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A Journey on Foot in the Scottish Highlands

May 28, 1989|RICHARD WIGHTMAN | Wightman is a free-lance writer living in Washington, D.C

There are 276 of these peaks, some remote and some many miles from the nearest highway. But a growing fraternity of Munro addicts' aim is to climb the lot.

Munro- bagging, however, can become a costly and time-consuming obsession. A friend living in the south of England drives at least 1,000 miles (at $3.40 a gallon) on long weekends to nab a few extra peaks. He has climbed 180.

The most celebrated Munro is the "Cloud-Capped Hill of Heaven" or the "Heaven-Kissed Hill," depending which translation from Gaelic you prefer for Ben Nevis. Thousands climb Ben Nevis each year and our group was eager to join the pilgrimage.

Over the years the climb up Ben Nevis has gained the reputation of an easy amble: An automobile chugged to the top in 1911 and there have been numerous gimmicky ascents since, including a grand piano that was propelled up the trail to publicize a charity.

Trail Demands Stamina

Runners sprint up and down the 10-mile round trip on what is condescendingly known as the "Tourist Path." The record is under 90 minutes.

Even so, Ben Nevis demands stamina. Sometimes it kills.

Often, the mountain is slashed by hurricane-force winds and rain and the summit is shrouded in impenetrable mists.

Snow sometimes lingers throughout the year and glaciers could form if the peak were a few hundred feet higher. In a recent 15-year period 50 deaths were recorded, some due to exposure.

Our group continually was warned to prepare for the worst. But for us, Ben Nevis put on a rare smiling face: sunny, cloud-flecked skies, temperatures in the low 60s, a perfect crystal-clear day.

Our leaders offered two alternative routes: the Tourist Path or a knife-edge ridge with acrophobia-inspiring drops on either side.

I chose the easier way and had no regrets, because it allowed us to spend 90 minutes at the summit enjoying the view.

It seemed that the whole of Scotland was at our feet: from the snowcapped Cairngorm Mountains in the east, across the huge cleft of the Great Glen and on to the Atlantic Ocean in the west with those bizarrely named islands--Muck, Eigg, Rhum, Mull and Skye--rising dreamlike from the sea. Visibility: 150 miles.

A popular hike in the heart of Glen Coe leads to the Coirre Gabhail of "Lost Valley," because the upper corrie is invisible from below in the glen .

The Gaelic name has another meaning, the Corrie of Capture, and for good reason. There the Macdonalds, the Scottish clan that inhabited Glen Coe, hid their plundered cattle.

It is there, too, that 40 of 200 were killed by the Campbells in the infamous Glencoe massacre, a saga of murder, mayhem, deception and treacherous abuse of hospitality about 300 years ago.

If you climb to the Lost Valley you will find no trace of the carnage. But the hike, a steep but easy climb from the Glen Coe road, is worthwhile. Once above the rocks, however, you'll suddenly see the hidden valley, desolate and wild, hemmed in by soaring crags.

Here is some information, if you hike in the Scottish Highlands:

It rains, sometimes prodigiously, on Ben Nevis a staggering 157 inches annually. This means that the hillsides often resemble quagmires. Wear good rain gear and tough hiking boots.

Many of the mountains lack trails. Paths sometimes are inadequately blazed or cairned. The British believe this keeps things "natural," but it can be dangerous.

Mountain know-how is essential, unless you hike with a group and are led on recognized routes.

While the hiking is splendid, don't spend all your time on the High Tops. Explore more afield in Lochaber, the region surrounding Glen Coe.

A rented car is useful but not essential: A bus route links Ballachulish with rail and steamer services to many nearby lochs and islands.

Medieval Castles

Oban, a picturesque fishing port, and Ft. William, great for souvenir shopping, are a few miles away. Medieval castles seem to sprout from every lake side.

Several British travel organizations offer hiking programs in the Western Highlands. Among them: Holiday Fellowship, most convenient to Glen Coe, with centers in adjacent Ballachulish, alongside Loch Leven and in nearby Loch Awe. The Loch Awe center is a converted railroad hotel with its own railroad station.

Both centers operate late April through early October, with weekly rates between $300 and $340 per person double, including accommodations and meals.

The cost includes guided hikes but not transportation to trail heads. In addition, Holiday Fellowship has an agreement with British Rail that permits round-trip travel to the Scottish centers from London for $55, less than a third of the regular fare. Contact HF Holiday, 142-144 Great North Way, London, England NW4 1EG.

Hiking on Mull

Ramblers Holidays offers weeklong hiking on the Isle of Mull, the largest of Scotland's Inner Hebrides, from mid-May through September for a tour charge of about $305 per person double occupancy, including all meals.

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