The Mamores:
Ring of Steall & East 3 Munros
plus Tops

Sunday 26th June 2011

Weather/Conditions: Cloud and rain with brief lighter breaks and high winds. Not the best day for a Mamores traverse, but it could have been worse!
Distance/Ascent/Time: 20km / 1700m / 13h 10m
Accompanying: Dougie

It would have been nice to achieve unbroken sleep, but it didn't work out that way. It rarely does in the best of conditions, but wind and rain is a different case altogether. I woke up every half hour or so all night, eyes held awake by the sight of the tent wall collapsing on the windward side. The tent collapsed in but didn't brake, thankfully. Dougie and I were camping at 750m beneath the Devil's Ridge in the Mamores, but the weather wasn't cooperating with our Mamore-traverse plan. It frequently rained hard. I love to listen to the sound of rain on a tent, but going outside in it is a different case...

Breakfast was basic and the morning duties outside revealed a murky, grey world, damp and cold. The cold part may had something to do with the absence of all clothing but boxers and t-shirt, but we'll skip over that. The de-pegging of the tent required a coordinated effort; packing it away and holding onto the flapping sails. Then we began the walk up to the Devil's Ridge.

I'd been waiting for this day for a while now, although the weather was vile. We'd agreed we may not get the whole ridge done given the conditions, but we'd give it our best shot. It was good to finally have our plans in motion and whatever happened today, I hoped we would be at Meanach bothy for the evening.

Things turned out well for us: the weather calmed down on the Devil's Ridge. We left our rucksacks below Sgor an Iubhair and started walking out along the ridge. The weather brightened up a bit, although we were still in cloud. As we climbed onto Stob Choire a' Mhail, the ridge thinned and climbed to a rooftop, until it was just the width of the path with sensational drops to either side. A perfect moment for me to trip over and rip my waterproof trousers open!

Mishaps aside, the Devil's Ridge was generally much, much easier than I'd expected. The rooftop of Stob Choire a' Mhail descends to Bealach a' Chip where the ridgeline breaks into large shattered blocks. Although I'm aware that the ridge has seen a fatality, I thought the angle of the slopes would make falling to your death improbable - in summer, at least. We continued on the path to Sgurr a' Mhaim after scrambling on the blocks. If you want to bypass the boulders, do so on the west side, but I went over the crest.

Then as we climbed Sgurr a' Mhaim, the cloud opened up and we looked back to see the ridge we'd been over - an immense fin. I think the name Devil's Ridge has as much to do with that sharpness, and the weird pointed rocks along it length as with the 'crux' at Bealach a' Chip. It isn't however as underwhelming as the Devil's Staircase... Sgurr a' Mhaim's summit cairn arrived shortly where we stopped for ten minutes. With a much-appreciated break in the weather, things were looking up.

The Ring of Steall

The walk back along the Devil's Ridge was superb. The weather was a little better again and I had no problem repeating this fun little ridge. It would be an interesting proposition in winter and I'd prefer good conditions if attempting. But the weather closed in again and the clag seemed to get thicker on Sgor an Iubhair. Map and compass brought us off it's summit and towards Am Bodach, our second Munro. In the drizzle and lashing wind, I thought I'd heard the deep roar of thunder - my worst nightmare. I would pause for a couple of seconds, listen out, then carry on. What it was I don't know, but I don't believe it was thunder in the end. That forecasted and feared event didn't occur in the end - I just wish I hadn't worried so much.

Am Bodach was a long gradual walk to the top, but I was impatient to see the summit cairn and rushed up. Before Dougie arrived, I visited both cairns at either end of it's little summit plateau, but in the cloud each looked higher from the other.

The weather improved again - it did so several times during the day, yo-yoing between fair and wet. The descent of Am Bodach north ridge is commonly considered loose and frightening although maybe it's worth mentioning I had no problems on this either. Perhaps it's airy with views, but in the mist I had no problems walking normally. It is, however, very loose!

We climbed the crossroad Munro, Stob Coire a' Chairn in clear visibility with Am Bodach's dark east face steaming with mist behind. The wind was prominent on this summit and I didn't stay long, so feeling pretty weary by now, descended toward An Gearanach.

I made a quick descent and Dougie joined afterwards. We were pretty tired now, but to complete the rest of the 4-day trip, we'd have to be at Meanach bothy by nightfall. And Meanach was on the far side of Sgurr Eilde Mor, which itself was at least four Munros away! Well, we reasoned - we had all day. Lets just worry about An Gearanach for the moment. It's a jewel of the Mamore range. A slightly scrambly climb leads up to the ridge, which we managed with no problems. The following ridge is just all-out fun, with some technical bits and a tilted slab I know as the Mick-slab from his and Mackenzie's epic Mamore traverse a couple years ago.

An Gearanach is undoubtedly harder - and more fun to the climber - than the Devil's Ridge. Dougie and I discussed our remaining Munros from the summit then headed back to the saddle where we'd dropped the bags. It had been great to relieve ourselves of the weight like on the Devil's Ridge. But we had to return to the rucksacks, and went on our way to Na Gruagaichean - a big hill in our state of tiredness.

Eastern Mamores

The weather on An Gearanach had treated us well, but it closed in once more. Na Gruagaichean's west ridge looked like this huge 250m pillar, and we would have to bully ourselves up it. With wind whipping rain through the skies, I got the head down and plodded on. These Mamores were tougher than I'd expected.

Dougie and I joined each other on Na Gruagaichean NW top and then summit, a route we'd done last winter - that was a superb day with good snow conditions and great views. Today was tougher, but we were managing up with the clock, just. We thought we may have to leave out a summit, although for a while I believed we may fit them all in.

I mulled this over on my own on the ridge up to Binnein Mor. By the time I was at the summit, I figured we might be able to descend to Binnein Beag, knock it off, curve around to Sgurr Eilde Mor and descend the far side to Meanach bothy. It would be very tight though, and unknown to me, Dougie was carrying a rucksack a good deal heavier than mine. More time had passed than I'd have preferred before we rejoined on the summit. Maybe we wouldn't get the other summits? Now was decision time. Both our energies were running low and as time ticked onward, it began to look like we might not see both summits. Reaching the bothy was our priority. If we went over Binnein Beag, we probably wouldn't reach the bothy and we would not want to camp out tonight with a wet tent, not with another wild camp the following night.

So we turned south and headed for Sgurr Eilde Mor.

Things only got worse. Dougie's pace slowed down around Sgor Eilde Beag so we swapped rucksacks. We were moving painfully slow. This was becoming not even fun anymore, but did we really have an alternative? Dougie suggested camping at Coire an Lochain beneath Sgurr Eilde Mor. I didn't say much under the tension, caught in limbo between caring for someone else's struggle and maintaining the steely exterior needed to bully ourselves over one last mountain. I spoke eventually:

"You know that if we camp here, the rest of the trip is off?"

Dougie agreed, thankfully. We had two days left to do the route and the strain of another night camping rough would probably destroy us before we saw Ben Nevis. Instead of camping, we stopped and made a cup of tea.

Omitting Binnein Beag had actually gained us time, so the stove and teabags came out and we drank some warm liquid. We hunched against the wind, lighting matches to get the stove working. The lochan was crumpled by wind, pockmarked by rain. The surface, gun-metal grey. The sky wasn't much better. This was such a dark place, but at least my mood was better than that.

We got going again. Dougie just seemed to have fuel again, and the stop had been worth it. Still, Sgurr Eilde Mor was painful to climb and immensely frustrating with worn out bodies.

Just think of how it'll feel when we get to Meanach.

I dumped my rucksack at the top of the red scree leading to the summit, then took Dougie's up too. A short summit ridge took us to the top, where in gloomy mist we finished off our Mamores. Yes - we'd left out Binnein Beag, but all considered, we took the only reasonable course of action short of abandoning the trip.

Descent to Meanach bothy... not without it's challenges!

We got to Sgurr Eilde Mor's summit at 9.30pm, giving us a couple hours to get to Meanach bothy. It wasn't a short distance by any means and a compass bearing took us off the summit. The NE ridge - Druim Sgurr Eilde - is nice walk, although much of it was in cloud.

And then we dropped out the cloud and the Glen Nevis came into view. Gloomy and grey, it could have been Mordor. A silent, empty land; lonely in some moods, but thrilling on this occasion.

The story wasn't over yet, and the Glen Nevis route wasn't in the bag. We still had one major concern - the crossing of Abhainn Rath, the river running through Upper Glen Nevis. It had been raining for a large portion of the last 24 hours and we were worried it would be in spate.

A good story comes to mind: two friends of mine, Mackenzie Barker and Michael Coffield attempted a Mamore traverse in August 2009. They did Mullach nan Coirean, Stob Ban, Sgurr a' Mhaim and then camped on the ridge in a storm. They got very little sleep and I believe Mackenzie's shelter fell apart. They got around the Ring of Steall then descended to Glen Nevis, unable to cross the river owing to the torrential rain. Luibeilt (on their side of the river) contained a ruined house, a door-less hut and a clutch of huge pine trees. The warmth of Meanach - a maintained, dry and warm bothy - was on the far - wrong - side of the river. And they never managed to cross, spending what I guess was a less than comfortable time at Luibeilt. I hoped not to repeat their misfortune - not only because crossing the river was crucial to completing our route!

Our ridge petered out into a vast, wet land of bog. The bothy drew steadily closer but by no means near yet. (We could see it from Binnein Mor's summit, some four miles away. It looked further away than we could walk.)

I gave Mackenzie a call on descent as I'd already done several times that day, for an update in information. He suggested the best crossing point was by the huge pine trees. Things were starting to look up but we ran into a river running across our path - the Allt Coire na h-Achlais. It drains to Abhainn Rath, but it's course lay right across our path. And however innocent it looks on the map, I walked up to see a tree-stuffed gorge and a low roar from below. The river was without a doubt, un-crossable and we walked downstream to get across. We went far out of our way - hardly what you wish dragging a shattered body around. We crossed it at the plains of Glen Nevis - in semi darkness, the plains looked like wonderfully soft, cropped grass, but were chossy grass and bog that never seemed to end. Dougie was in the same state as me, so I had no reason to complain, but I had to say something: I turned around and tried a humour-tainted, but utterly true "I could lie down and cry at the moment..."

Smile, keep calm, and carry on.

We arrived at the river, which flowed dangerously fast, and we followed it down it's length to Luibeilt, that place where Mac and Mick had spent the night. A bridge would work wonders here - but is the lack thereof not part of the fun? Not while I was stuck on the wrong side. The hut at Luibeilt was writhing with midges, the house was a complete ruin. Not a chance I was staying here. Not a fat chance.

20 metres downstream from the pine trees, I slid into the water up to my waist and paid close attention to my 'fearometer'. Dougie followed on behind; he later mentioned "You went in and started wading, I thought God, now I'm going to have to do the same". The water was surprisingly warm, and it didn't seem to flow particularly fast at any point. I paid close attention to the underfoot conditions, took one step, another and another until I was almost over.

I rushed the last steps and walked up onto the bank. Finally! After so much tension and uncertainty, all the pressure was off. We were home safe. Maybe a walker in the bothy, tending to a roaring fire would complete the satisfaction, but it looked empty. I opened the latch, and went in to silence and darkness. Home alone for us. Unable to get a fire going, we cooked curry and hung up wet gear.

The curry was a lifesaver. Like a cup of tea had saved us before Sgurr Eilde Mor, an M&S Chicken Curry saved the day. I went to bed on the floor (there are no sleeping platforms) with very sore, stiff muscles and slipped into blissful sleep.

This is the life.

360° Panorama

An Gearanach
Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 10.30am Lochan Coire nam Miseach campsite
(1.10) 11.40am Sgurr a' Mhaim
(1.20) 11.50am Sgurr a' Mhaim (left)
(2.15) 12.45pm Sgor an Iubhair
(2.50) 1.20pm Am Bodach
(4.10) 2.40pm Stob Coire a' Chairn
(5.10) 3.40pm An Gearanach
(5.20) 3.50pm An Gearanach (left)
(7.35) 6.05pm Na Gruagaichean
(8.30) 7.00pm Binnein Mor
(11.00) 9.30pm Sgurr Eilde Mor
(13.10) 11.40pm Meanach bothy (phew!)

Written: 2011-08-02