From thrilling ridges to long distance endurance fests, we all like to push the envelope sometimes. Every mountain hit list has its essential big ticks, and for this instalment in our series on the UK's gnarliest routes, Dan Bailey takes on the classic traverse over the seven Munros of the South Cluanie Ridge.
There's no bad time of year to stretch yourself on a mega hill route, but something about early spring in particular gives me the urge to go big. Summer may be just around the corner in the glens, but up on the summits the winter snow is still holding on - an unbeatable combination. The stiff boots and techy axes get mothballed, the cocoon of insulation is shed, and out comes the light stuff. Perhaps it's the longer daylight hours, allowing you to walk beyond mid afternoon; it may be the softening of the breeze, or the promise of high camps that can be enjoyed rather than just endured. Whatever the excuse, I'll drop anything for a decent spring weather window.
With a spring in my step I made tracks for Glen Shiel, and a date with the South Cluanie Ridge. Also known as the South Glen Shiel Ridge - for obvious reasons - this rank of peaks forms the southern wall of the glen. With seven attractive Munros strung together by narrow ridges, its curvy skyline is the basis of a popular big day in stunning West Highland scenery. Even for non-baggers such as me, the seven together make a logical group - a challenge for sure, but one that's achievable for most keen hillwalkers. In an area rightly famed for its ridge walks, this is still one of the stand-out routes.
You could make it far harder - and boost the Munro count to nine - by extending as far west as The Saddle, but with limited time to play with I opted for the classic route. This is a linear journey, and without two cars to leave at either end I'd have to rely on the kindness of passing drivers to get back home; but details like that would be for later. Though the South Cluanie Ridge is typically done in one fast-and-light day there's good camping on the tops, something I planned to make full use of. In the right weather, a high camp above Glen Shiel is about as good as it gets.
...But where was my promised weather window? It had looked good on arrival at the Cluanie Inn on a sunny afternoon, but as I climbed the northern shoulder of Druim Shionnach - the quickest way to access the main ridge - the cloud closed in and an ominous wind got up. Visibility had rapidly dwindled to tens of metres. I hit deep snow and steep ground at the same time, and soon found myself knee-deep in mush, plunging the axe ineffectually and contemplating the potential fall into mist below. As a cornice made of Mr Whippy loomed up at the top of my slope things suddenly seemed more serious than I'd bargained for. Back on safe ground above, a quick map check confirmed that I'd blundered blind up a completely avoidable craggy bit. Suitably shamefaced, I made a point of navigating properly on a disorienting creep over the broad summit slopes. Ground and sky were blending into one fuzzy white, and cliff edges lurked unseen somewhere on my left.
In this pea-souper the out-and-back to the easternmost summit of the group, Creag a' Mhaim, at least had the benefit of being on a defined ridge, making it hard to get too far lost. Back at Druim Shionnach the murk seemed to be thinning, and in shifting cloud I made my way down the west ridge, over a couple of minor tops and down a broad snow slope to a col. Sunset was a while off yet, but the narrow ridges and steep angles of the next peak, Aonach air Chrith, might not prove as accommodating. I stuck the tent on a strip of grass between the snow patches and crawled in to escape the wind.
Start Cluanie Inn, Glen Shiel
Finish A87 near the Glenshiel battlefield
Time 10-12 hours would be a steady walkers' time
Maps OS Landranger (1:50,000) 33; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Knoydart, Kintail & Glen Affric
Guidebook Great Mountain Days in Scotland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone) covers the extended version over Sgurr na Sgine and the Saddle, but also lists shortcut and get-out options.
Terrain The South Cluanie Ridge is characterised by clear paths on narrow grassy ridges, with occasional light scrambling. The easiest descent from Creag nan Damh is probably to continue west to the Bealach Duibhe Leac. This is a linear route, so you either need to pre-park a car at the end or hitch a lift back to the Cluanie Inn.
Winter With steep snow slopes and cornices the route becomes a more challenging proposal, while limited daylight would make a one-day traverse less likely. In winter conditions some mountaineering terrain will be encountered at a few points, notably on the narrow ridges of Aonach air Chrith, which may merit grade I, and on the steep flanks of Sgurr an Lochain.
Overnight options Camping or bivvying up on the summits or cols is a great option, and suitable sites abound. There are no water sources on the ridge itself, but water can be easily found high in the intervening corries.
Shortcuts and escape routes The cols between each peak offer possible early escape routes, but bear in mind that some of the corries leading down towards Glen Shiel can be rough and/or wet underfoot. Most of the Munros throw a ridge north towards the glen, and these can make more straightforward routes to the road; at the mid point of the walk, the northeast ridge of Maol Chinn-dearg is especially convenient in that regard.
The wind kept it up all night, battering my little tent; but unlike the cloud at least it had been forecast, and I'd come prepared. Despite the cold and the madly flapping flysheet I managed to sleep like a baby, safely swaddled in a down bag. Morning brought my longed-for clarity, the dawn sun seeping down the snow slopes under a pale blue sky. Out east, banks of cloud swathed the Nevis range, sending rivers of fluff down the glens on either side of me; but it dissipated as it was blown west, and the ridge rose clear into the light. With the wind at my back I got going while the going was good.
In an area rightly famed for its ridge walks, this is still one of the stand-out routes
With its craggy corries and narrow crests Aonach air Chrith is a fantastic mountain, perhaps the cream of the crop, and today it could hardly have looked better, its snow fields glinting in the morning. Skirting big saggy cornices, I made tracks for the top. Already the snow was soft - perhaps it hadn't frozen over night - and I sank with every step. From the airy summit a sharp ridge cuts out north over the glen, but in this collapsing spring slush I shelved thoughts of a quick mountaineering detour in the next time file.
Even the standard route was proving entertaining today, with a typical spring mix of slippy rock, soft sugary snow aretes and the occasional treacherous ice patch calling for a careful tread on the mountain's narrow west ridge, a scrambly crest descending above the dramatic cliffs of the northwest face. From here on it would be easier.
Don't get me wrong, they're great, but the next couple of Munros always seem to blur together in memory; there are no defining moments, but rest assured the ridge walking is superb all the way. Half grass, half mush - and I was thankful I'd talked myself into wearing gaiters. Thanks to my high start at sparrow's fart I had a major time advantage over other people, and enjoyed sole run of the place. Such is the appeal of Munros that their summits always seem to come with an in-situ walker, usually an affable older chap who insists on bending your ear in painful detail about which route they came up and how they're planning to get down. None of that today - just me, endless snow-streaked peaks, and a dwindling supply of cereal bars. Sometimes your own company is the best. But why did I have to have Walking on Sunshine on loop in my head? I don't even know the words.
Munro number six, Sgurr an Lochain, is a big pointy beast of a thing, and vies with Aonach air Chrith for best-of status. It's a slog though, and with my heavy pack the legs were beginning to feel it. Burying the usual cairn, the summit snow peak just ran out into a cornice. It wasn't clear if the high point sat over solid ground or air; I didn't investigate. The descent was mostly joyous glissading, and took five minutes flat. A non-Munro summit, Sgurr Beag, comes next, and though most people skirt it on a traverse path, today I had a cunning plan that required I go up. The final munro, Creag an Damh, stands out detached from the rest, and this being a linear route, by the time you've dropped to the road from here you'll be miles from where you left the car. Instead I'd backtrack from Sgurr Beag, I thought, making use of its long northeast ridge to reach the road a good hour's walk closer to home. On such a clear day the added bonus was the chance to stash my pack on the non-Munro top without fear of losing it, and do the last Munro as a quick out-and-back, blissfully unencumbered on the massive glissades. This tactic looks fine on paper - and it might have worked a treat in practise too if, instead of bogs, a raging burn full of snowmelt and a dense pine forest, I'd actually managed to find a path down the complex lower ground. Some time and a lot of sweat later, the A87 eventually materialised. The Cluanie Inn was still a fair hike away, so I stuck out my thumb and tried to look a bit less dishevelled than I felt.
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