Way back, many moons ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I once spent two August days with my then colleague and still good friend Robin hillwalking in Kintail. On the first day, we did Carn Ghluasaid, Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Sail Chaorainn. It was a pretty decent day although the weather started to turn late in the day as we were returning to the Cluanie Inn. We had a quick pint before driving along to park up and pitch the tents for the night below the Cluanie dam. I remember the midgies being hellish that evening and having to sit in Robin's car with the blowers on full blast to eat our dinner and drink our beer. A mental note was made to never again return to Kintail in August. The second day we went up over the Corbett of Am Bathach, with the probable intention of doing Ciste Dubh before looping back on ourselves to do the Brothers Ridge. As it turned out, we gave Ciste Dubh a body swerve for whatever reason and ended up only doing the first two Brothers before bailing out of what had become a pretty rotten weather day and skulking back to the Cluanie Inn.
Fast forward to 2021 and I never had gotten round to ticking off Ciste Dubh or Saileag despite them having featured on potential hit lists on numerous occasions over the years, particularly when I had been "on tour" in the West Highlands during school holidays. The nearest I had come was a mere 6 months after that clagged in day, on the occasion of the WH 2011 autumn meet at Morvich. That was the first and most definitely last meet that Mrs D has attended and we did the Five Sisters in a fairly loose formation with several other groups. After the hellish ascent from the A87 up to the Bealach an Lapain I broached the question of detouring up onto Saileag before retracing our steps and heading for Sgurr nan Spainteach but could instantly tell that the idea hadn't been well received. Probably just as well really, as we came closer to divorce later that day than at any other point in our now 16 years of marriage. Saileag would probably have tipped the balance!
I had claimed rights to the last Saturday in the month for hill walking and roped in my mate John. He is fair motoring through the double figures of Munros these days and was more than happy to be roped in, especially when he heard we would be camping next to the Cluanie Inn. I got to the bridge over the River Shiel down the single track access road to Cluanie Lodge just before 8, with John rolling in shortly after me. The place was rammed - cars, tents, camper vans, midgies. They were all there in force and too late I remembered my mental note to myself from all those years ago. A couple of pints were taken in the Cluanie Inn - expensive but worth it to escape the midge. Then it was back to the tents for a fairly early (and surprisingly chilly) night before hitting the hills in the morning.
John was up early and had the grill on for breakfast. I could tell he was struggling with the midgies but he did a sterling job in pulling a fry up together, albeit one that was served up with a thick layer of additional protein! Incredibly, Luna turned her nose up at her own breakfast (the first time I have EVER seen her refuse food) but was happy enough to scoff a couple of left over sausages and rashers of bacon.
After the usual faff of striking camp, nipping back into the pub to visit the cludge and driving the 5 miles or so west along the A87 to drop a car off at the big car park that gives access to the eastern end of the Sisters and the western end of the Brothers, we were back at the Cluanie Inn and hitting the hills just before half past nine.
Cluanie Inn on what was already shaping up to be a scorcher
There had been a steady stream of walkers heading over the River Shiel and heading for the South Cluanie Ridge but apart from two guys who had taken to the broad ridge rising to Sgurr an Fhuarail while John was in the Cluanie Inn seeing a man about a dog, nobody seemed to be going our way. We headed onto the track that climbs steadily north from the A87 into An Caorann Beag, squeezed tightly between Sgurr an Fhuarail to the west and the Corbett of Am Bathach to the east. We soon lost the grassy track, then found it again, then promptly lost it again and so forth. No matter - navigation is not an issue in the slightest in An Caorann Beag. Stay between the steep flanks and follow the glen gradually upstream and uphill. There didn't seem to be too much evidence of heavy footfall - perhaps most people do what Robin and I did back in the day and head in over the Corbett. Certainly based on chats with people we would later meet ascending Ciste Dubh as we descended, they all seemed to be Corbett bagging as well today. John has become a bit of a mad bagger recently but I didn't even raise the issue of the Corbett, probably just as well as a near 9 hour 4 Munro day in this heat would turn out be be more than enough for a couple of middle aged gentlemen thank you very much!
There is always plenty for John and I to chat about as we walk - beer, family, past walks, our shared Ayrshire heritage and especially music (especially today with a new Iron Maiden album imminent!). Despite work being the last thing on our minds today the chat did at some point stray into that area and John mentioned that he was about to be interviewed by his work as the latest in a series of "get to know the team" profile articles. We had just been talking about Ayrshire junior football and the days when his dad used to go to Auchinleck Talbot games and not get home for ages afterwards, telling his wife that the game had gone to extra time and penalties. Little did she know that this didn't happen in league games. All the time his dad would have snuck off with his pals to a pub in Ochiltree (the only one at the time that stayed open all day on a Saturday) where there were strippers. Jeezo I thought - my Papa (may God rest his soul) often talked about Ochiltree. To folk from Muirkirk, Ochiltree was an aspiration - where posh folk lived and maybe somewhere to go on holiday if you were lucky! He never mentioned anything about a strip joint there! John joked that if one of the questions in his interview was about where and when he would visit if he could travel back in time for a day, he would choose Ochiltree on a Saturday afternoon in the 70s when Talbot were playing at home! I imagined Google reporting an unprecedented number of search hits for Ochiltree!
The banter got us through the fairly dull plod up to the Bealach a'Choinich from where we took to the long, broad southern ridge of Ciste Dubh that would lead us over the distinctive prow of An Cnapach and up to the first Munro of the day. The bealach suddenly transported me back in time, not to a strip joint in Ochiltree in the 70s, but to the day Robin and I had been here. When was that? I tried to figure it out and the best I could come up with was 10 years ago, give or take. I'd have to look on my blog when I got back to civilisation.
Sgurr an Fhuarail, Aonach Meadhoin and Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg from the ascent to An Cnapach
Approaching An Cnapach with the peak of Ciste Dubh just visible on the skyline beyond
A few wisps of fluffy white cloud had filled some of the coires as we had walked in and taken to the serious ascent but it was now obvious that we were climbing above a massive cloud inversion filling Glen Lichd below us to the north and west.
Beinn Fhada and Glen Lichd inversion - John and Luna lending a sense of scale
John bypassed An Cnapach but I nipped up onto the crest to grab some photos and Luna did her usual thing of running between the two of us to try to keep the pack together!
The great eastern cliffs of Ciste Dubh below the summit
Walking into an inversion with Beinn Fhada in the foreground and the western Sisters in the distance
Looking down An Caorann Mor between A'Chralaig and Am Bathach towards Loch Cluanie with Beinn Loinne and Creag a'Mhaim beyond
Nice spot for a breather
Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg and Saileag with the long arms of Sreath a'Ghlas-choire, Sreath an Fraoch choire and Meall a'Charra extending north into upper Glen Lichd
We sweated, panted, gaped and photographed our way up to the neat little summit perch of the Black Chest, our first Munro of the day. We were going through water like it was going out of fashion and Luna was working overtime to find puddles and other water sources of dubious quality. It had been a long time, a decade or so by my calculation, since I had passed up the chance to do Ciste Dubh but here I was at last, Munro number 228. As is so often the case, I thanked whatever fate it was that had made us turn our back on this hill that day. We could have done it. It would have been Munro number whatever that day, with nothing in the way of the stunning views and inversions that we were getting today.
John catching up with himself at the summit of the Black Chest
It was now late morning and as we we turned to descend back to the Bealach a'Choinich, I commented how quiet the hill was, especially in comparison with the apparent hoaching on the South Glen Shiel Ridge across the road. I hadn't long mentioned this when we started to encounter a steady stream of walkers passing us on their ascent.
Am Bathach and An Cnapach looking like twins
On the last section of descent before the broad bealach, we met a couple and stopped to chat for a while, I think as much because we all fancied a breather as anything else. After a few moments they headed up, we headed down and John and I both thought almost simultaneously how fit they looked for people that we both reckoned were in their late 60s or so. It would appear that not everybody has let themselves go during lockdown! From my own point of view I will just say that after attending a wedding the previous weekend and having my full kilt clobber on for the first time since pre-COVID days, my waistcoat no longer has any buttons on it. Nothing to do with the ferocity of the Orcadian Strip the Willow, just down to the fact that button by button, I burst right out of it during the course of the day!
We both bemoaned the fact that our respective fathers, now in their 70s/80s have not come out of the recent lockdowns in quite such a positive state as they entered it. In the case of my own father, his mobility is drastically reduced from what it was a mere 18 months ago. As for John's dad, John remarked that he recently said that he hadn't expected to live this long and wasn't sure he had a Plan B to fall back on now! I guess that's what you would call "outliving your expectations"!
Ciste Dubh across the Bealach a'Choinich from the ascent of Sgurr an Fhuarail with Sgurr nan Ceathramhnan in the distance
As we slogged up the grassy slope towards Sgurr a'Fhuarail, we both concluded that a period of abstention from ale consumption may do us both the world of good but agreed that the problem is finding the time in our busy schedules to squeeze such a thing in for any prolonged period of time! Camping trip in September, possible return to Knoydart in October, resumption of annual November bothy trip with Kev in November, Christmas in December......... Jeezo, it's going to have to be January at this rate! Not for the first time, two blokes in their (ahem), late 40s (liar, liar, pants on fire!!!!!) puffed their way up a Munro and wondered how on earth 6 guys in their late 60s by the names of Bruce, Steve, Nicko, Dave, Janick and Adrian could keep on doing what they do with a seemingly effortless ease that belies their advancing years.
After a bit more huffing and puffing and thoughts of Ochiltree back in the day, we hit the summit of Sgurr an Fhuarail, where we stopped for a bite to eat. I had the first of my two ham and chutney rolls and John had the 17th of his!
From there, the Brothers Ridge comes into its own as it wends its way in a series of twisting ridges across Aonach Meadhoin and Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg before gradually dropping down to Saileag, the undisputed runt of the litter but nonetheless one that is blessed with a fabulous view west towards the Five Sisters.
Approaching Aonach Meadhoin
Across lower Coire nan Eun to Ciste Dubh and towards the Upper Affric Munros
South east from just below the summit of Aonach Meadhoin looking over the 864m point to Loch Cluanie
John the Whippet beat me to the summit of Aonach Meadhoin by a good 2 minutes or so (he's got a couple of years on me so I'll give him that one!) and when I got there he was yammering away to a group of 6 or 7 blokes who had just rolled in from the other direction. We all got chatting and they said they were on an annual weekend away, this time staying at a bunkhouse in Plockton. Somehow it came out during the course of the chat that a few of them were not only from Ayrshire, but indeed from Auchinleck. John was like a pig in ****, even more so when it turned out that one of the chaps was of Polish descent! A good bit of craic was had before they headed off down the slopes towards the Cluanie Inn.
John on Aonach Meadhoin - view west across Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg to Sgurr nan Spainteach and Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe with the Forcan Ridge rising to the left and Sgurr na Sgine only just making it out of the clouds
My first repeat of the day looking across Coire nan Eun and Fionngleann to the long eastern reach of Beinn Fhada
We cracked a can each (I had sneakily packed a couple into my day pack - only the bare essentials!) at the summit and John did comment that had there been a six-pack available, he could quite easily have sat there and downed them all before lying down and going to sleep! But no, it was not to be. Onwards to the next Brother!
The onward ridge to Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg
Luna keeping a keen eye on the stragglers
Back to Aonach Meadhoin and Sgurr an Fhuarail with A'Chralaig in the background
On the narrow arrete out to the summit of Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg - John already perched by the cairn
Now that day from a decade or so ago (turns out it was in August 2010 when I was in my 30s!!!!!) came right back to me and I remembered scrambling along here in the clag before taking a bearing for the descent back to the bealach and down to the A87. Today was an altogether different story though and there was no question of retreat.
Not the easiest place to set a 10 second timer and then run into position to get a selfie!
Ciste Dubh and Mullach Fraoch-choire from the summit of Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg and beyond into wild places
Back to the northern cliffs of Aonach Meadhoin
We returned back along the little rocky spur to re-join the main ridge and I headed into new territory, to join up the dots between where I had been before and where I had been before. From this point on, heading west beyong the higher sections of the Brothers Ridge, the cloud inversion below us dominated everything. It's a miracle that there was any juice left left in the battery of my camera by the time we reached the Bealach an Lapain and dropped down back into Glen Shiel.
Saileag backed by the Five Sisters
Never seen inversions of this magnitude or duration before
John walking above the clouds
Walking in the Empire of the Clouds
Back to Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg
Luna bagging Saileag
Zoomed on Sgurr nan Spainteach and Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe - are they mountains in the clouds or islands in the surf?
Second new blue flag of the day - finally a decade old piece of unfinished business is laid to rest
Beinn Fhada across Meall a'Charra and Glen Lichd
The eastern section of the South Glen Shiel Ridge - the cliffs of Aonach air Chrith prominent
John trying to capture the Five Sisters 2022 calendar money shot
East from the summit of Saileag to Ciste Dubh, Mullacg Fraoch-choire, A'Chralaig and Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg
Luna taking it all in
Descending into the never ending inversion towards the Bealach an Lapain
Descent from the ridge into Glen Shiel and the Empire below the Clouds
I remember the ascent up to the Bealach na Lapain from the A87 being hellish in my early 40s, now the descent from the Bealach na Lapain to the A87 in my early 50s was beyond hellish, but hey, after a day like this in the Empire of the Clouds, bring it on!
We eventually stumbled out into the car park after nearly 9 hours of walking and piled into John's car for the 5 miles or so back to the Cluanie Inn for a well deserved pint washed down by a curry. Then I sadly had to hit the road for home while John returned to his tent before heading for a day of kayaking on Loch Kishorn.
Good days! May there be many more days like this, walking in the Empire of the Clouds!
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