Long distance fiend John Fleetwood describes an epic circuit of all the big peaks in Torridon and the Coulin Forest - a compelling challenge for hill runners who like long routes spiced with scrambling, or hardened backpackers looking to test themselves over a few days on some of Scotland's toughest hills.
The sandstone and quartzite towers of the Torridon peaks form one of the most spectacular mountain areas in Britain, and the mighty triumvirate of Liathach, Beinn Alligin and Beinn Eighe has long formed a classic big day out. Yet I could find no record of a longer round also taking in the peaks to the south of the glen - so the die was cast.
72km, 7270m ascent, 33 hours 45 mins
The statistics aren't that impressive, but this belies the steepness and roughness of the ground, that builds in a total of eight scrambles - the Liathach traverse (2), Tom na Gruagaich shoulder (1), Beinn Alligin traverse (1), Beinn Dearg (3), Ling Lawson and Glover's Route (2), Coinneach Mhor (2), Maol Chean Dearg North Flank (1/2), and the An Ruadh Stac slabs (1/2).
Having found a willing accomplice in my friend Richard Hartfield, the late May Bank Holiday formed a suitable window of opportunity. However, opportunity, fitness and weather don't always coincide, and in this case fitness was the issue. During the preceding week I was plagued by headaches, lack of sleep and consequent lethargy; the headaches accompanied me all the way on the long drive North. Safe to say, I was not in the finest of fettle the next morning after yet another broken sleep, but at least the headaches had dissipated and in the words of Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad.
These night-time perambulations are timeless - groundhog nights of going up the down escalator. But eventually the last summit is reached, and we descend to the delights of our food stash
After a leisurely coffee at the community centre cafe, we trot up the road at just before 11am on a warmish still day of intermittent sunny intervals. It doesn't take long for the travails of the preceding week to catch up with me - by the second half of the steep grind up Liathach I am feeling nauseous and weak. This is somewhat concerning at such an early stage as I know full well what this means for such a venture. Still, it's a fine day, we have no time limit and we have come a long way - onwards and upwards.
The ridge is busy to the first Munro, then we are left alone to trot over the roller-coaster. At Mullach an Rathain our day is just beginning, but for for those we had passed, the twinkling sea will beckon them down to an early finish. The long ridge over the shoulder of Sgor a' Chadail degenerates to a sea of tussocks in its lower part, reaching a climax in the woods at the bottom where man-eating clumps of grass and bog lie in wait.
Wobbly legs emerge onto the sanctuary of the road, only to be pressed once more into action on the stiff climb from sea level to the heights of Beinn Alligin. For me, this is a toilsome, nauseous ascent in the warmth of the sun, relief finally coming in the form of a broken scramble up the rocks of Tom Na Gruagaich's shoulder. However, once on the ridge the great gash of Eag Dhubh and the tongue of boulders at its foot distracts attention from my physical travails. Meanwhile Richard seems in good form and managing admirably with what is his first experience of a long round.
The late afternoon sun intensifies on the clamber up Beinn Dearg, with an enjoyable pull up the series of boulder problems that form one of the more continuous ribs of rock that descend from the wedge-shaped peak. Even if the omnipresent nausea, delicate stomach, never-ending hiccups and fatigue take the edge off the experience, I am still glad to be in this place, riding the roller-coaster of raised seabeds that stand proud above the current ocean.
The haze of the day begins to fade as the richness of the evening light grows. This is a wild place of lochan, boulder, heather and slab; all experienced against the backdrop of Liathach's sweeping northern corries. As we walk, I recount tales of being blown over on the approach to Coire Mhic Fhearchair on a fierce winter's day, but on this day all is calm, benevolent and humming with life. The vibrant outflow from the coire hints of the grandeur above. Foolishly we neglected to fill out empty water bottles having heard the noise of a stream above. To our dismay this proves to be illusory - a deception of echoing rock walls bouncing the sound from below - and not wanting to descend we consign ourselves to a dry traverse of Beinn Eighe's high ridges.
Our chosen route is up the flank of Sail Mhor, an uncompromisingly steep bastion that forms the southern wing of Coire Mhic Fhearchair. The name of the scramble has a certain Victorian ring to it - Lawson, Ling and Glover's Route - and there is no doubting the Victorian qualities of the approach which consists of highly unstable scree perched at an uncompromisingly steep angle. The impending headwall looms forbiddingly ahead, but we made an escape to the right on slippery grass and rocks until terra firma is reached on the ridge. Glad not to have killed each other with falling rocks, a joyous ascent of sun-warmed sandstone can be made up little towers that form a fine arete. At its foot lies a promontory of rock affording a spectacular vista of Flowerdale Forest, as shafts of late evening sunlight cast an ethereal spotlight on the myriad of lochans and rocky knolls. Moments like this are transitory, but for me they are the essence of long days out, distilling the long grinding hours into a moment of brilliance - diamonds formed from the coal of the day.
Yet we are soon rewarded with another such diamond as the setting sun lights up the barrel chested front of Beinn Eighe's Triple Buttresses; first yellow, then ochre and finally a deep crimson red; whilst to the south, the wall of mountain that is Liathach is similarly aflame. It's as if we are moving through a canvas, a one-night-only masterpiece which we can only observe. We have done nothing to create this, nothing to initiate it, nothing to cause it. The absence of people further contributes to an overwhelming feeling of privilege, thankfulness and awe in the presence of such raw beauty. And although the climax on the sunset passes, the afterglow persists, the white quartzite picking up the last remnants of light until the slow but inevitable onset of night takes hold.
We don torches to pick our way along the ridge, mouths dry and parched, poles clattering on the skittering scree. Richard is a little dismayed to learn that our course is set over two more summits, but we plod steadily away, lost in our own little worlds. The silence is only broken by the clicketty clack of the poles, the scrunching of the screes beneath our feet and the explosion of hiccups that continue to plague me. These night-time perambulations are timeless - groundhog nights of going up the down escalator - but eventually the top of the escalator is reached and time moves on. The last summit is reached and we can descend to the delights that await at our food stash.
But before we do, we must descend the Jenga pile that is Beinn Eighe. The characteristic quartzite screes are well seen from the road and whilst they make a photogenic panorama, they don't make a comfortable descent. However, some things are so bad, they're good, and the ridiculous crashing down the flowing stream of rocks in a pool of light amidst the darkness is one such experience. We reach the sanctuary of a tongue of grass where a stream of water sates our overwhelming thirst. From here it is a knee jarring descent over rough ground to the gloriously even road.
As we approach the summit rocks, we emerge from the fog to the transcendent scene of a glowing orb rising above the horizon to paint the sky crimson
At 1:50 am we find our treasure buried in a carefully chosen gorse bush and sit stupefied as the stove roars into action. My pervasive nausea just won't go away, so I am limited in what I can stomach. The tinned pears go down a treat as does the coffee, although neither of us can face the rice pudding. I debate leaving the extra sandwiches but am persuaded to take them, a decision for which I am later very grateful. I lie prostrate on the hard surface of the car park, escaping the struggle for a precious forty winks. Mercifully the midges are absent, allowing an undisturbed break.
We are just over half way round and the decision for both of us is to continue. Despite a painful knee, Richard is keen to give it a go and I resolve to slog it out. The food cache is duly reburied and we set forth along the large track alongside Loch Clair. The good track makes for steady progress, but dawn is a rather grey affair as mist clings to the upper slopes. We pick our way up little crags amidst the heather, silenced by the nausea and fatigue of the wee hours. The dullness within is matched by the dullness without, where mist smothers the broad slopes of Sgurr Dubh. Then, in a trice, everything is transformed. As we approach the summit rocks, we emerge from the fog to the transcendent scene of a glowing orb rising above the horizon to paint the sky crimson, and as the orb ascends, the blanket of fog is royally lit. The sun hits us on the very top, Richard's face shining orange with the Alpenglow. Our persistence has been rewarded by this moment of brilliance, but the moment fades as the sun retreats into a thick bank of cloud and all is ordinary once more.
Legs feel leaden and poles serve to prop us up as we amble over the complex ground to Sgor nan Lochan Uaine. This is an intimate land of lochans, crags and slabs, through which we weave a wiggly line. Brief naps punctuate the effort-laden plodding over Beinn Liath Mor and beyond to Sgurr Ruadh. By now, the head is a little muddled by fatigue and the chirruping of the birds is echoed by my constant hiccuping. We leave our sacks for the out-and-back to the summit of Sgurr Ruadh, providing welcome relief for the shoulders and resulting in a noticeable increase in pace.
Back at the sacks Richard makes the surprise announcement that he is going to cut the round short due to pain in his knee. I give him my knee support but don't argue. A delightful stalker's path wends its way round the hillside to the bottom of Maol Chean Dearg, and the sun makes a re-appearance to add to the good cheer. I fluctuate between times of perkiness and overwhelming bouts of tiredness, one of which overcomes me toward the end of the stalker's track. I've just been resurrected from my slumbers, when, to my astonishment, Richard re-appears. It transpires that he too has been resurrected - in his case by the knee bandage and growing confidence in his knee.
The decision to abandon is reversed and we plod up the forbiddingly steep grass slopes leading to the final scramble. In Richard's words we are 'too tired to scramble' but we do scramble, albeit tentatively and gently. We encounter Munro baggers on the bald summit and several more on the trade route down.
Once more, sacks are left for the scramble up the cone of An Ruadh Stac with its screes and extensive slabs. Another stalker's path takes us toward the final hill, then rough ground seems to freeze time as we inch toward our goal. The way up is long, trackless and rough, but the end is in sight and we are in automaton mode. After a rest on the summit of Beinn Damph we pick up the good track that leads inexorably down to the beauty of the lower Caledonian forest. Only the final two kilometres of road remains, with a pleasant sea breeze keeping the midges at bay. At 8:40pm we can finally stop, but the midges ensure that any celebrations are deferred. Food and sleep are the only things on our mind as we dive inside our tents to enter the blissful land of nod.
Start/finish: Torridon Countryside Centre Car Park, Grid Ref NG 905 557
Total ascent: 7270m
Time: 1 – 5 days
Maps: Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Torridon & Fisherfield; OS Landranger 19, 24 and 25 (1:50,000)
Guidebooks: Highland Scrambles North (SMC); The Munros (SMC); The Corbetts (SMC); Great Mountain Days in Scotland (Cicerone)
Scrambles on the route: Liathach Traverse (Grade 2); SE shoulder of Tom na Gruagaich (Grade 1); Beinn Alligin traverse (Grade 1); Beinn Dearg SW Rib (Grade 3); Ling, Lawson and Glovers Route (Grade 2), Coinneach Mhor West Ridge (Grade 1-2), Maol Chean Dearg Northern Flank) (Grade 1-2), An Ruadh Stac Slabs (Grade 1).
Terrain: Aside form the many hands-on sections, the ascents and descents are brutal at times, and although there are good paths on sections of the main summits, the terrain is rocky, broken and difficult. The linking routes between some of the mountains are trackless, boggy and energy sapping. The final descent from Liathach to the road bridge crossing Abhainn Coire Mhic Noibuill is frustratingly rough with ankle twisting tussocks. The scree descent from Sgurr nan Fhir Duibhe is exceptionally loose and steep, although grass runnels can be picked up after the first 200m of descent.
Overnight options: Campsite and youth hostel at the start (Torridon village). Other than that, wild camping is the only possibility. Options may be limited on the northern half of the round, but they're practically limitless in Coulin. Some of the best possible sites include Loch nan Cabar and Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Loch Clair, any one of the myriad lochans leading up to Sgor nan Lochain Uaine, the lochan at the head of Coire Lair, and the lochans beneath An Ruadh Stac.
Seasonal notes: In winter conditions the round poses a serious proposition involving winter mountaineering up to grade II, especially on the traverse of Liathach. In such conditions, the round will prove exceptionally arduous and require considerable experience and fortitude, as well as the ability to assess avalanche risk.
Route variants: There are multiple alternatives and sections can be avoided or added as time or energy dictates:
- Stuc a Duibhe Bhig – the Eastern top of Liathach can be added by a short there-and-back.
- Am Fasarinen – Liathach's pinnacles can be avoided by an exposed path to their left (south).
- Tom na Gruagaich – the normal path ascends the coire and can be taken instead of the scramble up the shoulder.
- Beinn Dearg – A direct route can be taken to the summit rather than following the line of the scramble.
- Beinn Eighe – Ruadh Stac Mhor can be approached by walking to the head of Coire Mhic Fhearchair instead of scrambling up Ling, Lawson and Glover's Route. Alternatively a very steep ascent can be made up Morrison's Gully, the first big gully on the right before reaching the corrie. The scree descent from Sgurr nan Fhir Duibhe to Loch Clair is very steep and unstable. A much more pleasant (and easier) route would be to take the normal path into Coire an Laoigh and walk up the road. This would of course miss out the final section of the Beinn Eighe ridge.
- Sgurr Ruadh – the out-and-back could be omitted but it's a nice path and a good summit.
- Maol Chean Dearg – this summit could be circumvented by continuing on the stalker's track to Loch Coire Fionnaraich and climbing back up to the Bealach a Choire Ghairbh.
- An Ruadh Stac – this is an out-and-back and could be missed out entirely, which would be a shame as it affords some fine slab scrambling.
- Beinn Damh – If you've had enough and can't face the stiff climb up the last mountain, cross the moor to the Drochaid Coire Roill and pick up the stalkers track down to the road.
Public transport: Pretty much non-existent! The nearest train station is at Achnashellach, from which a 20km hill walk is required to reach Torridon.
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