Claire and I headed off to Loch Arkaig Friday afternoon from Edinburgh on 20th of March to climb Sgurr na Ciche, Garbh Chioch Mhor, Sgurr nan Coireachan (Glen Dessary), Sgurr Mor (Loch Quoich) and Gairich. It was a very ambitious plan if you take into account the fact that spring hasn’t yet sprung. I had read about several rescues from the hills in recent weeks due to people not taking account the conditions and leaving winter kit behind. There were also two separate incidents that led to casualties on central western highlands. We decided to take these warnings seriously and packed our whole winter kit with us. Because we would be wild camping on Saturday night our rucksacks also contained camping setup so total weight was fairly high. On the mountains heavy rucksacks would mean hard work and a lot of sweat but that’s part of the fun.
A’Chuil – Cosy bothy, warm fire and good chat
We parked the car at the end of the Loch Arkaig just before 7 pm so we had just enough daylight left to sort our gear and start walking before the darkness took over. The target for Friday night was a bothy on the glen that is just south of Garbh Chioch Mhor. The bothy is called A’Chuil and it’s maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association – MBA – which is an organisation that looks after many bothies around Britain. It was to be my first ever night in a bothy. I have stayed many times in Finnish ‘autiotupa’ before but this would be the first time in Scotland. The track (or should i say road?) was very good all way from the car park to the bothy and it was easy to follow in the dark. As Claire pointed out, it was much more exciting in the dark that it would be in daylight hours…
I was jokingly saying that it would be awesome if there would be couple people in the bothy, keeping fire in the fireplace and asking from us if we would like to have a sip of good single malt when we walk in. Unfortunately we were a bit worried that it would be swarming with people since we saw a (mini) bus in the car park and it would make sense to say in the A’Chuil since it’s easily accessible from the car. And that wasn’t the only car in the car park…
After an hour of walking along the large track (road) we turned off to descend slippery grassy slope to the bothy. We found the bothy easily and when we stepped in we found two older gentlemen sitting around fireplace chatting merrily. The bothy was very cosy and the fire gave a very nice atmosphere. The bothy has two rooms and we decided to stay in the same one with these guys while one German guy was staying next door. After we made our beds we joined to enjoy the warmth of the fireplace. And then they asked if we would like to have some wine. It’s not exactly a single malt but a blend appeared a bit later. It turned out that they were from MBA and they came to do some maintenance work for the weekend from the north east of England. They had been taking care of the bothy for years and there would be 2 more joining them later in the evening. Talk about good timing.
The evening went very fast and I enjoyed it a lot. A cosy bothy, fire in the fireplace and relaxed chat flowing from topic to topic. And some nice drinks from a moose hip-flask. Not sure what would make a better evening.
The way up
When Claire woke me on next morning, the sun was already up and you could see that it would be an awesome day. According to the weather forecast Saturday would be nice but we hadn’t dared to wish this good. We made some porridge and packed our stuff. After that we said our goodbyes to the MBA folks and took a bearing to the north west. We managed to walk some minutes when we heard shouting from the bothy and one of the guys ran after us waving a silvery item in the air. He ran through boggy terrain getting his feet totally wet to bring Claire’s hip flask (that I brought from Finland after her previous one started leaking) that we had forgotten. Talk about friendly and helpful people. Too bad that I don’t remember their names but hopefully they had a good weekend at A’Chuil.
The trail was good from the bothy. First we had to descend to the River Dessary and then start climbing slowly. According to Walkhighlands people usually walk the route in the opposite direction than we did but for us this direction made much more sense since we had planned a much longer day and we weren’t heading back to the car in the same day. We followed a boggy trail to the beginning of narrow gorge-like ravine that we would be climbing to get to bealach, Feadan na Ciche, just below Sgurr na Ciche. The ravine was really cool. It’s very narrow and had some scrambly moves every now and then but nothing too extreme. Climbing it with the heavy rucksacks was hard work but all the effort paid off when we arrived to Feadan na Ciche. Or actually that was just a first payment. The views were stunning. It didn’t matter which way you looked and you could see for miles!
Scramble to Sgurr na Ciche
We left our rucksacks at Feadan na Ciche and took direct route to the top of the Sgurr na Ciche. The route was tricky and turned out to be a good scramble. Sgurr na Ciche is a fantastic mountain. You can easily recognise it from the distance due its pointy shape and it offers superb panorama when you are on it. Glen Shiel – check. Knoydart – check. The Ben – check. Beinn Sgritheall – check. Skye – check. The list just keeps going and going if you get visibility like we did. Stunning. Absolutely stunning.
I was a bit surprised to see how little snow we had on the top or on the ridge line. The north face had loads but the south face, ridge and summit was almost snow free. At this point we knew that we wouldn’t have any use for crampons and ice axes but I was still pleased that we had listened to the warnings and taken them with us, even when they turned out to be dead weight. We descended using a zigzaggy main path that avoided the harder rocky sections and were soon back at the bealach. We got back to the rucksacks around 1 pm and had our first lunch and enjoyed the sun that felt very warm after long winter months.
Up. Down. Repeat.
Sgurr na Ciche was the highest point on the trip but that was also the first one. We still had 3 more Munros and 1 Corbett to climb before heading down to camp up for the night. We could see the last hill that we should be topping before the sun went down and it looked very, very far away. We knew that sun would be going down around 7 pm so we had about 5 hours to go.
We started to climb to the ridge that would take us to our next target – Garbh Chioch Mhor. We followed the path to the ridge and followed an old dry stone wall that runs almost the whole way along the ridge’s crest. The navigation was very easy today but we could see to ends of the world but the wall must help navigation in worse conditions. We arrived to the next top around half one and we continued after taking a couple of pictures. It was still too early for second lunch.
From Garbh Chioch Mhor we followed the rocky ridge to the east – south east and we had to cross some snow fields on the way. The snow was soft and wet but easy to walk on. Next stop was Sgurr nan Coireachan but to get there we had to descend again back to 650 meters and then get back to 950. When we hit the bealach, I hunted for some running water under the snowfield and filled our water bottles. We didn’t want to carry too much but we needed to drink enough not to get dehydrated. We also started to feel the weight of our rucksacks.
We arrived at the top at around 3:30 pm. The sun was still shining hot and it made the climbs very sweaty and wind started to pick up slowly. At this point, we had walked maybe one third of the ridge so we still had a long way to go. I was unsure if we had time to do everything in daylight. Next we needed to descend again a couple of hundred meters before climbing up to again. The view towards Sgurr na Ciche was stunning from An Eag. Some clouds started to rise from the sea but they didn’t have strength to climb over the mountains.
Next we needed to drop back to 650 meters. The bealach between An Eag and Sgurr Beag is a crossing point where paths from Loch Quoich and Glen Kingie cross but we needed to continue up. The climb to Sgurr Beag wasn’t that bad. We started chattering more and I think that we started to overcome our tiredness. From Sgurr Beag we had to drop again down to 750 meters and then climb back up to Sgurr Mhor which stands just over a kilometre away and was the last Munro of the day. We touched the cairn just before 6 pm.
We still had one top to touch before heading down but to reach it we had to descend back to 650 meters. Again. When we left from Sgurr Mhor the sun started to go behind the mountains and darkness started to creep in. We needed to hurry so we could see the valley from Sgurr an Fhuarain. That was important because we wanted to know which way to descend and where we should put our camp so as to be ready to climb Gairich on Sunday morning. We arrived on the last hill of the day just before 7 pm and we had enough light to see around and we decided to head north before cutting down towards the valley.
Knackered. Sleep. Get knackered again.
We found a fairly good spot to camp. It wasn’t the driest ever but it was very close to the trail that we were going to take on Sunday morning to get up to Gairich and we had running water close by. We built our camp in the dark and burrowed into sleeping bags right after tea. Oh boy I was tired. And so was Claire [Editor’s note. This is an understatement. CH.].
On Sunday morning we had a fast breakfast and I took down my tarp while we left Claire’s tent up. We decided to leave most of the gear in the tent while we went up Gairich. I carried mainly waterproofs, some food and water for both of us. The Munros were in the clouds so I wasn’t expecting similar views that we had on Saturday. The climb was easy compared what we did on on day before and we didn’t much to carry.
There’s not much to write home about from this part of the trip. We arrived at the top after an hour and only had a warm drink before heading down. The only interesting part of this hill was when we contoured a bit too far and were walking towards Loch Quoich before noticing it. We arrived back at the camp around 11.30 am.
It didn’t took long before we headed off from the camp towards Kinbreack bothy. It was an easy walk along the path and crossing River Kingie was very easy – we managed to do it without getting our feet wet too. Kinbreack bothy is also managed by MBA but it’s far away from the quality of A’Chuil. We had a short break in the bothy and started our last climb to the bealach that would lead us back to Loch Arkaig and car. On the map it looked easy 7.5 kilometres’ long walk but reality turned out to be a bit different. We followed a really boggy path all the way and by the time we reached the crest we were again knackered. I wonder how much of this was because of our bodies weren’t fully recovered from Saturday’s long day. [Editor’s note: I think the only things that kept us going here were the omnipresent badger prints which followed the same track! CH]
We arrived at the car at 3.30 and were definitely ready to get back into civilisation. The trip had been really hard but we had really good time and superb views. It was also the first wild camp of the year and Saturday might have been the hardest day out in Scotland for me so far. And without question one of the most enjoyable ones.