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Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Sun Jun 16, 2013 11:09 pm
by old danensian
Milestones demand something memorable: an achievement, a location, or simply something special.

As this one approached, I tried to fit my “to do” list to the target and the time available, and one trip kept on leaping out: the South Shiel Ridge.

It offered the opportunity to get to “141” with a touch of elan and style as well as a bit of flexibility.

I’d already made acquaintance with the eastern two a couple of years ago, when time and conditions didn’t lend themselves to continuing.

After that particular jaunt I’d promised myself that this was one trip that ought to be done in good weather, and when the pressures of time could be relegated: it was to be enjoyed, not endured in a hurried dash to beat the fading light or battled with in deteriorating conditions.

However, I needed a couple more to make sure of staging my celebration somewhere on the ridge. The two lurking across Loch Lochy were sitting there as likely targets for the journey north. Sron a Choire Ghairbh and Meall na Teanga could be seized on the way up the road, then I’d be poised for an early start on the Ridge next day, without the hindrance of a long drive.

Day One – limbering up for the main event
20km; 1222m; 5h

The inevitable delays (builders, quantity surveyors and building warrant applications) meant that I wasn’t away until 9.30am.

I finally leapt on the bike at Kilfinnan just before 2pm to dash up the forest track to the point where the path up the Cam Bhealach leads up through the woods. Never mind a post or cairn to mark the divergence, the pile of bikes deposited in the undergrowth and chained to themselves or the nearest tree indicated you’d arrived.

In clear weather it’s a clear route: simples.

Up Cam Bhealach

Above the trees, an upward meander to the bealach and then it’s decision time: right or left?

I reasoned that getting the steep climb up Sron a Choire Ghairbh out of the way first would leave me with a longer, but more comfortable rise to Meall na Teanga to end the day on a relatively relaxed note.

And so it proved, with some spectacular views to the Ben, the Grey Corries and the vast expanse of peaks in Kintail and Knoydart.

North west to Knoydart and Kintail from Sron a Choire Ghairbh

The zig-zags rose immediately from the bealach towards Sron a Choire Ghairbh and, veering gradually to the left when the path gives out to soft grassy patches, the top was reached after half an hour or so. If Meall na Teanga hadn’t been next on the agenda, the horseshoe around Coire Glas and over Sean Mheall would have been an enticing prospect. But, after a few minutes watching a pair of birds (eagles?) circling effortlessly in the updrafts and thermals of the coire, I set off back to the bealach to begin the other target for the day.

Looking over Meall na Teanga to the Ben from Sron a Choire Ghairbh

It was a steep start, but once round the lower shoulder of Meall Dubh, the route to Meall na Teanga stretched ahead and the long flat summit was reached in just over an hour’s gentle work.

With the only pressure being last orders for food at any grub-stop between here and Shiel Bridge, I lingered to soak in the views of the Ben, and to work out which were to be the tops for the next day in the succession of ridges blending into one another to the north west.

Ben Nevis from Meall na Teanga

The Grey Corries from Meall na Teanga

By 7pm I was back at Kilfinnan and, with the bike in the back of the car, off to Kintail, my halfway appointment and the first encounter of the year with the dreaded midge.

The wee beasties meant a shockingly erected tent on the shores of Loch Cluanie that evening and gratitude for a Cluanie Inn burger so that I didn’t have to share the results of any alfresco cooking. Fortunately, such shoddy pitching didn’t have cope with any inclement weather overnight – or an inspection by any camping neighbours or experts.

There was no hanging around on the return to the tent either: out of the car, dive into the tent and spray the vents with DEET to keep the wee buggers out.

Day Two – appointment with a bald redhead
29km; 2022m; 10h 15m (car to bike)
41km; 2110m; 11h (car to car)

With mist clinging to the shores of Loch Cluanie at 6 the next morning, and a cloud of midges lurking outside the tent, I retreated into my sleeping bag.

A restful evening on the shores of Loch Cluanie

Both were still waiting when I emerged an hour later. Discretion was the better part of valour, so breakfast was enjoyed in the car before heading off down the valley to the Mallagan Bridge for a relatively early start.

Everyone seems to have their own rationale for doing the Shiel Ridge: east to west; west to east; two cars; one car and an optimistic thumb; or time it right for the passing bus. My option was west to east, a car, and a downhill swoop on the bike afterwards from the Cluanie; this last aspect seemed adequate compensation for the additional 150m climbing that would be involved at the start of the day. In the heatwave we were currently experiencing, the final piece of apparent logic was that I could get the first big climb up to the bealach west of Creag nan Damh done in the morning shade. Starting at the other end would have meant grinding up the ridge to Creag a Mhaim in the full glare of the morning sun.

Early morning mists linger at the western end of the ridge

As it was, mists still clung to the hillsides and only hints of blue sky above were in evidence when I started up the path alongside the Allt Mhalagain at 7.30am. And I’m using that as the excuse for the early mistake and minor diversion in route-finding on the way up to the Bealach Duibh Leac.

Mists dissolve below Sgurr a Bhac Chaolais - not quite where I should have been

After passing the confluence of two burns as they flowed over exposed slabs, where plenty of water was taken onboard, I just got my head down and followed one of those phantom tracks that were most probably made by a line of sheep, none of which had any interest in the seven Munros that were to follow.

Check the map? Take a compass bearing? Get the GPS out? What do you think I am: a wuss?

So, when the sun finally burned off the last of the mists I saw the tiny lochan below that the path should pass. The trouble was, it was way off to my left: I was far closer to Sgurr a Bhac Chaolais than I should have been.

More by luck than good judgement, I’d passed any crags that would have prevented access to the ridge, so just pressed on upwards to the skyline, the fence posts and stone wall, with just a minor detour.

The ridge revealed itself as it swept round to Creag nan Damh and beyond: a great day ahead, with most of the height now gained in the three hours it took to the first Munro.

Creag nan Damh and the first stretch of the ridge to Sgurr an Lochain

Standing between here and the pyramid of Sgurr an Lochan, the second Munro, Sgurr Beag offered the opportunity for the purist to follow every bump and excrescence. Fortunately, the path contouring below was both clear and tempting on its southern side. With only one down and six to go, I wasn’t sure how much energy (or water) I wanted to expend on such diversions: inadvertent ones I can cope with, but it was a bit early for the planned ones.

Sgurr an Lochain from Creag nan Damh

From the Bealach Choire Reidhe the climb rears up steeply to Sgurr an Lochan so I was soon glad that I hadn’t been tempted by the earlier detour. The cairn that greeted me at the summit tried to emulate the prickliest of pinnacles as well as sticking a finger up to those who dared to trespass its slopes.

Pointing out the cairn on Sgurr an Lochain

From here I began to meet the dribs and drabs of those on a similar journey, going in one direction or the other: early starters, wild campers, and those with cars at one end or the other – or both. For a sunny Saturday I was surprised how few others there were rising to the challenge.

Still following the wall and fence posts, it was round to number three, Sgurr Doire Leathain, that was reached in no time at all. They stand almost spitting distance from one another across the gulf of the coire.

Sgurr an Doire Leathain and down to Loch Cluanie

Beyond this was Maol Chinn Dearg, halfway along the ridge and to be the top that marked halfway through my Munro journey: 141 done, 141 to go. It’s going to be all downhill from here.

Once I was asked if I aimed to get round them all. “I’ll know by the time I get halfway,” I replied. Now I knew that I wouldn’t want to waste the effort already used by just giving it up or letting them drift. So, I set of to begin the next 141.

Halfway House - on the summit of Maol Chinn Dearg - one bald red head on another

Before leaving the top and heading for number five for the day, I pulled the photocopy of the guidebook from my pocket. For the first time I read the translations of the Gaelic : “bald red head.” I applied another coat of Factor 25 to make sure that mine didn’t get any redder and pressed on.

Numbers 5 and 6 from Maol Chinn Dearg - Aonach air Chrith and Druim Shionnach

As the ridge narrowed towards the top of Aonach air Chrith an interesting stretch of scrambling deflected any tiring mind. It led across the remnants of snow to where the land fell suddenly away at the summit cairn.

Across the divide between the final two Munros the ridge ahead displayed a different character; open hillsides leading more gently to their tops, in contrast to the steeper, more brutal inclines that had to be surmounted on the previous five.

Druim Shionnach and Creag a Mhaim from Aonach air Chrith

Druim Shionnach proved to be more of a stroll, unlike the rugged approaches from earlier in the day. Its top was reached gradually, up an easing gradient to the cairn from where the end of the ridge came into sight.

The last lap - Creag a Mhaim from Druim Shionnach

Here a final decision had to be made. Should I leave my bag on Druim Shionnach, pop over to final Munro on the ridge, then return and descend more directly to Cluanie? Or should I carry on to Creag a Mhaim where there would be no ridge left and nowhere left to go but straight down the other end?

There, it wasn't all that bad - looking back from Creag a Mhaim

I was reluctant to do one of the seven twice, but I’d ascended directly onto the ridge at one end so it was only right to finish it off and descend off the very end. I could put up with the trudge along the track back round to Cluanie for the purity of a proper end-to-end trip.

There's no ridge left - so the only way is down

The hour or so spent striding out on the crumbling tarmac may have been an anticlimax, but in reality it didn’t, no, couldn’t, detract from the day’s achievement.

Retrieving my bike at Cluanie, after 10 hours 15 minutes on the hill, I looked forward to the final part of the day: a free-wheeling swoop down the glen back to the car.

Unfortunately my downhill aspirations were thwarted. Instead of feeling like Wiggins or Cavendish, a strong headwind, and the need to get beyond the watershed before gravity gave any help, made me more like Lance Armstrong after forgetting to take his pills. Nevertheless, I was back at the car 6.30pm.

One bald red head had taken on another to get halfway. Dwelling on the start of my Munro journey, maybe there was something significant about all these names. As a sixteen year old, my first was Sgurr nan Gilean: peak of the young men.

I’d better start looking for the appropriate name for my final one.

But it’s taken me since 1972 to get this far, so there’s no hurry.

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 7:30 am
by The Rodmiester
Great TR Nigel, and fabulous weather you had! I just knew you had to do the whole ridge, the prurists route as you put it. Pity about the midges but so what, thats half way past :clap: :clap:. I think an all out effort this year will break the back of the remainder is on the cards :D

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 7:58 am
by scoob999
Well done OD :clap: :clap:
A big milestone, on the home straight now though :D hopefully see you at Skye :D

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 8:48 am
by laconic surf
Great stuff Nigel. Will be following in your footsteps tomorrow, not sure i'll get the views you did but hoping it will be a great outing all the same.
Nice to see there was no need to bump off mother-in-laws to get away for this one :wink:

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 12:35 pm
by Fife Flyer
Great report :clap: :clap:
I am getting really excited now, getting all the gear together & ready for a nice early rise 8)

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 1:14 pm
by pollyh33
Ah so that's what the ridge looks like :crazy: :crazy:

I saw hee haw when I was up there :( :(

Congratulations Nigel on reaching halfway and for posting such a smashing report :clap: :clap:

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Mon Jun 17, 2013 10:53 pm
by dooterbang
Great walk and very well done on reaching the half way mark...much more enjoyment lies ahead :)

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 12:28 pm
by thehawk_3
Great TR well done on achieving the half way mark. Looking forward to reading about the second half of the adventure.

Re: Getting halfway with a bald redhead – on the Shiel ridge

PostPosted: Wed Jun 19, 2013 9:41 pm
by gammy leg walker
Well done on reaching half way its a cracking walk to do this.