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The Best of Beinn Deargs

SCOTLAND has a stack of Beinn Deargs and two of them are Munros. The ‘red hill’ is a common enough description, especially for any north-west facing hill that catches the last light of the dying sun, but Beinn Dearg above Inverlael Forest, just north of the Dirrie More, is a wee bit special.

This is the Beinn Dearg that looks to the sea, as Hamish Brown so wonderfully described it. The other Munro is in Atholl, as far from the sea as you can get, and lacks the special qualities of its northern namesake – crags, corries, high level lochans and mind-blowing views.

You’ll see the rocky bulk of Beinn Dearg as you drive over the A835 Ullapool road from Garve. It rears a lofty head beyond the head of Loch Glascarnoch and all but dwarfs its finely shaped neighbour Cona’ Mheall, well named the enchanted hill.

You can climb these two hills from this end of Loch Glascarnoch - there’s a parking area beside Loch Droma, and if time and energy allows, you could add Am Faochagach, another Munro, to your tally, but beware. If you do walk in from this direction choose a day of hard frost - hard enough to freeze the ground solid.

The bogs and the peat hereabouts would make a grown man cry with frustration.

A better route, and certainly an easier route, is from further down the A835 road in Strath More near the head of Loch Broom a hundred metres north of Inverlael House. On the east side of the road a forestry track runs up through the Lael Forest to the ruins of Glensquaib and then into the lower part of Gleann na Squaib.

A mountain bike can be put to good use on this initial section of forest track. It takes about half an hour to cycle up to the edge of the forest, and ten glorious minutes to freewheel back down at the end of the day.

An Teallach from Gleann na Squaib

Gleann na Squaib certainly offers a more comfortable approach than the Glascarnoch bogtrot, a gentler and more gradual climb up a good stalking path all the way to the high bealach that is shared by three Munros, often referred to as the Deargs. It’s a wee bit of a haul but Gleann na Squaib is pleasant enough, with some spectacular waterfalls and good pools for bathing in the River Lael when the weather is warm.

Higher up the glen, the stalkers’ path begins to switchback up the steeper inclines, a superbly engineered path that carries you over grassy terraces ever closer to the mighty crags that are formed by the long north-west ridge of Beinn Dearg, the Diollaid a’ Mhill Bhric. These crags are split by half a dozen steep gullies, most of them good winter climbs.

The cliff-line eventually terminates in an imposing corner line, a magnificently steep fortification that boasts a classic rock climb called the Tower of Babel, first climbed by the late Dr Tom Patey, Ullapool’s mountaineering GP, back in 1962.

Just over twenty years we brought two climbers here, the late Paul Nunn and Clive Rowland, to climb a winter route for a series we were making for the BBC, The Edge: 100 Years of Scottish Mountaineering. It was possibly the coldest, the longest and the hardest day’s filming any of us had experienced. The weather was foul but the climbers finished their route, Emerald Gully, and Paul Nunn even appeared to enjoy the awful conditions: “I do not think you would get far with Scottish climbing unless you were opportunistic,” he told me. “You would just go home, fed up with sitting around in cafes or pubs looking out at the terrible weather.

Beinn Dearg

I think that is what many people do not understand about Scottish climbing, and that is the importance of getting out there and putting your nose in front of the problem. You can miss superb opportunities by being pessimistic.”

The following year Paul and his companion Geoff Tier were descending from the summit of Haromosh II (6,666 metres), in the Karakoram Himalaya, when they were overwhelmed by a massive ice-fall collapse and buried.

From the foot of the Tower of Babel the path carries you onto a high and broad bealach, an atmospheric and stony place scattered with shallow lochans. There’s an element of ‘northness’ magic here with an Arctic feel to it, especially when snow drifts break off into the icy waters and float, greenish-blue, like mini icebergs. It doesn’t take much imagination to see enormous glaciers grinding out the steeply cut Choire Ghranda

Cona' Mheall

Three Munros impinge on this high lochan-splattered bealach. In front of you, beyond a short rise, lies Cona’ Mheall, a stone covered dumpy mound that teases out to become a magnificent crenelated ridgeline. To your left a long and steady ramp carries you up to the summit of Meall nam Ceapraichean and to your right likes the daddy of them all, Beinn Dearg.

To climb Beinn Dearg all you have to do is follow the line of a drystone wall that runs up the hill’s north-east shoulder almost all the way to the summit. However, that is easier said that done, especially when deep drifts cover the path and I frequently found myself up to the thighs in rotten snow. I eventually found it easier to move further to the right, away from the wall, and tackle some of the bigger slabs and boulders as mild scrambles.

Like the Destitution Road that runs down into the Dundonnell Forest it’s thought this wall was built in the 1840’s to provide work for those who were suffering from the potato blights of the time. Two to four feet in height it doesn’t appear to serve any particular function, although it may have been built to prevent livestock from roaming too close to the big cliffs above Gleann na Squaib, or it may just have been an exercise in altruism. The workers were apparently paid in oatmeal.

Near the top, where the dyke bears right, there is a gap in the wall so I popped through it and followed a south-south-west bearing for about 300 metres across the wind-clipped vegetation of the summit slopes to the 3556ft summit itself, a place where mournful golden plover sing their sad song, a mountain top that’s more Cairngorm than Wester Ross.

I had been aware of someone climbing the hill behind me and as I sat by the massive summit cairn with my flask and piece I saw a figure appear. Curiously he was fully dressed for winter with complete waterproofs and a thick balaclava helmet. I gave him a wave but he didn’t respond and instead went to sit amongst some rocks fifty feet away. Perhaps he was an incarnation of Alfred Wainwright who famously used to try and hide rather than have to speak to people on the fells.

Meall nan Ceapraichean

Back at the stony bealach a choice of route awaits you. You can either continue east to climb Cona’ Mheall, 3210ft, by its stony but easy-angled western ridge, or head north for two more Munros, Meall nan Ceapraichean, 3205ft and Eididh nan Clach Geala, 3043ft The circuit of all four tops makes a long and magnificent day’s hill walking.

These northern mountains have a special wilderness quality about them. Although relatively close to the Ullapool road they nonetheless possess an air of remoteness, a sense of isolation created by the knowledge that to the north and north east lie huge areas of wild country, roadless and without habitation, a vast tract of corrie-bitten hills and wind-scoured summits that make up the Freevater, Glen Calvie and Strath Vaich deer forests.

Another Munro, Seana Bhraigh, lies in isolated splendour in the midst of this wilderness. One of the remotest of the Munros its ascent from the south demands a comparatively long expedition. It’s probably easier climbed from Oykel Bridge in the north-east.

If the round of four Munros seems a bit too harsh then Eididh nan Clach Geala can be climbed on its own on a relatively short and easy day, or it can be combined with Seana Bhraigh, a hill some folk consider to be the most remote of our Munros. Two miles up Gleann na Squaib an old stalkers’ path leaves the main route and weaves its way up the hillside towards the great rocky hollow that holds the waters of the rather secretive Loch a’ Chnapaich. Above the loch, beyond the cliffs, lies the summit of Edidh nan Clach Geala, 3041ft/927m.

I tackled these two Munros at the fag end of last summer, a dour and grey day in which all col,our appeared to have been drained from the landscape. Rain clouds were gathering on Beinn Dearg’s rocky dome as I climbed up towards the loch and by the time I reached the crest of Eididh nan Clach Geala’s west ridge black storm clouds were piling up over the hills of the north-west – Ben More Coigach, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag and Mor, Suilven and Canisp – making them look even more dramatic than they already are. I can’t think of a finer looking array of mountains anywhere.

Seana Braigh

I wanted to push across the high lochan splattered tableland to Seana Braigh, which lies in isolated splendour in the midst of this high wilderness, and I wondered if I could manage it before the weather broke, so recalling Paul Nunn’s words about putting my nose in front of the problem, I went for it.

An old guidebook describes Seana Bhraigh as a “noble mountain”, lording it over the vast empty quarter between Inverlael and Strath Mulzie, and in that sense it is dramatic and imposing, but it’s also rather dignified, as befits its name, “the old brae”. From the south the mountain is no more than a crest of a wave in an ocean of heather and peat, but from the north the prospect is in complete contrast.

The wave suddenly crashes down in an almost vertical 1300 foot precipice into the depths of the Luchd Coire which lies below the imposing peak of An Sgurr, the steep pinnacle which forms the climax to the narrow and rocky Creag an Duine ridge. The main summit, at 3041 feet above sea level, may in itself be less impressive than its subsidiary tops, but it does offer the best views of the rest of the mountain.

With the bad weather approaching fast I managed to stride out to the impressive summit cairn before dropping down into Coire an Lochain Sgeirich with its long rosary of linked lochans, shining levels that reflect the blackness of the crags that tower above them.

From the corrie a good path runs west, down empty slopes to the Allt Gleann a’ Mhadaidh then on to the Druim na Saobhaidhe, the ridge that forms the north wall of Gleann na Squaib. From here it was an easy descent back into the forest and the little clearing where I had left my mountain bike.

Getting onto the saddle of a mountain bike at the end of a long hill day is sheer bliss, especially when all you have to do is turn the pedals several times then enjoy the luxury of a long freewheel all the way back to Inverlael and the campervan. – and a hot brew. I just got my boots off when the first big drops of rain began to splatter the windscreen.

On a day like this, timing is everything.

First published in the Scots Magazine, 2017

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