Feet above the clouds – Creag Mhor and Beinn Sheasgarnich

It’s Friday, 11am. Your manager walks past and heads towards the kitchen and – looking over your shoulder – you furtively open the window on your browser which has half a dozen tabs open: MetOffice, Mountain Weather Information Service, BBC Weather, MetOffice for potential location number two, Google Weather (just to cover your bases), Mountain Forecast…

Tabbing through each, I grumbled. Just yesterday it was forecast to be glorious blue skies; now it looked overcast and driech. Refresh. It changed. Refresh. It changed again. I huffed, exasperated, looking at the solid grey blob on the screen – cloud. Over the next few days was forecast some of the first proper snowfall of 2019 – even today there were photos on social media with snow-capped peaks and whispers of a white band descending from Sutherland.

Running in the mountains in snow is phenomenal and my dilemma wasn’t borne from wanting the lovely weather, it was from the question of where had the lovely weather gone? With everywhere now a similar grey colour, the choice was where to go now? You might snicker, ‘Fair weather runner’, but don’t lie – we all do it.

Earlier in the week, I had sent a link to a fellow Ochil Hill Runner of a route outside of Killin. Creag Mhor, the partner of Beinn Sheasgarnich, sat as an insolent red blob on my lovely map of blue completed Munros in the southern Highlands. It stuck its tongue out at me every time I opened the map on Walkhighlands.

I thought about that little red dot, that little grey cloud. Red dot. Grey cloud. Red. Grey. I punched a furious message into my phone: “Tomorrow. What’s the crack?”.

Runners and a dog running away from camera on a snowy track with lots of cloud above
Not much to see yet!

On paper, the route is 27km with 1400m of climbing. What those numbers don’t take into account is what is underfoot: heathery bog is pervasive in these hills and – somewhat counterintuitively some might believe – this meant the best time of year to tackle these two often-spurned summits was the height of summer or winter.

Why winter? In the right conditions, that squelch of a bog hardens up, making it easier – but not easy – to run through.

As we left the Central Belt, we looked out to thick clag hanging at just 300m above sea level. Ben Ledi was awash with an overgrowth of grey cloud, and with sunrise still 45 minutes away, the snow stood out stark against the gloom. Finally, a sign of winter!

At 9am on the dot we pulled into the car park at Kenknock, a farmyard peering out through the fog. We settled into an easy plod but were soon met with the steep zig-zags of the old road connecting Kenknock to Pubil. I remember cycling up it when I was much younger, and to the best of my knowledge think it serves as an old road for servicing the hydro dam at Loch Lyon. Our path shot west off this road on its final, steep left turn.

“This weather could go either way,” someone commented. Indeed, above us the cloud was not for shifting, but under foot was lethally slippery at times. After passing through some gates, the back of Meall Glas drew level with us to the left, and eventually we came to a study bridge over the Allt Bad a’ Mhaim.

Runners emerging from cloud on hill with lots of snow
The flat stretch of Creag Mhor

We rounded the shoulder ahead of us and paused after another gate. Working on navigation, we took a bearing straight up and between the crags that snarled at us from above – a characteristic of Creag Mhor which provides us with its name: the big crag.

The going is steep, and with the additional snow it made slow progress. As we climbed, though, forces were at work around us. Something was shifting in the heavens as some struggle took place above. Though the cloud did not thin, it creaked with the struggle that only those who spend a time outdoors can sense. All three – maybe even four – of us could feel it.

At 840m, the ground levels somewhat, before a final 200m ascent over what felt like an impressive spine. In those conditions, it is impossible to tell exactly what the land is like, but the crags, snow and infinity of cloud created the sense we were crawling up Creag Mhor’s great back.

Suddenly, as if we were children not quite tall enough to peer through the letterbox, the top of the clouds appeared some 50m above us. Just above us, blue skies were tantalisingly close, but just out of reach. As the day warmed, we knew there was a chance of something spectacular. We headed down Creag Mhor and looked back to see its great rocky prow emerging from the spray of cloud around it.

Husky sniffing the arm of a crouched runner in the snow
“Whatcha got there?”

Despite their lack of movement, weather can make mountains appear like terrifying giants, pushing inexorably through the sea of cloud which ensnares them. In rain, they push back the curtains; in sun, they sigh in its warmth and extend their crags to shade their gullies. I remember sitting in the same place in Aviemore and looking up to Braeriach and Ben Macdui on two such different days and being transfixed by this strange animation of meteorological shifting and geological metamorphosis.

We ran below the now-obscured rocky face of the first Munro into a bealach, which acted as a meeting point for two glens. Ahead, Beinn Sheasgarnich’s climb – equally steep as the first – rose.

We made our ascent, climbing out of the overcast plain into the band of grey again. However, as we got to 800m, I called: “I think something is about to happen!”. Here it was. Excitement took me and I started off, the sheen of gold now pushing through the thinning cloud. My heart was pounding in my ears and as I turned…

Mountain emerging from cloudsin background with blue sky above and runner in foreground looking out
These are the moments worth waiting for.

Nothing. Nothing seemed to matter. Not a breath of wind sounded save for that in my own lungs. Below me, like tiny insects emerging from some giant cushion, my three companions joined me to marvel at our world.

We were the only ones there, but in that moment, I knew a handful of others stood upon the summits we could see – Stob Ghabhar, Ben Cruachan, Ben Nevis – were sharing in it too, almost like looking to another star in the night sky and waving, imagining someone was waving back.

Our only other companion was a brocken spectre, a rainbow halo which followed us until it could follow no longer, and we made our way through the snow to Sheasgarnich’s summit. It was so warm up there I even ran with my shirt off for a time, exuberant at the freedom given to me by the mountain.

Blue skies, a sea of cloud and snow capped mountains emerging
Isles of mountains

We could not look down, like gods, on some dominion below. Instead, we looked out, for miles upon miles at the other ranges of hills – some still red dots on Munro maps, waiting to be explored.

Grey and red had turned to white and blue. The blue above us stretched to infinity, as we stood on this disc of white seas and jagged islands. Just 200m below us was the realm of the living, but up here time did not move.

There is only so long you can drink from the cup of immortality, though, and soon we waved goodbye to our home above the clouds and descended back to earth, into a knees-to-chest bog and back onto tarmac.

Next stop – an appointment with a bacon roll and large slab of carrot cake, washed down with a cuppa in Killin.

Two runners and dog running away on a country road with mountains ahead
Back in the land of the living

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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