It is possible to climb the steep slopes on the east of Carn na Feola, facing Beinn Eighe, before reaching the rocky section at the northern end. This allows someone to complete the same walk of the entire mountain (including the excellent scramble on Beinn Dearg's main ridge, which is missed on the Walkhighlands route) while avoiding the difficult climb we took. (Ascending the east end of Beinn Dearg also allows the summit scramble to be tackled in ascent, which is far better than tackling it in descent.) See the second half of this report for details of the route.
The Climb up Carn na Feola's north ridge
Highland Scrambles North describes two scrambling routes up Beinn Dearg, the magnificent central Corbett in Torridon's quartet of principal peaks. The first route is a grade 3 scramble up Beinn Dearg's south-west face, which doesn't look especially enticing from the valley floor. The other route (given a star for quality) is graded a difficult rock climb, ascending the north ridge of Carn na Feola at the far eastern end of Beinn Dearg. The book introduces the climb as follows:
Steep tiers of sandstone in a remote setting with a sting in the tail. A serious route, although the hard bits are short.
That sounds like it might be a bit much for two men in walking boots with no rope. But let's find out.
I arrived in Lochcarron with Pete, my walking partner from last year, in pouring rain on Friday 6 May for a week's mountaineering. The weather forecast was particularly good for Saturday and Sunday, before rain was due to return on Monday, and so we decided to attempt our two top-preference walks at the weekend. Saturday was spent on Beinn Alligin's Backfire ridge (walk report to come when I get a chance) in blazing sun. Sunday was the day for Beinn Dearg, with a little more cloud and wind, but generally fine conditions.
We parked at the foot of the Beinn Alligin path, near Inveralligin, and set off up the Coire MhicNobaill path, which climbs gently up the valley between Liathach and Beinn Dearg, reaching around 400 metres at the top as it approaches Beinn Eighe. The benefit of this approach, beyond the superb views of the Torridon munros and the slow acquisition of height, is that we got to see the whole length of the Beinn Dearg ridge that we would be climbing later. And it surely looked like a monster.
We turned left at Loch Grobaig and walked up the boggy banks at An Drochaid. The next kilometre took us over flat, reasonably dry moorland, with excellent views north towards Beinn a' Chearcaill. At the end of the Carn na Feola ridge, the views of Beinn an Eoin and Baosbheinn opened up, but the ground became more difficult, with boulders and steep heathery banks.
The Carn na Feola ridge ends in a line of cliffs -- at least 200 feet of damp black rock. The guide gives two possible approaches to the climb up the north ridge. The first is to scramble up the the east edge of the cliffs, which looked tricky but not impossible. We did not take that route, but the following photos show the route and destination in case anyone wants to try it. (I would be tempted to take that route if I were ever to try this climb again.)
We took the second, supposedly preferable approach described in the book (climbing the west edge of the cliffs). The route ascends steep mossy and heathery slopes, with some boulders and a few crags. The picture below is misleading because it is taken at a slant. The gradient of the climb up the slope is much steeper than it looks. It is worth keeping well to the west and circumventing the shelves of rock on the way up. I climbed to climb a few of the shelves and it was one of the harder parts of the day for me -- there are few handholds and the ascent involves trusting that handfuls of heather will hold one's weight. At one point, I needed Pete (who had taken the sensible, keep-west approach) to help pull me up.
The guide says this:
...follow the foot of the cliff up rightwards until above the first two tiers. A narrow grass ledge then leads left below another vertical tier.
The description is not especially useful, because it is not apparent what counts as a "tier" of rock. We found the right ledge by luck. If following our footsteps, as you ascend the west edge of the cliff, there are in fact four grassy ledges that head off east across the rock face. The first ledge is very small, in the middle of the main cliffs (barely visible from below). The second ledge is much wider and looks as if one could easily walk along it. The third ledge is a bit narrower and it has quite a steep camber (i.e. it slopes quite steeply towards the lip of the cliff). The fourth ledge is flatter and wider (like the second). The route goes along this fourth ledge. The pictures below may help.
The guide says to continue along the ledge until the wall above shrinks to 5 metres and then climb any of several weaknesses. The description is accurate and the scrambling routes up the wall are fairly straightforward. Above, there are slopes, boulders and small sections of outcrop that can be climbed or circumvented. Note that some of the rock is loose, although it is not as bad as Backfire Ridge and some other Torridon routes. And some of the rocks are topped with moss, which has the tendency to slough away when trod on. This is a route to save for a dry period.
We made our way upwards and to the right onto the crest of the ridge. The next obstacle we faced was a shelf of smoother rocks, shown in the next picture. The guide says this:
Work back rightwards up grass and short steps to a band of steep clean slabs directly above the nearest point of Lochan Carn na Feola. Zigzag up these near the right hand end.
Assuming the shelf shown below is "the steep clean slabs" mentioned in the guide, I tried climbing them on the right side. But the gradient is much too steep to walk up the face (it is a wall, rather than a slope) and the cracks provided little purchase for my feet (although it might well be easier in climbing shoes and after a longer dry spell). Eventually I lost my footing, slid down taking some skin from my palms, and dropped to land on my feet (fortunately) on the grass below. I am not sure what route was intended by the guide, but we decided to walk around 30 metres to the right, where there are easier scrambles up grass and rocks.
Above this point, the ridge starts to steepen and narrow. I took a picture looking upwards. There is a large amount of choice as to what route to take approaching the next wall at the top of the picture, but there are some tricky moves even on the lower outcrops, particularly where the ledges are slippery.
At the top of the picture looking up the ridge, it is possible to see the next wall. I think this is the wall described as "a larger greasy tier" in the guide. The book says this:
Start below an overhang (hard) and move up left (or avoid the tier further right). Above is a smooth curving scoop, climbed by a right slanting weakness. Carry on up, passing right of a greasy tower, then moving left up blocks.
I have no idea what a "scoop" is. We could not see an obvious overhang on the wall, or an obvious tower above it. So for this part of the climb we were without a guide. I tried two routes up the wall, shown in a zoomed photos below. The first seemed promising, but my traverse at the top ended in a gap in the ledge and, while it was probably possible to inch around the edge or heave up onto the rocks above, the consequences of slipping were too serious for me. The other route also ended with a small rock climb that would be beyond a "difficult" rating, above a sizable drop. We ended up traversing right again and scrambling up the crags to the right of the wall. If anyone knows what the route up the wall is supposed to be, I would like to know.
Above the wall, history repeats itself, with another (yet steeper) section of slopes and crags leading to another larger wall.
The guide says:
The ridge narrows below a steeper tier, climbed on the arete by steep blocks. The top move is scary, but there is a useful hidden jug round to the right (this tier can be avoided by going a long way left). The next tier is climbed by a niche with a hard start and a wide bridge to finish. Blocks left of a prow then lead to large terrace.
We found the steep blocks on the arete. They are a sequence of around three squarish blocks in the middle of the bottom of the wall, each around a metre high, with a further block on the top around 1 metre 40 cm high. It is this top block that provides the "scary" move (because it is too big to step up and there is a 3-4 metre drop if one falls). But if one can reach, there is a deep crack on the right side of the top of the block, and it is possible to grab it with both hands and heave oneself up. (This move is scary, but it is easier than the routes I was attempting on the previous wall and on the smooth, slabby wall nearer the start, which makes me think that I was not following the right routes on those sections.)
Above the scary move blocks is a stretch of steep scrambling, and sections of (probably moderate grade) climbing. I don't know what "niche" the guide is referring to, or what a "wide bridge" is, but Pete and I seemed to find a route, ending on crags to the left of the edge of the ridge. Be warned, the scrambling/climbing here is very exposed and involves a lot of moves that give pause for thought, plus the dreaded slippery moss at points. I got several photos of Pete climbing, his face an image of confidence and unconcealed joy. For some reason, he didn't take any photos himself during this section of the climb.
Finally, there is a flat grassy patch, before a final wall (invisible until one reaches the top), described as the "sting in the tail". The guide says:
The vertical cliff beyond this is climbed on its left arete by a wide crack. This is quite strenuous, but with good sharp holds in the crack. It can be avoided by going a long way left. Easier rocks now lead to the top.
I followed the guide, climbing up into the crack, stepping up on the left wall and then worming my way onto a spur of rock that sticks out above like a slug. It's not the hardest move, but it is committing; I wouldn't want to down-climb it. However, it is not clear why the guide recommends this route as, to the left of the crack, is an easy ladder of solid rock, which Pete climbed with ease to join me. The rocks around the left edge above the crack are passable with care, but exposed and slippery. And then we were at the top, the cairn a few metres away.
The Beinn Dearg ridge
The rest of our route was a standard traverse of Deinn Dearg. But what a mountain; a definite rival to the Torridon Munros. And a fantastic viewpoint for the Torridon Munros. There is a gentle slope down to the bealach, from which it becomes clear there is an easy ascent route up the center of the north side of Beinn Dearg.
There is some excellent scrambling on the approach to the summit, with solid rock and plentiful handholds. This part of the ridge gives great views down to Loch a' Choire Mhoir, encircled by Beinn Dearg's northern flanks.
The peak is only a foot or two short of being a Munro. Somehow, the views from the west end of the mountain are even better than those earlier on the ridge, with the sun beginning to sink over Beinn Alligin. And it is worth diverting from the walk over Stuc Loch na Cabhaig to the north-eastern outcrop (882 metres) for the views north to Baosbheinn.
The descent was fairly uneventful. There is a path down the upper sections of the north-western ridge (not marked on the map). It becomes indistinct between 600 and 700 metres. We diverted to the left, down steep heathery and then grassy slopes. There are some dips and loose rocks, requiring care, but the vegetation makes the descent softer underfoot. The valley floor proved more dangerous: I dropped up to my thigh in a hole in the peaty ground and broke a walking pole. The path in Bealach a' Chomhla was obvious once found, and we were soon back at the car.
Final thoughts: climb Beinn Dearg. Climb it on a sunny day. Climb it from the Carn na Feola end. Probably don't climb the north ridge, unless you are very comfortable with scrambling and want a serious challenge. In that case, I hope this report adds something useful to the guidance in Highland Scrambles North.