Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Five Sisters of Kintail - with a limp!

The celebrated 'Five Sisters of Kintail' form one of Scotland's finest ridge walks. They are also amongst the most photographed of the mountain ranges, images inevitably captured across the head of Loch Duich from the Mam Ratagan bealach. From here, four of the five sisters magnificently fill the frame from the sea upwards, leaving apparently little room for sky. The mountains forests, ridges, slopes, folds, eroded gullies and defiant peaks are arrayed in a truly grand display. These sisters both seduce their would-be conqueror with their irresistible beauty and then equally alarm him, with their scale and severity. The Rogers Character and I stood on the shoreline outside Ratagan Youth Hostel and had a long ponder at the prospect in front of us. After a long pause I said, "What do you reckon then?". "Well, I think we can give it a go", he replied.

Nearly all the mountain route books say that two cars are required to complete the Five Sisters traverse, one to be left at Shiel Bridge, the other to be driven to the high-point of the Glen Shiel road, where access to the high ridges can be gained via an ascent from the Glen's historic battle-site. Uniquely I think, Ralph Storer's book suggests a different route that enables the great ridge to be assaulted as a walked circuit. We followed his route from Morvich up Glen Lichd, past a private climbers hut and a ruin, before turning up the side of the mountain for a long, steep, difficult and exhausting climb up the unrelentingly steep grass slopes that make for the lowest point of the ridge; Bealach an Lapain. From here the views were stunning, with Beinn Fhada and The Saddle jostling for attention on each side, fighting against the long graceful lines of the South Glen Shiel Ridge, further round. Our eyes were inevitably drawn west and northwards however to get a glimpse of what the day ahead might bring.

The views of the Five Sisters themselves didn't really come into view until we had climbed the first peak, Sgurr Spainteach, "The Peak of the Spaniards". This relatively straightforward 'sister' is completely hidden in the 'classic' view of the range. It leads on to the great peak of Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe, which is a wonderful airy viewpoint, forming a 'corner' on the ridge, as it turns Northwards. Sgurr na Carnach (a defrocked Munro!) sits up on the ridge between the two highest points, and forms a significant obstacle as one traverses from Ciste Duibhe to Sgurr Fhuaran.

It was somewhere on Carnach that The Rogers Character's knee exploded. He came on these few days walking carrying an injury that had caused no significant problems - until now. It suddenly became obvious that he was walking neither normally nor comfortably - his usual confident stride being replaced by a painful limp. The nature of the Five Sisters of Kintail is that while they put up a huge amount of resistance to you getting on top of them - once there, they certainly do not let you go easily. The choices were stark - go back all the way we had come, or continue over Sgurr Fhuaran, Sgurr nan Saighead and Beinn Bhuide! We chose the latter and walked, increasingly slowly over Fhuaran, the great summit of the ridge, and then past the subsequent peaks, traversing under the very tops of them where possible, before exiting the ridge at the first available place - down the Alt an Chruinn. Some friendly walkers we had met on the hill gave us a lift from there, round to our car at Morvich.

At the time, it felt like a bit of a disappointment. We had set ourselves a big challenge, and thrown ourselves at it, and indeed had done most of the hard work, only to be robbed of the joy of completing the whole route as planned. In retrospect though, it looks much better! After all, we managed to stand on top of four of the ridge's major peaks, came within a few metres of another - and only completely avoided one! We climbed thousands of feet, walked many miles, saw some of Scotland's finest scenery, did two Munros, and got back safely too. I would love to be able to walk the whole ridge though, and I'm itching to go back already!

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