Forcan Ridge with Steve Fallon

26 06 2016

Sat 4 June 2016
For ages I’d debated and stressed about the best way to approach the gnarly Munro Top of Sgurr nan Forcan – I was starting to think it was going to be my hardest top…

Forcan Ridge & The Saddle fm Meallan Odhar

click on photos for full size/resolution – some taken on other days. Photos by others as credited

From photos I’d seen of the Forcan Ridge, I thought it was way too knife-edged for comfort along much of its length. Coming from the other side (from The Saddle), you meet the infamous ‘Bad Step’ – a Grade 3 scramble. Having seen Richard ill-advisedly climb down it unroped, I didn’t fancy tackling that! There are bypasses each side but they didn’t look nice either and I was also scared of the steep-looking descent from the summit of The Saddle.

Having enjoyed most of the stuff I’d recently been doing with Andy Ravenhill (see my recommendations page) on the more severe parts of the Cuillin Ridge, I wondered whether just hiring a guide was the way to go – alright, some people may think that’s either wimpy or cheating but at least I might enjoy my day and bag the classic ridge to boot.

In the end, I decided it was either book up with Steve Fallon’s regular guided group trips on the Forcan Ridge or just fudge my way up the steep grass to the col between The Saddle and Sgurr nan Forcan and bypass the bad step whichever side looked nicest!

In January this year I decided that £75 was too good an offer to miss for a guided trip along the famous Forcan Ridge and booked up with Steve Fallon. I was dying to meet him as he’s pretty famous for various reasons – firstly he’s a very well-known mountain guide, secondly he does some amazing running feats in the hills and, thirdly, he’s done around 16 rounds of The Munros! What a guy!

Saturday the 4th of June came along and I met him at last in the layby below the peaks. He was a friendly and unassuming guy – not sure he’s human though with the physical feats he can do – he’s only 5 years younger than me too! Mind you, he does keep fit through his job which is more than can be said for my 12 hour-shift desk job.

There were ten of us in total including the two guides (Richard and Steve) and we soon set off up the well-graded stalkers’ path to the col between Biod an Fhithich and Meallan Odhar.

Sgurr nan Forcan behind
The ridge-end rearing up in the middle behind Meallan Odhar

Immediately we started uphill, I started to find the pace too fast and began to lag behind. My chest was at full capacity (it never had a great capacity anyway) and I couldn’t breathe any deeper and was getting very out of breath – I simply couldn’t go any faster (my chest has been terrible this year)…

Getting further behind was very stressful for me as I’m not used to it – I spent a lot of the ascent worrying that this was the second walk in a row where I’ve been with others and have been at the back and lagging behind 😦 I always used to be up front and overtaking people on the hill until very recently. A couple of guys took it in turns to chivalrously lag behind with me.

When we reached the col everyone stopped for a break and I caught up and got my breath back at last. Luckily, when we set off, either I coped better with the undulating ground or the group went slower as I didn’t have any more lagging behind problems.

It had been very windy down in the valley and was even worse up here and looked like it was going to be a strong crosswind on the ridge. We also hit a band of mist here just after our first view of the impressive-looking ridge. As we arrived at the foot of the ridge, however, the wind completely disappeared along with the mist and it was hot and sunny again.

The ridge starts off up some easy slabs for quite a way and the rock was nice, dry and grippy. If it was wet you could easily circumvent the slabs around the other side of the ridge on grass.

Forcan Ridge Slabs Start

At the top of the slabs, we had a scrambly and rocky ridge but it was still pretty wide and not at all alarming. Nor were there any difficulties. The occasional rock was loose but, in general, the ridge is fairly firm. All very confidence-inspiring so far…

Forcan Ridge-everyone having fun
everyone having fun…

Forcan-Misty Views Across Glen Shiel

At the end of this easy section, where I incidentally noted there were lots of easy grassy gullies coming up on the left which could be used to miss the slabs out as well, the ridge suddenly reared up menacingly for quite a distance. I hoped it was alright but can’t say I was really feeling worried.

Forcan Ridge Rears Up
(whoops – clipped the top off – was using my non-SLR Olympus Trip 35 film camera)

Early on in the scrambling, I’d been pulled up by Steve in front of the group about facing out when scrambling down – I have to admit that is my preference (as my trousers will verify) even though I know you shouldn’t and I went back to doing it whenever he wasn’t looking (I’m bad!). I was pretty embarrassed by being made an example of though and feel sure most people probably do the same when down-scrambling. Most people I know do anyway…

One problem I found with walking in a group which I really must get a grip of before I do much more scrambling with others is to stay well back from the person in front. I was behind the only other potentially nervous person in the group and he was right behind Steve. Many times he ended up coming back down something suddenly and cannoning into me – very dangerous on a narrow ridge – at one point I even had to grab his rucksack to stop myself hurtling off the side! I suppose it’s mainly my fault really for getting too close.

The other problem with group scrambling is that, many times, we opted for a loose side path which is something I’d never choose myself as I think they’re very dangerous and prone to sudden collapse – or you could just slip off them. I much prefer to keep to solid rock and along the ridgeline – much safer. There were times when the guy in front of me was planning to take the loose side path and I thought it looked too loose. I could see better options above on the rock and asked once if I could take that route instead and meet them a few yards further along the ridge – Steve said no as he wanted all the group to keep together. I suppose that’s fair enough really but I’m probably used to being on my own with a guide and doing the exact route I want to!

I was also surprised at how many of the people in the group seemed to be ‘regulars’ and, not only had they apparently done a lot of things with Steve already, but were planning many more. While I’ve actually put in to do three very exciting routes with him this year as I was feeling a bit of a daredevil at the start of the year, I wouldn’t dream of doing normal routes on the easier Munros with him. They were all doing the South Shiel Ridge with him the next day – I couldn’t imagine hiring a guide for that particular ridge as it’s so easy. Many were also going to Knoydart with him – those are easy enough too… If they’re going to hire guides for every Munro, no matter how easy, they’re not only going to cost themselves a fortune but they’re going to take forever to get them all done!

Anyway, back to the ridge which I was finding far longer than I ever expected – the scrambling seemed never-ending. As it was quite pleasant that was okay but, as usual, I worried about whether something I couldn’t handle would come along somewhere. I particularly had in mind the section shown on the cover of my Irvine Butterfield book which I thought was before my Munro Top but didn’t see anything which looked like it by the time we eventually reached it.

Forcan Ridge-looking back
All this section of photos looking back along the ridge from various points

Forcan Ridge-approaching SnForcan

Forcan Ridge Pinncles
you don’t have to climb these pinnacles, don’t worry!

Forcan Ridge-looking back to pinnacles

Forcan Ridge-progressing along

There were two rounded tops which looked around the same height and I wondered whether we were, in fact, on Sgurr nan Forcan yet (we were on the first of them) and tried to ask Steve. So many people were talking at once though I had to eventually shout at him to get his attention. He looked mildly surprised at my shout but said we were indeed on my summit. I thanked him and took the opportunity to have a good peer down the left side for coward’s routes for anyone else not hiring a guide. The left-hand side had perfectly good grassy routes up it straight from Bealach Mhalagain and didn’t look particularly steep (although it certainly does from below but from above gives a much better indication of steepness). So, anyone wanting to take the original cowardly routes I was thinking of before deciding to go for the ridge with a guide should be fine.

We all had a peer over ‘The Bad Step’ but Steve had already decided that, with a group of eight, we couldn’t really spare the time for setting up belays etc and roping everyone down it – shame that as I’d like to have given it a try on the rope. There is a bypass path in both directions here – left/South and right/North – Steve didn’t know about the northern one and I don’t think it’s much used nowadays. I had a peer down the top of it and it looked fine from there – I decided to have another look from the bottom…

Our southern gully was pretty horrendous for being straight down and loose and I pulled a bit of a face as I hate that kind of thing. Having said that, there were two things in its favour – one was that there was a new section of zig-zag which missed out around half of the really bad bit at the top – me and another guy used that and it was much easier. The other thing in the southern bypass’s favour was that the ground below it is just steep grass and not serious in any way. A slip down the gully would be unpleasant but, providing you kept your feet in front of you, not really a problem.

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Loose gully (Nichole Morschett)

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photo Nicole Morschett

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Looking back up – Nicole Morschett

After the slither down the steep gully the path turned and went into an enclosed gully – this was more scrambly but, because you were sheltered by a rock wall now, absolutely fine. It looked spectacular on photos though!

Forcan Ridge-south bypass bottom

We clambered back up to the col below The Bad Step and I had a good study from below – unfortunately I was too near for photos just there but this was the best view of how awful it would be unroped. Richard did this down scramble unroped and with no idea what he was doing. I was absolutely horrified when I saw how bad it was – how he didn’t kill himself I’ll never know! I actually saw him doing it at the time as I passed below and thought it was the other guy on the ridge. I was so sure he’d fall to his death I walked off! It’s a pretty hard Grade 3 scramble which is top of the grade for scrambling and no place to fool around unroped…

Forcan-Richard's stupid descent

I also had a good look at the foot of the northern bypass – it wasn’t quite so good at the bottom and the northern side is much more serious ground. I think I’d give it a go ascending though…

When we rejoined the ridge we were approaching the other rounded peak which I and another guy visited just in case it gets promoted or something in future! (my Munro map shows it as a deleted top)… It was very nice anyway. It was somewhere around here I noticed very familiar ground – the photo from my book. It was actually completely fine and I was a bit tempted to try the actual scramble along the top of the rock fin – I was at the front at the time with Steve and he gave me the choice. Unfortunately I said I thought we should probably stick on the bypass which runs below it. There were a few awkward scrambling sections along this part of the ridge which I enjoyed and found pretty easy, although I’d say the scrambling on this section is harder than the ascent to Sgurr nan Forcan…

Forcan Ridge-section after bypass

Forcan Ridge-Book Section

Forcan Ridge-awkward slabs between tops

Forcan Ridge-Sgurr nan Forcan
looking back to Sgurr nan Forcan

We finally reached the col where we just had the final clamber up to the first summit of The Saddle. There is indeed a perfectly easy zig-zag path up this section as everyone had been telling me. I’d originally been going to ascend the grass on the left to this col to reach my top but it wouldn’t have helped as the scrambling between the col and my top was quite difficult and long and it would have been hard to know which the top was anyway…

Forcan Ridge to Saddle Towers

I’d got further back in the group at this point and noticed that those leading had not bothered with the path but were actually scrambling the rock towers to the left of it. Steve shouted down that we could take the path if we wanted but I didn’t want – it looked fun to continue the scrambling up the towers so I went for that option. I have to say that there were some quite hard and reachy moves, even for me with my super-long legs. I’m definitely starting to lose suppleness unfortunately as, for one high foothold, I had to get hold of my leg and lift it up onto it – and that was my good leg 😦

I did think about not being on a rope and doing some quite hard scrambling but, for once, I wasn’t bothered – must be the ‘group effect’ I think. Not that they can stop you falling off of course but I only have a lack of scrambling confidence, not ability.

At the top of this summit I was a bit worried about the descent as I’d found it tricky and loose last time when I was on my own trying to meet Richard. This time I couldn’t see any problems as I descended it – different route or more confidence? not sure…

Saddle-other top
Descent from first peak of The Saddle – not sure what I found worrying about it last time really

There was a long discussion atop this peak about which was the true summit – I pointed out that if it wasn’t the one with the trig point, I was only just compleating my Munros on this peak and not in May 2014! The consensus eventually agreed it was the trig point peak. I was interested which was the ‘deleted top’ and tried to ask Steve but, again, his attention was being taken by everyone else talking. I had to shout to get his attention again – this time he looked pretty annoyed – whoops, but I really needed to know. Anyway, he wasn’t sure – if it had been the peak down to the right, I’d have popped down and done it.

View from The Saddle summit
is the deleted top along this ridge?

Forcan Ridge from The Saddle

views back to the Forcan Ridge

Forcan Ridge fm The Saddle

We had a long sit in the glorious sunshine on the summit and ate, drank and chatted. The youngest girl in the group gave us all a high five. One guy wandered off to investigate a snow patch where the summit lochan should have been. We saw him kneel down and peer into something – he came back and said there was a snow hole there. I had to go and have a look with another of the guys. There was indeed – strange place to have it as they’re normally dug into a bank for ease…

Saddle - Summit Snowfield and Deleted Top

We then all slithered off down the loose “coward’s path” to Bealach Mhalagain where I departed the group as they were going onto Sgurr na Sgine and Faochag. I’d informed Steve at the summit of The Saddle I was leaving the group, partly because I’d done both the other peaks before and partly because I was holding them up. He chivalrously said I’d been fine but I knew they’d do much better without me. I also didn’t fancy the long, exceedingly steep and unremitting descent down Faochag which, it turned out, neither did they in the end.

I went back down the normal stalker’s path which we’d come up after I’d had a long lounge at two lochans just above the bealach. I lay there studying my achievement for a long time and also looked for alternative routes to Sgurr nan Forcan for those not wanting to do the Forcan Ridge.

Forcan Ridge from above Bealach Coire Mhalagain

In addition to the grassy route straight up to the summit of the top (yellow route on photo below), there is also easy grass heading up to the foot of the southern bypass gully for the bad step – if you go high into the corrie you can follow a wall back towards the foot of the gully which will make things easier I think (orange route). There is also another grass rake to the north of the summit which, if you found the grass too steep straight up the direct route for the summit, you could branch right and follow that up instead. This would mean some scrambling along the ridge but it wasn’t too hard (blue route).

Forcan Ridge-easy route to Top (annotated)

I was pleased to get back to the hotel for a shower and then a lovely dish of ice cream (the strawberry was delicious and the chocolate pretty good – even the vanilla wasn’t boring for a change) and a pint of lime and soda. I also got some more delicious smiles from the lovely foreign waiter who’d been very nice to me during my stay 🙂

Links to Steve Fallon’s photos of the day

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20 responses

3 09 2016
Ben Nevis Ledge Route & CMD | The Adventures of a Mountain Coward

[…] I’d booked up with Steve Fallon to do several ambitious scrambling routes in the Scottish mountains. The first was my Forcan Ridge trip in June – Ben Nevis Ledge Route & the CMD was the second and there is one more to come […]

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16 07 2016
surfnslide

The Forcan is a classic, I’ve done it several times including twice in winter conditions. I don’t remember the bad step although it’s been a while! A great report and photos. My scrambling legs have gone now as well, easy stuff is all I can manage now my knees are shot

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16 07 2016
mountaincoward

I don’t think I’d be quite so keen on it in winter! I’d like to do it again though…

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4 07 2016
fedup

Great selection of photos ;D Well done looks a bit ‘airy’ in places for a self proclaimed coward – which I don’t think you are now! Not sure I could cope walking with a guide (unless I had booked all 10 places and had him to my self!) – sorry I’m far too grumpy & miserable for that! I have seen a few guided trips in the lakes in lakes recently which actually seems completely pointless.

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11 07 2016
mountaincoward

I’m fairly quiet in a group – partly because I don’t have enough lung to chat when ascending a hill! But the others were really nice. I think I do the scary stuff better in a group – not sure why but it does seem to make me much braver. Not sure I’d have coped with the ridge on my own but might do on a retry now I know what’s involved. I think I generally have a fear of something coming along that I can’t cope with and that makes me shaky and nervous.

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1 07 2016
tessapark1969

Good report – still looks pretty scary to me though! I think you have lost your cowardice..

Interesting what you say about guided groups. I’d be worried about holding people up particularly on a route like that. Surely guided groups should go at a pace everyone’s comfortable with? Not an issue with one on one guiding though.

I think I’d get a guide if I ever did the AE or Liathach but I’m more likely to take your approach and pick off the hills separately.

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1 07 2016
mountaincoward

Steve actually asked me if I was going to do the AE with him (I’ve actually put down to do the whole Liathach traverse in October with him) and I said definitely not. I think the AE, if doing the whole ridge, looks really dangerous and not fun at all! I’m hoping we get good enough weather to do the Am Fasarinen on Liathach too as I consider the bypass for that exceedingly dangerous too.

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28 06 2016
Blue Sky Scotland

Well done getting that one over with. I’ve always been lucky in knowing better climbers as friends who took me up the harder stuff. What always surprises me about ultra fit- multi munro round baggers is that they don’t seem to have joints and limbs like the rest of us as most of my mates, after a lifetime’s hill- walking, at weekends, have knee or other problems now. A full time guide must have a super human frame and joint structure if it doesn’t wear out eventually but I do know a select few that are still going strong like the wee pink bunny in adverts- seemingly immune to any wear and tear. ( The *********s :o)
That happens with workers as well. People still capable of doing a hard physical job every day at 70 years of age that I just shake my head at in amazement when I compare it with how I feel these days after a hard shift- ten years younger.
You must have declined a lot since Ben Lui as I remember you shooting off like a rocket along that track on the way in and thinking, “what- no rest stops to take in the surroundings before the summit!” Wah!!! :o)

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28 06 2016
mountaincoward

Yeah, I’ve had a very sudden decline – with my chest particularly. I’ve had a chest x-ray now to try to see what’s going on.

I get very jealous of those super-fit people – it didn’t help while I was struggling along at the back and they were talking about other super-human runners who do fantastic rounds of mountains in fantastic times – made me feel even more inadequate! 😦

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28 06 2016
wilton246

The summit of the Saddle isn’t the trig, it’s the eastern summit 160 metres away which is 20cm higher. Surveyed officially by Alan Dawson, with couple of hours high quality GPS equipment. Check it out on http://www.hill-bagging.co.uk
I only went to the trig in the mist in 2007. Had to go back and re-complete my Munros last year on14th June 2015.

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28 06 2016
mountaincoward

I’ve always been up there on clear days fortunately and have done all the tops now apart from the deleted ones on the northern ridge…

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27 06 2016
chrissiedixie

I can find it stressful enough walking with a small group of people I know, never mind a bunch I don’t know! I’ve always thought hiring a guide would be a good idea for some things, but 1 to 1 would probably be much better, albeit a lot more expensive. Of course I know you’ve done that too…..
Looked rather a good day out though, nevertheless!

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28 06 2016
mountaincoward

Apart from me being woefully slow at the start, it was a great day out.

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27 06 2016
Mark

Not many to go now!

The Saddle abounds with Deleted Munro Tops. The Trig Point is one as is the East Top at NG938130. The current Top is at NG936610, that’s the rounded one before the Trig Point on your route. Apparently it’s a meter higher than the Trig Point….. There’s also a Deleted Munro Top out on the North Ridge from the summit. I did it as an out and back without being entirely sure which of the many 3000ft bumps is the article. I just had to drag my pal along all of them and then back to trig. Anyway glad you got the bigger knocked off, I know it’s been a bugbare for some time.

I didn’t know the ridge was rated at grade 3. That means I’ve done it all unbeknownised on my own. I had a look at the bypass path and went for the downclimb.

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27 06 2016
mountaincoward

Only that nasty downclimb with the bypasses is Grade 3 but I suppose that does make the ridge classed as Grade3.

I nearly popped down and did that little northern ridge as it looked nice and I was sure there were deleted tops along there. Seeing as I was leaving the group anyway, I could have done.

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27 06 2016
McEff

I’m so glad you completed the Forcan Ridge, partly because I knew you’d do it eventually and enjoy it, and partly because you followed exactly the same route that I took about five years ago – even the bit where you bypassed the Bad Step on the south side and slid down that rock gulley.
I set out on my own, and I must admit I was extremely worried about the ridge. But I met up with another four first-timers at the foot of the ridge itself and we did it together. I always feel much more confident in a group of people who are as uncertain as myself. I remember looking down the Bad Step and thinking: there is no way on this earth that I’m climbing down that – but I found the rock gulley bypass quite exhilarating and an easy way of getting round the problem. Like you, I was climbing the rocky bits rather than the path in the final stages because my confidence had grown immeasurably. It’s a great walk and one I would do again.
Cheers, Alen

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27 06 2016
mountaincoward

I think I might even tackle that ridge again with just Richard sometime – I can show him the right way to go about it then!

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27 06 2016
underswansea

Yikes! Glad I wasn’t there for that one. All I need is a bunch of youngsters chattering away, making jokes, pulling out their iPads here and there, while I huff and puff my way along the rock. You are brave! I noticed you wear low boots. You must have strong ankles. Wonderful report, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I didn’t know such country existed in your neck of the woods.Very fine report. Bob

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27 06 2016
mountaincoward

Actually, no-one laid a hand to a phone for a change – you did pretty much need your hands. I wore my approach shoes as I find I’m more nimble in them than my big boots nowadays (I’m much less supple) and that was important for the ridge!

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27 06 2016
underswansea

I was just kidding. It looked like a lot of fun.

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