A Cracking Day on Mam Sodhail and all his Tops

10 06 2011

Mon 30 May 2011

The day before we were due to leave Cannich and our wonderful log cabin we looked out around 0800 to see a much better day and regular sunshine – the wind looked to have dropped too. I’d asked about the weather forecast in the pub the night before (as we couldn’t get a signal on the TV for the weather forecast) and the landlady had looked it up and said it was going to be quite a nice day. I asked what the windspeed was going to be like and she said only about 15mph – the locals had backed her up from watching it on the TV earlier too. I’d gone back to the chalet and given Richard two choices of walk – one was another from Strathfarrar to do a couple of Mullardoch Munros from the north side, the other choice was to go down the lovely Glen Affric to do this walk.

At our usual walk start time of 0930 it had already started to rain – the wind did look to have abated quite a bit though. The rain soon stopped however as we headed off on the boring first mile or so down the roadway to Affric Lodge. Just after leaving the carpark I took a couple of photos of the swollen River Affric.

Loch Affric

A good track turns off just before the Lodge’s boundary fence and heads north to tackle the first climb onto a long ridge. The driveable track was well made, very dry underfoot and took an easily inclined route onto the ridge. Just after it started to head off away from our desired first peak of Sgurr na Lapaich, I noticed a cairn marking a walking path off across the moor. The path was cairned along its length right until it started to head up the side of the burn coming down from our hill. Looking for the cairns made what could have been a tedious and boggy stretch of moorland much more interesting.

Sgurr na Lapaich – our first objective

The path followed the right hand bank of the burn for quite a way and then disappeared but our way ahead was obvious up to a small grassy col. Luckily the burnsides were mostly grassy – I find heathery ground a real pain to walk on as it is always holey, uneven and a lot more effort. The little col, however, seemed to take forever to reach and we were both feeling quite knackered by the time we attained it. We’d been sheltered from the wind and feeling very hot in the sun. We had a quick breather but could see a blizzard was heading our way from the western end of Affric so Richard didn’t want to hang around.

The blizzard, our second so far on the walk, hit us but only lasted five or ten minutes then it cleared up and was sunny and warm again. From Glen Affric, I’d thought that the ascent of Sgurr na Lapaich looked quite steep and fearsome but there were no difficulties. There was a good path up the shoulder from the col on quite steep, but easy ground.

At the summit of Lapaich a spectacular scene burst into view. Firstly we could see ahead our long and fairly narrow ridge to Mam Sodhail (which Richard predictably calls Mam Sod-all although he isn’t being disparaging about it really, just having a play with the name). Then to the right of that there was the equally scenic Carn Eighe and the whole of the eastern end of the Affric Ridge which we plan to do as soon as we can.

I’d been a bit worried about pictures I’d seen of the final narrow ridge up onto Mam Sodhail though so was studying it quite intently by now. It did look slightly worrying to a mountain coward but I decided it would be just like the Glen Lochay Munro of Creag Mhor which also had a narrow-looking ridge to the summit but had turned out to be fine. I fixed the idea firmly in my mind that it would be okay when we got there and we continued.

There was an easy descent down the back of Lapaich with a choice of two routes due to a landslip – there was a ridge with easy, flat rocks (which we chose) or, just below it, a grassy ridge with a small lochan.

It wasn’t far to the col where a nice path set off for the second top of Mullach Cadha Rainich. I soon realised, however, that the path was going to be a ‘lazy path’ and miss the summit of the top. I was astonished when it contoured round the hill only about ten or twenty feet below the actual summit – we’d already left it by then to bag the top. We then rejoined the path for the flat ridge to the start of Mam Sodhail’s narrow nose.

Looking back along ridge during ascent of nose

I peered intently at the approaching ridge – it was intermittently covered with snowy patches – but I decided it would be fine. Although the ridge didn’t look steep later in the day from the side, we found it very steep in ascent and we both had to keep stopping for a breather, Richard was faring worse than me. I avoided all the snowy patches as there was quite a drop down each side now and I didn’t want to take a slide. We puffed our way to the top where there was a humungous summit cairn – we were soon to discover why!

While I looked around for where my next tops were, Richard investigated the cairn. Presently he announced that you could climb inside it! I peered over the nearest wall of the cairn which was around a couple of feet thick and saw a neat square hollow inside about four feet in diameter. We clambered over the wall to sit inside for a break. I found it very warm and toasty and got out my flask and asked Richard to get out his tea loaf.

My tops now in view

Beinn Fionnlaidh & Carn Eighe

We were inside just in time as a vicious blizzard had by now hit the summit and all views had been blanked out – luckily I’d already taken a couple of photos along the ridge and in the direction of my tops (Richard wasn’t intending to do the rest of the tops). However, despite the now raging blizzard, Richard told me to hurry up as he was absolutely freezing – I was still really warm and hadn’t even put on my coat yet. I’d literally just put my flask cup down and raised my piece of tea loaf to my mouth and he was wanting to leave our nice, warm shelter already! I looked at him incredulously, thinking he must be exaggerating, but could see he was shivering quite violently and rapidly putting on every layer and garment he could find.

I sighed, gulped my coffee down, stuffed the cake down, put my coat on and we climbed out into the storm. I was thinking it would have been a great place to sit out such a bad blizzard. Despite all the other blizzards only being a few minutes, we couldn’t see an end to this one – it looked like it was going to set in for the day. Richard asked if I was still going ‘top-collecting’ in this weather. I said absolutely as there was no difficulty in reaching at least the furthest one and all I had to do was follow the escarpment edge round. I said I presumed he was heading straight down the stalker’s path into the corrie and he said he was. I asked whether he was going to go straight back to the car or wait somewhere sheltered in the corrie – he said he’d find a sheltered spot and wait for me. I gave him the car keys and warned him I’d be quite some time as the walk to visit the remaining two tops is along two separate ridges and is about four miles.

On the way to the col we passed a little roofless dry-stone hut with an open doorway and window-hole – I’ve since read that it was used in Victorian times for the stalkers and estate staff to ensure no plebs ventured onto the hill. We continued towards the col peering hard for a marker cairn at the start of the path (we assumed there’d be one) and suddenly a black umbrella hove into view. We both peered at it thinking we were seeing things but no, there really was an umbrella on the ridge with a man installed under it sheltered from the storm. We mentioned the shelter to him as it was only a short distance above where he was sat. He asked how far it was up to the summit – we said it was only a bit further and not much of a climb. He also asked if we’d seen whether there was a way from there up Carn Eighe as he’d had to miss that last time he was up – we’d said there was a good route.

We then reached Richard’s cairn and he headed off down. I happily romped off along the nearly flat ridge, passing a very spiky and craggy little peak which I’ve since seen is another ‘Ciste Dubh’. This peak is much higher than the top I was headed to but isn’t classified as anything unfortunately – I would have thought it should at least have been given the designation of a top. The fact that the peak was unclassified rather bears out my personal view that tops are put at the very furthest parts of the ridges quite deliberately to make top-baggers make more effort!

Ciste Dubh (on return from far top)

The blizzard waned and the cloud thinned so I could see my first top – it looked pretty far away. There was hardly any dip in the ridge though and the going, after an initial boulder section around Ciste Dubh, was great. I zoomed on…

I was soon at the little peaked top and admiring the view in all directions. An objective for the next couple of weeks, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan was now in view just past An Socach – an attractive little peak but one which is fairly awkward to get to – I started mentally formulating plans to reach it on another trip. An Socach however was positively dwarfed by the giants surrounding it on both sides. The sky was now clear and blue in all directions.

An Socach with Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan behind

Mam Sodhail & Carn Eighe from Return to Ciste Dubh

As usual, not hanging around, I set straight back off for Ciste Dubh where a much narrower and quite rocky ridge headed off for my final top of An Tudair. Since I’d first seen this ridge come into view looking very long and very narrow and with the top placed right at the very end, I’d been debating about whether it was ‘a top too far’. It was an attractive peak though and the ridge had looked okay as I’d passed it so I determined to give it a go.

An Tudair from Ciste Dubh

The ridge to An Tudair was indeed fine, in fact I really enjoyed it – it was just the right level of narrowness and excitement for a mountain coward (probably very tame to most folks). By the time I’d gone along to the end, summited An Tudair, which seemed a tough little climb at the end, and puffed my way back along to Ciste Dubh, I’d decided it was by far the best section of the day. I kept thinking how much Richard would have enjoyed it, especially seeing as it was by now a glorious day. As I’d nearly reached the end of the ridge on the outward journey I’d looked back and seen a guy looking along the ridge – I wondered whether he’d be tempted along it but he never materialised.

An Tudair

Mam Sodhail from An Tudair

I could have descended into the corrie at a little col just after descending An Tudair to come back along the ridge and was very tempted – it would have cut a couple of miles off my trip. However, I was assuming Richard was waiting in the corrie and had no idea exactly where he’d be so I realised I’d have to do the whole of the stalker’s path to find him.

I raced off down the stalker’s path which started off down the corrie wall on a good zig-zag. It then became a bit wetter as it passed through the bogs on the corrie floor. Occasionally it became hard to see where the path had got to but then it would reappear. It didn’t matter really as the way out of the corrie was obvious. As I passed below the descent route I could have taken and over the lip of the corrie, the path started to descend beside beautiful waterfalls in superb gorges. As it was a long walk back to the main Affric track, these were a great distraction. I kept expecting Richard to pop out from behind a boulder or out of one of the gorges but he never did.

After a very steep end to the descent down quite loose and stony ground, I reached the junction with the main Affric track. It was a few miles of this track back but I had no way of telling how many as I’d given Richard the 1:50000 map and my 1:25000 version ran out after around a mile. By now, I’d given up hope of seeing Richard on the return journey and hoped he was back at the car. I was starting to tire a little by now and didn’t fancy having to reascend the route into the corrie to look for him if he wasn’t! I was starting to get a bit thirsty and the weather was getting quite warm so I really wanted a break but I was looking for a rock to sit on this time as I keep picking up ticks and am wondering whether my sitting around on breaks is when I get them.

For the next couple of miles there wasn’t really anywhere off the ground to sit until I eventually came to some old ruined shielings – perfect. I sat for five minutes and had a Milky Bar and a coffee and also a swig of water. Then, feeling refreshed, I plodded on along the track. The scenery had been getting better and better with lovely Scots Pines each side of the track and good views to Loch Affric. By now I’d seen Affric Lodge in the distance.

The only part of the walk I didn’t enjoy came just after the Lodge where I had to plod the last mile along the very boring roadway again. I was glad to see Richard sat in the Polo as I got to the carpark but a little miffed he hadn’t waited. I made a grumpy comment to him but it turned out he’d hurt his knee coming down the stalker’s path and it started to get so painful he was hobbling badly and thought he’d just keep going rather than hold me back if I caught him up – it had been quite a long day after all. I suddenly felt guilty for being so gruff…

Stats: 16 miles, 4646 feet of ascent, 8 hours 20
Tick Count for the week – none as they’d all drowned!

Putting a few of Richard’s pictures he took on his descent here at the end…

Sgurr na Lapaich Ridge on left

Old Shielings




4 responses

10 06 2011
Alan Bellis

Good to see you have pictures now at the same time as you post your reports….so have you gone digital now? Makes much more sense with your blog, although I know you won’t exactly like to admit it! 😉
Hope Richard’s knee gets better and continues to join you on your hill-walks.


11 06 2011

Wash your mouth out! Don’t say the ‘D’ work to me! LOL Nah, I put the report out a week after I’d got back and took my photos down town this time instead of posting them away. As I’m away again now for a bit, I had to get a move on with the scanning and report writing so I didn’t get a backlog!

I’m really hoping Richard’s knee gets better and he can do more hill-walking – I suspect he’ll have to join the poles brigade (we’d both feel stupid with them so he’s reluctant). I got some for Kilimanjaro (but didn’t use them and just made the porters carry them round for a week!) so he’s going to take them to Braemar and Kintail with us and see if that helps. I’m still a believer in developing your muscles around your joints instead.

To take a pragmatic but selfish view though, at least if I’m on my own, I can go top-collecting to my heart’s content!


10 06 2011

Typical Scottish summer weather,eh ? A bit of everything.!
I can beat your umbrella sighting. One February at about 3.30 in the afternoon I was approaching the summit of Mullach na Dheiragain in hard packed snow and ice.I was beginning to doubt whether I would get back to Alltbeithe before dark and out of the blue a young guy appeared.I had crampons on but he was wearing a pair of they old black leather Adidas trainers .Turned out it was his first time hillwalking 🙂
I walked back over the col and down to Alltbeithe with him and then he continued on the god knows how many miles back to the car park at the head of Glen Affric.Sometimes I wonder if he ever went out on the hills again 🙂


11 06 2011

If you hadn’t said you’d walked him back down off the hill, I’d have gone looking for his skeleton when I’m on Dheiragain next week! I suppose at least he had a good track from Alltbeithe onwards – hope he at least had a torch though…

As to the weather, it’s the best day I’ve had in two week’s worth of recent trips so I can’t complain. The blizzards were very short. I find it the most annoying when it’s great before you set out, dire on the hill, and then everything comes out lovely in the evenings.


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