UKH

Desert Island Peaks: Kevin Woods

© Kevin Woods

If you were marooned alone, with only a few hills for company, which would you choose? For a bit of light entertainment while most of us sit out a mountain-deprived lockdown, we've asked some UKHillwalking regulars for their pick of the peaks (with apologies to Radio 4). From the mighty Sgurr Alasdair to the underrated Slackdhu, here are some all-time favourites from Munro-munching machine Kevin Woods.

A' Mhaighdean

I suppose I have to start with the ultimate. I can't think of a better Scottish hill than A' Mhaighdean. This is a broad-backed mountain on one flank, with the opposite, west flank dropping abruptly from the summit, down a couple thousand feet of open air. The crags of the west face plunge toward Fionn Loch, meaning that the most remote Munro just happens to have one of the most pronounced big-mountain atmospheres in the Highlands.

On A' Mhaighdean, March 2020  © Kevin Woods
On A' Mhaighdean, March 2020
© Kevin Woods

And I've always had the benefit of good weather. A' Mhaighdean was one of the final days on my 2013 summer Munros, when I was just powering to the end and feeling fit as ever. Then on the Winter Round last season, I got a beautiful weather day with all the drama of the location. But the euphoria of being days from the end of the winter was intermingled with the stress of oncoming lockdown - a strange, potent mix of emotion.

A' Mhaighdean was one of my very early Munros when I was 17 and pretty clueless. I had a good epic here with my late friend Michael Coffield. We got to the summit at nearly 11pm, wandered around in the dark, couldn't navigate, had head torch batteries running out and still managed to find Fuar Loch Mor. But we couldn't agree on this: we fell out, split up (I didn't have the map!), found each other again in the dark, and eventually lay down in the open, by the loch, with thumping headaches from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, waiting for daylight. A few hours later at first light, we knocked off Ruadh Stac Mor, went home and I spent a week in bed. Two and a half years later I knew much better and had a sunny, shorts and t-shirt bivvy with four friends just under the summit slopes - at the end of March, of all times. A' Mhaighdean has always been an intense place, a culmination of everything that's good about the mountains, and a place of gratitude - just to be there, no less and no more.

Braeriach

If there was any mountain I'd choose from the east it would be this great, enigmatic, fascinating peak. When I started visiting the Cairngorms I was never naturally attracted to the ski centre area or the Northern Corries for climbing. I started doing long backpacks through the mountains because I wanted to get right inside them and know them from the inside out. It quickly seemed to me as though what the ski centre is, is not what the Cairngorms are internally.

Midsummer sunset, Pools of Dee, Braeriach  © Kevin Woods
Midsummer sunset, Pools of Dee, Braeriach
© Kevin Woods, Jul 2012

I did trips connecting all the Munros because it gave a much more immersive sense of the place. They are almost unparalleled in this country for depth and if any mountain typifies that, it is Braeriach. The moine out west produces massive quantities of snowfall that clog the remote Garbh Choirean. I remember the half-light of a midsummer twilight illuminating the streams that meander on the gravel beds. The bulk of Braeriach blocks out the far horizons, sending the eye skyward instead, creating greater dislocation from the world than I've ever felt on a cliff.

I think anyone who has travelled into the heart of these mountains will feel a sense of elevation and spirit that goes well beyond the sum of their flanks of rock and scree.

Sgurr Alasdair

Since I have to choose a singular hill then I suppose the Cuillin as a whole would be a cop-out! But among them, Sgùrr Alasdair seems as good a bet as any, as much for its girth, range and in its scope for rock climbing.

Cuillin Rooftop: on Sgurr Thearlaich  © Kevin Woods
Cuillin Rooftop: on Sgurr Thearlaich
© Kevin Woods, Oct 2012

Sgurr Alasdair has the superb outliers of Sgurr Thearlaich, Sgurr Sgumain and of course, the awesome Sron na Ciche. The crags of Sron na Ciche are vast and interesting; Eastern Buttress with its high-quality extremes, the Cioch in the centre with the long link-ups of Arrow into Integrity, and the Western Buttress and its massive adventure routes. And then there is the south face and the sunny crags of Coir' a Ghrunnda; the bright slabs in the lower corrie and the cliffs under the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, which overlook the lochan and its sunny isolation. A spring for water resides nearby and there's a bivvy cave on Sgurr Sgumain. Sgurr Alasdair, the highest point of the Cuillin, is also one of it's most multi-faceted and interesting peaks.

Slackdhu

And finally, my home hill: just about the closest thing to where I grew up. It's strangely an ignored hill: it sits alongside Dumgoyne, far more massive but firmly in the shadow of. The squat volcanic plug at the end of the range tends to take the lion's share of traffic, leaving the high cliff bands of Slackdhu feeling much more secluded.

Layered basalt, Slackdhu  © Kevin Woods
Layered basalt, Slackdhu
© Kevin Woods, Feb 2010

The front face of Slackdhu is a steep escarpment of basalt and dolerite overlooking Strathblane and Glasgow. The upper section of the hill rises in 100m of impressive tiered rock, all broken open and collapsing. A massive landslide reshaped the lower flanks of the hill in 2005, a reminder of the ultimate impermanence of these rocky places.

Slackdhu looking unusually high  © Kevin Woods
Slackdhu looking unusually high
© Kevin Woods, Dec 2014

When I started out on the hills I spent a long time scrambling on its flanks. They drop so dramatically that the sense of height is pronounced. And when I began rock climbing, I knew the area well already, so I started wandering around the flanks with a rope and rack in tow. But it's always been a place to return to, I've always been inspired by it and it's my local hill if ever there was one.


Kevin Woods  © Dan Bailey

Kevin Woods is a walker and climber, and does private guiding through his website at kevinwoods.co.uk

In 2020 he completed a full winter Munro round - only the third time it's ever been done. He is currently putting together a book about it.



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