A’ Mhaighdean (Or Bust)

Attendees: Dan Unwin, Maisie Hamilton Unwin, Clair Seymour, Kate Lo

Only four NMCers were daft enough, foolhardy enough, brave enough ( delete as appropriate ) to sign up for this trip, which had as its sole aim an ascent of what is often regarded as the remotest mountain in Mainland Britain. Lying as it does in the heart of the ‘Great Wilderness’ of the Fisherfield Forest,  A’ Mhaighdean ( pronounced A’vagin & meaning ‘the Maiden )  is peak with a fair amount of romance & one which should not be underestimated. The remotest point in Britain ( as confirmed by the OS ) lies at Grid reference NH02020 77000, is within the area.

We set off at 4pm on Thursday for the long drive North. The trip was uneventful, traffic good. The only niggle was a lack of McDonald’s on the M6. We settled for a pie each at Tebay. Kate  drove to Carlisle & I then took over – Clair only having arrived back from China the day before we all thought jet lag & long distance driving a bad combination. After a slight detour on the wrong A832 to Gairloch we arrived at Corrie Hallie car park. It was 4:30am & raining. So we all caught a little more sleep in the car until after 6:30 when the rain had stopped & we were ready for the 4.5 mile hike to Shenevall, our base for the next three nights. The start of the walk in is on a good track which climbs steadily alongside the   Allt Gleann Chaorachain through birch & alder. The imposing cliffs of An Teallach coming into view on our R. There was a little rain, but nothing to dampen our spirits. Over a foot bridge & we began to climb the southern flank of Càrn A Canaich, a 471m Tump & a fine viewpoint with An Tellach filling the western sky. It had stopped raining, so we dropped rucksacks & took a short detour to the top.

We had left the track & were now following a good path to the bothy. They bothy only appears into view in the last few hundred metres of the approach.  The rain made a second half hearted attempt to set in, but gave up. Shenevall lies in a superb location in a vast landscape which is almost devoid of human interference, only the stalkers cottage at Larachantivore to spoil the view. The lack of trees, walls, in fact anything to give scale, makes judging distance here hard. Slioch is visible on the horizon, a mountain over 8 miles away, but seemingly so close.

The bothy was empty of people, but there were four sleeping mats & bags so we knew we’d  not be alone that evening.   After lunch we dozed in the sun, but as the afternoon wore on  we decided to reconnoitre the river crossing which can & has thwarted many people’s ambition to climb  A’ Mhaighdean. We walked up & down the Abhainn Strath na Sealga which was deep in places. Finding a likely crossing Kate waded in, with the freezing water over her knees. She made it to the gravel bar in the middle of the river, with just a smaller & shallower bit left to cross. Maisie & I got half way, but with the water beginning to reach half way up Maisie’s thighs we headed back – the cold shock of the water only kicks in after 10 or so seconds, but it is acute & numbs the brain as well as the legs.

Now we had our crossing point. Kate & Clair walked down the 1.5km to the shores of Loch Na Sealga, where Kate bravely went for a swim – all 5 seconds of a swim she told us later. They collected fire wood from the beach.  Maisie & I messed about on the boulders near the bothy. A few more people had arrived, mainly people walking the Cape Wrath trail. I spoke to two burly looking chaps who had spent a miserable day trying to cross the river, the height of which had been impossible to cross earlier that day. They’d given up & wandered around the loch instead.

The sun was still shining brightly, so we decided to celebrate the glorious early evening. “Would either of you ladies fancy a GnT?” was a question met with a certain amount of scepticism, until three cans were produced from my rucksack.   Clair got the fire going, we had our rudimentary instant meals & we sat back & watched all the other residents burn Clair & Kate’s fire wood. Only Christoph, a German lad walking the CWT, asking if Clair would actually like to sit next to the fire she’d taken ages to get going. A sweaty looking chap walked in, water bottle in hand & asked “where’s the tap?” “ the river” replied Clair. Bed was at 10 for everyone, after we’d all watched a superb sunset over Loch na Sealga.

 

The next morning was clear & almost without a cloud in the sky. We had breakfast and set off. There are no real paths for much of the route, which I had marked in pencil on the map after consulting several guide books & online resources. Our first obstacle was the river, which due to the good weather had dropped a few more inches making the crossing easy – if still mind numbingly cold. After some vicious gorse bushes there was a kilometre of bog to cross. It had been described to us the night before as the ‘bog from hell’ and whilst not quite that bad, it did mean endless zig sagging & criss-crossing to avoid the deepest waterlogged sphagnum pools.  Once passed the bog we had our second river crossing just above  Larachantivore – not as deep but just as cold & wide. Once over we were able to make use of a stalker’s path for a while, before  striking out into the Gleann na Mucie Beag. Higher in the valley a path began to form & this took us to the edge of the Loch Beinn Bearg where we stopped for a bite to eat. To the North were the steep screes of the Corbett Beinn Dearg Mor, whilst to the south were the cliffs of the little frequented Creag Mhor a’ Bhinnein. A wild & majestic place for a camp. But not this time – we carried on, following a stalker’s path which eventually leads to the bothy at Carnmor. However after awhile it was time to strike out south to the flanks of the first hill of the day, Ruadh Stac Mor. This is the area in which lies GR reference NH02020 77000, and we passed within metres of the exact spot.

Looking at the pathless N face of Ruadh Stac Mor, we decided to attack it from the western end, climbing up to the R of Lochan a Bhraghad. Once above rock terraces & we were able to get to the start of the scree & snow banks. The Western Isles began to appear on the horizon. A direct line up the scree led to the summit. At 3014ft only just a Munro. We met the sweaty chap from the night before & his mate, the only people we’d seen all day. They gave a poor report on the way onwards & we wished each other well.

The views are fine & for the first time we could now actually see A’ Mhaighdean, lying to the SW with the deep cleft of Poll Eadar dha Stac separating   A’ Mhaighdean from Ruadh Stac Mor. After a few pictures & a selfie next to the trig point we began the steep descent. An occasional cairn gave a clue as to the right way to go. This was important as trending to far south leads to cliffs. The descent got steeper, but eventually we were at the col. Looking back it seemed impossible that we’d descended what looked like so steep a hillside. A rudimentary stone shelter, sits under one of the boulders here.

The climb up to the summit of A’ Mhaighdean was easier than expected, the view from Ruadh Stac Mor having been fore shortened. We crossed the small summit plateau & ascended the rocks of the summit tower. It was almost four. Along with its title of remotest Munro, A’ Mhaighdean is also considered to be one of the finest viewpoints in Britain. The view to the west over Poolewe & Lochs Ewe & Garirloch is unsurpassed. The inky waters of Dubh Loch lie 2600ft directly at the base of A’ Mhaighdean’s western cliffs, whilst Harris & the Hebrides lie in the distance. We probably stayed too long on the summit, but the weather was good & the views unforgettable.

So began the return to Shenevall. We intended to descend the  easy eastern slopes to Pollan na Mucie & then see what options were available to us. As we descended the first spots of rain were blown in, from downpours over the north shores of  Lochan Fada, the rain falling some four miles away. Some careful map work & navigation saw us by pass the cliff of Stac a’Chaorruinn & skirt around the bogs of the Allt Pollan na Muice catchment on the eastern side. It had gone five thirty, the rain was no longer being blown onto us but was falling from directly over us & it was 5.5 miles, and 2 river crossings back to Shenevall.

We quickly lost height & stayed on the western side of the Abhainn Gleann na Muice river. Eventually, after a few miles a path began to develop. The rain, which had never been more than a shower, despite the greyness of the clouds, & began to stop. We had a quick break, crossed a small tributary of the river & were, sooner than could have been hoped, back at the site of the Larachantivore crossing. Maisie’s boots were soaked so she just rolled up her leggings & waded over. The rest of us took ours off.  It had now gone nine & was dark, and Shenevall was still a mile away & we had the ‘bog from hell’ to contend with. The light of a head torch being waved in the gloom by someone at Shenevall guided us over the bog. By the time we reached the fourth & final deep crossing of the day it was hard to tell exactly the right spot on the bank. Luckily, for the first time that day a GPS proved useful, guiding us to the exact sport we’d used that morning.

We entered the bothy at 10, after thirteen hours of superb mountaineering over some of the wildest terrain in Britain. Luckily there were only two people in the bothy & they had a good fire going. Tansy & Lauren, were a little shocked to see us at first, ( I still had my trainers on from the river crossing & a cry of ‘Oh there’s a bairn’ had greeted Maisie’s entrance ), but after the initial commotion & the women’s urge to mother us all having passed, they offered us coffee & a place by the fire. We declined the drink favour of a Cosmopolitan from my rucksack.  We ate, & sat smuggly glowing from a day well done in the hills. We had a glass of Pinot Noir. Or Two.

 

Again the weather was perfect on Sunday. We had a slight lie in, but the sky was too blue to waste. Tansy & Lauren had gone off to bag Beinn Dearg Mor, so we had the bothy to ourselves. A close inspection of An Teallach seemed like a plan, the southern flank of which rises in a 3000ft wall directly behind Shenevall. Before we left the ladies returned, the river crossing having resulted in a twisted ankle for one of them.

We followed the path which leads to Corrie Halle for a while before directly attacking the SE spur of Sail Liath. This rises at a consistent angle for what seems an interminable distance, at first over grass then scree, before giving way to easier, rockier slopes. Passing a cairn we headed NE to the final slope of the Munro top Sail Liath. The summit gives a ringside seat to the impressive cliffs & pinnacles of An Teallach, all of which seem unclimbable. The summit here also gives a fine view of A’ Mhaighdean. Again we lingered a little too long on the top, taking lots of photos. The way back was the same as the way up, so we retraced our steps, the scree far harder in descent. The rain stated again, but only half heartedly. When we got back to the bothy we found a new resident – Enrico ( from Germany ) how had kindly bought all our drying clothes in from the rain. The rucksack bar was empty so we had cup-a-soups & coffee. Clair got the fire going again & as soon as the sun had finished another superb display we went to bed.

As we had to drive back on our fourth & final day we were up early. We ate & then packed glad that we’d eaten enough to reduce the weight of our packs by a good margin. We said goodbye to Shenevall, had our picture taken by Enrico & headed back on the 4.5 miles to the car. There was not a cloud in the sky. We reached the car at 11, and after we’d all had a complete change of clothing ( nothing beats being totally nude in a lay by in Scotland ), we set off on the 12hr drive back. Four very happy campers. The odometer in Kate’s car reading a round trip of 1280 miles 12hrs later that day.

 

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