The Ring of Steall has a bit of a reputation about it. Four Munros, a wire bridge, a river crossing, not to mention an exposed scramble, it certainly promises an action packed day out.
I was up with Glasgow HF Outdoor Club, and the walk was being led by Paul Harrison, a very experienced leader who also leads for Glasgow Meetup. Pauls plan was to leave a car at the lower car park, so that when we all arrived there at the end of the walk the drivers could be taken up to pick up the other cars, saving the rest of us a long walk uphill. The plan worked fine, although how the midges found out about it, I don’t know…
Driving up Glen Nevis we could see that the hills were certainly steep, with impressive foaming white burns in full flow. I’d been looking forward to this walk. The views promised to be spectacular, especially on the exposed ‘Devil’s Ridge’, but unfortunately the weather was awful. From the start of the walk we had full waterproofs on, and visibility wasn’t the greatest. No sweeping panoramas today unfortunately.
The walk starts by heading west, up from the car park at NN 167 691, through some interesting mixed woodland, before turning south west, where you drop down and the valley opens up to reveal the magnificent Steall Falls ahead of you. On days like today, when there has been a lot of rain the falls are quite a sight.
Before reaching them however, there is the matter of crossing the Water of Nevis via Steall Bridge, a three wire affair, which, while not overly difficult, has a drop into a fast river awaiting the careless.
A lot more difficult is the crossing of the Allt Coire a’Mhail. The waterfall here was throwing water down at a rate of knots, the recent rain meaning the water was high and fast. The way across was uncertain.
Looking at it I could pick out a possible way across. It would be difficult and require the aid of both poles, but it certainly looked possible. I began to cross, using the poles to steady myself. Good placement was essential if I was not to end up in the water. The first few moves were as planned, then disaster. I took a slip and dropped one of my poles. I turned to the guys behind me to see that they were gone! I tried shouting but above the almighty roar of water I was wasting my time. The water was powering down above me, the spray soaking me, and I could go neither back nor forward. Never has the phrase ‘squeeky bum time’ been as apt. I saw the others head off downriver, and eventually caught the eye of one. Waving at him, he misunderstood my predicament, waved back and then headed off. At this point I ran out of swear words! I had to re-assess the situation. Back was not on, it was just too far with one pole. Forwards was possible at a push. I tried testing the way with one pole however I was over-reaching, unable to get the required height to swing across. The only other way was to ditch the pole and jump the gap. Stashing my pole on my bag I mentally went through what I would have to do, where I would have to land, where I could grab, and what I would do if it went wrong. Then I jumped.
I landed exactly as planned. Next jump, same drill. My landing wasn’t as good this time and my leg went in, the water defeating the Gore-tex lining by going over the top of the boot. Mmmm, cold. I scrambled over the remaining rocks, and began to pick my way downstream, looking in vain for my pole. With only one pole I knew I would struggle, my hip and knee would no doubt conspire against me as well. I found the others in the middle of the river, struggling across against the current. As I approached I saw Paul reach in to the water, where he brought out my walking pole! As Harry Hill would say- “What are the chances of that happening, eh?” I shouted my thanks to Paul, only to see him drop his own pole in the water, never to be seen again. While I waited I noticed two young lads on a small island. They had been camping and were packing up their tent. Their idyllic camp site was now cut off by a raging torrent. Chalk that one up to experience.
With everyone together, feet dried and boots on we headed off, heading through the trees and then up a steep corrie, the path twisting and winding to take the edge off the ascent. We stopped for a break, taking in the view of the Grey Corries, Binnean Beag, and the lower slopes of Aonach Beag. We were astounded at some of the rock formations, which were twisted and folded into unnatural shapes by the pressure of the movement of tectonic plates.
Tea break over, and we continued up, quickly arriving at the 982m summit cairn of An Gearanach. A quick photo stop was all we had here, the cloud cleared briefly giving is a view of a thin ridge heading off south, over An Garbhanach.
There being no reason to hang around we headed off, battered by wind and driving rain. The climb up to the summit of Stob Coire a Chairn was a case of head down and put one foot in front of the other. Talking of feet, we were surprised to find the summit cairn topped with a shiny new training shoe. The shoe replaced atop the cairn, we dropped down off the top for lunch, trying to gain some shelter.
There is a path heading this way, and it’s quite misleading. Some of the group thought we were dropping down to the bealach, little realising this was off route, and that they would have to climb back up again. We found a small ravine and tucked ourselves in out of the wind. I soon had the stove going, and never has a Pot Noodle tasted so good. With miles to go it was a short but welcome break. Gear on, and it was back up to the top, this time taking the south west path, steeply descending to the bealach.
The map shows a path going around Am Bodach, but we were heading to the top. It appears to be something out of the Lord Of The Rings, misty with strange rock formations sticking out. All that was missing was Gollum. This is one of those twin topped hills, where the other top always seems higher. The other top only being a short distance away I headed over and tagged it anyway. The weather was horrendous, and I couldn’t take a summit photo on the last hill or this one, making do with a quick snap on the GPS camera.
Three hills down and we were still only halfway to the finish. We ascended Sgurr an Iubhair, one time Munro, now just a top. Between here and the last Munro of the day is a thin precarious scramble known as The Devils Ridge.
Apparently. We could tell it was scrambly, but just how exposed was not apparent, the thick mist hiding all below. We could have been ten feet up, so little detail could we make out. Then without warning the mist parted, revealing a glen far below, and just as quickly closed in again. There was one difficult spot which Paul attempted, but the rock was wet and slippery, so he left it and followed a small bypass path below it. Before we knew it, it was behind us, and we climbed up the rocky path to the last Munro of the circuit, Sgurr a’ Mhaim, 1099m. These hills must provide some stunning panoramas, but today there was nothing to see but the inside of the cloud. We headed down, happy to have completed four Munros, but disappointed that we didn’t really get to see them.
My knees often give me trouble going downhill, so while the others made their way down I lagged behind, not putting pressure on them with a quick descent. By now we were clear of the cloud, and a slowish descent combined with regular photo stops certainly helped.
I was around 200m from the car park when I got a lift from Tom, who was just returning from the upper car park. Perfect timing! While the others had been hanging around waiting in a cloud of midges I had been slow enough to avoid the little biters. As we drove out of the glen the sun lit the trees, and you would never have guessed that up above conditions had been so poor. That’s the Scottish hills for you, devious, full of surprises, and never predictable.