UKH

Classic Winter - Beinn Alligin Traverse

© Dan Bailey

Of all Scotland's mountains, Beinn Alligin may come closest to perfection. That's a bombastic claim to grab your attention at the top of an article, but it also happens to be true. All sculpted lines and soaring angles, Alligin is the essence of Scottish coastal drama, where crazy shoreline meets towering relief, peaks and pinnacles smoke cloud, and islands float away into the western sea. With a more open face than its glowering neighbour Liathach, this graceful mountain doesn't so much dare you to set foot, as invite you in. But it's no pushover, and the classic horseshoe of the two Munro peaks via the famous Horns of Alligin, Na Rathanan, tips airy walking into hands-on scrambling. It's hard to improve on Beinn Alligin, but a dump of snow adds majesty and mountaineering challenge; and a sunny forecast seals the deal.

Sgurr Mhor from the Horns  © Dan Bailey
Sgurr Mhor from the Horns
© Dan Bailey

For most it's far flung, a target for a long weekend half spent on the road. A six month stint in Gairloch changed that for us, but though Alligin was about the biggest and best thing in our view, I'd spent all winter climbing pretty much any other hill instead. There's a lot to do in the northwest. Still, there's only so long you can put off yet another visit to your favourite mountain (there, I've said it). A fleeting April cold snap had brought winter back to the hills, and the sun was out. The choice made itself.

Looking down on the first Horn   © Dan Bailey
Looking down on the first Horn
© Dan Bailey

I bumped into local climbing pal Allan Gorman at the car park, great minds obviously thinking along similar lines, and after a long lockdown of solo trips the prospect of company on the round was a treat. By Wester Ross standards Beinn Alligin is roadside, and even has a bog-free approach on a made path, so we made easy progress up into the snow, where scrambly ground led to the top of the first Horn. Things get entertaining about now, and a sketchy downclimb on the morning's sun-softened spring snow got the pulse going. This proved the crux of the day, while the onward route over the Horns flowed more freely in a joy of airy scrambling, with no nasty surprises. Skirting the head of Deep South Gully, we followed a line of old prints up the ascending series of blunt towers, regretting forgotten suncream in the dazzle of light on snow and distant sea.

Though it's a challenging day on a major hill, and of course shouldn't be underestimated, this grade I winter mountaineering route feels a lot less serious than the neighbouring traverse of Liathach, and similar grade II fare elsewhere. In fair weather, the round of Beinn Alligin would be an ideal introduction to big winter ridges, and a good first step up from hillwalking onto graded climbing ground.

Axe - check, sun hat - check, helmet - doh! Try not to forget yours...  © Dan Bailey
Axe - check, sun hat - check, helmet - doh! Try not to forget yours...
© Dan Bailey

From a col at the end of the Horns section, it's a fair old slog onto Sgurr Mhor,(Big Peak, does exactly what it says on the tin). This high point of Beinn Alligin is a grand summit that rises far above the surrounding moors and sea to give a fantastic sense of elevation. Notable for the distinctive cleft of Eag Dubh, the result of a colossal ancient rockfall, it's a dramatic peak. The view back over the Horns is a bit of a classic (you'll have seen photos, if you've not seen it in the flesh), but frustratingly, on an otherwise clear day, it was precisely now that a single stray cloud drifted into frame to steal our visibility.

Suddenly back in sunshine, an easy descent of the hill's gentler western spur, where the rocks and hollows were smoothed by deep snow, took us around the head of the Toll a' Mhadaidh Mor, a huge bowl with terraced cliffs like the innards of a giant amphitheatre. Here the ridge narrows again, giving some light scrambling entertainment on the way to Tom na Gruagaich, the mountain's second Munro.

Heading for Tom na Gruagaich  © Dan Bailey
Heading for Tom na Gruagaich
© Dan Bailey

With the sea at your feet, and Torridon's peaks arrayed out to the east, this is a fantastic place to chill out and enjoy the view. April gave us a comfortable daylight cushion, but it's a long knee-jarring descent from 900m summit to near sea level, and with shadows stretching and the cold beginning to nip as the sun lost its oomph, we headed for home. Down at the car park in the light, neither wet, knackered, nor cold; the best winter days do tend to be in spring.

  • Grade - I (winter), 1 (scramble, summer)
  • Distance - 10.20km 
  • Total ascent - 1,186m
  • Time - 6-7 hours  
  • Sart/finish - Car park near Torridon House NG868576
  • Maps - OS Landranger (1:50,000) 24; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Torridon
  • Guidebook - Scotland's Mountain Ridges (Cicerone) 
  • Route notes - At any time of year the traverse via the Horns of Alligin is a classic ridge walk. A snow-free traverse involves only some limited grade 1 scrambling, more airy than difficult. In winter conditions however the traverse takes on a mountaineering character. The section over the towers of the Horns forms the crux, with short climbing sections in both descent and ascent. A flanking path on the south side avoids the ridge crest, but this crosses steep ground and may prove more insecure than the direct route in heavy snow.

Sgurr Mhor (left), Beinn Dearg (centre) and Liathach (right) from Tom na Gruagaich  © Dan Bailey
Sgurr Mhor (left), Beinn Dearg (centre) and Liathach (right) from Tom na Gruagaich
© Dan Bailey

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17 Jan

We've got your old Cicerone book and gradually we're working through the lot. Did Alligin just before Christmas in a 15 degree heatwave and cloud inversions. On Saturday just gone, we knocked of the grade 3 scramble on Creise (p57), that's a fantastic. I'm not going to blow too much smoke up your backside but your book is a wonderful greatest hits to the Scot mountain ridges.

Thanks!

18 Jan

Did I meet you? I spent the last two inversion days (Mon, Tues) on Alligin, camping on top of Sgurr Mor. I met a few people both days on Tom na Gruagaich. I was taking millions of photos!

18 Jan

Possible. I was the distinguished looking gentleman with an extremely good looking wife. The only person we bumped into was a bloke with a dog who we were told has an appetite for ham sandwiches. That week was quite something. ;)

18 Jan

Deep South Gully (I) is also a nice way to start the traverse of the peaks but I'd say Horns of Alligin (Grade-1) is better if I had to pick one.

Really lovely mountain; I always thought it looked a bit like a snail shell. Eag Dubh is one of the most intimidating things I've ever seen.


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