5 Sisters of Kintail – An Ordeal for Mountain Cowards!

12 03 2011

Walked June 2009…

On my first day of Richard and my trip to Kintail I decided to get my most feared walk out of the way first – the famous 5 Sisters – I had an idea I wouldn’t like them. I knew it was a long walk so we got ready for a 9am start (pretty early for us). However, when we looked out the cloud was quite well down and I was wondering whether we would be able to navigate the ridge in cloud as it looked complicated on the map – I suspected that there would be a pretty good path though due to its popularity.

We drove up the main road through Glen Shiel and stopped at various roadside pull-offs for me to peer at the range intently. We were trying to decide whether the cloud was lifting or not. After chatting to an elderly couple (not walkers) who were having a coffee in a parking place for ten minutes or so and pointing out what we were planning, we decided it was definitely starting to lift. That was the signal to go and get it over with (in my case – Richard was looking forward to it).

Misty 5 Sisters

I had planned to do a much shorter route than most do by going up the back of the ridge via Glen Lichd as far as Glenlichd House and then go up to the Bealach an Lapain col from the back. This meant that, if you imagine the 5 Sisters in a ‘D’ shape, we were going along the back of the ‘D’ and then the curved front, rather than doing the curved front twice as many do. It also had the advantage that there was no road walking to do.

The walk from the parking at Morvich up the glen was extremely pleasant and we wandered along looking at the spectacular frontal crags of Sgurr an Saighead. We were soon passing Glenlichd House and slogging up the long but easy grassy slope at the back of the normal route to the Bealach an Lapain. It was quite some slog and, unusually for me (but perhaps not for a first day out on a trip) I was knackered by the top of it!

I said to Richard I’d like a short rest of 5 minutes or so and perhaps a bite to eat but he said he wanted to press on – no doubt savouring the look of the narrow path setting off up Sgurr nan Spainteach. As we ascended the path up the narrow (but not scary) ridge I started to stagger with tiredness and had a total lack of co-ordination, tripping over rocks and suchlike. Still Richard didn’t want to stop though so we pressed on.

5 Sisters start fm the bealach

After nearly falling off the ridge a couple of times the summit of Spainteach was reached and then I was allowed a rest and a bite of Richard’s tea-loaf. Just to show I really should have insisted on that break when I asked for it, I was fine after that (energy-wise anyway). The thing that was bothering me however while I munched my cake and drank my coffee was – the view – Sgurr Fhuaran looked a monster – it looked almost vertical for a very long way. I just hoped that, as we walked further round the ridge, I’d see that the path actually took an easy slope further round.

I’d read there was a bit of a ‘bad step’ on the descent and kept reaching rocky bits of downclimb and thinking “well this isn’t so bad”… but then I reached it… and ground to a halt! I looked down left and could see the bottom of the descent would be quite holdless for the last 8 feet or so. Didn’t fancy that one… looked down the right hand side – ugh – that started off with a gully which went a long way down the steep north-eastern side of the corrie – but at least I could see hand and footholds on that. I looked straight down the end and thought that, after an awkward start, that looked best – and at least it kept you over the ridgeline so not far to fall off!

Sgurr nan Spainteach bad step

I passed over to Richard to take a look. He set off down the left but got stuck above the last bit (like I thought we would). He came back up and set off down to the gully on the right. I told him he needed to get back onto the actual end of the ridge as soon as he could and he made a big stride round a rock onto the front and waited for me to make my attempt. I was okay down the top of the gully (although I hated it) but couldn’t bring myself to do the step round the rock for quite a while. In the end I realised it was either that or the other side with the big drop at the bottom of it so forced myself to do it (after a little swear). From there it was plain sailing down to the col.

The col and the start of the ascent of Sgurr na Ciste Duibh has, as noted in many guide books, a strange double ridge. However, there was nothing bad anywhere and I enjoyed that peak – very nice and easy.

So that was two peaks which hadn’t been too bad. In addition the sun had come out and it was turning into a glorious hot day. However, I was still looking at Fhuaran and still couldn’t see the nice, easy route round the back yet…

It was a really easy ascent up to Sgurr na Carnach but as I reached the summit, I could see the route up Fhuaran… it was where I’d originally seen – up the ‘vertical’ sky-rocketing slope I’d seen earlier. No matter how long I stared at it, I couldn’t see an easier way up it. I knew this was the ‘good’ side and that the other side was worse! I was pretty quiet by now and Richard knew what that meant. He said the next peak looked ‘a slog’ – possibly trying to draw me out – he knew that’s what was bothering me I’m sure. I said nothing…

We set off down from Carnach and I started to not like the ridge any more. The descent seemed really steep and I kept looking at a nasty-looking gorge below us. We kept having to climb down rocky gullies which wouldn’t bother me if they were over a nice-looking col but they seemed ready to tip us into said gorge way below us if we slipped. The world seemed to have got steeper…

We reached the col and I eyed the grassy slope down to the right of the col into Coire Domhain – an escape route. I then eyed the climb up to Fhuaran. I looked way, way up what looked even more vertical when you were stood under it – there were craggy bits jutting out over my head way above. In between there was very steep scree – ugh!! Richard just said we should get on with it – even he wasn’t looking forward to it but just for different reasons.

Surprisingly, the ascent was really easy to me (I didn’t notice the effort) and I didn’t find it a scary ascent. However, I knew I wouldn’t want to go back down it as I hate descending steep scree at that angle, especially when there’s crags around. We stopped on the summit for a rest.

From here my day went from bad to worse… After a few minutes I tentatively led off down the north-west ridge of Fhuaran wondering whether I’d be able to descend the ridge back to the road. I could see the end of the ridge was very steep though… I reached the junction where we had to turn right down the very steep northern face. The path was loose and again there was another gorge way below us with steep and nasty looking jaws. To me that was where I was going to end up if I slipped.

I looked along the rest of our route to Sgurr nan Saighead – that looked really steep sided… on to Beinn Bhuidhe – that looked like a knifepoint in the air and scrambly with it. The path before and after it looked like it was suspended on the side of verticality. Far below me the gorge awaited… I sat down in despair. I didn’t want to go on, I didn’t want to descend the ridge, I didn’t want to go back down where we’d just come up. I didn’t even feel safe where I was sat. I told Richard that to me this was ‘Vertical World’ and I had no idea what I wanted to do, apart from get off the ridge. He pointed out that sitting there wasn’t going to get me off the ridge and started to coax me down the path to the col before Saighead.

Sgurr Fhuaran descent

We reached the col after much moaning and groaning from me – I was moving so slowly and tentatively a tortoise would have passed me. As soon as I reached the col I started searching around for an escape route off the ridge. I saw one into Coire a Mhadaidh but we decided that it was no good escaping into the Corrie if we weren’t sure we could descend out of it. We remembered seeing a path setting off up from the glen at the back somewhere under Saighead but obviously we couldn’t say we would be able to find it from above.

By now I’d studied Saighead a bit more and decided it wasn’t as vertical-backed as it looked so we continued. At the other side of Saighead it really did get extremely steep sided below the path to Beinn Bhuidhe and the path was only really as wide as a sheep track. I’d seen that the path continued below the craggy upper rocks of the peak though so just concentrated on things getting better after that bit and kept walking.

We bypassed the summit rocks and the path set off down the ridge. Eventually the ridge got wider and I cheered up. We soon saw a parallel ridge going to Sgurr na Moraich and an easy looking path descending by the burn between the two ridges. I suggested we head for that. We were soon on the burn-side track and I was happy at last – the day’s problems were all over – I could just stroll along enjoying the sunshine…

This happy state continued right up until we reached the craggy corrie where the burn turned to waterfalls between Sgurr an t’Serraich and the end of Moraich. Suddenly the world turned on end and went vertical again – I could see we still had a lot of height to lose. The path deflected off to the right above large crags and went round the rim of the corrie. It again seemed narrow and near the edge and continued for quite a while in the same manner without seeming to lose any height. I could see we were in for a very steep descent back to the road. It was… but it had a wall half-way down which at least made me think I’d stop before the bottom if anything went wrong!

By the time we reached the road and the short walk back to the carpark we were both tired out – me from stress and Richard from the long and hard walk (10 hours) on a very hot day. He probably had earache too!




12 responses

25 05 2014
Saileag Three & The Misplaced Cairn | The Adventures of a Mountain Coward

[…] we headed along in the direction of Saileag – a hill I knew had no malice as I’d seen it when we did the Five Sisters earlier in the week. The connecting ridge was similar to the previous one but the drop on the right […]


3 03 2014
Mart in the Hills

Interestingly we did the same route up but it took us ages floundering most of the way up to the Bealach an Lapain. Did you find an actual path anywhere on the way up?


4 03 2014

Nope – there definitely isn’t one. I think because everyone plods up the other side from the road – that’s worse in my opinion. It’s zig-zags, which is good, but is so steep the edges are breaking away. I remember descending it once and looking at the top of a van roof below and thinking, if this lot gives way, that’s what I’m going through! 😮


5 03 2014
Mart in the Hills

The ridge would be a lot more fun if you could just start it at the Bealach 🙂 Didn’t enjoy the slog up from the back & was knackered like you once reached the ridge, then had to move fast to beat darkness. Blog to follow when I get a laptop/notebook back.


24 01 2013

I loved reading your experience hiking the 5 sisters! I will be traveling to Scotland and hiking them in June and it was neat to hear your experience. Would you be willing to share you knowledge of the area with me? We have a rental car that we were hoping to park at the end of the hike but are not sure how we are going to get back to the Eastern end since we want to hike from East to West. Do you know if there is any kind of public transportation that could take us back to where the hike begins? And what does parking look like there? Is it pretty marked and easy to navigate where to go?


24 01 2013

Hi Collette, I’d be pleased to give you as much advice as you need although, as you can probably tell from my post, I didn’t really enjoy them – but I’m a stressy sort! 😉

You can get public transport (Citilink buses) along Glen Shiel which could drop you at Shiel Bridge for the start of the 5 Sisters. I think the bus will also stop at the point where you come down from the ‘Bealach an Lapain’ as there is a tourist monument somewhere around there – I’m not totally sure about that end though. There is another stop at the top of the glen (but a few miles from the Bealach an Lapain) at the Cluanie Inn. I think that, if you stay at the Cluanie Inn for a night they do some kind of taxi service too but I think it might be around £5 or £10.

If you are driving, you’re best to take the route we took. Heading west from Shiel Bridge towards Inverinate, just before a long left-hand bend around a bay and over a bridge, there is a right turn signposted ‘Morvich’. Just up that road (less than a mile) is a carpark by a building – very obvious, you can’t miss it. If you then follow the vehicle track round the end of the 5 Sisters ridge and take the track up Glen Lichd at the back of the ridge, just before the path goes up to a pass through the hills (and by Glenlichd House) you can turn up to the col on the right above you. This is the other side of the Bealach an Lapain. At the col you turn right again and you are on the ridge.

Hope you enjoy it – if you need any more info, just give me another shout.


24 01 2013

Carol! Thank you so much for the information! That was very helpful! I am going on this trip with 2 other girls and although we are all fairly active and in shape we are no means expert mountain climbers nor are we experts on what the best munros to climb are. Have you hiked Ben Nevis? That is the other mountain that we were considering doing. Do you think Ben Nevis would be more clearly marked and easier to hike logistically? Or do you have another spot that you would recommend?


25 01 2013

Hi again,
Ben Nevis is a ‘simple route’ in good visibility as there is a huge zig-zag stony track all the way up it. However, the top covers a very extensive area and is very stony so the plateau up there can be very confusing in mist. It’s possible to look up the exact compass bearings you need to take to get to the summit and back on various websites (we didn’t need to as we had good visibility so I don’t know them myself). The walk is quite long – about 6 miles each way and you have more or less the whole 4406 feet to climb as the start isn’t far off sea-level. There is a notice board in the main carpark by the start of the ‘Achintee Path’ which I’d advise you all to have a read of before you set off. I’m assuming you’re going up in summer?

As for other Scottish hill hikes, there are a few quite easy ones. Ben Lomond is a nice, easy hill and has a good path up it – it would be awkward to get to without a car though. Not far away from that, above Arrochar, there is a nice medium-sized hill called ‘The Cobbler’ which has good paths and is a very popular walk. Another walk, from Killin on Loch Tay, is Ben Lawers. There is a drive up to a visitor centre (now closed I think) with a large carpark and good paths across a subsidiary mountain to Ben Lawers. That would be fine even in bad visibility (like we had). Another easy hill is Ben Vorlich on the south side of Loch Earn – you could easily do a nice round of the northern and north-western ridges.


25 01 2013

Thank you so much for your help!


25 01 2013

No problem – I hope you have a good visit 🙂


14 03 2011
mark eddy

Can’t wait to get this lot done 🙂


22 02 2015

If you e-mail me for the ‘Walk Plans’ page password you can see when we’re going to Glen Shiel this year:-) I’m sure there’ll be room in the cottage to squeeze a few part-time bods in:-)


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