Full Moon Mountains
A peak-bagging adventure across 12 months, celebrating a year of full moons on Scotland’s mountains
This year Alan Rowan has made a series of overnight mountain walks to celebrate the year’s 13 full moons. One of those nights looked destined to be exceptionally memorable – and it was, if not for the reasons he anticipated…
FULL MOON WALKS
IT SOUNDED a simple enough task: 13 moons, 13 mountains. An iconic Scottish peak on every night of a full moon on an exceptional year of full moons. A year in which there were 13 full moons instead of the usual 12. A year in which there was no full moon in February. A year in which we had not one, but two, blue moons. It only happens four or ive times each century, roughly every 19 years. It hasn’t happened since 1999 and won’t happen again until 2037.
I would try to choose a mountain that relected the name of that speciic moon, and each time and date was set in stone. Ater all, this is the moon we’re talking about, not a rail timetable. But I walk in Scotland, home of the contrary weather system. It’s a lot to ask for decent conditions in the mountains on 13 speciic dates; some would say impossible. And when you factor in aiming at one particular mountain on each of these nights, the odds diminish further to somewhere south of winning the Lottery.
I hoped there would be some sensational nights: long, lazy walking, a rising in beautiful light on moonlit slopes to a summit cairn to wait for the sun to arrive. I knew there would also be a likely chance of snow and gales and heavy rain but I hoped to juggle the timing of each walk as much as the parameters allowed to catch either a sunset, the full moon or a cracking sunrise. All three would be nice, but you can’t get too greedy.
The irst four had proved challenging to say the least: blizzards in January on Beinn Alligin; storms that drove me of Cairn Gorm later that month; the so-called Beast from the East in early March, which not only rendered all my plans of climbing Beinn a’ Bheithir useless but made sure I couldn’t even reach the foot of the hill; then an intimidating night in an icy white-out on Bla Bheinn at the end of that month.
I was beginning to think I should just cut my losses and call it a day. hen I had a breakthrough: a superb night on Beinn Eighe, walking a circuit that had its hairy moments in gullies illed with rock-hard snow and a walk above deep cornices which took 10 hours to complete, but which also provided a spectacular sunrise and a morning to take the breath away. As game-changers go, it was a stunner.
I also got lucky with the walks in May (Ben Lawers) and June (Glen Afric). Now, a month later, I was heading along the long, winding road to Kinloch Hourn in search of the Buck Moon.
ECLIPSE OF THE FULL MOON
This one had the potential to be the most exciting yet. Not only was the Buck Moon the eighth full moon of the year, it happened to coincide with the longest lunar eclipse of the century. his also made it a blood moon, so-called because the moon appears to glow a rusty red during the eclipse as it passes across the Earth’s shadow and its brightness starts to fade.
All ine and well if you are living somewhere like in the Middle East, but the chances of seeing this spectacular show from Scotland were not so good. he weather was perfect now, but the forecast was for wind and rain to drive in during the course of the following day. With this in mind, I decided to hedge my bets and go out twice in the same 24 hours.
The Native Americans called the July moon the Buck Moon as the young stags’ antlers are in full growth; but it is also known as the hunder Moon, in reference to the frequency of thunderstorms at this time of year. It seems I wasn’t the only one hedging my bets. he names of the Munros along Loch Quoich relect the prevalence and importance of deer in this area. here’s Gleouraich, which means Roaring, and its partner, Spidean Mialach, Peak of the Deer, a popular Munro circuit on wonderful stalkers’ paths. Across the water is one of my favourite hills, Gairich, another bold mountain rising directly from the shores of the loch, which suggests the bellowing of the stags.
I have had a few interesting encounters with deer on the mountains around here; once I backed down in a stand-of with a belligerent stag defending his territory on the path up Sgurr a’ Mhaoraich in late October. here were no hinds in sight but he wasn’t for moving and was making threatening, warlike sounds so I decided to leave his territory and took a long detour to reconnect with the path higher up.
Another time, on an icy day in late November, I was surrounded by young beasts looking for food, exhausted and hungry ater the rut had taken its toll. I was surprised how bold they were in coming close to the car, but I was later told they were regularly fed by the estate during this period and had obviously thought I was the chuck wagon that day.
Now I was driving into a wonderful sunset, the western skies luminescent, backlit spaceship clouds hanging in suspended animation, and a vast array of mountains forming a dark, jagged outline round the head of the loch. Sgurr na Ciche was prominent as always, Sgurr Mor dominant on the let, Ben Aden on the right; a perfect mountaineers’ horseshoe.
The moon rose behind me, at irst a faint ball on a bright blue canvas, then I watched as it strengthened over Gairich. I settled down to wait for midnight and the turn into July 27, the date of the full moon.
INTO THE DARKNESS
A few hours later and with the blackness of the night now fully in control, I let the car, moving switly to try to outmanoeuvre the midges that had gathered in force, and pushed my way up the stalkers’ path, which disappeared into the thick, framing cover of rhododendron bushes.
The path up Gleouraich is one of the inest of its kind and makes for fast progress even in the dark: perfectly cut zig-zags in its infancy, then a deceptively lazy yet continuous series of switchbacks and hairpins that carry you high speedily and with the minimum of efort. Higher up, the line opens out and prods you gently out to the edge of the slope hundreds of metres above the small inlaid section of the loch before the inal steeper climb to the beehive cairn. It had taken less than two hours.
I had fond memories of this spot; back in the early ’90s this was one of the irst night walks I ever did, and on that night I rose out of the mist to stand at the cairn at 4am with the new sun lighting a sea of early cloud covering most of the country, only the tops of the higher peaks visible through this all-enveloping white blanket, like islands in a vast ocean.
Conditions were diferent this time. he moon was glowing yellow now due to the increased cloud cover, its light signiicantly reduced. Beyond the cairn was only darkness, and the next section needed some careful foot placement among the rocks, slippy and damp despite the recent hot, dry conditions. I passed over the Munro Top of Craig Coire na Fiar Bhealaich and then made the drop down into the bealach, the curvature of the corries and their plummeting faces only hinted at in the black.
Spidean Mialach was still mostly invisible, its presence felt but its slopes indeinable – a bulky, dark shadow hidden among the rest of the darkness. he moon had now vanished completely, reduced to a faint light buried in the cloud and all but cut of by the southern sweep of the corrie I was in. he silence was deafening, a whisper of water here, a breath of wind there. It’s a common feeling when you are alone on a mountain at night: a silence that isn’t quite silent; faint, gentle sounds from hidden sources that seem to be trying not to make any noise.
I dropped my pack for a drink and a quick bite to eat, all of two minutes. By the time I had lited it again, Spidean Mialach had appeared, its massive bulk shrugging of the night and now illing the view ahead. Of to the north was a muted orange-red light illing the horizon, dying embers of one day, while the route ahead started to take on a grey and blue tinge, hardly the sunrise I had been hoping for.
The morning was sneaking in with little fanfare, a lightening of the landscape at a snail’s pace, not the ireworks of a conident rising sun. I sat at the summit cairn praying that the towering cloud would part and yellow laser beams would blast their way through, but it never happened. When the sunrise did arrive it was still draped in muted colours.
Half an hour later, on the descent back west, the sun inally topped the cloud layer and spilled its light on the high ridges. he tip of Gleouraich seemed to be blazing, the furnaces inally ired up ater a long delay. he view west was extensive; Gairich led the line of gently glowing copper mountains all the way down the loch to the prominent shapes of Sgurr an Ciche and Ben Aden. It was a perfect lip from the bolder, more deined, colours of sunset the previous evening.
Then, a warning bark cut through the air: a female deer and its ofspring just a few hundred metres away. hey had remained unseen to my eyes until that sound, perfectly camoulaged in the low morning light. Suddenly they were up and running. hey had remained unseen to my eyes until that sound. I turned to look back at the peak I had just descended. Now there were hundreds of deer, the slope crawling with them, taking advantage of the morning moisture on the grasses to enjoy a casual breakfast. And although the Buck Moon had proven a disappointment in some ways, I inally got a good sighting of a young buck, antlers glowing silver with the sunlight lashing of their covering of velvet.
I reached the car at 7am then drove along the road to a favourite spot looking over the loch to Gairich and promptly fell asleep. Two and a half hours later I woke, ready for part two of the full moon adventure. I was staying at Aultguish as part of a large group, so I checked in, had a decent meal and then drove back to Achnasheen in deteriorating conditions to wait for any sign of the blood moon.
I had seen the deer for the Buck Moon but I wanted to cover all the bases. I now needed a thunderstorm to recognise this moon’s alter ego, the hunder Moon. Achnasheen means ‘Field of the storms’ and it seemed a perfect setting. If conditions had been right I was ready to go again, to climb Fionn Bheinn, even if meant getting a soaking. It would be worth it to catch sight of the full moon again. But conditions weren’t right. I had hoped to at least get a glimpse of red across one of the little lochs further down the road – ideally accompanied by a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. I got neither. It stayed grey and threatening, no moon, no light.
When I returned I was informed that the blood moon had been particularly vibrant in Lebanon. hanks for that. But my decision to go earlier had been vindicated. I won’t forget the sight of those deer, on the night of the Buck Moon.
The Munro Moonwalker
The author of this feature, Alan Rowan, is a proliic mountain-bagger and author of two books about his adventures in Scotland’s mountains. Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer was published in 2014 and the follow-up, A Mountain Before Breakfast, in 2016. Alan has climbed the Munros three times, as well as the Corbetts and all the 3000-foot peaks in England, Ireland and Wales, many of them during the wee small hours. He is currently closing in on a fourth round of Munros as well as ticking off the Grahams and Donalds.
The 13 moons of 2018… and their mountains
Full moons are traditionally given names, based on typical weather and the behaviour of animals and plants during the given month. A ‘blue moon’ refers to the second of two full moons in a single calendar month.
Beinn Alligin Beinn Alligin’s “Big hollow of the Wolf” (Toll a’ Mhadaidh Mor ) was where one of last wolves was killed.
Cairn Gorm The Blue Hill, plus Coire an t-Sneachda, the Corrie of the Snows, as this moon would be the Snow Moon if it was one day later.
Beinn a’ Bheithir Sometimes known as the mountain of the serpent.
Bla Bheinn The Blue Mountain of Skye is one of Scotland’s inest Munros.
Beinn Eighe One of Torridon’s giants, chosen for the reds and pinks of its slopes.
Ben Lawers Famous all over the world for its botany: the most celebrated collection of rare mountain plants in Britain.
Affric mountains Above Strawberry Cottage, Mam Sodhail, Carn Eighe and Beinn Fhionnlaidh.
Loch Quoich Munros For their deer connections: Gleouraich, Spidean Mialach.
Ben Starav Including open canoe journey across Loch Etive
Beinn a’ Ghlo In the heart of Perthshire farming country.
Lochnagar Magniicent Munro in the hunting estate of Royal Deeside.
Ben Cruachan For the Cruachan Dam and the nearby Knapdale beaver colony
Ben Hope The most northerly of the Munros. Simply because we have to inish the year with hope