Liathach’s Meall Dearg – Wait a Minute…

19 10 2014

Fri 12 September 2014
As he hadn’t managed to make my Munro Compleation walk in May up Ben Lui (through no fault of his own), my friend Mark kindly offered to ‘take me up the beast that is Meall Dearg’ (aka Liathach’s Northern Pinnacles). Such a superbly generous offer couldn’t possibly be turned down so we set dates, booked time off and met up at the Ling Hut in Torridon.

Unfortunately, the walk took place a day after originally arranged as I’d had to call by the carpark where Mark was camping in his van to arrange a rest day for my shredded legs and nerves after a day doing the whole of Beinn Eighe on the Wednesday! Luckily he also had Beinn Bhan to do in the area so went to do that on the Thursday instead.

(click on photos for full size/resolution – all photos by Mark Gibson)

We met at 0900 – I’d recovered my nerves from Beinn Eighe during the Thursday but had had an extremely sleepness night of terror before this one. It wasn’t so much the narrow ridge to the summit, which I’d seen photos of from Mark’s previous visit, it was the thought of the steep gully up to the ridge – I just knew it was going to cause me problems…

We set off, thankfully in bright sunshine and calm conditions, on the great path around the back of Liathach. We chatted away – I don’t normally walk and talk (not enough puff) but, for once, I was really pleased to have my mind taken off what lay ahead… Soon, we reached the junction of paths where I’d gone around to Coire Mhic Fhearchair two days before and we briefly took the left fork to continue around Liathach. Almost immediately, just after passing a lovely lochan, we forsook the path to take off across rough country heading straight for the, as yet unseen, Coire na Caime.

After puffing uphill (well, I was puffing anyway), Meall Dearg and then the three layers of Coire na Caime came into view.

First View of Meall Dearg
First view of Meall Dearg (right-hand peak)

Meall Dearg Terminal Crags
Meall Dearg’s Terminal Crags

Almost the whole of the lowest corrie was taken up by a huge lochan, calm as a millpond and shining green – a lovely sight.

Coire na Caime Loch

We had to cross the exit burn and, after one quick look at the very mossy rocks sticking out of it, I took my boots and socks off to wade it. Mark made it across on the stepping stones. I think it was crossing this burn that I cut the underneath of my foot right on the delicate skin of the instep – it’s still cut a few weeks later while I’m writing this – not an area which heals up quickly. Mark took a couple of shots of me crossing using my hands and feet and with my boots laced together and hanging around my neck (my usual method).

Me Wading Burn

We then had a calming short break by the loch and a quick coffee. Then the moment came to set off up for the next two layers of corrie and the still unseen gully I’d been dreading all night. As we rose through the second layer and then started up the wall of the upper, third corrie, I was pleased to see we were gaining lots of height. This would mean that my dreaded gully was much shorter than I’d first imagined.

Waterfall, Coire na Caime

Coire na Caime to Am Fasarinen

I’d been looking around the walls of Coire na Caime in horror at some fearsomely long and steep gullies below the Pinnacles.

Am Fasarinen Top

At last the gully came into view – it didn’t look too bad actually – definitely didn’t look very long.

Am Fasarinen Sunlit
Our gully appears – on right of photo

Coire na Caime Upper Corrie

A herd of deer passed along a grassy rake not far from us and ran above horrible looking crags on a very thin strip of grass to the summit ridge – rather them than me. Suddenly we heard rockfall – I looked around in horror imagining seeing a deer somersaulting down the crags – luckily there were just rocks which must have been dislodged by the deer’s flight. We noted the rocks continued a very long way across the corrie floor though! I have to admit I felt slightly uneasy – rockfalls usually start off my nerves.

Deer

The Gully!

We reached the foot of the gully and started off up – at first all seemed fine… As we needed to traverse the corrie wall away from the gully to get to the right of a pinnacle at the top of it, I soon suggested we branch off to the right and head up what looked like quite easy ground with lots of apparent hand and footholds on the bits of rock sticking out.

Rock Ferns
An interestingly-marked rock in the gully – some kind of moss or lichen?

It was one of those slopes which looked like it got less steep and much easier higher up – it didn’t. A ‘hold’ came out in my hand and, not long after, my foot slipped off another ‘hold’ – all the holds were sloping and small and all the ground was fairly loose and crumbly. I started to panic.

Soon, as we got higher up and I realised we were by now above some crag bands, I started to really flap. I was moaning and groaning and saying I was terrified and was going to fall off. Every so often I realised I wasn’t walking with Richard, who is quite used to my fuss, but with someone who wasn’t. I’d be momentarily embarrassed and apologise profusely but then I’d be straight back to panicking and flapping some more… Poor Mark!

Liathach's Spidean
Looking back down

My catch-phrase, which I often use for Richard, was to constantly keep saying ‘Wait a minute’ – in the end, we decided I’d be better with Mark below me and he obligingly came back down a bit to get below me.

Eventually, we reached a slight path traversing right, still on loose ground but at least I could stand up a bit – the path raked round the rest of the pinnacle to the ridge. When we reached it, I found the ridge (or at least that point of it) was a very small place indeed! I looked miserably down where we’d come up and was certain I couldn’t go back down it and that it would be too dangerous to attempt. Mark didn’t think it was too sensible either – he went off briefly to scout over the summit of the pinnacle to see if we could return back down the gully proper.

I sat and watched, clinging hard to two rocks either side of me, completely rigid with fear, hoping there would be a way but rather doubting I’d have the nerve to ascend the pinnacle to reach it. I honestly thought I’d remain up the peak until I was helicoptered off! The only comforting place I could look was, strangely, up the ridge we had to do – that didn’t look too bad from where I was sitting.

Me Rigid With Fear
Rigid with fear!

Soon Mark came back and we set off up the ridge. There was an initial easy clamber up a few rocks and then a path appeared on the left heading quite gently uphill. The ridge was admittedly narrow but really wasn’t too bad. If my nerves hadn’t been so shredded by now, I’d have been fine I’m sure. Poor Mark had to endure quite a few more wait-a-minutes all the way to the summit.

Meall Dearg Ridge
Ridge to summit from top of pinnacle (I’m still sat rigid with fear!)

Me Crawling to Summit!

The cairn was very soon reached however and I stood briefly among the rocks for a photo. Mark asked me to take one of him – I wasn’t sure it would come out as I found my hands were shaking badly – surprisingly, it did. I was still too shaken to get my flask out but desperately needed a drink after all my panicking and begged Mark to kindly give me a sip of his water – he obliged.

Me Clinging to Summit

Mark

We then set off back along the ridge – not before I’d noticed a ridge down the back a little further along which looked fine to descend to the corrie behind – not sure whether you’d get out of the corrie easily or not though… Due to my already shredded nerves, I’m afraid I re-descended much of our ridge on my bum – there was absolutely no need as it was perfectly safe. Not long after leaving the summit, my flask dropped out of my bag and I shouted out in horror as I thought it would go over the edge. I know that isn’t a major issue but, when I’m in a state, I panic about anything and everything. Mark came and quickly took my flask and put it in his bag so I could panic about one thing less…

Down Meall Dearg to Pinnacles

Rake across to Main Ridge
Route across corrie at back to main ridge

On one of the sections of ridge where I was actually stood up, I inadvertently looked down what turned out to be a huge, sheer drop down a massive craggy face – I’d just been bending down over it to grab a handhold and ended up staring straight down it. I let out a very unappreciative grunt and hurriedly continued on my way.

Sheer Crags
Sheer section of crags from below

Very quickly, we were back on our tiny col before the pinnacle. I again sat down and sent poor Mark to re-investigate the route the other side of it. He obligingly clambered all the way up it a second time – it was basically three short sections of crag to ascend. He was stood on the top and I was sure I saw him shake his head – my heart sank – I couldn’t get down that way…

He clambered back down yet again and said I’d be fine. I asked him to describe the onward route and pointed out that, while I could almost certainly ascend the pinnacle, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to re-descend it, especially as the middle section looked loose… He described the route – I asked him a couple of times if he was sure that’s what he’d seen and whether he was sure I could get down it. He said that I’d have no problem – we both agreed I needed to get to the exact top of the gully and then I’d be descending straight down it. No matter how steep it was then, I wouldn’t be above crags and so long as I kept my feet in front of me, even if I slid, I’d be safe enough.

Northern Pinnacles
Northern Pinnacles from col before our pinnacle

Steep Peaks
Looking back out across Coire na Caime

Mark set off yet again up the pinnacle and I hurried up after him. There were no problems clambering up it fortunately. When I reached the top I was pleasantly surprised at the onward route – it was just as Mark had described and looked absolutely fine. There was a ramp of rocks about two or three feet wide and at hardly any angle of descent at all. Despite the ridge being perfectly safe to just walk along the top of on the smooth slabs, I’m afraid I also descended this section on my bum too.

Gully Top
Top of gully

The col at the top of the gully was actually very pleasant – the only vertigo-inducing bit from here was staring up at the impossibly vertical northern pinnacles up to the western summit of Liathach. As well as being vertical, you could see how loose these infamous pinnacles are – there were huge chunks just waiting to fall out of them! I had no idea how people went up that way. Luckily, all we had to do was descend our gully – from here very steep but grassy and safe. We sat for a few more minutes and I felt myself calming down quite a bit.

Mark very kindly volunteered to go down just in front to scout the best route – there were quite a few more wait-a-minutes from me as we descended (me still on my bum) but I was much happier. We descended exceedingly slowly and Mark took very good care of me and kept asking if I was okay – he’d make a great mountain guide!

Me Descending

Eventually we reached the foot of the gully and set off, me now walking at last, down out of the corrie levels back to our lovely loch. I resumed my post-trauma chattiness and we sat for quite a while by the loch debating all manner of things and watching fish jumping out of the loch. Mark took quite a few more photos – I’d asked him if he’d kindly be the photographer for the day as I won’t take my camera on scary routes. Even if I did, I wouldn’t take any photos anyway. He got me some superb shots as you can see throughout this post…

Above Coire na Caime to Sail Mhor

Rainbow Effect Coire na Caime Lochan

Interesting Light Above Lochan

Coire na Caime Interesting Light

After a long sit in the sunshine, we then set off cross-country for the short walk back to the path junction.

Heading Back Out1

Soon after that, we’d descended to the carpark where we sat longer in the sun and had cuppas and shortcake. Phew – another toughie bites the dust – I’m eternally grateful to Mark for his help and his photos! Now I only need help for Sgurr nan Forcan and Corrag Buidhe if anyone else is feeling obliging!

I thanked Mark as I left and said I’d been certain I wouldn’t make it back from the peak in one piece…

“No-one dies on my shift!” he said (he’s a nurse).

Stats: 10 miles, 3099 feet of ascent, 7 hours

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24 responses

25 01 2015
ness64

Hi Carol, I just read this again as I’m writing my own trip report about Meall Dearg. You two were so lucky with the weather, I wish I had also got the great views you had that day! Well done for overcoming your fears – but I think you took an even scarier route than me (the photo showing you “rigid with fear” makes me feel dizzy just looking at it)!

Re. Sgurr nan Forcan: On my first two ascents of The Saddle I avoided the downclimb from Sgurr nan Forcan by using the bypass. The next time I first walked around it again, then climbed up it from the other side and then down again. This way I knew I would manage to get down ok, maybe that’s something you could try 🙂

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26 01 2015
mountaincoward

If I’m on my own for Sgurr nan Forcan (which I may well be), I’m fully intending going to the gap between that and the main Saddle peaks and going up and then down the same way. It certainly does give more confidence to do that. Which side bypass path were you using on the times you bypassed it?

Which route did you do for Meall Dearg? I’m almost certain that you can get up very easily straight to the summit up the slope via the corrie on the opposite side of the ridge.

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27 01 2015
ness64

You don’t really need to climb up the steep side of Sgurr nan Forcan if you don’t feel comfortable with it, you could just use the bypass there and back if you are coming from the main summit (I found it scary as well but wanted to prove to myself I could do it). As far as I remember, I bypassed it on the right (North), but that was approaching it from the other direction, scrambling along the ridge from the Meallan Odhar side.

For Meall Dearg I used the same route as you but I think I found a slightly easier line for the last few metres before the col (still scary enough though!). Which “corrie on the opposite side of the ridge” do you mean? If it’s Glas-Toll a’ Bothain, that’s what I’m planning to use next time, as a detour from Mullach an Rathain.

The Meall Dearg trip report is finished but it’s part of a two-day trip with Beinn Eighe and its Tops the next day, which is still work in progress…

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28 01 2015
mountaincoward

Hi, yes Coire Toll an-Bothain. if you look at Mark’s first photo in the report, the long, steep slope to the right of the Meall Dearg on that photo looked do-able when I was up on the summit. Not sure what it would be like getting into the corrie from the bottom though (which is what I’d plan to do). I might have a look when I visit next year to get the top of Am Fasarinen.

I’ll be very interested to read your Meall Dearg report when it comes out. Were you on your own as usual? If so, I think you’re exceedingly brave!

I was thinking of the northern bypass for that awkward section on Forcan – I think the books say it’s easier than the other side. I’m hoping to somehow sneak up the corrie on that side to the col between the main summit and Forcan and then just do that bit. Either that or join a group to do the Forcan Ridge itself. What was the bypass like, can you remember?
Carol.

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28 01 2015
ness64

Yes I was on my own, but the next day I did Beinn Eighe and found the way up to Coinneach Mhor from Sail Mhor actually harder than Meall Dearg!

It’s a few years ago that I did the Saddle but I don’t remember the bypass as being scary, I think it was just a narrow, steep path, nothing to worry about really.

(This is a reply to your comment of 28 Jan but that one didn’t have a reply button)

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29 01 2015
mountaincoward

The Bad Step up to Choinneach Mhor was very scary. That was the walk I did 2 days before and it put me off doing Meall Dearg the next day as my nerves were shattered. I had a very bad day on Beinn Eighe that time!

I agree there was much more difficulty on the Bad Step than there was on Meall Dearg. In fact, I’m not sure why MD gets such a bad press off everyone as, doing the route we both took, isn’t technically difficult anywhere – I just don’t like such steep ground. I found the ridge fine really – I was just wound up by then.

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29 10 2014
fedup

Looks like the tops are more terrifying then the Munros! We had hoped to be in Scotland this week but as most of this years plans have had to be binned I’ll have to make up for it next year! Cheers Simon

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30 10 2014
mountaincoward

The tops are most definitely more terrifying than the Munros!

I was also supposed to be up in Scotland this week but cancelled due to the severe weather they’re having. Having seen all the landslides and blocked roads, I’m glad I did!

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21 10 2014
McEff

Whoa . . . Some dodgy ground there. I ddn’t even know Meall Dearg was climbable – but I don’t think I’ll be rushing to do it. You’re a star, Carol.
Cheers, Alen

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21 10 2014
mountaincoward

I’m not sure there isn’t an even easier route up from the corrie the other side – there was a steep but okay-ish looking ridge up the back to just behind the summit. It’s making me want to go and peer at it from below. I definitely wouldn’t fancy the pinnacles going the other way up to Liathach though – very dodgy ground!

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20 10 2014
underswansea

Hi Carol, great pictures and write up. Looks like a helluva grunt – loose rocks covered in moss – perfect stuff to roll an ankle on. You faired well. Thanks for the story and taking us along with you. Bob

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21 10 2014
mountaincoward

Actually, although there were a lot of loose boulders, it wasn’t too slippery and it was possible in most places to pick your way up on grass a lot of the way. I think I found the traverse across the moorland worse for ankles – lots of deep heather with holes hidden in it!

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20 10 2014
chrissiedixie

Well actually, I thought that ridge did look rather narrow! You’ve worn me out again – can we have some less stressful reading next? 😀

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20 10 2014
mountaincoward

I’m afraid the next report is just as stressful!

The ridge wasn’t bad at all really – it was getting to it which did for me!

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19 10 2014
Tessa Park

Rather you than me! You got a nice day for it though 🙂

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19 10 2014
mountaincoward

Yes we did – i was thanking my lucky stars all the way round that we did – I’d hate to have had to tackle it in bad weather! 😮

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19 10 2014
Mark

It really was the perfect day for it.

I’d have though you could do Sgurr nan Forcan as an out and back from The Saddle and therefore missing out the exposed bits leading up to the Munro Top.

As only 10 per cent of Munro compleatist manage the Tops it’ll be an grand achievement when you’ve knocked them all off.

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19 10 2014
mountaincoward

I’m trying to plan a bit of a sneak attack on Sgurr nan Forcan – going up between the Forcan ridge and The Saddle to the col (if that’s possible – it looks like it is) and then a quick up and back. Alternatively, I might join a group, like Steve Fallon’s group walks up there – he only charges about £65 and I think I’d be fine if I wasn’t on my own. But the main worry I have about it is the narrow section you see illustrated on Irvine Butterfield’s book cover!
Carol.

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19 10 2014
bob

Well done on another hard one ticked off. Great photos and description. Have you spent any free time in Yorkshire this summer? :o)

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19 10 2014
mountaincoward

No, I really haven’t! I have my caravan in the Lakes which is much more peaceful and any downtime has been spent there, including a rest and recuperation period (mainly for my nerves) after my Scottish trips this year.

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19 10 2014
jackie sowrey

I feel the fear just looking at the photographs. You’re so brave!

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19 10 2014
mountaincoward

You wouldn’t have thought that if you’d been there and heard all the whimpering and moaning! LOL

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19 10 2014
johndburns

Hi Carol I’m performing my play Mallory Beyond Everest at Kendal Mountain Festival on the 21st of November do come if you can http://www.mountainfest.co.uk/tickets/buy/226523

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19 10 2014
mountaincoward

That falls on the start of my rota’d week off so it’s possible. I’ll certainly consider it – would make an interesting evening.
Carol.

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