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Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby Driftwood » Tue Jul 07, 2015 6:43 pm

Route description: Beinn Fhada (or Ben Attow)

Munros included on this walk: Aonach Meadhoin, Beinn Fhada, Ciste Dhubh, Saileag, Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg, Sgurr Fhuaran, Sgurr na Carnach, Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe

Date walked: 10/06/2015

Time taken: 17.5 hours

Distance: 44 km

Ascent: 3900m

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I'd been inspired to attempt this route by reading several other reports of a similar circuit, such as electricfly's epic in June 2014. My planning also took in Steve Fallon's route/advice, though with a couple of modifications of my own.

My first variation was starting from the Kintail Lodge hotel (or, to be precise, their excellent Trekkers Lodge, where I was staying for several days). This does add a little to the distance, but there's something special about going for a walk without a car or other mechanical transport involved (overlooking the many hundreds of miles that I'd travelled to get there in the first place).
The other was walking anti-clockwise, starting with the Sisters and hoping to finish with A'Ghlas Bheinn. This should get the roughest and steepest parts covered first, rather than late in the day with tired legs and reduced concentration. There were escape options whichever way I went, so that didn't influence the choice of direction, but was something else to keep in mind. This could be at least as much distance as I've ever walked in the hills with, more importantly, nearly twice the ascent and descent too.

I took what many might say is too much weight for this kind of route, but everything was tried-and-tested equipment that I'm familiar with. A kilo or 2 less on my back (and feet) might have felt easier and even saved a few minutes, but the real aim was to get out onto these hills and find how I got on, while keeping a safety margin in case anything did go wrong.
I wore Altberg 3-4 season boots (heavy, but great in everything from bouldery ground to steep grass and bog), with Montane Terra Alpine trousers (they fit my lanky shanks, adjust for ventilation and stretch and are light-coloured so good in the sun) and a light synthetic long-sleeved baselayer top (again, sun protection and temperature control). An old Lowe Alpine mountain cap (with a floppy piece to shade my ears and neck) and Montane powerdry gloves, plus some shades and plenty of sun-block, completed the precautions against turning into a lobster.
Most of the rest went into a 42-litre Lowe Alpine pack (slightly larger than needed, but it wears well for scrambling and is another known quality). A Buffalo Fell jacket for general wear, 2 pairs of waterproof scrambling gloves, jacket and trousers, down jacket and Alpkit bivvy bag in case of emergency. First aid kit, water (including a filter flask to refill along the way) and fruit juice, with as much food (dry and fresh fruit/veg, oatcakes, flapjack, chocolate and fruit/nut bars) as I thought it possible to eat in one day. I also remembered my camera, the Harvey Kintail mountain map, a compass - and, among much more, some spare socks.

After breakfast and coffee, I set off at 5:45 (AM), feeling like much of the morning had already gone to waste. My route started with a level stretch, following a path beside Loch Duich, then pavement (the artificial kind, rather than an interesting rock formation) alongside the A87. The early traffic was left behind as I turned through the small village of Ault a'chruinn.
Path beside Loch Duich

There's a walkers' carpark at NG945203, but I was looking for a path or track uphill. That was a right turn soon after a bridge crosses the Allt a'chruinn. The access road winds past several houses and turns into a brick carriageway leading up to a water facility above the village. The morning was mild, so I expected to feel warm for the ascent, especially on these sheltered lower slopes.
Water works track from Ault a'chruinn

The brick road soon reached its destination and was left behind for a well-made path climbing the heathery and wooded slopes. A cuckoo sang somewhere among the willows and rowan as I climbed gradually, following the path up a heathery shoulder north of the burn.
Ascending Bidean Dubh

The path follows a slight shoulder of the hill, then eases right to take a course closer to the burn. This stage of the ascent was relatively shallow, with cloud building above and a breeze in from Loch Duich, which all combined to make for comfortable walking, though at the expense of views. Looking back revealled Sgurr an Airgid, also head and shoulders in the cloud, as the hillside closed in to either side of me.
Looking back to Sgurr an Airgid

The built path finishes at about 400 metres, giving way to a wetter path mostly formed by the boots passing that way. This continues to follow the burn through an area of heathery moor, with a few boggy patches but nothing that seemed too bad on the day. I know that it's possible to cross the burn at this stage and head more directly for (or around) Beinn Buidhe, but kept with the more gradual ascent at this stage.

This was rewarded after I eventually reached the bealach (though in the clouds) and turned southwest to ascend more steeply. The walk becomes more dramatic, skirting the edge of Coire na h-Uaighe with glimpses of near-vertical slabs plunging as far as I could see into the mist. Definitely not a path to tread carelessly, nor perhaps the best terrain to descend with tired legs after a long day.
Slab heading Coire na h-Uaighe

The steeply-sided ridge leads down, then eastward and ascends again, to above the magic 3000-foot level and the first Munro Top, Sgurr nan Saighead. This felt a good spot for a snack break - I paused for at least a few bites to eat at each of the Munros and Tops, trying to balance between a comfortable pace and sustaining my energy level. Cloud still clung around the hill, but felt very thin above, making me expect (or at least hope) that it would clear soon; this photo was taken just after 8:15 AM.
Sgurr nan Saighead

The ridge leads onways, often steep and mostly rocky, but the occasional hand, or walking-pole, was sufficient without turning into outright scrambling. There's quite a drop of 100 metres by the next bealach, again with crags plunging into the cloud upon my left side. A low stone wall crosses the path as that leads up the north ridge of Sgurr Fhuaran.
This soon led to a broad sloping bank of snow, but I could see (as well as know from the map and route guides) where to go. Part of the main path was buried so I took the cautious option (apparently shared by many pairs of feet before me) and skirted the western side of the snow to reach the ridge beyond.
Ascending Sgurr Fhuaran

I could see the cloud was thinning at that point (there's plenty of blue showing through in the photo above). Reaching the west ridge (still following the path), I found myself level with the upper cloud layer - and then above it. This was my first experience of a cloud inversion and I found it stunning. A rolling expanse of cloud stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction, apparently level at about 950 metres, combined with stunning visibility. Ben Nevis (with CMD, the Aonachs and Mamores) stood out 40+ miles away.
Inverted Sisters

The next two Sisters stood up like rocky reefs from a sea of foam, snow banks just a little brighter than the creeping cloud. A higher ceiling of thin cloud extended north and west, glowing where it caught the morning light. Looking northwest, the lower and upper levels of cloud stretched to the horizon, drifting lazily in a breeze that felt mild despite the snow cornice before my feet.
Beinn Fhada and Affric summits afloat

I spent at least ten minutes taking photos and just watching, apart from snacks and water, but was tempted to stay for as long as the conditions remained. Any hill would have been wonderful at that moment, but its effect on the Kintail landscape felt magical. So my feet were reluctant, rather than tired, as I made began descending south to continue the ridge.
The three tallest Sisters, all Munros, are only about 1.5 miles from start to end, but involve about 350 metres of ascent and descent (depending which direction you are heading). The ridge is a fraction easier going than the northern end, but still rocky and rough enough to need attention where you tread, rather than grassy terrain to amble along taking in the views.
Dipping back into the cloud flowing through Bealach na Carnach helped me to avoid distraction or stepping astray. Though I did notice a bird, probably a ring ouzel, on some grass overlooking Coire a'Mhadaidh. No photo here since it wasn't the clearest snap and I'm at the maximum for one post.

Looking to my right also offered a curtailed view of the A87, River and Loch Shiel just before the start of Loch Duich. But I had no desire to be off the hill yet, so another 15 minutes of ascent brought me to Sgurr na Carnach. Although shorter than either of its neighbours, this is another fine and rugged peak, showing all the better because the cloud inversion still survived.
Sgurr na Carnach

I continued south, then curving eastwards over the Bealach na Craoibhe, where a snapped-off black diamond walking pole stuck forlornly in the turf. My own poles (thankfully intact, though acquiring a patina of scratches) were thankfully intact for the short steep descent, then a longer, but more gradual, climb onto the ridge of Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe. The clouds were dissipating by now; banks and puffs drifted at the same 800-900 metre level, but with much broader gaps revealling the slopes and glens beneath.
I took a further break and snack at this, my third Munro of the day. Even approaching 11 AM I still seemed to have the hills to myself, though there was the occasional faint sound of vehicles down on the A87 as evidence of some human activity. I had opted for a jacket during this stage, but soon felt warm enough to put it back into my pack. The weather was comfortable enough to sit around during breaks, without being too hot for the short but frequent climbs.

A slight detour was necessary to skirt a snow bank when descending Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe, but most of the ridge and path was clear rock (and grass). There's some interesting ridge, without being quite a scramble, for the next Munro Top of Sgurr nan Spainteach, where I started to meet the first other walkers of the day, headed west for the Sisters.
The lower cloud had cleared completely by the time that I reached the Bealach an Lapan at around 12. This was to be my lowest point for the next few hours (if all went well), though I was slightly concerned about how long it had taken me to get this far. My feet and legs were going fine (probably thanks to the gradual pace and plenty of stops), but I started to give more consideration to what should be my cut-off times before adopting an exit route (either back through Gleann Lichd or, temptingly but less independently, turning towards the Cluanie Inn). Before that, though, the afternoon was young and green hills ahead promised faster progress.

Saileag is a straightforward ascent from the west, with a broad grassy ridge that curves left to the open summit. That might be slightly underwhelming (or, if you prefer, a merciful respite) after the rugged beauty of the Sisters, or the higher ridges to the east. But it does provide a fine viewpoint in all directions, making a great lunch stop while my eyes devoured the views, starting with the Sisters now their veils of cloud were gone.
Sisters from Saileag

The next hill east looked not only higher but also a return to rocky slopes, whilst Beinn Fhada stretched improbably wide across the glen to my north. Too broad, in fact, to fit into one photo from this angle, a quite different character to the individual peaks and distinctive ridges around it. The South Glen Shiel ridge stretched out a series of knobbly northern arms, but couldn't match the menace of the Saddle and Forcan Ridge, all snowy corrie and rock edge.
Creag nan Damh to The Saddle

There are some rocky knolls and outcrops to cross before the next ascent begins in proper, reminders that the Brothers aren't entirely a stroll. A deep snow bank and cornice ran along the western ridge of Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg, making me wonder if it wasn't covering the high point of the hill. Some footprints crossed the snow, but I kept to the grassy south side of this ridge until I could join the true summit ridge, a jumble of rocks that juts out northeast with drops into the corrie on each side.
Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg

I met several other groups of walkers at this stage, most heading from east to west (anyone with much sense takes all of the raised starts that they can get). A few were considering how to descend, giving me the excuse to point out various ridges and paths by which to reach the glen. After taking less than 2 hours for the last couple of Munros, I was feeling optimistic again. I took this opportunity to study the northwest ridge of Ciste Dhubh as a prospective route down, finding that it looked a little steep (even allowing for the flattening affects of distance) but free of either snow and crags so ideal for my intentions.
Northeast from Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg

The path curves broadly to descend into (I'm guessing) Bhealaich Dheirg, then climbs a lump before the next Munro. The ridge narrows with some stone outcrops for that stage and I needed to clamber over a few where snow covered the path. (I could equally have clambered along the grass and stony slopes below them on the other side, but it's always fun to play "take the highest route").
Aonach Meadhoin has a fairly rounded top, but things weren't over yet. There is a short descent and ascent to the final Brother (or half-brother?) of Sgurr an Fhuarail, a fine ridge that I'd need to cross whichever way I planned on heading next. And, to start the descent, I'd have to negociate about half a dozen metres of snow slope (with much more of it on each side of the ridge). Once down, I gave it a few extra kicks and prods in the hope of "helping" it thaw from the path a tiny bit sooner.
Ciste Dhubh and Aonach Meadhoin

It took maybe 15 minutes to notch up my third Munro Top of the day, with just over half of the afternoon gone. I could see that the north ridge fell away (and, from the map knew that it was over 400 metres down, then a similar ascent), which other walk reports have warned me can be demanding. But I didn't want to stop yet, so it was "once more into the bealach" and onwards.
There was something of a path, but - as is my habit - I either lost it, or at least chose my own line. A rather meandering line, since there's steeper ground to the left so I veered right, trying to pick around small burns and boggy patches. Those threatened to be just a taster of the ground ahead, which looks to deserve its name. A speck lingered on the prominent top of An Cnapach, though I couldn't see make out whether it was a person or a deer.

I was pleasantly surprised to find Bealach a'Choinich was reasonable going and the peat hags had caught enough sun to cook them into a soft springy consistency. Several deer passed me at a wary distance and hoofprints in the peat showed their routes, as well as gave more reassurance.
The real bog and unpleasantness lay in wait nearby. After a gradual start uphill, I joined a path again. Or, rather, the bootprints and churned erroded ground that many others must have passed before me. I couldn't see any hands or other parts sticking up out of the mire, so can only hope that most of them survived the experience. My own tolerance levels were soon passed, so I wandered left to ascend the comparitively delightful (though still steep and grassy) ground west of the "path".
After the slope shoulder eased, I ambled over a broad shoulder to join the path for the next steep stretch. Warm from the afternoon sun and slogging uphill, I bypassed An Cnapach despite feeling a faint pang of guilt. Ciste Dhubh looks much longer from some angles than others and felt particularly lengthy at that point. But the final impressive top lured me onwards, bolstered by the promise of flapjack and the last few bites of lunch. A few ravens vacated the pathside as I strode past, leaving them to wait for their own repast.
Ciste Dhubh summit

One walker preceeded me to the summit and two other lads were settled there for the afternoon, watching wildlife and enjoying the day. Theirs seemed a far more sensible approach, especially in such beautiful weather. I lingered for another break, wondering whether to go ahead with what would be the day's biggest descent, then second-longest ascent, in order to add further hills. Refuelled, I made up my mind to head down the north-west ridge then chose between Gleann Lichd or Beinn Fhada.
This ridge starts off very broad, grassy and easy; too easy, since that means there's much more descending to do afterwards. The northeast ridge looks, on maps and from afar, easier going and I caught sight of the other walker going that way, possibly aiming for Alltbeithe hostel. But it would have added extra distance for me and also meant needing to cross the Allt Cam-ban much lower down. So I persevered and found "my" ridge as reasonable as you can expect for steep and pathless ground. The vegetation is mostly well-drained grass, there are stones but not dense scree, boulders or anything that can't be got around.
The descent is steep enough to call for attention where you step, but that's always a good idea anywhere. Especially when it means that you see, rather than risk trampling, the creatures and features at ground level. I met this handsome prince-in-hiding soon after topping up my water bottle from a burn.
Ready to croak on Ciste Dhubh

Even once I'd reached the river, it took a couple of minutes (following a vehicle track on the south/east bank) to find some stones close enough to span with a long stride. I'd read of a crossing in that area, but can't say whether this was it (I used a couple of boulders and a stone outcrop standing from the river-bed). The Allt Cam-ban had a fair flow at that point, even in dry conditions, so could be troublesome to cross in spate.
The lumpy ground beyond it also took some work until I reached a well-made path heading southwest and northeastwards. It was 6 PM, about my cut-off time, and the slopes above me looked steep and rough, with some crags and snow banks to bar progress high above. But, at the same time, I knew that taking the high route back wouldn't add much distance, mainly height. It was a much tougher and closer choice than previously, but I'd attempt to head upwards, knowing a gentle plateau waited to be crossed.

The ascent felt very demanding. I had the sun beating down on me, at least until the later stretches when the hillside granted some welcome shade. The ground seemed steep, even though it was the sort of reliable grass slope I usually enjoy and a herd of deer moved off easily above. Camban bothy shrank to a red dot far down in the glen and I struggled up between craggier bits, trying to keep going even if it was in gradual zig-zags. At last the slope began to ease off onto the rounder ridge east of Sgurr a'Dubh Doire.
Looking back across Fionngleann

This left another brief stage of ascent, but now there were magnificent views in every direction and more of a breeze. I ate, drank and took more photos, but needed to be moving soon. It was nearly 7:30 and the main summit (as well as the path down) was well over a mile away.
Glen Affric giants from Sgurr a Dubh Doire

There is some descent and (slightly more) ascent around this section, but both are gradual. The terrain is moss/grass and scattered stone, so you can pick your own pace without needing to aim for rock steps or restrictive footing. Perfect blue skies stretched overhead and I felt revitalised after the previous slog uphill, relishing a beautiful evening. Crossing the rise of An Tudair, I followed the edge of Coire Thuill Sgailceich to the trig cylinder and cairn marking the summit itself.
Beinn Fhada east ridge

Shadows were stretching longer and the sun sunk lower in the west. I ruled out including A'Ghlas-bheinn in the day, since that would have required a head-torch descent. That seemed distinctly unwise on such a rugged hill, especially given that my torch is fine for camping but lacks the power to see far. What I could do is include one final Munro Top, crossing the gentle expanse of Plaide Mhor before returning eastwards for the descent path.
I passed a pair of ptarmigan on the wide plateau, which seemed to stretch further and further. A path leads up a gradual slope, then faded at some peaty ground, leaving me a final ascent (which felt more than the contour lines indicate) to reach the summit of Meall an Fhuarain Mhor. Steeper slopes plunging to Gleann Lichd make this a superb point to look south and west, such as towards the morning's walk over the Sisters.
Shadows surround the Sisters

A fine haze of cloud seemed to be gathering in the distance, especially around Skye and other coastal areas. I took another snack and drink before retracing my steps eastwards. Taking the main path down seemed safer than scrambling, so I followed a route around the top of Coire an Sgairne, making for a zig-zagging stalkers' route that descends northwards from the plateau.
Meall a Bhealaich and descent zig-zags

This made for an easy, though very long, descent - 9 o'clock had already passed before I started down into the corrie. The zig-zags stretched out fit to rival the evening shadows, though there was still plenty of light down in the glen as hillsides high above turned gold. After a frustrating right turn (and stretch that even climbs a few metres), the path descended further to cross Allt Coire an Sgairne and then became much more direct.

I kept up a good pace though the evening was ebbing, nibbling on my last emergency food (some dried mango, which proved chewier and less tasty than the dried banana I prefer). While not starving (or short of energy), the less strenuous walking meant that my stomach was starting to notice that it hadn't had a hot meal all day. Luckily, my attention levels were still good enough to notice something on the stone steps ahead of me, in time not just to avoid stepping on it but even snatch a snap.
My newt strides as the evening fades

The path eases further, running near the Abhainn Chonaig before it reaches some small pastures, at least one of which was home to a few horses or ponies. A track leads past several buildings, including the Outdoor Centre, then turns into a tarmac road. I tried to use the grassy verge, mixed with some path beside the River Croe, but there was no escape from road walking for a last couple of miles. Past the Morvich campsite, I turned left, feet feeling hot and tired on the hard surface.
The minor road eventually reached and passed Ault a'chruinn, bringing me to the last stretches of pavement, then path overlooking Loch Duich. There was still enough light to find my way back to the Lodge, where a curry helped replenish some of the energy used during the many hours before.
Twilit return to Invershiel

I don't know how, or whether, I'm ever going to equal or exceed this walk. The combination of route and conditions might well be one in a lifetime, but they were worth every mile, each last metre. It did slow me down for the next couple of days, but even my feet have forgiven what they went through (and they didn't get to appreciate the views except for a few moments now and then while swapping pairs of socks!)

The map is more approximate than usual due to trying to avoid running out of route points, plus simplifying a lot of contouring that went on. But it covers the general course followed.

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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby Mal Grey » Wed Jul 08, 2015 1:13 pm

Good grief! Nearly 4000m of ascent in one day! No wonder I've never heard of the Glen Lichd skyline being a popular challenge! Hats off, sir :clap: :clap: :clap:

An amazing part of the world, but once I've finally done Fhada, it will have been 4 separate days for me.

Great photos, conditions and description.
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby jupe1407 » Wed Jul 08, 2015 1:42 pm

Wow! That's an absolute epic!

Great photos and hugely a hugely enjoyable report :clap:
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby IanEzzi » Wed Jul 08, 2015 3:28 pm

Great report, and some inspiration for next weekend when I was planning a south Glen Shiel biggy but couldn't work out the transport/accommodation logistics... 8)
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby Driftwood » Wed Jul 08, 2015 5:27 pm

Thanks for the comments. It's probably as close to an epic as I'll ever manage - and would make a magnificent 2 day expedition - but the conditions, time of year and everything else were about perfect to try it (only just) in one.

And making up a name for the route sounds so much better than saying that I didn't quite manage the "North Glen Shiel Family" :lol:

IanEzzi - there are a lot of ridges leading northwards into Gleann Lichd, so it would be possible to come up with a slightly shorter version of this. Having done the South Glen Shiel last year, that was a stroll by comparison.
Though I've recently looked at the map again and realised that it should be possible to walk the South Glen Shiel ridge and avoid the A87 by following paths/tracks through Wester and Easter Glen Quoich. A bit longer, but it looks like there are stalkers' paths onto the ridge at each end.
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby simon-b » Thu Jul 09, 2015 8:18 pm

That's a big one, Driftwood, in a great area. I didn't manage all these at once. What I have managed in one walk is the Glen Lichd floor and back!

Nice pictures.
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby Driftwood » Thu Jul 09, 2015 11:02 pm

simon-b wrote:That's a big one, Driftwood, in a great area. I didn't manage all these at once. What I have managed in one walk is the Glen Lichd floor and back!

Nice pictures.

It does look a fine glen - and a great through route - though I couldn't resist the call of one more hill. Maybe the weather next year will encourage me to investigate the glens further :lol:

I don't know whether I could have managed this without the conditions, or such magnificent (but also conveniently-arranged) hills. I hope to be visiting and walking in Kintail long after all of my balloons have turned blue and Tops been ticked.
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby ancancha » Fri Jul 10, 2015 10:54 am

Sitting up top with the cloud covering all but the peaks must have been magical 8)
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Re: Glen Lichd skyline circuit

Postby IanEzzi » Fri Jul 10, 2015 2:54 pm

IanEzzi - there are a lot of ridges leading northwards into Gleann Lichd, so it would be possible to come up with a slightly shorter version of this. Having done the South Glen Shiel last year, that was a stroll by comparison.
Though I've recently looked at the map again and realised that it should be possible to walk the South Glen Shiel ridge and avoid the A87 by following paths/tracks through Wester and Easter Glen Quoich. A bit longer, but it looks like there are stalkers' paths onto the ridge at each end.

Thanks Driftwood, we descended one of the many north ridges when abandoning a sodden and wet winter walk on the Five Sisters many moons ago.

I'm trying to coordinate a walk using the Citylink services and hopefully taking in a few new summits, so I would rather do an end to end. The south Glen Shiel Ridge might actually work out better although it would require a 4am start from the Kintail Lodge if I was to make it to the Cluanie Inn for the 14:59 bus (allowing for stops etc). I can move relatively quickly but not sure I want to make things that tight for myself!

Alternatively follow your route but heading back south from Ciste Dubh and taking in the 'ridge' of Am Bathach just for fun. This is more realistic although takes in fewer new summits. Will probably do this if the forecast improves over the next couple of days!
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