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Two days at the gates of Knoydart

Two days at the gates of Knoydart

Postby old danensian » Sat Oct 17, 2015 3:44 pm

Route description: Sgurr a' Mhaoraich, Loch Quoich

Munros included on this walk: Sgurr a'Mhaoraich

Date walked: 01/10/2015

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Day One - Sgurr a Mhaoraich
Thursday 01.10.15
15.6km; 1065m; 6h

A big weekend “family bash” and mid-week commitments meant I was hoping I’d still catch the last couple of days of this burst of late good weather. Munros and Corbetts lurked above Loch Quoich and I could opt to perm any pair from four or five possible combinations depending on legs, lungs and the deterioration of the weather. At the very least, Gairich and Sgurr a Mhaoraich would get a visit before the drive back south on Friday.

After creeping out of the house just before 6.00am, I drove north amidst a landscape that was rich with clichéd, but still spectacular, images from this season of “mists and mellow fruitfulness.” All the way up the A82 photographers with tripods emerged from every lay-by where a loch was blanketed with mist, an inverted hill hung in a perfectly mirrored reflection, or a pink sunrise tinged the tops round Rannoch Moor.

Fortified by a second breakfast in Fort William, I wrestled with roadworks. Then there were traffic lights, heavy plant lumbering slowly to some hydro-project beyond Invergarry, and a dozen miles of winding single-track road. Finally I saw the Loch Quoich dam emerge from the mist. Beyond, blue sky filled the horizon above the ridges that form the wall to Knoydart: one of them, Sgurr a Mhaoraich, I'd decided as my target for the day.

Loch Quoich and Sgurr a Mhaoraich

Sgurr an Fhuarain and Sgurr Mor above Loch Quoich

Once over the bridge, I pulled into the small parking space and tried to get some life into legs that had been cramped in the car for the previous five hours. A short walk further along the road and a clutch of cars marked the point where the stalker’s path begins its winding way up the ridge to Sgurr Coire nan Eiricheallach. It’s one of those perfectly crafted tracks that has been engineered to find all the best lines and creases in the hillside to avoid anything steep: it enabled a steady pace to be maintained without much undue exertion.

Gairich and the familiar distant profile of Ben Nevis

Following the clear path, the climb upwards soon passed, with more and more of the South Shiel Ridge coming into view. The roaring of stags in the corrie below accompanied my ascent and, having been warned of stalking in the area, I was waiting for the echo of a sharp crack that would mark one's demise (a stag's that is, not mine - such is the ambiguity of the apostrophe).

Eastern end of the South Shiel Ridge from Sgurr Coire nan Eiricheallach

Sgurr a Mhaoraich - the final stretch from Sgurr Coire nan Eiricheallach

Although midges weren't in evidence I was bedevilled by the occasional swarm of what appeared to be aerial ticks. No amount of slapping or crushing seemed to affect them: they simply rolled into a ball to withstand any attack before continuing to irritate. Once on the final ridges to the summit of Sgurr a Mhaoraich a stiffer breeze deterred them.

The ups and downs along the final stretch to the top prevented any steady rhythm being maintained. A bit of scrambling here and there when the path slipped into the shadows to the right and then suddenly the cairn appeared - as did the spectacular view westwards across a sea of cloud to the Cuillins and Rhum.

Summit cairn and rocks of Sgurr a Mhaoraich

Moments and panoramas like this that make it all worthwhile. Crisp autumnal skies, distant ridges dissolving into one another, peaks piercing the cotton wool below: what more do you need?

East end of South Shiel Ridge, Glen Loyne and Gleouraich from Sgurr a Mhaoraich

A cloud-bound Knoydart with the Cuillin in the distance from Sgurr a Mhaoraich

After time pondering the world, life and everything, and fortified by the more prosaic stuff of existence (peanuts and jelly babies) I headed north towards Am Bathaich and away from the stalking to the south. The drop into the Bealach Coire Chaorainn is steep and not immediately obvious, so I edged down with care, the odd slither combined with more controlled scrambling.

Crooked finger below Sgurr a Mhaoraich and east to Gleouraich

Am Bathaich from Bealach Coire a Chaorainn - the route home

From the slabs on the bealach no obvious route to the spine of Am Bathaich declared itself. As a result, an exciting few minutes were spent grasping at clumps of grass, scrambling up short rocky steps and being grateful that the ground wasn't dangerously wet: not a diretissima to tackle in the rain. In fact, there may have been a simpler route upwards from the lochans on the way round to Sgurr Thionail.

Final view of cloud-bound west coast from Bealach Coire a Chaorainn

The stroll along Am Bathaich gently eased me towards the end of the day, marked by the lengthening shadow of Gleouraich gradually creeping across the floor of Easter Glen Quoich. I sat at the end of the ridge, perched on the prow of a rock, and scanned the skyline of the South Shiel Ridge to the north. I sought tiny stick-figures bristling their way along, but they were either too small to be seen or were already close to the end of their own days at one end or the other.

The saddle and Forcan Ridge in the distance from Am Bathaich

Maol Chinn dearg and Aonach air Chrith from Am Bathaich

Having seen on the map, and in profiled-reality, the steep descent down the eastern nose of Am Bathaich, I'd worried for the health of my knees and toes. However, a curiously well-engineered but almost overgrown series of shallow zig-zags reduced the jarring to a minimum: albeit doubling the distance walked. Presumably sculpted from the hillside to aid the ascent of stalkers and their garron ponies in years past, today their presence blends into the landscape rather than scarring it.

Three quarters of the way down the nose, although the angle relents, the interminable zig-zags continued. Finally tiring after the umpteenth zig, I decided to ignore the next zag and take a beeline for the hydro works below, the soft, but not squelchy, ground cushioning each step.

Tonka trucks and a playground of big-boys'-toys currently dominate the scene back in the glen while hydro works continue. Hopefully, like the ancient track descending from above, evidence of its presence will blend into the surroundings as time passes. Pools formed by the new dams may add something but I suspect the scarring of newer, bigger gravel tracks will persist.

The bowl of Fraoch Choire below Gleouraich from the River Quoich

Western Glen Quoich and the western end of the South Shiel Ridge

Putting musings on environmental damage aside, the final stretch was a walk of three or four kilometres back to the bridge. The calves of Highland cows watched my progress suspiciously while their more sanguine mothers continued their ruminations and, from somewhere beneath a tangled fringe, a dismissive eyebrow may have been raised.

Loch Quoich, Gairich and the last leg of the day's walk

The benefit of parking at the bridge meant that I avoided the final half mile trudge along tarmac to where most cars were parked. Back at the car in just six hours ended a long day since leaving Ayrshire but, buoyed up by the surroundings and the conditions, the time had flown and the day ranked as one of the best.

So, after flopping in the car for the evening while overlooking the shores of Loch Quoich and slurping my chicken soup in the front seat it was: bring on tomorrow.

Day Two - Gairich
Friday 002.10.15
13.6km; 826m; 5h 15m

Now I’m sure Gairich is splendid. I’ve no doubt it offers a tantalising prospect of Knoydart beyond. The lure of Corbetts and Munros stretching ahead must be one to relish.

But, the Quoich giveth, and the Quoich taketh away.

While Thursday evening darkened to reveal starry skies, Friday morning struggled to shake off a dawn gloom. Clouds hung like the fringe of a tablecloth hiding the tops, and the threat of rain was stronger than the promise of sun.

In such conditions, the route is uninspiring yet straightforward.

East from the Loch Quoich dam - there's a sunrise out there somewhere

Is it threatening or promising: the sun still struggles out east

Cross the dam and cross a boggy bit. Don't go through the forest gate, but simply turn right and climb the ridge. There's another flat boggy bit before an interesting steep scramble up the southern side of the final summit rocks. The cairn doesn't hide behind a series of false tops just, in these conditions, emerges from the mist.

Up the Gairich ridge - and it gets no better

And there I sat and waited for half an hour.

The clouds didn't exactly drift by. There was a bite to the wind and yesterday's highland panorama had shrunk to the ten or twenty metre diameter surrounding the cairn.

After a bite to eat and another few minutes, I calculated the implications of progressing west. Sgurr an Fhuarain and Sgurr Mor were sitting out there somewhere. Shall I? Shan't I? Another what? Two, three hours? Then, what about the walk out? I'd already seen Glen Kingie a few weeks earlier: it was straight and long, very long, and most probably boggy and slow-going. Resolve wasn't shaking, it had already shrunk, gone, left the building. I wasn't tempted by the risk of striding the final part of the return journey in the dark, especially after seeing nothing during the previous few hours.

So, I simply returned the way I came. I was satisfied with a single achievement and the stark contrast that made the previous day even better. It was also a salutary reminder that it's all too easy to under-estimate the distances that need to be covered in this remarkable remote area.

A rare and tantalising glint in Glen Kingie

I left the misty top knowing that plans for a “big day” are best left for those when mornings appear to start shortly after you've clambered into your sleeping bag, and when evenings stretch towards breakfast. Autumnal flukes like the one we’ve just enjoyed are ideal for quick snatches and there's no sense of guilt in turning away from over-ambitious enthusiasm.

And anyway, you always need the excuse to say, "I'll be back."
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old danensian
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Re: Two days at the gates of Knoydart

Postby Mal Grey » Sun Oct 18, 2015 9:24 am

A great description and some wonderful images. Thanks for sharing what sounds like a fantastic first day in particular.
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Mal Grey
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Re: Two days at the gates of Knoydart

Postby litljortindan » Thu Oct 22, 2015 7:51 pm

A beautiful day 1!
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Re: Two days at the gates of Knoydart

Postby BlackPanther » Fri Oct 23, 2015 10:06 am

Two splendid hills, shame you missed views from Gairich, but those from SM make up for it :D

I'm still working out strategy for Sgurr an Fhuarain and Sgurr Mor, having climbed Gairich the way you did. Glen Kingie? Loch Arkaig? An overnighter? :roll: Something to dwell on over winter.
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