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The Scottish Four Thousander

The Welsh and Lakes Three Thousanders have long been popular challenges for Big Walks devotees but if Ken Wilson Enterprises ever publish ‘Real Whoppers’ then the Scottish Fours is a must.

Seven Munro summits exceed the four thousand feet level (1219 m) plus one within a few inches and from the point of view of bagging them in a single continuous outing they are to say the least inconveniently situated. The four Cairngorm summits are separated by some sixty plus miles from the four Lochaber / Ben Nevis tops, the selection of the fastest route between the two groups being the key to success.

The philosophy behind our trip was simple since ‘market forces’ meant that I could only afford two days absence from work as a newly appointed retailer with no time meant we had to travel fast and light over totally unknown ground to either of us. The ‘Travelling fast’ bit also meant subjecting ourselves to the not too rigorous agonies of getting fit without compromising the regular beer and baccy intake, for Dave. Dave’s meagre frame could well be tested to near destruction on this particular jaunt but my charmingly forceful personality and huge bully fists, ruling out any possibility of him backing down!

The Scottish Fours are a recent innovation, first done without mechanical aid in1954 by Philip Brockbank of the redoubtable Rucksack Club via a ninety-eight mile trek from Fort William to Aviemore in 50 hours. His actual route was unknown to us, so we planned our own line by studying the disheartening number of 1:25,000 maps required to cover the course. The transformation from map to reality was to prove very demolishing, even for the bully!

We started at 4.30 a.m. from a pleasant bivvy on the summit of Cairngorm (4,084ft) shared with Johny Holder, our support Sherpa who allowed us to carry all the gear to the summit as part of our warm up training. Super fit runners we certainly weren’t but we sure did look the part, dressed in Capilene silk weight underwear tops and bottoms, shorts and shod in Walsh Raids helped us look the part, carrying go fast body hugging lightweight Lowe sacks stuffed with food and basic basic survival gear; spare sweater, Ron Hills and a silver blanket all ready for a longish day out. Our aim was to despatch the Cairngorm summits and reach the Culra Lodge bothy in Ben Alder Forest an estimated 50 miles away in the first half of the day and polish off Lochaber for supper, oh wonderful youth! Fortunately the tops were clear of clag and we made good time to Ben Macdhui (4,300ft), sliding down snow filled gullies into the Lairig Ghru and scrambling up the depressingly steep ground onto Braeriach (4,248ft). Making the most of the fast ground round the lip of the An Garbh Choire plateau and across the shoulder of Sgor an Lochain Vaine (Angel’s Peak) until a final short ascent saw Cairn Toul (4,241ft) underfoot. Four down and four to go but the next summit lay across 60 miles of unknown wilderness.

A steady cold drizzle accompanied our gradual descent westwards to the lonely Lochan nan Cnapan and the start of a never ending rough landrover track which led round the southern rim of Coire Garbhlach and down into the upper reaches of Glen Feshie. By mid morning the five star bothy near Ruighaiteachain provided a good excuse for a rest by a warm fire left smouldering by departed overnighters. Replenished it was time to wade the river and head up a good track through the pass of Slochd Mor.

So far so good but from the top of the pass to the only road crossing the A9 at Dalwhinnie the going became trackless for much of the way toiling through often-deep heather with occasional deer sightings. Across Glen Tromie below the outflow of Loch an t-Seilich and a tough pull up to the col to the south of Meall Chuaich. Easy going now to the head of Loch Ericht to rendezvous with our faithful Sherpa and devour a huge pasta meal. A relaxing hour in glorious sunshine set us up for the final leg heading once more into the wilderness following the west shore of the loch to Ben Alder lodge and finally Culra Lodge bothy for a couple of hours sleep.

We slept in, 4 hours sleep instead of the planned 2! Hardly surprising but very annoying as we trotted off into the dawn up the old drovers route through the Bealach Dubh between Ben Alder and Gael-charn. The weather flattered only to deceive us with brightening sunshine soon deteriorating into steady drizzle and low unbroken cloud for the rest of the day, what a relief had the sun continued we’d surely have lacked the challenge. Thirty miles of unknown ground lay between us and the summit of Ben Nevis which on paper looked an easier proposition than the previous day except we knew that the real collar work would be concentrated at the very end when the flesh and spirits might well be flagging.

From the bealach we were moving together again on trackless rough ground descending the Uisage Labhair. This was frustrating so early in the day since it was impossible to establish any sort of running rhythm and the few miles down to Loch Ossian had us well depressed. No point in moaning since this really was the back o’beyond and the Ben was as good a place as anywhere to head. From Corrour shooting lodge a good track down the loch side provided some relief before another boggy track over the lower slopes of Beinn na Lap led down to Loch Treig and round the shore to Creaguaineach Lodge. We expected some fast going from here along the Abhainn Rath through into upper Glen Nevis but in reality those seven miles were a nightmare of sphagnum bogs and river crossings (we always seemed to be on the wrong side!). After what seemed an age we passed through the gap between Torn an Eite and Tom Buidhe and it was a relief to stop floundering across flat soggy sponge of the glen bottom and strike a steady pace uphill to the col between Sgurr Choinnich Beag and Aonach Beag.

Once on the ridge steep grassy rock ahead was turned on the left by a curiously overhung scree gully ascended steeply into the mist and led to the upper ridge of the grey corries and eventually the summit of Aonach Beag (4,060ft). It felt a long way from Cairn Toul. Aonach Mor at 3,999.99…feet is the disputed four thousander, but it had to be ticked off if not by the purist Dave then I had to, after 28 hours of shadowing each other it was an eyrie feeling as I navigated alone through the thick mist to the summit trotting back down I almost felt he was with me, spooky! Once shackled together again it was rapidly down and somewhat less rapidly back up onto Carn Mor Dearg (4,012ft). We slithered down the polished arête and gasped up the never ending scree path onto the summit plateau of the Ben, 31 hours after leaving Cairngorm. Cold, wet and very happy we sat behind the shelter in nil visibility not a tourist or ‘out else in sight. Starving hungry I stuffed down the last of my rations whilst Dave coaxed a few drags from a soggy fag refusing my demands to eat. But as we stumbled down the zig-zags in a mood of relief, total exhaustion hit Dave, any remaining leg power and blood sugar evaporated, he slumped down with eyeballs rolling back in their sockets and skin turning to the colour of fresh snow! Come on Dave open up it’s bully time! I told you to eat as I force fed two Mars bars down his throat. “Engines run on fuel and produce smoke, bodies run on food, not smoke you daft bugger”! To his amazement and my relief the food had stunning results, a few minutes later it was all I could do to keep with him as we descended at high speed to our waiting Sherpa ready to whisk us away and commence our urgently needed recovery session, loads of beer and a massive curry in Fort Bill. If you’re into long distance trips in the hills try the Scottish Fours, in retrospect you won’t regret it.

Runners - Stuart Cathcart (High Sports)
Dave Barker (Benson & Hedges)
Support Sherpa - Johnny Holder
Dates & Times - June 21st/22nd 1985 Total time top to top - 27 hours 12mins.

Stuart Cathcart.

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