“You seem to be in a great hurry,” said a man with a thick German accent as I brushed my teeth while filling my water bottle in the Glencoe YHA kitchen “Do you have some information that the mountains will disappear today in a sudden movement of the tectonic plates?” I tried to explain that I had a taxi due as I ran to the fridge to retrieve my faithful companion the French cheese, but it’s hard when you have a mouthful of toothbrush.
In the end the taxi was late and before we could get into it my Dad had appeared to join us for the day. He’d left Dundee at 6am but it was too late for me to cancel the taxi. In the end I travelled with the taxi driver and Jo travelled with my Dad, the two miles to the car park at Ballachullish. Dad had tried to pursued the taxi driver to take us up as far as the school but he was unwilling to run the gauntlet of the Glen Coe mums on the school-run (and I suggested that an additional 300m in a vehicle was a rather negligible distance compared to the traverse of the Ballachullish Horseshoe that we were planning.)
Beinn a’ Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, towers over the entrance to Loch Leven, its vast granite west flank dominating the skyline from Cuil Bay. The rounded shoulders of the great mountain rise from sea level up to two munros, Sgorr Dhearg at 1024m and Sgorr Dhonill (1001m) linked by a great ridge. The geology of the mountain changes very distinctly between the two main summits – the east is quartzite, a hard, white metamorphic rock and this forms a delicate, white curving sharp ridge with steep scree slopes falling into the corrie below. The west mountain is granite, warm, red and rounded and forming a pile of scrambly blocks and boulders rising up from the ridge to the summit and then a wide lumpy and knobbly plateau with high level lochans. It would have been tricky terrain to navigate if the cloud had come in.
As this was the last day of our walk from Loch Lomond to Cuil Bay we took the most linear route over the mountain. Most people walk the horseshoe from South Ballachullish to start and finish at the same spot, but we set off from the field just south of Ballachullish primary school and headed through a field of sheep, over a fence and into a trackless and near vertical bog. There was lovely cotton grass, and sweet smelling bog myrtle but there was no path.
I had been planning this walk since last summer and this wasn’t my route of choice. I had planned to ascend the beautiful steep and scrambley ridge that starts a bit further south of the primary school and rises almost directly to the summit of Sgorr Dhearg but my dad had other plans. He had been on the internet, he had printed out detailed maps on matt photographic paper (I’d recommend this actually). He had gadgets and he had annotated his map with GPS grid references on the line of best route, in case of poor visibility.
And so we went with his route.
We fought onward up the ever steepening heather and bog myrtle slope, me rapidly losing my sense of humour and wondering why one of the most popular mountains in Scotland speared to have no path up it whatsoever. Fortunately, just before we had a family crisis, Jo found the path, cutting across the slope above us and all was saved.
Once on the path the ascent was superb taking us onto the skyline giving fabulous views inland to the mountains of Glen Coe and the Mamores and westward out over Loch Linnhe and into Morven and Ardgour. Dad is a botanist and enriched the walk with talk of alpine plants (even though the mountain didn’t have some of the species he was hoping for). As we reached a wide part of the ridge at around 550m we came across an area of tiny, and entirely flat juniper bushes, growing to an altitude of only 2cms. I learnt a few other plants too – alpine ladies mantle was all over the place and, once the geology changed from quartzite to granite, so did the botany. There were little patches of fern growing between granite rocks which has the curled appearance of parsley, and indeed, this was the parsley fern.
At one point on the ridge dad disappeared over a precarious cliff perched over the top of a vertiginous scree slope. I scurried to the edge to check he was alright and found him bent over a patch of tiny white flowers. Starry saxifrage apparently. Other botanical highlights were the dwarf campion, and the exquisite dwarf cornell.
We wandered over the knobbly granite landscape until we came across a surprisingly large lochan at 750m altitude (obligatory swim) and then about a kilometre further on we started down the steep hillside, following dad’s carefully laid out trail of marked GPS locations, leading directly to the treasure of the Holly Tree Inn. It was here that the real botanical highlight of the day came. A celebratory, end-of-six-day-walk Gin and Tonic made with the wonderful Botanist gin from Bruichladdich Distilery on Islay.
I borrowed the gin bottle from behind the bar for a Botanist playoff. Could dad tell us the common names of all the ingredients embossed on the glass bottle in Latin?