Stuc a' Choire Dhuibh Bhig - 915m
Stob a' Choire Liath Mhor - 983m
Spidean a' Choire Leith - 1055m
Am Fasarinen - 927m
Mullach an Rathain - 1023m
Saturday 1st October 2011
Weather/Conditions: Cloudy calm weather. Mist moved on and off the mountain all day, then set in on the last summit. Rain came in right at the end.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 9.5km / 1450m / 6h 15m
Accompanying: Bealach M. C. - Dougie, Craig, Tommy, Struan
Over the course of 2011, I seem to have experienced a big change in my attitude to the big, bad and dangerous hills. I used to approach the exposed great ridges and think I hope it isn't too frightening. I seem to have gained a confidence which has switched the attitude to I can't wait to get on and see this! I've amazed myself how easy everything is when you just don't worry.
Liathach is one of the greatest of Scottish mountains, and I hold it in immense respect. I saw it up close for the first time in April of this year during a warm, sunny weekend: perfect weather. That same afternoon as we descended from Beinn Alligin, the entire western side of the mountain went up in flames. As the windy, dry weather continued for days, it took a long time before the flames were extinguished. Liathach still bears the scars.
On this October weekend, the best of the weather was forecast for the Saturday so we decided to have a go at this 'Grey One'. We drove from Glen Carron to Torridon in Struan's car, with Mogwai on the music as the mountains unfolded one by one. Liathach came into view around a corner. Liathach isn't just there, it sits silently glowering. For a while it wasn't lifeless rock, more like a sleeping giant - dormant, resting... Torridon has this odd effect. Hairs stood on end.
Munro #1 - Spidean a' Choire Leith
We parked up among all the other cars who has the same idea as us. The path climbs straight up onto the hill, unrelenting until it tops out at just under three-thousand feet. Pinnacles moved in and out of the mist and the way above looked steep. There must be a way - this is so popular, and nobody has problems here. Slowly we worked it out - at about 2500 feet, the path starts traversing to avoid the cliffs, and lines of people picked out our route. Even then, there are a couple of sections where you get to put hand-to-rock, looking over your shoulder as the mountain falls back to the glen below. It's sensational from the outset.
Liathach is of course a mountain of constant interest - Struan and I scrambled up onto the ridge crest and all of Torridon opened up to Loch Maree. We climbed onto Stuc a' Choire Dhuibh Bhig for the classic Liathach view. The clouds closed in, although not before I'd got a couple of shots. We continued onward to the first Munro, Spidean a' Choire Leith which is the highest of the Torridon Munros.
It's perfect symmetrical quartzite cap has always caught me, the way it's edge peters out to horizontal then plunges in sandstone terraces to the valley with terrifying steepness. It's a mountain of dreams - or nightmares, depending on your mood.
But interestingly, I found that this side of the mountain is not bad in terms of exposure - it is simply a stony ridge walk, albeit with a slightly steeper climb onto Stob a' Choire Liath Mhor. (Liathach also has some long names on it's ridge) With cloud rolling over Liathach periodically, we continued the final way to Spidean a' Choire Leith, the place where we would first see Am Fasarinen, the infamous pinnacles.
Perhaps Liathach was built up to be so much more in my mind, that when those pinnacles burst into view, they were smaller than I'd anticipated. We took a break on top - not a warm place, but not bad for October - and I changed from sandals into boots. I thought the extra grip might be appreciated for the pinnacles. After fifteen minutes on top, we continued downward towards the great pinnacles of Liathach, the epicentre of the Torridonian mountains.
The mist rolled in and we saw just fleeting glimpses into the valleys, but the scrambling was excellent. And the hill was busy, too. I hadn't expected queues to form on the bottlenecks. Struan, Craig and I split from Dougie and Tommy, who took the bypass. A couple of sections of the ridge were exposed, but I never felt in danger. Fear never clocked into it, not once. There was one awkward down climbing step where had to change my hands, but it lacked the incredible exposure of other sections.
Maybe the mist had something to do with my confidence? Eventually, Struan and I went off ahead and scrambled or jogged the crest. Where there were bottlenecks, we scrambled up the rock and grass to the side of the path. I couldn't understand my confidence, but I wasn't complaining either.
The final pinnacle had a nice step about 15 feet high. There's probably a lot of exposure to the left hand side, although we couldn't see a thing. A lot of people were about and we took care not to drop rocks. Soon after, we walked up to the cairn which marked the end of the ridge, and here I met Jim Sutherland - a local guide who I'd done Alligin with in April. Although I'd known he was guiding Liathach, to see him on the hill was a really cool surprise.
Munro #2 - Mullach an Rathain and Descent
We walked up easy slopes to the second Munro, Mullach an Rathain. There seem to be impressive cliffs to the north, the terrain was easy; the path wide. Not that we could see much - the cloud was really coming in. Struan, Craig and I walked up to the summit where a little quartzite cairn marked the top. Jim's team made it up at about the same time and we were chatting for a couple of minutes when Craig and Struan said they were heading off. I would catch them up in a minute. They disappeared into the mist.
I packed up, said bye to Jim and started walking. I reached a cairn where the path turned down into the corrie back to Glen Torridon. I went that way, expecting to see Craig and Struan any moment soon - nope. I went a bit further each time, only to find they weren't there. Before I knew it, I'd descended a few hundred feet and decided to carry on. I'd sort myself out.
Where had they gone? I never found out while I was still on the mountain, so I spent the walk down wondering what to do. Maybe I should have stayed up high? But rationalised: I was safe, they had all the navigation to get themselves off. I wondered if they had gone onto the west ridge, and I thought this would be such an obvious mistake that surely they wouldn't have? Maybe they were looking back at the summit for me?
Just go down...
So I took my time, weaving through the rock outcrops. I stopped at some points to climb on the crags. In many areas, the May fire had burned the ground and now fresh blades of grass grew through charred and blackened soil. I found a burnt belay device below one crag. Must've been there a while... And I continued slowly downward as the first rain swept through the glen. It didn't seem to take long to get down.
Back at the glen, there was no sign of anyone of my group. Now the midges were out, so a guy from the Torridon walking festival (which explained the crowds on the ridge) offered for me to take refuge in his jeep. Eventually he had to give groups a lift back to Torridon, so I left him to it and stood outside with the midges for company again.
Eventually the group arrived (obviously). In the end, Craig and Struan had missed the turn-off just beyond Mullach an Rathain summit and had strayed onto the west ridge. When they realised their mistake (a kilometre or two west, apparently), they backtracked to the summit, where I wasn't to be found. Dougie and Tommy had the same problem as the rest of us, wondering whether who was where, but we all made it down in the end. When I saw Struan running down that hillside (and he wasn't hard to spot at that speed), I was pretty relieved.
To finish off, and with weather and darkness closing in, we went for drinks at the pub where the walking festival guides, (Jim included) were in residence. Torridon isn't a big place but seeing the same the same faces over and over again had me wondering if this was meant!
Spidean a' Choire Leith
(0.00) 9.15am Lay-by
(1.40) 10.55am Stuc a' Choire Dhuibh Bhig
(2.30) 11.45am Stob a' Choire Liath Mhor
(2.50) 12.05pm Spidean a' Choire Leith
(3.45) 1.00pm Am Fasarinen
(4.30) 1.45pm Mullach an Rathain
(6.15) c. 3.30pm Glen Torridon