One Minute Mountain: Liathach

For our series of bite-sized intros to Britain's best loved hills, Alex Roddie takes on the beast of Torridon, the mighty Liathach


Torridon  © Al Todd
Torridon
© Al Todd, Mar 2013

Height: 1055m (3461ft)

Personality: Prehistoric – and peerless. It's become a bit of a cliché to describe Liathach as stegosaurus-like, but the simile is apt; from several angles this huge mountain has a saurian look about it, with a serrated ridgeback covered in spines. The ridge includes two Munros (Liathach - Spidean a'Choire Leith and Liathach - Mullach an Rathain) along with four Munro Tops.

Like most of the Torridonian mountains, Liathach is a mini massif, quite separate from surrounding peaks. It's bounded by Glen Torridon to the south, Coire Dubh Mor to the east, and Coire MhicNobaill to the north and west.

What's in a name? Liathach is Gaelic for 'The Grey One' or 'The Big Grey One', a reference to the grey quartzite screes covering its upper flanks.

Best route: It's got to be the classic Traverse (UKH Route Card). This challenging outing takes in every peak on the ridge with a fair bit of scrambling up to Grade 2 in between, although the worst (ie. best) segments can be bypassed on a path below. However, don't be fooled – limited retreat and descent options make this a committing and serious day out, especially in bad weather or winter conditions. The hardest section is called Am Fasarinen, which means 'The Teeth'. Watch out for those gnashers! In winter, the Liathach Traverse becomes a Grade II winter climb, and is commonly regarded as one of the top routes of its grade in the country.

view north  © sparbus
view north
© sparbus, Jan 2011

Any easier routes? If you'd rather leave the full Traverse for another day, each Munro can be climbed individually by non-technical walks from Glen Torridon. A very steep route climbs Coire Liath Mhor from the south before veering west towards Spidean a' Choire Leith. If aiming for Mullach an Rathain, another brutally steep route climbs directly to the summit from the roadside in Glen Torridon.

A route with bite: The Northern Pinnacles of Meall Dearg, leading to Mullach an Rathain, offer an unfrequented alternative for rock climbers keen to get a glimpse of the dramatic northern corries. In summer this grand route is graded Mod and is an old-school ridge climb; winter conditions make it a more challenging proposition, officially grade II like the main ridge Traverse, but considerably more of a climb. Not for walkers at any time!

Tell me more about those dramatic northern corries: Like many Scottish hills, Liathach's best side is to the north. Access is simple; paths circumnavigate the mountain, although you'll still be in for a fair slog uphill to get to the magic from Coire Mhic Nobaill. Coire na Caim is the largest and most interesting corrie on the north side. Flanked by the two Munros and with the pinnacles of Am Fasarinen as backdrop, cliffs rise almost directly from the waters of Loch Coire na Caime. It's particularly dramatic in winter and is a popular destination for ice climbers.

The full moon lights up Liathach whilst Venus moves overhead  © Al Todd
The full moon lights up Liathach whilst Venus moves overhead
© Al Todd, Feb 2017

Plane crash: The nearby Beinn Eighe was the site of a well-known Lancaster Bomber crash on 14 March 1951 – a propellor from the aircraft is still wedged in Fuselage Gully, and is often used as an anchor for winter climbers. But Liathach was the site of a more recent and lesser-known aircraft crash. In December 2000, a Cessna went missing over the Scottish Highlands en route to the Hebrides from Inverness. The hunt was called off after extensive searches, but debris from the aircraft, along with the bodies of Robert MacLean and Ewan Spalding, were eventually found on Liathach in February 2001.

Ravaged by fire: Wildfires swept the Highlands in May 2011 and Liathach itself burned. Landscape photographer Steve Carter took these dramatic photos of an active grass fire almost at the top of the mountain: It was one of at least 29 fires across the NW Highlands, and resulted in six people and a dog being airlifted to safety.

Where to stay? Options in Torridon include the Torridon SYHA hostel and a very basic free campsite (renowned for its midges!) Just up the road in Kinlochewe, the Kinlochewe Hotel offers bunkhouse accommodation.

Local pub: The Torridon Inn, at the western end of the ridge – but be aware that it's closed from early December until early February. The Kinlochewe Hotel has an excellent bar with a superb selection of single malt whisky and real ale.


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