North Cluanie Ridge
Saturday 30th July 2011
Weather/Conditions: Warm sunny weather, with a cooler wind on many of the summit. No wind on Ciste Dhubh = midges at 979m... The Brothers were very clear and sunny, the Sisters were sunny until the last couple of tops where the sky hazed over and dulled.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 23.3km / 1500m / 13h 10m
Accompanying: Bealach M. C. - Dougie, James, Ian, Paul, Craig, Tom?
All we needed this weekend was some good weather, and we got it.
The weather was stunning on the drive north. I took the train to Edinburgh Park and Ian picked me up. We drove up through Drumochter and Laggan during sunset, the mountains peaceful, dormant, asleep... We stopped for a view at the Commando Memorial and the Glen Garry viewpoint.
Glen Shiel looked desolate in the gloom. We were staying at the "Wee Bunkhouse" - literally a tiny bunkhouse in the Kintail Lodge Hotel car park. For it's tiny size, it's a superb place that sleeps six. There were seven of us and I slept on the floor.
On the Saturday morning, we drove up to the Cluanie Inn in two cars. I wasn't left behind for once. (unlike The Mamores, January '11) The first mountain we would tackle was Ciste Dhubh, and then we'd work our way westward over the Brothers of Kintail, culminating in the Five Sisters of Kintail. over 13 hours later, we would stumble in the door of the Kintail Lodge Hotel, feeling wrecked.
But what a day it would be...
Mist was hanging onto the mountain sides around the Cluanie and the sun shone warm. We walked up An Caorann Beag, the valley leading north from the car park. The weather was fantastic, and the pace was like lightning. Paul and I kicked up some pace to the head of the valley, and then Ciste Dhubh came into view - from this vantage point, just a round lump.
But it was more than I'd seen on my first ascent; one of the most extreme walks I'd ever done. Michael Coffield and I climbed Ciste Dhubh in the middle of the night in the heart of a December storm. That was back in 2009, and I have many memories of a narrow snow-covered ridge in the night. I was keen to see the ridge again, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was nothing like I'd remembered. Every ridge was shallower and the height seemed less. Today there were little bypass paths contouring the ridge's rockiest. That night we climbed over everything direct because we didn't have a path to follow.
It was a nice experience to be back on a mountain that has a place in my memory. The warm and windless day had everyone swimming in sweat, but the views were amazing. The Five Sisters - five symmetrical rocky mountains, in the distance - stole the show. It seemed absurd but possible in my confidence that we'd walk them today.
The summit of Ciste Dhubh was warm and muggy, without wind. At an altitude about 3000 feet, we were fighting off midges. How often does that happen? We met two guys on top who had climbed A' Chralaig and Mullach Fraoch-choire already and were heading to the Brothers. That's some effort.
The Brothers of Kintail
The Brothers came next and we started up the long ridge to Sgurr an Fhuarail. I had to pace myself carefully and keep an even tempo. When you pull back from 100% effort, it is still possible to make rapid progress with the bonus of feeling fresh. I arrived on Sgurr an Fhuarail fairly quickly for it's 400m vertical climb, so continued towards Aonach Meadhoin to wait for the rest of the guys.
Aonach Meadhoin was another mountain I climbed with Michael in December - on the same day as Ciste Dhubh, but as a second walk within the day. We didn't get any views that day, just the wind whipping across the snow and white fog. Today the whole world was open, all the way to the distant horizons. The difference was in today's benevolence. It was a superb to be up high and I sat chatting to the two Ciste Dhubh guys, watching my guys arrive.
The descent from Aonach Meadhoin has one narrow section, which passed with less issue than I'd expected. I remembered this from the winter - on the misty corniced edges of winter, any drop seems infinite but on this clear summer day, I was shocked how small every drop seemed.
The summit of Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg was the same - the ridge is narrow but not that bad! I have good memories walking along it in fog and thick snow. The mantra then was - "don't fall". The trick is not to fall down the west side, but the east is more forgiving. In the bright and clear air of summer, I scrambled along the crest wondering why it seemed so dangerous before and shot a great 360 panorama standing atop the cairn. I took a moment to suck in the scene and could see the other guys way below, heading up.
I sunbathed, and ten minutes later, the guys arrived. More photos awaited and then we headed for Saileag - a nice wedge-shaped summit, but the least prominent of all the Munros between Cluanie and Loch Duich. For an 'easy one', it took more effort than I'd expected to get to the top. Five Sisters still looked a long way off, especially in the heat which had me sitting at the summit in a pair of shorts!
The Five Sisters of Kintail
And then we headed for the days finale - the Five Sisters of Kintail. These summits are so impressive and they'd been in view all day. A traverse of the north ridge such as ours arrives at a perfect climax: after the 'modest' summits of the east, the summits fold into great rocky peaks, rising way above the glen and on top of Loch Duich. They are real 'West Coast' mountains, among some of the very best.
The roughest section of the ridge lies around Spainteach and Ciste Duibhe. We strolled up the long approach ridge to the former as I chatted to James about my next summers' plans. And then we were suddenly on top of the once distant Sisters. There is a short downclimb at Sgurr na Spainteach which would be very fun in winter. Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe is very rocky but easy, and the top has a great cairn where I took a panorama. Feeling a little colder, I lay on a slab in the shade of the breeze, resting weary legs. Every one of us was running low on water, low on energy. Everyone knew there was still so far to go!
Sgurr na Carnach deserves to be a Munro. With the amount of effort required to toil up it's slopes, I'm surprised it ever wasn't a Munro. It is beautiful too, and we paused here a while. Sgurr Fhuaran is the best of the bunch - a beautiful triangular mountain, dominating all at Shiel Bridge. It is an epic name to match it's commanding status - Sgurr Fhuaran is pronounced like "skoor-ouran", which rolls well off the tongue.
It was also my 200th Munro, including repeats. I still seemed to have energy and charged up the south ridge, climbing across the rocky bits out of sheer fun, arriving on top alone. I discovered it was a milestone when I'd phoned dad on Ciste Duibhe to confirm this with my lists at home. The wind blew lightly, it was too warm for a t-shirt. I also noticed the intense summer light was beginning to fade. A haze seemed to be growing in the skies and blotting out the sun, which would slowly thicken with the evening. And to the north, a spectacular view opened up of the remaining two Sisters: Sgurr nan Saighead and Sgurr na Moraich.
We took our time on Sgurr Fhuaran. I spent half an hour on the summit in the end. It was so beautiful that there was nothing but to let the time slide by. The coming tops looked awfully inviting - I recognised Sgurr Fhuaran's claim to fame as the cover of The First Fifty by the rocky knoll of Beinn Bhuidhe. (One of the few Beinns in a landscape of Sgurrs)
Sgurr Fhuaran drops steeply in all directions so has the feeling of being very high. From it's summit, Sgurr nan Saighead looks a long way below, so when we looked to the north to see where to go next, my first reaction was that we couldn't be looking at Munro-height mountains.
Now the Munros, the day's main objectives were finished, it seemed like a list ticking exercise to do the last tops. With worn out bodies, I made sure to get to the top of every bump - including Beinn Bhuidhe which looked quite insignificant but produced a nice scramble with drops that fell away down into the corries. Gleann Lichd looked a long way down and it was strange to know that all these mountain walls were 3000 feet in places. Especially Beinn Fhada's long south face - they didn't seem so big.
Sgurr na Moraich was a tough hill. Ian Rooney and I did this ourselves - the rest of the guys were making a beeline for the road. It was the only hill of the day that was covered in knolls as opposed to a clean-cut ridge. We bullied ourselves up to the summit, arriving at a cairn in the gathering gloom. A were worn out and very thirsty; I was dreaming of water now. So we continued north west and down into the corrie leading to Loch Duich.
Final descent to Kintail Lodge Hotel
The descent really got me, I think this is where I my body finally said I'd taken too many steps. We battered down the NW slopes of Sgurr na Moraich; I was counting progress in blocks of 500 feet or so. Then when we got down to the river, we filled the water bottles and splashed our glowing red faces with cool water. What a joy.
And then the midges came out, which sent us fleeing for the hotel below. They almost seemed to kept up while we walked (and with some speed). Kintail midges must be a hard breed.
In dull evening light, we arrived at the road, and walked back to the Kintail Lodge Hotel. It wasn't so far - we caught up with the guys again and Dougie appeared from the Jac-o-bite (a restaurant) offering gifts in the form of Budweiser. I'm not fanatic about beer or any alcohol, but that tasted good...
Fifteen minutes later, we stumbled into the hotel, hobbling on feet that didn't work anymore to a meal of fish and chips. Up on the hill, Ian and I had discussed what we'd drink when we got back. It came to something like a pint of water, a pint of Coke, a pint of lemonade and lime and two other pints that I can't remember. So it was strange to get back and not feel like much. I could have just gone straight to bed.
What an epic day.
On Sunday morning, James had planned to do the Conbhairean trio at the east end of Glen Shiel. In the light of our North Ridge walk, everyone just went home.
Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg
Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe
Sgurr na Carnach
Sgurr na Moraich
(0.00) 8.55am Cluanie Inn
(1.05) 10.00am Bealach a' Choinich
(2.05) 11.00am Ciste Dhubh
(3.25) 12.20am Sgurr an Fhuarail
(4.00) 12.55am Aonach Meadhoin (arrived)
(4.15) 1.10am Aonach Meadhoin (left)
(4.50) 1.45am Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg (arrived)
(5.25) 2.20am Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg (left)
(6.00) 2.55am Saileag (arrived)
(6.30) 3.25am Saileag (left)
(7.30) 4.25am Sgurr nan Spainteach
(8.05) 5.00am Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe
(9.05) 6.00am Sgurr na Carnach
(9.55) 6.50am Sgurr Fhuaran (arrived)
(10.25) 7.20am Sgurr Fhuaran (left)
(10.55) 7.50am Sgurr nan Saighead
(11.10) 8.05am Beinn Bhuidhe
(11.50) 8.45am Sgurr na Moraich
(12.55) 9.50am Ault a' chruinn (Loch Duich)
(13.10) 10.05am Kintail Lodge Hotel