It is a long time since I first “compleated” the Munros, almost 23 years in fact. The desultory approach to my second completion has arisen as a result of the arrival of two kids and a requirement to concentrate on maintaining one’s position on the slippery pole of professional life. Indeed I did not really intend to embark upon a second completion. It just sort of happened as I joined with others on their Munro quests and lo and behold my numbers increased to the point where it seemed a crime not to aim for the second completion.
There is some merit in a slow approach. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. Revisiting some areas not visited for 20 years or more felt like coming to them for the first time. I also indulged in many multi-day trips and rediscovered back packing and wild camping.
But over the past couple of years I decided that my slothful approach needed bucking up otherwise I might end up becoming too old for this game or, even worse (for me), with some unwelcome record of being the person having taken the longest time between completions if indeed I made it that far.
A haphazard approach meant that I did not have much choice for a final Munro if I was looking for an “iconic” peak which might tempt family and friends north. One thing clinched it for The Saddle though. Not only does it have the superb approach via the Forcan Ridge but I was also aiming to complete all of the subsidiary Munro tops. There were two tops on the west ridge that I had not done and which I could include in the day.
So the day was fixed last October – Good Friday 2014 with the Saturday as a reserve in case of bad weather. I then still had seven Munros to do in addition to The Saddle. But five of these were on the South Glen Shiel Ridge which I tackled at the end of March. On that trip I had the opportunity of checking the snow conditions in Kintail noting that there was still quite a lot of the white stuff about! Over the following weeks I kept an anxious eye out for the weather forecasts hoping both for some rain or higher temperatures to take some of the snow away and for any signs of a nice high pressure then to settle over north west Scotland.
Forecasts in the week leading up to the Easter weekend were not that promising though the winds would not be strong and there was likely only to be a little rain as a high pressure was building from the west.
So the scene was set for the gathering at our base at the Kintail Lodge Hotel. Sorry to anyone who tried to book their Trekkers’ Lodge or Wee Bunkhouse for the weekend, but I got in there first.
I was privileged to have a group of 21 people and two dogs to join me on my special day. Let me introduce you to them.
Julie – wife and retired Munroist. Now prefers home comforts to wind and horizontal rain, navigating through cloud and sleeping in tents, cars or on roadside verges. Cannot think why. But she still likes the views from sunny mountain tops.
Alasdair aka sporty son (SS) – fit (as demonstrated by reaching the summit 45 minutes before anyone else) but uninterested in mountains. Happy to spend hours running around kicking a football but cannot see the point in spending similar amounts of energy in walking up slopes for hours (and then down again).
Kirsty aka darling daughter (DD) – veteran now of 30 Munros mainly under sufferance but would surely do more if all summits were fitted with plugs for hair straighteners and with mirrors for adjusting hair and make up.
Jet – faithful hound and willing companion – occasional appearances on Mutts on Munros.
Peter – brother and inveterate mountain/hill list ticker, but not (generally) of Munros. Ascents of mountains in Europe, Asia and North America, Ultras and, er, UK county and other highpoints.
Jill – Peter’s wife and patient herder of her brood.
Peter and Jill’s brood – Twm, David, Ceri and Patrick, all willing and potential Munro baggers.
Derek – brother and outdoorsy type. Marathon runner who generally considers UK hills to be mere pimples. Has climbed mighty peaks in Europe, Asia and South America.
Cathy – Derek’s wife, enthusiasm personified. If I could bottle it I would make a fortune.
Adam – Derek and Cathy’s teenage son who knows no fear (and perhaps does not recognise when he should have it).
Sue – sharer of many an adventure in the Highlands and a completer of the Munros.
Caroline – likewise a companion on Munro ascents and supporting cast in previous trip reports on WH. Another completer of the Munros.
John – yet another regular companion and supporting cast in previous trip reports and just four away from his own “compleation”.
Paul, Mary, Laura and David – friends from Yorkshire and definitely not hill people! Laura has accompanied me and DD up the Ben, Snowden and Scafell Pike and David is a fit teenager.
Max – German student staying with Derek and Cathy.
Camille – a French exchange student whose time with Peter and Jill happened to coincide with this date, who “had never done anything like this before” but by the end was enthusing about Scotland. I never had exchanges like this when I were a lad!
Bramble – Derek and Cathy’s yellow lab.
Good Friday 2014 dawned clear and blue. Loch Duich was still. There was not a cloud in the sky. Wow! The forecast had turned out to be good but this was a real bonus. Organising 22 people and two dogs for a co-ordinated start sort of worked in that we agreed on two departure times!
Sue, concerned about her fitness, wanted to leave sooner and Caroline agreed to go with her. Everyone else would follow on 45 minutes later.
We would start at the lay by to the west of the start of the stalker’s path. When we arrived there was no sign of Sue’s car and without mobile phone reception at that location we could not check up on what had happened to the two of them. So the rest of us set off anyway hoping that we would see some sign of them later.
A well made stalker’s path takes one easily upwards. Its route is visible from the main road. A more direct route up Coire Mhalagain to the foot of the Forcan Ridge is feasible though we were glad of the straightforward nature of the path. Some took that direct route in descent.
The group soon became strung out along the path as the exuberance of youth let rip. The dogs were romping around the hillside returning every once in a while to check that their pack members were still around. Despite the sun, the relatively early hour meant that the temperature was very pleasant. The first members of the group arrived at the col between Meallan Odhar and Biod an Fhithich in about an hour. Being a little behind I had shouted up to the leaders to wait there. The still air meant that my voice carried to them for some distance! So the message had got through.
We regrouped on the col waiting for the stragglers. Unfortunately Paul was struggling and Bramble, who had been carrying a bit of an injury, was no longer fit to carry on, so Max was deputed to look after him. We lost three of our party here. After a lengthy stop to ensure that all were well hydrated and food was taken on the rest were ready to continue.
Instructions to the youngsters were given to wait next at the junction of paths at the foot of the Forcan Ridge so we could finally decide who was going which way. I hung back to talk with a guy from Chesterfield who had been given a day off by his family to enjoy the hills and was seated a bit away from our rabble. I apologised for being responsible for destroying the solitude.
At the next stopping point, reached after another 40 minutes or so I was relieved to see that Caroline was there and Sue was approaching. They had mistaken the parking spot and started instead from Mhalagain Bridge. Well at least they had been found!
After another shorter break lounging in the sun, Julie, SS, DD, Mary, Sue, Jet and (eventually) John decided to follow the dyke around to the Bealach Mhalagain and up to the summit from there. The rest of us were to tackle the ridge.
I had been to this point the day before to check what conditions looked like. Conditions were certainly more benign today.
As there were still vestiges of ice in shadowy corners and snow high on the flanks I gave a brief pep talk on the dangers lurking above on the ridge. No doubt this advice was soon forgotten as hands took to the rocks with gusto. Still I was carrying a rope in case anyone had difficulties with the exposure. The ridge becomes progressively more exposed up to the top of Sgurr nan Forcan. If there were any alternate routes to the side of the ridge, then they were covered in snow today. So we had to keep to the main spine of the ridge. Careful spotting was needed for some of the younger/less experienced members but all performed well and were exhilarated by the experience.
Atop Sgurr nan Forcan I was able to exchange waving arms with SS who was already at the main summit. Looking down I could see figures following the route via the Bealach, some on the final slopes to the trig point.
Beyond Sgurr nan Forcan there is, of course, the down climb. I was regarded as a bit of a killjoy by insisting that all of the kids took the gully down the south side of the ridge to avoid this obstacle. Caroline serenely took on the down climb once the kids were committed to the alternate route. Adam, on reaching the foot of the drop, promptly climbed ¾ of the way up it and back down again just to prove his uncle was being unduly cautious!
From then on the ridge is delightfully narrow without the same sort of exposure or scrambling apart from one short fin of rock that is avoidable to the left (south). There is then a final sharp rise and the summit cairn is suddenly there. Compleat at 1.40pm – for a second time! What a day.
DD and my two brothers were there to greet me. In true Reverend AER style I kissed the cairn, but there was no Julie. SS had dutifully returned to the trig point and then descended a couple of hundred feet to provide morale boosting encouragement to her and a couple of others.
As the area around the true summit is small we had agreed to all meet at the trig point. So I wandered on over there. There was a bit of a chill wind and we found a bit of respite amongst the rocks below. Everyone was soon there. Julie, Sue and John dutifully went out and back to the summit proper. On their return champagne and whisky were doled out. Given the time of year I handed out Cadbury’s Creme Eggs (kindly carried up by SS) to all.
I guess, at that point, I was too preoccupied with ensuring all were happy to take in the views. That would come later. The distant views were a little hazy though the Ben, Torridon and Rum could just about be made out. Even on such a glorious day people eventually started to get cold. But we had been on the summit ridge for 1½ hours. Apart from a couple of chaps no-one else came up whilst we were there. I thought this quite surprising given the day and the weather.
However, I still had further work to do – two more Munro tops to climb. Then I would be doubly compleat. John and Caroline agreed to accompany me. None of the kids thought that the next section of the ridge would be exciting enough. Ho hum. In fact there are some sections that are pleasingly narrow. Dark snow plastered cliffs fall away to the right and a steep grass and rock slope is to the left. In one or two places hands have to be used. There is a path, quite strong in places, that took us over Spidean Dhomhuill Bhric and on to Sgurr Leac nan Each, the final one. Another adventure had come to an end.
I was asked later whether I had felt emotional on reaching the summit of The Saddle. No, I didn’t really, more a quiet contentment. I was, perhaps, more moved on reaching this final top with two good friends with whom I have shared so many mountain days over the years. The tops are a fascinating challenge. Think of the east top of Ben More Assynt, the east top of Lurg Mhor, Sgurr Thormaid, Sgurr Thearlich, the Bhastier Tooth, Knight’s Peak (mmm, thanks for the demotion!), the northern pinnacles of Mullach an Rathain and all their little difficulties; or Glas Leathad Beag, the eastern tops of Ben Avon, the western tops of Stob Ghabhar and, yes, Tom Dubh (look it up if you do not know it) which send you to parts of a mountain you might not otherwise visit. There are others that fall into these categories too.
The return was over the 842m bump from which grand views of the north west coire of The Saddle are to be had, a brief stop in the sun above the lochan below Sgurr a’Gharg Gharaidh, a grassy stalker’s path not shown on the map on the east ridge of that hill and a sometimes wet path along the Allt a ‘Coire Uaine to Shiel Bridge where SS provided a lift to save the additional walk to the Hotel.
Needless to say, celebrations continued at the Hotel well into the evening.
[This post was originally published on walkhighlands here – http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/posting.php?mode=edit&f=9&p=235146]