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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Ben Eighe and The Torridon Hills


BY LIONEL W. HINXMAN, B.A.

SOUTHWARDS from the beautiful expanse of Loch Mareewhose rocky shores, fringed with scattered pines, or rising in naked majesty from the dark waters, vie with the softer beauties of the Trosachs - stretches a wild region of mountain, corrie, and glen, little known to the crowd of tourists who are whirled over the "Loch Maree Circular Tour" or linger awhile at Talladale or Kinlochewe.

This mountain region, which occupies nearly one hundred square miles of ground, extending to the northern shore of outer Loch Torridon, forms the heart of the deer forests of Kinlochewe, Torridon, and Shieldaig, and is thus practically inaccessible from mid-June to October. But in April, May, and early June, a time when even in the weeping climate of the West Coast there is a reasonable chance of fine clear weather, little difficulty will be found in obtaining leave to climb the hills, most of which present features well worthy the attention of those members of the Club who care for good rock-climbing.

I say rock-climbing, for these peaks, so near the mild Atlantic sea-board, carry little snow even in the winter, and are often completely clear at a time when the Cairngorms and the Perthshire hills are in their most Alpine condition. Ben Eighe, Leagach, Ben Dearg, and Alligin, are the four giants who with their various spurs and outliers make up this great mountain mass.

Ben Eighe—often but wrongly spelt Ben Eay—is by far the most accessible and best known of the group; and the bare screes and serrated ridge of Sgurr Bn, its eastern peak, form one of the most striking features in that wonderful panorama of loch and mountain which opens to the view from the head of Glen Docherty. Yet there is something very grim and forbidding about these quartzite peaks, whose cold, grey, lifeless slopes glitter white in the sunshine, or scowl beneath the storm-clouds that drive up from the western sea; and the eye turns with a sense of relief to the warm sandstone slopes of Slioch, on the other side of the loch.

The shooting-path that leaves the Gairloch road three- quarters of a mile west of the Kinlochewe hotel is the best route to take if a complete traverse of Ben Eighe is contemplated. As however this path leads eventually into Toll a Giubhais (hollow of the firtrees), it must be left just beyond the head of the Alit Sguabaidh (burn of the sweeping),—the burn which runs parallel with it,—and a WSW. course followed over the heather slopes to the foot of Creag Dubh whence a steep but fairly easy climb through the quartzite ledges leads to the top of the ridge.

For some distance southwards the summit is smooth and mossy, but nearing Sgurr an Fhir Duibhe (peak of the black men),—the peak immediately above Kinlochewe,the ridge narrows to a few feet, and is moreover cut into a series of sharp teeth, separated by deep ugly-looking gullies. These teeth are the Fhir Duibhe (black men) of Ben Eighe.

The worst of the dividing gaps can only be passed by climbing down upon, and stepping gingerly across, a fallen block that is wedged into the chasm, and which, supported only at two points, seems in anything but a stable position.

Another and easier way, by which this bad bit of the ridge is avoided, leads from the Torridon road at Cromasag up the south side of the burn to the foot of Sgurr an Conghair and thence up the rocky ar'te to the top of Sgurr an Fhir Duibhe (3,100 feet). From here there is a fall of 400 feet to the narrow ridge which leads to Sgurr Ban (the white scaur, 3,187 feet). The ridge now turns to the west, and though mostly bare rock affords fairly good going. On either hand the mountain falls abruptly in formidable precipices and steep scree slopes to the corries below, but the ascent on both sides is practicable in many places.

The next top reached, nameless on the Ordnance maps, is the Spidean Coire nan Clach (peak of the corrie of the flat stones), below which a narrow spur runs out to the E., terminating in the sharp pinnacle of red sandstoneSthc Coire an Laoigh—which is so conspicuous from the road above Loch Clair.

About a mile further on, the outcrop of a bed of soft limestone has given rise to a smooth grassy plateau (3,130 feet), known as Coinneach Mr (the great mossy place), a delightful spot for a rest and the contemplative pipe.

The view from here on a clear day is very fine. To the north, the sea of peaks that rise beyond Loch Maree, dominated by the spires of An Teallach, and fading away in the dim outlines of the Assynt and Reay mountains; to the W. and SW. the bold hills of Harris, the shapely cone of Blaven, and the saw-edge of the Cuchullins. Immediately in front, to the south, frowns the steep northern face of Leagach, a line of mural precipices crowned with fantastic pinnacles; while beyond, the wild peaks of the Achnashellach forest carry the eye southward over range after range of unknown peaks to the three Ross-shire giants—Sgurr na Lapaich, Ben Attow, and Mam Soul—that tower faint and blue against the distant horizon.

From this point a high and narrow col leads to Ruadh Stac Mr (the great red stack), the great spur which here runs out to the N. at right angles to the main ridge of the mountain. Apart from the fact that its summit cairn (3,308 feet) is the highest point of Ben Eighe, Ruadh Stac is not particularly interesting. The precipices on its northern face are, however, very imposing, and nearly everywhere inaccessible.

Half a mile or so of delightfully easy walking now leads to the western end of the Coinneach Mr (3,120 feet), where, on the N. side, tremendous cliffs fall sheer down for more than i ,000 feet into the gloomy depths of Coire Mhic Fearchair (corrie of the son of Farquhar). Now comes a rather nasty bit of climbing, known as Ceim Grannda or the "ugly step" of Ben Eighe, a drop of about 300 feet over huge angular blocks of quartzite, tilted at high angles, and with an uncomfortable suggestion of instability about them.

The ridge below safely reached, a rough scramble up 400 feet of debris-covered slope leads to the top of Sail Mr (the great heel, 3,217 feet), the western extremity of the mountain. This is a fine bold peak, rising abruptly with precipitous faces from the corrie below, and cleft in two by a deep couloir in which the snow lingers far into the summer.

The descent from Sail Mr is best made on the W. side, and, though not altogether easy, presents no serious difficulties. Rounding the front of the hill, the Alit Coire Mhic Fearchair should be struck at the falls, a little way below the loch, and the burn followed for about two miles, when a track will be found on the left hand side which leads down the Grudie river to the Gairloch road at Grudie bridge, six miles from Kinlochewe. A more direct but rougher way back can be taken round the shoulder of Ruadh Stac Mr, across the mouth of Coire Ruadh Stac, and through Toll Giubhais to the shooting-path under Creag Dubh.

Leagach—(Leathach, the grey one)—though not comparable in bulk with Ben Eighe, is the highest and perhaps the most interesting of the group; and, with the exception of An Teallach, the finest of the red sandstone mountains of the West Coast.

Very striking is the first view of Leagach as seen from the summit-level of the road to Torridon. Here are no gentle slopes to lead the eye insensibly upwards. The great bluff that forms the north end of the mountain rises uncompromisingly bold and steep from the moraine-strewn corrie, like the stem of some mighty vessel plunging in a tempestuous sea. And equally impressive are the four miles of cliff that frown above dark Glen Torridon, where from the road the eye ranges up through fully 3,000 feet of terraced sandstone to the peaks of snow-white quartzite that glitter overhead.

The best place to make the ascent is from a point about a mile beyond the bridge crossing the Alit a Choire Dhuibh Moire (burn of the great black corrie). Leaving the road, and keeping the slope above the west bank of the Alit Gharaidh Dubh (burn of the black den), an easy climb leads to the foot of the mountain proper, at a point where the escarpments are broken by steep grassy and talus- covered slopes. Ascending these obliquely, and always bearing to the right, a "breathing" climb leads to the last rampart that crowns the end of the mountain. Here a judicious selection of the course, and a certain facility in rock-climbing, is necessary; given which, this obstacle is soon passed, and a slope strewn with loose debris leads to the top of Stixc a' Choire Dhuibh Bhig (peak of the little black crrie), the eastern peak. The height of this top is not given on the Ordnance maps, but it is probably just over 3,000 feet.

A narrow neck lies between this and the middle and highest top, Spidean a' Choire Leith (peak of the grey corrie), a sharp cone of quartzite, the ascent and descent of which, covered as it is with loose angular blocks of all sizes, is certainly the most laborious, if not the most difficult, part of the day's work. The view from the cairn (3456 feet) is much the same as that from Ben Eighe, and need not be again described.

Beyond this peak the mountain has worn very thin at the top, and the ridge for half a mile is split up into a series of weather-worn pinnacles. The Spideanan nam Fasarinen, as these are called, afford some fancy climbing, and although most people would prefer to take the deerstalkers' path, narrow enough, that keeps below the ridge, all good members of the Club will, I am sure, take the more heroic way that leads over the top of each individual pinnacle,—provided always a sure foot and steady head, for the rocks here are very loose and crumbly, while a look down the absolutely perpendicular precipices of Coire na Caime (the crooked corrie) is not altogether reassuring.

The Fasarinen safely passed, an easy grass slope leads to the west top of Leagach, Mullach an Rathain (the ridge of the horns, 3,358 feet). Immediately below this peak a spur, nameless on the maps, but known locally as Meal! Dearg (the red hill), runs out to the N. between Coire na Caime and Glas Tholl a Bhothain (grey hollow of the bothies), which affords a very difficult, if indeed possible, bit of climbing. The first descent from the cairn is pretty bad, as the rocks are loose and broken, and the ridge excessively narrow; but further along comes a more or less perpendicular drop on to a knife-edge of shattered sandstone, which looked, I confess, as I saw it, at nine o'clock on a summer's evening, too risky to be attempted alone and without a rope. The spur might possibly, however, be climbed from the northern end, and so back up to the Mullach an Rathain.

A gentle grass-covered slope now leads down to Sgr a Chadail (the scaur of sleep), and so to the foot of the mountain at Torridon House; or a tolerably easy descent can be made on Fasag, at the head of Loch Torridon, where, there being no decent accommodation, it will be well to have a "machine" and some dry clothes in waiting.

Of Alligin, the mountain that rises boldly to the west of Leagach on the other side of Corrie Mhic Nobuill, there is not much to be said from a climbing point of view. It is a capital hill for a picnic, as the top is smooth and grassy, and ponies can ascend with the provisions, while the view on a clear day is superb, extending from Cape Wrath to Ardnamurchan, and from North Uist to the hills of Central Inverness-shire.

Immediately below Sgurr na Tuaigh, or Sgurr Mhr, the highest peak (3,232 feet), there is a very striking feature, where a fault cutting through the mountain has produced a tremendous gash, whose well-nigh perpendicular sides plunge down for i,800 feet into the depths of Toll a Mhadaidh (the wolf's hole). The climb down from Sgurr na Tuaigh (peak of the hatchet) over the three peaks known as the Rathains (horns) of Alligin is however worth doing, and the ridge can be followed to the eastern end, where it falls steeply to the glen that separates Alligin from Ben Dearg (the red mountain).

Kinlochewe is the best, and in fact the only, centre from which to explore these mountains. There is no accommodation at Loch Torridon; and Shieldaig, though nearer to Alligin, is on the wrong side of the loch, thus involving a boat journey, often an uncertain factor in this part of the world.

The ascent of Leagach, Alligin, and Ben Dearg, might possibly be combined in a long summer's day, by driving to the head of Glen Torridon, climbing Leagach by the route indicated, and descending from the west side of Sgbr a Chadail to the Diabeg path at the bridge over the Amhainn Mhic Nobuill. (The burn cannot otherwise be crossed for a long way up, as it runs in a deep gorge with wall-like sides).

Leaving the path just beyond the bridge, and bearing to the right, a steep pull up a succession of slopes and escarpments leads to the mouth of Coire na Laoigh (corrie of the calf), and thence up the burn to the top of Alligin. The sky-line can then be followed over Sgurr Mr and the three Rathains to the east end of the mountain, whence a rough scramble lands one in the Bealaich a Chomla, on whose further side rises the steep western front of Ben Dearg (2,995 feet). This is a formidable-looking climb, especially near the end of a hard day; but a practicable route can be found up most of the gullies which seam the hill-side, aided by a little judicious winding among the ledges.

The summit of Ben Dearg reached, it is a comparatively easy walk along the ridge to the east end, and thence down into the head of the Coire Dubh Mr, from which point a roughish tramp of about four miles leads down the glen to the Torridon road at the starting-point.

For this expedition an early start, and a fair amount of "condition," is required; for though the actual distance from road to road does not exceed eighteen miles, the amount of climbing, and the very rough nature of most of the ground traversed, make it a harder day's work than is likely to commend itself to 'any one but a very energetic mountaineer.

These notes will, I hope, give some idea of the very interesting field for rock-climbing which exists in this comparatively little known region. The best time, I would repeat, for this ground, are the months of April and May. Later in the summer King Deer reigns supreme; and even if the vigilance of the keepers is evaded, the clouds, which in July often cover the tops for days together, will prove an obstacle, less substantial indeed, but with a marvellous persistency of opposition not lightly to be disregarded, when a few feet of rock, with precipices—possible, if not actual—yawning on either side, is all the visible world to the adventurous climber.


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