Cioch Nose, Applecross

Date walked: 21/05/2019

Distance: 5km

Ascent: 557m

Na Ciochan, the Cioch Nose, a low-grade but spectacular climb whose fate as a popular 'classic' was sealed by its inclusion in Ken Wilson's Classic Rock, had been on my 'must-do' list for many years, but always seemed to get passed by for other things and places. It was about time I got round to doing it.

The first ascent of the route was undertaken in 1960, when Tom Patey enlisted Chris Bonington to partner him in what was expected to be a technically challenging project. The relative ease with which the climb was completed famously inspired Patey to declare it "the Diff to end all Diffs". This, however, was an exaggeration of the route's facility. Nowadays the SMC grades it Severe, with the first three pitches each given a technical grade of 4a. Whatever the grade, it promised to make a great day out.

A week's holiday in mid-May this year, for which my usual climbing partner, Karl, would also be free, seemed as good an opportunity as any to see if we could finally get to do the climb. But the decision to drive over 300 miles to Applecross would hinge on the forecast. As it happened, the forecast for the NW was pretty good for that week, so off we went. We also had in mind to bag a few Munros, like Cheesecake and Lurg Mhor, whilst in the area.

Our journey up from Cumbria on the Saturday progressed under a ceiling of grey clouds and through intermittent showers. Luckily the rain stopped by the time we got to The Wee Campsite at Lochcarron, where we based ourselves. On the Sunday we hoped to walk up from Craig in the afternoon for a wild camp at Pollan Buidhe, in readiness for the two aforementioned Munros on Monday. But, contrary to the forecasted improvement, the weather turned to s**t. We drove to Craig but could hardly see the hills for rain, so we binned the idea. Back at the café in Lochcarron we checked the forecast again, which now agreed with what we could see for ourselves, but predicted improvement for Monday afternoon and dry with sunny intervals for Tuesday. The easy Munro tick of Fionn Bheinn would do for Monday, while Tuesday looked a good bet for Cioch Nose.

After a fine evening and a rainless night we were up early on Tuesday morning and arrived at the Bealach na Ba by about 7.10am. Our decision to approach from there, rather than from Coire nan Arr, was based on our intention to include the ridge continuing above the Nose itself, leading back to the top of Coire a' Chaorachain. Hence the early start - we were respectful of the fact that the Continuation Ridge, according to the guidebook, gives 500+ metres of scrambling with one unavoidable pitch of VDiff (in addition to the 125m of climbing on Cioch Nose itself). This ridge is known as the A' Cioch Ridge - not to be confused with the A' Cioch Ridge of Beinn Bhan :? !

The approach to and route up Cioch Nose and the Continuation Ridge (photo taken on the drive back to Lochcarron).

As we set off up the Landrover track towards the prominent mast on the NW top of Sgurr a' Chaorachain, we were somewhat disappointed to find ourselves inside a grey, but mercifully dry, cloud, driven swiftly across the rocky moorland by a brisk and chilling breeze. We plodded on in the hope that it would eventually clear, and with the vaguely comforting thought that Cioch Nose is said to be climbable even in the rain, albeit at a higher grade. Not that it was actually raining. Yet.

View down Coire a' Chaorachain from just below the mast

As we dropped down from the mast towards the little col a short distance NE, we emerged from the mist, which was still lurking around on the tops. We parked our rucksacks at the col, where a sketchy path heads steeply down into Coire a' Chaorachain, and got kitted up with harnesses etc., putting our climbing shoes, an extra layer and a little food and drink in lightweight sacks. We had our trainers on for the descent, with the intention of changing into our climbing shoes when we reached the start of the climb. After a quick cheese roll and a slurp of water, we set off down into the corrie. It seemed a looong way down.

Descent into the corrie

In the bottom of the corrie is a small lochan. We walked well past this, almost to the rim of the corrie floor, until the gully which separates the A' Cioch Ridge from the Nose itself comes into view up on the left. A rising traverse on a vague path across the steep grass and heather led into the gully. A short scramble up this brought us to a narrow but clear path on the right, which makes its way across steep slopes at the foot of the crags of the upper tier. This is known as Middle Ledge; quite exposed with an increasingly huge drop down the lower tier, but straightforward. At one point the path passes right under a 'roof' of the crag, which a tall person might hit their head on if not careful. It then descends a little, then shortly after gives a short, easy scramble back up to a ledge where the climb starts.

The approach to the start of Cioch Nose along Middle Ledge

View over Loch Coire nan Arr and Loch Kishorn from start of climb

The start is clearly marked by the initials 'CN' and an arrow scratched on the rock. It was about 9am when we arrived here, and we were pleased to find it was sheltered from the wind.

'CN' with arrow marks start of Cioch Nose

Looking up left is the distinctive 'off-width' crack (too wide to jam, too narrow to chimney), which is the key to the first pitch. We uncoiled the rope, and as we were changing into our rock shoes (keeping our liner socks on as it was quite chilly), I was suddenly seized by the stupefying realization that I'd left the route description, photocopied especially for the occasion, in my rucksack at the top of the corrie. :problem: I'm sure I let out a little squeal of horror, but Karl didn't seem to notice and I said nothing. I certainly wasn't going back for it, so I'd just have to rely on my memory of the description. Fortunately, I'd read it many times, but even so, the thought of being unsure of the route high up and having no information to consult was a worry. I quietly arranged a belay for Karl (a good nut) and we were set to start.

The 'off-width' crack of the first pitch

By way of consolation, the weather seemed to be brightening up and the sun came out :D

Apologies if I've included too much information about each pitch, but I promised Alteknacker that I'd do a detailed report if we did the climb :wink: :lol:
[*Spoiler alert* - beta follows, so skip the next para if you intend to do the climb strictly on-sight.]

Pitch 1, 30m 4a
A straightforward rock staircase led up to the foot of the crack, such that your head is about half-way up it before you have to make any difficult moves. There's a thinner crack on the right which takes a good nut - sufficient in itself really - but this can be backed up with a Friend-4, nice and high in the off-width itself. All set for the tricky move up this, which is brief. Right foot out onto a thin seam a couple of feet up. Lean leftwards using edge of crack as a layaway. Left foot quickly up to a big, flat foothold. Jugs at the top of the off-width can now be reached. Step up with right foot, then high step for left foot onto sloping foothold to left of off-width just below its top. Ledge now reached. That's the 4a part of pitch 1 done. The pitch continues from the left end of the ledge up a couple of little corners and finishes at the left end of a big ledge. Good block belay. Yes, it's 4a, but well protected and not sustained.

Sgurr a' Chaorachain from top of pitch 1

It was now Karl's turn to enjoy the frictional properties of Torridonian sandstone, such a pleasure to climb on.

Karl coming up pitch 1

Pitch 2 begins at the right end of the big ledge at the foot of a large corner. We just walked across the ledge and set up a belay under the corner. I meant to take a photo looking up this corner, but forgot :roll:

Pitch 2, 15m 4a
It's an awkward start up the corner, but again there's plenty of good protection. I stepped leftwards around the most constricted part, using a small but sufficient finger hold out on the left wall, then smeared up immediately above the constriction back into the corner. That was actually quite a tricky move, perhaps a little more than 4a. When Karl came to second it he went directly up the constriction and said it was quite juggy - probably the easier way. The rest of the corner is pretty straightforward, with good protection, and an exit on the right at its top. Easier-angled rock then leads up to a fine rock ledge with a big block on it to belay from. Again, 4a yes, but well protected and not sustained.

Karl near the top of pitch 2

Looking down from the belay ledge at the top of pitch 2

Next up was pitch 3, which, viewed from the already very exposed ledge, looked spectacularly exposed.

The start of pitch 3 from the belay ledge

Pitch 3, 35m 4a
Stepping off the belay ledge onto the incredibly exposed wall is an exciting moment, which can be savoured without too much anxiety thanks to a very convenient jug-handle hold. The drop beneath your feet is sheer verticality for something like 600 feet. It's best to take your mind off the drop and concentrate on the rock immediately around you. Nice footholds appear when you look for them (the folk-imperative in such situations of "don't look down" is bad advice, since you need to see where your feet are going). Up and right to a crack with an old, disintegrating piton in it. A small nut goes in just below it. Keep going up to the edge of nothing. Then work back left above the overhangs. You come to a slightly tricky mantle-shelf onto a small ledge. The sheer immensity of the situation impresses itself upon you, making you feel lost in a vertical sea of rock. Which way? No route description to consult. I felt a few spots of rain. Not now, please. An overhang directly above jogs my memory. Make for the left end of it. Good holds beckon. Good protection too but keep it measured, it's a long way. At the overhang step right immediately above it. A series of convenient foot steps, then easy climbing up to the belay ledge. What a stunning pitch. Immaculate. As good as it gets at the grade. 4a? Maybe, but who cares? Climbing of this quality is beyond any grading system.

Looking down pitch 3, Karl coming up

Karl was amazed by this pitch too. The perfect balance between intimidation and facility, resulting in pure enjoyment.

A big, vegetated ledge led rightwards to the start of pitch 4, where another arrow and 'CN' was scratched on the rock. The 'technical' stuff was now over, and pitch 4 looked obviously easier and more broken. Perhaps just as well, as the curtains of rain that had been drifting at a safe distance to the SE were now over Loch Kishorn and seemed to be heading our way.

Ledge leading to pitch 4, Karl at the belay

Pitch 4, 45m
A rib of blocky, rough rock led invitingly upwards, like a triumphal staircase to Valhalla (well, why not? :lol: ). Except it started raining. We expected to get wet. But luckily it soon stopped and the curtains of rain passed us by.

Last bit before the top

Karl coming up pitch 4

So that was the main climb done and we were at the top of the Cioch Nose. Fabulous. What better place for a spot of lunch? The sun even came out, and while enjoying another well deserved cheese roll, we turned our attention to the big step leading up to the A' Cioch Ridge, which frankly looked pretty daunting and quite improbable as a mere scramble capped by a pitch of VDiff at the top.

The impressive step that guards the Continuation Ridge.

Lunchtime on the grassy top of Cioch Nose

If time had been running short we could have escaped down South Gully and walked all the way up the back of the corrie to the sacks. But we didn't bother checking our watches as we were set on doing the Continuation Ridge.

A pleasant walk on grass led down to the neck between the domed top of Cioch Nose and the abrupt step of A' Cioch. A clean buttress of rock at the bottom appeared to block the way, but it soon became obvious that the route went to the right and up a gully behind it. The crest, more or less, was then followed steeply but straightforwardly to a grassy terrace.

Above, the ground became steeper and obviously more serious. It seemed a good place to uncoil the rope and tie on, in readiness for the VDiff pitch higher up. A steep but easy step led to another terrace with a superb thread belay at the base of the wall above.

Looking down to the top of Cioch Nose

The way from there went off to the right to gain a broken, vegetated groove leading up and left. This was quite steep but not difficult, and led onto the grassy terrace below a compact, vertical wall perhaps 50 ft. high. The VDiff pitch went up the left edge of this wall, and now that we could see it in detail, it looked quite reasonable, being well supplied with cracks, spikes and foot-ledges.

It turned out to be a very enjoyable pitch, probably at the lower end of VDiff. One thing to take care with, though, is a wide, rectangular block the size of a 40" flat-screen TV perched on a small ledge, that could easily be pulled off if grasped too enthusiastically.

Above, a nice bit of scrambling on lovely rock leads quickly to the top of the step. We checked the time. 2.15pm. Earlier than we thought. Plenty of time for the rest of the ridge.

The ridge continuing from the top of the big step

We hadn't really known what to expect of the ridge. I'd perhaps imagined something a bit narrower, like the Aonach Eagach, with some rocky pinnacles to negotiate. It wasn't like that. The ridge was a sequence of broad peaks giving mostly just walking, with some easy scrambling. But at the cols between the peaks were sharp little notches formed by deep gullies cutting in transversely from both sides and meeting at the top. The first one looked like an abseil job, until we realised there was a 'path' on the left side that out-flanked it. The scramble up the other side was easier.

Looking back to the top of the big step from above the first tricky col on the ridge

The next col was similar but less severe - luckily, since there was no easy way to out-flank it. Down into a recess, onto a wedged block, hang off it to reach a sloping, grassy ledge. Down the to the edge of another rocky drop - onto a slab on the right then step down onto a ledge leading down left to the col. Bit of a scramble up the other side then work left and back right to regain the crest.

The ridge continues

The third col looked as if it was going to let us off lightly until it revealed it's sharp little drop at the last moment - quite an awkward little scramble. But then it was easier walking up to the next top, the other side of which were our rucksacks.

Loch Coire nan Arr, Loch Kishorn and Sgurr a' Chaorachain

Carn Dearg, Bealach nan Arr and Beinn Bhan

Yes, our rucksacks were still there! The time was about 4.05pm. Time to relax :D

To find shelter from the chilly breeze we went a short way down the descent path, taking what food we had left with us, and perched ourselves there for a prolonged chill-out. I was great to reflect on what had been a superb experience, all the more satisfying for having included the Continuation Ridge.

We noticed a solitary figure slowly making his way up from the depths of the corrie - the first other humanoid we'd seen all day. When he reached us he stopped and asked if it was us he'd seen walking along the ridge. Indeed it was, we answered. He wondered what it was like, as there were a couple of sub-Sims on it he wanted to bag. We mentioned the tricky little cols which might prove troublesome to a solo walker, though we weren't sure which tops were the sub-Sims. He said he was surprised to find a path going up the corrie. We explained that it was mainly used by climbers heading for the Cioch Nose, which seemed to ring a vague bell for him. We wished him well with his sub-Sims and clambered up to retrieve our rucksacks, ready for the short walk down the Landrover track back to the Bealach na Ba.

Walking down the track, the views of Skye across a silvery Inner Sound reminded us why we had for so long neglected the hills of Applecross. But we were very glad, at last, to have brought that neglect to an end.

Cuillin of Skye with Rhum behind to the left, from the Landrover track

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Location: Cumbria
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Ideal day out: A round of summits with some scrambling thrown in.
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