An overnight backpacking trip taking in the three Munros to the north of Loch Monar with a wild camp below Maoile Lunndaidh
Wild Camp below Bidean an Eoin Deirg (NH 106 453)
Hills: Sgurr Choinnich (Munro, 999m), Sgurr a'Chaorachain (Munro, 1,053m), Maoile Lunndaidh (Munro, 1,005m)
Route: View on OS Maps
Saturday 14th March 2015
Almost three years ago I tramped upward through fresh snow to the summit cairn of the 999m high Munro Sgurr Choinnich and watched as towering snow clouds appeared heading towards me borne on a stiff, cool breeze despite the fact it was May. It didn’t seem to be the right time to start a high level ridge walk and so rather than turning right and heading to the neighbouring Munro of Sgurr a' Chaorachain, I turned left, and descended down the west ridge to the Bealach Bhearnais where I arrived to glorious sunshine and rapidly clearing skies…
That ridge to the north of Loch Monar represented some unfinished business and I’d been planning on a return for a while now, figuring that splitting the route across a relaxed two days would allow me to continue on to the remote Munro of Maoile Lunndaidh which lies further to the east.
Finally a good weather forecast for the northwest aligned with a free weekend and I was packed and ready, eager for an early start on Saturday morning. After a slow start it was about 7am by the time I rolled out of Aberdeen listening to Out of Doors on BBC Radio Scotland. The skies were grey and gloomy but as I was scooting along the A96 through northern Moray I left the clouds behind and emerged into sunshine. At Inverness it was misty and that was how it stayed, on and off, until I started to drop down towards Strathcarron where I emerged into brilliant sunshine.
I arrived at the walkers car park in Craig just after 10am. The winter storms were in evidence as numerous fallen and felled trees and their detritus littered the car park. A trio of guys were booting up as I arrived and I said hello as I got myself sorted before shouldering the pack, weighty with crampons, ice axe and an extra layer or two.
I crossed the railway shortly before the morning train appeared around the corner and with its clackety-clack disappearing down the glen behind me strode off into the hazy sunshine. Sgurr nan Ceannaichean was my first landmark with its dark western buttresses a formidable sight ahead. The route was familiar from my previous visit here so I had no need of a map as I followed the hydro road up the hillside.
Fresh earthworks were evidence of the ever-expanding nature of this scheme and it was good to finally get up into the peaceful valley of the Allt’ a Chonais. From the highpoint of the track I took a final look back at the hazy Coulin hills, resplendent and snow-streaked. Ahead of me the Sgurr Chonnaich ridge was catching some high cloud giving the scene a very alpine look.
The hills started to tower over me as the lower part of Glen Uig appeared. My eyes were fixed on their snowy northern slopes, so much so that I completely missed the little cairned path heading away from the vehicle track and down to the Pollan Buidhe wire bridge. A lucky sideward glance told me of my error and I corrected it by descending boggy ground down to the grassy banks of the Allt a’ Choinnich where a break was taken on a comfy rock. I watched as the three guys caught me up and proceeded to photograph each other edging across the river on the wire bridge.
They disappeared up the stalker’s path and after a snack and a drink I too crossed the river, choosing to gingerly step across a number of rocks rather than take my chances on the wire. Once above the first boggy slopes the path up to the Bealach Bhearnais is excellent with commanding views opening up behind as Glen Uig slowly unfolds.
Passing under the dark northern flanks of Sgurr Choinnich I made good time to the bealach where after a brief pause I tackled the western ridge of the Munro.
The ridge is mostly straight forward except for the three rocky steps that punctuate its otherwise gentle rise. These are overcome with a little gentle scrambling and soon enough I was enjoying commanding views out across the Glencarron Hills and into the heart of Attadale. The conditions remained hazy so the long distance views weren’t great but there was a hint of the western seaboard and a murkiness in what I took to tbe direction of Skye.
Finally the gradient eased and I crested the splendid summit ridge which winds some way along to the actual cairn. On the left a corniced edge led to the gloomy snow-packed north face whilst on my right steep slopes fell quickly away towards the Allt Bealach Crudhain. A thin mist was being blown up this hillside by a stiff breeze and after the warm ascent I was soon putting back on a layer or two as I headed along to the summit.
The views, whilst hazy were great with the next Munro of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain looking very near at hand. Lurg Mhor was a dark mass to the south and the distinctive peak of Bidean a’ Choire Sheasgaich was seen further west. Loch Monar was a calm blue with the ranks of the Mullardoch hills seen through the haze.
I sat on the summit and enjoyed a late lunch in the sunshine. The trio arrived a little later and we had a chat and I took their photo. Then it was along to the investigate the continuation to the next Munro which, straight forward enough on the map, looked a little more challenging given the hard packed snow lying on northern and eastern slopes.
The continuation of the summit ridge was deceptively easy until I came to a bulge of snow that disappeared over the edge of the hill. Crawling out showed that it was more of a snow hump than a cornice and that there was solid rock just below.
Nevertheless it still required caution. Whilst the guys kicked their way down and then made a rapid descent up the far side I chose to put on my crampons and make my way cautiously down the slope until I reached the eroded path further down. This was steep and made more slippery by occasional ice and snow and so I made very slow progress. Further down the ridge there were more substantial snow patches. Again I put the crampons on and now made much quicker progress following the snow where possible. With relief I reached the bealach, looking back up at a seriously steep slope.
The first part of the ascent was also on snow and again I kept the crampons on. There was a further patch of snow further up which I crossed with crampons I then I paused to take them off before continuing. At this point a guy came down from the summit heading for Sgurr Choinnich. He was making good progress and I later found he had already included Maoile Lunnaidh in his day.
Meanwhile I plodded up the much easier higher ridge, able to either miss out the snow altogether or carefully follow the deep steps of the others who were now well ahead of me. Eventually I emerged on the summit plateau where it was just a few short steps to the summit windshelter and the crumbling trig point.
I took in the views and had another snack. The haze stubbornly held on but there was a good view over to Maoile Lunnaidh. The subsidiary top of Bidean an Eoin Deirg looked close by and was something I had considered doing an out and back for. The long traverse between the two Munros meant I was about an hour later than anticipated and with a slightly uncertain descent ahead of me, and the need to find a campsite, I elected to give it a miss on this occasion.
Feeling refreshed and with my crampons back on I carefully headed down the north ridge of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain. The snow was bullet hard but the bite of the spikes was good and within a couple of minutes I caught sight of the trio making very slow progress. The sight of the sinking sun catching the snow and rock flecked face of Bidean an Eoin Deirg was amazing.
I almost caught them up but to continue my route swung away from the north ridge to cross over to a spur that would lead me down towards Sron na Frianich above the frozen Lochan Gaineamhach.
The sinking sun was now catching the snow northern slopes, in particular the aspect of Bidean an Eoin Deirg.
I dropped into the shadow of the northern coire and worked my way down the final few stretches of snow, being careful to avoid going through into one of the many small streams which were bubbling away below the surface. The mountains started to throw impressive shadows into the sky as I reached the low point of the bealach.
From above this area had looked promising but I found the ground quite uneven and very waterlogged with snowmelt and streams. Instead I crossed over the emergent stream and climbed up to firmer ground at the head of Strath Mhuilich just below the slope that would take me up to Maoile Lunndaidh the next day. I was directly below the triangular peak of Bidean an Eoin Deirg.
With a little breeze blowing and the sun already sinking low I got the tent up without much fuss and had soon gathered a couple of litres of water for the evening ahead. It was pleasant to watch the evening light play on Moruisg across the glen and the light on Bidean an Eoin Deirg was in constant flux as the angles changed.
I enjoyed a hot cup of soup with some oatcakes and read a few chapters on my Kindle. Sitting with my legs out of the tent but sheltered from the breeze it was a very pleasant evening.
A little later and with the sun setting Venus came to prominence in the west. I cooked up a dehydrated dinner of Chicken in a Cream Sauce with Rice from Mountain Trails and enjoyed this as the first stars appeared, Orion was a prominent figure directly above Bidean an Eoin Deirg.
After the hazy conditions during the day I feared that the skies would be muted but actually the clarity was incredible and I was soon lying on my back outside the tent gazing up at a dome of stars, the Milky Way arching overhead. They were some of the best night skies I’ve had whilst out camping.
In this way the evening passed very pleasantly and after listening to a podcast episode of The Trail Show I was ready to turn in for the night. I did notice that a faint glow was hanging low in the north and a long exposure photograph revealed the green glow of the Northern Lights.
Day 2, Sunday 15th March 2015
After dozing for a while the sun had started to illuminate the tops of the surrounding hills. I roused myself and got breakfast sorted, a couple of breakfast bars and a camp mocha.
As the sun crept down the hillside to meet me things started to warm up after a frosty start to the die. Encouraged by the bright sunlight and the clear blue skies overhead I got everything packed up and was soon ready to head up the hill for the third Munro of the trip.
There was no gentle walk in, the slope started straight from camp and I was immediately warm as I rapidly gained height up the Drochaid Mhuilich. The morning was beautiful with the sky appreciably clearer than the day before.
The views opened out quickly and soon I could see the Coulin Hills and beyond those the hills of Torridon, resplendent under a blue sky.
There was a nice balcony about two thirds of the way up and I had a pang of regret for just a second where I wished I had climbed up here the evening before and camped to get the views from the tent. To the south Loch Monar appeared beyond the end of Strath Mhuilich and beyond its blue waters were the Mullardoch hills with further west the Affric hills just peeking up.
Another slope with a couple of scrabbly sections took me to the top of the Drochaid Mhuilich and there was a pleasant undulating ridge onwards to the first top of Maoile Lunndaidh. I paused to enjoy some final close up views of yesterday’s hills as well as more distant views towards Torridon and north to Fisherfield and the Fannaichs.
There was now a final easy slope up to the westernmost of Maoile Lunndaidh’s numerous tops, Carn nam Fiaclan.
From the cairn I could follow the broad sweep of the plateau around to Maoile Lunndaidh and I was soon heading in that direction, finding that the snow covering the plateau had some crunch to it despite the glistening appearance in the sunshine.
As I headed on, giving the cornice on the left a wide berth, the far reaching views to Mullardoch and Affric opened up to my right.
This brought me along to the eastern edge of Maoile Lunndaidh’s huge plateau where the mountains falls off into a series of great coires. I was on the edge of Toll a’ Choin looking down to Loch Monar and off to the hills above Strathfarrar, barely a cloud in the sky and the only haze that over the distant eastern Highlands.
From the summit of Creag Toll a’ Choin the views were stupendous in all directions. Liathach and Beinn Eighe were now clearly visible in Torridon. I slowly ambled my way around the lip of the coire enjoying the sublime scenery and the peace of this remote summit.
I dropped down slightly to the west to get a view down into Glenuig and across to the crags and cornices below Carn nam Fiaclan.
I headed back up slope and continued to work my way around the lips of the coires.
Finally the summit cairn of Maoile Lunndaidh beckoned and I crossed the increasingly icy ground to it, a pile of stones in the centre of a raised dome of hill.
I set the pack down by the cairn and settled down for a pleasant rest in the mid-morning sunshine. The skies were still unbelievably blue and there was no-one about. It was just myself and mountains for as far as the eye could see. I sat back and breathed it all in.
Time ticked slowly by and I finally managed to rouse myself from a pleasant reverie. The northern slopes were again icy so I put the crampons back on, conscious there was a reasonable slope down to the next bealach. With the spikes on the descent was easy enough though there was less snow than anticipated so I had to weave around a bit to avoid the rocks and boulders.
Soon the subsidiary top of Creag Dubh Mhor was visible below me and I decided I would give it a visit as it promised a good view over the River Meig and down towards Strathconon.
I clambered down a few stretches of boulders but then picked up an easy snow slope which took me all the way down to the bealach. Here it was sheltered and warm in the sunshine and by the last of the snow I paused to remove crampons, enjoying the views off to hazy Strathfarrar. A few scoops of crystallised snow cooled me down.
As lunchtime approached I wound my way up Creag Dubh Mhor which has numerous rocky tors dotting its undulating summit area. There were good views behind me down Glenuig towards Sgurr nan Feartaig and the hills of yesterday.
On the most eastern top I found the summit cairn and briefly paused to enjoy the views out to Strathconon and to Strathfarrar. The wind was blowing coldly here so I retreated to one of the more substantial tors where I found some shelter to enjoy a sunny lunch.
After lunch I followed the northern edge of the hill which drops steeply down to the infant River Meig winding its way through the glen far below. There were grand views all the way to Strathconon.
I picked up the broad western ridge of Creag Dubh Mhor which got me quickly down to Glenuig. At first the gradient was easy but it steepened as I approached the stream towards the bottom. Off to the left I got a glimpse into the dark and elusive Fuar-tholl Mor of Maoile Lunndaidh and then I spotted a herd of deer travelling across the slopes.
The buildings of Glenuiag Lodge slowly grew closer. I carefully got down the final steepest section and then contemplated the wide area of bog and heather between me and the grassy banks of the River Meig.
Handily I spotted a narrow path following the stream up towards my location and was able to follow this down the slopes, missing the worst of the bog. The stream was the first running water I’d come across since camp so I gratefully quenched my thirst and refilled my water bottle before heading down to the Meig itself.
Here I found a faint vehicle track which followed the river bank westward. The glen was still and warm and it was very pleasant ambling along in the sunshine, looking froward to the hills that had formed the backdrop for the previous days walk in. Maoile Lunndaidh began to recede behind me, its summit slopes soon being lost behind the subsidiary hills.
Eventually the track dropped down to the river where there was an easy crossing on boulders. On the far side I paused for a final snack break, thinking this would probably be the last major pause before getting back to the car.
I followed the trakc up through reed beds and grasses until it climbed the shallow slope up to the buildings at Glenuaig Lodge. I had a quick look around the small walker’s shelter before making my way down the vehicle track.
The walk out along the hard packed track was uneventful. I paused often to take in the view and top up from the various side streams. Soon enough I was taking a last look back towards Glenuig and then dropping down past the Pollan Buidhe.
The afternoon light was beautiful and there were stags grazing contentedly beyond the Pollan Buidhe.
Soon the familiar views towards the Coulin Hills opened up as behind me the buttresses of Sgurr nan Ceannaichean receded. I dropped down the hydro track and strolled back along to the railway crossing and the car.