Loose ends and fly yins

There is a system to Munro-bagging. Not in the sense that each summit is to be ticked off in a pre-ordained order, starting at number one and finishing at 282.

But, as with many complex or lengthy undertakings, there is an accepted wisdom in how best to break it down into several smaller pieces and thus solve the puzzle in the most efficient and effective fashion.

Few Munro baggers have the luxury of embarking upon a continuous round of the Munros. Non-enthusiasts won’t recognise the use of the word luxury in that context, but most hill walkers would consider it a treat. Hamish Brown and Martin Moran are arch-exponents of the non-stop Munro mission and have the requisite strength and bloody-mindedness for the job.

The rest of us mortals try to tackle the mammoth task of climbing all the Munros by referring to maps, guide books, and the experience of other people, then cross-referencing that information with our own personal fitness and/or levels of ambition to divvy the Munros up into a number of “hill days”, with each day intended to contain anywhere between one and a dozen Munro summits.

A dozen would be very rare and only for the extremely fit and marginally unhinged walker in the height of summer. For everyone else, the majority of our hill days lend themselves to a single Munro or a traverse of two or three summits at a time.

Things don’t always go to plan, though. And nor should they. If Munro-bagging was as straightforward a task as opening the windows of an advent calendar and plucking out a chocolatey treat, it wouldn’t hold the allure it does for so many of us addicts.

Occasionally, in setting out to snare a pair of peaks, we can be stymied by the weather, visibility, conditions underfoot, failing fitness, lack of will, or a combination of all those factors. Sometimes we must reassess, retreat, and retrench, without having achieved all of what we came to do. It’s part of the experience and part of the learning process. It’s important to know when you’re beaten and on Scotland’s highest mountains, particularly in winter conditions, it can save your life.

This is a long-winded way of explaining that anyone engaged in an attempt to compleat the Munros will have a number of loose ends at any given point on their journey. Annoying outlier hills that you know you’ll have to do one day but are in an awkward spot or that seem to mock you for not having knocked them off when you first had the chance but for some reason were thwarted.

Sgiath Chuil has been a loose end hill for me for the past seven years. Lying between Glens Dochart and Lochay, just west of Killin, it only just merits Munro status, standing at 921 metres high above the tiny dwelling of Auchessan, off the A85 road between Lix Toll and Crianlarich. Its near neighbour to the west, Meall Glas, is slightly taller at 959m and the two are generally tackled in tandem either from Glen Dochart in the south or Glen Lochay to the north.

In March 2009, me and my dad had set out from Auchessan to do just that. However, after reaching the top of Meall Glas grim-faced and wet through, the incessant heavy rain drained us of any appetite to plough on to Sgiath Chuil. The terrible visibility threatened our ability to find it anyway, so we beat a hasty retreat down through the bog and back to the sanctuary of the car.

Meall Glas from the Allt Riobain, east of Auchessan

Yesterday, I finally tied up that loose end with an opportunistic “fly yin”, a term coined by a friend to describe a hill day that’s been manufactured with no little cunning and a wee glint in the eye.

Fly yins are planned furtively and are almost exclusively solo missions, with regular walking companions not given a sniff of the outing until days or sometimes months afterwards. If it becomes a habit, you’ll soon develop a reputation as a fly man in certain circles, attracting equal measures of scorn, envy, and grudging admiration.

The opportunity for a fly yin can be created by a random day’s holiday from work, or a journey to or from a destination that passes close by the foot of a Munro on the to-do list. Like Hannibal Smith, I love it when a plan comes together, and there’s something especially pleasing about a successfully contrived fly yin.

Which is why, despite its relatively unattractive southern approach (5km of saturated, boggy ground) it was such a pleasure to stand atop Sgiath Chuil at 3.15pm yesterday.

We had travelled up from Edinburgh to Balquidder at lunchtime, to stay at the excellent Mhor 84 Motel - what used to be the Kingshouse Hotel, near Rob Roy’s grave. With dinner booked for 7.30pm and my wife happily sipping a coffee in the sun outside the motel, I had a five-hour window opening in front of me and I leaped through it.

The boggy approach to Sgiath Chuil (left) and Sgiath Chrom

The weather was kind and I was in a hurry. An hour and twenty minutes saw me to the top, where a decent layer of snow lies yet, and the views in all directions made it well worth the rather frantic effort.

A glider arced gracefully overhead. Ben More and Stob Binnein were resplendent in white just over the road, and Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin looked handsome to the south west. The Lawers range gleamed in the sun away to the east and the Glen Lyon and Bridge of Orchy hills caught the eye looking northwards.

I drank it in as I scoffed a big bar of Fruit and Nut. A loose end tied up with a fly yin. Now that’s a feeling to savour.

Stob Binnein and Ben More from near the summit of Sgiath Chuil

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A footnote: I’d highly recommend the Mhor 84 Motel. We had a voucher for dinner and an overnight stay there as a combined Christmas/birthday gift (complete with overnight babysitting service) and it was seriously good. Friendly, welcoming staff, brilliant food, a comfortable room, and just a very agreeable ambience about the whole place. We’ll be back, that’s for sure. In fact, I’m now thinking of deliberately leaving a loose end hill nearby for my final Munro as it would be the perfect place to celebrate a compleation...

Some retro art in the Mhor 84 Motel dining room
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