all hail liathach

Mon, Jun 1, 2009

With the temperature hitting 22deg at 8am on Saturday morning, we decided to fulfill Dawn’s ambition of climbing Liathach and the famous Am Fasarinen pinnacles. Friday had been a real scorcher blue sky(e) day with not a cloud to be seen anywhere and crystal clear visibility but Saturday had hazed over a bit and the wind had picked up to gusting 50mph, although it was set to calm down later in the morning. Always a good sign for a ridge walk. 1.5 hours later we were taking the superb path up from Glen Cottage, straight up the south face of what’s possibly the best mountain in Britain. The mighty Liathach. The Grey One. It’s an unrelenting grind the entire way from sea level to summit and 5 mins into it I was spraying water from every pore, giving a good impression of a Spitting Image puppet. Obviously 2 weeks in Mallorcan heat hadn’t done me much good. It was over 30 degs there, with a hut to hut pack but I’m still no good in heat. Scottish stock. Built for the cold! The Mallorcan 1000m peaks are stunning creations of natural architecture (more anon btw) but there’s just something about the far north of Scotland. All that rock and water. That’s the difference you see. Water. Amidst such craggy grandeur, there is still some of the life giving liquid.

Spring in Toll aMeitheach on the ascent

The path up Toll a’Meitheach is wonderfully maintained, being a staircase up a very steep slope into a small coire, the only respite from the 900m ascent to the ridge. It goes straight up from the road, bumps into the huge cliffs and detours to the east to reach the 1m wide ridge just west of Stùc a’Choire Dhuibh Bhig (peak of the little black coire). Toll a’Meitheach means “the decaying hole” and it’s a good description as the sandstone is weathered and fractured and there’s a fair amount of rubble and loose rock around. Once on the ridge we nipped along to Stùc a’Choire Dhuibh Bhig for the stupendous views of Beinn Eighe, that small country in itself, lifted 1000m into the sky.

Beinn Eighe from Stuc a Choire Dhubh Bhig

and of course, possibly one of the best mountain views in the world. Spidean a’Choire Leith (peak of the grey corrie).

Spidean aChoire Leith from Stuc a Choire Dhubh Bhig

To get there is a pleasant walk along the decaying ridge although the boulders make for slow progress, ideal for stopping and soaking up that view. That huge quartzite bulk hides a whole host of fun and once you crest the summit your jaw just drops as Mullach an Rathain eyes you up, peering at your over its beetling cliffs, rolling out a long green carpet for you to walk on but with a sting in the tail. Am Fasarinen.

Mullach an Rathain from the pinnacles

Am Fasarinen pinnacles looking west

Spidean a’Choire Leith is a hard won summit and it doesn’t want to let you go easily either, with a tortuous descent on loose boulders above stupendous drops, with its parting gift to you being these fantastically spiky pinnacles that lead onto a long green ridge where you can walk along a defined edge above dizzying drops all the way to Mullach an Rathain. But first you must negotiate the pinnacles. Like a Crypton Factor puzzle, Spidean lays your challenge before you and you must thread a way through the vertigo inducing crenellations to reach that greensward that beckons you on like a siren.

The wildest move of all is getting onto them though. It’s pretty obvious. A path leads up to the right to a blank sandstone slab that you can quite easily get up. With hands on the knife edge above you, pull up and look over. If you can handle that, the rest is easy. If not, retreat down the slab and follow the bypass path, although I heard that it’s not much better. All bypass paths, in my experience, are usually worse than the direct route, being usually wildly exposed and rottenly eroded. Meanwhile, back at the slab, once you’re staring into the abyss, take a deep breath and step up left onto the flat ridge top. That’s it. Welcome to Am Fasarinen! There’s nothing harder than that on the rest of the ridge, unless you look for it and even then it’s not as exposed as that first, in your face shout of wild exposure. Do take care though as the rock alternates between solid quartzite and rotten sandstone. There is a lot of loose rock on the crest and a good whack with the hand is in order on the steeper climbs. There’s a delightfully steep sandstone scramble near the last pinnacle where you can look down and see your car between your legs!

Dawn on Am Fasarinen pinnacles

Then all too suddenly the pinnacles are past and you’re relaxing on greensward with Spidean whispering on the wind, “how did you like that then?” and Mullach an Rathain just peeping above the green ridge saying “he’s terrible isn’t he? all that rock and bravado. Really!”. From now on it’s a pleasant bimble along the ridge although on the last rocky top, if you don’t have a head for heights, it might be an idea to crawl to the edge as there doesn’t seem to be anything under your feet! You think, “what’s that puddle between my feet? it’s the lochan!” But then it’s just a hop skip and jump to Mullach an Rathain and the knock me down with a feather view of the western seaboard, not to mention the vast wilderness of Fisherfield, oh and the empty lands to the north of Glen Carron and the Cuillin and the wild land beyond Beinn Alligain and the hills of Harris and….

The ridge to Mullach an Rathain

Beinn Alligain from Mullach an Rathain

Looking north from Mullach an Rathain

The views made up for the presence of 21 walkers from Northern Ireland on a Water Aid sponsored walk although they were very friendly.

Spidean achoire Leith and the pinnacles from Mullach an Rathain

The descent from Mullach an Rathain is as direct as the ascent to Spidean but it’s down steep, loose and sandy scree and the lower we went the hotter it became until I was once again spraying like a garden sprinkler from every pore (note to self, only 4 months until snow returns!). There’s a path the whole way, following the burn down into Toll Bàn (the fair or bright hole), which is a contrast to Toll a’Meitheach (the decaying hole). Whereas Toll a’Meitheach is all decaying and eroded sandstone, Toll Bàn is bright quartzite screes reflecting the warm afternoon sun. I’d run out of water on the summit but there again, right on cue, was that wonderful invention of the Scottish mountains, the spring.

Dawn descending Mullach an Rathain

I drank deeply and noisily and filled the bottles to the brim with crystal clear, freezing cold mountain uisge, then further down the burn I stuck my head under a waterfall and yelped with undiluted joy! What a fantastic country this is indeed! Mallorcan Munros usually end with an Ice Cold in Alex moment in the nearest village. Here, one can sup from the mountain breast.

Once out of the scree I let Dawn make her way down the path while I forged on ahead to get the car, 2km up the glen and I must have made a merry sight, marching up the tarmac in what felt like 30 deg, water pouring from every crack and orifice known to medical science, leaving a silvery trail that quickly evaporated in the sweltering heat of the glen. Luckily, one of those nice Irish folk stopped and gave me a lift back to the car. I doubt if he’s ever seen an exit like that from a mini bus, opening the side door and flowing out on a tidal wave of sweat. Nah, you’ve taken that too far!

So with the sun still shining and knackered after 7 hours on the go (not bad, usually takes 7-10 hours), we drove home via Shieldaig and Lochcarron after a cracking day on the hill

You can see all the pics here.

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