walkhighlands

The Arran Alps; Caisteal Abhail

Route: Caisteal Abhail, via North Glen Sannox

Corbetts: Caisteal Abhail

Date walked: 16/09/2021

Time taken: 5 hours

Distance: 11.1km

Ascent: 1012m

PRELUDE | CHEWED UP AND SPAT OUT

Harking back to one of my earlier memories of the Isle of Arran, I was sat on the shores of North Sannox watching the shadows play across the mountain corries that loom lie to the west. You see, at the right time of year in this particular location, when the shadows are fully extended in the evening light, a particularly distinctive example of the pareidolia phenomenon takes place. As the sun is pulled closer to the horizon the light becomes more directional and the landscape is simplified into shape and form rather than detail and texture, becoming much more suggestive to the mind. In this particular location, the shadows of a lone peak are projected onto the corrie walls behind it, creating an eerie silhouette that can only be equated to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Later that evening, after the sun had set and the twilight had slowly become darkness, I sat in the very same spot under a blanket of glittering stars watching as bioluminescent plankton bloomed in the changing tide. Arran, with its wealth of natural and historic wonders, is one of my favourite places in this world. From the undulating hills, craggy, broken coastal cliffs and agricultural lowlands of the south to the magnificent, sublime and awe inspiring alpine peaks in the north, there are many good reasons as to why the island is fondly known as ‘Scotland in miniature’ - and I love it dearly.

Situated in the north, one of the four gleaming jewels in Arran’s crown is a Corbett named Caisteal Abhail. A mountain that has redefined the way in which I approach my landscape photography. This particular summit boasts one of the greatest mountain landscapes to be found in Scotland and yet, there aren’t very many professional photographs out there. Those images that do exist arrested my imagination, instilling an overarching need to see them for myself. This is because the views are the epitome of mountain grandeur; serrated summit profiles, sprawling ridge lines and vast, crag-lined granite buttresses.

My first venture into the mountains of Arran was supposed to have been an ascent of and summit camp on Caisteal Abhail. I made it to the summit plateau, working my way through deep patches of remnant snow on the upper reaches of the corries, only to discover that the forecast for diminishing winds was way off. I sought refuge from the gale force winds behind one of the large tors on the summit, hoping that they would subside. This didn’t going to happen and with the subzero windchill quickly sapping my body heat I made a snap decision to set up camp for the night.

An attempt to pitch the tent was immediately thwarted and culminated in me having to flee the summit with only 30 minutes of daylight left on the clock and a tent that had been split from top to bottom by the howling winds! In that moment of sheer panic, it appeared that my only salvation would be to come off of the mountains and seek refuge in Glen Rosa, 700 metres below. Thankfully, after dropping 100 or so metres onto Hunters Ridge I entered the leeward side of the hill wherein the wind immediately dropped and I was able to re-pitch what was left of my wind ravaged shelter.

The handful of photographs that I did manage to make on that trip weren’t exactly what I was hoping for, but they did capture the essence of the location and sitting on the ferry back to the mainland with my tail between my legs, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would have to return to that windswept summit.

Watch that video here;

https://youtu.be/7zf7PPNLwWg


THE RETURN | A CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

When the opportunity to revisit the Isle of Arran presented itself I jumped at the chance. The forecasts appeared to be very promising with little to no wind, lots of wispy high-altitude cloud and a particularly dense sea fog or ‘haar’ predicted for the following morning hinting at possible inversion conditions. The only question was if I would return to claim my prize on the summit of Caisteal Abhail or opt for one of the two remaining Corbetts on the island instead. After much deliberation, I decided to follow my heart and return to ‘the castle’. Unfinished business and all that…

Location chosen, I then considered the potential routes to the summit. I didn’t want to simply repeat the process and as with my exploration of the Galloway Hills, it is my aim to build a mental map of the landscapes I frequent. Out came the map - an invaluable piece of kit that allows me to study my routes before ever laying my eyes on them. Speaking with a friend about my plans, he recommended that I try a new route; ascending the mountain via its northern shoulder (Cuithe Mheadhonach) from Coire nan Ceum and descending into Glen Sannox via Cìr Mhòr and the Saddle as my outward route. The route would start from the bridge which leads up through North Sannox, the two glens separated by Caisteal Abhail’s Eastern/North Eastern shoulder comprised of the Witches Step (Ceum na Caillich) and Suidhe Fhearghas. I booked the last remaining ticket for the ferry, packed my gear and I was ready to go.

Rising at 05.30, I made the drive to Ardrossan, picked up my tickets and caught the first sailing to Brodick from Ardrossan. An hour and a bit later, I was standing in the North Sannox car park with the early morning sun beating down on me as I set my GPS to record the route ahead.


THE ASCENT | BREACHING THE CASTLE WALLS

Pushing westwards through a coniferous plantation towards the foot of Sail an Im I was beginning to sweat - not through effort, but because of the heat being projected by the bare sun. Though sparse, a few wee pools of shade offered moments of respite wherein I could appreciate the more intimate details around me; Golden-ringed Dragonflies, with their beautifully vibrant neon green eyes, danced graciously through the blooming heather to a score of crashing waters rising from the gorge below and the dainty calls of two Raptors soaring in the cerulean skies above. The one element within this whimsical scene that I didn’t appreciate though, was the constant hum of flies…

I continued along the trail and out of the forestry and once again, like my first venture, my thumping heart skipped a beat. The rugged landscape is absolutely beautiful and to experience it is a true pleasure - that is, until the flies are emboldened by the scent of sweaty flesh. The midges were first in line, though largely tamed by the strong sunlight. A few brave souls attempted to extract a blood meal, but nothing to worry about in the grand scheme of things. The cleg’s however, are a different story; I stopped by the burn at the foot of Sail an Im to enjoy a draught of cool mountain water, removed my boots to cool off my feet and no sooner had I taken them off, I recoiled in pain. Looking down at my ankle, I found a cleg had pierced through my sock with its saw-like mandibles and was enjoying a refreshment of its own! ‘YA B*STARD!’ I shouted, swatting at the bloated cretin to no avail, it simply detached itself & flew off to tell its pals that lunch had arrived! I didn’t waste much more time, saddling up my rucksack and making my retreat into the heart of Coire nan Ceum via the well defined - though boggy - track alongside a deepening gorge.

Directly ahead lay Caisteal Abhail, filling my eyes with its enormous flanks of ancient granite. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand why this mountain is referred to as the castle, with its vast sweeping corries resembling enormous natural ramparts, colossal tors positioned strategically around the summit alike heavily fortified siege walls and cascading blockades of glittering scree deterring potential assailants from breaching the citadel hundreds of meters above. The boulders that line the corrie rims hang in stasis, as though cast from the ridges in an eternal counter-assault against spectral intruders - it’s quite a scene to behold. No less so when considering potential routes of ascent away from the main paths! The aforementioned tors are reminiscent of those found across the Cairngorms and in the far north, though on Arran they tend to intercept the ridges. The ‘Witches Step’ strikes a menacing profile on the mountains western aspect, an alpine structure which from below seems impossible to traverse without proper climbing and rope work. One day I would like to try my hand at this route, but not today.

Unlike my first ascent, the corries were free of snow and thanks to plenty of very hot and dry days the peaty ground was relatively solid with only a few wee boggy patches here and there. I followed the trail past the first of two inlets before the ground steepened and I found myself overlooking a native tree-lined gully. Suddenly, I noticed movement in the corner of my eye and to my surprise a lone stag stood watching me from just across the river, he must have been dozing in the sun. He took off in a gentle trot across the heather and I let him be, after all, I was in his domain. Giving my wary friend plenty of time to make a retreat, a couple of hundred meters further I came to the second inlet which would serve as a handrail to the foot of Cuithe Mheadhonach - the northern shoulder of Caisteal Abhail and a rather daunting one at first sight from this angle. On the map, the eastern aspect (which I was approaching) is steep and craggy, with little room for navigational error. Its western side - which forms part of the Garbh-Choire (rough corrie) with Sail an Im - appears to be a bit gentler, but where’s the fun in that…?

I forded the North Sannox Burn in order to follow the inlet burn and decided to stop for another break to cool down and study the route now that it was in sight. Though my approach was epic and physically demanding in places with my heavily laden rucksack, it was actually relatively short in terms of distance. I checked my GPS and my average moving speed was between 3.1 and 3.9 km/h - I still had roughly twelve hours of daylight left until sunset, so plenty of time to slow down and just appreciate the experience. A breeze so gentle it could have been wishful thinking kept the midges at bay as I sat on the peaty banks of the burn watching a solitary white-faced darter doing its rounds, moving gracefully to and fro just above the crystalline waters surface. The stag I had seen before was now high in the corrie, traversing the boulder field below Coire Fhearghas and the Witches Step. “If only it was that easy for me” I thought. Having spent a good wee while idling by the burn, I had studied the rim of Cuithe Mheadhonach for any possible gaps in the granite that I could use to gain access to the shoulder.

Fairly confident that I’d found a suitable gap in the defences, I set off alongside the inlet stream wherein the ground steepened as the soggy peat sucked at my boots. This section was off-piste and I was mindful that the small burn would start to thin out closer to the bottom of the cliffs, so I’d have to keep an eye on it for the sake of collecting water for camp. The heat from the sun was now starting to slow me down - I’m very much a colder weather walker - and I think the flies could sense this. As the heather began to thicken below my feet the clegs had returned and were now mobbing me, landing on my bare legs, my supposedly ‘anti-insect’ shirt, on my head, everywhere. Luckily I sustained only one further bite, though this in itself was plenty - these hellish wee creatures pack quite the punch! In a state of flight I gained a second wind and pushed on up over large boulders and through thick heather - “I’d rather have ticks than succumb to the clegs” I spat! Luckily, I wasn’t graced by the presence of any ticks and finally, the clegs began to cease their pursuit.

Certain that I wasn’t being stalked I made a quick scramble over some particularly large boulders and recentred my attention on the water supply. The burn had greatly reduced in terms of volume, so I stopped to fill my reservoir with two litres of crystal clear mountain water and filled my 500ml filter bottle with drinking water; I’d need it after the next section! I continued through the boulder field towards the foot of the cliffs, where I had spotted two scree slopes earlier. These would allow me to scale the steep slopes and slither my way up through a heathery gap in the granite. I took a minute to prepare myself for the upwards battle before committing. Four ravens circled in the skies above me, disturbed by my presence, their distinctive calls reverberating along the cliff faces in a very atmospheric manner. The valkyries await!

One heavy boot after the other, I kicked and compacted steps into the aggregate, which turned out not to be scree, but loose earth from prior landslides. I do like to tastefully embellish a tale, however, in this case it really was steep. Slow progress and a few slips were further draining my already depleted energy levels and I began to feel the slow creep of doubt penetrating my thoughts. I could feel the weight of my pack dragging me backwards as my footholds were becoming less confident and the loose earth slipped with every push upwards. The trekking poles were then clipped to my side and I began to use my hands instead as the dust I was kicking up began to adhere to my sticky skin. I could no longer see the top as the gradient steepened harshly and I had no option but to move upwards - a descent on this stuff would surely end with a sustained tumble to the bottom and amongst the boulders! After losing my grip one too many times, the adrenaline kicked in and I focused on small attack points; a boulder; a patch of exposed heather roots and finally, the top of the landslide wherein I was able to stop and catch my breath after making a sketchy manoeuvre over a small but vertical edge. I looked down and realised how much elevation I’d actually gained, ooft - not far to go now! Thankfully, though the gradient didn’t ease up, I was now in rough heather and I was able to make better progress by gripping handfuls of the stuff. I noticed that there appeared to be a ledge a few meters higher on the face and aimed for that, only to discover it was a path!!! I’d seen no evidence of it on the map, nor was it visible on my ascent. It was fairly distinct though, so it must lead off of the Witches Step (if you know about this, please feel free to enlighten me). Once on this, I realised I was now just below the rim of the corrie and after a couple of minutes I’d broken onto the small plateau where I stopped for an extended break in the shade of a gigantic granite block. Valhalla would have to wait.

I spent a good hour on the crags, relaxing, enjoying the views and rehydrating myself slowly after blowing it out my back end up the face. Checking my thermometer, it read 30° and the air was sticky and still without even a hint of a breeze. The summit of Caisteal Abhail was now directly in front of me to the south, a final steep pull of approximately 200m all that was left of my ascent and yet it was still very early. I could see people walking along the western shoulder towards Sail an Im, noting how small they seemed to be from my vantage point. I stayed for another wee while before setting off towards the summit. This shoulder is broken by two large granite tors and I took my time to explore their magnificent geology with multitudinous layers of slabs and lots of wee spots which could be used for shelter in inclement weather. Reaching the 700m mark I stopped briefly on a ledge bathed in the shadows of another huge crag - a fantastic spot for a bivvy - an older couple passed by without seeing me and I watched as they made their descent back into the corrie, lovely to see. I pushed on once more in the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun, the route notably steepened and I was sweating bullets once again. The rocky ground suddenly gave way to luscious green grass as I neared the final section of my ascent and as I pushed up and over onto the summit plateau, I was amazed at just how abundant the grass was! The path leading to the witches step was now to my left and the main summit tor lay directly in front of me, waiting to be claimed.


ON THE SUMMIT | A SIGH OF RELIEF

Normally once I reach the top of a hill I’ll search for my compositions and get a feel for the location before I visit the summit proper. In this case though, after failing to mount the summit tor because of the snow on my last trip this was my first port of call. From the southern aspect of the hill, the tor seems impenetrable to non-climbers. Thankfully the snow was long gone and I could see the bypass path and from the northern flank a very simple scramble (if you can even call it that) all that was required to mount the granite tor. The elation of completing my ascent was to be short lived however, as I discovered that this castle was haunted. Not by the restless spirits of fallen walkers, but by hordes of bloodthirsty midges. It was going to be a long wait for sunset.

The view from the summit of Caisteal Abhail boasts of one of the best panoramas I have ever laid my eyes upon, with 360 degree views stretching as far as the eyes can see. To the north I could lay my eyes upon Lochranza, Loch Fyne, the lands of Argyll and the extensive mountain landscape that forms the Western Highlands, to the east lay Rothesay, the Kyles of Bute and the lands of Ayrshire, to the south lay my photographic objective; the alpine formology of Goatfell / North Goatfell, Cìr Mhòr, Beinn Tarsuinn, the Firth of Clyde, Ailsa Craig and to the west lay Beinn Bharrain, Glen Iorsa, the Western Isles and the tops of the enigmatic Paps of Jura looming over a thick bank of haar behind Kintyre. The light was very harsh and there was a thick haze all around me, but even with a lack of contrast to make the details pop the views are just stunning. Back to the summit and I could see what looked like the remains of a trig point, now just two bent metal rods poking up out of the surface of the world famous Arran granite. The summit of Caisteal Abhail is a photographers paradise, with a plethora of rugged outcrops offering fantastic opportunities for alternate foregrounds and slightly different angles of the scenes on offer. One could easily spend years refining the same compositions here; though the utmost care must be taken - each outcrop has a sudden drop of hundreds of meters!

Instead of returning to the same composition that I was working with on my first trip on the southern summit, I opted to explore the northern side and found a couple of angles that got the old creative juices flowing. My main considerations were showcasing the mountains and my foregrounds were chosen to simply complement the peaks. With my spots chosen for the night ahead I could finally relax (well, as much as is possible with swathes of midges hungry for a blood meal) and I set up the tent on the lush grasses below the main summit and unpacked my rucksack. I fired up the stove and boiled water for my evening meal; a pot noodle & instant mash combo - perfectly seasoned by hundreds of midges blended into the mix. Who needs iron tablets? Thankfully a wee breeze immobilised them, leaving me in a state of nirvana as I sat on the grass with my wobbly legs outstretched and my back against a wonderfully comfortable boulder. I dozed here for an hour or two, not quite asleep but entirely content, until the shadows began to lengthen and the air began to cool. Time to get to work.


SUNSET | THE TRANSIENCE OF TIME

In the liminal space between golden hour and nautical twilight, I spent those precious moments flittering between two outcrops like a ravenous bat chasing flies. I found myself in some very awkward positions on precarious outcrops as I refined my compositions to suit the light - but I knew my objective and I wasn’t about to start chancing my luck and risk missing the shots I came for. The atmosphere was magical as the sun began to slip behind a bank of haar in the west, the mountain peaks glowing like candles as the darkness crept around their lower flanks. To the west, the sunset was blossoming beautifully with iridescent colours spreading across the hazy skies - I really had to fight the temptation to turn around and focused my attention on the mountains instead. As the shadows of the western peaks slowly nibbled away at the light on Cir Mhor and Goatfell, the vibrant swell of colour bloomed, changing from a rich gold to a burning orange and ultimately into the purest of crimson reds - otherwise known as ‘Alpen-Glow’. Suddenly, the candles were snuffed out and that was that. True beauty in this world is fleeting and the magic of the camera allows us to capture snapshots of natures visage, I’m always in awe of what my little magical box allows me to capture. My overall feeling on that summit was that of being a passenger within the ephemeral macrocosm of nature. I was present, yet I felt ethereal, uncoupled from my physical self - a grey man; a spectre; a shadow that would fade into the sub-light after long summers day, relinquished by the appearance of the stars in the cosmos above.

Sitting on my lofty perch, lost to the beauty of nature, I was released from my meditative state by a sudden intrusion of voices emanating from what appeared to be Glen Sannox, though I couldn’t place them at first. I could have sat on the summit rooted to the spot until the sun rose once again (four or five hours later) and photographed the twinkling stars over the mountains, but I was knackered thanks to the draining effect of climbing steep hills in the intense summer conditions, so I dropped down off of the summit to enjoy a warm drink before slithering into my sleeping bag for a couple of hours of shut eye. With the doors of the tent still open, I could now see two figures on the Witches Step - the source of the voices. I lay there listening to their conversation (a parley of one-upmanship, as is tradition) as they drew closer and closer. “Hello!” I shouted as they passed me by and they must have gotten a fright, because I heard expletives being used before a sheepish “lovely night” was cast in my direction. I chuckled to myself and dozed off in that wonderful twilight afterglow, satisfaction overload. Everything was well with the world.

The Arran Alps V - web.jpg
Alpen Glow on the Arran Alps (Sunset) | theayrshirephotographer.com



SUNRISE | PURE ELEMENTAL BEAUTY

I awoke to shouts emanating from the summit, a sudden, shattering disturbance of the perfect silence; “It’s hard to tell the difference between sunset and sunrise at this time of year!”. The two chaps from last night were making their way down and clearly weren’t aware of how loud they were being (or didn’t care). Somewhat peeved by this apparent belligerence and in a sleep-deprived state of semi-delirium, I opened my tent to say something and my drowsy irritation became a surge of pure exhilaration; a magnificent cloud inversion had materialised beneath my airy perch, a witches cauldron of thick, undulating cloud unfettering the mountain peaks from their primordial foundations. I scrambled frantically to escape the serpentine embrace of my sleeping bag and emerged from the tent into the cool morning air to pull my boots on. I left the tent pinned open to expel any condensation that had built up and set off along the razors edge of a crag to the vantage point I’d found the previous night. That was me for two hours, roosting like a gargoyle upon the grand architecture of some vast cathedral, sat in the wings of a granite amphitheatre as nature conducted its majestic symphony of light and movement for its audience of three. I made exposure after exposure, making sure I had a wide variety of shots with the cloud in different formations as it brimmed the corrie and flowed seamlessly over the cols like vaporous wraiths of eldritch origin.

Once the sun broke free of the atmospheric haze lining the horizon and began its climb into the clear skies above, the dream state returned once more to reality and the light became too harsh for compelling photography. I was released from my position on the crag and with wobbly legs, I slithered back along the razors edge and set about brewing up a celebratory morning coffee. I sat on the grassy plateau and admired the views for a while, dining on porridge bars and supping upon my steaming mug of tar. Rudely interrupted for the second time by the re-emergence of the midges I donned my headnet and set about striking camp. You know the midges are bad when you can actually feel them fluttering against your skin!

The Arran Alps IV - web.jpg
Magnificent Cloud Inversion below the Summits (Sunrise) | theayrshirephotographer.com



THE DESCENT | A CHANGE OF PLANS

Originally, my planned descent consisted of coming down Hunters Ridge off of Caisteal Abhail and reascending the needle-like Cìr Mhòr for its stunning summit vistas, climbing down the eastern aspect onto the ‘saddle’ and dropping down into Glen Sannox to the north. There would be a couple of obstacles to tackle on this route, most notably the steep and craggy down-climb onto the saddle and I didn’t want to risk making any wrong moves in the thick soupy cloud (the following day, Arran Mountain Rescue would be scrambled to assist two climbers from this very spot in similar conditions!) Instead, I opted to utilise the gentle and well marked slopes of Sail an Im; a much shorter day - especially considering I had booked the last ferry, but without the added risk of tumbling a couple of hundred meters or becoming cragfast in the thick clag.

I set off down the rim of the northern corrie towards Creag Dubh, awestruck by the ocean of clouds below me, the going was easy underfoot thanks to the long period of dry weather - but I wasn’t the only one enjoying it. The midges were omnipresent, thousands of the wee blighters having a wee go at nipping me! Thankfully as I reached the crags, I slipped into the cloud and a wonderful breeze meant I was cool and comfortable with no vampiric insects trying their best to desanguinate me. From this point, my descent was a simple case of following a well made mountain path through the fog and my progress was swift, though low visibility made it seem much longer than it was. It was very atmospheric and I was very much appreciating the experience - plus the fact the sun was off of my back. I’ve said it before but walking through heavy clag (especially with snow underfoot) can be a very disorientating experience and it’s all to easy for the mind to start playing tricks on you. Everything seems much further away, recognisable features take on new forms and paths seem to lead into nothingness. Though I was confident in the trail, I made sure to stop and check my positioning utilising co-ordinates provided by GPS coupled with a map and compass. This meant I knew where I was at all times with little room for error.

Sail an Im - framed.jpg
Heading towards Creag Dubh / Sail an Im | theayrshirephotographer.com


I passed through the veil of cloud towards the burn and met an English lassie who looked a bit lost. Offering my assistance, I found out that she’d camped on Sail an Im the previous night and was looking for stockists of midge spray, having been caught out and eaten alive. I gave her some of my own and said my goodbyes, setting off downstream towards the road through North Glen Sannox. The birds were singing and the soothing undertones of tumbling water meant my mind was clear to enjoy the final moments of my walk, well, until I reached the bus stop and was subjected to an assault by millions of militant midges - a sitting duck trapped in the limbo that is waiting for public transport! The minutes seemed to pass like hours as I stood waiting for my lift and its time of arrival came and went. No bus. I managed to endure another ten minutes before giving up. Under the assumption I had a long walk back to Brodick I set off down the road, avoiding the traffic as it roared past me. 500m down the road I heard a loud engine rattling along reminiscent of weary public transportation, I turned round and there it was - the bus! A short while later - after raiding the Co-Op for snacks - I was sat on a bench in Brodick looking out over the sea and enjoying an ice cold drink with my rucksack by my side and my bare feet swinging in the breeze.

Magic! :clap:



our_route.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts


Click to mark this as a great report. Register or Login
free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).



Ups and Downs on the Arran Alps

Attachment(s) Corbetts: Caisteal Abhail, Cìr Mhòr
Date walked: 06/05/2021
Distance: 18.6km
Ascent: 1148m
Comments: 2
Views: 499


Corserine - Landscape Photography & Summit Camp

Corbetts: Corserine
Donalds: Corserine
Date walked: 07/12/2020
Distance: 12.58km
Ascent: 676m
Views: 351

scott_wanstall


Activity: Wanderer
Pub: n/a
Mountain: Goatfell
Place: Arran
Gear: Nikon D600
Member: N/A
Ideal day out: Discovering epic ridges & characteristic summit peaks

Munros: 2
Corbetts: 6
Grahams: 2
Donalds: 13
Sub 2000: 1



Filter reports


Statistics

2021

Trips: 2
Distance: 29.7 km
Ascent: 2160m
Corbetts: 3

2020

Trips: 1
Distance: 12.58 km
Ascent: 676m
Corbetts: 1


Joined: Nov 03, 2020
Last visited: Sep 28, 2021
Total posts: 8 | Search posts