Distance: 11 miles
Time: 7 hours (including stops for food, drink, crampons, photos!)
Munro: Beinn Liath Mhor
Route: Click to view on an OS Map
Getting up at 4:30am is never fun but is made less so when the sky is cloudy and holds only the promise of drizzle. The BBC and MWIS though had both indicated a fair chance (70%) of a cloud-free Munro if I headed west and so it was that shortly after 5am I crept out of the sleeping city and headed for the A96, the hills and the promise of adventure.
The drive was extremely quiet and as I approached Inverness the first pale shadow of the dawn crept up on a sleeping world. Crossing the Kessock Bridge is always the marker for me the west coast starts here. It was a cold, grey light that slowly illuminated the mountains on route to Achnasheen having turned at Garve where I had seen patches of blue sky appearing between ragged, low cloud - a flickering flame of hope was kindled!
At 8:20am I parked in the lay-by opposite the red telephone box which marks the entrance to the private road up to Achnashellach station. The rising sun was illuminating the patchy clouds that hung over the mountains on the far side of the glen.
The chill of the morning began to lift as I booted up and headed, by way of the station and level crossing, onto a good land rover track which climbed through peaceful woodland. Rounding a corner I got my first view of the Corbett Fuar Tholl, its mighty southern buttress forming an imposing background to the woodland track.
It was here that I paid the price for not reading any walk descriptions of the lower route, assuming it would be a straight forward, path-following exercise. Rather than noticing a small track leading down to a gate, I carried on up through the woods, following a boggy track which occasionally disappeared entirely and eventually led to the wrong side of a deer fence. Judging by the fence’s ragged condition this mistake as been made many times before and I would have thought it was in the interest of the estate to mark the earlier turning to avoid this problem. I scrambled over the fence and found the excellent, constructed track just a few short steps away. Once on this my pace quickened and soon height was being gained as the track wound its way up besides the chattering River Lair which tumbles down a series of cascades hidden in a dark ravine.
To my left the view of Fuar Tholl was constantly evolving, and then peaking over the crags ahead was my first view of the south-eastern end of the Beinn Liath Mhor ridge, my target for the day. My plan, given the short hours of daylight and uncertainty of conditions on top, was to climb Coire Lair to the bealach at its head. I would then turn right and climb to the Munro of Beinn Liath Mhor. The ridge would then be followed south-east before descending to the Coulin track and back to the inbound path from Achnashellach.
At this time the cloud level was still around 870m with the summits of both the Corbett and the two Munros hidden from view. The Coire Lair is a spectacular natural amphitheatre and a good track, occasionally snow covered, takes a direct route through it, following the lowest slopes of Beinn Liath Mhor. I had fabulous views on to Fuar Tholl, its summit now slowly being revealed, and then the second Munro of Sgorr Ruadh. A longer day would involve doing a full round of the Coire to bag all three hills but today I was being more sensible. Above me the blue sky was becoming more extensive and at times I could see the summit of my mountain.
As I climbed the path the snow became more persistent and harder. Luckily a set of footprints came down from the bealach so I was able to use these, along with my axe, to get over the difficult sections. At the bealach I paused briefly to consider running up to Sgorr Ruadh but then decided to leave it for another day.
My excitement peaked as I started to climb up to the top of a small bump (Beinn Liath Mhor’s southern top?) at 769m with a view of Torridon’s Beinn Alligin catching the bright sunlight. My pace quickened as I clambered up the steep sides of this lumpy hill and then followed a balcony of rock around to the west from where I got my first proper and spectacular view into Torridon. Beinn Alligin was cloud free, the white on its flanks catching the brights rays of sunshine, and to its right I could see the imposing bulk of Liathach, its ridge shrouded.
I paused here for several photos and to strap on my crampons. The track turned to climb the western face of the bump and the footprints were now barely impressions in the hard packed snow. Front pointing up I reached the summit at 769m which gave me wonderful views onto Beinn Liath Mhor (now clear of cloud) as well as back down my approach route and over to Sgorr Ruadh. Behind me all of the Torridonian hills were being revealed with Beinn Damh in particular looking fine.
The descent of the bump was treacherous, or would have been without crampons. It looked like the footprints had elected to seek a way down on the east side but that was away from the direct line to the summit of the Munro so I got some crampon practice in by directly descending on good, iced snow using front points and my axe to carefully work my way down this north facing side. I was then attacking the steep slopes of Beinn Liath Mhor itself - a series of shattered sandstone terraces that had to be carefully scrambled through. I was glad to have read the reports and chosen to do this the opposite way round to all the guidebook suggestions.
At the top of the terraces I had the joyful view up to the summit of Liath Mhor, just as the final shreds of cloud were whipped away by a cold, easterly wind. I took great pleasure in winding my way up the corniced ridge, the Torridon hills to my left and Coire Lair to my right. It was wild, beautiful and had a real feeling of an alpine climb.
Almost exactly on midday I clambered up to the frost-wrapped cairn which marks the summit. My first Munro of 2010 and what a peak! The views all round were spectacular and Liathach and Beinn Eighe were now for the most part out of the cloud, their highest peaks just holding on to a thin covering. I sat down on the sheltered western side looking out over Upper Loch Torridon and breathed in this magnificent sight, feeling privileged to be getting such a view.
After hot, sweet black tea, sandwiches and a chocolate bar it was time to be moving on. The ridge of Beinn Liath Mhor has much to recommend it both in character and views. The cornices were impressive and occasional flecks of angled quartzite peaking through the snow gave me surety of step. The ridge is not flat but undulates, descending shortly beyond the cairn then climbing up to a central ‘top’ before a further descent and reascent to reach the final peak. Both of these tops have pinnacles on their western side and doing the route this way round means you climb up these, rather than downclimb them. This is my preferred way for pinnacles! The shattered quartzite, covered in snow, frost and ice was great for scrambling up and the crampons gave me excellent stability.
The ridge itself gives airy views all around and whilst I was captivated by the Torridon and Coulin hills, my gaze was also drawn over Loch Coire Lair to Sgorr Ruadhe and Fuar Tholl which both looked majestic beyond the Coire.
The weather gods were smiling on me as I reached the cairn on the eastern end of the ridge. The cloud was sweeping back in but this gave dramatic light away off over Loch Carron in the distance. A veil began to be drawn on all the mountains around me as I took off the crampons and prepared for the descent to the Coulin path at the foot of the eastern end of Liath Mhor.
The snow on this side was deep and wet, very different to anything up to this point and much less fun. The terrain is also reasonably steep but luckily with only a couple of slightly tricky points where I worked my way ungracefully down snowy burns to avoid crags. Eventually I picked up a good path which had hitherto been buried by snow. This made progress quicker although it still had the occasional snow drift covering it which needed to be crossed carefully.
However, without too much drama I was following the path across the lumpy ground, turning right at a cairn onto the Coulin path and then reaching the cairn marking the Coire Lair path.
With the cloud once again shrouding the tops I paused here to stow my gear and take off a layer as well as having a final brew and a bite to eat. The coire was empty and barely any wind made it a wonderfully peaceful place to sit and while away the minutes. It was only just on 2:45pm so I didn’t have any worries about lack of daylight.
After this break I slung on the pack for the last section and headed off down the path back to Achnashellach. I made rapid progress and even stopped off a couple of times to peer into the River Lair’s ravine. I was soon at the deer fence and this time carried on down the path which kept close to the river and passed through beautiful woodland. I was then through the fence at a gate (strange circular gate next to it - perhaps there are giant cats on the Achnashellach estate?) and back on the landrover track.
I was back at the car for 3:25pm and soon heading back for the damp and drizzle of the east coast. It seemed almost unreal that I’d spent so long in the sunshine, admiring such magnificent views whilst the rest of Scotland it seemed had been smothered in cloud. Such was the strength of the sun that the next day my neck was red with a tinge of sun burn!
I didn’t see a single person on the hills all day, though on returning to my car the layby had gained two further occupants. I’m not exactly sure where they had headed - presumably up on the Corbett/Sgorr Rhuadh side or perhaps something low level in the glen.