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Highland Scrambles South Review

It's been a long time coming, but after a decade of waiting on my part (and I'm sure I wasn't alone) this follow-up to the SMC's classic Highland Scrambles North finally hit the shelves this year. Highland Scrambles South brings comprehensive guidebook coverage to all the recorded scrambles south of the Great Glen, plus Knoydart, Ardgour, Rum, Mull, Arran and even the Southern Uplands.

Highland Scrambles South cover, 38 kb

From easy hands-on journeys such as Ledge Route through to mountain rock climbs like Observatory Ridge, the grades on offer span from 1,2 and 3 scrambles through Mod and Diff to VDiff rock - a welcome breadth of scope if, like me, you consider harder scrambles and easier climbs to be essentially the same activity.

A host of routes are included - 216 named scrambles in all. Many will be familiar to any keen Scottish scrambler; others you may know by reputation; and then there are the ones I'll bet you've never heard of (Forgotten Ridge on Ainshval; Mullwhachar's Tauchers Couloir... anyone?). Many of these are described for the first time; in fact, it may be fair to assume that author Iain Thow and buddies have actually made some first ascents during the research for this book.

"Compiling the guide involved having an enormous amount of fun in some brilliant places" Iain told me. "It's given me the push to go and try a whole load of possibilities that I'd always looked at and thought "maybe....". Scotland has a huge amount of wild rocky areas where nobody goes, so hopefully the guide will get at least a few people out enjoying them."

HSS sample 1, 136 kb

Are all the routes herein actually worthy of inclusion? Might some deserve printing with a health warning? Keen readers are hopefully going to have a lot of fun finding out.

New scrambling guidebooks don't come along every day, and from the amount of work that has clearly gone into HSS it is easy to appreciate why. It is obvious that Iain has climbed every route in this book. His attention to detail and his clear love of exploratory bimbling on obscure bits of mountain rock really shine through.

Rarer still are scrambling guides with a decent modern layout. Highland Scrambles South is very user-friendly, with clear maps and - shock and awe - colour photo topos. These latter bring the scrambling guidebook into the 21st Century, setting a new standard of clarity and accuracy that puts older guides to shame. How did we ever follow those dodgy hand drawn topos? Anyone lamenting the dilution of adventure that modern information represents can of course choose not to read the guide; for the rest of us, a line drawn onto an actual photograph of the crag is precisely the sort of thing we buy guidebooks for.

HSS sample 2, 149 kb

In Highland Scrambles North, published back in the mists of 2006, sketches that clearly look like they were traced from photos were used. These are about as good as line drawings get, but you do wonder why they didn't just go the whole hog then? No matter, they have now.

The topos are invaluable not only in locating and following the routes, but in giving you an idea what to expect from them. Is it a splurge of ill-defined outcrops or a bold and compelling ridge? You can generally tell straight away.

The many action photos are a mixed bag, but largely very good. All seem to have been taken en-route, on a real ascent - there are no professional posed photo shoots here. They do a good job of defining the character and setting of the route, and selling its qualities too. If there's one criticism I can possibly make, it is that the photos set a high bar of expectation. If you didn't know better you might think it's always dry and sunny in Scotland; a few more atmospheric moody shots might have added a dose of realism. We don't all spend the good weather days scrambling; for some of us it's often an iffy weather alternative to mountain rock climbing.

HSS sample 3, 149 kb

Route descriptions are clear and business-like, and seem to contain just the right level of detail. On a rambling mountain route several hundred metres long you can't describe every block and crack, in fact to try to do so would be madness; but so long as the saleint points are mentioned then the general route finding should be made easier. Iain Thow knows this well, providing blow-by-blow detail only at those points on each route that really merit it.

But how accurate are his descriptions?

Well I read through a lot of routes that I'm already familiar with, and everything seemed to be in the right place. But there's only so much that you can do with an armchair book review: to really test its mettle you've got to get your hands dirty.

There's no point following a scrambling guide up a well-known classic, where signs of wear are often the only guide you need. Besides which I've probably done them all several times. For my field test I picked the South Face of Glen Coe's A'Chailleach, a slightly obscure and rambly outing on which the accuracy of the route description would be well highlighted. From one previous visit I knew it'd be worth my time; but as this was back in the last century I clearly wasn't going to be working from memory.

Starting up the route, 200 kb
Starting up the route
© Dan Bailey

"A long chain of outcrops which link to give a fine route up the hill... Also a useful preliminary to the Aonach Eagach"

Yep, that's the plan... The car parking info is up to date, reflecting the new road layout in the glen. Approach notes work well too, soon getting me to the foot of the first big crag.

"Walk left under a long horizontal overhang and steep wall then climb the groove left of these on big steps."

So far, so clear.

"On the next outcrop climb a vague groove in the centre past a perched boulder, finishing with a hard step up using good handholds."

All as described, though the guidebook may well be around for longer than that perched boulder - temporary features are always a difficult call in a route description.

"Minor outcrops now lead to a vertical wall on the right. Climb the left edge of this on comforting square cut holds."

I'm almost suckered into a very hard-looking groove in the wall itself, but on second thoughts take the guidebook at its word and climb mucky looking ground on the true left edge. Turns out the book was right and the holds are as promised. Note to self: if you're following a description, try to actually follow it.

"Scramble up the right-hand edge of a mossy outcrop..."

Looks too foul to contemplate so I avoid it altogether, walking around its right flank. If that's what the book meant, it might have said so.

"...up more broken ground to a steep black buttress. This is probably the crux of the route and in the wet is best avoided, but if dry start in the centre and go up to climb an awkward right-slanting ramp. At its top follow a ledge leftwards and up a thankfully easier corner..."

On the hottest day of all time I have no worries with slime, but the ramp does indeed prove tricky with a move of at least VDiff to start. The ledge does as expected - very airily - and the easy corner gets me out of the deathfall zone without breaking a sweat. A nifty bit of route finding by whoever first went that way, and a spot-on write-up.

A groove, but is it the right groove? Wandering seriously off-line, 186 kb
A groove, but is it the right groove? Wandering seriously off-line
© Dan Bailey

After this things get messy on the ground, and thus hard for any book to describe. I lose the thread of the route description, and simply make a beeline for the massive orange headwall that guards the top of the route and "looks an unlikely proposition". Perhaps I should have turned to the photo topo...

"Climb the right hand of three right-slanting grooves, with a perfect juggy crack for security..."

Well there are a couple of obvious grooves above me, plus a sort of inset slab on the right that could with poetic license be described as groovy. There's no sign of that perfect juggy crack. A quick look left around the corner reveals a couple more grooves, but neither safe for an unroped scrambler. Then it dawns on me. To the right, across a deep gully and at a lower level, the orange wall rises to its full height. A quick correction has me back on track. There are the three grooves, as promised, only the right of which looks like any place for me. The crack duly materialises - it is indeed perfect - and I romp up in a wild position, a real three-star finish to a two-star route.

Now that's more like it, 167 kb
Now that's more like it
© Dan Bailey

The book did mention walking right, but as the natural course was straight up the front of the buttress I think it could have made slightly more of the diagonal line you need to follow to reach the right bit of the 'obvious' wall. It's clearer on the topo. That little diversion at the top was perhaps more my fault than the book's - but then that's why we buy guidebooks, to steer us right when our instinct might be saying left.

Overall I'd say that was a decent description to a complicated sprawling mountainside that's hard to capture in words. If this is anything to go by then you can buy Highland Scrambles South with confidence.

  • In the interests of full disclosure, I am an SMC member. However I've had no hand in this, or any other of their books. As such I'd like to think I'm disinterested and unbiased.

Highland Scrambles South by Iain Thow

This guide describes some of the best scrambles and easy rock climbs to be found in Scotland (outwith Skye and the Northern Highlands). The guide describes 215 routes in The Cairngorms, Lochnagar, Ben Nevis & The Mamores, Glen Coe & Glen Etive, Knoydart, Ardgour & Ardnamurchan, Creag Meagaidh & Ben Alder, Southern Highlands, Southern Uplands and on the islands of Mull, Rum and Arran. All kinds of outings are described – from short routes on the gabbro crags of Ardnamurchan to major undertakings on the ridges of Ben Nevis. A number of the outings are described for the very first time.

  • Price: £25
  • Paperback; 416 pages
  • 85 photographs, 95 topo-diagrams and 28 maps
  • ISBN 9 781907 233234

For more info see smc.org.uk

Highland Scrambles South cover, 38 kb



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