UKH

Classic Scramble - The Forcan Ridge

© James Roddie

In the middle of an exceptional highland heatwave, James Roddie and Nicole Dunn set out to enjoy this classic route


One of the best ridge scrambles in Scotland, the Forcan Ridge has all the ingredients of a great day out - outstanding views, engaging scrambling, a memorable crux and a Munro summit to finish. It is an ideal warm up for more serious undertakings such as the An Teallach Traverse or sections of the Cuillin Ridge.

An exposed slab - typical Forcan Ridge ground  © James Roddie
An exposed slab - typical Forcan Ridge ground
© James Roddie

A wedged boulder on the crest forced us into an off-balance move on small and polished foot-holds, soon followed by a series of exposed rocky fins.

"It is so hot!"

It was 6.30am, and we were already drenched in sweat and suncream. The hottest day for 5 years was forecast in the Highlands, and leaving the refuge of the shade had been a shock. Sunglasses out, extra layers removed, water gulped in quantity.

As Nicole and I made the steep pull up towards Bealach na Craoibhe, I wondered if she too was having second thoughts. A thick blue haze was filling the glen behind us, rays of sunshine poking through gaps on the north Glen Shiel ridge. It felt like a perfect day for lethargy and laziness. Maybe we should have just gone to the beach?

Approaching the first difficult section  © James Roddie
Approaching the first difficult section
© James Roddie

Forcan Ridge (Summer) , The Saddle

Grade: Grade 2 scramble

Start/finish: Carpark on North side of A87 (NH 087 122)

Distance: 12.8km (including the ascent of Sgurr na Sgine, making a logical 'round')

Ascent: 1350m (including Sgurr na Sgine)

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 33; OS Explorer (1:25,000) 414 Glen Shiel; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Knoydart, Kintail & Glen Affric

Equipment: Inexperienced scramblers may prefer the security of a rope to descend the Bad Step. A single long sling can be used to protect the down-climb.

Seasonal notes: In winter the Forcan Ridge is a long, serious Grade II mountaineering route. Many teams will decide to abseil the Bad Step.

Guidebooks: Scotland's Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (Cicerone). Highland Scrambles North by Iain Thow (SMC)

Enjoying one of the many rocky grooves on the route  © James Roddie
Enjoying one of the many rocky grooves on the route
© James Roddie

We kept plodding. The slightest of breezes welcomed us at the bealach, and all our doubts left us as the Forcan Ridge came into sight. Bathed in beautiful light under a perfect clear sky, it was one of those views that come in daydreams during the endless drizzle and grey that sometimes fills the Scottish summers. Nicole gave me a smile of excitement.

The ridge eased us in gently. A few short steps of easy scrambling got us started on the route - entertaining, but mild enough for us to be eager for more. It was a steep slog to reach the first 'top', but from there over a kilometre of fun scrambling awaited us. We re-applied comical quantities of suncream.

The narrow, rocky crest ahead looked harder than it was. A broken path weaved in and out of short walls and aretes, avoiding some of them entirely, but we decided to take the ridge as directly as possible. We moved quickly, enjoying the pleasantly cool rock and the occasional whispers of breeze that touched our skin.

It's airy and exciting, but rarely that difficult...  © James Roddie
It's airy and exciting, but rarely that difficult...
© James Roddie

...except perhaps for the descent of the Bad Step!  © James Roddie
...except perhaps for the descent of the Bad Step!
© James Roddie

A more sustained steep section marked the start of the harder scrambling. An awkwardly wedged boulder on the crest forced us to make an off-balance move on small and polished foot-holds, soon followed by a series of exposed rocky fins. A steep wall split by a broken chimney proved to be the hardest obstacle so far, causing Nicole some pause for thought on her way up. "I wouldn't fancy doing this when it's icy!", she called from above. My mind flicked back to an aborted winter attempt a few years ago, when unexpected strong winds almost blew me off the ridge.

The difficulties eased off for a while. We enjoyed a beautiful undulating ridge with some considerable exposure, stopping every once in a while to identify distant hills and islands. A thick heat haze lay over the coast, but we could make out the distinctive outlines of Skye and Eigg. The breeze had stopped completely, and it was now as hot as I'd ever seen it on a Scottish hill.

The Bad Step from below - it's soon over  © James Roddie
The Bad Step from below - it's soon over
© James Roddie

Many classic scrambles have a 'Bad Step', and so does the Forcan Ridge. It comes as a bit of a surprise, and you can't see it coming until you're almost on top of it. A small pinnacle is followed by a deep notch in the ridge, that must be either down-climbed direct, or by-passed via a gravelly gully/path. It can be an intimidating spot, but the down-climb is easier than it appears from above.

Nicole isn't the biggest fan of steep down-climbs, and for a moment she was hesitant. Once she got going however, she made smooth work of it and we spent a few minutes at the bottom enjoying the shelter of a rare patch of shade. We'd been moving quickly up until this point, but the heat seemed to make us both hit a wall on the final few hundred metres of easy ground to the summit. The final steepening felt like more effort than it should have done. The summit of The Saddle was reached with delight, and we both collapsed on the grass and took huge swigs of water.

At the end of the difficulties on the ridge - now to find some shade!  © James Roddie
At the end of the difficulties on the ridge - now to find some shade!
© James Roddie

The Forcan Ridge was Nicole's second big Scottish ridge scramble after the Aonach Eagach. I'd promised her a great day.

"So how was that?", I asked

"Too bloody hot!", she replied, but with a smile that said it all.


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