Saddle Tops from the South via The Pylon Track

4 09 2015

Sat 27 June 2015
When I’d originally done ‘The Saddle’ with Richard during my Munro-bagging crusade, I hadn’t been sure I was going to do ‘The Tops’ as well. This led to me chickening out of the tougher bits of the walk, namely, the infamous Forcan Ridge and the narrow and scrambly route to the two western tops.

I’d outright refused to do The Forcan Ridge but did set off with Richard towards the western tops after meeting him on the main summit. I soon found the ridge was too narrow and steep-sided for my liking, one side being sheer for a very long way into the northern corrie of Coire Uaine and the other being steep slippery slabs. I ended up turning back and sunbathing peacefully by the summit lochan while Richard bagged them.

Now, I was top-bagging and being made to regret my earlier cowardice as I now had to face them alone…

Click on photos for full size/resolution
I’d studied the maps and Irvine Butterfield’s ‘High Mountains’ book for inspiration and avoidance of the routes along the too-narrow ridges. I saw two possibilities for the two western tops, both of which would be fine. One was to take the stalker’s path from Shiel Bridge to the col behind the Corbett of Sgurr Mhic Bharraich and then turn left up the end of my tops ridge. The other possibility was from Kinlochhourn to the south via ‘the Pylon Track’ – this looked the more interesting of the two and visited countryside I would otherwise never see. That decided me to take that route in preference to the shorter one from Shiel Bridge.

I’d wanted to car-camp back at my favourite spot by Loch Quoich all year and decided the June weather was warm enough to do that. So, on the Friday after a quick sleep off nightshift, I threw my stuff in the car and drove up to Glen Garry in beautiful weather. So good was the weather, and so hot was the sun, I decided to stop more than my customary once and call at a couple of pubs. The first was the wonderful Athol Arms at Blair Atholl for my tea and then I stopped not long after that at the Stronlossit at Roy Bridge. The Stron were very surprised to see me as Richard and I were there only the week before for our Roy Bridge log cabin week. They wondered what I’d done with Richard – I told them he didn’t ‘car-camp’!

I got chatting a while in the Stron and it was 2215 before I left for the remainder of my journey. I arrived just before midnight worrying whether I’d get into my favourite spot as it is popular with campervans and there were a great many down the glen already. When I turned the corner of the small woodland at the edge of my spot, I found it was completely unoccupied – I’d been expecting at least one camping van. The ground was exceedingly wet though – it’s normally bone-dry – and I worried a bit about whether the car would get stuck on the soft, wet ground. As it was a dry night, I reversed on, set up my bed on the reclined passenger seat and got straight into my sleeping bag (I’d cheekily cleaned my teeth in the pub).

I didn't knock tree down, honest(no reg)
I didn’t knock the tree down honest…

2 Fallen Trees Make a Perfect Tent!
but if you’ve forgotten your car, the two fallen trees make a lovely tent! 😉

I awoke, not to the wonderfully sunny day promised on the weather forecasts, but to steady rain and low cloud. My camping spot was wetter than ever but the car moved off okay. I decided to get my breakfast at the cafe at Kinlochhourn rather than mess around in the rain and midges with the stove.

Six miles further on, after the horrifying descent of the steep, narrow, passing-place-less, twisty and potholed road down to Kinlochhourn, I parked up and put a quid in the honesty box.

Kinlochhourn

The cafe man was just setting about some strimming work around his B&B but broke off to make me some coffee. He did have bacon sandwiches available but I’m vegetarian so just had some of his fruit cake – that’s an ideal walking breakfast for me – fat and sugar and easily digestible. I nipped to his loo and noticed in his store a 2-litre bottle of fizzy water – that was to prey on my mind later.

Back at the car, I booted up and wavered about whether to tote my huge and heavy film camera with me. Looking at the miserable weather and low cloud all around, which looked to have set in for the day, I decided not to bother – the guy in the cafe had said the weather had been like that all year apart from one week in April. As usual, I was made to regret that decision…

The route goes back up the road quite a way until a river bridge is reached – this is crossed and the track heads off to the estate housing and stalker’s cottages – lovely houses in a lovely situation if you can stand the weather there. The path passes through their grounds and then between the housing up into some lovely woodland with exotic tree species and lots of rhododendrons which were flowering beautifully.

Pylon Route across Kinlochhourn Bay
The Pylon Route from across the bay at Kinlochhourn – it goes up through the forest and behind the left-hand knoll

I must have been going well as I didn’t really notice the climb up through the woodland. There was then a gate through the deer fence and the path set off very steeply zig-zagging up beside the pylons through a small pass high above. I was still going well and didn’t mind the climb apart from being a bit too warm wearing full waterproofs on such a muggy day. A sinking feeling started to surface in my mind as I approached the top of the pass though – I was almost sure the path was going to head straight back downhill and lose all the height I’d gained. A look at the ongoing cables from the highest pylon confirmed I was right – they headed steeply back downhill…

Quite a lot of height was lost as I descended beside the pylons to a vast, low hollow between the hills. All the Munros and Corbetts on my right were in cloud so I had to recognise where I was from my knowledge of the Southern Glenshiel mountains and the shape of their bases and the glens between them. When the cloud lifted later, I found I’d been spot on with my analysis.

After crossing a burn, the path started to head back uphill again and diverged from the pylons – I kept them in sight though as there were a few side paths which I didn’t want to get waylaid onto. I was assuming this was all Glen Beag but was soon to find out I was wrong when, after a couple more miles, the path headed resolutely downhill to a deep glen with a large split in it. The glen going off to the left was named, along with the section I was in, Gleann Dubh Lochan and it led out to Glen Arnisdale. My branch went straight ahead, initially rising steeply after a couple of ruined shielings, eventually heading into Gleann Beag which leads to Glenelg.

The map said I had to follow the track up past a waterfall and a small woodland and then there would be a stalker’s path branching up north-east to the corrie. I suspected that the path nowadays might continue up at least well into the corrie rather than just the corrie mouth as marked – I was right – and it very helpfully continued up through the corrie passing near the end of my intended ridge.

I’d seen on the map that my first top, Spidean Dhomhuill Bhric, threw out an easy-looking south-west ridge from its summit. Earlier in my walk, I thought I’d seen the cragged ridge-end. Now, as it hove into view, I saw I’d been right that it was my ridge – it looked very easy indeed! There was a grassy ascent anywhere up the side of the ridge above my helpful path – I picked the easiest looking line and plodded up it.

I was soon on the lovely ridge, at this point wide, grassy and gently-angled and now bearing a path. Not only that, the ridge ahead had suddenly cleared showing my two tops clearly – they both looked pretty easy too. All of a sudden, the sun came out and decided to remain out for the rest of my walk. I didn’t know whether to be happy or cross – I was very pleased I could see where I was going and what I had to tackle but was pretty miffed I didn’t have my camera with me.

I strolled along the ridge, by now feeling pretty tired after the up-and-down walk in, and approached Spidean first. It looked decidedly steep from the end of the ridge and I wondered whether to divert to the col and ascend both peaks from there. Before making my decision though, I decided to approach right to the foot of the peak and see how steep it looked from below. When I got there, it looked steep but do-able. I started off up…

To say the ascent up the side was steep would be an understatement – for most of the route I could put a hand out to touch the ground in front of me and pretty much had to use my hands for balance to get up the steep tufts and boulders. There was an even steeper section which I tried to tackle where the wall went up (after all, the waller had got up there) but I found it too steep and it had loose scree piled alongside the wall. I picked a route slightly left up almost vertical grass but, after surmounting this section and looking above me, decided it was silly to continue at such a steep angle and found a grassy rake leading me round to the ridge-end.

When I reached the ridge I found the path along the Tops. At first it went straight for a rocky obstacle and out to the left. I reached the obstacle and peered round to the left – it was a huge drop that side and the path looked to almost hang in the air. As I knew the other side of the peak was fine (I’d just been ascending that way), I diverted round the obstacle on grass to the right – that was fine and there were no more awkward bits.

As I approached the summit, a group of four people were plodding up the other side from The Saddle. We met at the cairn and had a brief chat. They were from my neck of the woods so we had a bit of a ‘Yorkies Convention’ on the summit – it was a bit cold though and I was still in my t-shirt. One of the men in the group was delighted I was doing Munro Tops as he said it was so rare you met anyone else doing them – he’d finished them all at the same time as doing the Munros.

After a few minutes I was frozen and, after checking they were coming to the next top, Sgurr Leac nan Each, I said I’d see them there and set off back down. I was soon on the col and heading up very easy ground on a good path to the grassy peak. When I arrived and looked back, I was stunned by the view – and even more miffed I’d not brought my camera. The peak yielded a stupendous view of the back of The Saddle with all its spiky peaks on show behind a superb corrie and lochan. The light was absolutely perfect.

When the others arrived I asked if they were taking any photos as I hoped to get one or two for my blog – unfortunately, they weren’t so you’ll just have to manage with the earlier description as Richard didn’t take any either when he did the Tops. Luckily I took these two before I turned back and left him to it that day…

The Saddle-on ridge to tops

The tops of The Saddle
My two tops are the pointy one and the smooth one to its right

We had a quite long and hilarious conversation about the loss of our native Yorkshire accents (or any other British accents) and the gradual take-over of speech by those with a plum in their mouths. I also quizzed them on reaching Sgurr nan Forcan as I still have that peak to bag but have no intention of doing The Forcan Ridge. They hadn’t done it this time as the rock was too wet but they’d done it before and their description further put me off – it sounded awful!

We then parted ways – them to continue my other potential route, back to Shiel Bridge via the stalker’s path around Sgurr Mhic Barraich. I was quite jealous as it looked a lovely grassy and gentle route and was much shorter than my walk back out. I’d seen a higher path from the initial pass on my route in and determined to take that on the way back in the hope it didn’t gain and lose as much height as my outward path had.

As soon as I reached my initial ridge again from the col, I descended to the corrie and followed the contours around the adjacent ridge of Mullach Gorm. As I descended the side of that ridge down a very easy grass slope, I saw the start of the higher path just across the river. When I reached the nearer bank, I found that this track also headed left up the Allt Coire Mhalagain to join the main route to The Saddle if desired. I hopped over the river on boulders and set off south-east to head back.

The path went along levelly until I rounded the corner where it suddenly headed determinedly uphill and well into the valley behind Sgurr na Sgine and Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais. For a while I thought it was heading for the col between those peaks and over to Kintail and determined to leave it if it continued on its course. Eventually, however, I saw it headed across to the next river and crossed it to head back round out of the valley towards my initial pass. By now I was a few hundred feet higher than the pass and knew I would lose most of that height as the start of this path had branched off after a descent from the pass.

The path didn’t lose as much height as my outward path had and it wasn’t too bad a climb back up to the pass – I was by now tired though. It was pretty hot and sunny and I’d more or less exhausted my water supply. I found the steep descent from the pass extremely hard and was glad to re-enter the forest. Glad, that is, apart from the fact that the gate now decided to have the bolt snap back very hard and trap my finger between the metalwork – ouch!

I continued on down through the forest soaking my finger in the next cold burn – luckily it hadn’t bled much. Throughout the march back along the path, up over the pass and down the hard descent, all I could think about was the 2-litre bottle of fizzy water – the cafe would now be shut though. I decided I’d at least call and ask him if he’d sell it to me.

On arrival back at the car and the cafe, I rang his doorbell but there was no reply. It was by now half past six… Oh well, I set off back to my car and changed my footwear and dumped my bag. I was about to dig out the stove to make coffee when I saw a man and his dog coming down the road – perhaps that was him?

I waited until he drew nearer and I recognised the dog and then met him at his gate. Could I buy his 2-litre bottle of sparkling water off him I enquired? He said he didn’t think he had one. I assured him he had and that I’d seen it that morning in his store-room when I went to the loo. He went to have a look and came out with it. He said he’d have to charge me £2 for it – I didn’t care as I was desperate to have it and readily agreed. The huge bottle was mine and I set off to sit by the car, eat my sandwiches and guzzle it. I only managed to drink around half the bottle before I left for my camping spot but, during the evening and night, finished most of the rest of the bottle.

Seeing as I hadn’t taken my camera on the route but the weather was now better, I went for a little evening stroll with it before I left Kinlochhourn…

Kinlochhourn Roadend

Kinlochhourn Windowed Wall
Strange wall with windows

Barrisdale Path, Kinlochhourn

Kinlochhourn Rhodies
Barrisdale Track

Rock Formation near Kinlochhourn
Rock formation by the road after the climbout from Kinlochhourn

As I settled down for the evening in the car, the rain clouds returned and, by bedtime, it was raining heavily…

It threw it down all night long and I worried about how deep the water on the camp spot was getting and how soft the ground would be. I also worried about the herd of Highland Longhorn cattle I’d seen just up the road. While I’m not at all afraid of the gentle and docile beasts, I knew how dangerous they were to parked cars with those big horns. I fell asleep rather uneasily…

Heilan Coo

At 0545, I was awoken by a huge bump against the car. I looked out and saw I was surrounded by handle-bar horned beasts – oh no! They milled around scratching against the car and catching it with their horns while grazing. I opened the door and shouted at them in order to scare them away. The nearest lady just calmly looked up and stared at me, insolently chewing, gave me a look which said “What do you want?” and then her head went back down and she continued her grazing next to the car. I wondered whether to get up and move on – there were more cows arriving all the time with their calves.

Finally the bull arrived and was soon staring hard into the car through the nearest window to me. Any moment, I thought, he’ll see me and then give the car such an enormous headbutt! He continued to stare with his face against the window – I decided to try to scare him off. I opened the door towards him and, surprisingly, he jumped back and hurriedly left. The cows then set off down the road where I’d planned on heading so I decided not to bother. Looking out though, I was worried about the depth of the water the car was surrounded by and decided to pull onto the side of the road onto the harder ground.

After moving the car I got back into my sleeping bag and tried to get back to sleep. As soon as I fell asleep, there was a moo and I was once more surrounded by cows with the rest heading back my way again. In the end, after about an hour and a half of suspense, they eventually headed off up the hillside and left me and the poor Sunny alone.

I went back to sleep and woke around ten to see all was miserable and wet and the rain was still coming down hard. I’d planned to do another hill around Ballachulish but decided it was best to just head back to Cumbria – I knew the weather would be better there. The weather did clear up as I reached the Great Glen but I decided the burns would be too full and the ground too wet to bother so I continued back down to England where the weather was, and had been, superb all weekend…

Stats: 13 miles, 4225 feet of ascent, 8 hours

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17 responses

17 09 2015
3 Trips Thursday #49 - walkwithtookie

[…] Saddle Tops from the south via the pylon track. […]

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9 09 2015
Mark

Well that’s different😳 Can’t be many people who even think about that route. Still, as I recall when I was within touching distance of compleating my Munro Top I undertook a couple more desperate routes to get the job done. I did the former double Corbett from the delightful stalkers path just west of Loch Choire Shubh over into Wester Glen Quioch. Then I came back over the Corbett(s) to pick your route above Kinloch Hourn.

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10 09 2015
mountaincoward

I quite liked the Pylon route as a route in for interest – it was just a lot more up and down than I’d managed to figure out from my squint at the maps (my eyesight is getting very poor for contours!)

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6 09 2015
underswansea

Hi Carol. Sounds like quite an adventure. You shouldn’t be trekking without your camera or camping without a good supply of fizzy water. I didn’t envy you sleeping in the car. Great report! Thanks for taking me along. Bob

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

I love sleeping in the car if it isn’t too cold at night (after all, it is a metal box so can be b*** cold!). Some days here, you’d never get a photo at all – I was out on a typical one of those last week. It was too cold, wet and windy to even think about photography – I just kept on plodding out up the hill and back again without stopping as I couldn’t wait to finish!

I had plenty of ‘flat’ water in the car but don’t really like the stuff and I didn’t fancy drinking coffee all evening/night.
Carol.

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6 09 2015
bob

You certainly put the effort in Carol. I used to always use the SMC guide book, “The Munros” when doing them but I did borrow the Butterfield book out the library a few times and it always seemed to take a very un-obvious line, probably to avoid the same ways up as the normal route, Some of them seemed very far from direct and added miles to the day.
I’ve read a few posts from hill walking friends recently that the midges and ticks are very bad this year due to all the moist weather, photos of them being an inch thick on the netting at the door of the tent last week. Not joking as I’ve seen the pics on our forum. Put me right off the west coast this summer.

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

I’ve actually noticed the difference in that I didn’t think there were as many ticks, midges and clegs etc this year. And it’s the first year I haven’t picked up a single tick in Scotland.

I think Irvine Butterfield is good in that he includes several different approaches and writes a bit about each. He also includes the tops and not just the direct route to the Munros as the SMC guide does so it’s helpful to read what some of the routes to the Munro Tops are like and see photos. I like his book the best of all from a guidebook point of view.

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6 09 2015
tessapark1969

I agree with fed up, you need a small digital camera, or a mobile phone with a decent camera.. I take most of my pics on my iPhone these days.

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

I had the digi-camera in the car but landscape photos are dreadful on it – no sharpness at all. It’s a Canon as well and I was expecting better.

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5 09 2015
fedup

Useful route advice, shame about the camera – I know your preference for film but you need to ask Santa for a small compact digital that could easily fit in your pocket, just for these situations!

Haven’t been to Kinlochhourn yet, I don’t think it is ‘compatible’ with my camper van – so will have to wait until the kids no longer come with us & we can downsize!

Could the ‘windows’ be drains built into the stonework?

Cheers Simon

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

Not sure about the windows – your suggestion is a good one as it seemed to be a sort of trackway above the wall.

I have a Canon digi-camera and it was in the car – but any landscape photos I take on it are pretty much unusable as they’re so unsharp. I’m not sure whether it’s the camera or that I can’t keep it still as it isn’t held against my face as my SLR is. It does close-ups fine though so I suspect the camera… Richard’s digi-camera seems a bit better (an Olympus) but I still prefer the results from my ‘proper’ camera.
Carol.

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5 09 2015
Rowena

Well I know where I won’t be camping lol! Sounds a good adventure though. I can’t believe the guy charged you £2 for his bottle of water that he didn’t even know he had! Chancer.

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

Not really a chancer – think how much a pub would charge you for a half-pint glass of the stuff – and he is running a cafe. I was well suited to pay £2 for it, especially after thinking about it all afternoon 😉

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5 09 2015
Gaslight Crime

Dramatic looking place.

Liked by 1 person

7 09 2015
mountaincoward

It is pretty dramatic – now I have to do the even more dramatic ‘top’ the other end of the ridge – the dreaded Sgurr nam Forcan! 😮 😦

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5 09 2015
Charles Everett

Interesting to see you’re vegetarian like me Interesting to get up from the south from Kinlochourn. Wonder if you’ve been up Buidhe Bheinn, ‘re confirmed as the Corbett in 2012 as a foot higher than Sgurr a Bhac Chaolais. I did a circuit of the saddle with my son on 14th June 2015 a glorious day including every top and the five Graham tops too. Long day didn’t leave last summit at the northern end till ten!!

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

I’ve still got Sgurr nam Forcan to do on The Saddle – dreading it – it looks ‘orrid! I wish I’d come with your son and yourself for that part – I could do with someone coming along for that one.

I haven’t done either Buidhe Bheinn (which I thought looked horrifying from the South Shiel ridge) or Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais (which I think has been demoted?). I was hoping to do Chaolais some time…
Carol.

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