Start Point: Car park behind the Cluanie Inn, Glen Shiel
Time: 7 hours for 3 Munros; 18km all in and 1,100m ascent.
We’d nearly been blown off a Cairngorm summit the day before, but such are the vagaries of the Scottish weather that Saturday dawned with barely a breath of wind, blue skies and sunshine and all was set fair for our attempt to ‘bag’ 3 Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet or 914m) at the eastern end of the famous South Glenshiel ridge, in the North West Highlands.
There are 7 Munros on this famous skyline in a glen that almost matches Glencoe for wow factor and is certainly wilder in feel overall.
Chris had already climbed 4 of the 7 summits, at the ridge’s western end and I had done one.But with my husband’s heel injury, we didn’t want to be putting in an 11 hour day, nearly 17 miles and 1800m (6,000 feet) of ascent. So, although many dedicated hikers do the whole lot, three peaks were enough for us today!
1st summit – Creag a Mhaim (pron. craig a vam) 947m
We set off from the car park behind the Cluanie Inn at 10am, the mountains looking magnificent.They hadn’t greened up yet as it was only May so everything high was dun- coloured , golden and purply- brown. Against the blue of the sky and the lochs, to me, it is still stunning.
For the first 6km (3.6miles), it was an easy, gradual ascent on an old road (walkers only) to the 410m (1,300 feet) contour and took us about 2 hours at a very leisurely pace.We now looked out for a stalkers track which would take us almost up to the summit itself. Stalkers tracks are superb things, built a long time ago and always taking a very easy angle of ascent up steep slopes.I like these tracks a lot!
It was a hot day but the views all around us and especially back to Loch Cluanie were superb.
Creag a Mhaim itself looked rocky and steep and I felt a vague sense of foreboding looking up at its crags. However, the stalkers path did indeed circumvent these perfectly, making me feel much happier. The views over to Gleouraich and the mountains of Knoydart drew the eye constantly.
The big wedge summit that was Ben Nevis looked incredibly close across layers of mountains.
2 hours 45 mins after leaving the car, we reached the wide, spacious grassy summit of out first Munro. Always a great feeling of achievement to bag one! Exchanged hellos with a couple of guys we’d spied above us for most of the route and who were now demolishing their lunch.At this elevated height, the temperature was perfect – coolish, light breeze, warm sun.We’d spent the previous night at an excellent B&B – Mo Dachaidh – which means My Home – on the spectacular Carr Brae road above Loch Duich and had stuffed ourselves full with muesli, yoghurt, full cooked breakfast – sausage, egg, bacon, beans, mushrooms – and mountains of toast, so weren’t hugely hungry.Water was the thing now, plus chocolate for me.To this point we’d now walked 7.5km with 730m of ascent.
But what I spied ahead in terms of the next summit didn’t make me feel so happy. I’d read about a narrowing rocky ridge and a by – pass path for ‘the nervous’ and could make out from here, 40 mins away, just how narrow the ridge became.Hmmm…a bit worrying for a vertigo sufferer like myself.
‘I might not make it, ‘ I whined to Chris, peering through my zoom lens at what lay ahead.Narrow, rocky, big drops either side.The old dread began to surface.
‘It always looks worse than it is,’ came his usual reply and ok yes, often that was true. A slope you think ‘how on earth do we get up THAT’ turns out to be perfectly fine.
‘I haven’t read anything dodgy about this ridge,’ one of the guys chipped in helpfully, overhearing us. I smiled briefly at this as if thankful for the insight, but inside I was thinking – ah, but we are different animals, you and I. You’re one of these fearless young guys, the kind who write our hiking books and have no inclination AT ALL, of the fears of lesser mortals. I’d spotted several, understated references in the excellent Walkhighlands website describing the walk and if it thought a section should be mentioned, then I knew it was to a hill wimp like me, a ‘dodgy bit.’ . And that bit now lay directly ahead.
2nd Summit : Druim Shionnach 987m
I couldn’t relax and enjoy where we were, I really just wanted to face what was next and get it over with pronto (or retreat in shame) and so we set off after only a 5 minute break, strolling along the lovely wide ridge until after 30 mins or so, it steepened and narrowed considerably.
The ground on each side suddenly disappeared into oblivion, with huge drops and rock now replaced the lovely moorland we’d been walking on. Before I could say – ‘stop, where’s that b****y by pass path?” – I found myself ascending onwards and upwards , following Chris higher and higher onto a rocky crest with huge drops on either side. Exposure! Aargh! I froze for a few seconds, ready to shout ‘I’m going back!’ before I realised that trying to turn round now would be the equivalent of trying to turn round on a sixpence.Worse in fact, than carrying on. A sort of numbing ‘if you don’t do this, you’re b*****ed’ realisation made me keep climbing , though I was still searching for the less exposed, alternative path.
‘Is it over yet?’ I shouted ahead to Chris, trying not to think what would happen if I lost balance here.
‘No!’ came the tense reply but he’d already disappeared ahead amongst the rocky terrain, out of sight.
Then suddenly I heard a sharp ‘Here it is….’ and ahead and below was a horrible narrow little path, a foot’s width wide.On one side, you were hard up against a rock band and on the other side, lay a steep plunging drop. Christ…this ‘by passed’ what?? It was as bad as what I was already on!
Ok, get across you wimp without the drama, hold the rock a bit and edge carefully across.Unless one suffers from vertigo , it’s impossible to describe what a shock that whole short section was.To most people, they would barely even register it.But with vertigo , if it gets out of hand, comes a hellish dizziness that rocks you, balance wise – I fear it because you’re scuppered when that happens.Thankfully , a sort of cold fear had steadied me mentally and soon I’d made it across that nasty short section and in seconds, was walking easily up onto the broad summit of Druim Shionnaidh – the Ridge of the Fox.
We had a stop at the summit for water and fruit and a big ‘well done’ from Chris. The scene around us really was superlative.Directly across lay the Five Sisters Ridge, a beauty of a walk I’d done many years ago. In the far distance, the Torridon range and the mountains of the remote Coulin Forest were visible.
I particularly liked the views down to a high lochan sitting serenely about a thousand feet below.We’d now walked in total 9km with 850m of ascent.
3rd Summit: Aonach Air Chrith 1021m
We decided to keep going on towards the 3rd summit and Munro of Aonach Air Chrith, the highest on the ridge.Looking ahead, it was all lovely easy ground and I felt much happier.We only passed one other couple – the woman , grim faced , walking far ahead of her partner.Neither of them returned our nods and hellos which is unusual on the hill because people are always very friendly and keen to stop and chat for a bit. But I think I recognised the look on her face; I suspect she’d been encouraged up here with an ‘it’s easy peasy’ but it hadn’t worked out quite as easy peasy as expected.Chris has on a few occasions lulled me into a false sense of security with mountains he’s climbed years ago, only to see me baulk at a section or three, which he then suddenly recalled as being ‘a bit nasty’ resulting in An Argument or at the very least, Silent Tension.I may of course have got this totally wrong!
It was only another 30 mins to our final summit, which had a craggy northern face.
We could now see Skye’s Cuillin ridge on the horizon, as well as into the wild untrammelled areas of Knoydart, a magnificent place.Total distance and ascent to here was 11.5km and 1020m.
We knew that the descent from this summit involved a bit of a rocky scramble which the book said was so steep that many people shuffled down part of it on their backsides.
We debated whether to carry on but Chris felt we’d done enough plus, more importantly, he was already hobbling with the pain in his heel.Every new summit took us further and further from our starting point too. It was time to congratulate ourselves on setting out what we’d planned to do and deciding how best to descend.
Looking at the map, the best option looked like retracing our steps back to Druim Shionnach and descending from there. It’s north ridge looked ok contour wise, not too steep though I noticed a rock band part way down. I’d looked at it from the car park area as a possible ascent route and it looked possible, if a slog, but only if we avoided the band of crags.So off we set.
Just before the summit of DS, we began to descend by contouring very steep ground to reach the north ridge itself. This was indeed wide and ok for the first 15 minutes but I was sure we should have dropped down further as the map suggested we could have then contoured below the crags.
There were some beautiful views ahead and below……
The ground was falling away now very rapidly and I knew we must be above the rock band, a steep craggy bit which was already worrying me.
Chris mumbled wait a minute then suddenly after a couple of attempts to descend which didn’t work, disappeared from view.I looked over an edge and saw a very steep rocky loose gully between the rocks – our way down. It looked horrible but do-able.
I couldn’t do the first bit it standing up however but shuffled down the scree and boulders on my backside, stones flying down in front of me as I dislodged them. I took so long do this that before I reached the bottom, I noticed that Chris had popped open a beer and was enjoying a relax on a big boulder! At least ahead of us, it was all now easy ground and we were soon passing a beautiful high lochan part way down.
Then we picked up another wonderful stalkers track which took us easily in zig zags down the next steep section of heather moorland.Loch Cluanie below us was the deepest blue.
A beautiful stag appeared ahead, watching us carefully before slowly moving off.After 2 hours of descent, we were down on the old road again with a 5 minute walk back to the car.
What an amazing day it had been above glorious Glen Shiel. Another day when I felt very grateful to have been blessed (sometimes, it seems, more like cursed given vertigo) with a need to explore the mountains.They make the heart sing with their beauty and wildness.