An iffy forecast and general slothfulness led to a late start. We parked at the lay-by just downhill of the start of the laborious path up to the Bealach an Lapain. There is also a Forestry Commission car park slightly nearer the start of the path.
It was just after 10am. Looking up the slopes the prospect was no better. Grey clouds hung over the ridge and also the South Kintail ridge on the opposite side of the glen. We were off, Caroline, John and myself. John has fewer than 30 Munros to do in order to compleat. Today’s principal objective for him was Sgurr na Carnach. He had tackled the Munros either side before Carnach had been promoted to Munro status. Serves him right not doing the whole ridge! My principal objective was Sgurr nan Saighead at the far end of the ridge from the start point – you see I am trying to complete the Munro tops, 18 to do.
The relentless grind up the hillside does reward you with opening up views as you stop to catch your breath.
The path trended to the right of the gap between the plantations. Then a small cairn near the top of the right hand plantation indicated a split in the path. We ignored the one which followed the top edge of the trees and carried on up.
The snow line was reached at about 2,000ft. But the air temperature was above freezing and the lying snow was soft.
We reached the bealach after an hour and a quarter.
Saileag looked close by. But the way forward looked pleasingly shapely, when the cloud was not down.
We stopped awhile just below the col to refuel as there was a frisky cold breeze nipping over the top there. The previous couple of days had seen quite a bit of precipitation. We had watched a particularly fierce squall on Loch Long from our accommodation the previous day. This had fallen as rain at sea level, but here the ridge was covered in 4 to 6 inches of unconsolidated powder snow.
We were soon up on the first bump. The cloud had lifted a little and the occasional patch of blue shy and shaft of sunlight were seen. The ridge snaked away in front of us in a delicious meringue-like set of curves and points.
Behind us, Saileag and Sgurr a’Bhealaich Dheirg cleared briefly.
Caroline broke trail as we ploughed along the roller coaster ridge. It was tough going. The snow tended to slough away off any underlying old snow or grass. But we eventually reached Sgurr nan Spainteach where we had our only view of the day of Sgurr Fhuaran.
Descending Sgurr nan Spainteach we had to negotiate the rocky scramble. I took the view that the direct descent was too dangerous in the conditions. But there was a way off to the left down the side of the ridge where it was possible to traverse under the little rocky problem and back around to the ridge line. You will see this problem in the next photo which is taken from just short of the summit of Sgurr na Ciste Dubh where again we stopped for a brief bite to eat. We had noted the split in the crest of the ridge here. It was simple enough to follow the left hand branch. There was a nice snow slope to zig zag up. With a good freeze this would turn into some great nevé.
Caroline and John set off from the stop before me. So when I reached the summit of Sgurr na Ciste Dubh I had it all to myself. It was 2.15pm. The route descriptions and guide books suggested that we should have reached this point a long time before (even allowing for the brief stops to eat). Sgurr na Carnach was going to be achievable but what about Sgurr nan Saighead?
The next section of the ridge was delightful. But the weather omens were not good. There were some gloomy views down to Loch Duich. Ahead of us storm clouds were brewing in the west. The top of Sgurr na Carnach was just in the cloud.
We reached the top of Sgurr na Carnach at 3pm. So it had not taken too long between it and the previous Munro. But by then the weather had decidedly taken a turn for the worse. As we huddled down in the meagre shelter provided by the summit cairn trying to avoid the icy pellets, we had a discussion as to what to do next.
John who had suffered from a heavy cold in previous days still had the congestive after effects and had achieved his objective for the day. Caroline was uncertain as to what to do but I was still determined to carry on. Some route descriptions do not recommend a descent into the glen from Sgurr na Carnach. Time was marching on – a decision needed to be made.
John and Caroline decided to descend Sgurr na Carnach’s north west ridge and head for the glen. I set my bearing north. As it happened John and Caroline had a reasonable, if steep, route off. They made it to the bridge over the river by Achnangart and hitched a lift back to the car.
After some inelegant bum slithers down the initial bouldery descent off the summit the ground became much easier and I was down to the col in 15 minutes. Ahead reared the steep slopes, or at least those of them that I could see in the gloom. I stopped regularly. It was only me breaking trail now. I ground my way to the summit. It was 4pm. The wind was not too bad but the spindrift was flying.
I did not stop long – just enough time for a drink and to set my compass for the west ridge. Although going north, a safer route involves descending the west ridge for about 300 yards before breaking north and then contouring around to the next col. Despite pacing I broke off a little too early and found myself in some worryingly steep and broken ground. So I retraced my steps, descended a bit further and tried again. Success! I had wasted 15 minutes or so, but I was on safe terrain and I could even make out the col in the gathering gloom.
Distances were difficult to judge. It looked some way off but I reached the col quickly. Traces of the summer path could be seen under the snow and I followed this. A curious wall lay across the ridge. I arrived at Sgurr nan Saighead. It was 5.10pm and still surprisingly light in a gloomy sort of way. I knew at the time I made my decision to continue on Sgurr na Carnach that I would be finishing in the dark but I had assumed that it was likely to be dark by the time I reached my final objective. I hurried on along the ridge going west and then north. The slopes of Beinn Bhuidhe appeared.
I contoured along its south western slopes. The going was OK at first. I was aiming for its north west ridge. By 5.45pm it was dark. I stopped to put on my head torch and check the map. I was also able to get a phone signal so I contacted John, who had just reached the A87 a few minutes earlier, to let him know that I was fine. Our rendezvous point was to be at the Ratagan junction at Shiel Bridge.
I would not recommend my route as a way off, especially in the dark. My world was the halo of the beam of light filled with the swirl of mist from cloud and breath and droplets of rain. Often it was difficult to tell rock from vegetation, both being speckled with snow. Difficult ground that would have easily been avoided in daylight was stumbled upon. Craglets had to be avoided. Ankles turned. Slips were averted. Swear words uttered. At 7.15pm I was still some way above the valley bottom. Progress was painfully slow. I contacted John again to report my position and to suggest he and Caroline did not wait for me but to come back for me later. They were alright though, having a drink in the bar at the Kintail Lodge Hotel!
By now I was watching the headlights of the cars going up and down the glen. I could make out the black sheen of Loch Shiel and the river wriggling below. I was making my way towards the ‘U’ shape in the river just to the south east of that Loch. It was a relief to get down to the river. I was tempted to ford it but I could not tell how deep it was beneath its inky black surface sheen. Discretion was the better part of valour. There was, however, a delightful path along the river bank. There was the occasional hop across a side stream but it was great to be walking on a firm surface. I reached the unusable footbridge described in the WH route description. A sign nailed to its end warned about its parlous state. But I still checked it out. Not only is it unstable but it was merely a set of parallel wires for half the width of the river. So frustrating as the road was only a couple hundred yards away.
There was nothing for it but to swing around the northern side of Loch Shiel and to endure a final stretch of marshy ground where an indistinct path came and went. Near the end there were a few deep runnels where I almost came a cropper. I reached my pick up at 8.55pm. A long but satisfying day. I reckoned that had we started an hour earlier I would probably have finished a couple of hours sooner, having been able to navigate more of the descent in daylight.
[This blog was originally posted on WH here http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=18476]