Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Ben Sgritheall - The long walk in

There's much to be said for a long walk in to a mountain. It provides a gradual transition as you leave the civilised world behind and slowly become emersed in a wilder world. And when you get to the top of your peak there's a greater sense of achievement as you've put in more effort to get there. I access most of my mountains by buses and trains so I often have a longer walk in than most people and have to be quite creative about route planning as well. But there's challenge and satisfaction in that.

Anyway, this long preamble about long walks in is leading in a roundabout way to telling you about my climb up Ben Sgritheall which involved a very long walk in. Ben Sgritheall is a solitary Munro on the southside of the wild and beautiful Glenelg peninsula. It's steep slopes rise straight from the sea above the isolated village of Arnisdale which is where most people start climbing it. I don't think many people climb it from the far more distant village of Shiel Bridge to the north but that's exactly where Bart and I set out from.

The morning was grey and cool with lots of low cloud but the forecast had promised sunny skies by late afternoon. We set out on a lovely path that initially followed the waters of the Allt Undalain as they tumbled through spring beech and birch, and then climbed over a small pass. Bart mentioned here that he felt like he was back in his much-loved Alps. Something to do with the zig-zagging steep climb, the high mountains all around and the cows! On the other side of the pass we ate an early lunch out of the wind at the cute little bothy of Suardalan. It occupied an idyllic spot on a swathe of lush, green pasture in the midst of a rough and rugged landscape. We'd walked quite a long way here already over some rough, boggy terrain and it felt wild and remote. We peered out of the bothy door but ahead Ben Sgritheall was still in cloud. After another hour of walking we pitched the tent on the edge of forestry beside the river, drank coffee and watched the weather.

Eventually the cloud started to lift and the scree slopes of our hill started to reveal themselves. We threw lighter packs on our backs and set out again. It was still a long walk from here but by late afternoon the cloud had cleared and the sun was bathing the hills in a warm, golden glow. We picked our way up what felt like the secret side of the mountain, crossed the big, grassy coire and pulled our way up the bouldery back wall to gain the narrow summit ridge.

What a place it was to be in the early evening sunshine. The hills of Knoydart were dark and broody across the waters of  the sea loch, Loch Hourn, which was a subtle aquamarine where the shallows caught the sun. The mountain's slopes plummeted to Arnisdale far below which looked like a collection of Monopoly houses. And to the west the hazy Isle of Skye floated in a sea that shimmered silver in the sinking sun. How lucky we had been that the long walk in had put us on the top of the mountain late in the day when the light was so beautiful and there was nobody else around.

We sat a while on the top, soaking up the moment. It was difficult to leave, to not sit there forever. But eventually we turned round to make our way back down and it was then that I remembered the true meaning of a long walk in ... which is ... it's a long walk out.

Fact file
Start/finish: Shiel Bridge where the Fort William to Skye buses drop off and pick up. Several services per day.
Map: OS Landranger 33
Route: A path leaves Shiel Bridge between the campsite and the river and can be accessed from the parking area in front of the campsite behind the petrol station. It's a good path as it follows the Allt Undalain and then climbs to the bealach but on the other side it's rougher and very boggy as it crosses the moor to the ruin at Bealachasan, a charming wee spot retaining its chimney stack and iron bedstead. From the ruin follow the path as it crosses the stream and there is soon a gate through the deer fence. Follow the deer fence down to the forest track that starts at grid ref NG895173. Follow the  track and at the first junction turn left. Immediately after the bridge take the small footpath that starts to the right and follow it (vague and boggy in places) to the bothy at Suardalan. From the bothy take the path that heads southwest which becomes a track. Ignore the path to the left to Kinlochourn then cross the bridge at grid ref NG866158. We camped near here at Strath a' Chomair beside the river. A track that becomes a path heads southwest from here following the Allt Strath a' Chomair. It peters out as you cross the river and walk through the forestry ahead. Continue southwest ascending into Coire Dubh and Coire Min. From Coire Min head up the bouldery back wall of the coire aiming for the lowest part of the ridge. Once on the ridge there is a clear path and follow it west to the top. It becomes very narrow at one short section with a tricky step. We returned by the same route.

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