The Big Routes: South Cluanie Ridge
Dan Bailey gets a spring mountain fix on an overnight trip along this classic multi-Munro ridge traverse.
For this instalment in our series on the UK's gnarliest routes, Kevin Woods ventures north of Affric, to some of Scotland's wildest country. Fancy a leg stretch? At 55km, with nearly 5000m ascent and a walking time of about 20 hours, the circuit of the 12 Munros flanking lonely Loch Mullardoch is one of the very toughest.
The mountains surrounding Loch Mullardoch are a range characterised by their enormity and emptiness; miles of ridge strung between the three great glens of Affric, Cannich and Strathfarrar. A hydro-raised loch flooded upper Glen Cannich in the early fifties, drowning most traces of human habitation, and contributing greatly to the area's remoteness. It is a part of the world that in human terms simply appears to have been forgotten to circumstance. Ideal territory, in other words, for an epic hill round.
Slopes arc away above the loch shores, concealing giant schist mountains and a substantial network of ridges. These ridges, in terms of scale and altitude, have no parallel north of the Great Glen. Because of this, there may be few hill rounds of this calibre in the Highlands. There are certainly few that match it for commitment. And for those looking for a long backpacking route or a very (very...very) long single day on the hills, the round of twelve Munros surrounding Loch Mullardoch offers both a significant challenge and the opportunity to walk a long way into a north-west hinterland.
Both long and remote, few hill rounds will test your persistence and doggedness as much as Mullardoch. This is a journey that you can't embark upon without being reasonably confident you will make it. If you don't, the return journeys may be as painful as simply completing it. But for those that do finish, it's unlikely to be a round they'll forget.
Carn nan Gobhar (Loch Mullardoch) – 992m
Sgurr na Lapaich – 1150m
An Riabhachan - North-east Top – 1129m
An Socach – 1069m
Mullach na Dheiragain – 982m
Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan – 1151m
An Socach – 921m
Mam Sodhail – 1180m
Beinn Fhionnlaidh – 1005m
Carn Eighe – 1183m
Tom a'Choinich – 1112m
Toll Creagach – 1054m
"Few hill rounds will test your persistence and doggedness as much as Mullardoch"
There are various ways to tackle this round depending on your goals and preferences. What doesn't change is the significant lack of facilities en route, so you must carry everything with you. I've done the round bivouacking, camping and also in a single lightweight push. Curiously, each method has seemed equally as tough as the others, I'm starting to believe it's a hard push however you do it.
There is no accommodation on the round, however Alltbeithe Youth Hostel lies nearby in upper Affric. It may be a consideration on a three-day round, or as a backup in case of a bail-out or emergency.
Finding water is a challenge on this route, with one significant source at the crossing of the river at the head of Loch Mullardoch. There are two other options; a spring beside the path at around 950m on Sgurr na Lapaich's west flank, and (if desperate, as it's out the way) in Coire nan Dearcag under Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.
Finally, the only practical means of escape from these hills is along the northern bank of Loch Mullardoch itself. I haven't yet met one person who hasn't considered the shore path anything but purgatory, accompanied by a withering look of never-again. Don't do it unless you have to. Escapes may be made into Affric, but leave you even further from your car.
To reach Loch Mullardoch, head to the village of Cannich, some 27 miles south-west of Inverness. A further 10 miles of single track road down Glen Cannich brings you to the road-end. Parking is available underneath the north side of the dam on a patch of rough ground.
The route described here takes an anti-clockwise direction around the hills. I've always walked the round this way; it seems to make sense with an easier start on tracks, the opportunity to get most of the ascent out of the way early, and with a trackless bash down through the heather at the end of the day rather than at the beginning.
North Mullardoch Distance: 20km Ascent: 1750m Time: 7hrs
South Mullardoch Distance: 34km Ascent: 3000m Time: 12hrs
Total: 54km / 4750m / 19hrs
Start/end Foot of Mullardoch Dam, north side, (NH220315). Parking also exists at the south end of the dam (NH223310).
Maps The complete route is covered on OS Landranger (1:50,000) 25, Glen Carron & Glen Affric. Segments of the route appear on other Ordnance Survey & Harvey maps, but never in its entirety.
Guidebook None that we know of cover the whole round: Great Mountain Days in Scotland by Dan Bailey (Cicerone) provides a description for the lion's share of the hill stages, but done in two separate routes.
Terrain On the whole, the route follows high-level ridges that are long, sweeping and grassy in nature with rock outcroppings. There is one main river crossing at the head of Loch Mullardoch, otherwise water supplies are hard to come by. There is one section of pinnacles that would appear to give some scrambling on Stob Coire Dhomhnuill east of Carn Eighe; these pinnacles can be bypassed on their south side.
Escape options Escapes are few and the route is committing for this. Dropping down to Loch Mullardoch is not recommended on the north side beyond Sgurr na Lapaich, it is highly discouraged on the south! At the half-way point on the route, Alltbeithe Youth Hostel lies in the glen below and would offer sanctuary if required. Otherwise there are no bothies or shelter nearby. In the latter stages of the route, dropping to Glen Affric via. Gleann nam Fiadh gives the quickest way to civilisation, but by then, for all the effort of getting back to the car in Glen Cannich, you might as well just finish.
Overnight options Camping by the head of Loch Mullardoch would give access to a water supply, but the ground is poor. In settled weather, it comes reccomended to make the long climb to Mullach na Dheiragain on the first day and camp high on the remote trio of Munros.
Carn nan Gobhar is the first summit of the round, and a new hydro track makes the boggy approach to this hill a thing of the past. The track follows the northern shore of Loch Mullardoch to the Allt Mullardoch, then climbs into Coire an t-Sith. This ends around the 350m contour from where a faint path can be followed, turning to rough grass and heather. Gain the bealach between Carn nan Gobhar and Creag Dhubh, then strike off left to the summit. Carn nan Gobhar is a pleasant hill to begin with, though a modest precursor to what is to come.
Sgurr na Lapaich, by contrast, is one of the most singularly impressive mountains in the area. A rocky buttress rises direct to the summit, with a faint path tracing its left-hand side.
The western slopes of Sgurr na Lapaich are more forgiving than those just ascended. There is a spring by the path at around 950m which I've been glad to see in hot conditions. Ahead, An Riabhachan rises ever larger. This is a bulky hill, a 2km long 'rooftop'.
An Riabhachan is connected to the next mountain by Bealach a' Bholla, a really rough patch of ground. The path winds amongst all the stone but there is a moment or two of scrambling. Ahead, is An Socach. From the bealach, the path climbs an east-facing snout, literally the socach itself, to emerge at the mountain's summit trig point.
The descent south-west from An Socach is where the round seems to become truly committing. The hills of Mullardoch are so sprawling that they offer this sense of starting on one coast of Scotland and walking out toward another. You descend from An Socach looking west to the hills of Affric & Kintail, and realise that the west coast may be as easily accessible as the east. Beyond Meall Shuas, a subsidiary arm, you cross the river leading into the head of Loch Mullardoch. Above you, the 2,500-foot slope of Mullach na Dheiragain looms large.
I've never found the long rise to Mullach na Dheiragain anything but tough. On my second time walking the Mullardoch round I tackled this hill in 30-degree heat, camping kit on my back, and not a breath of wind. I remember it as being one of the most brutally tough moments I've had out on the hills. Another time, in a moment of irony, I slogged up this slope while watching an estate worker motor up adjacent in an Argocat, step out and begin his day's shooting on the 3,000-foot contour. But once the summit of Mullach na Dheiragain is gained, the terrain eases and the way ahead is clear to the huge pyramid of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.
This mountain displays such tremendous form, scale and breadth. Its summit is also the moment you stop walking away from the Glen Cannich road-end, and begin the long walk back. Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan offers a broad panorama of Kintail such that to have walked this far is to feel a long way out there. The surrounding area, by virtue of it being half-way through the round also makes it ideal ground for a bivvy or camp. The first time I did this, I bivvied on the summit of the Affric An Socach, on a cool evening of changeable weather. Predictably I awoke through the night with cold rain lashing my face. Worse, I had run out of water for breakfast and had an awful day walking back to the car.
The second time couldn't have been more different. I was on these hills in 2013 as part of a one-season Munro round. On Carn na Con Dhu, just prior to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, I camped and wrote the following in my blog; "I decided enough was enough and pitched my tent at 3000 feet with the sun a ball of red. The mountains turned to orange and were streaked in long shadows. Darkness settled over; I set my alarm early and sleep came as soon as my head hit the bed."
I awoke in the early morning to see the north-eastern sky on fire and a hot sun on it's way. Packless, I walked up to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, the glens filled with mist, and even at this hour, the air hot and heavy on this remote summit.
Compared to the mountains that have just been crossed, Affric's An Socach seems somewhat a formality. It certainly gives another summit for quite less effort from the legs. But ahead rises Mam Sodhail, a bulky heel of land. I find the acute sense of isolation breaks at this point; the end of the round pulls into view and Loch Mullardoch reemerges.
A stalking track runs up the side of Mam Sodhail. Near the top, it begins to traverse leftward (north), never gaining the ridge crest. While it seems to make sense to leave the path in favour of the ridge, you you can trade shattered ground on the crest for this pleasant, but faint, stalking track. Mam Sodhail itself is crowned by a great Ordnance Survey cairn. For the more precise-minded, the summit lies on the heel of ground 20 metres to the east.
Beinn Fhionnlaidh lies out on a remote arm, a significant deviation from the otherwise linear route. It is also a fine summit, and probably gives the single best view of the entire range. Projecting out on an arm high above the water, the length of Loch Mullardoch is laid out in all it's stunning desolation. Beinn Fhionnlaidh also offers a rare opportunity to drop camping gear for a light-of-step deviation out to the cairn.
Next, take the north ridge of Carn Eighe to find a trig point on top. This really is the 'beginning of the end' of the Mullardoch Round – all that separates you from the end is a five-mile 'highway' to Toll Creagach.
But on this highway are a vast number of twists, turns, further Munros and their subsidiary tops. A path goes essentially all the way. A couple of intermediate tops lead onto the high heel of Sron Garbh, where the underlying geology changes from schist to quartzite. A long descent on rough blocks takes you to the foot of An Leth-chreag – a Munro Top, but still a long climb as well as a significant descent off the far side.
The penultimate Munro, Tom a' Choinich lies beyond with a path tracing it's way up to the summit. Tom a' Choinich is a great bulk of hill, perhaps less in altitude than what has just been crossed – but nonetheless, it throws down broad shoulders to the north and south. To the east however, a faint, slender ridge marks the descent. I once climbed this using a direct route in deep winter snows, but in summer a path zig-zags past the blocks immediately to the right (south) side.
Beyond, the landscape rolls out, finally released from the tight-packed crags, out into the broad convexities of a Central Highland hill. I've had a fine few traverses from Carn Eighe to here, where the weather broke open on this eastward stretch. On these days, the mist and rain has cleared to brilliant blue skies, cumulus cloud and sunshine. At another time on a 16-hour round of Mullardoch, the hills across the water had turned shades of deep red; time to get a move on and race the sun before getting plunged into darkness.
I've always maintained the Mullardoch Round is a tough one right to the end, and the Fraoch-choire is yet another example. This coire leads off the flanks of Toll Creagach and drops you right by the end of Loch Mullardoch. In the lower coire, pick up the course of the river which brings you to the edge of the trees. Here you pick up a track that winds through the forest. Steeped in your tiredness, take a moment to appreciate the pines, carpets of blaeberry and the gurgling waters and white schist of Allt Fraoch-choire.
A final bit of precise route-finding will aid this most inelegant of finishes. The amazing forest track opens out to moor and then becomes a morass. Pick up a deer fence and keep it on your right hand side, as you begin to bear east. Don't go through an obvious gate mid-way down. Eventually, aim for a summer house on a hillock above the dam, from where you can drop down to the tarmac of the road.
This brings you to the south side of the Mullardoch dam. Owing to its design, you cannot cross the dam. If you haven't left a car here, one option is to walk the long way by the road (2km). However if you are discerning of the OS 1:25,000 map, you may notice a series of tracks running underneath the dam. These provide the quickest and easiest way back to the parking (1.1km), provided you don't mind climbing a few stiles at the end of your day.
Dan Bailey gets a spring mountain fix on an overnight trip along this classic multi-Munro ridge traverse.
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