Walk of the week: The South Cluanie Ridge

The annual week’s visit to Balmacara, this time with Margaret, Rhona and Jimbo, was ill-planned in that it coincided with the late July heat wave.

Up at 6am on the first day, it was thanks to Jimbo that I did not leave with the car boot door open. Early starts do not see me at my best. Jimbo went to Beinn Sgritheall and I headed for the South Cluanie ridge.

Seldom dropping below 750m, the nine-mile ridge includes seven easy Munros but, given the heat wave, I planned doing only the first four.

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Despite walking by 7am, it really was too late a start. With dry side streams and no water on the ridge, I was carrying more than two litres of water.

With a higher starting-point and better views, the ridge is usually traversed east/west. Route-finding could scarcely be easier; with crags and corries to the north, steep grassy slopes to the south, but always a worn Munro path.

The facts

Maps Ordnance Survey Map 33, Glen Shiel, and 34, Fort Augustus

Distance 12 miles

Height 1,100m

Terrain Old road then hillside paths

Start point The Cluanie Inn, map ref 076118

Time 7 hours

Nearest village Shiel Bridge

Refreshment spot The Cluanie Inn, by the A27

The route

From just east of the Cluanie Inn, follow the old single-track Invergarry to Skye road, closed to public traffic since the 1950s. Submerged following the damming of Loch Loyne for hydroelectric reasons, the road rises from the water to pass round the east side of Creag a’Mhaim, the most easterly peak. Peter Bellarby can remember being driven on the road, but then he is older than me.

Continue beyond the highest point for the start of a superb stalkers’ path, map ref 102072, at 400m. (Some leave the road earlier, taking a more direct line, but purists start from the beginning of the ridge).

The path tackles the climb with consummate ease. It took a pitifully slow three hours to reach 947m/3,107ft Creag a’Mhaim, rock of the rounded hill, but a sensible crawl considering the stifling heat and desiccating breeze. I must be mad.

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It is a one-mile stroll towards 987m/3,238ft Druim Shionnach, foxes’ ridge, strictly speaking the north-facing spur. Just before the summit, the ridge turns west and becomes narrow and shattered; no problem in summer but interesting in winter. The summit overlooks Coire nan Leac, better seen from the 869m spot-height on the corrie’s western arm.

A 40m rise leads to the 938m spot-height, the only subsidiary Top on the whole ridge; the most traversed of all Tops by Munro-only hillwalkers. Its cairn may cause confusion on a misty day, perhaps in the belief that Aonach air Chrith has already been reached. 1,021m/3,350ft Aonach air Chrith, ridge of trembling, is the highest of the seven Munros.

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An impressive path, climbing 550m in a series of zigzags from Easter Glen Quoich, is known locally as the “shaky path”, suggesting more effort than terror as one possible explanation of the hill’s name. West of the summit is the hardest part of the main ridge; narrow, rocky and involving a short hand-to-rock spell before easy walking resumes. A winter traverse may be hindered, even barred, by the not infrequent build-up of cornices.

Bald red head is an accurate description of 981m/3,218ft Maol Chinn-dearg; a modest summit, yet seen as the halfway point and the best served of the seven Munros in terms of access via four stalkers’ paths.

Now for the descent. Head NNE over the excellent grassy Druim Coire nan Eirecheanach of easy gradient, then follow the stalker’s path that zigzags delightfully to the Shiel/Cluanie watershed to reach the A87 at map ref 044114. When we were there, Cluanie estate had put up a sign – red deer hinds calving, please keep to paths and ridges and out of the corries – exactly what we had done.

A pre-placed bike or car saves the two-mile busy road walk to the inn – cool drinks inside, 27C outside.