This is just a short story posted the day after an enjoyable excursion to the Tarmachan Ridge in the Central Scottish Highlands, above Loch Tay.
Dermot and I were looking for a weekend hillwalk in preparation for a planned expedition to Kilimanjaro in February, and Bill Cook had asked us along to join a group preparing for a trip to Patagonia around the same time. I'd climbed Meall nan Tarmachan, the highest point at the eastern end of the ridge, once a few years ago, crossing over from where the road to Glen Lyon curves past the northern slopes. However I hadn't walked the famous Tarmachan Ridge as a whole, which is renowned for its scenery and variety.
About a dozen of us set out from the Ben Lawers Visitor Centre car park at 10.30 a.m., after the regulatory group photo. We'd decided against taking cars the half mile up the road to the start of the track which leads across the southern slopes of the Tarmachans, and walked up there. Over the gate, and we were on the track.
After only 50 metres or so, a footpath leads off to the right, and this is the direct route up Meall Nan Tarmachan. The guide books all seem to recommend it as the start of the ridge route, but It would be the route of our descent. It's good to get the long trudge along a vehicle track out of the way at the start of a walk, rather than having to face it with tired feet on the way back.
We hiked along the track for about 4 km (2.5 miles), with plenty of conversation. The clouds were hanging around the summits, but we were optimistic (based on the forecast) that it would clear up.
We passed two junctions with vehicle tracks off to the left, and stuck to the higher road. The second of these tracks would have taken us closer to the southern end of Creag na Caillich, if we had wanted to take in the entire ridge. Instead we climbed gently up to where the track ended at a quarry, and just as it bent to the right we struck up the steep grassy slope in front of us. It has to be said that there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm for this direct assault after nearly an hour of easy walking. Soon the party was stretched out as we clambered up over the tussocks.
After 15 minutes' climbing the slope eased and we could suddently see the summits ahead of us as the clouds split apart. That must be Beinn nan Eachan ahead of us to the right of the gap separating it from Creag na Caillich. But then the clouds closed in again, and we were left to work out the best route. There was a bit of uncertainty (partly my fault as I had the compass!) as we tried to avoid the crags in front of us. Bill produced his GPS receiver to check our position, then we worked our way up a grassy rake between the rocky bits before crossing to another steeper section which took us up towards the next set of cliffs at the right side of Creag n Caillich. Before we had time to panic, Myles spotted the track which led across to the bealach.
Immediately there were other walkers coming and going: this is one of the more popular routes in the central Highlands. We meandered up the last short climb to the top of Beinn nan Eachan and gathered for another group photo. The clouds were just starting to drift apart again, with great banks of cloud in the valleys on either side. It was quite eerie. As we headed east on a good track around the rocky knolls and past tiny lochans, someone remarked that it was like Lord of the Rings scenery. There were a few photo stops to try and capture the magical moments of light and rock and cloud that changed in an instant.
Descending to another col before the final steep climb up Meall Garbh, Louise was getting hungry, and Bill called out to those in front to stop for lunch - it was around 1p.m. after all. But the front runners were keen to get the steep climb behind them, and forged on. This meant we had to deal with the Bad Step before our lunch. The main track goes to the right of a steep rocky buttress, and works its way through and over rocks before emerging onto the open shoulder of the hill above. There are bits which are rather awkward, but for those who prefer to take the route of least resistance there's an easier track turning to the left and zig-zagging up the rounded side of the buttress. We split into two groups (I was quite happy to avoid the tricky bits) and a few minutes later came back together on the shoulder. It looked like a good spot for lunch, so we put off the final clamber to the rocky summit for half an hour and enjoyed our sandwiches. Plus Bill's surprise package of jammy doughnuts for dessert.
We were spread out on rocky seats either side of the main track, and a series of small groups of other walkers passed us in either direction, all saying that the weather was worse where they had come from. From where we were sitting, we could look back the way we had come, and the clouds were playing games with us, like saloon showgirls, rising up every couple of minutes to reveal the rocky peaks, then dropping down again to obscure the view. But we were optimistic that by the time we'd finished lunch and continued a bit further along the ridge, we'd be able to enjoy great views.
It wasn't to be. As we set off again, the clouds closed in, and that was the last of the sunshine. It became chilly, breezy and damp in the thick mist which enveloped us. The route itself provided plenty fo interest for a while, with a narrow section and a couple of slightly airy steps, but not too much to worry about. Just before the next descent, there was a metal bollard just to the left of the track, and then another a bit further down. They looked as though they'd been brought up from a park in Perth, much fancier than the usual fence posts.
After that, there was a final trudge up a gravelly slope, with a swing to the left, to the top of Meall nan Tarmachan. It was a bit of an anti-climax - no pointy rocky bit, no scrambling, no view, not even a decent cairn or trig point. The first top was a false summit, with another a bit further on, but it was equally unimpressive. Still wrapped in mist no one wanted to hang around, and we set off down the track next to the summit. The guys in front soon rejected this line of descent as unsuitable and requested a better path. Bill thought there was a better one 20 metres back towards the lower top, and he was right.
This was a clear, well-constructed path which was to take us all the way back down to the vehicle track near the road - but it seemed to take a long time. Maybe it was the lack of a view. Certainly it was quite steep for the first section, with lots of stones built to form a semi-natural staircase, then it eased off again, then there was a short climb to a hilltop, then another long descent.
Most of the track was "improved" with stones and gravel brought up the hill in big white bags by helicopter - we passed several of these on the way down, abandoned away to the side of the path. Odd in a way that the National Trust would put all that effort and money into building a path and not tidy up afterwards.
It was pretty dull and dreich, but everyone was chatting away and we eventually came back down to the vehicle track, then the road, and finally the visitor centre car park. The National Trust Visitor Centre was open now (3.15 p.m.), complete with toilets. We didn't hang around long - soon a convoy of cars cruised down the narrow winding road to the lochside road, and into Killin for a pint at a pub.
All the others seemed to be staying overnight in a bunkhouse, but Dermot and I had to depart for the journey back to Dundee.
Contributed by: Andrew Llanwarne
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One of the views from our lunch spot