Hold on tightly, let go lightly: two days in the hills of Glen Coe

Both times I've walked the West Highland Way, I've loved the stretch between the Kingshouse Hotel and the Devil's Staircase, not because of the walk itself (fairly boring track along the A82), but because Glen Coe looms to the West and South, with long lush glens between the peaks. So, as I was trying to plan a walk for my birthday, I pulled out OS 384 Glen Coe and Glen Etive and started dreaming.

The rough plan I came up with was a two day loop from Glen Etive, following the Lairig Gartain up and over Buachaille Etive Mor, then along the circuit of Bidean nam Biam, before returning through Lairig Eilde back to Glen Etive. As mapped, it would have been a 25-mile walk that took in four Munros (below on left) -- as I actually walked it however (on the right), it was a more modest 19-mile circuit, that took in the beautiful valleys but left those summits for another time.

I first heard the saying "Hold on tightly, let go lightly" in connection with the artistic process. When you are deep in a rehearsal or devising process, you need to strike the balance between sticking through the tough moments and holding tightly to your inspiration, and letting go of the things you might have found early on but are no longer functioning for you. This summer I've been finding out how applicable it is for hillwalking as well.

Day 1: Glen Etive, through the Lairaig Gartain and over Buachaille Etive Mor (8.5 miles)

Up before dawn on my birthday to toss the pup and the rucksack into the car and head North. Despite the early hour, however, I was feeling elated: weather predictions were for full warm days of sunshine and I knew I had the flexibility to stay out longer in the hills if I wanted. By the time I was North of Loch Lomond, the sun was well and truly up, and I had a glorious drive past Loch Tulla and Rannoch Moor. Turning left just after the Kingshouse Hotel, I took the single track road the leads below Buachaille Etive Mor and into Glen Etive. I was in time to see the many many campers who lined the road starting to wake and make their morning coffees, and the final 6 mile drive into Dalness took the greater part of a half hour, since I met so many cars leaving as I was entering.

Finally though, I passed the estate house and parked up.

The path start is well-signed, which meant I set out with confidence -- but "public footpath" suggests, well, a path, and that seemed to be very much lacking. But I could see where I was going, so set off following a waterfall up into the hill, hoping at some point I would emerge from the heather to find something trail-like.

By now the sun was high above me and the day was shaping up to be a hot one. Perry and I took advantage of some of the deep stone pools on our walk to keep cool as we trudged up hill.

Pretty soon we emerged onto the saddle, marked by a cairn. We paused for breakfast and enjoyed the view north into Lairig Gartain and then back south into Glen Etive, and then set out again.

Up until now we had been entirely on our own, alone with the hills, but as we descended we started to run into day walkers out on their way to climb Buachaille Etive Mor. We made good time and pretty soon we were at the base of the trail leading up the side of the mountain toward Stob Coire Altruim -- and it was here I made my mistake.

My original plan was to climb this path here, and then taken in both of the Munro summits, before taking the steep northern trail down from the hill and heading west and camping up in the Hidden Valley. On paper it looked do-able (especially with the long hours of daylight) if tough, but it meant that I would need to bring my full pack with me up onto the hill, rather than stashing it and coming back for it.

So, up I went, with a full pack carrying my and Perry's gear, on a sunny hot day in August. This proved to be a terrible idea. The climb to the ridge is a steep 1.2 mile, 450-meter climb -- and it took us just under 2 hours. Worse, with the pack on, I felt off-balance for particularly scary sections, and so when I finally emerged up onto the ridge, I was tired, hot, thirsty, and a little rattled. Also, while I had been refilling my water bladder pretty continuously, the heat was making both me and Perry drink more, and since he wasn't able to find water on the ground up here, we would be sharing my bladder until we got back down.

I pulled out my map and looked at what I had planned, and then made the decision not to worry about summiting today. Instead, I would walk north along the ridge until I met up with the trail down towards Altnafeadh. Stob Dearg and Stob na Broige would be there waiting for me on another day when I wasn't lugging an extra 40lbs (camping with a dog is decidedly not an ultralight event).

Let go lightly.

Before we started off, though, we had a good lie down to enjoy the view:

The views were amazing -- and it was wonderful, as I walked north, to be able to look down on the Devil's Staircase across the valley see it from a new perspective. Each time I've walked the WHW, the Staircase feels immense: unending and brutal. But seen from the ridge, it looks like a gentle pleasant path up a tiny wee hill.

Then it was down the steep scrambly path into the valley -- no pictures of this part of the walk, mainly because I was clinging to rocks my whole way down. My fear of heights doesn't usually get to me in the hills, but the steepness of the descent was merging with my tired legs and heavy pack and I moved at a snail's pace all the way down. Perry had fun joining other walkers as they passed me, and then looping back to check in on me.

When I reach the bottom, I turned to look back -- and all of a sudden it didn't feel like I had failed to summit, but rather that I had had a wonderful and impressive climb!

That said, I was plenty tired by now, so rather than continuing on to the Hidden Valley, I headed into the Lairig Gartain and found a lovely spot to pitch the tent, tucked on a little island between two branches of the river.

Cooked up dinner for me and fed the pup, and then enjoyed a gorgeous sunset in the valley. Above us in the hills, a heard of deer picked their way across the steep side of Buachaille Etive Beag -- but Perry was too tired to notice and snoozed on contentedly.

I sat and drank my coffee and thought about how absolutely lucky I am to be able to be in such a beautiful place on my birthday.

And then the sun dropped behind the hill, and the midges chased us into the tent.

Day 2: Up into the Coire Gabhail (the Hidden Valley) and into the Lairig Eilde (8.3 miles)

The next morning dawned bright and clear, and I had a lazy morning just enjoying the experience of waking alone in such a beautiful place. Soon though, I packed us up, and we headed out.

The original plan for the day had been to start in the Hidden Valley, and then climb up the back of the valley onto the ridge of Bidean nam Biam, before completing that circuit of Munros. However, given that I was five miles away from what might have been my starting point, I knew I would be adjusting that plan. I also knew that, even though I had managed to complete my walk yesterday without incident, that trying to take in Munros while carrying my full kit was asking for trouble.

So instead, we would plan to hike up into the Hidden Valley, but instead of continuing on to the summits, we would return the same way we came and then head back to Lairig Eilde to camp.

The path from Lairig Gartain to the Three Sister parking lot runs above and along the A82, and yet despite the very busy traffic below me, I felt Perry and I were alone in the world. The Three Sisters loomed ahead, welcoming and alien at the same time, and as I matched then up to the contour lines on my map, I felt grateful that the I had already decided we wouldn't be climbing them today!

Having decided on and out-and-back walk for the day, I was also saved having to carry my full pack up to the Hidden Valley, and my back rejoiced when I stashed it in a grove of trees near the trailhead. Freed from the weight of my pack, the steep climb into the Valley was a delight -- although since I hadn't brought a smaller day pack with me, I was stuck carrying my water bottle with me, which meant I never had both hands free. Still, small price to pay for feeling weightless, and now I know to look out for a minimalist day pack to add to my gear list!

The main thought I had when climbing up the trail was "How the hell did they get cows up here?" It's a fairly easy walk - just over a mile from the parking lot to where the Valley opens up - but very steep, and plenty of places where scrambling is needed. I couldn't quite imagine a herd of cattle making the climb with ease.

We crested over the top of the path and looked down into the valley and it took my breath away. It stretches away towards the south, where the canyon wall climbs steeply away from the valley floor, up towards the ride of Bideam nam Biam. The sound of water is everywhere, from the larger river tracking along one side of the valley, but also the myriad of smaller rivulets and waterfalls cascading off the hills. And across the valley floor are littered rocks the size of houses.

After a break for snacks and a good amount of exploring, we turned and traced a new route coming back down, following the dried river bed and hopping from boulder to boulder until we rejoined the main path at the river crossing.

Then it was back to the bottom of the hill to retrace our path back east towards Lairig Eilde.

One thing I've learned over the past few years of hillwalking and camping with Perry is that he needs to be given the opportunity to really relax during the day -- otherwise he'll just keep going and tire himself out. I try to plan days of no more than 12 miles for him, and usually try to give him a good nap at lunchtime. He's getting much better at letting himself sleep on walks too -- when I settle in, he'll stay alert for a few minutes, but eventually he'll just let himself rest.

He does usually need to have me pinned down to be able to fully relax, though!

After a good snooze, we had a lazy wander through the Lairig. We were only a few miles from where we had originally started, so we could have pressed on to the car, but I was eager for another night out so we made camp on a flat stretch near a bubbling river just as the clouds started to roll in.

And then bed.

Day 3: Back to Glen Etive (3 miles)

During the night, the rain started, and so in the morning I lay awake listening for a long enough break in the weather for me to break camp. Finally I admitted that it wasn't going to, I braved the midges and the light rain and packed up camp. We set out just after 8am to walk the final two miles to the car in a misty moisty atmospheric morning.

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