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The Big Routes: South Letterewe Ridge

© James Roddie

Wild, varied and spectacular, the South Letterewe ridge is a strenuous route taking you into the heart of one of the remotest places in the UK. The mountain areas of Letterewe and Fisherfield are often referred to as 'The Great Wilderness' - a vast, sprawling mass of crags, high summits and lochs. This route is a perfect introduction to this peerless place, taking in some of the finest views and remotest summits in the country.

The approach above Loch Maree  © James Roddie
The approach above Loch Maree
© James Roddie

In more normal times, if I had to choose my least favourite month of the year to be out in the Scottish hills, it would most definitely be August. The midgies, the humidity, the hazy light - it all usually combines to make me want to hibernate and wake up in the Autumn. But this is 2020, and there is nothing normal about it.

Looking down the length of Fionn Loch, we could see straight into Fisherfield and the remotest Munros in the country. To the south, the Torridon hills were catching the last light

Months of lockdown and frustration had ensured my motivation for the hills was at an all-time high. I was bursting at the seams. August is usually a wet and cloudy month on the West coast. So when the long-term weather forecast started to hint at a fortnight of sunshine, clear skies and cloud inversions, I could hardly believe my luck.

Nearing the summit of Beinn Airigh Charr   © James Roddie
Nearing the summit of Beinn Airigh Charr
© James Roddie

"Prediction: it's going to be one of the busiest days in years on the hill tomorrow" - those were the thoughts of a well-known hillwalker on Twitter. I read out the tweet to my partner Nicole, and she nodded and agreed. 'We should head somewhere remote', she said. I was hoping she would say that…

The next day, as we drove the beautiful road along the shores of Loch Maree, I was beaming ear to ear. The sky was the clearest, deepest blue, and the loch was as still as I have ever seen it. I was not surprised to see that the carparks for Beinn Eighe were overflowing with cars and campervans. Across the loch, our intended summits looked welcoming, and I was relieved that we were heading to a quiet, relatively unfrequented area.

Sunset on the summit of Beinn Airigh Charr  © James Roddie
Sunset on the summit of Beinn Airigh Charr
© James Roddie

I love the feeling that comes when you take the first few steps of a hill walk. I always feel as if some kind of weight has been lifted. This time was no exception, and we were both in the highest of spirits as we started the long approach to Beinn Airigh Charr. Following the River Ewe for just over a mile, we barely spoke, and instead just enjoyed moving in the dappled shade of the ancient woodland along the river bank. A couple of other walkers passed us heading in the other direction. They looked tired and sunburnt, but content.

Leaving the vehicle track, we took a well-established short-cut across a mile of wet heathland. It was very wet, but in the hot temperatures, for once we were glad of soggy feet. It was a relief when we finally reached an odd, T-shaped gorge at the base of Beinn Airigh Charr. It was wonderfully cool in the shade, and a good spot to paddle in the stream. Both of us had expected to be getting mauled by swarms of midgies by now, but so far, so good.

Harris and the Shiants  © James Roddie
Harris and the Shiants
© James Roddie

The ascent of Beinn Airigh Charr was almost unbearably hot and sweaty. There was not the slightest breath of wind. We stopped repeatedly at the small stream flowing down the corrie, until, inevitably, the midgies started to bite. We bathed ourselves in midge repellent and got moving as quickly as possible, praying that we would find some breeze on the summit for our camp.

It took longer than expected to make much progress up the corrie. I checked the map once again. On paper the ascent is not particularly lengthy, but factor in the heat, the midgies, and a lockdown-induced lack of fitness, and it was definitely harder than we had anticipated.

We reached the summit around 8pm. To our relief we found an inviting spot for a campsite almost immediately, and with the midgies hot on our heels, we got the tent up in record speed. Not wanting to miss the sunset, we applied yet more midge repellent and spent a while sat on the summit. It is hard to overstate the grandeur of the view from Beinn Airigh Charr. Looking down the length of Fionn Loch, we could see straight into Fisherfield and the remotest Munros in the country. To the south, the entire range of Torridon hills were catching the last of the light. And to the West, the Isle of Harris and the Shiant Isles were bathed in a surreal, golden haze. We didn't want to miss a moment of such a stunning evening; it was dark by the time we finally crawled into our sleeping bags and closed our eyes.

Looking into Fisherfield, some of the most remote country in Scotland  © James Roddie
Looking into Fisherfield, some of the most remote country in Scotland
© James Roddie

We were woken just before dawn by strange sounds, and a powerful smell. I stuck my head out of the tent to find a herd of feral goats around our tent, happily grazing on the damp grass. I gave a few of them quite a fright when I emerged, but I'm not sure who was more surprised.

We had set out with a craving for wild spaces, silence, and the satisfaction of a challenging route. The South Letterewe ridge had delivered on all fronts

The rising sun broke the horizon behind the unmistakable serrated ridge of An Teallach. It was obvious that it was going to be another hot, clear day. I spent a few minutes photographing the golden light of dawn, before starting to strike camp. Arguably the most difficult part of our route was just ahead, and we wanted to face it before the temperature had risen too much.

Slioch from our high camp  © James Roddie
Slioch from our high camp
© James Roddie

From the summit of Beinn Airigh Charr, a rough descent of almost 550m had to be negotiated in order to reach the base of Meall Mheinnidh - the Graham situated between Beinn Airigh Charr and Beinn Lair. Steep, mossy scree could not be avoided on the initial descent, and we took things slowly. It would be easy to have an accident here. A small part of me worried that we had chosen an unwise route to descend, but after a short while, things started to become easier. After weaving our way around a number of small crags, we finally reached the river. It had certainly been an abrupt start to our day.

Any relief at reaching the river was short-lived however, as we now had to re-ascend almost 500m to the summit of Meall Mheinnidh. It was a punishing prospect. The way ahead was craggy and complex, and in poor visibility this could be a really tricky ascent. However, we quickly managed to pick up a small track that took us safely around most obstacles. We startled another small group of goats resting in the shade, and we took their cue and found our own spot to rest before continuing.

Waking to a clear morning on day two  © James Roddie
Waking to a clear morning on day two
© James Roddie

We faced another very steep descent off Meall Mheinnidh. Passing a tiny lochan and a burn, we topped up on water and spied our route ahead to Beinn Lair. With the temperatures soaring, we were both a little tempted to take the easy option and cut our route short. But Beinn Lair was an exciting prospect - one of the remotest Corbetts in the country, and renowned for its highly impressive north face.

In contrast to the intricate, complex ascent of Meall Mheinnidh, Beinn Lair appeared straightforward. From the bealach, we headed directly northwest in order to reach the cliff edge as soon as possible. As soon as we arrived at the edge of the north face, it was abundantly clear why this hill is held in such high regard. A seemingly endless array of aretes, buttresses and gullies stretched into the distance, falling over 400m to the glen below - one of the largest mountain faces in Scotland. Beneath us, the Carnmore causeway into Fisherfield appeared surprisingly close by. If we hadn't been aware of how remote we were before, we certainly were now.

Goats!  © James Roddie
Goats!
© James Roddie

The summit of Beinn Lair is marked by an immense cairn, fitting for a hill of such stature. As we finally stood at the highest point, I struggled to think of the last time I'd felt such a sense of accomplishment at reaching a summit in Scotland. With a cooling, midge-beating breeze starting to blow, we both took the chance to have a nap by the cairn, before tackling the many miles back to Poolewe.

Whilst the outward leg of this route is defined by huge descents and re-ascents, the return journey is of very different character. The path along Fionn Loch was blissfully easy at first - relatively flat and on a good surface. Naively, for the first couple of miles, we both felt as if it wouldn't take too long to return to the car. Clearly we hadn't truly appreciated the distance involved, especially after an already tiring day.

Looking over the stupendous northern cliffs of Beinn Lair  © James Roddie
Looking over the stupendous northern cliffs of Beinn Lair
© James Roddie

If it hadn't been for the stupendous views in every direction, this would have been a heart-breaking slog. We were walking with very tired legs, and despite drinking water as regularly as possible, the heat was really taking its toll. After many miles, and a particularly savage visit from the midgies around Loch Kernsary, we were eventually on the home stretch along the River Ewe.

When we left the car the day before, we had set out with a craving for wild spaces, mountain silence, and the satisfaction that comes with completing a challenging route. The South Letterewe ridge had delivered on all fronts. With aching limbs but smiles on our faces, we threw our bags in the car, and spent the evening swimming in the loch.

Feeling the heat on the long, long walk-out below the peaks we traversed on day one  © James Roddie
Feeling the heat on the long, long walk-out below the peaks we traversed on day one
© James Roddie

Start/finish: Poolewe - the car park just north of the school

Distance: 35.5km/22 miles

Total ascent: 2000m/6560ft

Time: 12-15 hours (for walkers, best done over 2 days)

Summits: Beinn Airigh Charr (791m), Meall Mheinnidh (722m), Beinn Lair (859m)

Maps: OS Explorer 433 (Torridon - Beinn Eighe and Liathach); OS Explorer 435 (An Teallach and Slioch); Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40000) Torridon and Fisherfield

Guidebooks: The Corbetts and Other Scottish Hills (SMC)

Terrain: An easy vehicle track for the first/last few kilometres, then largely rough, pathless and rocky ground. Some considerable descents and re-ascents make this a tiring route. The first/last two miles or so can be easily cycled.

Overnight options: A flat, grassy area just beneath the summit of Beinn Airigh Charr is a good option if you wish to split this route over two days (recommended!). For those walkers completing the route in the opposite direction (i.e via Fionn Loch first), a very basic bothy can be found near Carnmore Lodge. PLEASE NOTE - most bothies remain closed due to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic.

Seasonal notes: In full winter conditions this route is a major undertaking, and requires a very high level of hill-fitness. The steep descent off Beinn Airigh Charr towards Strathan Buidhe may be particularly avalanche prone under heavy snow cover. The North face of Beinn Lair can be prone to cornicing, so particular care should be taken here in poor visibility.

Route variants: After summiting Beinn Lair, it is possible to descend to the Fionn Loch causeway and continue up Beinn a'Chaisgein Mor (856m). Completing this route from Poolewe and back in a day is possible only for the super-fit.

Public transport: Limited. A bus runs from Inverness to Gairloch, and from Gairloch to Poolewe. Operating days/times vary yearly.

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