Stob Coire a’ Mhail – with no Devils

3 06 2015

Wed 13 May 2015
Most people who traverse the narrow ridge of the Munro Top of Stob Coire a’ Mhail are doing the famous ‘Ring of Steall’ – a hairy and scary round in the Mamores. Being the Mountain Coward, however, I took a much calmer route and actually really enjoyed my day. For once, the weather was superb…

SC a' Mhail & Sgurry Mhain from Iubhair
Stob Coire a’ Mhail and Sgurr a’ Mhaim

Click on photos for full size/resolution
This was my first visit to Scotland this year and, more importantly, my first test of whether I can still do big hills after finding my hip has disintegrated and damaged my knee into the bargain. I’d been doing various exercises however and thought my supporting muscles seemed to be improving and starting to do their job properly. I drove up to Fort William – the nearest area of Munro Tops I have outstanding.

On arrival at Fort William the weather, perhaps predictably, turned dire. Gales and constant rain, sometimes heavy, were the order of the day… and the next day… I’d also been very alarmed to see just how much snow was still on the peaks in the area. I’d driven through Glen Spean and peered worriedly at them as I hadn’t brought any crampons, it being mid May and summer in England.

The evening I arrived the weather hadn’t yet turned nasty, although I knew it was forecast, so I decided I’d do a recce. I’d seen on the map that a path headed through the forest past Leanachan Farm enabling access to the foot of two of my planned tops – the tops of Aonach Mor. I could see the higher of these tops was completely snow-clad.

It didn’t say at the start of the Leanachan road that you couldn’t drive up it so I continued in my car up the increasingly rough track. After a couple of miles the track reached a crossroads in the forest where it said ‘end of public road’ so it is perfectly permissible to drive to that point. There was plenty of room to leave the car so I abandoned the poor Sunny and told him I hoped not to be long.

I continued straight ahead down a wet track and came out of the forest to see the farm in a clearing in the sun. Strangely, the sign on the farm didn’t say Leanachan but something to do with holly – I was definitely in the right place though. I continued on down the deteriorating track towards the rest of the forest and the river crossing.

At the river I got a shock… there was indeed a possible crossing over the river – it consisted of 3 felled tree trunks – two of them side by side in the water with only their top sides sticking out wetly – the other was at a diagonal to them and only met the two trunks at the far side acting as a kind of handrail. One of the tree trunks in the river was rotting at the far end and I wasn’t sure whether it would hold my weight or not. I also hoped the trunks weren’t slippery.

I edged cautiously across but stopped mid-stream to look down – ooo-err! The water swirling around the base of my logs was probably around 8 feet deep, dark and very fast flowing indeed! I realised how easy it would be to slip off the two logs and fall in and that, if I did, I would probably never be seen again until I reached the coast. I also wondered whether the left-hand one would indeed snap at the rotten point but, luckily, by the time I reached that part, I had the other trunk as a handrail.

Safely across I saw my path no longer continued into the thick forest. I mooched around but kept meeting further small burns with no crossing points. I tried in every direction through the forest until I was totally confused (I hadn’t brought a compass on my recce) and, after failing to cross any more of the burns (I could have waded but decided against that as I wasn’t sure where I needed to be), I headed towards a light patch to get my bearings. I saw the foot of a hill in the distance but it was part of the Grey Corries – the next range to the Aonachs. After milling around in the forest for another half-hour or so, I headed back across the logs to the car to find accommodation.

I decided to stay in Spean Bridge but, as usual, couldn’t get any kind of single room and eventually elected to stay at an hotel for £45 for a twin room. The hotel was a bit run-down and my window had a gap all the way along the bottom of it letting the whole gale blow in. I had to sleep with the electric radiator on all night – something I’d never normally do – it would save them a fortune if they fixed the draught.

The next day the weather was terrible so I decided to just go to Mallaig on the train – my usual bad weather get-out from Fort William. I returned later in the day to weather which was less windy but just as wet as before. The forecast had said the next day was to be fine but it didn’t look like it was set to improve. I sat in the West End Hotel for my tea getting more depressed and gloomy by the minute.

The only thing saving my evening was the four Irishmen on the next table who were having extremely intelligent and interesting conversation so I began earwigging heavily. I was probably quite obvious as I looked round at them whenever they said anything I wanted to join in with, hoping they would let me, and also started laughing if they said something amusing. In the end the four men went their separate ways – some to bed and some out for an evening stroll. One came back however. I was delighted when he asked if he could join me and readily agreed.

I said I’d been listening to their conversation and how interesting I’d found it and we had a long and interesting talk about the various places we’d travelled to. By the end of the evening I’d cheered up immensely. The effect didn’t last long however – as soon as I stepped outside into the rain, my spirits sank again – it was never going to clear by morning. I determined to scrap my Fort William visit and head east for the more certain good weather. There was always the north top of Lochnagar I could do. My main trouble was that I had no maps outside the Fort William area but reckoned I could do the Lochnagar stuff without one.

I’d booked to stay in an hotel in the centre of Fort William in a rare single room for £36. I was a bit upset to find on reaching my room though that the place was more hostel than hotel. The bed was rock-hard too and dug into my bad hip making it very painful indeed.

The next morning was fortunately fine at last. I started to doubt my ability, in my current state, to do the snowy tops of Aonach Mor. Perhaps I could do the top at the back of Ben Nevis up the infamous but south-facing ‘waterslide’. I drove up Glen Nevis to have a look. I reached the waterslide and gazed up in dread – it looked horribly steep – I really didn’t fancy it at all.

The Infamous Waterslide Side On
The Waterslide follows the angle of the slopes on the left (it lies between them)

Luckily, I’d noticed on my drive round, that a Mamores top I had still to do behind Sgurr a’ Mhaim looked completely clear of any snow. This top is Stob Coire a’ Mhail and it is part of the famous ‘Devil’s Ridge’. I parked up at Achriabhach – not in the main pay-and-display carpark – there is space for a few cars just over the bridge by the waterfall. I fought with another car and just managed to get the last space, however, it wasn’t as good as I thought as my poor old Sunny was right in the spray from the waterfall so I came back to an even rustier car than before!

I booted up and set off slowly up the Allt a’ Mhusgain. I knew this to be a very steady route with a slow rate of ascent – all good for a bad leg.

Glen Nevis from the Allt a' Mhusgain
Looking down the Allt a’ Mhusgain to Glen Nevis

I remembered when Richard and I had done this route the first time, we’d completely missed where the path suddenly rises up the glen-side in a series of steep zig-zags and we’d ended up scrambling up fiercer and fiercer slabs by the side of waterfalls. In the end, we’d looked round and seen the higher path and slogged up the steep grassy valley sides to reach it. I went along looking attentively for the zig-zags but suddenly I was looking at the first of the slabby waterfalls we’d had to climb the first time!

Oh well, nothing for it but to just slog up the steep grassy valley sides yet again – I later decided however that these were probably preferable to the loose and stony zig-zag. I eventually found the higher path and continued on up to the high corrie, hoping there wouldn’t be any snow preventing my exit from it. I met a nice man coming down and we chatted for a while – he’d turned back from his group as he was also having leg troubles.

Allt a' Mhusgain
Allt a’ Mhusgain

Where the main path crosses the Mhusgain burn to zig-zag up to the col, I stayed on the original side and continued up grass to the small corrie – I knew there was a path up to my peak from there.

Stob Ban from below col
Stob Ban Towers Above

I was surprised to find a lovely small lochan in the corrie – it was marked on the map but I hadn’t noticed and didn’t know it existed. It looked exquisite with it’s backing of huge, pristine, white snow banks.

Snow Lake, Sgurr Iubhair

Looking round to the grassy arm I’d just reached the base of, I saw my zig-zag path heading up for the little col before my peak. It looked absolutely great and was almost free of snow.

Easy Path to Stob Coire a' Mhail

The couple of zig-zags which were blocked by deep snow patches fortunately had alternative zig-zags to avoid them. I proceeded happily up the superb path which I found to be easily graded and no effort at all – I was soon on my little col. I looked across to the narrow ridge of my mountain hoping it wasn’t scary – actually, it looked absolutely fine.

I strolled along the narrow ridge, in places a bit rocky but all difficulties avoided on the left-hand side, and very soon reached the summit – there is little ascent along the ridge at all. There was no cairn but the ridge went very obviously down from this point after narrowing dramatically – the Devil’s Ridge. I could see the awkward and scary section and was pleased I didn’t have to continue along it. I took a photo and returned the way I’d come after admiring the views in all directions.

Devil's Ridge
Devil’s Ridge to Sgurr a’ Mhaim

Sgor Iubhair from SC a' Mhail
Sgor an Iubhair from Stob Coire a’ Mhail

At the col I took more photos of the surrounding hills, especially the very spectacular and beautiful Stob Ban – a favourite of mine and Richard’s during my Munro-bagging. For a change, all I could think about was how much I was enjoying my day – the weather was playing ball for a change and even my leg was working! 🙂

SC a' Mhail-Looking down my ascent route
Looking down my ascent route to the snowy lochan and the ridge to Stob Ban

Stob Ban from Sgor Iubhair

Originally, when I’d planned this walk, I was intending to also bag another Munro Top – that of An Garbhanach at the other end of the An Gearanach ridge. So, rather than re-descend my good track, I headed to the next peak of Sgor an Iubhair – a good path zig-zagged steeply up the short distance from the col. I wasn’t sure I could do the extra peak as it lies past a few intervening ones but continued to see what the route was like snow-wise…

I went for a peer down the narrow nose of Iubhair where a path continues to Am Bodach as I remembered I’d thought it looked scary when I’d visited earlier – actually, it looked fine. I had no intention of re-doing Am Bodach though as the NE descent ridge is completely fearsome and so I always bypass below it into Coire a’ Mhail on a nice little escape route path. Unfortunately, as I expected, the descent down the steep corrie wall to the escape path was snow-clad so I didn’t fancy it. That meant An Garbhanach was now abandoned for the day – I thought it was probably just as well leg-wise.

Out of interest, I then went for a look at the path which cuts below a line of crags in the corrie the other side of Iubhair – this path is usually used by Munro-baggers as it misses out Iubhair which is only a Munro Top. There would have been no chance whatsoever of missing out the Top this day however – the crags were completely corniced all the way along and the cornice was in the middle of a slow but definite collapse.

Blocked Route round Sgor Iubhair

Mam na Gualainn from Stob Ban col
Mam na Gualainn

I then headed back to the Stob Ban col and had a little break above my lovely lochan for a coffee and two shortbread fingers in the sunshine. After five minutes or so, I headed on down the normal path to rejoin my outward route.

Sgor Iubhair and my ascent route
My ascent route from my break spot

Stob Ban from col
Stob Ban – I wished I was going up there

Sgurry Mhaim & SC a' Mhail
Stob Coire a’ Mhail (right) and Sgurr a’ Mhaim (left)

Sgurry Mhaim
‘Sgurry’ Mhaim from the col

Just after the descent of the zig-zags I’d missed on my way out, my knee started to pain me and I realised I was twisting it as I walked (my weak hip’s fault). I tried to correct my gait but it was too late and the knee became progressively worse as I descended. I hadn’t taken my new walking pole as I was carrying my ice-axe instead in case I met any awkward snow.

I had no choice but to limp on – I didn’t think another rest would do any good. By the time I reached the car my knee wouldn’t hold me up and was collapsing at every step. I felt I’d made progress though having at least done my 3000-foot peak (and its neighbour) and went to idle away the afternoon in the sunshine in the glen. I’d just have to have the next day off…

That day off wasn’t to be however but you’ll have to wait for the next post in about a week…

Stats: 6 miles, 3630 feet of ascent, and a long time as I had to go very slow!

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23 responses

29 05 2016
L jamieson

Thanks – very informative and helped me decide which route to do – completed the non devils this morning having camped up at the lochan coire nam miseach overnite – fabulous weather !

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30 05 2016
mountaincoward

It has been great weather in Scotland for a change hasn’t it – I couldn’t believe how good it was this last week – I was on Skye. Glad you found my ‘cowards route’ info useful 😉
Carol.

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18 07 2015
A Superb Day on the Tops of Aonach Mor | The Adventures of a Mountain Coward

I later took the route on the above link to reach the Munro Tops of Aonach Mor

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13 06 2015
fedup

Fab pics 🙂 – shame your hip/knee troubled the end 😦

I can vaguely remember these, my Dad took me over Devil’s Ridge after seeing it on Muriel Gray’s Munro Show – The previous week had been spent on the Cuillin so it seemed tame!

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13 06 2015
mountaincoward

I suppose Devil’s Ridge would seem like nothing if you’d just come back from there. I was pretty pleased with my leg’s performance as it didn’t play up until right at the end and I’d been starting to think I wouldn’t be able to do big hills any more at all so I was pretty relieved to find I still could (after a fashion anyway).

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13 06 2015
Simon Howlett

A magnificent walk, Carol. You certainly put the Sunny through its paces when driving it to these remote locations!

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13 06 2015
mountaincoward

The Sunny is described as ‘a workhorse’ and it most certainly is. It also has the enormous benefit of being very comfy to sleep in which is handy for the remote Scottish stuff or when I have my usual trouble getting ‘single’ accommodation.

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14 06 2015
Simon Howlett

Sounds great. I sometimes think I should get a small van and kit it out so I can sleep in the back. As you say, very handy for remote stuff and would be good for early starts when I go out with a camera. I currently have a Peugeot 107 which is probably a bit too small to sleep in.

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15 06 2015
mountaincoward

I also have a Polo and don’t take that on the remote trips as it would be useless for sleeping in too. I should have got a camping van at the start of my Munroing ‘career’ as it would have saved me a fortune!

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5 06 2015
underswansea

Carol, Looks like a spectacular hike. Wonderful write up and photos. You should consider doing a guide book of your hikes. Then again maybe blogs are the new books. Regardless, I sure find your observations interesting. Take care, walk carefully and let your leg heal up. Bob

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5 06 2015
mountaincoward

I’ve thought about doing a non-guide book about the funnier/scarier more exciting ones or the ones where I did something really daft like my Loch Quoich row in the little inflatable boat. There are a lot of guide books written about the Scottiish Mountains though. I suppose I could specialise and write up a Munro Tops book – people doing tops are still a rarity…

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5 06 2015
tessapark1969

Nice report. Glad you got your hill in but sorry to hear the leg is still playing up 😦

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5 06 2015
mountaincoward

I was quite pleased with my leg really – it was pretty near the end before it collapsed on me and, if I’d taken the walking pole, I’d have been fine I think as I could just have whipped that out and leant on that. I really need the snow to go though as I don’t really want to carry both an ice axe and a pole!

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3 06 2015
Blue Sky Scotland

Glad to see you are still getting around. I’ve been avoiding the snow on the hills this winter but only because I enjoy spring so much lower down. One season I don’t want to miss a second of as it’s usually only five or six good weekends then its over for another year.

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4 06 2015
mountaincoward

I don’t think it was even five or six good weekends this year – just 2 weeks in April – and I think that was summer as well! 😦

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3 06 2015
McEff

Well done. Hope your knee’s feeling better. Great mountains, those. I had a scary experience once on that ridge between Stob Coire a Mhail and Sgurr a Mhaim and had to turn back. Gave me a bit of a fright.
Alen

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4 06 2015
mountaincoward

Devil’s Ridge doesn’t look nice – it has a nasty eroded bit in the middle. I was very glad I didn’t have to do the connecting ridge to Sgurr a’ Mhaim.

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3 06 2015
EchoohcE

Well done and congrats for knocking off another ‘top’. Shame about the weather, sounds like you were raring to go. Lovely photos by the way. The snow does seem to be hanging about this year, must be a combination of lots of snow last winter and a cool spring.
Mike

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4 06 2015
mountaincoward

I’m finding it strange that the snow is hanging around as I don’t think there’s anything like as much snow as was dumped on the Scottish hills the winter before. I think it’s just because it’s so cold and miserable this year that nothing is clearing what’s there. Having said that, I believe they’ve just had another dump of snow this week 😦

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3 06 2015
smackedpentax

I thought you were a Coward??? Going over that log bridge would put me off..especially looking down and seeing 8 ft. of black swirling water. Sounds like a real adventure…driving to Fort William is an adventure in itself. Sorry the knee let you down at the end.

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3 06 2015
mountaincoward

I’m only a MOUNTAIN coward – not so much a water coward though. I was pleased at my performance – I’d expected leg problems far earlier in the walk, like before I’d attained my aims! 🙂

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3 06 2015
razzah

Nice photos – they look like paintings. The snow really is starting to become a right pain this time of year.
Out of interest, how do you know the total ascent of a walk? I was wondering how to do this without a GPS, or do you judge it from the map?

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3 06 2015
mountaincoward

I work it out from the map – getting hard work now I have to squint for contours – even with glasses on! 😦

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