A comment or two on an earlier post has got me thinking about the importance of the line of ascent in appreciating a mountain, especially first time round. When ascending you are of course facing the hill; it takes your whole field of view, your whole attention. It is the time when you are analysing, even if only subconsciously, its aesthetic appeal, its variety, its potential difficulty; in short you are working out whether you like the damn thing or not. And first impressions count. They may later be modified, but somehow those initial feelings will always linger.
So it was interesting, having climbed Ruadh-Stac Mor, via the Coire Mhic Fearchair, which may be considered Beinn Eighe’s back door, just a few days previously, to take on the other Beinn Eighe Munro, Spidean Coire nan Clach, via a full frontal approach straight off the A896. Of course these two summits are usually completed in one circuit, but on the first try, poor conditions and a well-developed sense of prudence had forced me back down the way I had come. So I knew the back door approach well, having used it in both directions. Setting off from the rough little patch of ground that serves as a car park, the front way in was therefore new territory.
It was an 0900 departure. There was still cloud around, but the tops were clearing, and to the west a widening patch of blue sky was heading slowly landwards. It was a still, autumnal morning, with a few late-season midgies trying their luck at the lower altitudes.
There is not much of a preamble on this narrow, well-made path; not much time to get the legs warmed up and the rhythm settled before you are into a steepening haul. It takes a while, too, before the road finally disappears from view as the path rounds a shoulder to work its way up a series of humps and hollows. Aloft and to starboard the grey crenellations of the ridge give a taste of what is to come. It’s a pretty enough route, with enough variety to keep the interest piqued, but it’s utilitarian rather than breath-taking: you just soldier on up, because you have to.
The path arrives at a flattish patch paved with sandstone slabs. Ahead a narrow grass corrie shows the steep path up to what looks like the ridge but isn’t quite. Here the path loses its composure: it becomes a deep earthy gulley patched with loose stone. The feet of a thousand walkers have gouged out a criss-cross of alternative deviations and variations on the central theme of finding the best route up to the quartzite ahead, or the best route down to the charms of civilisation below.
I pulled myself over the brow of the hill to be met by a large cairn. There was still mist around, but not enough to fool me that I was at the top: to the right a shoulder of boulder scree, its top lost in cloud, led the way up. I worked my way up the steepish but unchallenging track to the trig point at the top. Surely this can’t be it? Through the clag I could see the ghostly loom of two higher looking crags to the right. I consulted my guide book, which confirmed what by now seemed obvious: the summit was a little further on.
I suspect that two or three weeks earlier I may well have baulked at the final scramble round the first crag and up the second, but I am learning fast how to keep the demons at bay. Relatively, they are not that exposed or airy, but for someone slowly recovering his lost head for heights they were enough of a challenge. The ascent had taken two hours and twenty minutes.
With uncanny timing the cloud started to clear just as I reached the final outcrop of jagged quartzite pinnacles, opening up patchy vistas down to the Coire Ruadh-staca and beyond. It was not a place to linger, but I made sure I stayed a little while, to take some photos, to enjoy the moment, and to look down from the eyrie while feeling calm and unvertiginous.
I scrambled back down to the trig point and ate a flapjack. The cloud was clearing rapidly, and now I could see the whole ridge stretching away to the west and up to the right to Ruadh-Stac Mor. Seeing that narrow, knife-edge track removed any doubt my decision to turn back a few days earlier.
I had decided, before setting out, that in order to mirror the previous Beinn Eighe ascent, I would descend on the same track. This would mean that I had used both lines of ascent in both directions. However there was still a bit of joining up to do in the middle. I decided to have a relaxed walk along the ridge, going as far as I thought compatible with keeping something in my legs for the return, before re-ascending to the trig point and heading off down.
The cloud lifted, the sun came out, and there it was: the whole of the mountain laid out around me, a great sprawling monolith, ridges splaying out north, south, east and west. The main east-west ridge led the eye on further, to the outrageous stickleback spine of Liathach. The landscape opened up all around. Supremely relaxed and happy, I wandered along at a leisurely pace, enjoying being up so high, with the main work done and the rest of the day ahead.
I did not walk the whole ridge, although I would have liked to. My legs were telling me to go easy; there was quite a lot of additional vertical metre-age along that profile. It was good, though, to get a proper sense of the lay-out of the hill.
I made my way back up to the trig point and had an unhurried lunch under a sun that was threatening to infuse some warmth into the day. Then it was back off down. It was only a few days since I had walked for eight hours non-stop, and my thighs felt it, burning fiercely in braking mode on the descent.
As I went I thought about the relative merits of the anti-clockwise and clockwise circuits. My guide book goes for the anti-clockwise, back door approach; walkhighlands suggests the clock-wise, front door circuit, mainly, it seems, to avoid the steep upward ascent of the scree in Coire Mhic Leachair. That is a good pragmatic reason, but overall I think I disagree. For a start I managed the scree ascent in lousy conditions, and if I can do it, anyone can.
But much, much more importantly than that, it’s a question of the aesthetics of the route, the way it unfolds, the wow factor, the overall architecture of the day; and for that I would go for the back door route every time. I applied what I call the Swiss Cousin Test. Being born of a Swiss mother, I have a lot of Swiss cousins, and my favourite is called Franziska. We have walked together in the Bernese Oberland, and one day soon I hope we will walk together in the Highlands. The question I asked myself is, if I brought Franziska to do a Beinn Eighe circuit, which route would impress her more? For my money, it would be the back door route every time. Via the back door, we would have that lovely gradual ascent, squeezed between Beinn Eighe and Liathach, losing the road quickly and easily. We would soon have vistas of the ancient landscape to the north; not as obviously dramatic as the Eiger or the Jungfrau perhaps, but more subtly timeless and evocative. We would have the long, expectant haul round the shoulder of Sail Mhor, relishing the extraordinary construction of the sandstone path. Then suddenly we would see waterfalls pouring over ledges, and climb alongside them to meet the loch stretching away at eye level. Beyond the loch, the Triple Buttress and the steep choire: a heart-stopping and unexpected vista after the easy gradients so far, and so much more impressive viewed for the first time from the outside looking in. Then into some real work to gain the ridge. What Spidean Coire nan Clach loses in height to Ruadh-Stac Mor, it gains in quality as a real pinnacle, and so, in my view, is best climbed second, providing a fitting climax to a day which has built steadily from the off. After that, there is nothing more to be done than a quick descent, enjoying, hopefully, a good Torridon landscape to the south on the way.
I was back at my truck before three, with just over five and a half hours spent on the hill. My legs were tired, but I didn’t care; I was already looking forward to a pot of peppermint tea and a couple of slices of toasted fruit cake at the Torridon store; a modestly tasty end to a modestly tasty day.
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