UKC

Classic Scramble - Liathach Traverse, Plus a Bit

© Dan Bailey

How do you improve one of the great ridge traverses of Scotland? With a bonus extra hands-on start, says Dan Bailey.


I don't hold with the idea that you do something once (a hill, say) and then move on. Novelty may be one of the prime movers for getting off the sofa, but some things are so good they bear pretty much endless repetition. Summer or winter, the traverse of Liathach is up there with the best.

Looking for some air on the South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain  © Dan Bailey
Looking for some air on the South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain
© Dan Bailey

On a sunny day Liathach is a joy, pure scrambling entertainment

This improbable hulk of a mountain menaces the miniature cars in Glen Torridon, tier on tier of sandstone layers building to a crest of weathered pinnacles and shattered quartzite peaks a kilometre up. Scooped into a series of deep craggy corries, the harder-to-see north side of the range is even more flamboyantly mountainous. If you like your hills to put on a real show, then you couldn't fail to be drawn to that theatrically jagged skyline. Take on Liathach end-to-end and you'll earn two Munro scalps; but far more than that, it's a hands-on day of the highest drama.

The main act hits you between the two Munros, weaving over or around the famous pinnacles of Am Fasarinen, and while the harder scrambling on beautifully rounded sandstone tends to be optional here, the sense of precarious height certainly isn't. With few feasible lines of escape, it's a committing route too. One of Scotland's great ridge traverses, this benchmark grade 2 scramble gets about as close to mountaineering as many hillwalkers will be comfortable with - perhaps a bit too near for some.

Looking east from Spidean a' Choire Leith. Even the comparatively less exciting bits of the hill are brilliant  © Dan Bailey
Looking east from Spidean a' Choire Leith. Even the comparatively less exciting bits of the hill are brilliant
© Dan Bailey

Sunshine or snow, I can't get enough of it, and seem to find myself doing some variation on Liathach quite frequently. But although it's a prominent and accessible feature, I'd somehow consistently failed to make time for the South Ridge of the western peak, Mullach an Rathain. This is an obvious way to access the main ridge of the massif, but not an option that a great many hillwalkers seem to take, if its generally un-scuffed appearance is anything to go by.

Adding it to a traverse of Liathach increases the hands-on-rock mileage quite considerably, giving you more of a day of it and perhaps even improving what's already one of the best routes at its grade in the country. While working on a recent review of the SMC's latest scrambling guide, a sunny forecast during the July heatwave finally gave me the impetus to find out what I'd been missing.

But as an acclimatised highland incomer I find myself increasingly intolerant of heat, and in a fierce mid day sun the plod out of Glen Torridon felt particularly airless. It's an uncompromising ascent into Toll Ban at the best of times, and with salt in my eyes and a peculiarly light head I was half minded to call it quits and retreat to the nearest cold waterfall. A nagging sense of gear testing duty only narrowly won out.

The pinnacled section of the South Ridge gives some really worthwhile scrambling   © Dan Bailey
The pinnacled section of the South Ridge gives some really worthwhile scrambling
© Dan Bailey

Deviating from the main path, I trended left onto the broad shoulder at the foot of the South Ridge, which forms the western rim of the Toll Ban corrie. From an indistinct start among scrappy outcrops, the ridge curves and narrows into a little toothed crest. Even from a distance this looks fun, and I couldn't understand why I'd barely given it a second glance on the many times I'd have descended Toll Ban over the years. Liathach being a good mountain for unexpectedly long days, especially in winter, I wondered if perhaps it was dark on some of those previous occasions.

Loch Torridon from high on the South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
Loch Torridon from high on the South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Jul 2022

With some entertaining scrambling weaving around a small bouldery pinnacles, the airy upper ridge lived up to its promise, and though some of the interest can be avoided on steep and fairly precarious grass and grot to the flanks, I felt that - as usual with these things - the best fun was direct. On a route that is clearly far less worn than the famous Am Fasarinen traverse to which it leads, there's less of the motorway of paths here, and more suspect rock that might otherwise get stripped off by heavier footfall.

The sense of exposure began to build as Loch Torridon receded below, and the crux, when it came, was a thought-provoking reachy bit right at the top. The South Ridge may get the same grade 2 rating as Am Fasarinen, and objectively that's fair, but it certainly has more of a mountaineering feel. Sadly its brevity is its only real downside, and I was soon cooking in the glare of the scree above, puffing uphill in desperate search of breeze.

On Mullach an Rathain, heading for the ever-fantastic Am Fasarinen  © Dan Bailey
On Mullach an Rathain, heading for the ever-fantastic Am Fasarinen
© Dan Bailey

The summit of Mullach an Rathain brought some badly needed wafts of air. Out across Glen Torridon, the Coulin peaks were a wall holding back a dense mass of cloud, glaring white like an ice cap and smothering pretty much everything to the south. While the occasional fragment calved off and drifted my way, the theme over here looked set to remain blazing. I had again been considering running away on the final sweaty grind to the top, but I'd defy anyone to get this far in calm weather, with hours of light in the bank, and not feel more or less compelled to carry on along the crest.

From here a lovely bit of ridge walking brings you to the best section. No matter how often you've done it the traverse of Am Fasarinen is a joy on a sunny day, pure scrambling entertainment on a series of sandstone towers, as easy or hard as you want to make it, and as spacious as it looks. The rock today was warm to the touch, and thanks to my late start I had the place almost to myself, having already passed a few teams heading for the finish on Mullach an Rathain. Most seem to do Liathach east-to-west, but perhaps the new SMC guide is right that west-to-east makes the best of the hands-on stuff. Either way of course, you won't be left underwhelmed.

Whether this is your first time or your fiftieth, you can't fail to enjoy Am Fasarinen  © Dan Bailey
Whether this is your first time or your fiftieth, you can't fail to enjoy Am Fasarinen
© Dan Bailey

Maybe you don't really feel up to full-on scrambling on the crest? While Am Fasarinen is relatively serious however you choose to cross it, it's rare among ridge scrambles for having a get-out path along the south side that's almost as memorable as the main event on the rocks above. If you've not yet had the pleasure, this devious and airy flanking manoeuvre is well worth seeking out some time, another variation on a varied and endlessly engaging hill.

The pointy-topped Munro of Spidean a' Choire Leith bookends the climactic bit, but there's still plenty more fun to come along the shattered bouldery crests leading on over Liathach's eastern tops. In scenic terms, Liathach puts on a show all the way to the final curtain. All that remains then is to go looking for ice cream.

Would the cloud take the edge off the heat? Not really...  © Dan Bailey
Would the cloud take the edge off the heat? Not really...
© Dan Bailey

The route

Grade: The main ridge of Liathach is technically do-able as a grade 1 scramble, if missing out the most enjoyable scrambling on the crest and using the get-out path on the south flank of the Fasarinen Pinnacles. This is exposed and fairly serious in its own right. If taking the pinnacles more or less direct, there's often still a choice of line at various degrees of difficulty and exposure - grade 2 overall. The entirely optional start up the South Ridge of Mullach an Rathain is a harder and more serious grade 2 route, less travelled than the main ridge, more prone to loose rock, and better suited to more experienced scramblers.

Start/finish: Verge parking just east of Torridon village at the bottom of the Toll Ban path (NG920556)

Summits:

Liathach - Spidean a' Choire Leith

Mullach an Rathain - Liathach

Maps: OS Landranger (1:50,000) 25; Harvey Mountain Map (1:40,000) Torridon & Fisherfield; Harvey Superwalker (1:25,000) Torridon

Guidebooks:

Highland Scrambles North (SMC)

Scotland's Mountain Ridges (Cicerone)

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I did this in the wind and rain about 10 years ago. Was meant to be winter climbing but weather was so awful it stripped everything so went scrambling instead!

Due to the wet and windy conditions, this start was more fun and less scary than the ridge itself 😱

8 Aug

A great day out. The actual pinnacles re a little bit contrived ie they can be by-passed just about anywhere. but the main bypass path actually looks quite scary!

9 Aug

We did this loop last summer, but moving anti-clockwise and continued on due east to extend the running by an extra couple of km, finishing at the car park for Ben Aliginn. Could really do with a path for the final boggy section to the road!!!

9 Aug

Makes me think, is it really contrived if it seems just about as easy (at least not as worrying..) to go over the pinnacles than around them?

9 Aug

Also always thought An Teallach was definitely contrived as the natural line seems to miss most of the rock.

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