Beinn Alligin's Backfire Ridge

Route: Beinn Alligin

Munros: Sgùrr Mòr (Beinn Alligin), Tom na Gruagaich (Beinn Alligin)

Date walked: 16/05/2022

Time taken: 7 hours

Distance: 13.5km

Ascent: 1500m

There are many walk reports describing the circuit of Beinn Alligin from Inveralligin, including a traverse of the horns, which (in fine weather) is one of the classic mountain routes in Scotland. Perhaps because the standard route is so good, there are very few reports describing alternative routes (other than the winter ascent of Deep South Gully). But I was looking for another way of climbing the mountain. Four possibilities suggested themselves.

1) Tom na Gruagaich has a fine north-west ridge, although one would need to find a route up to the wilderness of An Reidh-choire to start the climb.

2) Sgùrr Mòr has a steep north-west ridge, which could be reached via the path up to Loch Toll nam Biast.

3) I have been pondering whether it would be possible to climb the buttress to the left of Deep North Gully, which leads up to the top of the middle horn. Having looked at it from below and from the side, I think it would make a good high-level scramble / low-level rock-climb, although it is impossible to tell how difficult it would be without trying it. The steepest section is at the start, but it looks as if it can be avoided by moving left and then traversing right. I've included a photograph at the end of the Report if anyone wants to explore the route. (And let me know how it goes!)

4) Backfire Ridge: a grade 2 scramble up the back of the third, highest horn. Although this is a route from Highland Scrambles North, I don't think I've seen any walk report describing it.

I opted for Backfire Ridge and decided to save it for the next sunny day, which turned out to be Saturday 7 May.

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In retrospect, I can see why Backfire Ridge is not a standard route up Beinn Alligin. The rock is fairly loose and the scrambling is disjointed. But the route has some significant positive features. It starts in a beautiful location, away from the beaten track. The slabs and rocky tiers at the start of the route are a lot of fun to climb, as is the narrow upper part of the ridge. And there is a lot of choice regarding what to climb. In general, easy lines (although steep and heathery) lie towards the left, and harder lines lie towards the right at the apex of the ridge. There are some optional small rock climbs if one is so inclined, but check the stability of the rock carefully. Note, however, that the ground was dry; I don't know what the ascent would be like in the wet.

For this ascent, I wasn't walking alone. This is Pete -- occasional author, hunchback-magnet, whinging socialist, and child emerging from the ghost of Christmas present.

Pete Mitchell

This is Pete finding a private place to pee.

Stealthy, stealthy...

We started fairly late, around 11 am. The car park was full, but there is a large flat area beside the road (not a passing pass or field or track entrance) around 500 meters further up from the car park, and we parked there. The track on the right side of the river is excellent, with views of the gorge and then a series of waterfalls.

The gorge at the start

Waterfalls below Beinn Alligin

Waterfalls below Beinn Dearg

The path splits at around 150 meters just after a bridge, with the left branch heading up towards the horns. At around 350 meters, the path splits again; the left branch starts to climb steeply up the flank of the horns, while the right branch continues up the Bealach a Chomhla. The path begins to become less distinct as it winds underneath the eastern cliffs of the horns. It finally ends as it reaches the banks of the Allt a Bhealaich as it falls in a sequence of waterfalls from Loch Tom nam Biast. We stopped to fill our water bottles and then decided to climb the tiers of rock by the waterfalls to the plateau above.

Look Pete, that's where we'll probably die.

Climbing the waterfalls

Toll nam Biast is stunning in the sun, well worth a visit: flat slabs of rock surrounding small lakes, with views over Shieldaig and Flowerdale Forests, Baosbheinn and Beinn an Eoin, and the steep flanks of Beinn Dearg.

View towards Flowerdale

Looking over Toll nam Biast to Baosbheinn

Tom nam Biast and the side of Sgùrr Mòr

The direct line to Backfire Ridge is blocked by lines of cliffs. We moved to the left, where the cliffs shrink and can be climbed by a variety of different lines, which (depending on preference) range from walks up steep slopes to rock climbs.

Backfire Ridge above the lower cliffs (climbable towards the left)

Heading across the slabs under Sgùrr Mòr

Pick a line up the cliffs

The lower parts of the ridge are quite loose and vegetated. As with the cliffs, there is a great deal of choice of route. There are a number of pictures below that I hope give a clear flavour of the scrambling. The ridge is a mass of broken bits of outcrop, a steep drop to the right, and loose rocky slopes to the left (which provide a constant escape route). It narrows after a rock tower (shown below). I stayed on the crest of the ridge, and doing that involves a couple of bits of borderline scrambling and climbing. In particular, there was one point where I was stuck for a couple of minutes, my toes threatening to slip from the ledge I was standing on, while I tried to work out the handholds to pull myself up onto the next block. But this tricky move was entirely avoidable; Pete had easily scrambled up to the left. Nevertheless, staying on the crest of the ridge all the way is exhilarating if one wants a challenge beyond grade 2 scrambling, with spectacular views of Sgùrr Mòr's flank.


More scrambling

The ridge up to the tower

Pete looking around the tower

The upper part of the ridge

Pete climbing the rocks

Tom nam Biast far below

Reaching the top of the third horn

There was a final steep heave up onto the top of the third horn, where my sudden appearance surprised a group of walkers who were resting after walking down Sgùrr Mòr.

The drawback of climbing Backfire Ridge is that it reaches the top of the Beinn Alligin horseshoe after the horns, missing the best part of the standard Beinn Alligin circuit. But this is a drawback that is easily remedied. We decided to traverse the ridge down to the first horn and then retrace our steps to the third horn, climbing the horns twice from both directions. But this did add quite a bit of ascent and re-ascent to our day's walk. The walkers we had encountered at the top were heading in the same direction, and looked somewhat unnerved at the approach I decided to take to the first (and finest and steepest) horn.

Walking the horns

The smallest and steepest horn

An optional route up the third horn, designed for horrifying your mothers

The Beinn Alligin horseshoe

Back at the third horn

It is a steep pull up Sgùrr Mòr from the third horn. There are great views back towards the horns, and the sharp (avoidable) crest of Backfire Ridge is clearly visible.

Sgùrr Mòr is a steep climb

The crest of Backfire Ridge from the side

Looking back at the horns

We were then on the standard, anti-clockwise Beinn Alligin route, for which there are many excellent walk reports. (I am not sure why the Walkhighlands guide suggests walking the mountain clockwise, which would seem to involve an interminable pull straight up Tom na Gruagaich, albeit with a clear path.) I'll risk adding a few photos to the vast Walkhighlands collection, given the weather was so good.

Looking west from Sgùrr Mòr

Tom na Gruagaich

The obligatory photo of the Black Cleft

The climb up Tom na Gruagaich

Sgùrr Mòr from Tom na Gruagaich

The north of Skye across the sea

Heading down to Loch Torridon

Driving home, I stopped for a quick photograph on my phone of Beinn Alligin from across Loch Torridon, which came out well. It is certainly a mountain to save for a good day.

A last look at Beinn Alligin across Loch Torridon

And for the adventurous, here is the alternative route we considered, alongside Deep North Gully. It looks possible to avoid the bottom cliff by moving up to the left, and then moving right back to the top of the buttress (which becomes a ridge).
The buttress by Deep North Gully

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Comments: 6

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Distance: 18.5km
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Comments: 7
Views: 1015

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Date walked: 01/05/2021
Views: 481

Christopher Pulman

Location: London
Occupation: Barrister, lawyer, academic and timewaster
Activity: Scrambler
Mountain: An Teallach
Ambition: The Greater Traverse

Munros: 69
Corbetts: 12
Grahams: 6
Donalds: 3

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