When I was young I used to go fishing with Clarkston Angling Club, to various lochs across Scotland. In the early 1980s car ownership was not as widespread as today and many clubs, be it fishing or walking, would hire coaches to get their members around. We were no different and our bus runs would involve a late night departure from Airdrie, usually just after pub shutting time as I recall, before heading off, passing through darkened villages to be deposited somewhere dark and remote. On one occasion we were supposed to be dropped off at Loch Eck, near Dunoon. Wandering around in the dark we discovered we had been dropped off around 4 miles away from the loch! That was a long trudge in the dark, weighed down with rods, reels, tents and other gear, the journey only made interesting by the meteor shower which passed overhead that night.
One of the lochs we visited was Loch Cluanie, on the ‘road to the isles’. This marked the farthest north we would go on the bus. I can recall being dropped off near the Cluanie Inn and walking round to Cluanie Lodge where we would fish until the late afternoon, before heading home. On the walk in there were always a couple of tents pitched and it was to this spot that my mate Jim and I headed late on a Tuesday night, to camp before our traverse of the South Glen Shiel ridge. Like so many times before we arrived in the dark. Being midweek and not a holiday the flat area near the burn was empty, so we had plenty of room to pitch our tents. Both tents were new and as the last of the light slipped away we managed to set them up, despite mine having an extra two feet of pole fitted! Tents up, it was time for a curry and a dram, while Jim set up his telescope for a bit of star gazing. What should have been a stunning night, clear, cloudless and cold was slightly spoiled by a spotlight on the back of the Cluanie Inn which would have done Hampden proud, and meant that we couldn’t see some of the northern sky. We did manage to get a really good view of Saturn, the rings clearly visible. Having never seen this before I was amazed. It was to be the first of many interesting observations made over the next 24 hours.
My makeshift pole system had survived a cold night and the morning was clear. Jim was already up having heard a Black Throated Diver, which was soon spotted out on the loch.
Breakfast eaten and tent packed and we set off at 0930. It would be over 13 hours before we made it back. The South Glen Shiel Ridge is a big day by anyone’s standards, 9 summits of which 7 are Munros in their own right, bags of ascent, loads of descent, a bit of scrambling and just one place to refill a water bottle. Not for the faint hearted!
The path to Cluanie Lodge heads off around the south side of the loch. I’d walked this path many times in the past going fishing. Now I was heading for the hills instead, but instead of my usual rucksack I was wearing a fishing pack! I like to have items to hand when I need them, rather than stop and rummage around in my bag every time I want to take a photo, or use binoculars or a GPS. The ideal solution is an integrated unit, like military webbing, or in this case a fishing vest. This was to be its first real test on a hill and I hoped it would perform. I was also wearing a brand new pair of boots, courtesy of TGO magazine. I’d only done a short walk round Blackhill transmitter wearing them, so they were to all intents and purposes fresh from the box. South Glen Shiel Ridge is not the best place to test new boots but I was confident they would be alright.
The path heads parallel with the loch before gradually pulling uphill, winding it’s way beneath the first Munro of the day for around 6km. As you approach a small stone bridge over the Allt Giubhais a small footpath heads up onto the ridge, at grid NH 101 072. This track weaves north west up hill, twisting backwards and forwards up a relentless slope. You immediately notice the benefit of doing the ridge from this direction, as the sun will be at your back for most of the day, while the views seem to open up ahead. Eventually though it does ease off and we gained the summit of Creag a’ Mhaim, at 947m our first Munro of the day.
From here ahead we could see the next two Munros, Druim Shionnach and Aonach air Chrith as well as the Five Sisters of Kintail, while Loch Cluanie stretched off below us to the east. To the south we could see Ben Nevis, with snow hanging on doggedly.Heading west to Munro number two and the going was reasonably good, our legs were warmed up and there were no major drops or climbs, and it wasn’t long before we were atop Druim Shionnach. At 987m it wasn’t greatly higher, however the next summit, at 1021m was to provide a stiffer challenge. The ridge heads more south westerly here and you have the added bonus of an intermediate top to contend with.
By now we had settled into a good rhythm and had settled in to the walk. It was a straightforward pull up to the 1021m summit of Aonach air Chrith, the highest point in the walk. You can see some of what lies ahead, up until now hidden by this monster of a mountain. From this summit there is a scramble north to a striking Matterhorn style peak. We weren’t feeling that brave however, and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and went back to the cairn, but not before spotting a ring ouzel in the gully below.
My new boots were feeling fine and at this point Jim changed over to a fresh pair of socks. Not carrying any, I simply swapped socks from one foot to the other!
The drop down to the ridge became scrambly at this point, and Jim was concentrating on hand and foot placement when my mobile phone went off. Apparently ‘Blockbuster’ by the Sweet isn’t a good choice for a ringtone, as it broke Jims concentration slightly…
The next section was longer, around the south side of Coire nan Eirecheanach. Below us, to the south we saw what appeared to be a sort of small airstrip.
Not marked on the map, it’s at a place marked as Alltbeith, in Glen Quioch. It had us scratching our heads, was it, perhaps, an Inca style ground marking, visible only to the Gods (and Munro baggers)? This took our mind off the pull up to summit No4 of the day, the 981m Maol Chinn Dearg.
We had noticed what we at first thought to be fox scat at intervals along the ridge. As we traversed this rocky section we noticed more and more of them. On closer examination the remains of bones, fur and feather could clearly be seen, and this led us to believe they were actually raptor pellets, probably golden eagle. They could be found just about anywhere with a good viewpoint down into the corries.
Between here and the next Munro the ridge winds in a drunken ‘S’ shape, over 902m Sgurr Coire na Feinne, then it’s about 1 ½ km to the second highest summit of the ridge, Sgurr an Doire Leathann, 1010m. A lone raven decided to give us a close up aerial display, let us know exactly who was the boss on this hill. Who were we to argue as we watched him twist and glide, then shoot off eastwards. While this was the second highest summit, the next one looked simply stunning.
The path up to Sgurr an Lochain hugs the side of the sheer drop to the corrie below, with it’s dark lochan. The ridge between these two was exposed and the wind was gusting, this was the only time I felt uncomfortable on the entire ridge. The effect of the wind lessened on the climb up, and just before the summit there’s a small wall which has to be climbed. There are plenty of handholds and I found it an enjoyable pull up.
From here it’s only a few hundred metres to the summit, the cairn is a modern art style affair. A fiver says that a decent gust will have it down.
Down once more, to the bealach and from here the path contours around Sgurr Beag, at a pimply 896m.
You can of course go over it, but our legs said no. One advantage of not going over it is that you can top up your water at a spring just off the path at NG 99909 10652.
It’s not the easiest to collect and I had to submerge my bottle in a slight dip to fill it, managing to catch a few bits of moss and the like. Nothing that a puritab couldn’t sort out.
On then, and despite weary legs we soon arrived on the top of the final Munro, the 918m Creag nan Damh.
The way up looked more difficult than it actually was, twisting up and round, and it was a relief when we got to the top. There appeared to be two cairns, one large, one small. I touched both, just to be sure. We sat and finished off what food we had left, needing energy for the journey down, while looking over the mountains to Skye and Rum. Stunning stuff, but Glen Shiel was calling. We began the knee wrenching trip down. We dropped west into the bealach, then came back east, around the north side of Creag nan Damh, before picking up the ridge down to the bealach between it and Sgurr a’ Chuilinn. From here we followed the north side of the burn down around 2km, to pick up the path in the vicinity of NG 991 124.
As we made our way down we stopped to give our knees a break, and looking back we say a pair of golden eagles flying around the bealach where we had just come from. The best was saved for last indeed.
The final section to the road is straightforward until the last 150m. Then the path drops sharply, the path becomes muddy, and it becomes a hands on affair, using tree roots and branches to get down. I was glad of two things, it wasn’t wet, and we weren’t ascending this route. Neither seemed appealing.
And then we were on the road. We put our thumbs out and picked up a lift back within minutes, dropping us at the Cluanie Inn for a beer. Well, that was the dream.
The reality was a 6 mile walk back along a hard road, watching as the day slipped into night, the last mile or so being done by torchlight. So in the end we did it the hard way, 7 Munros, 22 miles, 13 ¼ hours, unaided by a motor vehicle (unfortunately). In new boots. Wearing a fishing vest.
It had been over twenty years since I’d been up here, but I’ve a feeling I’ll be back sooner than that. Jim already has his eye on the Forcan Ridge, and the Five Sisters of Kintail are beckoning as well. Were it not such a long, long drive I’d be back tomorrow.