Beinn Fhada & a’Glas Bheinn – Final Day of Hell in Kintail

12 03 2011

Walked June 2009

Before I start this walk report proper, I’ll make a shocking admission… I hate Kintail/Glen Shiel with a vengeance (I know everyone else loves it). I knew before I went there I wasn’t going to be keen but this turned out to be understatement of the year! It’s just wayyyy too steep for me and, by the end of a week of sheer terror there, I took to calling it ‘Vertical World’. This was from June 2009 and, unfortunately for me, I have another 2 weeks at least in the area to finish off those Munros…

On the last day of my week of hell I told Richard I wanted a nice, relaxing pair of Munros and had seen the very ones (or so I thought) round the corner from our holiday let in Inverinate – Beinn Fhada and A’ Ghlas Bheinn. He was pretty whacked out – probably more from trying to persuade me round the various horrors in the area than the actual walking – but we’d had some 10 hour or so days. Little did we know this was going to be even longer but with even more drama thrown in!

We probably set off walking from the carpark at Morvich around 10am – fairly normal for us, especially when we think we have an easy and short day ahead. We didn’t arrive back to the cottage until 10pm, by then absolutely drowned and pretty cold and very, very shattered!

We walked around the end of Beinn Bhuidhe (I considered sending Richard along that ridge but was put off going myself by ‘the Hunters Pass’ section). He elected to stay with me so we strode happily round into Gleann Choinneachan and on the good track towards Bealach an Sgairne. I’d had (what I thought was) a good read of the Munro book before we set off and knew we followed the first couple of zig-zags up to the pass and then turned right onto a track towards Coire an Sgairne. We had just passed a northern ridge of the mountain which wasn’t recommended in the book but I kept thinking it looked fine (I may yet try it) – the Creag Coire an Sgairne (anyone tried it?)

From what I could remember in the book, I thought the stalkers’ path didn’t go all the way up onto the required ridge, but just into the corrie and I was sure it had said to pick your own way up the (rather steep-looking) side of the ridge between Meall a’ Bhealaich and the main bulk of Beinn Fhada. I told Richard this and offered him a choice of two routes (not trying to deflect the blame for later events here honest!). We could either go up a steep but plain grass slope just to the right of the cragginess of Meall a’ Bhealaich or we could follow the side of the waterfall to the right of that. We elected to follow the waterfall – bad idea. I have to admit at this point that I’ve known for many years that you shouldn’t follow watercourses (especially downhill!)

We set off up the steep, plain grass at the side of the first fall and into the cutting above it. I thought from below that this would be the point it would just level off and go gently up onto the ridge… wrong! When we arrived we saw there was a series of smallish waterfalls, the first looked okay to the right so off up we went. However, the falls got progressively steeper and the gorge got progressively narrower with less choice of route. We reached one where it looked ferociously steep on the right but was impossible on the left – we continued… It started off up a nearly vertical patch of probably about 10 feet which we managed to scrabble up.

On reaching the top of that bit, neither of us really wanted to go back down it as it was loose and crumbly so we felt bound to continue. The next few minutes turned into total nightmare. I was leading and by now on all fours up the fiercely steep slope on turf. However, this turf was very loosely attached to the mountainside and was threatening to peel off and jettison me back down over the drop behind us. I looked up ahead and saw it didn’t get better and seemed to continue for quite some way. I was really worried by now that, the bits that hadn’t peeled off as I clutched them, would peel off when Richard got to them. There was a greasy rock wall to the right and the strip of grass seemed to get narrower and steeper… and looser! By now I was terrified and scrabbling and Richard was totally unimpressed with my route choice.

We eventually got to the top of the steep grass and the gorge finally relented and flattened out. By now I was totally panic stricken and looked round to see whether Richard had made it – I was sure he’d have peeled off. He was up but not happy. We were both even less happy when, shortly after that, we joined a path and followed it back to the edge – to see that there was a beautifully made zig-zag up from the corrie onto our ridge!

Beinn Fhada went without incident after this (as indeed it should have in the first place, given a better piece of route choice from me) and we enjoyed the plateau, going first to the ‘top’ and then leisurely across to the main summit.

On our descent we turned east down easy grass slopes from the lowest part of our ascent ridge to pick the path up again near Loch a’ Bhealaich.

As we reached the path A’ Ghlas Bheinn came into view, rearing steeply above us. It looked huge, even from just below the bealach. I thought, “Any minute now, Richard will look up at that, dig his heels in and refuse to go any further”. He has quite often deserted me suddenly at such a sight when he thinks he’s done enough for one day. After our scare earlier, I wasn’t much in the mood to be deserted, especially as the weather was turning nasty – the wind had become very strong and the cloud was descending. I thought it best not to mention it in case he hadn’t noticed it 😉

We zig-zagged back up to the pass and looked for an obvious path – there were a couple of scrapes started off up the steep, craggy slope but nothing obvious. I took the one going immediately from the top of the pass and we trudged off up into the cloud and the gale. The ascent got rockier and seemed very steep in the mist – there were some bits where the path (now clear) set off up above steep bits of crag, staying quite near the edge of them. I started to find the mountain offputting and my nerves started jangling.

Eventually it flattened off but there were endless false summits looming out of the mist and, by now, rain – the only pleasant point had been a nice-looking lochan on a shoulder.

Richard was losing patience with all the false summits and I was sure he’d soon turn back.

After what seemed an age and a very many false summits, we eventually agreed gloomily the next top couldn’t possibly be the summit – luckily it was at last. By now we were totally in clag and it was throwing it down. I found a path leaving the summit in the right direction for the west ridge, albeit a very sketchy one so we set off hurriedly down it. Of course, as paths down wide grassy ridges often do, it petered out. I knew we just had to keep heading west. I also knew the end of the ridge had looked intimidatingly steep and couldn’t remember exactly where the book said to get off it. So we continued down…

Eventually the ridge started to steepen and various craggy areas appeared which we went to the left of, sticking to the ridgeline. We then reached a deer fence with forest some distance below it. There was no stile… we followed the fence experimentally down to the left – it then proceeded to accompany a very steep slope down at the side of a gorge with a very steep and large drop into it – there was very little room our side of the fence. I wasn’t at all keen and said I was going back up. Richard followed me.

We milled backwards and forwards above the fence but the cragginess on the right made us think that wasn’t the right way. From the middle of the fence, at the highest point, a burn went down into the forest. For some reason, yet again, we thought maybe we could follow that down. We climbed over the deer fence (quite an undertaking without a stile) and set off down the side of the burn. The banks became more and more unstable until we were sliding down atop huge boulders and loose slabs of rock which were breaking away. We could see the burn steepened considerably on entering the forest and, on that surface, I wasn’t happy to continue that way either – for that matter, nor was Richard. We stomped miserably back up to the deer fence.

I said the only way I thought we could get off the mountain was to follow the deer fence to the right, below the crags and above the forest, as I knew there was a path up the glen to the right and, as it was rising at that point, it should be less of a descent that way. We had climbed back above the deer fence (I felt safer above it) but we couldn’t continue above the fence as the ground got too bad. So we had to climb back over it yet again and tried to follow it along the edge of the forest (that way at least we had the security of a wall of trees between us and the steepness).

Unfortunately it was further than it looked and we were making little progress. We were literally clinging to the fence, clambering over rotten and slippery tree trunks and branches, falling down into holes in the ground or on slippery piles of flat rocks which were completely collapsing under our feet and disappearing into the forest. After a couple of near broken ankles and suchlike, Richard said he wasn’t happy to continue. It was now 9pm and getting dark with the weather being so gloomy. We were cold, very wet (as we’d had our hoods down and the rain had been going down our necks) and becoming tired. We both honestly thought we were stuck there for the night! I decided we had to call the mountain rescue and ask their advice for getting off the ridge. I knew exactly where we were and didn’t want them to actually turn out – just to advise us – I knew there had to be a simple way off.

Of course, the only time you ever need to use your mobiles, there’s no signal – in this instance I’m pretty sure it was due to us being directly shielded by the forest and the weather being crap. My Vodafone is usually really reliable in Scotland and said it had a signal but as soon as I dialled the number the signal cut out. We tried Richard’s Orange (I’d deliberately put us both on separate networks for this kind of reason). He had no signal at all.

I then decided we had to force our way through the dense forest down to the forest track – I figured that the tree roots would stabilise the ground a bit (although they would be wet and tricky underfoot) and that at least we couldn’t fall off! We set off down through the very thick growth, forcing our way through branches and getting hit in the face and having water thrown down our necks. Progress was painfully slow and we seemed to be getting nowhere when I suddenly had a bright idea! The map said the slope was straightforward with no crags (I was hoping it was right) so why didn’t we force our way backwards downhill through the forest! That way, the branches came from behind and sprung back harmlessly after we’d passed by instead of trying to poke out our eyes, and our hoods protected us from further water down our necks and from being scratched to death.

Suddenly I was cheerful and, followed by Richard, hurled myself backwards down the hill into the trees. By now we were in hysterics as we made rapid progress down the forest, supported by the trees rather than molested by them. As we hit the forest road minutes later (quite suddenly) we’d formulated an idea to turn this into a new sport – ‘Backward Forest Racing’ – great fun!

My feet were soaked with all the water which had gone down into my boots during the descent (water was about half way up the inside of my boots) and I ended up with a ferocious blister forming which crippled me for the last few miles back to the car but I limped on, just being glad to be on the forest road and wanting my tea and bed! Boy was I glad to go home next day!!

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4 responses

30 01 2015
McEff

That’s some ordeal.

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30 01 2015
mountaincoward

It truly was – I really hated the Kintail hills at the time. I’m still not so keen on most of the north Glenshiel hills but I like most of the southern ones now.

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30 01 2015
McEff

I hate to say this, but I adore Kintail. I’ve had some fantastic experiences there and they’ve all been superb – except for one very wet and stormy night on that little campsite near the petrol station.

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30 01 2015
mountaincoward

I think every except me loves Kintail!

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