edge-of-the-moor position that makes for quite the panorama. Skirting the top tow of the Glen Coe ski centre and its associated clutter and rubbish (really guys, can you not clear up?) I picked a way down the steep east spur - tricky underfoot, but a good direct way off. Down on level ground I joined the West Highland Way, which here follows the course of an old military road. Skirting the edge of Rannoch Moor along the foot of the Black Mount, this stretch of Scotland's original long distance trail offers fantastic open striding. In the popularity stakes the West Highland Way seems to go from strength to strength, and it's thought that around 50,000 people walk it every year. As I headed south, against the northbound flow, it seemed as if half of them were out today. Up on the hills I'd met a handful of people in two days - and then only at the start and finish - but I literally lost count of the number of cheery hellos exchanged on this final 7km of track. The contrast between this steady stream of happy hikers and the silence of the hills above could hardly be more extreme. I know where I'd rather be.

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