This year the Crow Craigies Climbing Party stationed itself in Dornie, on Loch Alsh, handily placed for any number of hills. Static high pressure over the North Atlantic brought a succession of warm, humid days with light winds, often with low cloud in the morning dissipating to bring blue skies in the afternoon. The moral pressure to go out and climb something every day was therefore fairly high. So we did.
Beinn Sgritheall (NG 836127, 974m)
860m of ascent
The guide books tend to send you up Beinn Sgritheall via a madly steep ascent from the south. But, in anticipation of warmth and lack of fitness, we chose a longer walk in from the west, along a gently graded forest track and around Loch na Lochain, before joining the route from the south in the Bealach Rarsaidh, with its pretty little lochan.
The lochan afforded us a welcome glimpse of a diver (a loon, to my North American readers). It was no more than a characteristic silhouette against bright sunlight, but the jaunty upward tilt at which it held its beak suggested it was a red-throated diver.
I fired off a few telephoto pictures blindly, and a little bit of manipulation of the resulting images confirmed the sighting, bringing out the diagnostic grey head and red throat.
Then it was just a matter of the unavoidable steep climb up the ridge to the summit, with stunning (albeit hazy) views of Loch Hourn below, Knoydart to the south, and orographic cloud pouring over the ridges of Skye to the west.
Beinn Bhuidhe (NG 970182, 869m)
Sgurr nan Saighead (NG 974178, 929m)
Sgurr Fhuaran (NG 978167, 1067m)
Sgurr na Carnach (NG 977159, 1002m)
Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe (NG 984149, 1027m)
1500m of ascent
This was a trip along the classic Five Sisters ridge. We parked a car under the Bealach an Lapain, and then drove a second car back to the coast at Allt a’ Chruinn, our starting point. There’s a little parking area for six cars at Allt a’ Chruinn. We walked a short distance up the road from there, and then we made a turn on to a surfaced track that looked unpromisingly like someone’s driveway, but which took us first up the service road to a small dam, and then on to a beautifully engineered path which followed the Allt a’ Chruinn almost all the way to the col at the head of Coire na Criche.
A traditionalist, intent on visiting all Five Sisters, would have turned left at this point, to visit 876m Sgurr na Moraich. Moraich is part of the classic pentaptych* of the Five Sisters as seen from the Mam Ratagan, across Loch Duich. It bulks large from that viewpoint, its relatively humble height being concealed by the fact it’s the closest Sister to the viewer.
But Munro-baggers, scorning anything under 3000 feet, have tended to ignore Moraich and reinterpret the Five to include the Munro Top of Sgurr nan Spainteach, at the east end of the ridge, which is obscured by Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe in the classic view.
The day being unfeasibly humid, we turned resolutely to the right, leaving Moraich to languish unloved.
We walked in cloud. It lifted more slowly than we’d hoped, and we had crossed Sgurr na Carnach in poor visibility before shafts of sunlight began to appear, and long tunnels in the cloud began to reveal neighbouring peaks and glens.
Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe turned out to be our last summit of the day. The cloud came down again, briefly, and we took an absolutely classic wrong turning on the double ridge that leaves the Bealach nan Spainteach. So we dropped out of the cloud to see the main ridge a little above us to the left, while we had been lured into following the spectacular rocky outcroppings of Druim Dubh Thollaidh.
Hmmm. It wouldn’t be too much trouble to climb back to the ridge to take in Sgurr nan Spainteach. Then again, the vista ahead was tempting—a long grassy rake all the way down to the car waiting in Glen Shiel, which would spare us the ghastly steep descent from Bealach an Lapain, which no-one remembers fondly.
So we descended. And it was lovely—a riot of wild flowers and waterfalls combined with easy walking. I’d certainly recommend it as the only pleasant way off the ridge at this point.
Sgurr na Forcan (NG 940130, 963m)
The Saddle (NG 936131, 1101m)
Sgurr na Sgine (NG 946113, 946m)
Another day, another classic traverse, served by another well-engineered path. This one’s a stalkers’ path that zig-zags up the hillside from Glen Shiel, and delivers you neatly to the base of the notorious Forcan Ridge of The Saddle.
The Forcan is a classic scrambling route, and pretty mild in comparison to, for instance, the Skye Cuillin. Heights and exposure don’t bother me particularly, but I am not a natural scrambler, so it was good to have my friend Rod (who insists on a mention—hi, Rod) as my trusty guide. He prevented me from doing anything daft, which (in scrambling as in life) is the main secret to success.
We’d walked in under cloud, but it was very obviously lifting, so we sat for a while below the Forcan until the summit had cleared. It’s a lovely ridge, and under Rod’s tutelage I only whimpered a little on the way along. Crampon scratches on the stone are a good guide to the route, but occasionally misleading—people wearing crampons for a winter traverse generally have ropes, too, and there’s an interesting 10m drop on the main ridge that a mere pedestrian (like me) is better off avoiding by using the sissy path that circumvents it on the left.
We crossed The Saddle’s twin tops, as confused as everyone else about which is the higher, and then descended into the Bealach Coire Mhalagain to cross to Sgurr na Sgine.
Sgine is very much the poor cousin of The Saddle, but provides fine views along the South Shiel Ridge, and also back to the Forcan.
Then we headed back to the bealach and climbed a little way up the far side to find a path that traverses below the Easter Buttress of the Forcan, along the line of one of those mad and apparently pointless stone walls that traverse the Highlands. And then back down to the glen via the stalkers’ path, although we cut a corner by descending steep grass, to avoid one of its wider zig-zags below Biod an Fhithich.
Blabheinn (NG 530217, 929m)
Blabheinn South Top (NG 528215, 926m)
954m of ascent
The next day, with clear skies from the outset, we drove to Skye to take in Blabheinn (or Blaven, as it’s often Anglicized). The car park at the foot of the Allt na Dunaiche is a rather stealthy affair, these days. At some time the roadside sign has fallen off its pole, leaving only an unmarked and unpromising-looking entrance to a rough forest track—you have to drive up that for a short distance before the parking area becomes apparent through the trees.
Like the Saddle, a good path takes you to the foot of the hill. And like the Forcan, all hell then lets loose. Above the lovely little alp of Fionna-choire, the path turns into a treadmill of scree and steep rock, with a final little scramble up a gully to reach the breathtaking summit view.
And it really is breathtaking. To the west, the long jagged ridge of the Black Cuillin; to the north, the rolling mounds of the Red Cuillin; to the south, the Small Isles of Rum and Eigg; to the east, the mainland hills, laid out from Knoydart to Applecross.
We lingered at the top for a long time, in air so still that bees were audibly going about their business around the summit cairn. Then we traversed to the South Top, a journey of a couple of hundred metres that involves a short but interesting shuffle along an exposed ledge, and then dropped down steep scree to a grassy shelf poised above the Fionna-choire and below the crags of Slat Bheinn. Here, someone had laid out a neat little circle of contrasting stones, reminiscent of the more complex artworks that adorn the ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor. Above us, somewhere among the crags, an eagle chick bellowed its hunger with an echoing CHEEP CHEEP—we scanned the sky for parental wings, but saw nothing.
More scree took us back into Fionna-choire, and back to the path down the glen.
Creag a’ Mhaim (NH 088078, 947m)
Druim Shionnach (NH 074085, 987m)
1010m of ascent
By this time, a certain yearning had set in for a day that didn’t involved sliding around on scree and/or dangling above near-vertical drops. So we headed off to make a tame little circuit of the two easternmost hills on the South Shiel ridge.
We parked near the Cluanie Inn, and set off south along the old road that used to connect Glen Cluanie to Glen Garry—a link now severed by the expansion of dammed Loch Loyne, but still a fine quick way to reach the path that ascends Craig a’ Mhaim from the east. There was no wind at all on the summit, and life was made a little wearing by an overwhelming number of crane-flies, all of which seemed intent on flying into our eyes and mouths. From there, a broad ridge and then a surprisingly narrow rocky neck took us to Druim Shionnach—where there was no wind, but also no crane-flies. Along the way, we chanced to peer down into the northern corrie, and saw that we were not the only ones feeling affected by the heat—a deer was lounging in the residual snowfield below.
After sprawling in the sun for a while, we headed off to follow the hill’s northern ridge (to which the name “Druim Shionnach” more strictly applies) down towards the Cluanie Inn. There’s a little awkward navigation to circumvent the crags in the upper part of the hill, but thereafter it’s a pleasant stroll down to the outlet of Loch a’ Mhaoil Dhisnich, from which a path descends the rest of the way to Loch Cluanie.
It was on the slopes above Mhaoil Dhisnich we had our most startling wildlife encounter. I was descending in the lead, when suddenly a very young red deer calf, still sporting its juvenile white spots, erupted out of its couching place a few metres to my left. It emitted an oddly catlike mewing noise, and then galloped over the near horizon in a panic.
When my companion (Rod again—hi, Rod) caught up with me, we stood for a moment to discuss what had happened, until we realized we had a red deer hind fidgeting in our peripheral vision, a few metres to our right. She had clearly responded to the distress call of her calf, and was unsettled to find the calf absent and a pair of humans standing about chatting. We froze in place—and after a moment she walked delicately around us to reach the calf’s couching spot. She sniffed and licked the heather for a few seconds, and then suddenly her head came up and she wheeled around and galloped off along the calf’s exact line of flight. Either the calf had called again, or she had caught its scent on the slight and errant breeze.
We breathed again, and walked off down to the Cluanie Inn to celebrate a rare and strange encounter.
Moruisg (NH 101499, 928m)
800 metres of ascent
Finally, a bit of a tame day, at least for Your Correspondent. For reasons too mind-meltingly complex to share with you here, we ended up undertaking a two-car walk using only one car. So I climbed to the top of Moruisg, came back down the same way, moved the car down the road, and then walked up the Allt a’ Chonais to rendezvous with the remaining contingent of the CCCP, who had hiked across country to get there. We were slightly wrong-footed in the early part of the walk by the existence of a previously unsuspected deer fence—so our route up the hill was dictated by the location of the gate in the upper part of this fence. But thereafter there was a decent path up steep grassy slopes, which brought us out at the northeast end of Moruisg’s short summit ridge, where a large cairn stands to confuse the unwary—the summit is actually at the other end of the ridge, sporting a small and dilapidated cairn of its own.
And that was that. We had spent an unprecedented six days in the Scottish Highlands entirely without rain.
* A pentaptych is a painting, often iconographic, in five panels. Hill writers are tediously fond of trotting out the word triptych for any trio of hills, particularly the “Torridonian triptych” of Alligin, Liathach and Eighe. So I thought I’d give pentaptych an outing. I might even wheel out heptaptych when we get to the South Shiel ridge. Some days I’m just mental like that.