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A guidebook covering the best summer scrambling, rock climbing and winter mountaineering on Scotland's ridges, from the remote Cairngorms to the splendour of the Cuillin. With inspirational photographs, the guidebook is both a celebration of the landscape and a practical route guide.
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There are two customary approaches to the north side of Ben Nevis, both much of a muchness. One takes the Tourist Track from Glen Nevis, escaping just below the mind-numbing zigzags and contouring around the NW shoulder of Carn Dearg to join the Allt a’Mhuilinn by the CIC Hut. The alternative tends to be more popular with climbers: From the North Face car park near Torlundy head SE through trees, soon turning right. One kilometre later a left turn takes steep muddy slopes into the upper valley of the Allt a’Mhuilinn, and thence over sticky bogs to the CIC Hut. This path has recently been given a partial upgrade, firming up some of the worst boggy bits.
Updated text should read:
There are two customary approaches to the north side of Ben Nevis, both much of a muchness. One takes the Tourist Track from Glen Nevis, escaping just below the mind-numbing zigzags and contouring around the NW shoulder of Carn Dearg to join the Allt a’Mhuilinn by the CIC Hut. A nice new path connects the Tourist Track with the north tip of Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, where it simply terminates; a decision on continuing to the Allt a’Mhuilinn is currently pending (summer 2007). The alternative approach up the Allt a’Mhuilinn from the North Face car park near Torlundy tends to be more popular with climbers. The old route ascended a series of muddy slopes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Somme. These are currently being bypassed by a new path which climbs through plantations to connect with the forestry track used as a car park by local guides; beyond the gate at the end of this track the route then continues on its old course up the Allt a’Mhuilinn. This latter path has also enjoyed a partial upgrade, firming up some of the worst boggy bits.
Throughout the approach, Suilven dominates the landscape. Take the surfaced track beside beautiful Loch Druim Suardalain, and through the grounds of Glencanisp Lodge. At the time of writing the estate has just been bought by the Assynt Foundation, an alliance of local people making good use of Scotland’s community buy-out legislation to secure the area’s future on behalf of all residents rather than a dynasty of lairds, to be run with the twin aims of local economic development and regeneration of the natural landscape. This is a fantastic example for communities elsewhere to follow. Keep heading roughly E through fields and thickets of gorse, where the track becomes a path. For several kilometres this undulates gently, following the N bank of the wide boggy valley of the Abhainn na Clach Airigh.
Updated text should read:
Throughout the approach Suilven dominates the landscape. Take the surfaced track beside beautiful Loch Druim Suardalain, and through the grounds of Glencanisp Lodge. The estate was purchased in recent years by the Assynt Foundation, an alliance of local people hoping to secure the area’s future on behalf of all residents rather than a dynasty of landowners, with a view to regenerating both the local economy and the natural landscape. This was widely hailed as a flagship example of community buy-out, supported by many in the hillwalking fraternity and funded in part by landscape preservation bodies. However in the light of such support a recent proposal to build a windfarm on a prominent hillside close to Suilven seems rather ironic. Is this really in line with the Foundation’s core aim ‘to safeguard natural and cultural heritage of the land for future generations and the enjoyment of the wider public’? Keep heading roughly E through fields and thickets of gorse, where the track becomes a path. For several kilometres this undulates gently, following the N bank of the wide boggy valley of the Abhainn na Clach Airigh.
Time Your guess is as good as mine. The current record, set by an extraordinarily strong contender, stands at just under 3hrs 30mins between the two terminal summits. At the opposite end of the ability scale, two full days is far from unusual. In friendly weather average parties should reckon on something like 10-16hrs, plus a lengthy moorland tramp to start and finish.
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Time Your guess is as good as mine. The current record, set by an extraordinarily strong contender, stands at just over 3 hours 17 minutes between the two terminal summits. At the opposite end of the ability scale, two full days is far from unusual. In friendly weather average parties should reckon on something like 10-16hrs, plus a lengthy moorland tramp to start and finish.
This menacing shark’s fin forms the true summit of Sgurr Dearg, and is famously the only Munro that requires a rope. In truth many of the other Cuillin Munros are nearly as technical, if less exposed. The pinnacle can readily be avoided, though this would be a shame. Climb the razor-sharp E Ridge in one long roped pitch, which must rank as Britain’s airiest Moderate. Abseil the shorter vertical W side, from a reassuringly substantial hawser under the summit block.
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This menacing shark’s fin forms the true summit of Sgurr Dearg, and is famously the only Munro that requires a rope. In truth many Cuillin Munros are similarly technical, if less exposed. The pinnacle can readily be avoided, though this would be a shame. Climb the razor-sharp E Ridge in one long roped pitch, which must rank as Britain’s airiest Moderate. Abseil the shorter vertical W side, from a reassuringly substantial hawser under the summit block. A recent rockfall hasn’t adversely affected the abseil, though the adjacent North West Corner (a VDiff route on the W side of the pinnacle) was damaged.
Ridges are epic. Graceful carved walkways slung between summits, twisted spines of stone – these can be the most beautiful of mountain landforms. With elegant lines and giddy exposure, ridge climbs emit a powerful siren call, drawing us out onto the rocks. Life on the edge has a special quality, born of the contrast of empty space all around, and intricate detail in close-up. The crests are strangely irresistible.
Scotland’s ridges are among the finest mountaineering lines in the country, every one a unique adventure. The variety of these routes reflects the breadth of the mountain experience: a rich mix of summer scrambles, technical rock and challenging winter climbs. This book covers both the popular classics and some obscure gems, aiming to celebrate these thrilling climbs as much as to document them. Along the way it explores landscapes of magnificent diversity, ranging from the remote desolation of the Cairngorms to the seaside splendour of the Cuillin, the great trench of Glencoe to the surreal exhibitionism of the far north. The chosen selection spans the grade range, with routes to suit all levels of ability. Whether an earthbound hillwalker or an accomplished climber, Scotland’s ridges cannot fail to stir your imagination.
Size, as they say, is not everything. In comparison to the greater ranges, Scotland’s mountains might look diminutive, but they punch above their weight. Although they tend to be short by international standards, Scottish scrambles, traditional rock climbs and winter routes are as good as any of their type. What Scottish peaks lack in altitude they make up for in attitude: long walkins, rough terrain and mercurial weather are the norm. It is often claimed that those who learn to handle Scotland’s mountain mood swings can adapt their climbing to pretty much anywhere in the world – and it’s more or less true, give or take hypoxia and crevasses. But why climb elsewhere at all, when what we have here in Scotland is so good? While we’re spouting old clichés it just remains to say that in the trade-off between quantity and quality, the Highlands hold their own. The Scottish hills contain an almost limitless supply of superb objectives – challenging trips in beautiful settings. Metre for metre, there can be no finer mountains.
It is amazing just how much is packed into such a small country. One of Scotland’s great strengths is the diversity of its distinctive landscapes. From the Cuillin’s seaside saw-teeth to the magnificent buttressed face of Ben Nevis, from the sub-arctic desolation of the Cairngorm plateau to the sandstone monsters sprouting out of the waterlogged Assynt moors, variety abounds. The landforms are underpinned by a complex geology, a gift to climbers. In this book alone there are routes on granite, gabbro, basalt, rhyolite, andesite, gneiss, schist, quartzite and sandstone – sometimes even a combination of these in one day. Each is a different climbing medium, a different experience.
The pointiest peaks, specifically those of Skye, demand compulsory scrambling. But other than these few notable exceptions, relatively non-technical hillwalker’s trails can be followed up almost every mountain in the country. Those who are keen to tick off arbitrary shortlists of summits might see this as good news, though they are in danger of missing out. Some Highland hillwalks may be fantastic, but a summit-focused mentality can blind Munro-baggers to the obvious merits of smaller hills and more interesting routes. In contrast, people for whom the quality of the ascent experience is at least as important as the peak itself can find more challenging and more aesthetic climbs by the score, only the easiest of which receive much attention from hillwalkers. Where the going gets tough, the fun really starts. Delve into Scotland’s rich horde of classic ridges and you’ll discover mountain climbs as satisfying as any, anywhere.
The market is already saturated with mountain books. If we read them all we’d never have time to climb. So is this particular book sufficiently different to deserve your attention? I’d like to think so. The answers to the following questions go some way to explaining why.
Surely every mountaineer loves a good ridge? Threading a bristling gendarmed spine; inching around an extravagantly fluted cornice; balancing gracefully along a stone tightrope in the clouds – these are some of the finest things a climber can get up to. We all live on a metaphorical knife edge; sometimes it’s instructive to be reminded of that fact by pitting ourselves against the real thing. Ridges are airy and elegant, among the most attractive features of any mountain. There is a compelling narrative quality to ridge climbs, a linear development from beginning to eventual resolution via the twists and turns of plot along the way. A ridge is a story in stone. There may be technically harder climbs on any roadside crag, but few have the charisma of Scotland’s classic ridges. These are some of the grandest mountaineering lines in the country, each a memorable and unique adventure.
Quite simply because there are too many potential inclusions to cover in one book (perhaps there’s scope for a volume II?). The selection leans towards the classics, alongside which are a few that are more obscure, and yet equally worthwhile. Though seasoned Highlands aficionados might already know many of these routes, it seems a fair bet that only a tiny handful of climbers will have done them all. There may be no information here that you couldn’t glean from days spent poring over a small library of area-specific climbing, scrambling and hillwalking guides, but bringing these routes together in a single volume gives the ridge enthusiast a compact source of reference, one that also aims to serve as a celebration of Scottish ridges. It is a personal selection, and not everyone will necessarily agree with all of my choices. Have I included a dud, or overlooked a gem? If this gets one or two people talking about something other than football, even for a minute, then the book will have served a useful purpose.
Enduring favourites such as Suilven or the Dubhs Ridge could hardly be left out, but there are many other excellent climbs worthy of inclusion. There’s something special about every featured route, be it beautiful line, quality climbing or stunning location. Of course, the best days out are a combination of all three. One prerequisite at least is self-evident – that any included route must resemble a ridge, more or less. That is, it must be longer than it is wide, with steep sides and a defined crest. Obvious really. The chosen routes also need to be exciting. Wonderful ridge walks abound in Scotland, but only those that involve a modest degree of technicality and exposure – danger, if you like – make the shortlist. This is a mountaineer’s guide, and scrambles are the bottom line. There is no intrinsic upper grade limit, though the hardest climbs described weigh in at only VS or winter III. Sticking to relatively moderate winter grades was a conscious choice; though far harder (and just as good) under snow, celebrated ridge climbs such as those of Ben Nevis remain classics even in summer, at which time they can be enjoyed by a wider range of people. The selection aims to reflect the diversity of the Scottish mountaineering experience, which is a rich mix of roped and unroped scrambles, roped summer climbs and winter routes.
Experienced mountain walkers will doubtless have done plenty of scrambling in their time, and should feel pretty confident on the easier routes described here. But many scramblers will have set their sights a little higher still, aspiring to the classic low-grade rock and winter climbs. This is where the ground gets really interesting, while still remaining technically feasible for a majority of able-bodied people. Unhelpfully, it is exactly at this point that scrambling and hillwalking guidebooks tend to fizzle out. In contrast, climbing guidebooks often make only fleeting reference to some very attractive easier routes, and ignore others altogether.
It would be a strange sort of climber who did not find A’Mhaighdean’s North West Ridge deeply satisfying, though it could hardly be classed as a technical trip, and receives only a passing mention in the SMC area climbing guide. But just as the blinkered Munro-bagger ignores the best bits of a hill in pursuit of their summit tick, so some accomplished climbers scoff at the low-grade adventures, preferring instead the pursuit of everhigher numbers. Both groups are in danger of missing out. Though they have their uses, grades and figures are merely abstractions, and shouldn’t blind us to the merits of any route. Quantifiable goals like the next E5 or that final Munro are all very well, so long as people remember to enjoy themselves along the way. To paraphrase American alpinist Alex Lowe, ‘the greatest climber is the one having the most fun’. If this is true then the most enjoyable climbs must also be the best. And it’s hard to imagine routes more entertaining than the ones detailed in this book. The selection plugs something of a gap in the literature by ranging widely across the grades, on the basis that accomplished hill users, from stately hillwalkers to honed rock jocks, can find their middle ground on classic Scottish ridges, and all go home enriched.
Quality and difficulty don’t necessarily go together. It is just a happy coincidence then that the hardest rock climb described in this book also happens to be the best. Perfect rock, airy positions, varied pitches, character-building cruxes, an irresistible line and considerable length all unite to optimum effect on South Ridge Direct. This is one of the greatest mountain trips in Britain, a world-class mid-grade climb that everyone ought to do at least once in their lives; indeed, once probably isn’t enough. Cir Mhor is a hugely impressive pyramidal rock peak, the centrepiece of Arran’s magnificent ridge system. Piercing the flank of the mountain is the Rosa Pinnacle, a major crag by anyone’s standards. South Ridge Direct climbs its full height. Sweeping slabs, steep overlaps and blocky walls give it the monumental character so typical of Arran granite. Faced with rounded cracks and a general lack of small incuts, newcomers to the area may find the climbing quite butch for the grade. Despite the granite’s knuckle-grazing roughness, friction is poor in the wet. Three named pitches merit the VS grade – the rest are easier.
As for route no.2, but instead of contouring into Coire Daingean continue on the eroded mess of a path up to Fionn Choire. Cir Mhor has dominated the view for some time by now, and at close quarters it is particularly striking, the Rosa Pinnacle doing its best impression of a Chamonix Aiguille. A climber’s path branches off right to reach the foot of the crag at the base of an area of scrappy slabs. Allow about 2½ hours from the campsite.
South Ridge Direct 405m VS
Pitch 1, 50m
Climb easily from the lowest patch of rock, following a crack up a slab, and then a series of slabby ribs and vegetated sections by a line of your choice – bold but easy.
Pitch 2, 50m
Run out another rope-length up this straightforward ground, bearing slightly right to climb a short steepening via a little chimney, and then belaying on a slabby terrace below a bulging wall.
Pitch 3, 35m 4a
Sidle right along a horizontal crack, then up a slabby rib to the base of the wall where it is broken into big blocks/flakes. Pull strenuously up these, then foot traverse left along an obvious break to belay on a ledge below the famous S-Crack.
Pitch 4, 20m 4c, The S-Crack
Popular wisdom has it that the S-Crack is so named for its sinuous shape; but while getting to grips with its curves you could be forgiven for thinking that S signifies ‘sustained’. Fight your way up the relentlessly steep crack, jamming, bridging and laybacking. There are few positive holds, but plenty of runners – the challenge is not to hang around placing extraneous bits of protection and getting pumped. A surprise bucket hold provides a welcome jug before the strenuous top-out. Move left onto a sloping shelf to belay from a big perched flake (hint: it’s worth arranging an upward-pulling anchor under the flake in case the leader fluffs the next pitch).
Pitch 5, 10m 5a, The Y-Crack
As with the previous pitch, the prosaic explanation for the name involves its resemblance to a particular letter (can you guess which one?). In the heat of the moment however, struggling leaders might think instead that Y stands for ‘why oh why didn’t I let my mate lead this bit?’ The difficulties are short, but very sharp. Step off the flake and climb rounded cracks to the abrupt steepening from slabby to overhanging. Having placed reliable protection, power up the cracks to the arm-sapping top-out. You will be disappointed to discover that the prominent ‘cat’s ears’ at the top are by no stretch of the imagination jugs; it may in fact prove easier to aim further right. Belay with relief in a slabby niche.
Pitch 6, 50m
Foot traverse up left on an obvious diagonal crack to reach a boulder-covered ledge. Move around a blunt rib, and make a long easy traverse along the top of a huge sweep of slabs. Belay at the far end just below the next steep tier, where it is breached by a deep right-angled corner.
Pitch 7, 25m 4b, The Layback Crack
Gain the right-angled corner crack, which is climbed by strenuous laybacking. Leaders with strong arms can continue all the way up the crack (hard work), but it is customary to quit it after a few metres, where a raised seam cuts off rightwards. Follow this, swinging extravagantly from jug to jug across the slabby wall with smears for your feet. This is bold, unless you’ve a very small cam. The seam leads to another blocky corner, where there’s good gear. More laybacking then gains a block-covered ledge.
Pitch 8, 30m 4a, Three-Tier Chimney
A good old-fashioned struggle that will leave the bouldering / climbing wall fraternity at a loss. Climb the chimney system above the ledge, three steep steps with brief rests in between. The chockstone at the top is a welcome positive handhold, though it feels a little impermanent. Move right up to the ridge crest to belay.
Pitches 9 and 10, 60m
Continue easily in a grand position, moving left at one point to stay with clean rock on the arete to reach The Terrace.
This grassy diagonal rake marks the end of the VS climbing, and is a useful means of descent in failing daylight; climb it until safe ground leads off left above the crag to reach the path down Cir Mhor’s South West Ridge. From here Glen Rosa is easily regained.
The Upper Pinnacle, 75m VDiff
This great wedge forms the spire of the Rosa Pinnacle, as seen from a distance. It is set slightly to the right of the lower crag, immediately above The Terrace. Though it can be avoided, it shouldn’t be. Ascend it in three pitches, starting up the W flank from The Terrace.
Climb a little wall onto a slab, which is followed until a chimney leads onto a grassy belay platform. Walk left along the platform to another short chimney; climb slabby ground just to its right, onto the ridge crest. Cross to the Pinnacle’s E face, traversing airily rightwards into a corner. This leads to a belay stance. A brief climb up a last corner and slab wins the top of the Pinnacle.
Scramble down W to the grassy gap below Cir Mhor’s craggy summit. The mountain is quickly dispatched by a slabby scramble up its left flank to the fine pointed peak.
Follow the South West Ridge path, as above.
At 1:50,000 the OS Landranger series is sufficiently detailed in almost every case, and the relevant sheet is indicated for each route. One notable exception is the Skye Cuillin, where the terrain is so complex and the contours so close-packed that the 1:25,000 scale Explorer map (sheet number 411) proves marginally easier to follow. The Harvey’s Superwalker 1:25,000 (and 1:12,500 enlargement) of the Cuillin is perhaps the clearest of all.
Eyes to the Hills, Gordon Stainforth (Constable 1991): A combination of evocative photographs of the British mountains, and thoughtful musings.
Scotland’s Winter Mountains, Martin Moran (David & Charles 1988): Essential tips and skills covering every aspect of the winter game, but also an inspiring read.
100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains, Ralph Storer (David & Charles 1987): Is there a better hillwalking guidebook?
Scrambles in Lochaber, Noel Williams (Cicerone 1996): Details dozens of routes in this major mountain area.
The Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering, Terry Adby and Stuart Johnston (Cicerone 2003): Should be the first resort of every aspiring climber.
The Undiscovered Country, Phil Bartlett (The Ernest Press 1993): An erudite history of climbing, and an accomplished analysis of why we do it. An ambitious work, not yet bettered.
Mountaineering in Scotland, W.H. Murray (Dent 1947): A must-read; redolent of a past era, and yet still relevant today.
SMC area guides: The definitive climber’s reference books to Scotland.
The material and symbolic production of landscape in the crofting counties, Ronald Macintyre (forthcoming PHD thesis), a fascinating – if weighty – analysis of land use in the Highlands, and of our perceptions and representations of the Scottish landscape.
Medicine for Mountaineering & Other Wilderness Activities, James A. Wilkerson (Ed) (The Mountaineers 1992): You’ll hopefully never need it; but should the worst happen then here’s what to do.
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"Likewise, the hillwalker should not deny himself the pleasure of rock climbing, nor the cragsman of snow climbing."
There is much wisdom in Murray's comment but it's a wisdom that tends to buck the current trend of specialisation. Few of today's climbers would admit to being a mere hillwalker and many hillwalkers would never consider harnessing up with a rope to climb a rock face.
But perhaps the golden age of peak bagging is in decline, perhaps today's hillgoers are searching for a broader experience of our mountains. If that is the case then Dan Bailey's book on Scotland's Mountain Ridges has appeared at exactly the right time.
This isn't really a book about ridge walking in the Mamores or Fannichs sense - this is predominantly a book of climbs and scrambles.
All the favourites are here: the Dhubhs on Skye, Curved Ridge on the Buachaille, Ledge Route on the Ben, the A'Chir ridge on Arran, the traverse of Suilven, all mixed in with some fairly serious climbs: the Cioch Nose of A'Chaorachain, January Jigsaw on the great Rannoch Wall of the Buachaille Etive Mor, Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, the Great Ridge Direct of Ardgour's Garbh Bheinn and Mitre Ridge of Beinn a' Bhuird. These latter routes could never be described as scrambles, neither could some of the winter ridges that Dan recommends, like the Aonach Eagach or the Mullach an Rathain pinnacles of Liathach. In that sense this book smashes through the demarcation line that has long-existed between walking guides and climbing guides to offer a bit of both - users should take care they are not biting off more that they can cope with when choosing a route.
Lavishly illustrated, each route description is accompanied by maps and topos and a lot of good advice on accommodation and travel.
For those who are willing to take their eyes off the summits occasionally this book offers a feast of mountain delights and is a suitable testimony to the wealth o ridge wandering and climbing to be found on Scotland's hills.
'For newcomers to Scotland, this book will reveal a whole new world waiting to be explored. For old hands, it will serve to remind them of just how much the Highlands have to offer.
'I have always thought that if mountains were not meant to be climbed they wouldn't have grown ridges, what can be more natural than wanting to scale them? Included, as you would expect, are classic traverses of Aonach Eagagh, An Teallach, Liathach, the Black Cullin Ridge, along with lesser-know gems - Marathon Ridge on Ben Lair and Northeast Ridge of Sgurr Ghiubhsachain.
Dan Bailey is a man who knows and loves his hills. To those who claim his book will merely encourage yet more feet on to our fragile mountains, he has this to say "If more people were inspired to visit the Highlands then perhaps their protection might move farther up the nation's agenda."
And speaking as someone who rarely reads guidebooks, Scotland's Mountain Ridges certainly inspired me.'
‘I received this book with a certain amount of scepticism; oh no, not another ‘Best of’ volume, are there not enough out there already? However, I was quickly and pleasantly surprised by the quality of the content, design and layout.
I found the book extremely clear and easy to use. It has good maps, very clear diagrams and topos. To complete the information on each route, there are great photos alongside page after page of many favourite days out.
This guide is in my view, a gem of a resource. I would be more than happy to enjoy a day out on virtually all the routes in contains. My overall impression is that Dan Bailey has done an excellent job with this new guide.’
Also check out the reviews and articles on the following websites:
Ukclimbing.com (Aonach Eagach article)
Ukclimbing.com (Tower Ridge article)