Date: 4th-6th May 2012
Time: A Long While
Hills: Sgurr na Feartaig (Corbett, Beinn Tharsuinn (Corbett), Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich (Munro), Lurg Mhor (Munro), Sgurr Choinnich (Munro)
Weather: Early sunshine giving way to cloud. Very cold wind and low temperatures.
Route: Click to view on an OS Map
The café in Achnasheen at lunchtime on Friday. Piping hot lentil and vegetable soup followed by coffee and homemade cake. Outside sleet falls from great grey clouds drifting over Strath Bran. I’m excited to be back in the North West Highlands but a little nervous about the weather forecast and how far my three season gear will be tested over the coming couple of days. I’m also a little concerned about how much of a problem the cold and flu I’m still suffering from will play a part in proceedings.
At 2pm the car park at Craig was already almost full. I squeezed my car into the one remaining viable space and got my kit sorted. I was still pondering kit choices but finally settled on my Montane Extreme winter jacket (leaving behind my Vapour Rise and shell jacket) and put my microspikes into the top of the pack. It’s a cool 7 degrees as I set off, crossing the road and the railway line and then following the easy vehicle track along to the crossing over the river Carron. The sleety rain had cleared and the sun was out. In the sheltered glen amongst tall pines it was almost pleasant though the jacket remained firmly zipped up. I came across a family having a late lunch by the track which is flanked by bright yellow gorse and the occasional blossoming pink flower.
Ahead of me the buttressed west wall of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean blocks the glen, sending the track around its lower flanks until the view is dominated by the twin summits of Sgurr Choinnich and Sgurr a’ Chaorachain linked by a perfect catenary ridge, dusted with snow. I left the track and dropped down to the dubious bridge across the Allt a’ Chonais. A slow, steady few steps got me safely across and then I was heading up on the excellent stalkers path which climbs a long ridge of Sgurr na Feartaig, the Corbett which sits above Craig and the river Carron.
This path is a delight, steadily gaining height whilst winding around outcrops and lumps in the ridge. The views opened out with the spectacular panorama of the Torridon hills catching my eye. More showers were sweeping in but they passed to the east across Strath Bran and the Fannaichs, leaving me in bright sunshine. I climbed up onto the lower plateau of Sgurr na Feartig where its two lochans lie in splendid isolation. The views were astounding and sheltered from the wind I sat and munched on a chocolate bar, listening to the wind and watching the sunlight play on distant hillsides.
I wound my way between the lochans and then followed the faint track, mostly obscured by wind-blown snow, up towards the summit. It is a lumpy hill but eventually the large cairn marking the summit hoved into view. The sun was hidden behind a cloud and the wind fiercely cold. On the lee side of the cairn I found some shelter and enjoyed the views over Beinn Tharsuinn and the other Monar hills.
With a spattering of rain and the views closing in I headed off the summit. It is very steep sided and the south east ridge is not well defined so I ended up slightly off to one side, picking my way down a slippery slope towards the Bealach Bhearnais. It was a relief to reach the flat ground of the bealach where I was finally sheltered from the wind and soon the sun came again out to warm things up. I passed a Laser Competition pitched in a scooped hollow near the summit of the col.
Following the path I headed up from the col to the eastern end of Beinn Tharsuinn. This long, winding hill is a Corbett with the summit at the diagonally opposite end from where I was standing. After climbing the steep eastern end it is then an easy walk along multiple summits, crossing clefts and gullies which were acting as perfect wind breaks. Off to the west were views of the sea and of Skye and as the rain clouds moved away the hills to the east came back into view.
Ahead of me as I approached the summit cairn of Beinn Tharsuinn the views of the West Monar hills were stunning. The long ridge of Lurg Mhor and the distinctive peak of Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich had their features picked out in snow, the sunlight catching the dark rock. At the top the wind was once again gusting strongly but I put my sack down and hunkered down to admire the views. The sinuous s-curve of Loch Monar stretches out to the east; to the north west is Torridon; Skye sparkles across the water; and all around me were fantastic mountain ridges and summits. I had the place completely to myself and it was a special, wonderful moment.
Time had crept on as I sat enjoying the summit and the hills were bathed in early evening light by the time I got moving again. I dropped down the south slopes of Beinn Tharsuinn, heading for the nameless lochan that sits in shallow scoop before the big drop off into the glen below Sheasgaich.
My plan was to camp here but on arrival besides the water I could tell the wind was going to be an issue. I dropped my sack and did a perambulation around the lochan, investigating every possible hollow for shelter but everything came up short. The only calm spot was immediately below the shoulder of Beinn Tharsuinn’s summit cone but just here the ground was extremely boggy. Instead I followed the outflow from the lochan a short way downhill to where a convenient line of crags provided shelter from the wind. A flat area of dry land was all I needed and I found it in short order, soon getting the tent up as a brief flurry of hail fell from the sky.
I spent the Friday evening exploring the hillside around the camp, gathering water and then cooking up some dinner. More hail fell as I sat enjoying a delicious steak and ale stew.
At around 9pm, and as the light started to dwindle, I grabbed my camera and an extra insulation layer and climbed the short distance back up to the summit of the Corbett. Already the flurries of snow and hail had formed an icy, white layer and at the top it was bitterly cold. It didn’t matter though as the beautiful sight of the sun dipping towards the Torridon hills was sensational. Although there was some cloud around it served only to emphasise the colours, bathing the hills in a fiery orange that turned reddy purple as the solar disc descended. At last the sun disappeared behind thicker clouds banked beyond the hills and I made my way carefully back down to my tent. Ice was rapidly forming on the path and I found a thin crust already on top of the water in my Platypus.
Above Lurg Mhor the full moon (a supermoon no less) had risen and it was this that I watched as I lay back in my tent listening to a couple of podcasts. Much later on I got out to brush my teeth and noticed that a lot of the cloud had cleared. Venus shone over the lochan in the west and there was pinprickling of stars across the hard blue dome of the sky. The moon bright and full bathed the scene in a glorious light.
The second day, Saturday morning, dawned rather less fantastically than the previous day had ended. Waking up cosy and warm in my down sleeping bag surrounded by a heap of clothes that had been taken off in stages during the night I could hear the gentle rustle of snow sliding off silnylon. I poked my head out of the tent to be greeted by a white world, cloud swirling across the cols and snow falling from leaden skies.
It was still early so I rolled over and dozed for another hour or so, waking up in a surprisingly warm tent. Blinking into the bright sunshine I once again looked outside to find a transformed world. The cloud had been swept away to leave the most remarkable of vistas: bright, snowy mountains under a clear blue sky. I think I may have whooped as I pulled on my solidly frozen shoes, donned a couple of layers of insulation, and stepped out into this magical kingdom.
Coffee was the first order of the day and luckily the outflow from the lochan was still free moving so I didn’t have to melt my frozen Platyplus for a morning brew. Coffee and a cereal bar were consumed as I wandered around, gazing off at the magical mountain panorama I had awoken in.
Over my shoulder was the imposing north face of Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich, and my challenge for the day. I wanted to climb the mountain by this classic scrambling route but was a little concerned about the ice hidden amongst its shadowed crennalations. I had done plenty of reading over the preceding week and knew there was a good route up it with just a few sporting sections of rock action. However, now I saw it in person it was an intimidating sight, presenting 250m of jumbled crags riven by impossibly angled gullies and crowned by a mighty headwall. Was it possible? I guess I would find out.
Climbing back up to the lochan I got awesome views of the reflected summit of Beinn Tharsuinn and then headed west, dropping down a steep little scramble through a rock terrace and then along to the bealach below the western top. It was an easy drop down angled grassy slopes to the bealach below Sheasgaich where I now paused in the sunshine to look up at the massed defences.
Following intelligence gained by reading other trip reports I initially followed the dry stone wall which angled up and away from the bealach. The ground was a little boggy at first but as I got into the shade of the face itself the cooler temperatures meant it was crisper and my footing was surer. The face turned out to be a series of terraces connected by steep but easily climbed ramps, sometimes of rock but mostly grass. I was quickly a third of the way up and already the views were opening out. I now came to what turned out to be the crux. The path seemed to split, with the clearer branch heading right a short way up to the base of an arête. The other branch was fainter, angling up towards a grassy ramp, laced with frost, which I imagine is the technically less challenging route. I took a moment below the arête to stow my poles and cinch down my bag before tackling the rock.
There were a couple of tricky moves to start with though helpfully the holds were positive and it was easy to gain height. Then I got to an area where the turf had been welded to the rock, albeit badly. I tugged at a couple of holds which came away in my hand. Luckily underneath the brittle turf I found a good hold and with a secure stance made the final few moves to top out on another grassy terrace. Although the way was now steeply up a grassy gully there were adequate footmarks and steps in the turf so I was soon up. Although the headwall had looked tricky from below, the path I was following picked out an easy weakness and I was soon punching the air as I topped out at the balcony at around 800m. It was a great feeling to have conquered such a challenging ascent in pretty sketchy conditions.
From the balcony I took in the brilliant views both east and west as snow covered hills were revealed rising up from the frosty glens. I took a few minutes and then carried on, now walking up a gentle slope to the plateau which runs across to the main summit. The snow was crisp and I soon wended my way through the outcrops to reach the serene lochan below the dark rock of the Munro’s summit pyramid.
After the earlier work it all felt very easy and after getting distracted by a couple of Ptarmigan I was soon walking along the summit ridge to the airy cairn marking the top of Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich.
As with any remote Munro at 10:30am in the morning it was only right to encounter someone else. Quite unbelievably they had walked through from Craig that morning to reach the summit just before me. This made me feel very lazy. They took a few snaps and then headed off to Lurg Mhor, leaving me to enjoy the peace and splendid position of this prized Munro. The views down Loch Monar towards the Strathfarrar Hills were sublime and south were the Mullardoch and Affric Hills with Loch Calavie just making an appearance. I stood on the summit, sending a few texts and munching on some food before observing that I was being followed up by a group of four walkers. The guy in front reached the summit just as I was about to leave and so we had a brief chat about the great conditions and views. They had already done a couple of Munros the previous evening and had camped back at Pollan Buidhe.
After this encounter I descended the easy south-eastern slopes of Sheasgaich to the col below Lurg Mhor. It is hard to believe that this grassy hill is the same mountain as that seen from the north. The climb up Lurg Mhor was a bit of a slog through snowy boulder fields and the weather was by now closing in, the skies grey and banks of sleety rain moving through the glen, obscuring the Monar Forest Hills beyond the loch.
I had the summit to myself and clambered up the cairn to take in the views before being joined by a couple from Fort William who had approached from the east. They were bagging Munro tops and so I quizzed them about the scramble across the ridge to the eastern top of Lurg Mhor which has a bit of a reputation. They said that most of the tricky stuff could be bypassed and so, although my plan had been to return to the col, I decided to go over and have a look at the ridge.
They moved off to get back to their tent beside the loch and I stayed on the summit a while, munching on oatcakes, salami and cheese, looking out at the drifting clouds over the Affric and Shiel hills and away out to Skye. It was magnificent, a wilderness view in every respect with lochan-pocked glens separating high snow-capped peaks.
After lunch and just before the foursome caught up I headed over to the ridge. It would have been easier to head back to the col but I was feeling adventurous and without any particular rush to be anywhere. The ridge turned out to be great, 96% fantastic knife-edged ridge walking, 3% hands on scrambling and 1% all out where-the-heck-do-my-hands-and-feet-go terror. After dropping quickly down to the low point using good hand and foot holds I reached the pinnacles. Although it is only a very short stretch of rock there are definitely a couple of tricky sections. I took most of the pinnacles direct but there was one I knew was quite tricky so when a bypass path appeared I took it, thinking I had now missed the worst bit. Of course, a couple of seconds later I was halfway around a pinnacle when I ran out of footholds, my arms wrapped around a bulging block that was throwing me out over a rather nasty drop. This was not what I wanted. I love scrambling, but prefer it with a light daypack. With my camping pack on my centre of gravity was wrong for the move. I quickly got myself into a safe stance and then peered around the overhang. There was a shelf which soon became the recipient of my bag and camera. Freed from these encumbrances (and with the incentive of having to cross the pinnacle to recover them) I found it was then an easy reach around the bulge to a sure hold and in no time I was over, breathing heavily, heart racing.
The next pinnacle was even more ridiculous looking, a steep climb with very little in the way of handholds so here I took the sensible decision to drop down a grassy gully, bypassing the rock and then climbing back up to the ridge. From here it was an easy walk along the arête to quickly reach the point where it widened out onto the summit of the eastern top of Lurg Mhor.
Now I thought, my troubles were definitely over. Wrong! The cloud closed in and I now had to identify the best way to drop down to Loch Monar. Meal Mor turns into a long gently sloping ridge that eventually drops down to Pait Lodge, a long way from anywhere. Ideally I wanted to get off the hill before then and I knew that other people had done it, finding steep but manageable slopes. Unfortunately the topography of the ridge makes it difficult to identify a good spot to start and rather than just continuing along I soon came to the head of a wide coire that was snow filled at the top and craggy towards the bottom. Something of a path could clearly be seen at the top but I wasn’t sure exactly what happened to it. I decided to give it a go.
About an hour and a half later I reached the valley floor. The descent had been pretty unpleasant. Very steep, slick grassy slopes that wound between crags and gullies with one in particular filled with the remains of a recent cornice collapse. I never felt unsafe at any point but it did necessitate very slow and careful footwork. The angle didn’t ease off until right near the very bottom and so I was very grateful when I could finally stand up properly. I angled off towards the head of Loch Monar, the third tricky stretch of the day done!
Loch Monar is a dammed loch and the water level is currently a lot lower than its usual height (or however the OS determine the extent of these things?) so it was a muddy wade out to actually reach the shore. After gazing out over the still grey waters I returned to the path through the glen and followed it along a short stretch. I wasn’t sure what to do now. It was 3pm and it seemed like the sun was coming out. If I wanted to stick to my original plan I would have to reascend the steep slopes on this side of the glen and then make me way along three further Munros before finding a place to camp. In hindsight I could have found a good camping spot en route but by this point, and after all the unexpected scrambling, I was feeling ready just to relax.
I plumped my pack down and put up my tent. This was a good decision as no sooner was the last peg in but a heavy hailstorm started. I retreated inside and pulled out my Kindle and some snacks. I wasn’t going anywhere.
To have walked six miles in a relaxed and lazy six hours, ascended a few thousand feet and ended up in such a wild, unpeopled place felt pretty special. I alternated over the next few hours between reading (when it was hailing) and wandering around (when it was sunny). As evening fell it started to snow more determinedly and after one such spell I looked out to find the mountains white again with the snow line just a hundred metres or so above the floor of the glen.
I enjoyed dinner and then dozed off in my tent as more clouds swept in from the northwest.
Sunday morning dawned as bright and crisp as Saturday though this time I wasn’t surrounded by a snowy scene. Lazy clouds drifted through but the weather seemed remarkably settled. As the sun rose over the shoulder of the hills the tent warmed up nicely and I was soon ready to brew up some coffee down on the beach and have a wander around to wake up my stiff legs.
I knew that MWIS were forecasting stormy weather for the afternoon and so I was keen to get moving. By 8am I was packed and on the move, still to determine my final plan. I climbed steeply up the slopes immediately above my campsite. Soon the glen opened out below me and Loch Monar, the sky perfectly reflected in its calm surface, stretched out languidly into the sunny east.
The going was unrelenting but I gained height quickly, moving across the hillside as the terrain varied from rocky to grassy to icy. Eventually I was in the final throat of the gully which led me up onto the spectacular ridge line just beneath the summit of Sgurr Choinnich’s southern top, Sgurr na Conbhaire. The mountains were still dusted with snow and there was a delightful looking ridge winding its way north to the summit of the Munro. I stopped here, breathing in the crisp cold air, sending a few texts and generally enjoying this solitary magnificence.
From here I followed the ridge which gave a delightful high level traverse above the coires of the Bealach Crudhain and the Toll a’ Chaorachain with views along the line of hills heading to Maoile Lunnaidh.
As I approached the point where the spur ridge I was on meets the main spine of the hills, cloud was drifting in and the snow underfoot was getting deeper. At the junction I could have turned right and traversed the ridge across to Sgurr a’ Chaorachain but I decided that could wait for another day. Instead I turned left and walked along the mountain to the summit of Sgurr Choinnich, the third Munro of the trip as well as the high point at 999m.
The views came and went with glimpses of the Torridon hills, coated in white, seen between gaps in the swirling cloud. To the south it was a bit clearer and I could see the complete ring of hills I had come around over the past couple of days. After chatting to a couple who were heading off to do the ridge I started my descent, following a clear snowy path down off the western arm of the mountain.
The way down was largely straight forward with just a couple of short scrambly sections to clamber down. The weather conditions improved and by the time I reached the bealach the sun was again shining.
A well constructed path climbs up to Bhearnais from Pollan Buidhe and I followed this down towards the glen where the trip had started almost forty-eight hours previously. I stopped at one of the side streams to refill my bottle and in the sheltered glen with the sun shining down I felt warm again. The view down the long line of hills into Glenuaig was spectacular and I chatted to a chap who had driven up from Bristol to bag some Munros.
At Pollan Buidhe itself the water level was low so the lack of wire bridge wasn’t a problem. Across the water I chatted to a trio of Glasweigen Corbett baggers who were interested in my tent and questioned whether my Nuun tablet infused water (which was a virulent shade of purple) wasn’t meths!
With the sun shining it was quite beautiful although the chill wind and snow on the tops still meant it didn’t feel like May. However I was able to lose a few layers of clothing before commencing the march out down the land rover track, meeting my outward route sometime later. I crested the pass and then enjoyed the descent down to Craig, stopping off at a spot which enjoyed magnicient views of the Coulin Hills for a last lunch.
Then it was back to the car and off to find refreshments. In hindsight I should have driven down to Lochcarron because everywhere until Contin seemed to be closed. After a brief stop there I was on my way and in fact traffic on the A96 proved to be less bothersome than usual such that I was back in Aberdeen before five. A quite wonderful trip. It was nice for things to not be about mileage and summits, but just absorbing the views and lingering over these wonderful hills.