Travel: Schiehallion

Full set of photos

I am never one to pass up an opportunity to travel, least of all to Scotland, which is one of my favourites places in the world. So when the inaugural My Peak Challenge event was announced, celebrating Peakers from around the world, to be held in Glasgow, I was quick to grab a ticket. One of my Peak challenges for the year was to climb a Munro, a Scottish classification of a mountain over 3000 feet, so this was the perfect opportunity to tackle that challenge. Before the trip, I researched various Munros, trying to decide which would be a good one to try. I rather delusionally entertained the notion of climbing Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK, before common sense returned to me, deciding on a more manageable peak for my first. I’d read that Schiehallion was a good, entry-level Munro and settled on trying my hand at ascending its 3,553 feet. When I’d been doing my Munro research, I’d wondered why the name sounded so familiar. I later learned that the area around Schiehallion was a significant filming site for Outlander, so I was rather tickled to learn of that inadvertent connection.

getting ready to drive on the other side of the road!
getting ready to drive on the other side of the road!

The other Peak challenge that I would be tackling on this trip (and in fact on the same day as my Munro hike) was driving on the other side of the road, as Schiehallion isn’t really accessible by public transit. I had driven on a previous trip to Scotland for about 20 minutes while in the Highlands, with its tiny, shoulder-less roads and obscenely fast speed limits, and found I was not terribly good at it. However, I was determined to face my fear and face this challenge head on. My lovely travelling companion Erin and I picked up a rental car in Perth, about an hour’s drive from Schiehallion. This was a deliberate choice, as I didn’t want to be driving out of a big city like Edinburgh. I actually found that I relaxed into driving–perhaps starting on slightly larger, city roads and easing into the smaller country ones was the better method for acclimating to other-side-of-the-road driving. We dropped off our bags at our charming, lochside AirBnB and made a quick pitstop for gas before heading out to the mountain. The hike was estimated to take about 4-6  hours, and I wanted to make sure we didn’t lose the light.

our hiking companions
our hiking companions

In true Scottish form, it was pissing rain when we arrived, and I momentarily wavered on whether to wait until the next day to do the hike (as weather reports claimed it would be sunny-ish). In the end, I figured we were already there, and that it would be almost fitting to do the hike on a dreich Scottish day. So I popped on my rain pants, and off we went. It started out fairly leisurely, passing through heather and the occasional sheep. It wasn’t long before we hit the beginning of a steady, uphill climb, along a well-worn trail of rock and gravel.

so wet!
so wet!

As I knew Erin was largely appeasing me and my hiking aspirations, I tried to entertain us with various car games, to keep our minds off the increasing rain and wind. The trail was remarkably unmarked, with nary a signpost to be seen, so we had no real idea of how far it was to the top. Every so often, peak-like shapes would loom ahead of us in the clouds, and we deludedly believed we were almost there. Seeing as it was getting later in the day, there was essentially no one else on the trail. When we finally did see a couple coming back down the mountain, we asked whether the peak in sight was the end, to which they, rather bemusedly, replied that we were about halfway to the top. Upon hearing this, Erin decided that she’d had enough of the rain/wind/cold and that she’d head back down.

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As this was one of my challenges for the year, I was determined to get at least within striking distance of the top, so I soldiered onwards. The wind and pelting rain had really picked up, and it was a bit of a slog for a while. I was definitely appreciating my MPC training, and all the endless squats and lunges that had been done, for while I was panting a bit, my body was ultimately doing just fine. In a bizarre way, I found myself relishing the inclement conditions–a kind of me against nature scenario–where I appreciated the challenge that it was giving me. I tried to pick up the pace as best I could, as I was increasingly worried about losing the light (and knew that Erin was waiting for me at the bottom). Eventually the trail essentially disappeared, and I found myself picking my way through large rocks and boulders. This kind of hiking I quite enjoy. I actually find wide, even hiking paths to be somewhat boring, as it ends up being just a steady trudge uphill; whereas, rock-strewn trails require you to think a bit, consider where to place your feet and how to get from A to B.

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Miraculously, the rain slackened, and the clouds actually parted, treating me to some gorgeous, sunlit views of the surrounding valley. I passed a group of 6 or so heading down the mountain and asked again how far it was to the top (they gestured to the farther peak off in the mist). They would be the last people I saw on the mountain. It was so amazingly silent, just the crunch of my boots every so often or the wind whistling by. There was something invigorating about knowing you were the only person on the mountain, to be truly on your own in the elements. Of course, my mind also went to the place that considered serial killers lurking behind boulders (no one would hear you scream!), at which point my more rational mind reasoned that this seemed a rather inconvenient spot to murder someone, being a fair hike up a mountain. What should be more of a concern was the very real possibility of twisting an ankle whilst hop-scotching across boulders or falling off a cliff. I was amazed that there were really no indications of where I should be going. There were small little piles of rock every so often that I believed were a kind of trail marker, but I couldn’t always find them or the trail they were marking. Eventually, there were a couple peaks in sight, and I was now half-jogging my way up. I’d given myself until 4:30 pm before turning back, as I wanted to leave myself enough time/light.

top of Schiehallion!
top of Schiehallion!

After about 45 minutes of scrambling through the rocky scree, I finally reached what I assumed was the top. I thought this was a fair assumption, as there was literally no more mountain to climb. There was also a tiny little pile of rocks marking my success. Upon seeing that I’d made it, I actually fist pumped and burst out laughing–whooping with happiness. To reward my travels, the sun shone out gloriously, and I was treated to truly breathtaking views of Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel. It was also incredibly windy, which only served to invigorate me further. As a kid, I remember that I loved standing outside at recess on super windy days, just to feel the force of it blowing around me. In many ways, it was the same feeling here–the sheer joy of being swept up in swirling winds. I was cognizant of the fact that I was rather precariously perched on top of a mountain, so I was careful not to get too swept up in it all. Amazingly, within minutes, clouds rolled in, and I was enveloped in a sea of grey. Considering I’d need to now pick my way back down through the rocks, I figured I’d wait a few minutes to see if they’d clear a bit, so I’d have better visibility. Mercifully, the clouds obliged, and the wind blew them through, leaving me with clear blue skies again.

truly magnificent view from the top
truly magnificent view from the top

I ultimately didn’t loiter that long at the top, as I knew I had to get back down to Erin before I lost the light. Thankfully, I now had a top-down view and so was able to better see some semblance of a trail. Buoyed by my success, I happily made my way down, a journey that was marred only by the mounting pain in my knees. As I was alone and could therefore look as ridiculous as I liked, I tried various foot/leg configurations to reduce the pain (e.g., pigeon-toed or sideways, feet parallel, among others). To expedite the journey, and as yet another method of attempted pain reduction, I eventually started jogging down the mountain. I figured if my knees were going to hurt, at least this way, they’d hurt for a shorter amount of time.

looking back up the trail
looking back up the trail

I eventually reached a less steep portion of the trail, which gave some relief to my knees. I took the opportunity to shed my jacket and hoodie (as I’d worked up a sweat from all my downhill jogging). I’d just started to play some music when I ran into Erin coming up the trail. I’d felt a bit guilty about leaving her behind and was worried that she’d be bored waiting for me for several hours. But she said she’d actually taken a very long time to go back down the mountain, as the rain had let up, pausing for quite some time to commune with the sheep. She similarly noted how amazingly quiet it all was–so silent as to hear sheep coughing and even chewing. It was only about 20 minutes to the car, and so we made our way leisurely down the trail, with the sun just setting behind the mountain as we returned.

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We drove back through the winding, Highland roads, the countryside coloured a burnt orange in the fading sunlight. While I was certainly tired from my 4-hour adventure, I was happy overall with my success–I had bagged my first Munro (Erin later got me a keychain to that effect). I would agree that Schiehallion was a good entry-level Munro. If I hadn’t been somewhat rushing to get to the top to make sure I’d have enough light, it would’ve likely been a fairly relaxed hike.  I also found, to my surprise, that upon getting back to our AirBnB, I was already eager to find another one to climb. And I will, some day.

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