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Munros - the Awkward Ones

ASK most baggers what the most difficult Munro ascents are and nine out of ten will categorically claim they are the summits of the Skye Cuillin – especially the notorious Inaccessible Pinnacle, the finger of rock that points to the heavens from Sgurr Dearg.

While the In Pinn will certainly pose a technical challenge to any Munro bagger who doesn’t rock climb it isn’t usually the technical routes that cause problems. More often it’s on those more moderate walks that we tend to take for granted that circumstances collude to create all kinds of difficulties. Take, for example, Laggan’s Geal Charn.

This rounded hill suffers the reputation as one of most the boring Munros – not my words I should point out as I don’t find any hill ‘boring’, but there is a general consensus amongst baggers that Geal Charn isn’t the most exciting of ascents. Indeed, one well know guidebook suggests you “climb it as a quick excursion from the road.” By their very nature time-saving Munro raids are often unmemorable affairs anywhere and I would contend that any hill, given the courtesy of your time and attention, will display its potential. Aye, even Laggan’s Geal Charn…

My pal John Hood had previously climbed Geal Charn by its more popular western route, from Garva Bridge and the Allt Coire nan Dearcag, but I managed to convince him that a long snow plod up Glen Markie to the east of the hill could well bring its rewards. I’ve always found this route to be a more interesting walk than the ‘trade route’ from Garva Bridge. It follows an ancient drove road up the glen for about two and half miles before crossing the Markie Burn and climbing up into Geal Charn’s redeeming feature, the grand cliff-girt corrie that lies above Lochan a’ Choire, a corrie that you don’t even see from the standard route.

Our original intention was to climb the slopes north of the lochan and so avoid the crags that form the corrie walls. We would then head south-west across the plateau summit slopes to the cairn, returning to lower Glen Markie by the south slopes of Geal Charn’s neighbour, Beinn Sgiath.

That was our plan, but the best laid plans aft gang awry! As we crossed the iced-up flow of the Markie Burn the steep east prow of Beinn Sgiath reared up above us, steepening out in its final hundred feet or so into what looked like a good sporting snow climb and we were immediately beguiled by the mountain’s glistening raiment into something rather more challenging. We’d had enough of snow plodding – it was time to use our ice axes in earnest!

The snow was initially deep and unconsolidated but various rocky outcrops gave us easier passage. Above us great flows of green ice hung from the rocks, eventually forcing us back onto the unconsolidated snow again. As we reached the topmost section, just below a thirty foot wall of snow formed by a cornice, we suddenly realised we had reached a point of no return.

Neither of us wanted to down-climb the icy rocks but the potential for a safe upwards ascent depended very much on how solid the cornice above us was. If it was soft and unconsolidated we could be in trouble. A fall from here, over steep and rocky ground, could be serious.

A short traverse led to the foot of the cornice and I managed to ease my way across to it, virtually hanging from my ice axe that I had hammered into a patch of frozen turf. With the toes of my boots on a couple of rocky niches I gently eased the ice axe from the turf and swung it into the snow above. The solid thud as it planted into the snow was incredibly reassuring and moments later I was kicking my way up and over the slightly overhanging cornice onto the plateau above. I noticed I was shaking slightly!

I was relieved when John’s ice axe appeared over the cornice rim and whammed into the snow beside me. “So much for your sporting route,” he muttered darkly as he hauled himself over the edge.

Tension now replaced by adrenaline we fairly motored across Beinn Sgiath and onto Geal Charn’s broad plateau and the summit cairn. We felt like giants! It was as we waded through knee-deep snow on our descent that I recalled something Hamish Brown had once written: “You cannot exhaust the potential of even the dullest hills in Scotland.”

Another apparently ‘dull’ hill is Meall Dubhag which stands in domed anonymity above Glen Feshie on the edge of the Moine Mhor. Summits hereabouts tend to be mild protuberances in the flow of the moorland plateau and it was probably for this very reason that Meall Dubhag was eliminated from the Munro list back in the 1970’s. When I first climbed it it was still in the Tables, but it came very close to being my final Munro.

I approached the hill on a dark and dour day Hogmanay after a week of Yuletide festivities. To say I wasn’t in particularly good fettle would be an understatement. I trudged up the old Foxhunter’s Path from Achlean to the dip just south of Carn Ban Mor, which was also a Munro at the time. As I turned south to wander up the easy slopes of Meall Dubhag I became aware of a veil of cloud that was rolling towards me over the undulations of the Moine Mhor.

I had never experienced anything quite like, and haven’t since – I could see the storm approach me and there was little I could do about it other than turn my back and run. When it hit me it came with such violent fury that I was almost knocked over.

Within seconds I was blinded by wind blown spindrift. I couldn’t see, the spindrift was going up my nose and into my mouth and I realised that the only way I could escape the blinding blizzard was to crawl as close to the ground as possible. So began what was to become a long crouched walk, often on my knees, trying for the life of me to follow a compass bearing at the same time.

I kept a bearing on the summit simply because it gave me something solid to aim for. If I turn-tailed then there was nothing but a flat, anonymous, snow covered moorland.

This was the first of only a very few occasions in a long hillwalking career that I thought I was going to die in the mountains. I crawled and half-stumbled for a good forty minutes or so before the dim shape of an ice-encrusted cairn eventually came into view. The relief was immense and I almost cried. I could now take a proper bearing and head virtually due west, downhill all the way into the safety of Glen Feshie. Thirty minutes later I stumbled out below the cloud and while the wind was still intent on knocking me over I could finally see where I was going. It was the hardest Munro I’d climbed, but at least it cleared my Hogmanay head!

Some Munros tend to be more awkward than difficult, particularly those out and back affairs that we so often leave for another day. Two of them stand out in my memory because I eventually had to make special efforts to climb them when I was “tidying up” the remaining Munros on my first round.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh sits in isolated splendor above the south shores of lonely Loch Mullaroch and it’s cairn lies 2.5 km north of Carn Eighe. The latter is most usually climbed along with Mam Sodhail from Glen Affric in the south or from Gleann nam Fiadh in the east. However you climb them Beinn Fhionnlaidh lies out on her limb, with a descent and re-scent of about 350m in both directions, as if to taunt you. It’s so, so easy to leave that long out-and-back for another day, citing any number of reasons that come to mind – the weather, tiredness, lack of time or just honest-to-goodness procrastination!

It took me three rounds of Carn Eighe and Mam Sodhail before I eventually conquered this procrastination and climbed the hill. On two occasions I was with others who didn’t happen to be Munro-baggers and couldn’t understand why I wanted to climb a hill that was way out on a limb, and on the other occasion the weather was so bad I just wanted to get down and off the hill as quickly as possible. I eventually climbed it as part of a big three-day round climbing all the hills that circle Loch Mullardoch.

And it was on that backpacking trip that I climbed the other infamous out-and-back – Mullach na Dheiragain, the north-east Munro top of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. The main Munro is remote enough, rising steeply between Glen Affric and the western end of Mullardoch, but the out-and-back to the Mullach puts Beinn Fhionnlaidh into the shade. That long ridge rolls on for about 7km into the West Benula Forest with the Munro summit about half-way along. It’s enough to make you consider climbing it from Iron Lodge in the north-east, but that would necessitate a long bike ride from the road-end at Kililan before you even started climbing the hill!

Backpacking has been my savior on so many multi-Munro sorties, especially on subsequent Munro rounds. I had learned valuable lessons after my first Munro round and it was as I became older and a tad wiser that I realised the value of multi-day trips taking in big ranges like the Mullardoch Munros; the Cairngorms; the Grey Corries, the Aonachs and the Mamores on a big round from Ben Nevis; the south Glen Shiel ridge and the Sisters of Kintail ridge; and the Ben Lawers summits.

As my first couple of tales illustrate, relatively straightforward Munros can often take on a completely new character in winter conditions. I soon realized this on a visit to the three Munros that lie above above Loch Cluanie in Kintail - Carn Ghluasaid, Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Sail Chaorainn. The first two tops were climbed without mishap but the ridge between the latter two was heavily snowed up and corniced on either side, just like a thin sliver of Alpine arête. I tip-toed along carefully but I was sending down huge slabs of snow on either side of the ridge. The snow was soft and deep and I certainly didn’t like the way it broke off in huge slabs. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable I eventually gave up, descended deeply down towards the Allt na Ciche to where the snow cover looked less avalanche prone and then climbed up again more or less directly to the summit. Then I had to do the whole thing in reverse. I was a weary Munro-bagger by the time I got back to the car.

But what of that notorious In Pinn on the Skye Cuillin? Just how hard, or awkward is it? My introduction to it was at the age of 16, but then I was safely cosseted between two outdoor instructors from Glenmore Lodge. Some thirty years later, I had a small group of friends relying on my skill and cosseting.

We had little difficulty in finding the start of the scramble, even in a thick mist. Various cries and shouts came out of the gloom above us - mostly calls of encouragement, although others had a terrified edge to them. My own little group coped superbly well, with only one person calling for a rope about halfway up. I think the mist helped that day – we couldn’t see the void on either side of the wafer thin ridge.

Everyone in my group had abseiled before so we had no problem getting off the Pinnacle, although I was aware that for most non-climbing hillwalkers such an abseil would be something of a challenge. For non-rock climbers the In Pinn probably represents the most challenging of all Scotland’s Munros and it’s for good reason the Scottish Mountaineering Club gives warning:

“A bizarre summit comprising a vertical blade of rock set on a dome of scree. The highest point (of Sgurr Dearg) the Inaccessible Pinnacle, is the only Munro that calls for rock-climbing ability, and many Munro-baggers have to call for help from one or two of their rock-climbing friends to get to the top of this one. The ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle should not be undertaken without at least one experienced rock-climber in the party, a rope and some previous practice in the art of abseiling, and it should probably not be attempted on a wet and windy day for in such conditions the ascent of the Pinnacle may be distinctly unnerving.”

Other Munros that require a bit of rock scrambling skill include the Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe and An Teallach – if you choose to follow the crest of the Corrag Bhuidhe buttresses. But you don’t have to – a footpath bypasses the buttresses on the west side. A similar situation exists on Liathach if you choose to follow the crest of the Am Fasarinen pinnacles.

I wonder how any hill walkers have climbed every hill other than the Cuillin summits? It’s for very good reason that Hamish Brown, in his fine book, Hamish’s Mountain Walk, recommends aspiring Munro-baggers to climb these mountains while they are still young and fit. The Cuillin Munros don’t get any easier with age…

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