South Shiel Big Dipper

3 07 2011

Sun 19 Jun 2011
Long article… but then it was a long day!

We’d arrived for our week in Glen Shiel on the Saturday evening and, as it was a good weather forecast the next day, I knew I had to tackle the South Shiel Ridge – ready or not. I didn’t feel ready… I’d have preferred to work up to the challenge as the week went on – and I believe it can’t be classed as anything but a challenge – 7 Munros, a top and a peak of Corbett height. Also, unlike the Grey Corries, which is my favourite Scottish ridge walk and exactly the kind of ridge walking I like to do, there are quite large dips between each of the South Shiel mountains.

I’d puzzled long and hard over the logistics of the walk but couldn’t see any alternative to doing the walk ‘back to front’ and starting at the lower end with the bigger ascent – not a great idea for such a long day. The way I saw it, that meant I could drop my bike off at the Cluanie Inn, park at the bottom of the glen and, when I’d finished the walk, cycle back downhill all the way to my car. There was no way I was going to cycle up the glen at the end of such a long day! I’d also debated about using the Citilink bus service but wasn’t sure whether they ran on a Sunday and anyway, they only stop at a designated bus stop and the nearest was Shiel Bridge – a further four and a half miles down the glen from the lower end of the walk. Richard had a brilliant idea however… he said I could drive to the layby at the lower end of the ridge, cycle downhill to the bus stop at Shiel Bridge, and then get the bus up to the Cluanie. I checked at the bus stop up the road and found there was a service on a Sunday and the first bus was due at Shiel Bridge around 0910 – that would do nicely.

The upshot of all this was that I had to get up at the, unheard of for me, early time of 0745! I also had to have the car packed and absolutely everything ready for the next morning as I couldn’t afford any delays getting going. After several calls from Richard I struggled out of bed at the allotted time and blearily got washed and breakfasted. I then drove up to the required layby, jumped out of the car, put my boots and bags on, re-built my fold-up bike and set off down the glen pedalling madly.

Now I’d originally assumed I wouldn’t really have to pedal much at all and that the bike would freewheel quickly down the hill to Shiel Bridge – how wrong I was! For some unknown reason, I had to pedal furiously for the whole 4 and a half miles. I hadn’t really allowed time for that and the bus time was approaching rapidly by the time I caught sight of the Shiel Shop sign in the distance. Phew – nearly there I thought, thinking it was just around the corner. I had less than five minutes and was going pretty slowly despite my frantic pedalling. Then I got close enough to read the sign – it said one mile! I still had to find somewhere to chain up the bike. I finally reached the bus shelter and hurriedly looked round for somewhere to chain the bike – luckily there was a set of railings on a little bridge over the river just across the road – perfect. I quickly cabled the bike to them and dashed back across the road, by now totally exhausted – not a good start to such a demanding day!

As it turned out the bus didn’t arrive until about ten minutes later, by which time I’d been midged to death. I was glad to get on and sit down though. The bus dropped me off at the Cluanie Inn at 0935 and I set off for the long landrover track which goes to the eastern end of Creag a’ Mhaim, my first Munro, where I would then find a stalker’s track up the hill. I noticed a group of four a few minutes ahead and another couple with a dog getting ready to set off from their car just behind me. I was a bit nervous about some parts of the ridge, mainly the narrow, scrambly section coming off Aonach Air Chrith so really wanted to have other people around in case I got stuck. Not wanting to rely solely on help from the couple with the dog, I chased madly after the group ahead – they were going pretty fast though.

By the time I reached the stalker’s track I was still the same distance behind the group. The girl at the front of their group was going like a madwoman and setting a blistering pace – nor did she slow up ascending the hill! The other three seemed to be having quite some trouble keeping up with her. To be honest, I couldn’t believe she was setting such a pace for the long initial ascent to Munro height on the first peak when there were so many other peaks to follow – I bet they couldn’t either. I was really struggling to keep up and, try as I might, I couldn’t gain on them at all. I realised I was going far too fast at this stage in the day but was really worried about that bad section of ridge and didn’t want to be alone on it.

The madwoman kept up her pace, trailing her companions behind her like the tail of a kite and me puffing along behind them. Suddenly and inexplicably (although I think her three followers had started to have words) they all stopped just short of the summit and I passed them – great – now I had two groups behind me for assistance and encouragement if I needed it. I stopped briefly on the summit for a look at the view, a quick slug of water and to get my breath back – they settled down for a proper break.


The way onwards…

The ridge ahead looked quite inviting – a pleasantly wide, grassy ridge, a gentle descent and an equally gentle reascent to the second Munro. There was little height loss and the views were lovely, especially to a dark and brooding lochan in the corrie to the left.

I set off at a more sensible pace and really enjoyed this section. The ridge narrowed on the final ascent to Druim Shionnaich but there were no problems and it wasn’t at all scary.

From that summit the ridge looked equally easy and pleasant over the ‘top’ – the third Munro of Aonach Air Chrith looked pretty big though.

Looking Back to Creag a’ Mhaim

When I’d reached the second Munro, I looked round to see if the other group had left Creag a’ Mhaim – they had but only just. I rechecked when I neared the summit of Aonach air Chrith, thinking they should be on the previous top by now, but they were nowhere to be seen. They must have really slowed down I thought.


Looking Back from ascent of Aonach Air Chrith

I admired the spiky but scary looking ridge to the north of my peak and was glad I didn’t have to go that way but of course I did have my little ‘bete noire’ to tackle ahead though.


North Ridge – thankfully not my route!

I could see a narrow looking ridge leading away with what looked like a huge descent off the end of it – ooo-err. I set off very tentatively to tackle it telling myself that, if I could do the next section, I should be okay for the rest of the walk and I could then have a little break.

The narrow ridge went on far longer than I’d have liked and I was very nervous and extremely cautious throughout. But although I hated the drop on both sides, one of which was sheer crag into the corrie, the other side looking worse with sharp, jagged rocks down a precipitously steep grassy slope all the way down to the glen at the back of the range, I have to admit that the actual scrambling was very minor indeed. In fact, the only part I would have said was actual scrambling was down a slight gully which stayed comfortingly above the ridgeline so I felt okay down that bit as gullies, being enclosed, make me feel much more secure. Due to the length of the narrow section I was quite shaky by the time I’d regained the grassy ridge and felt exhausted again due to expending so much nervous energy, but I’d done it – now everything should be okay. I settled down to admire the ‘bad bit’ from a safe stance and had half a slice of Richard’s tea loaf and a quick coffee.


Doesn’t look that bad in this photo but it was pretty scary!

The ridgeline was now much narrower and so I had to stop staring at the view on both sides and look where I was going. Maol Chinn Dearg looked just as big a climb as Aonach air Chrith had been – I reminded myself that, should I want to give up at this stage, this was the first official descent back to Glen Shiel from its summit. Now I’d got over my scramble however, I was feeling fine again. I looked back for the group of four and could see them tackling the scrambly bit behind me. I’d thought I’d taken ages as I was around 30 minutes getting down it with being so careful, but they were taking just as long. Maybe they had a long break on every summit as I never saw them again after this point.

Descending from Maol Chinn Dearg, I looked at Sgurr Coire na Feine – I could see it had a traverse path not far below the height of its summit and debated whether I should include the summit or not. I hate leaving peaks out really and it did look nice, but I decided that today was just too long a walk to include everything and reluctantly left it out and just followed the traverse across the back. I could see it was another huge and quite steep pull up to the next Munro of Sgurr an Doire Leathain. I started to find the climbs harder and the peaks closer together from this point – definitely the harder half of the ridge.


Looking back from Sgurr an Doire Leathain ascent

It was as I approached the summit of Sgurr an Doire Leathain, 100 yards to the north of the ridge, that I started to meet other people. This was the stage I caught up the folks who’d set off earlier and I also started to meet people coming the other way too. I stopped and exchanged encouraging words with the folks coming in the opposite direction and hared after a couple of guys who I thought looked quite quick, hoping to catch them up – just my competitive streak coming out…


Views behind the ridge – Loch Quoich (above) and Gleouraich (below)

The descents were now very steep and needed careful footing as they were quite loose – not something where I’m at my quickest – I think I’m probably too used to the easy stone-pitched descents in the Lakes. So I managed to gain on the guys on the ascents but lost the advantage on descents. They did helpfully have a quick break on every summit though – I wasn’t stopping for anything now I had the bit between my teeth!

Onwards to Sgurr an Lochain

Sgurr an Lochain’s steep ascent followed very closely on from Doire Leathain and I had to quickly stop to change a film here for some shots of its lochan from above.


Looking back to Sgurr an Doire Leathain from Sgurr an Lochain

The descent was huge and very steep – when I looked back at the bottom it looked monstrous! But, apart from having to watch my footing, it had been fine… Just before I’d set off up this peak, I’d been looking for which peak was my final Munro – as the non-Munro peak of Sgurr Beag was hidden at this point, I’d thought I had to reach what turned out to be the Corbett of Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais. When I reached the summit of Sgurr an Lochan, I was chuffed to see that wasn’t the case and it was the peak before it.

Again, I could see there was a traverse path round Sgurr Beag and the guys I were tailing took it. I’m made of sterner stuff however and decided I must include that peak too. One of my reasons for that was that it looked very nice and pretty easy and I wasn’t tired, the other was that I wasn’t sure (until I could look it up back home) whether it was a Corbett or just a Corbett top. I’d marked it on my map with a ‘C’ so must have believed at some point it was a Corbett, but my SMC guidebook just said it was a Corbett top. Either way, it seemed criminal to leave it out so I set off up its slopes – it was a bit harder than it looked but a nice hill.

A slightly loose and scrappy descent just left the final Munro of Creag nan Daimh – the guys had just had another break after their traverse and so I hadn’t lost any ground doing Sgurr Beag.

Looking back to Sgurr Beag and Sgurr nan Lochan

View behind ridge to a monstrous peak!

… and back to Gleouraich and Loch Quoich again…

Although this was my last and ninth peak, I was actually still going like a bomb and feeling fine and caught them up quite a bit (I finally caught them up on the summit). The top half of this hill was quite scrambly and rocky but fine. However, I’d seen a nasty and fierce looking small peak which appeared to bar my way when I wanted to continue to the bealach – I hoped there was a way round it!

Nicole, my fellow hill blogger has kindly let me use her photos of this peaklet so the next three are hers…

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I quickly touched the summit cairn and left the two guys finishing their break and continued towards the bealach and the path down from the pass. Within a minute or so, I reached the nasty looking peak – there was no way round it! It was as near vertical as dammit, completely rock clad, and the path looked to tackle it head on. I looked left of it – definitely no way that way – just a large and nasty drop. It looked like maybe some people had traversed below it to the right, on very difficult and frankly dangerous ground above crags – definitely not for me. Others had baulked it altogether and set off steeply down towards the burn on a loose zig-zag path. Knowing how dangerous and difficult it can be following burns down off the hill, I didn’t really fancy trying that either. So it had to be the scramble.

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I’d say the route up the rock was about 15 or 20 feet and just as vertical as it looked from below. There was a slight route choice but one of them traversed round the side of the crag over the nasty drop – not for me either. I wavered a bit at the foot of a slight gully (unfortunately not big enough to get into) with some quite long stretches up it. I could see there were quite a few handholds and, with me having very long legs, reachable footholds so decided I’d just have to go that way. I was pretty upset about it all though as I’d believed all the difficulties were over. Even more upsettingly, I could see another rocky and narrow-looking ridge led away from this peak heading where I needed to go. I was really worried as I climbed up whether I could get along the narrow ridge to the col or whether I’d have to turn back – I knew there was no way I could climb back down the scramble…

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I heaved my way to the top and was pleased to set off away from it and anxious about what the following ridge was like. Luckily in a short time it got quite a bit wider and I didn’t encounter any more difficulties. There was a good path all the way along the ridge and up Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais. My worry now was whether I would be able to find where the path crossed the bealach for my descent – I was nearly at the Corbett before it transpired.

Even though the ground I had to descend was pretty difficult and very rough, the track zig-zagged down and missed all difficulties. Due to the zig-zags and ingenious route it took, there weren’t even any steep sections so I was very happy as I descended. The only problem now was that my legs were starting to feel like they’d been put through a mangle and my feet were complaining a bit. On reaching the Mhalagain Burn, I stopped for another quick coffee. The descent was pretty hard on the legs as it was rocky all the way down and it was a long way back to the car – in fact, it was about an hour and a quarter from the bealach to the road.

Boy was I glad to see my car, get my walking gear and bags off and sit down! All I now had to do was drive back to the bus stop and unchain my bike and stick it in the boot. I’d been expecting to take around 10 – 12 hours for this ridge but was surprised to see I’d managed it in just 9 – but then I’d only stopped for perhaps 10 minutes in total, had only eaten half a slice of tea-loaf and only drunk about three small cups of drink – pretty good, especially seeing as it had been nice and sunny all the way!

Stats: 17 miles, 6537 feet of ascent, 9 hours

I felt the next day just had to be a day off so skived off to Plockton for the day – this was how I ended up – eating and sleeping all day!

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8 responses

1 08 2012
Colin Pierpoint

I did the ridge in 3 sections (final one last week). Everyone who does the whole ridge in one go misses the most fantastic waterfall in Scotland! It’s marked in the OS explorer map. If you go back east from Creag nan Daimh and then descend, you pass it. (Alternatively, going up from the battle site by the A87 – marked on map)

P.S. on Aonach air Chrith scramble, I dropped my egg sandwich in a peat bog.

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5 08 2012
mountaincoward

That’s going a bit far just to add some salad to your egg sandwich! 😉

I might have to have a separate explore to look for your waterfall as, if I do the ridge again (as I’d like to, taking my friend next time), I’d prefer to re-do the whole ridge walk as I enjoy the challenge and the feeling of achievement afterwards. I’ll definitely add in Coire na Feinne and the Corbett of Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais next time – I’m really regretting missing those two out.

Sorry about the long wait for me to moderate your comment by the way – I went away for a week…
Carol.

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6 07 2011
Tango

very well Carol, a good report……. some nice photos too….

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6 07 2011
mountaincoward

Thanks Tango – are you still in that nice, hot country? 🙂

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7 07 2011
Tango

Yep still here, sorry for being so quite been working hard!!, im looking forward to August..i have 6 top dollar days planned 3 in Scotland, 2 in the Lakes & 1 North Pennines. cant wait. keep the reports coming!! cheers Terry..

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3 07 2011
mountaincoward

It was funny really as I didn’t feel as exhausted that evening as on a lot of the other walks (the Cairn Toul one especially), I felt fine… but the next day I just couldn’t stay awake!

I was well chuffed with my time though for the ridge – I’m sure your time was quicker Monty and you added the Saddle etc. in but when I compared my time with others doing the ridge it stood up really well 🙂

I think the competition thing helps keep you motivated when you’re having a long day so that’s probably why I was racing people…

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3 07 2011
Janet F

I’m not at all surprised you were sleepy afterwards, MC. Good report, very detailed 🙂

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3 07 2011
colin

Excellent report Carol. Your just too competitive hahaha. Well planned route and good to get reasonable weather.

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