On the Forcan Ridge

One of the problems with the Forcan Ridge is that you cannot really form a true impression of it from the valley. Though if you could, it probably would not make much difference. You would either be attracted or repelled in slightly increased measure, depending on what you seek in a mountain. Being foreshortened somewhat, and with its main summit, The Saddle, hanging back from the road, it does not stand out from the rest of the high hills that surround it. Only a closer scrutiny reveals it to be one of the finest scrambles on the Scottish mainland.

The road to the Isles snakes down from the Cluanie Inn into Glen Shiel and on to Loch Duich. To the north are six Munros and a further three 3000-foot tops, including the Five Sisters of Kintail. These rise so steeply above the road as to feel almost threatening. On the other side, and only marginally more distant are the seven Munros of the South Cluanie Ridge, and by extension, the two further peaks of Sgurr na Sgine and The Saddle. All of these look formidable, and no one appears less so than any of the others.

From the road, the stalkers’ path zig-zagged up the grassy slope and onto a shoulder. It then took a more direct line for about a kilometre, rising gently up an otherwise very steep hillside toward a grassy col. As we stepped over the lip, we were able to form our first opinion of the Forcan Ridge. And it looked good. It was steep and craggy. Its 500 metres of height from where we stood appeared ridiculous, and promised a much tougher struggle than the slightly smaller height we had already climbed.

We followed the track round and up to the base of the first rocks. Here the track split. The lower one contoured round to Bealach Coire Mhalagain, then up grass and scree to the summit, so by-passing the difficulties of the Forcan.

First shoulder of the Forcan Ridge image001

The ridge itself began with a short scramble up a slabby groove onto a shoulder, thus establishing its ethos at the start. Most of the famous Scottish mountain ridges, like Aonach Eagach, Carn More Dearg and the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles of Liathach are essentially horizontal. True, they rise and fall over craggy humps in spectacular fashion and over vertiginous drops. They can become very serious in bad weather. And some, once embarked upon, can be difficult to retreat from. But there is almost no height difference between start and finish. The Forcan, in contrast, climbs relentlessly upward.

The second rise was longer than the first, and more sustained. In fact this was where the ridge established its true character. It was sufficiently broad to allow us several ascent routes. The track meandered around the rocky sections, avoiding anything that might have been too steep. But the difficulties, and even the dangers were more apparent than real. The rock was sound and rough, with plenty of good hand and foot holds. The trekking poles, which would have remained useful had we followed the path, got in the way on the scrambles and had to be pushed away into the rucksacks.

This is the kind of mountain terrain I now enjoy above all others, except perhaps for a frozen snow slope in winter. I dislike long walks to the start or from the finish of a hill. And steep uphill slogs are often too much like hard work. On a good rocky scramble, I feel as though I am making less effort, yet gaining height more rapidly.

Glen Shiel from the Ridge image002

     Despite the absence of real difficulties, the ridge had a big feel to it. The warm, though quite strong breeze contributed to the sense of exposure as we climbed higher. The floor of Glen Shiel was far below us while the ridge just seemed to keep on going higher. The whole became increasingly photogenic, and several parties we had passed on the way up now overtook us as we paused frequently to take photographs.

Another shoulder led to further scrambling. The ridge became narrower and the rock less broken. Again, the main difficulties were avoidable, but this would have missed the fun. From a high point of Sgurr na Forcan, now well above the Munro contour, a short steep descent to a col demanded some steadiness, and probably merited the description of easy rock climbing rather than scrambling.

The next small hump was mainly grassy, and beyond that was what appeared to be the final long drag to the summit. But not quite. There was yet another fall and rise to the horizontal, grassy ridge along which a trig point marked the true top of the mountain.

 image003 Scrambling on the Ridge

    The summit, in fact, stretched for about a hundred metres to the west, and narrowed to a rocky knife-edge before dropping to the next col. Over lunch, we debated what to do next. Brian, being keen to capture the 3000-foot Tops as well as the Munro summits, was all for continuing over Spidean Dhomhuill Bhric and Sgurr Leac Nan Each, a hard-looking two kilometres away. Being less of a fanatic, and hampered somewhat by an arthritic ankle, I decided to wait for him on The Saddle.

I watched him for several minutes, as he descended to the col, continued up the next rise and disappeared over that. He reappeared some time later, slowly climbing upward again. At the end of the ridge, someone else on the same quest was just approaching the summit of Sgurr Leac nan Each. The distance was dominated by the bulk of Beinn Sgritheall, which we had climbed a week earlier.

I moved down to a warm grassy patch, but quickly returned to the breeze of the summit to avoid the midges. I continued to follow Brian’s progress when I could see him.

This mountain complex amply demonstrates the lack of any kind of logic when it comes to classifying the Munros and Tops. Prior to 1997, The Saddle consisted of one Munro and six Tops During the re-classification, three of the Tops were deleted, one on the Forcan Ridge and the others along the route Brian was tackling. It was clear from where I sat that the deleted tops had quite significant drops to their surrounding cols, and also presented some difficulties on their ascents. So why were they deleted? The farthest point, Sgurr Leac Nan Each, was two kilometres from The Saddle, so why was it not a separate Munro?

I have been told that the classification of the lower peaks known as The Corbetts is based on much more rigorous criteria. Why not such rigour for The Munros?

Final rise to the summit image004

     My cynical conclusion was that the Scottish Mountaineering Council runs short of funds every few years and goes through a process of Munro re-classification, knowing that it can cash in on the fanatics who will rush out to buy new editions of the tables, books and maps that will follow.

Such musings filled the hour-and-a-half I waited for Brian’s return. When he joined me, he rested for a few minutes, then we set off down the steep grass and screes to the loch at Bealach Coire Mhalagain, and a junction with the track that by-passed the Forcan Ridge.

Brian’s extension to the walk had not drained his energy, so we quickly moved on up the track on the far side. This climbed steeply for 150 metres to a broad plateau, then more gently to the North-west Top of Sgurr na Sgine. Once again, we called into question the Munro classification. This insignificant rocky excrescence stood within spitting distance of the true summit, with almost no drop between, yet it held the status of a Top.

We did not linger on the summit, but retraced our route to the loch, and from there to the Start of the Forcan. The final descent to the car seemed endless, but then it always does at the anticlimactic end of a superb day. And while the car glinted at us in the early evening light, we were encouraged by the knowledge that The Cluanie Inn, and a welcome drink, were less than a 20-minute drive up the road.

image005

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