Part 1 - Friday 29th April - Three Brothers and a Sister
Time: 5hrs 39mins
Hills: Aonach Meadhoin (Munro, 1,001m), Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg (Munro, 1,036m), Saileag (Munro, 956m), Sgurr nan Spainteach (Munro Top, 990m), Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe (Munro, 1,027m)
Weather: Cloudless, hazy skies with a strong easterly wind rising into the night.
Route: View on OS Maps
I had an ambitious plan, but it was drawn out such that I also had a means of escape if things were too tough. So it was that on Saturday at midday, rather than heading up towards The Saddle, I found myself riding the City Link bus back up from Shiel Bridge. Twenty-four hours earlier I’d left the car near the Clunie Inn and set off to do a full circuit of Glen Shiel. The first half of the route would be a complete traverse of the North Shiel Ridge, a fabulous ridge walk that combines the Three Brothers and the famous Five Sisters of Kintail to give roughly 11 miles of delightful high-level walking, with barely a dip below 850m along the entire length.
However, by the time I came off the ridge I had been blasted by a strong easterly wind and scorched by a hot sun, it had been almost impossible to find water without long descents from the ridge, and the terrain had been unceasingly rugged with steep descents leading to equally steep ascents. All in all though it had been brilliant, with a high wild camp giving magnificent sunset views over the west coast, and the ridges and mountains (including six Munros) being some of the very best I’ve been on.
Rather than continuing on with my plan (a meandering route up towards the Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine before another high camp at the west end of the South Shiel Ridge, followed by a full west-east traverse of the ridge on the Sunday to get back to the car) the coach ride back up the glen was a sensible choice. I’ve definitely learnt a few lessons about extended trips and difficult weather, and fully intend to come back and try the route again, though probably in reverse next time.
Anyway, on with the report...
With certain large-scale events going on elsewhere, the roads were relatively quiet on Friday and I was over in Glen Cluanie shortly before midday. Here I made my first mistake – loading up my bag with some additional food intended for a lunch stop once on the hill. I walked down the A87 a short distance to the Clunie and then took to the hillside via the car park on the opposite side of the road. A winding track crossed marshy scrubland before it began the ascent of Sgurr an Fhuarail's South Top. The midday sun was intense, burning through a hazy sky and the path came and went as I meandered up to the cairn. The views, though diminished slightly by the haze, were great, with a splendid vantage point into Affric, as well as to closer Munros like Ciste Dubh and my first target for the day Aonach Meadhoin.
From this point I was effectively on the North Shiel Ridge, following a great line along to the top of Sgurr an Fhuarail before dropping down and climbing back up to the first Munro summit.
Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan still held snow patches in its coires and arms, and further away I could see Mam Sodhail and Carn Eighe. To my south was the long march of hills comprising the South Glen Shiel Ridge and further on could be glimpsed the horned top of the Saddle.
The ridge dropped away from Aonach Mheadhoin before climbing back up to the next Munro of Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg where a northern spur, leading off the main ridge, is followed to reach the large summit cairn. Here I caught up with a couple from England who had had eight glorious days in Scotland. This summit is an airy perch with extensive views north over the remote northern spurs of the Brothers and lonely Fionngleann.
I scrambled back across to my bag and continued following the ridge, another series of undulations and fun little pinnacles which led up to the third and final Brother, Saileag.
Again the views were hazy, but now the Five Sisters could be seen close by and the view north and west was down in Glen Lichd, the house at Glenlicht dwarfed by the surrounding mountains including the south side of Ben Attow.
After a break on Saileag I dropped down off its west side to the Bealach an Lapain where I was aiming to refill on water. Unfortunately the extended dry spell in Scotland means that running water is in short supply, particularly high up near ridge lines. I had to drop down some 150m before coming across a decent stream and here replenished my water bottle. Back on the ridge it was now late afternoon, the sun lazily slipping towards the horizon, and I had the prospect of the awesome Five Sisters ahead of me and all to myself.
Immediately the terrain to the west of the Bealach an Lapin is different to that which I had come across on the east. The ridge is shattered and broken, huge rocks faces and massive drops into the coire below. It is great fun though and soon I was heading up the side of Sgurr nan Spainteach with the strong easterly wind catching me. From this top you get a great panorama of the big three central peaks sitting above Coire Domhain.
I continued on following a well worn path that now dropped steeply down to the col with the next peak, Sgurr na Ciste Dubh, and the first Munro of the range (my fourth of the day). Again, it was an airy perch with excellent views now opening up westward down towards Loch Duich beyond the end of Glen Shiel.
I now dropped down to the wider bealach before the next Munro of Sgurr na Carnach. It was getting on for 5:30 and I was already feeling the extra ascent that the steep sided Sisters were adding to the route. I decided it was time to stop for the night.
It turns out this was something of a fateful decision. Whilst I had dropped down onto the west side of the bealach and immediately felt protection from the wind, I had also curved around the ridge such that I was now on the opposite side of the ridge to the top of Coire Domhain. As the wind rose in the night the steep sided, narrow coire acted as a funnel, driving the wind at huge speed over the top of the ridge and pulling it down the opposite slope where I had pitched my tent. I wasn’t to really discover this until much later on the night though and as I set up the tent in the early evening sunshine, watching the light play across the peaks of Knoydart and Skye, it seemed hard to imagine a more beautiful site to camp.
I scoped around for a site, settled on one, but after pitching the tent, ended up moving it slightly downslope again to a flatter patch of grass. With the tent sorted I went off down the bealach and discovered a good source of running water where I filled up my reservoir for dinner and coffee. Over a truly delicious supper of lamb stew with pearl barley (provided by Fuizion Freeze Dried Foods) I watched the sun sink towards the sea, lighting up the dusty sky in dramatic smoking hues of bruised purple and pink. For pudding it was dark chocolate and a latte as I watched the sun set over Skye. Perfect.
As the light faded there were a couple of drops of rain from clouds that had billowed in on the strong easterly wind. They didn’t amount to much but with it getting chilly outside I headed to bed, hoping for a good night’s sleep.
It wasn’t to happen, as the light faded, the wind picked up and what started off a calm evening, turned into a nasty, gusting wind, that would buckle and flex the tent with each renewed blast. I got out of bed briefly to secure all the guys and tent pegs and with the tent now taut it seemed better. The sky was angry and grey. I got back inside and drifted off into an uneasy sleep. I suppose I slept but it felt like every few minutes a blast of wind would wake me up.
Part 2 - Saturday 30th April - Four Sisters and Bus Ride Home
Time: 4hrs 25mins
Hills: Sgurr na Carnach (Munro, 1,002m), Sgurr Fhuaran (Munro, 1,067m), Sgurr nan Saighead (Munro Top, 929m), Beinn Bhuidhe (869m)
Weather: Cloudless, hazy skies with a strong easterly wind rising into the night. Route: Click to view on OS Map
I was glad when the sky lightened, though the wind if anything worsened. Just before 6am the peg at the corner taking the worst of the wind pinged out and so I had to get up to re-secure the tent.
Despite the wind it was a glorious morning, the sky a brilliant blue, and the early sun just catching the tops of the mountains opposite. The sky was definitely a lot less hazy.
I settled back into my warm sleeping bag but after another hour of dosing decided it was time to get up. The wind had made the campsite virtually unusable so I packed up everything inside the tent, stashed the bag under a rock and then quickly took down the tent, stuffing it haphazardly into my bag. Then I set off, heading back up to the ridge and then picking my way across the low point of the bealach and steeply up the south side of Sgurr na Carnach. The wind blowing up from Coire DOmhain was incredible, often making me catch my next step, and I was glad to reach the summit where the channelling effect was lessened. It made me realise why my camp site had turned so windy as the wind was being channelled straight over the col.
Nevertheless, in the bright morning sunshine, at just after 8am, I was on my first Munro and the views were glorious. Close by loomed the bulk of Sgurr Fhuaran, the highest peak in the range, and to the south the mountains marched, peak upon peak down to the vast humpback of Ben Nevis. Northward I had a glimpse of Torridon and west the Applecross Hills stood dark against a hazy horizon. It was utterly amazing.
The drop down the north side of Sgurr na Carnach was steep and rocky with a couple of fun, scrambly moments before I reached the col and started the ascent up Sgurr Fhuran.
There was a nice spot here that was almost free of the wind so I stopped for a quick bite to eat before continuing. Loch Duich could be seen, the wind flecking its surface white. The ascent up Fhuaran was steep but less so than it looked from Carnach, a good track winding in and out of rocky escarpments until it eased off and I was standing at the 1067m high summit.
From here there were more outstanding views with the peaks of Torridon easily seen to the north, and south all the nearby peaks of Knoydart and the Rough Bounds, down towards Nevis and the Grey Corries. It was an unbroken vista of peaks and I had the whole place to myself!
I stopped just below the summit to munch on a cereal bar and enjoy the view down the long western ridge of Sgur Fhuaran down towards Loch Duich. Now too I could see the way forward and took the clear path, initially down the west ridge, but then turning off to follow a second track that descended across the broad northwest shoulder to reach the catenary ridge around to Sgurr na Saighead. A much steeper path drops directly from Sgurr Fhuaran to reach this ridge but it looked kinda slippy and I'm glad I took the slightly longer route.
Sgurr nan Saighead is probably the most impressive peak in the range, its north east side a series of shattered buttresses formed from slipped and inverted layers of rock. It is only a top so after enjoying the delights of the ridge, I kept following the track, not realising it bypassed the summit.
Realising the problem I cut up through steep grassy terraces to reach the summit ridge and made my way up to the smaller cairn. I don't think I'll ever really understand why people give the non-Munros a miss for this is surely at least as fine a peak as Fhuaran and in a way better than Carnach.
Soon though I was heading onwards, now on the final true section of the ridge which leads to Beinn Bhuide, the final summit. On the way though I came across a sheltered spot so decided to pause for a coffee made on my stove in the bright morning light.
After that it was onto Beinn Bhuide with its fine views into Glen Lichd, Morvich and Ben Attow, and then picking up the good track which drops down towards the low bealach above Loch Shiel. After all the great dry, rocky terrain it was strange to be hopping through peat hags and heather, which got worse on the descent. A track came and went but the vegetation was knee high and made difficult work in the increasingly hot sunshine.
I was aware that the bus was due just before midday and once I reached the glen floor besides Loch Shiel realised I had less than 10 minutes to get to Shiel Bridge. By now I'd basically made up my mind to head back and so I completed the final kilometer or so at a high pace, reaching the bus stop with just a couple of minutes to spare.
After a relaxing lunch near the car, a refreshing for litres of water, I was ready to head back. The wind was still roaring down the glen and so I felt justified in not heading back up towards the summits. I got back to Aberdeen in the early evening satisfied at having used my tent to get to the west coast.