Making a Mess of Sgor Ban, Beinn a’ Bheithir

28 07 2016

Tue 14 June 2016
Richard and I were once again staying at the lovely log cabins at Bunroy, Roybridge for a week and my one and only objective for the week was to bag one of my final Munro Tops, Sgor Ban on the Beinn a’ Bheithir horseshoe. My plan was to ascend the front of the peak from West Laroch and come down the fine North Ridge of Sgor Dearg next door. My route ended up nothing like that – I made a total mess of the whole walk and came back completely exhausted!

Sgor Ban from West Laroch

Click on photos for full size/resolution – Richard’s digi photos as marked

It was a beautiful morning when Richard and I split up at South Ballachulish – him to walk up the famous Pap of Glencoe and me to bag my Top. I’ll be four or five hours I told him as I set off up completely the wrong street and wandered around most of the village. I was looking for the school as apparently a path set off up my hill behind it. Eventually I admitted defeat and dug the map out of my bag – I should have headed straight along the road from the carpark towards Gleann an Fiodh, the glen which runs behind my hills.

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Richard’s photos of his intended Peak (above) and my intended route (below) – I was supposed to go up the short ridge in the foreground and come down the long one behind it… however…

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Put right I soon found the river bridge and the school and, shortly afterwards, an obvious footpath gate as it had a sign on about keeping dogs under control at lambing time. I set off up the track which very soon split – neither direction apparently went up the hill and my map didn’t have one marked at all. I chose right which headed under the hill looking like it was heading for the end of the ridge…

The path contoured merrily under the hill and seemed to be making no attempt to go up it at all – in the end I got fed up and headed straight uphill eyeing an obvious shelf high above me which would take me on a rising traverse to the ridge-end. The ground was very boggy and my approach shoes soon started to feel damp. The going was easy enough though.

The scenery all around on such a lovely morning was stunning and I wondered whether to take photos. I nearly always take my photos on the way back down as I’m very absorbed by route-finding on the way up things so decided to leave them until later.

I kept eyeing the scramble (NE) ridge as I ascended – from the side, it looked no worse than many easy scrambles in the Lakes. I couldn’t remember anything I’d read about its difficulty or whether there were escape routes for difficult or exposed sections. In the end, I decided I should give it a go (no doubt fired up by my apparent ease when doing the Forcan Ridge the week before) and set off across country to change ridges.

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My originally intended route follows the right-hand skyline – the scramble ridge is the left-hand one (R Wood)

Cross country here involved a thick forest and a ominous-looking very deep gorge going steeply down the mountainside so no doubt stuffed with waterfalls. I reached the forest fence which was easily stridden by a tall person and had no barbed wire strand. This was immediately followed in a couple of feet by another fence which, at the point where I reached it, just consisted of 2 strands which I popped between. In typical fashion the forest trees had very low branches so I had to proceed bent double.

I’d had a soaked buff on my head and that was soon torn off by low branches as they snapped off all around me. Soon my damp hair was full of bits of twig and my head was rattling! Luckily the forest was a narrow section and I was soon through it to be faced with a barbed wire topped fence which was pretty high even for a long-legged person like me. A flash of ingenuity made me grab the nearest pine branch with a lot of foliage and hold it along the barbed wire. I was soon over the fence with no damage to groin or trouser!

I then headed across rough and tufty country briefly for a natural woodland where the gorge thundered threateningly. I set off on a rising traverse thinking that at least I would be able to cross the gorge top in the corrie where the burn would be too small to make much of an indentation if I couldn’t find anywhere before that. I soon found an easy crossing place above a large waterfall. There was a lot of loose rock in the burn and the water level was low so it was crossed dryfoot in seconds.

I then had the rest of the natural woodland to clear before reaching the side of the NE ridge. Luckily, apart from being quite wet, the ground was very easy going and the trees were nicely spaced out. It was also lovely and cool in the woodland so I decided to gain height right to the top of the wood and then tackle the ridge side. I was surprised not to see any deer in here…

Soon I exited the woodland and studied the ridge-side – it was completely covered in thick heather – I decided it would be easier to traverse on the level onto the ridge rather than head up the energy-sapping heather – it had been quite a strenuous pathless walk so far and I wanted to try to conserve my energy for the scrambling above. Traversing the extremely steep hillside on the heather was tortuous and horrible. I had to cross two very steep scree patches where temporary burns had worn the hillside away in the very wet winter we’ve had.

Eventually the heather thinned as I reached the ridgeline and I continued until I found the path heading upwards at last. The path was good going and I soon reached the start of the scrambling. The first couple of steps were exceedingly easy and very firm – I hoped it would continue like that.

Sgor Ban NE Ridge
The ridge looking easy from the side…

Soon, however, I reached the first of the real scrambling and stopped to study it. The ridge was only a few feet wide now and the next section was vertical with rocky holds sticking out and about ten feet high. It looked firm enough and I knew I could ascend it but, looking down the sides, I was sure I wouldn’t want to descend it again if anything went wrong above. I peered above and the rest of the ridge looked really horrible. I dithered for ages viewing it from different angles and looking down the sides of the ridge to see how serious the ground was – the left was extremely so – the right-hand side was steep scree with crags so not great either.

A little path went off on the level around to the left to escape the next obstacle – I wondered what it did around the corner and whether there was an easy route up. Setting off along the path I soon lost confidence as it was traversing above the dangerous ground and I don’t trust side paths for their looseness and potential for collapse. In the end, I never made it to look around the corner to see what was around there.

After dithering a while longer, I decided it was foolish to continue up things I wouldn’t want to reverse when I was completely alone on the hill and not a confident scrambler at the best of times. I should never really have gone to try the ridge alone knowing my potential mountain cowardice and not having recently revised the route information!

With my tail between my legs I reluctantly set off down. I glanced at my altimeter – I’d reached about 750 ‘metres’ and ended up descending back to the corrie at 420 ‘metres’ – over 1000 wasted feet! 😦 I’d seen a path going from high in the corrie gently up the side of a grass and heather ridge to my other, original ridge so I plodded back up steep heather towards it. I was lucky and found quite a few grassy sections which eased my upward progress but I was tired now…

Glancing at my watch I saw I’d already messed around for three hours out of my four or five I’d told Richard – I had no chance of getting back down in time and got my phone out to see if I could text him or leave him a message on his mobile. There were two problems with this – I checked in my contacts for his new mobile number as I was sure that was the one he’d have brought – I only had his old number… It later turned out that he hadn’t taken his phone with him anyway. I decided just to turn mine on at the five hour mark so that he could ring me if he was worried. The stress of all this and my earlier upset at having to turn back down the scramble made me much more tired however.

Luckily the path, which was only really a deer path, took me quite nicely up to the col before the second steep section of my hill and from there I hit the normal path up it. There was a lot of scree to ascend but the path zig-zagged nicely up it. I noticed that all the scree on this hill was red and that on the next peak was white quartzite – strange as this is called Sgor Ban (white) and the next hill (the Munro) is Sgor Dearg (red)!

I took the time to study the top of the scramble ridge which was very close to my ascent ridge and saw how loose it was at the top – I really don’t think I’d have been happy alone on that! I’d have been fine with others though I think as I’m getting much better with my confidence if I’m not alone.

Sgor Ban - top of Scramble Ridge
Looks a bit loose to me!

Just before the final rise to the summit I saw a lovely grassy hollow – that would be great for a rest on the way back down – due to the severe time constraints and my now exhausted state, I decided I’d have to descend down this same ridge and just do this peak alone. By now I’d used up my breakfast and hadn’t even had a proper drink – only a couple of mouthfuls each time I crossed a burn.

The plod to the summit, in my worn-out state, seemed to take a long time and I was almost on my knees. I didn’t help that I’d had a rare asthma attack at six in the morning for an hour and my chest was still extremely ‘scratchy’ and my lungs were very short of capacity. Even my legs were feeling pretty weak…

Eventually I reached the cairn and eyed up a lovely-looking grassy descent down the back of the hill from the col between it and the Munro. That would lead to a nice walk out through Gleann an Fiodh… but I realised I couldn’t spare the time. I’d now reached four hours into my walk and had only just reached my summit – it would have to be the direct return unfortunately. I also eyed the nice arm going around to Sgor Dearg and took a photo of it – the weather was going gloomy now as a front of rain was on its way.

Sgurr Dearg from Ban
Beautiful and graceful arc – I was sorry to turn back and miss it

After briefly tapping the cairn and apologising to the hill for my immediate return I headed off straight back down. I didn’t really feel much better even descending as I had to watch my footing and was too tired to walk well. There was an exceedingly cold wind hitting me now I was heading back down but I thought I couldn’t really stop to add clothing until I reached the lovely grassy shelter I’d seen on the way up – it was only a couple of hundred feet below me.

I reached the grassy hollow and flopped exhaustedly down. I hoped a quick coffee and shortcake biscuit would perk me up and then I put my coat and gloves on to continue in the cold wind down the hill. I’ve just bought a new pair of thin gloves which are fine for keeping on while you use cameras and suchlike and I took the odd photo of the side of the scrambling ridge I’d failed to complete as I descended (the earlier photos).

At the col I’d reached on the way up I had three choices. I could see a path went down the gentler side of the ridge on the west and there looked to be a stalkers path out of Glen Guibhsachain there – there was some clear-felled forestry to cross though and I know how hard it is to cross brash – it doesn’t make for speed that’s for sure. It would also mean I had to contour around the ridge-end to get back to Richard. I’d switched my phone on now anyway so he could ring me…

I could also follow the path which heads along the ridge and obviously descends back to West Laroch – I had visions of this descending straight down either the end or the side of the very steep ridge though and felt my legs were too tired for that. In the end, I just redescended my deer track into the corrie and bashed downwards towards the lower end of my failed scramble ridge where I knew I’d find a path. Going downhill this wasn’t too bad at all and I eventually reached the ridge path at what I thought was a quite low point.

Although I thought I’d been well down the ridge when I reached it, there was a very long descent down steep ground on the pretty loose path (which fortunately zig-zagged well) and some quite big steps down which started to make my legs really suffer. I’d already reached my five hour cut-off point for my walk and was expecting my phone to ring but it never did. I did wonder whether Richard had his phone with him anyway as he often doesn’t bother.

From my descent I could see the proper path had actually gone briefly to the end of the ridge and descended to the raking shelf I’d seen in the morning where I thought the best route was. I’d have been far better on that as it took a huge and gentle zig-zag across the hillside!

I could see the nice path through the glen below but it never seemed to get any nearer – my path seemed to be descending forever. I was glad I’d met the NE ridge half-way up on my ascent as it would have been quite gruelling to ascend on this path. Eventually, with a sigh of relief, I met the lovely grassy glen path and happily set off along it – relaxed and much happier. I was still worried about Richard though as I could see I’d be a minimum of six hours and I know how upset he gets!

At six hours five minutes precisely I staggered up to my car expecting a worried Richard sat in it – well, he’d either be there or in the pub I’d just passed. He wasn’t at the car and I set off to look in the cafe and pub. As I set off something made me look back round to the car (I’m pretty psychic) – Richard was heading towards it from the direction of the Co-op shop looking at me. He didn’t seem cross or worried but I apologised for my lateness. He was surprised as he said he thought I’d said I’d be back at five or six o’ clock – don’t know where he got that from but he wasn’t due to worry for another couple of hours!

I wasn’t the only failure anyway – Richard had found the wrong path for the Pap (the one heading up for the Aonach Eagach) and, by the time he’d ascended partway, redescended when he could see it was heading off towards Clachaig Gully and then ascended part of the correct path, he decided he wasn’t fit enough at the moment and turned back. He explored the lovely area in the forest below with the nice loch instead.

He treated me in the cafe to a lovely bottle of sparkling raspberry lemonade and then we went off for a brief pub crawl as he ‘collects’ real-ale pubs and there were a few en-route back to Roybridge. From the pubs I couldn’t take my eyes off the delightful north ridge of Sgor Dearg which I’d had to miss out!

Stats: 6 miles, 4214 feet of ascent (instead of 3015!), 6 hours

Richard’s photos of his day:

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Loch in forest under the Pap – my hill in the background

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Duck with ducklings

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Loch Leven to the Ardgour Hills

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Quarry pool, South Ballachulish Village

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10 responses

4 08 2016
McFadzean

Sometimes we have those days when just nothing goes according to plan. I had to smile at your efforts to locate the initial path out of the village. I’ve long maintained that the start is the hardest part of any new walk. I’d like a fiver for every time I’ve got the map out with an embarrassed sigh while local people are watching over hedges and shaking their heads.
Cheers, Alen

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5 08 2016
mountaincoward

Yep – I definitely hate the lowland part of most walks – just too confusing and too much detail to see on a map!

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1 08 2016
tessapark1969

Yet to do these hills but like the lochan – a favourite place for us.

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5 08 2016
mountaincoward

Well next time, you’ll have to have a look at that quarry lochan too – that looks really nice. A hidden beauty spot!

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30 07 2016
Blue Sky Scotland

Never done Beinn a’ Bheithir without doing the full horseshoe. It’s got a lovely curve to it, especially under snow. I like that walk around the reservoirs under the pap which has rescued many a wet day as a dry(ish) alternative in the woods. The trouble with the highlands ( and the great thing about the Lakes) is that enjoyable low level sheltered alternatives are scare as hen’s teeth in crap weather which is probably why I’ve walked around that pretty puddle above Glencoe sixteen times over the years.

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30 07 2016
mountaincoward

I didn’t know about the quarry lakes at South Ballachulish until Richard found them – I’ll definitely be going for an explore there. I’d been to the lochan under the Pap before though.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing the walk again but properly – up the route I originally intended (unless someone will come up the scramble with me) and down the lovely North Ridge of Sgor Dearg. I don’t really like Dhomnuill

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29 07 2016
fedup

Useful info Carol, this is pretty high on my todo list and not reading any horror stories about the scramble, I was considering taking the dogs up. Might now take them by a different route or do ‘dogless’!

To a hill walker it is probably one of the most deflating things to have taken the wrong path early on – taking it all as a positive you still made it to the top albeit by a bl**dy awful detour – but you still battled on 🙂

Richard missed a fine viewpoint 😦

Great report as always 🙂

Cheers Simon

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29 07 2016
mountaincoward

Yeah, I’m not sure about the dogs up the scramble – possibly not up the route I was looking at but perhaps that bypass was fine? I’ve had a read about the scramble since I got back and haven’t seen anything bad about it either – everyone says it’s pretty easy in summer on dry rock (which I had) – I probably should have carried on really!

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29 07 2016
Gaslight Crime

I remember an April walk on Beinn a’ Bheithir, a hot day after snow and cooling my feet in a mountain stream that must have been snow just minutes before. A grand day out there, John B.

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29 07 2016
mountaincoward

I just wish I’d taken lots of photos at the start of the day while the weather and views were gorgeous – but then I’d have been even later back!

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