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The Big Routes: Traverse of the Mamores

© Dan Bailey

The clear light and rich tones of autumn make this a fine time to be out on the hills. Before the weather degenerates into the stormy season, and while the daylight allowance is still reasonable, you've a window to grab what may be your last really substantial walks of the year. They don't come much bigger, for most of us, than the traverse of the Mamores.

Early morning on the crest of An Gearanach  © Dan Bailey
Early morning on the crest of An Gearanach
© Dan Bailey

Numbering 10 separate Munros (plus a few subsidiary tops) strung out over miles of twisting ridges, this complex range is generally broken down into three digestible chunks: the western pair; the eastern four; and the central four comprising the famous Ring of Steall.

All great routes, and I've not a bad word to say for any of them - but as a glutton for both hills and punishment, the extended traverse of all 10 Mamores was top of my to-do list this time. At around 40km, with around 3300m ascent, it's quite a leg-stretcher. As a one-day challenge at walking pace this is a summer solstice sort of outing, and when the nights start drawing in only decent runners are likely to fit it between dawn and dusk. On the other hand, a pack full of camping gear turns the Mamores traverse into a perfect overnight journey - and it's still two pretty full days.

The Buachaille to The Ben: Binnein Mor from Sgurr Eilde Mor  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
The Buachaille to The Ben: Binnein Mor from Sgurr Eilde Mor
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Sep 2020

The forecast promised settled and sunny, so with visions of crisp autumnal weather I took a venture on a bivvy over a tent, staking my sanity on the chance of a breeze up high. After months of midge madness it seemed a risky gamble, but the lighter pack won out. What I hadn't factored in was the heat, a late burst of summer that seemed to be drawing every walker to the hills. The dreich inevitability of November, and fear of another lockdown, must have been acting on us all. As I'd passed through Glen Coe that morning every layby was full; and even in the enclave of Kinlochleven, tucked at the head of its fjord, parking felt more bank holiday Ambleside than midweek Lochaber.

I sweated uphill through the dappled light of the morning birch woods, already regretting the economy that had prompted me to leave shorts in the car. Teams were out in force, and I must have passed ten people on the long grind up to Coire an Lochain - as many as might often be met all day. More a col than a corrie, Coire an Lochain is an idyllic place to camp, and I wasn't surprised to see a couple of tents tucked in beside various lochans. Dropping the pack, I made a quick and thankfully unencumbered dash up Sgurr Eilde Mor. Easternmost of the Mamores Munros, it stands alone, and on previous traverses of the range I'd missed it out for the sake of neatness on the map, and on behalf of my legs. This time I'd be playing by bagging rules. Sgurr Eilde Mor is mostly made of steep scree, but in its favour the stand-alone position does make it a great viewpoint on Binnein Mor, giant of the Mamores.

Loving the old Victorian handiwork: If a stalking estate built this trail today, it'd be a 4m-wide scar visible from orbit  © Dan Bailey
Loving the old Victorian handiwork: If a stalking estate built this trail today, it'd be a 4m-wide scar visible from orbit
© Dan Bailey

Before the highland shooting estates caught the bug for simply bulldozing wherever they felt like it, scarring the landscape with webs of private roads, even toffs with guns had to take their time. Built by hand, for ponies and pedestrians rather than fume-belching vehicles, old stalker's paths work in sympathy with the grain of the land, following the contours or zigzagging wisely to ease the ascents. Testament to their quality of construction, many still serve hillwalkers today. One of the best I know wraps around the eastern foot of the Mamores, allowing quick access to an otherwise remote area. I followed this now, on a joyous traverse across the middle slopes of Binnein Mor, soon reaching the col at the foot of Binnein Beag.

Binnein Beag and the Grey Corries from the northeast ridge of Binnein Mor  © Dan Bailey
Binnein Beag and the Grey Corries from the northeast ridge of Binnein Mor
© Dan Bailey

Another scree cone out on its own, Binnein Beag takes quite some effort to reach from any starting point - but that wasn't stopping folk today, and you could almost have called it crowded. On the descent, a nice surprise, when I bumped into UKH contributor and local running guide Keri Wallace, and client Sandra. A challenging day to be out running, I thought, practically melting as I left the path for the steep ascent onto the northeast ridge of Binnein Mor.

Arguably the most engaging route to the high point of the Mamores, this ridge offers some airy scrambling on quality schist, but seems to see little footfall, and now I had it to myself. Difficulties are largely optional, and with an overnight pack and rock slick with condensation I happily took the easy line.

Ben Nevis from Na Gruagaichean  © Dan Bailey
Ben Nevis from Na Gruagaichean
© Dan Bailey

Like the apex of a roof, Binnein Mor's short summit ridge is a classic narrow arete, and while the exposure soon eases off the continuation over an unnamed top and on up to Na Gruagaichean, Munro number four, gives you some of the most enjoyable ridge striding in the Mamores. By now I was crispy around the edges, and with bottles drained dry a short detour to a spring in a high corrie below the crest was required. To save further height loss later I filled up enough to last the night.

Twin-topped Na Gruagaichean is a highlight of the walk, its peaks separated by a dramatic little notch. One top resembles an old fashioned A-frame tent. It's watch-your-step ground in winter, but just pleasantly airy on a sunny autumn afternoon. Dropping to the next col is a major loss of hard-earned height. Shadows were beginning to stretch out, and on the drag up to Stob Coire a' Chairn my legs were suddenly plodding on empty.

Ben Nevis from Stob Coire a' Chairn  © Dan Bailey
Ben Nevis from Stob Coire a' Chairn
© Dan Bailey

Motivation seemed to have evaporated in the heat. The mid-way point, Munro five of ten, advertised itself as a good place to call a halt. With a view to catching a trace of breeze to mitigate a possible midge attack, I set up the bivvy bag right on top, a grassy plot that's served me well before. There is a lot to be said for lounging around on a hill, soaking up the rays and sipping a warm beer as the west slowly turns gold. Even a big round can have its leisurely interludes. Maturity is softening my masochism; I'd even brought a blow-up pillow.

The feared midge harassment never came, and I could enjoy the lingering sunset in peace, a welcome compensation for the turn of the season. Stags roared and boomed in the evening glens, the peaks glowed softly, and even the breeze had a caressing warmth. Cocooned in a winter sleeping bag - a needless precaution - I was close to too cozy, and soon floated off. When I woke later, the clear sky seen through the open zip of my bivvy bag was bright with countless stars, a journey into deep space without leaving the ground.

Looking over Glen Nevis to the Grey Corries  © Dan Bailey
Looking over Glen Nevis to the Grey Corries
© Dan Bailey

Dawn brought a brief chill, and a heavy dew that was almost refreshing. As I bumbled about making coffee the peaks of the Grey Corries began to resolve out of layers of pale mist, a familiar scene rendered as Chinese watercolour.

If you're determined to bag all ten of the Mamore Munros then you've got to accept a bit of to-and-fro. Besides the pesky eastern pair, two others stand out on a limb from the main ridge, necessitating out-and-back detours that add distance and ascent, and eat into time and energy. At least I could stash my pack and go unloaded. First up An Gearanach, accessed via an enjoyable scramble over the ragged intervening ridge of An Garbhanach, the most hands-on bit of my day. The low morning light was vivid, and even at this early hour the sun had power. Though keen to enjoy the autumn warmth while it lasted, I was already wondering about water sources.

Resorting to rolled-up trousers on a baking Am Bodach... well, needs must  © Dan Bailey
Resorting to rolled-up trousers on a baking Am Bodach... well, needs must
© Dan Bailey

Back at the pack for breakfast, and the sun was really getting into the spirit of things. Though there's a nice bit of ridge strolling to start with, the steep scree trudge up Munro number seven, Am Bodach, took a bit of graft. Sweat stung my eyes, and though in reality it had been lightened by eating, the pack felt like someone had ferreted rocks into it overnight.

Last of the detours is Sgurr a' Mhaim. This one's pure pleasure, linked to the rest of the range by the famous Devil's Ridge, one kilometre or so of the most memorable walking in Lochaber. Almost unfeasibly narrow in places, but with only fleeting hands-on moments, this fantastic feature demands nothing more than a head for heights. The advantage of the out-and-back approach is of course that you get to do it twice.

Heading along the Devil's Ridge  © Dan Bailey
Heading along the Devil's Ridge
© Dan Bailey

Munro no.9, Stob Ban, from Sgurr a' Mhaim  © Dan Bailey
Munro no.9, Stob Ban, from Sgurr a' Mhaim
© Dan Bailey

Another of those nifty old stalker's paths descends from the terminus of the Devil's Ridge, its zigzags making light of the steepness. At the bottom is a special little place, Lochan Coire nam Miseach, a shallow, transparent pool cupped in a hollow of the hills. Though itching to get in, I felt too self-conscious to flash the many walkers that seemed to keep popping up from all directions. Britishness, it is increasingly clear, is a system of self-imposed handicap; a German would have done it kein problem. At least I could refill with water, now a desperate need.

Stob Ban is a bold peak, but that also means a lot of up, quite a trudge at the height of the day. Still, the drama of its summit crags is hard to argue with, and up on Munro nine the end - of the hill stage at least - was now very much in sight. Stuck far out at the western end of the Mamores, you could call Munro 10, Mullach nan Coirean, an anti-climax, but I'd prefer to see it as a gentle wind-down, a long easy stride above a series of deep corries, with plenty of grassy ground to soothe the feet.

Final major ascent of the round, on Stob Ban  © Dan Bailey
Final major ascent of the round, on Stob Ban
© Dan Bailey

A very last stroll out along the ridge to the final top of all, Meall 'a Chaorainn, and I was finally done with the high ground. Now just the small matter of a return to Kinlochleven, not an inconsiderable distance along the brutally stony track of the West Highland Way. None of the many wayfarers I met looked exactly fresh, but in terms of being a dishevelled, sweaty mess, I'm sure I had them beat.

Evening in the Mamores  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
Evening in the Mamores
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Sep 2020

The Route:

Start/finish: Car park in Kinlochleven, on Wade's Road - as for the Grey Mare's Tail, NN187623

Distance: 38.30 km (23.80 miles)

Total ascent: 3,311m

Time: 16hrs (for walkers, best done over 2 days)

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50000) 41; OS Explorer 392 ; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40000) Ben Nevis & Glen Coe

Guidebooks: Great Mountain Days in Scotland (Cicerone)

Terrain: The full range of ground from clear stalker's and walker's paths to steep scree, narrow ridges and some short-lived but airy scrambling. The key hands-on sections are the northeast ridge of Beinnein Mor, An Garbhanach, and the Devil's Ridge, all around grade 1.

Overnight options: The grassy cols and high corries between the peaks offer loads of scope for camping and bivvying, and on a calm night many of the summits are well suited too. Finding water invariably means dropping off the high ground.

Seasonal notes: In full winter conditions this route is a major physical undertaking, and unlikely to be done in a single day. It's best considered an extended mountaineering round. The scrambling sections become grade I winter climbs, while other potentially tricky places such as the traverse of Na Gruagaichean and the steep northeast flank of Am Bodach also need a lot of care.

Route variants: Things can be made a lot easier by missing out any, or all four, of the outlying Munros: Sgurr Eilde Mor, Binnein Beag, An Gearanach, and Sgurr a' Mhaim. Omitting the latter two also allows you to avoid the greater part of the scrambling. With several decent paths leading south from the main ridge to Kinlochleven, it's possible to cut the route short at a number of points: just west of Na Gruagaichean; just west of Am Bodach; and just east of Stob Ban

Public transport: Bus to Kinlochleven

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