Highland Sauna

I managed a quick overnighter to the central highlands last week.  My greedy challenge was the Ben Lawers range one day, Tarmachan Ridge the next. 7 munros in 32 hours with my first bivi above 1000ms in the UK didn't seem too shabby after a month off.  It felt like inversion weather camped high on the unassuming Meall Corraniach and so it was - all of Loch Tay was submerged beneath a carpet of white at 6am.  I got up and wondered around for a while, but was so tired from the day before I went back to bed for 2 hours.  A bit short of hardcore then.

Ascending another 700ms to Meall nan Tarmachan was pretty uncomfortable in rising humidity.  There were a few stops, stoops and lots of tongue-out panting.  The ridge itself has a reputation but is not airy or exposed from my perspective, although in a stiff breeze things would be different.  There is a 'bad step' but it's more an 'awkward lunge' with a backpack - just have decent tread on your shoes, stow your poles and approach with patience - the rock is worn and a little slippery.

The main factors on this outing were controlling body temperature, water and food intake.  My energy levels were all over the place in the heat, it was tricky to find a balance.  Water was running very low at the bealachs and I'm still more than a little pink from sunburn.  All this qualifies as extreme weather for the Scottish Highlands!

Ben Lawers is managed as a nature reserve by the National Trust for Scotland, who have a real conundrum on their hands - balancing a working landscape with grazing access and extensive hydro use, with one of the most valuable habitats for flora in the world.  The upshot of this is alot of water infrastructure, double fencing, path erosion and sheep farming high on the hill.

The two ranges are split by a single track road and a dammed loch.  Small areas for regeneration are fenced off which has kickstarted regrowth, but vegetation is denied natural disturbance and seed movement by excluding animals in this way.  It's a painful compromise, and the fertile grasslands at high altitude give a hint of how many more trees and montane shrubs there should be here.

9000 years of human intervention may be a big legacy to deal with, but it would be a mistake to assume that Lawers has no sense of place or wildness value.  Above the natural treeline on the summit ridge, the mosses, rocks and alpine flowers just manage to hold sway over grazing sheep.

It reminded me strongly of the Ogwen Valley, or the more knobbly Cumbrian Fells around Honister.  But sitting with my back to the summit cairn of Ben Lawers at 6pm, finally with the heat of the day behind me and shadows lengthening, but still with 2 munros to go was a fine place to be - in and of itself.

I'm not sure I've ever seen the Scottish hills so benign - bright sunshine, not a breath of wind, and no midges - just what was going on?