An overnight trip to Glen Affric to climb Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan my 200th Munro and celebrate this milestone with a summit camp
Wild Camp just off the West Top of Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan (NH 052 229)
Elevation Gain: 2,145m
Hills: An Socach (Munro, 921m), Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan (Munro, 1,151m), Sgurr Gaorsaic (Corbett, 839m)
Route: View on OS Maps
Saturday 17th October 2015
A month ago I’d been on the south side of Glen Affric completing a round of the Cluanie Munros. High pressure dominated the weather forecast but a sheet of cloud at about 1,000m had curtailed views from the higher hills for much of the weekend. However, as I dropped down from the final Munro and into the glen, the cloud began to lift and break. Across the glen the twin tops of Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan were revealed, autumn sunlight dappling its slopes. I knew then that it was definitely going to be my 200th Munro.
Thursday and Friday had been incredible weather-wise and pictures poured in from across the northwest Highlands of summit camps and beautiful conditions. Thankfully the high pressure was set to remain in place over the weekend and so it was that I headed westward on Saturday just as dawn was breaking over Aberdeen. The drive was magical with inversions covering the low lying ground. Loch Ness was shrouded in mist that was bubbling up in columns from the surface of the water, sunshine finding a way through in places to give a gilded view of the dark water. By Loch Cluanie the mist was thicker and I pulled into the lay-by east of the Cluanie Inn to find it a cold and damp sort of place.
I had a second breakfast at the car, got my stuff together and then set off, walking a short distance east down the road until I came to the Scotways sign for Morvich and Glen Affric. The track immediately climbed up and away from the road. A short way up a stalking party were preparing their argocat and a while later they caught me up. The ghillie asked me where I was heading and gave me the ok to stick with my plan of heading through the pass of An Caorann Mor to Glen Affric. They pludded ahead into the mist and I was left to enjoy the returning solitude.
The mist was thinning as I gained height and soon I could see the tops of the hills above me on either side. As it thinned a beautiful fogbow appeared in front of me and I followed it up the glen. I passed the stalking party who were scanning the hillsides for a target and continued on the undulating track which winds its way below A’ Chraileag.
By now the mist was behind me, lapping up the narrow glen from where it sat in a large sheet over Loch Cluanie. Ahead there was only blue sky and wild hills, the occasional white cloud drifting lazily by.
As I progressed the bellowing of stags became a constant accompaniment to my left and right though I never heard the crack of a rifle behind me. The track ended and became a narrow, muddy foopath that rose to the watershed and then traversed a mile or two of very wet ground.
On my left the rocky spires of Ciste Dubh unfolded and then ahead of me the skyline of the west Affric ridge appeared. The path started to drop down into narrow glen containing the Allt a' Chomlain and off to my left there was a panoramic view up to the Five Sisters with the Camban Bothy dwarfed by Beinn Fhada.
The River Affric beckoned me and after crossing a deer fence by a stile there was a last muddy descent down to the floor of the glen. A myriad of muddy tracks wound their way to the river and eventually Alltbeithe Youth Hostel and the suspension bridge came into view.
Once across the river there was a final boggy stretch to reach the good vehicle track which winds its way down Glen Affric. I found a pleasant boulder to perch on and enjoyed a lunch break in the hot sunshine.
It was now a little after midday and I decided that I had enough time to head east and approach the Munro An Socach via the Coire Ghaidheil rather than heading directly up the Allt Fainge behind the Youth Hostel. The walk along Glen Affric was very pleasant in the sunshine. The short stretch that lay in the long shadow of Mullach Fraoch-choire had ice and frost showing how cold it had been here overnight.
A few km later I arrived at the crossing of the Allt a' Ghaidheil and here I left the track to follow a path up the hillside. I had descended this coire on day 3 of the TGO Challenge back in 2013 and remembered that after the initial damp section it improved. This was indeed the case and I was soon enjoying the views back across Glen Affric to Mullach Fraoch-choire and Beinn Fhada. It was quite funny to see that Sgurr nan Conbhairean, which had so stubbornly held onto its cloud cap the month before, still had its summit hidden from sight!
The coire path is a delight, squeezed between the long wall of An Socach and the steep shoulder of Mam Sodhail, it gains height at a gentle but determined pace. Soon the headwall appeared and I zig-zagged my way up the path – much easier now without the rapidly melting snow that had been a feature back in May 2013!
Almost at the lip of the coire I met three walkers descending from An Socach who were heading back for a civilised evening at Strawberry Cottage. We chatted about the glorious weather and they sat down to enjoy the sunshine whilst I headed up to the bealach. From here I immediately got those stunning views down the length of Glen a’ Choillich to the very end of Loch Mullardoch.
The high hills were catching the afternoon light as I wound my way across the bealach and up the steep slope that finally took me westward. At first I was walking directly into the bright sunlight and it was difficult to follow the path. Eventually though I dipped into the shadow and found a clear path which took me quickly up to the end of the ridge.
The views were glorious and the Munro of An Socach was now just a short walk away. Beyond it rose the pyramid of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhan looking imposing, towering above the much smaller hills that sit on the ridges leading up to its pointed summit.
I ambled up to the cairn on An Socach and sat back to enjoy the view. My timings looked to be working out and the slight rush through the glens had got me to An Socach with plenty of daylight left.
The views from this, my 199th Munro, were excellent and I lounged around in the sunshine for a short while, munching on a granola slice. Since coming out from the coire there had been a stiff, cold wind blowing harder than anything the weather forecast had suggested. It was easy to shelter from hunkered down behind the cairn but I did wonder whether this would scupper my plans for a summit camp that evening.
On the map the way on now looks fairly straightforward, following a gently undulating ridge that dips to the next bealach and then rises up to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. In reality it is a gnarly route with some steep ups and downs and some real rugged character, especially around the top of Coire na Cloiche.
From An Socach a clear path drops quickly down to the lochan strewn bealach which itself has a rocky rise in the middle. Then a series of craggy bumps rise up to the start of the final ridge proper.
A path picks its way up with very little need for hands on rock action. As I was ascending I met a chap coming down – he looked a little concerned until I mentioned I had a tent with me! I soon came out onto the top of Stob Coire na Cloiche which was followed by a fun little ridge down and then up to the next top at 941m. From here I could see someone leaving the summit of the Munro.
The ridge now curves gently around the enormous bowl that is the Coire nan Dearcag. The views across it to the remote outlying Munro of Mullach na Dheiragain were superb and I pondered whether or not to visit it on this trip.
After passing a couple of lochans and noting some nice pitches the ridge started rising once again. I said hello to the guy descending – he seemed pretty envious of the approaching sunset but had already had a big day and was heading out. Then it was just me, climbing up this magnificent narrow ridge that rises straight to the 1,151m high summit.
I passed a final shoulder which would also have made a good campsite and then, after just a little more ascent up the slender summit ridge, was at the cairn. On the way up a little cloud had drifted in and out but it was perfectly clear once I got to the top.
The views were utterly sublime, the whole of the Northwest Highlands arranged to my north and south and in the west, hazy in the late sunshine, Skye and the inner Hebrides. It was glorious. My 100th Munro, sitting just a few miles to the south, had been a special moment, but this felt even better.
I sat at the summit and looked around. There were mountains I had climbed, mountains still to be climbed, and mountains to be climbed again.
The other thing that caught my eye was the promising flatness of the nearby West Top. Separated from the true summit by a narrow, pinnacled ridge it appeared to have some breathing space on it, at least enough to get a tent up. There was still an hour and a half before sunset but I knew water was going to be the main obstacle to a high camp and so I reluctantly left behind the summit cairn and headed west along the ridge.
It’s a narrow, exhilarating traverse but a clear path makes for sure footing. I scrambled around a pinnacle at the low point and then, in the shadow of the west top, scrabbled my way up a greasy gully behind the final pinnacle. A path had led me initially to a laughably steep and exposed fin which I politely declined. Above the pinnacle the slope eased and a path led me up to the summit cairn. Again the views were excellent and there was a beautifully flat area of grass just to the east which would suit me just right.
Now though I had to figure out water. Looking at the map the likeliest spot was about 150m below me down the southwestern slope. I grabbed the camera and water bottles and set off, happy to see the shimmer of water amongst a mossy bed far below me. I explored a couple of other promising looking gullys but they proved dry and so I had to drop the full 150m.
After filling my reservoir I looked over and saw that I was about level with the 999m high top of Creag nan Clachan Geala. Whilst I was here I decided I might as well pay it a visit and so leaving the water for my return I headed over to the summit. From here there were excellent views down into Gleann Gaorsic where a twilight was already falling. I took a few snaps and then started the long pull back up to the summit.
Back on the West Top I soon had the tent up and was then able to relax and enjoy being up so high during the golden hour. I had about half an hour before the sun finally set and spent most of it lingering by the cairn, watching the changing light and the lengthening shadows. A slender crescent moon had risen over the Knoydart hills and the Belt of Venus got stronger and stronger as the sun sank.
With barely a cloud in the sky there was not much flare to the sunset but it was spectacular to see the red ball drop behind the Outer Hebrides. I sat at the cairn a while longer before the chilliness started to get to me and I retired to sort out my things and get some hot soup on. I noticed that in the east a thick layer of cloud had shrouded the Carn Eige range almost completely.
With the tent door open I was happy sheltered from the cool breeze and had soup, followed by a curry, followed by a cuppa with some blocks of dark chocolate. The evening was beautiful and I watched as the stars appeared in the darkening sky. A little cloud drifted about at times but it always cleared.
Once it was fully dark I headed out for some stargazing. Perched again behind the cairn I found a nice angle to lie back and look at the skies. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and soon I was tracing the dark lanes of the Milky Way and watching as bright, fast moving meteors flashed overhead. In the south a ruddy red Moon finally sank into the haze.
Finally the cold drove me back to the warmth of the tent and soon enough I was cosily cacooned in my down sleeping bag, tucked up for the night. I should have left all the doors open but every so often a random gust of wind would appear and shake everything about so I zipped up to be sure nothing would go astray.
Sunday 18th October
Sadly, after such a glorious Saturday, Sunday’s pre-dawn was cold and grey. There was a chilly dampness in the air and unzipping the tent at 6:30am revealed a uniform grey sheet of cloud overhead. A thin line between the cloud and hills in the east hinted at the approaching sun but I didn’t hold out much hope.
Indeed, though it got brighter I never saw a sign of the sun rising and at 7am I used the FM radio on my new phone to listen to the outdoor activities forecast on BBC Radio Scotland which confirmed the cloudy conditions for the northwest Highlands.
I had a slow breakfast and was packed up and off a little before 9. The plan for today had been changed multiple times and now I saw the weather I decided to forgo the long out and back to Mullach na Dheiragain. Instead, I’d bag the closer top of Stuc Bheag and then head back via Sgurr Gaorsic, the Corbett to the southwest of me.
The out and back was easy enough, dropping steeply down the northwest ridge and then a short stroll along to the summit. Without the pack I made good time and was soon enjoying views back to the main summit and across the wild coire containing An Gorm Loch where the stags were bellowing loudly.
Glen Elchaig and the hint of greenery around Killilan were nice to see before I headed back up to collect the bag.
The descent down to the south top of Beinn an t-Socaich was also easy. A gentle slope with an old line of fence posts to follow. The top offered good views back to the summit and I watched as a few folk appeared on top. After enjoying the view down to Alltbeithe I headed down the wet ground to the boggy bealach and crossed the infant Allt Ruigh nan Ceannaichean.
There were small herds of deer all around and so I headed for a spot between two of them, hoping to minimise disturbance. I aimed for a notch on the skyline of Gaorsic’s southeastern ridge and was almost there when I realised I had dropped my camera. A swift descent back to the stream and luckily I found it lying in the grass on the far side. Slightly annoyed I huffed my way back to the ridge, glad to find it was then just a short ascent up to the summit plateau.
The cairn is at the far end and I weaved my way across the rocky outcroppings and around small pools to reach it, glad to plonk the pack down and enjoy the views from this little satellite top of Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan.
The views at this end were mainly of the Morvich pair, Beinn Fhada and A’ Ghlas Beinn and I carefully studied the latter, filing away a descent route for a future trip. Then it was onwards to explore the narrow northwestern ridge which would lead me down to Gleann Gaorsic and the path back to Affric.
The ridge was very steep at first so I picked my way slowly down the slope which was mainly grass but interspersed with treacherously slippy rocks. A hundred metres down and it eased off and then I enjoyed a more leisurely descent as the ridge became less defined and I finally found myself angling off to reach the floor of the glen. The chain of lochs make this a particularly picturesque location with the Abhainn Gaorsaich disappearing off to the famous falls of Glomach. This is wild, beautiful country and there wasn’t a person in sight.
There was also not really a path and so I picked me way across the marshy ground to the east of the lochs as best I could, using deer trails and argocat tracks as they came and went. It was slow going but the views up to the Gates of Affric and Beinn Fhada were excellent and eventually I was alongside Loch a’ Bhealach and could see the good path that runs between Affric and Morvich. I stopped for a bite of lunch looking out over the quiet waters and then crossed the last of the bog to reach the path.
The well constructed path leads gently down the length of narrow Gleann Gniomhaidh to Glen Affric beyond it. In the cool but pleasant conditions I made excellent time and enjoyed the changing views as Kintail disappeared behind me and the familiar surroundings of Affric appeared. Still I didn’t see anyone and soon enough the path took me down to the River Affric. I could have done an extra km or so and used the suspension bridge at Alltbeithe but the water was slow moving and low so I sploshed across and then traversed the bog to finally reach my outward route.
The return along An Caorann Mor was a bit of a trudge, the blue skies of yesterday a distant memory, but time passed, and after another short break besides a chattering stream dropping down from Mullach Froach-choire, I headed along the track and found myself descending back to the main road and Loch Clunaie, this time clear of mist.
With an extra night I could have extended the route and possibly even exited at Morvich but as it was, the overnighter to Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan had ticked the boxes for a high wild camp and bagging my 200th Munro. This is an area with almost infinite route possibilities and I look forward to being back soon.