A week in Glenshiel

It’s been a busy start to the New Year – I’m working on three websites at the minute (including one for myself, watch this space!) and I’m also doing teaching assistant work alongside my PhD – which explains the lack of posts recently. The week after New Year’s, from 4-11 January, a group of 19 of us from Lancaster University Hiking Club headed up to Glenshiel for the annual club “Winter Trip”. Two years ago, we went to Badrallach, near Ullapool, and got blighted with all manor of bad weather, culminating in some of the worst storms Scotland had seen. The year after, we spent the week in a couple of cottages in Roy Bridge. The weather was better (marginally), but I was injured and hence out of action. Hence, fingers and toes were crossed for some better luck this year!

The week started relatively well, and with a 7am start on the Sunday we almost managed to beat a band of bad weather heading in at midday. Our walk, the three Munros of Carn Ghluasaid, Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Carn na Coire Mheadhoin, was picked strategically to be as east as possible (within reason) to again minimise the chance of the weather, which was coming in from the west, hitting us. The early start paid off as we got a few good views from the first summit, though things deteriorated from then onward. By the time we were returning from the third Munro the conditions were “full-on Scottish winter” – i.e. white-out and blowing a gale – which meant that as we descended below the freezing level the snow turned to rain and by the time we reached the road for the 3km walk back to the car, we were already soaked. I left my bag with Lorna and ran on ahead to pick up the car. Some of the others had been less willing to leave their beds earlier and by all accounts got the brunt of the weather on the third Munro (good navigation practice at least!).

Good time for navigation practice!

Good time for navigation practice!

Monday had already been written off to a 110-mile tour taking in some of the highlights of the ruggedly beautiful western coast of Scotland, including Sheildaig and Applecross. The sandy bay of An Cruinn-leum offered some fantastic sand dune running and impossible bouldering, whilst the pub in Applecross provided a very welcome coffee.

An Cruinn-leum

Tuesday wasn’t any better, but with the amount of water that had fell out of the sky over the past few days, we decided the Falls of Glomach were at least worth a visit. This also had the advantage of giving the opportunity to ascend the Munro A Ghlas-bheinn should the weather improve: It didn’t, but a few of us went for it anyway! The Falls were mightily impressive, both in their height and also in the amount of water plummeting over them. A Ghlas-bheinn was surprisingly good fun, and although it didn’t stop raining the entire day, a steep snow slope up to the summit and a devious route down just about made it worthwhile. I always think it feels more rewarding when you’ve been out and done something relatively big even though it’s awful weather.

Falls of Glomach

Falls of Glomach

Wednesday; more of the same! Lorna, Imogen and myself drove to the start of the Five Sisters, sat in the car hiding from the rain for a while, and then drove back. Some of the others got halfway to the start of the Forcan Ridge and then decided to head back. It did mean that I got the chance to go for a long run: Up Coire Uaine, over its western col to the Ratagan Forest, around the Ratagan Forest for god-knows-how-long trying to find my way out (the map lied!), over the hill and subsidiary tops of Sgurr a Bhraonain and then back down the road to Sheil Bridge.

Thursday now seemed like our only hope, with the forecast bad again for the following day. It was hence time to make a second attempt at the Five Sisters, and so whilst Jim, Ben and Stephen retraced their steps from the previous day up to the start of the Forcan Ridge, and as Richard et al. were enjoying the South Shiel ridge, Lorna, Imogen, Darren and myself were tackling the relentlessly steep slope running at an average angle of 35 degress from the A87 to the summit of Sgurr nan Spainteach. The snow was frustrating at best; at first it appeared solid on top, but every couple of steps you’d sink right through to knee-depth (or deeper!). That being said, I do love a good snow slope and I definitely enjoyed the 900m of ascent we polished off in under two hours.

On the ascent of Sgurr nan Spainteach

On the ascent of Sgurr nan Spainteach

We did get the occasional view!

We did get the occasional view!

Unsurprisingly, the views were nearly non-existent, except for a few breaks in the cloud here and there. The complexities of the ridge made up for this however; complexities not because of technicality, but rather because of the devious route it took, embracing everything from super-steep snow slopes (usually in descent) to twisting rocky passages. The descent from the third of the three Munros it passes over – Sgurr Fhuaran – was particularly steep and devious, and looking back at the summit from Shiel Bridge on a clear day, you can see why!

Fortunately, the cloud level was high enough so we got a great view out over Loch Duich on the descent, a view which we couldn’t help thinking reminded us of the view of the Pap and Loch Leven from Sgurr nam Fiannaidh.

Loch Duich and Sgurr an t-Searraich, aka the Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven!

The final day was again spent avoiding the bad weather, though in the end the bad weather didn’t turn out to be so bad! We visited Glenelg, the Brochs of Glenn Bheag and Arnisdale, and got some fantastic views of Rum and Eigg on our drive back from Arnisdale. Ironically, the best weather of the week by far was on the drive home on Saturday, with crystal-clear skies and beautiful snow-covered summits!

The Brochs of Glenn Bheag

The Brochs of Glenn Bheag

Loch Hourn

Loch Hourn

Great lighting!

Great lighting!

More sun on the Isle of Skye

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was last on Skye, but the Hiking Club was running a Jubilee bank holiday weekend trip to Skye for four nights, and as a driver I got the trip for £20, so I couldn’t really miss out on the opportunity! This trip took place from 1-6 June.

Elgol

Boats in Elgol Harbour

It was rather dull when we left Lancaster on Friday afternoon, but the further north we headed, the better the weather got. Rannoch Moor and its surrounding mountains looked fantastic as we drove over it in the evening light. After a few stops at Lesmahagow (for chips!), Hamilton (for tents), Luss (to swap drivers) and Fort William (for money for the campsite), we finally arrived at the campsite in Sligachan at just before midnight. It was still surprisingly light and I managed to pitch my tent without a head torch.

Saturday

The next day, we decided to ease ourselves in with a walk up the fantastic mountain Bla Bheinn (Blaven). It’s the only Munro on the island not on the main Cuillin Ridge, but arguably offers better views. When there sun is out and there are no clouds, the panoramas from the summits are simply stunning. The traverse of Bla Bheinn and its neighbour Clach Glas is a mountaineering classic, offering extremely exposed climbing at Diff level. Unfortunately I only read about the traverse after I’d got home and so it was too late! As it was, our ascent up the eastern ridge gave plenty of fun scrambling opportunities.

Bla Bheinn

Bla Bheinn south west top from the main summit

Blaven

On the south west summit of Bla Bheinn

After the walk, we drove further down the road to the little harbour of Elgol, and spent a while exploring its rocky beach and interesting sea cliffs. Boats from Elgol will take you to the beautiful secluded Loch Coruisk.

Elgol

The Black Cuillin from the beach at Elgol

The In Pinn

Mouse taking shelter under the In Pinn

Richard, Mouse and myself had planned an Alpine start on the Cuillin ridge for the following day, and so that evening we drove the minibus down the Glen Brittle and bivvyed outside. The Alpine start was for a number of reasons: To avoid crowds on the In Pinn; to avoid the heat of the midday sun, which I never thought would be a problem on Skye; simply to give us more time to get more of the ridge done and; it’s good practice for the Alps! After a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep with a large rocky digging into my back, we were up at 4am and walking for twenty-past.

Sunday

Our route was up Coire na Banachdich, firstly to the summit of Sgurr Dearg and the In Pinn. The walk in started without a cloud in the sky, but by the time we had got to the summit, the clouds has rolled in and were whipping up over the summit with impressive speed. The sight of the In Pinn silhouetted against these fast-moving clouds made it look rather daunting. The wind was cold and even with an insulated jacket on I struggled to keep warm at the belay points and on the climb. It was Richard’s first outdoor climb, and what better what to start than with an exposed ridge followed by an even more exposed abseil, all in bitterly cold winds!

After the climb, we took shelter on the other side of the summit and had a bite to eat – I say a bite, neither of us had eaten since breakfast at 4am and I consumed three bagels in quick succession and Mouse demolished a whole Jamaican ginger cake.

For Sgurr Dearg, we followed the ridge towards Sgurr na Banachdich and onwards over Sgurr a Ghredaidh and Sgurr a Mhadaidh. The section after Sgurr na Banachdich is absolutely fantastic – it’s not technically too difficult, but has some fantastically exposed scrambling with breathtaking views. There were a few parties on this section roped up, but we didn’t feel it necessary at all.

Loch Coruisk

Loch Coruisk from the between Sgurr na Banachdich and Sgurr a Greadaidh

Sgurr a Mhadaidh

Me on Sgurr a Mhadaidh

From Sgurr a Mhadaidh, we headed down towards the col before Sgurr Thuilm. This was the descent route described by the book “The Munros” by Cameron McNeish, however we soon found ourselves presented with a knife-edge crest with a number of roped parties climbing towards us. Whilst descent would have been possible, the down climbing wouldn’t necessarily have been easy and we have just got in everyone else’s way who were ascending. We instead cut off the ridge and headed directly down scree interlaced with rocky steps and boulders into Coire a’ Ghreadaidh. In retrospect, the best option would have been to retrace our steps to An Dorus (The Door) and descend the large path from there. In the coire, we stopped by a stream for a good half an hour and took in the afternoon sun. We were back at the minibus for 3pm.

That evening, after Sarah set fire to a trangia by putting petrol into it instead of meths (possibly my fault for storing my petrol by the meths…), we headed to the pub to sample some of the Isle of Skye Brewery’s finest ales – I particularly recommend Pinnacle Ale! We chatted about the day and our adventures – the other group had been up the Corbet Glamaig via some very steep scree slopes.

Monday

I think we must have still been tired from the previous day, because Mouse, Richard and myself all opted for some coastal bagging as opposed to another day on the ridge. We drove north, firstly to the Old Man of Storr. The Old Man is one of many rock stacks protruding from the mountain The Storr, each one as impressive as the next.

Needle Rock

Needle Rock next to The Storr, taken from the base of The Old Man of Storr

Staffin Bay

A bit of promotion for the Hiking Club at Staffin Bay!

For lunch, we headed further up the coast to Staffin Bay, where some brave souls decided to take a dip in the sea – it was a bit cold for me! After a spot of lunch, we drove back to the campsite so everyone else could grab their swimming gear, and then down Glen Brittle to the Fairy Pools. This time, nearly everyone entered the water, but not for long as it was rather cold! The highlight had to be swimming under an underwater arch in one of the many plunge pools.

That evening, we practised a bit of crevasse rescue on the campsite, before heading to the pub once more.

I think we all wished we could have stayed for longer, but the minibus was due back on Wednesday and so unfortunately Tuesday was home time! To break the day up, we set off early in the morning and stopped off a few times along the way. The first stop was at the iconic Eilean Donan castle, near Glen Shiel – we contemplated going in, but it was £6 each and so decided against it. We stopped once more at The Clachaig for lunch, and of course in Lesmes for chips a few hours later!

The combination of good weather and the fact that we were on the island for longer than our usual weekend trips means this trip will stick in my mind for a long time. It was a brilliant weekend!

Eilean Donan castle

Eilean Donan castle

Sun and snow on the Isle of Skye

Seeing as my last post was well over a year ago, I thought I’d best make an effort to keep on top of this blog from now on! I might even add some posts retrospectively if I get the chance.

This post is about a trip to the Isle of Skye from Friday 30 March to Tuesday 3 April. The aim of the trip was to have a look at parts of the Cuillin Ridge and get a general feel for the place. Skye is completely different to any other mountain range in the UK, feeling distinctly Alpine but with Scottish island weather to contend with. For this reason, it offers difficulties and challenges that the mainland Munros don’t – the fact that Cicerone’s Walking The Munros book has a separate introduction to the Skye section outlining the seriousness of mountaineering in the area says it all!

The shear quantity of exposed gabbro rock makes the mountains extremely attractive to mountaineers and scramblers, and some fantastic fun can be had on many of the exposed and intricate ridges of the Cuillin range. They are often regarded as the finest mountains in Britain.

Friday

Imogen, Lorna and myself set off from Burneside at just gone 10am, in rather dull and cloudy weather. The further north we got, the better the weather became and by the time we stopped at Luss on the banks of Loch Lomond for lunch, the sun was out in full force and it felt like the middle of summer.

We stopped once more on the A82 over Rannoch Moor to make the most of some stunning views by Lochan na h-Achlaise. It’s usually either pitch black or awful weather when we’re driving over the moor and so it was nice to see what this beautiful area looks like in the sun!

Loch na h-Achlaise

Loch na h-Achlaise by the side of the A82. Most scenic road in the country?

Seawater-erosion

Interesting erosion on the beach at Elgol.

Upon reaching Skye, we detoured to the scenic harbour of Elgol in the south of the island. It had turned a bit cloudy and the views over Loch Scavaig to the Cuillin Hills was particularly dramatic. There was some rather interesting seawater-erosion in the cliffs on the beach, where the water had eroded the rocks into circular hollows. Eventually, we got to the campsite in Portnalong at just gone 7pm and pitched our tents, made tea and got an early night. The others (Alex, Charles, Daniel and Alex’s Dad, Don), arrived at just gone 1am.

Elgol

Looking out over Loch Scavaig to the Cuillin Hills from Elgol.

Saturday, the Cuillin Ridge

The Inn Pin

The Inn Pin

The weather forecast was surprisingly good for the day and so we all got up early to try and recce as much of the Cuillin Ridge as we could. We headed to Glenbrittle and the initial plan was to have a look at TD gap (widely regarded as the trickiest step on the ridge, graded at VDiff but apparently much harder), King’s Chimney (Diff) and possibly the Inaccessible Pinnacle (Sgurr Dearg). The In Pinn is graded a Mod climb and the only Munro that needs a rope to ascend.

It turned out we had walked into the wrong corrie (Coire Lagan) however and were too far along the ridge for TD gap and the King’s Chimney. We slogged up a scree slope to the left to gain the ridge and scrambled northwards towards the In Pinn, for the most part sticking to the ridge. Dependent on what guide you read, the ridge proper for this section gets the grade of Mod or even Diff, but our scrambling didn’t seem that difficult and so I can only presume that on the odd occasion we strayed from the ridge we were missing out the difficult sections. I probably enjoyed this section more than any other part of the ridge and it felt great to be soloing such an exposed ridge with such good rock and fantastic views.

Next came the In Pinn and Dan led the eastern ridge (Mod), which I found surprisingly easy. There was plenty of exposure and a bit of a wind made it entertaining in places. An abseil off the western face brought us to the main summit area of Sgurr Dearg, where we picked up the ridge and scrambled onwards towards Sgurr na Banachdich. This time the scrambling was much easier, at its most difficult around grade 1. From the summit of Sgurr na Banachdich, Lorna, Imogen, Dan and myself headed down the ridge over Sgurr nan Gobhar, whilst Alex and Charles carried along the ridge over Sgurr a Ghreadaidh. Another scree slope led us down to grassy slopes above the Glenbrittle Youth Hostel and we sat down basking in the warm evening sun.

The Cuillin Ridge

Looking back along the Cuillin Ridge and towards Sgurr Dearg from near Sgurr na Banachdich

We had a bit of an altercation with the campsite owner (I won’t go into the details!) that evening and so decided to move to the Glenbrittle campsite the following day.

Sunday, rain!

The weather was pretty miserable when we woke up and after moving to Glenbrittle we decided the best option was a coastal walk. It didn’t really brighten up all day, though it was nice taking in some sea air and giving our legs a rest after the previous day. That evening a few of us headed to the Old Inn in Carbost, a lovely little pub with log fire, decent beer, Scottish music and a very cosy feel.

Monday, Bla Bheinn (Blaven)

Bla Bheinn

Walking across to Bla Bheinn's south west summit

It was rather windy on the campsite when we woke up and Lorna, Imogen and myself decided the initial plan to recce TD gap and King’s Chimney wasn’t such an attractive idea anymore, and so we decided to do a walk up the only Munro on the island not on the main Cuillin ridge – Bla Bheinn. The others still went ahead with the initial plan.

The weather was actually quite good and it soon turned out that the wind was purely a localised effect on the campsite, as it seemed rather still everywhere else. The route we took up with via Bla Bheinn’s south-eastern ridge to a col between there and the Corbett Clach Glas, followed by a short scramble onto the summit. It is reckoned that Bla Bheinn offers some of the best views anywhere on Skye and it was easy to agree with this as when the clouds cleared we were greeted with some breathtaking views out of the sea and across to the Cuillin ridge. The fact that you are looking right down to sea level makes the views even more impressive.

Our descent was down the south-eastern ridge of Bla Bheinn’s south west summit and then back down Coire Uaigneich the same way as we came up. We stopped for a painfully-cold paddle in Allt na Dunaiche on the way back, which definitely helped revive my weary feet!

It started raining again that evening and so once again a few of us retired to the pub. Unfortunately, this time, they’d ran out of draught beer!

South west summit of Bla Bheinn

Lorna and Imogen on the south west summit of Bla Bheinn

Tuesday, snow!?

We were initial planning on staying up until Wednesday, however particularly strong winds during the night resulted in a few bent tent poles and so we decided to head home early. Also, rather surprisingly, we awoke to a thin layer on snow on the ground in the morning. Driving back it became clear just how much snow Scotland had received – the north-western mainland had a very thick covering and the mountains looked fantastic. A stark contrast to the sunny and warm weather earlier on in the week!

A82

The view from the A82 on the way back. It couldn't be much more different to earlier in the week!