A overnight trip to the Coulin Forest taking in two Corbetts, two Munros and a wild camp below Maol Chean-dearg
Wild Camp by Loch na Craoibhe-caoruinn (NN 355 709)
Hills: An Ruadh-Stac (Corbett, 892m), Maol Chean-dearg (Munro, 933m), Sgor Ruadh (Munro, 962m), Fuar Tholl (Corbett, 907m)
Route: View on OS Maps
Saturday 13th June
Back in March I descended back down to the tiny settlement of Craig nestled in Strath Carron after a brilliant weekend traversing the hills to the north of Loch Monar. Ahead of me, rising above the hazy green pines were the rugged peaks of the Coulin forest. This area of the North West Highlands, sandwiched between the wonders of Torridon to the north and the airy ridges of Glen Affric to the south is very high on my list of favourite places in the whole country. The hills rise steeply up from narrow glens and have fine summits with extensive views in all directions. Being so close to Torridon they are often overlooked in favour of their more famous neighbours, however, they have a more remote and rugged feel in spite of the excellent network of stalkers paths which makes accessing them very straightforward.
After an incredible winter trip to Beinn Liath Mhor and wild camping trips around the Attadale and North Monar Hills I only had a couple more Munros to complete in the area and was keen to combine them on an overnighter.
It had been a while since my last camp - Beinn Bhuidhe on a glorious weekend in April - and cabin fever was slowly setting in. The weekend forecast wasn't great but it did look like there might be a window in the north west, with the strong possibility of seeing some sunshine on Sunday morning. Saturday was supposed to be overcast and cool but with light rain at the worst.
On Saturday morning I had one of the fastest drives west I can remember. The traffic was generally light and slow vehicles appearing in front just as an overtaking lane began, and I found myself sorting out my rucksack in the parking area near Coulags shortly after 10am. It had rained to some degree or another most of the way across but as I dropped down through Strathcarron it finally petered out to leave a dull, cool morning. There were a fair few cars down at the start of the track with various boots and bikes being sorted out.
The track, signed by Scotways to Glen Torridon, leads to the gated entrance to Coulags where a cairn and (bizarrely) a Gloucestershire Council footpath sign divert you onto a bypass route through the woods down by the river. You soon emerge back onto the track which is well maintained, albeit a bit boggy in the initial lower section.
As it gradually climbs, the track gets rockier and drier and in front of me the views opened out nicely with hints of summits visible as the cloud base teased the tops of the hills. I crossed the river on a sturdy wooden bridge and in the distance caught my first glimpse of the Coire Fionnaraich bothy dwarfed by the surrounding mountains.
I passed a memorial to a pair of hillwalkers (?) and then followed the track as it made its way along to the bothy. This is a neat and tidy little cottage in a fantastic location. I sat on the broad porch stone where there was shelter from the breeze and had a snack as I watched the cloud thicken and thin over the Corbett of Fuar Tholl.
Pushing on further into the coire I soon passed the stone of Clach nan Con-fionn (where it is said that the giant, Fionn, tethered his hounds) and then reached the cairn-marked junction where the main coire path is left behind and the steep ascent up to the bealach a’ choire gairbh begins.
Initially quite steep and rocky, I gained height quickly with the views opening out behind over the glen to the steep slopes stretching up to Sgor Ruadh. The gradient eased as I climbed higher into the coire framed by Meall nan Ceapraichan and the scree slopes of the Maol Chean-dearg. The track is an impressive piece of work, a white band riven through the slopes which soon deposited me up at the bealach where it was cool and breezy.
This is a spectacular place with the granite monolith of An Ruadh-Stac dominating the view. The bright quartzite slopes of Maol Chean-dearg rise up behind you and in the distance are the mighty crenulations of Beinn Damh’s conical southeastern end. It was a little bit chilly up at the bealach so I found a slightly sheltered spot to enjoy some lunch, eyeing the route up the Corbett An-Ruadh-Stac as I sat.
After watching a few folks arrive at the bealach and immediately tackle the slope of Maol Chean-dearg I worked my way along the quartzite spine that runs around the rim the coire above a few still lochans. The views across to Beinn Damh are tremendous and the rocky ridge offers some fun but straightforward scrambling, particularly to get down to the notch immediately below An Ruadh-Stac.
Here I stopped to stash my rucksack, lightening the load as much as possible for the short but incredibly steep out and back to the top of the Corbett.
Then it was up the granite slabs which form a series of moderately angled ramps up the first part of the slope. The grip was good and I soon reached the ill defined ridge which then guided me up the middle third of the ascent. There was some basic scrambling but good holds and no exposure though the views behind me were impressive as the bealach receded below me.
The ridge led me to a grassier slope with traces of a path here and there that ultimately disappeared into the rockier upper slopes. Here the route was again fairly obvious and soon I was pulling myself up the final scree gully to reach the surprisingly broad plateau area at the summit.
Whilst the higher hills around continued to be lost within the low cloud, An Ruadh-Stac's summit had been clear since shortly arriving at the bealach. Now however the clag rolled back in and it was through a thick mist that I found my way across to the large cairn marking the top.
I wasn't in any particular rush and the earlier clearing gave me hope that I might still get some views from what should be a lofty perch. I sat down in the lee of the cairn and munched on a snickers that I had brought up with me. Unfortunately the best I got was a watery view through thin mist of the surrounding landscape. In the half an hour I sat there I had a brief thinning above me but the cloud seemed to be stubbornly clinging to the hilltop.
Slightly disappointed I started to retrace my steps down the hill. Of course as soon as I had dropped below the summit I immediately came out of the cloud. The views were excellent across to Maol Chean-dearg which had now shed its own cloud cover.
I picked my way carefully down the steep slopes enjoying the much improved views away across the lochans. There was even a glimpse of Upper Loch Torridon to the right of Beinn Damh.
Back down at the foot of An Ruadh-Stac I retrieved my sack and headed back along the quartzite ridge. I'd decided to do Maol Chean-dearg as another out and back rather than trying to pick my way down the precipitious slopes that guard most approaches to the summit.
Near the summit of the bealach I once again dropped my bag and then headed up the clear track climbing the end of Maol Chean-dearg's easy eastern approach. Soon I was enjoying excellent views back across to An Ruadh-Stac which of course was now clear again.
The ascent of this Munro is straightforward. The steep climb soon eases you onto a broad ridge which climbs gently to the final bouldery summit cone.
The summit itself is a broad area of flat plateau with the cairn over near the edge where there is an impressive panorama looking across the Beinn Damh forest towards Torridon.
There was still low cloud so the views weren't as expansive as they could be but it was impressive to see the terracing on Beinn Damh and Beinn na h-Eaglaise. At my feet the blue waters of Loch an Eoin reflected breaks in the clouds.
Unfortunately the wall of the Torridon giants was mostly obscured by cloud, but to the east the summits of Sgor Ruadh and Fuar Tholl were emerging from below the mist.
As I was hanging about on the edge of the precipice I started to pick out faint voices floating up from below. This was surprising as I hadn't heard many mention of lines coming up the steep northern face of Maol Chean-dearg. Nevertheless, a few minutes later a pair of walkers came scrambling up over the lip and on to the summit plateau. They had walked in from the Torridon side and enjoyed a good scramble up the hill - they reported that there were only a couple of tricky moves!
They sat at the summit to have some lunch and we chatted about other hills and routes before they moved off, deciding to try out a descent down the equally steep western face. I meanwhile took a last few photos before retracing my steps back towards the bealach where my bag was waiting for me.
The views were definitely improving and as I made my way down the broad ridge a shaft of sunlight broke through the uniform cloud cover and illuminated the lochans down at the bealach.
This seemed to be a momentary glitch though as to the east more clouds could be seen coming across the hills, hiding the summit of Beinn Liath Mhor once again from view.
Soon I was dropping back down the steep and eroded path to the bealach, passing a few people who were heading up the hill.
At the bealach I retrieved my pack and after having another quick snack, followed the clear path that dropped down past the chain of lochs towards Beinn Damh.
The path is excellent - a continuation really of the stalkers path used to access the bealach from Coire Fionnaraich. I picked up the pace as it looked like the weather was closing back in again. Beinn Damh was gradually swallowed by the lowering cloud and the first light spots of rain started as I passed the cold looking waters of Loch Coire an Ruadh-staic.
As I rounded the corner I spotted the pair of walkers I had met on the Munro summit picking their way down the final heathery slopes to the path. Our courses intersected and they seemed a little disappointed to find that my way off the hill had been so much faster than their steep and difficult route of descent.
We chatted for a bit as we walked around the base of Maol Chean-dearg but in the open glen the weather soon closed in on us and a steady rain set in. I stopped to put on my waterproofs and so the pair drew ahead of me.
The path is a good one though it was sad to be losing the views. I cinched my hood down around me as the rain got heavier and heavier. Eventually the path climbed up to the lonely waters of Loch an Eion, previously seen from high above. I wasn't exactly sure where I wanted to camp but I had plenty of time and so decided to follow the path around the shore and see if anything revelaed itself.
There did seem to be a couple of spots but on inspection they turned out to be quite boggy. Eventually I reached the point where the path leaves the loch shore and climbs upwards to the next bealach. Not keen to climb up into the mist I left the path and then threaded my way between Loch an Eion and Loch na Craoibhe-caoruinn. Though there were a couple of flatter, drier spots nothing really sold itself. That was until the perfect little bay at the end of the smaller loch came into view. This had a grassy ramp rising up from it and I soon found there at least a couple of flat shelves where I could pitch the tent. I chose the one that seemed least likely to turn into a river. By this time the rain had eased off and so I was able to get the tent up and get everything sorted without getting completely soaked.
As I was doing this I noticed that another camper had arrived. They were pitching just off the main path as it climbed to the bealach and by positioning my tent in the corner of the bay I found that I was completely invisible. I don't think they noticed me at all despite our positions just a half mile or so apart.
The weather's respite didn't last long and as the rain started coming down again I retired to the tent for the evening, cooking up a variety of courses for dinner and relaxing with music, a podcast or two and some reading. It never really cleared up again and so night fell without fanfare and the clouds made sure it was a dark one.
Sunday 14th June
Amazingly the next day dawned and it was bright and clear overhead. Having been lulled into a deep sleep by a light rain on the flysheet I was surprised to be woken by my pre-sunrise alarm to find barely a cloud in the sky. Only the distant Torridon hills still had a layer around their summits.
The guy also emerged from his tent at this point and I watched him come down to the far end of the loch to gather water. Meanwhile there was a slow change of light as the sun slowly crept upwards. As the cloud lifted from the hills it revealed that the highest parts of Liathach had got a dusting of fresh snow overnight.
After the sun had crested the hills I headed back to the tent to get an hour or so of sleep before getting up to start the day: making coffee on the stove and enjoying a slow breakfast in the rapidly warming sunshine.
I had a further exploration of the area around my little bay and was able to get a lot of damp clothes aired out in the sunshine. I came across a dragonfly basking in the morning air and started to think about the excellent views I should get on today's planned traverse of the Sgor Ruadh to Fuar Tholl ridge.
Once packed up I headed off, leaving behind my idyllic bay and deciding to try and take a slight short-cut by following the nearer east shore of the loch back towards the main path. The heather was deep and the slopes steep but I picked up a deer track that guided me up and down some rocky crests before the path finally swung into view.
I gained some height so as to avoid walking past the other tent and was rewarded with a stunning view across Loch an Eion to the mountains of Torridon.
Once on the path progress was easy as I climbed up to the top of the bealach. The craggy slopes of Maol Chean-dearg rose up to my right and behind I got a clear view of Beinn Damh looking resplendent in the morning sunshine. There was a twinge of regret of not going for a misty wild camp up on a summit the night before.
Through the bealach and the path turned to the north to climb up towards the Bealach Ban running along the upper rim of Coire Fionnairaich with views down to the loch and the route I had walked in the previous day.
The excellent path rises up towards the crest of the next bealach and the promise of awesome views to the Torridon hills. Behind me I got a good view of the eastern profile of Maol Chean-dearg, snow still lingering in a long, slanting gully running down from the summit.
The path twisted and turned as it wound its way around the crags at the northwestern end of Sgor Ruadh. I was aiming to climb up towards the next bealach and tackle the hill from the other, slightly less steep side. As I crested the next rise I was greeted with the most sublime view down to Upper Loch Torridon.
A little further on and I had a panoramic view taking in the whole of Torridon, from Beinn Alligin in the west to Beinn Eighe in the east. It was breathtaking.
This was definitely a place to stop for a sit down and a lazy snack break in the sunshine with this view spread out before me.
As the path ran around and up towards the bealach between Coire Grannda and Coire Lair I started to look for a way up onto the ridge that was rising sharply above me towards Sgor Ruadh. Soon a bouldery, grass slope provided that way and I quickly found myself on the quartzite ridge climbing towards the northwestern end of the main ridge. The views soon opened out and I crossed over to get the view back to the previous day's hills, the blue waters of Loch an Eion already a long way below.
The ridge was easy to follow, rocky in places but with no problems and I enjoyed the excellent views as I headed towards the summit. Below me Coire Fionnaraich stretched out towards Strathcarron.
The subsidiary top of Stuc a' Choire Ghrannda offered more great views back to Torridon. Higher up it was quite blustery and the wind was surprisingly cold for what seemed like an otherwise pleasant June day.
As the ridge narrowed and became more scrambly I followed a faint path that bypassed the next top above Coire Fionnairiach. I paused here for a drink and to enjoy the views down the steep slopes to the loch far below.
Rounding the next corner I found that the summit of the Munro was now looking much closer and was able to regain the ridgeline.
From this point there were now great views down across the head of Coire Lair to the buttresses of Sgor Ruadh and the grey humpbacks of Beinn Liath Mhor.
By a small lochan I paused to watch another hillwalker arrive at the summit of the more distant Munro and then make his way down through the grey screes towards the bealach.
Meanwhile I strated tackling the next section of the blocky ridge to Sgor Ruadh which rose up around the shattered northeastern coire.
There was some mild scrambling and then the final gentle rise up to the steep summit opened up in front of me.
The final climb to the summit was brilliant, a scramble up the final set of shattered ledges with a real feeling of space below you as Coire Lair grew ever futher away. All too soon though I had pulled myself up the final chimney and was at the grassy summit marked by a substantial cairn. Looking back offered a grand view down the ridge with its myriad rock types.
The views from up here were astonishing - the air clear and the visiblity great. I put my sack down and had a wander round, taking in the views from Fisherfield to Affric and out to Skye. The chill wind remained so I eventually hunkered down behind the cairn to enjoy some food. There was not a soul in sight on this beautiful Sunday morning.
Across the Coulin Froest hills was Applecross and there was a great view across Coire Fionnaraich and down to the head of Loch Carron, sparkling blue in the sunshine.
I also had a good view of my next target and the final hill of the trip, Fuar Tholl, the Corbett that rises above Achnasheen down in Strathcarron. From this angle the Mainnraichean Buttress is seen in profile with the hills of Attadale providing a dramatic backdrop.
The guy who had been on Beinn Liath Mhor was now heading towards the ridge of Sgor Ruadh as I started to make my way down from the summit, heading for the wide plateau that sits part way down the slope.
I passed the lochan which would offer some excellent wild camping on its grassy shores and made my way up to the subsidiary top which had excellent views back up to the summit and across Coire Lair.
I then continued my way down towards the Bealach Mhor keeping as close to the edge of the cliffs as I could.
The final slopes down to the lochan strewn bealach were deceptively steep and so I had to pick my way slowly down.
The bealach is jumbled, with no obvious direct route across. it I picked my way across, sticking mostly to the western side with views to Loch Carron. At one point I found myself in a standoff with an irate Ptarmigan mother. As I slowly moved away she started fluffing up her feathers, beating her wings and charging me down whilst her chicks cheeped away happily in the background. I didn't stop for a photo.
Eventually I was at the foot of the steep slopes to Fuar Tholl. This proved to be another scrambly ascent with a path leading upwards between short rocky ledges which required hands out of pockets. Soon enough there were views back across the bealach to Sgor Ruadh.
It was a pleasure to top out onto the easy ridge leading towards the summit. The views were spectacular with the Mainnrichean Buttress now dominating the scene ahead of me.
I worked my way around to it, following the rocky rim of this northern side of the hill. There were excellent views down into Coire Lair and further off to the more northerly hills of the Highlands.
I came around and up onto the summit of Creag Mainnrichean which offered panoramic views around all of the hills that I had climbed on this trip and previous ones. It is a wonderful spot.
Closer at hand was the summit of Fuar Tholl and I watched as a pair of hillwalkers made their way off the summit. I was expecting them to start contouring around towards me but instead they disappeared behind a short rise in the ridge and evidently were making their way down towards Coulags. This was good news as that too was my plan and I was glad to see that someone else thought the steep looking slopes were doable.
Meanwhile I headed down from Creag Mainnrichean and made my way around to the final pull up to the Corbett's summit.
From the cairn at the top there were excellent views across to Beinn Liath Mhor and up the narrowing of Strathcarron to the Attadale hills that I had been up earlier in the year.
The crenalated ridge of Liathach could be seen dark against the brighter quartizte of Sgor Ruadh.
Eventually after quite a long, lazy break in the sunshine at the top I started to make my way down, returning to the low point on the ridge and then heading for Loch Carron off in the distance.
The descent was initially on steep grass with occassional bouldery stretches to negotiate. I picked my way carefully down but as it got lower it became less steep and a lot boggier. I soon picked up the stream that I would follow most of the way down towards the coire path.
As I neared the bottom I had to turn aside to miss the very steep set of crags that marked the final drop down to the path. Instead I picked my way way across granite slabs until there was a final heathery slope to negotiate, joining the path just below the bridge across the river.
From here it was a straightforward and quite short descent back down the path to Coulags. I stopped to let a couple of mountain bikers past and refilled my water bottle in anticipation of the long drive home.
Then it was a final glance back at the hills and a short walk along the road to the car. I was delighted that the weather had been so good on Sunday, especially after the disappointing rain on Saturday night. Despite that I had managed to get views from three out of four hills and had added two more Munros to my tally.