The Big Routes: South Cluanie Ridge
Dan Bailey gets a spring mountain fix on an overnight trip along this classic multi-Munro ridge traverse.
Whether it's a must-do scramble or a multi-summit tick fest, every mountain hit list has its essential biggies. From thrilling ridges to testing challenge walks in the wilds, we all like to push the envelope once in a while. In this series we cover some of the UK's gnarliest walks - and they don't come much tougher than this huge round of all nine of Kintail's Munros.
The mountains of Kintail stand among a dramatic and beautiful corner of the north-west Highlands. They are the ultimate hillwalker's hills, with miles of high altitude ridge strung from summit to summit. High and pointed peaks crash into the glens with astounding abruptness; almost nowhere else in the country will you find mountains of such consistent vertical relief.
"There is a fantastic poetry built into this round of the Kintail hills, in that by the time you are approaching the Sisters of Kintail, the sun is dropping in the west"
The Glen Shiel A87 provides passage through this, one of the emptiest mountain tracts in the country. On the south side, the Cluanie ridges give way to the lands of Loch Quoich and Knoydart. To the north, you could walk for days through Affric, Mullardoch and Monar without seeing a road, nor another soul. But immediately off the road rise the dramatic hills of Ciste Dhubh, the 'Three Brothers' and yet more famous 'Five Sisters of Kintail'. Along with an extended start, it is these mountains, a nine-Munro loop, that my route would traverse.
Time Two days recommended, with an overnight in Camban bothy. Walking time at Naismith's Rule is 14 hours, but expect it to take longer still - unless you're running.
Start/End Kintail Outdoor Centre, Morvich (NG967211)
Maps OS Landranger (1:50,000) Loch Alsh, Glen Shiel & Loch Hourn; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Kintail & Glen Shiel; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Knoydart, Kintail & Glen Affric
Guidebook Great Mountain Days in Scotland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone)
Terrain This is primarily a high-level route on ridges; often grassy and with occasional rougher sections on rock. The northern hills of A' Ghlas-bheinn and Beinn Fhada are crossed on open rough ground. You will encounter very little in the way of paths until you reach the popular ridge crests from Ciste Dhubh onward. The start and end of the route is walked on landrover tracks.
Winter Grade A couple of points on the route will turn into short winter grade I/II scrambles; notably a short downclimb west of Sgurr nan Spainteach. But as is the case in Kintail, there are many locations on the high and narrow ridges where a fall may easily be consequential in winter.
Overnight options Splitting the round over two days entails a night out mid-route. Camping options abound, perhaps the most convenient being the Bealach a' Choinich just south of Ciste Dubh. If you don't want to carry a tent, the obvious overnight option is to stay at Camban bothy (NH053183). The remote Alltbeithe Youth Hostel (tel 0845 2937373) offers a slightly less spartan alternative, though it's a detour from the route and not open year-round.
Short cuts and escape routes Early on in the round, you can drop into Gleann Lichd, which will drop you right back at your starting point, or on latter stages you can drop straight into Glen Shiel and the A87 so long as you are happy to hitch back to Morvich.
I'd had the route in the back of my mind for a while, and the promise of a good forecast with the relative lack of snow meant that March might provide an opportunity, rather than in the summer. The night before, I'd slept in the car at the head of Loch Duich, and with the early alarm, I parked outside the Kintail Outdoor Centre at Morvich and was on my way by half past six.
I'd already crossed from Ciste Dhubh to Sgurr Fhuaran a couple of times in the past. Today I was to push that even further, add on A' Ghlas-bheinn and Beinn Fhada and make the route a large closed loop.
This first hour passed by in the chill of morning air. I walked out of a valley frost into temperate conditions, simply trying to put the miles under my feet. Long spurs reach westward off A' Ghlas-bheinn into Strath Croe. One of the central spurs had been felled of forestry and thus it was my route of ascent. It's not the most elegant approach to a summit, but I'm not sure an elegant route really exists on this hill.
The upper slopes of the mountain brought me into the snow for the first time; deep, partially refrozen snow. I reached the top in clear conditions, but in a hard wind; too chilling to hang around in. With my first summit gained, I descended southward toward Beinn Fhada, a long descent of steep snowbanks, little crags and knolls.
Ahead was Meall a' Bhealaich, a subsidiary top of Beinn Fhada. It presents a steep aspect against the symmetrical Bealach an Sgairne. The best advice here is not to bother going direct. You'd be much better following the stalking track around to the right to Beinn Fhada. In the interest of cutting out ascent and distance I climbed it relatively directly, which turned into a heathery, rubble-strewn scramble up banks of detaching moss and refrozen snow. I can't really recommend it.
Beinn Fhada gave me some of the best light I've ever had in the mountains; sharp yet soft, contrasting as to give definition, but not washed out. I could see Ben Cruachan in the south, all the way to An Teallach in the north, and I knew it at the time. The cairn arrived, my second summit of the day. In spite of a bitter wind, I was ecstatic at where I'd managed to get myself.
Two down, seven to go. But there's a long way yet...
The next part of the route really was the meat of the day; across Beinn Fhada, a long descent toward Camban and back out the other side to Ciste Dhubh. I dropped steeply off the flank of the hill, getting tangled among steep thawing snowfields in the process. This is a long descent, a full 2000 feet to the floor. Though you know you have to climb those 2000 feet again, you can do that in the optimistic knowledge that once you are on Ciste Dhubh, you've essentially broken the back of the round. Once there, why wouldn't you go all the way to Sgurr Fhuaran? The day might not be done, but you can convince yourself it is as good as!
If you were splitting the route over two days, a night here at Camban bothy would be a good option; but I was going for the one-day round, so I took just 20 minutes at the Allt Cam-ban, drying feet out and taking on food and water. I was a little behind time, though nothing to worry about and not a reason not to stop either. Then I climbed the long slope up to Ciste Dhubh. An hour of work dropped me on its summit, the far end of today's loop and a logical half-way.
From here, the resistance would decrease; the ascents would grow smaller. For now though, the Cluanie Inn seemed a lot closer than Sgurr Fhuaran, which did look disturbingly far away. Aonach Meadhoin was a snowy dome, and I followed the lines of bootprints snaking upward. Like the rest of the day, I was either avoiding the deep snow, or simply sinking into deep snow. It can be a challenge to keep moving at speed on spring snowfields.
Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg is another fantastic mountain. Oddly anonymous seen from Glen Shiel, it presents a much better appearance to the north, double spurs plunging into Gleann Lichd. It isn't a long way from Aonach Meadhoin, nor is the ascent so great, but I did find myself having to start to dig deep. Energy was low. On the other hand, it was #141 of my current Munro Round - half way - but any thoughts toward celebration were futile against the effort still to come. Saileag seemed a simple formality, then I took another 10 minutes of rest at Bealach an Lapain.
There is a fantastic poetry built into this round of the Kintail hills, in that by the time you are approaching the Sisters of Kintail, the sun is dropping in the west, turning the Highlands to gold. Long days like these are the antidote to the feeling we get when we have found something special among the hills, yet faced without a reason to stay high, we must reluctantly return to the glens. Here, you can stay on the horizon for as long as the sun sustains.
A long ridge rises ahead; over Sgurr nan Spainteach to the first of the Sisters. It would give some of the only technical moments on a true winter round of these hills, in particular a short downclimb beyond Sgurr nan Spainteach. Now in the shadow of the hill, I slogged up Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe, legs like lead, and stood on the top overlooking Loch Duich, the sun setting behind Beinn Sgritheall and the Cuillin.
I dragged myself over Sgurr na Carnach, and at last I was at the foot of my final summit. Such effort of the body can create a tension in the mind, and it was hard to hold this. But there was no way around the effort; it must be made now. Glen Shiel was in the shade, a full 1000 vertical metres below. I paced out the final ascent to Sgurr Fhuaran, the highest summit of the Five Sisters. It is perhaps one of the most spectacular summits in the Highlands. The hills were bathed in evening light and snow-spattered. I had no climbing left to do, and yet it didn't seem entirely significant that I was on the final summit of nine, on the roof of the country at sunset. You can pause for thought at these defining moments in the hills, but it's often hard to fully pull your head around them.
With little seemingly to wait for now, I headed off the top, running down soft snow slopes in the evening glow, appreciating the final rays in the knowledge they weren't to last. Just remember and enjoy this. Shortly, I would turn off the ridge into Gleann Lichd, confine myself to the shadowed glen and leave the high summits to the last light of day.
Dropping into Glen Lichd this way allows a natural loop to be made, and it saves road walking. But if you are to do it, make sure to be precise about where you drop off, for not far along the ridge are the cliffs of Sgurr nan Saighead. Also expect the descent to be punishing; it's a steep 3000 feet straight to sea level in Gleann Lichd. Alternatively, you can always leave a bike in Glen Shiel, descend in that direction and cycle back around.
Though I was tired now, the kilometres out the glen were electric. It is paradoxical that while I was suffering on the Sisters, I was now motoring to the end on a high. The sky was darkening and the sun had disappeared in the west. For me, a whole day on the Kintail hills was the reward for my effort, and it had been worth it.
Dan Bailey gets a spring mountain fix on an overnight trip along this classic multi-Munro ridge traverse.
For our series on the UK's gnarliest walks, Kevin Woods ventures north of Affric. Need a leg stretch? At 55km, and 5000m ascent, the lap of Loch Mullardoch's 12 lonely Munros will definitely deliver.
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