Munros: A' Mhaighdean, Ruadh Stac Mòr
Date walked: 02/06/2021
A’ Mhaighdean is one of those legendary mountains, its very name conjuring up images of wild places, and arduous approaches. With its non-identical twin, Ruadh Stac Mor, it vies with a small list of contenders for the title of “remotest Munro”, and though it probably isn’t the furthest from a road in a straight line, no straight line is possible to get to The Maiden itself, and thus she strengthens her case. Of course its other nickname, Armageddon, just adds to the myth.
Lying in that wild Great Wilderness that comprises the Letterewe and Fisherfield forests, there is simply no easy approach. Traditionally, there are perhaps three ways that are the “standard” routes, though there is little standard about them. From Coire Haile to the northeast, often as part of the longer round of 5 Munros and a Corbett; from Kinlochewe via remote Lochan Fada; and lastly from Poolewe via a long track and a trek under the impressive northern flanks of Beinn Airigh Charr.
Just to the north of that latter path Fionn Loch offers a different approach to those who like to paddle a canoe. There’s just one problem. Fionn Loch does not reach a road, in fact the closest approach is something like 8 or 9km from one. This then, would be our challenge. For at the northwest end of the loch, a little track winds its way to Drumchork, and a series of lochs might be linked to make a portage route for those lacking the brain power to care that it might be quite hard work. This then, would be our attempted route.
Our group of scouts, families and friends found ourselves at the start of a rough track above the sea near Drumchork. Behind us, glistening waters studded with islands. Ahead, a rough uphill track heading of across moorland. At our sides, heavily laden canoes, strapped to trolleys. These are the moments of both excitement and trepidation. Would our chosen route, about which there is virtually no information, actually be achievable? Good old map reading, poring over the OS map looking at blue lines and lochs, and trying to ignore the brown ones, had led us here. The only other thing we knew was that an acquaintance had travelled a part of it, and declared it “untrolleyable”. That friend is a legend of canoe travelling, so his opinion should be taken seriously!
The first trundle was pretty straightforward, the track reasonable, incline steep but with many hands quickly climbed, and the enormous bull stood blocking the route was very docile. And possibly puzzled.
We reached our first water, the unpronounceable Loch a’ Bhaid-luachraich, in a couple of hours. At last we were afloat. And it was wonderful.
After a year and a half of restrictions, and two cancelled planned trips, and for me, days on end working remotely in the same room, we were paddling on sparkling waters under a blue sky, not a sign of human habitation in sight, and with the sound-track of an elusive cuckoo leading us on. Our paddle was only an hour or so, at a very gentle pace, yet it was blissful, and rewarded by the arrival at our first camp, a lovely narrow beach that was just as good as we’d hoped it would be.
Communal cooking is how we roll, the role of food and the coming together of a group of friends being such an important part of our trip. Tonight it was my turn, with a little help, but it was no hardship chopping veg whilst looking out over the water to the distant outlines of the hills to which we were headed, whilst sipping on the first of our impressive supply of red wine (referred to as the Ballast). We like to do things in comfort. That night the light and sky were wonderful, and the moonrise over Beinn Airigh Charr a magical event.
The next day promised to be tough. From this camp, we would paddle a kilometre to the east end of the loch. The track lies a few hundred feet above that, and climbs steeply to the next blue patch on the map. It proved to be as arduous as we expected, the portage up tough and steep, and the track itself was rough and rocky. These are the moments though, where something strange happens. Its hard work, tough, physical and seemingly endless, as we move back and forth along the track carrying bags then returning for canoes, for there is no way they would roll with everything onboard. Yet somehow, these are special parts of our trip, times of much banter and laughter, of teamwork and camaraderie. At every “cache” of bags, we would stop and somebody would pull out a bag of snacks or nibbles, and we would drink deeply from our dwindling water supplies. And all this takes place in the most wonderful of landscapes, a rolling rough moorland, studded with lochans and huge boulders that have sat there since the ice retreated.
It took us most of the day, but the “untrolleyable” track was indeed trolleyed, though in places only because we had enough hands to bodily pick up the canoes and carry them over the rocks. Though only a kilometre separated the two lochs, most of us did this 5 times; there, back, there, back, there; as we carried bags full of necessary things like cake and custard, gin and tonic, wine, naan breads, a guitar, wood and kindling, fireboxes, a 3 foot griddle and too many tarps. Eventually though, we reached Loch Mhic-ille Riabhaich. Once again, the sheer bliss of being afloat again, our canoes taking the load, meant for a delightful paddle to the end of the loch, where we made camp, just 3km from the last.
Our third day was one to look forward to. A final km of portage, one more loch, a last short lift and we would be on Fionn Loch at last, our highway to the hills. The track a little easier and the terrain pretty flat, by lunchtime we were there, sat looking at the sparkling length of the Fair Loch, leading onwards to the remarkable outline of the hills of Letterewe.
The next few hours will last long in the memory, as our small flotilla paddled the calm, sparkling waters of the loch, getting ever closer to the hills. Soon, steep slopes lay on three sides, and ahead a remarkable landscape of folded mountains, rock faces and corries drew us onwards.
With a sense of awe at our surroundings we reached the end of the Fair Loch, and heaved our baggage and canoes over the causeway onto the Dubh Loch, the Dark Loch. If we were impressed by the head of Fionn Loch, the Dubh Loch is in another league. Almost entirely surrounded by hills, great dripping faces and slabs tower above the black waters, looming, awesome walls. Yet with the sun on its massive flanks, it was the huge wall of A’ Mhaighdean, our target, that formed the backdrop. And there, right at the Maiden’s feet, a perfect meadow formed our camp spot behind the beach, with a meandering stream perfect for water and for bathing. That evening, as the kids, including me, couldn’t resist paddling on the mercury-like waters, the sun set at the end of the first part of a remarkable journey.
Our fourth day was the cloudiest of the trip, and we deserved a rest. Even so, we couldn’t resist a wander up the glen to the astonishing trapped waters of Gorm Loch Mor, a remarkable hollow in the twisted terrain or this remote hinterland. The rest of the day was spent just revelling in the place in which we were staying, time spent at a slow pace to absorb the feel of the wilds, and to recharge our batteries.
So it was day five before we came to the main event and the part of the trip that will interest Walk Highlanders the most, after all these days of “canoeing”! Some of the group were happy to spend the day in camp, but most of us headed up the steep flanks above camp, on a diagonal line that would take us, eventually, onto the northwest ridge of mighty A’ Mhaighdean (a-vy-dee-an really, but still Armageddon to most of us!). For young Tobey (13), who had been heavily involved in all the route planning for the whole trip, and Ben (10) with his endless energy, it was their first attempt at a Munro, a most unusual first Munro choice I should think! It was a properly hot day, but fortunately our route would take us alongside loch and stream for the first half of the climb, so we had no need to hold back on the water.
Reaching the burn of the Allt an Fuar Locha, we turned uphill and followed its flanks, refreshed by its clear waters, to the remarkable corrie of Fuar Loch Beag. Here a stunning little lochan sits beneath a ring of crags, a perfect scoop in the mountain side, a truly special place. We traversed its shoreline and climbed, via a tumbling stream for a final refill of bottles, to the more open Fuar Loch Beag, before turning up the flank of The Maiden to gain the NW ridge proper.
Now the hard work commenced, and it was still hot. However, the effort was rewarded with outstanding views northwards, to our second target, Ruadh Stac Mor, and to the craggy outlines of the Beinn Deargs and An Teallach. A little below the ridge line, we stopped for lunch, in a fantastic spot like a balcony on the mountainside.
Refuelled, we climbed the last slope to the ridge, and suddenly the world was laid out below us. A fantastical landscape of mountain and loch, there can be no better mountain views in Britain than those from these hills. It seemed like the lochs, and our camp, were right below us, this western flank of A’ Mhaighdean is a rarely-spoken-of mountain wall that is truly remarkable.
Above lay the summit, a shapely tower from this angle. However, its modest final slopes are not reached without a little difficulty, for now we reached the Torridonian Sandstone layer, and with its, a short series of shattered pinnacles, for the rock is less sound than that of the Torridonian giants themselves. Reaching a flat top, a drop bars the way, beyond which a couple of impassable-looking towers stand in a gap on the ridge.
The secret is a little gully on the left, north, flank of the ridge, a few yards short of the drop. Though faint, a little path drops down this bottomless gulf, but only a few feet down, traverses out of it to the right and through a gap in the rock to the bealach before the first pinnacle. I’d been a little nervous about this section, not so much from a personal perspective, but because we were taking a ten year old over it, whose parents sat 2000 feet below happily in camp. However, Ben is extremely capable in such terrain, full of energy, yet happy to stay “close to heel” when asked to, and paired up with Nigel to reduce my worry a lot. The route is a little loose, as you drop down right beneath the first pinnacle, traverse its side, then back up to another gap, and down and beneath another pinnacle, again on the right.
Suddenly, the terrain changes, and the slopes are gentle and open, though falling away to invisible cliffs. The view back is astonishing, the view forward to the top showing a perfect summit pyramid. This has to be the best way to approach this unique mountain top.
The top is a true summit, a perch above a huge drop, the highest point a rock on which we each perched. As for the views, they are simply the most remarkable vistas, up there with the very best summit panoramas anywhere, an endless series of mountain layers marching into the distance, and of lochs leading the eye to the twinkling sea, and the islands beyond.
Mullach Coire Mhich Fhearchair
The eastern and southern flanks are softer, and we descended easily over short grass, before cutting north towards our next hill, Ruadh Stac Mor. Patches of snow added a little entertainment, but it didn’t take long to reach Poll Eadar dha Stac, the bealach below the shattered slopes of the big red peak.
Here the two lads and Lynne decided they had achieved all they needed to today, and headed northwest to descent the path. That left five of us to make our way up through the band of tottering rocks and the steep scree to reach the summit pretty quickly. I’ll admit I didn’t particularly enjoy this climb, the path is loose, with short scrambly bits, but it is soon over and adds very little effort to the day.
The views from the top, particularly to the north, are very much worth the short climb. An Teallach looked majestic.
With time pressing, we soon dropped back to the pass, and headed down the stalkers path to the waters of Lochan Feith Mhic-illean. Though weary, the landscape remains utterly stunning, and the views back to our twin peaks a source of great satisfaction. A final steep drop, past a lovely secret waterfall, and we were back on the shores of the Dubh Loch and our mountain home.
A’ Mhaighdean & the NW pinnacles
RSM and The Maiden
That night we ate a magnificent corn beef hash, for which Lynne had lugged many cans of corn beef and bags of spuds for days, along with her 24 cans of tonic and a bottle of gin. I made a bannock and we ate it all by the fire at the end of a truly memorable day.
That was the last night of our time in the mountains, and the next day we paddled back out, to a different return route to Poolewe. The wind was getting up, and we battled it a little as we left the Dubh Loch behind and followed the west side of Fionn Loch to the wonderfully named Bad Bog Bay. Fortunately, the wind and waves dropped as we left the funnelling effect of the hills behind.
What followed was an afternoon of pushing boats on wheels for 5km, to an extremely midgey camp near Kernsary. As usual, the banter and chat kept us going, but it was an early night, followed by much midge squishing in each tent.
Our final morning came around, and the midges were blown away by a wind that we had realised would prevent our alternative escape via Loch Maree. Therefore the last act of our trip was another 5km trolley push to Poolewe. By now, though tired, this was no great challenge but we were very glad when the last mile or so became tarmac. Finally we arrived a grassy area by the road end, and here one of our most rewarding trips came to an end.
We ended our trip with two nights at the lovely Sands campsite, with its very welcome showers and wonderful beach, and with a beautiful day paddling around the islands of Loch Maree. The perfect end to a fabulous adventure.
Thank you to all my friends who made this trip so special, especially the Pirate Kids who more than pulled their weight in gear now they are a little bigger!
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Munros: Am Basteir, Am Faochagach, Beinn a' Chaorainn (Cairngorms)
Corbetts: Aonach Shasuinn, Arkle
Grahams: Badandun Hill
Donalds: Birkscairn Hill
Sub 2000s: An Cabar
Date walked: 17/04/2020
Creag Dhubh (Newtonmore)
Date walked: 24/02/2019
1, 2 Rhinog Fawr
Date walked: 29/09/2018
1, 2 Fuar Tholl
Date walked: 26/03/2018
Date walked: 25/02/2018
- Location: Surrey, probably in a canoe! www.wildernessisastateofmind.co.uk
- Occupation: Account Exec in the outdoor and publishing trade, amateur writer, photographer and blogger https://www.wildernessisastateofmind.co.uk/
- Interests: Grew up going to the hills but only get to the hills occasionally, particularly for a week each winter. Big love is open canoeing, and particularly canoe camping. So I paddle the Highlands more than I walk them.
- Activity: Wanderer
- Pub: ODG or Clachaig
- Mountain: Clach Glas
- Place: Inverpolly
- Gear: Bell Prospector Canoe!
- Member: John Muir Trust
Mountain Bothies Association
British Canoe Union
- Camera: Canon EOS 700D
- Ideal day out: Perfect crisp winter conditions in the NW Highlands where the snow is firm, the sky is blue and the views across hills, loch, isles and sea are endless.
An early morning canoe paddle on a glassy calm loch with the hills reflected in it like a mirror isn't bad either!
- Munros: 112
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- Distance: 64 km
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- Distance: 33 km
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- Distance: 92.2 km
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- Ascent: 1580m
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- Joined: Dec 01, 2011
- Last visited: Oct 26, 2021
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