Legs of Jelly On The Ring of Steall – 3rd time lucky!

I was basically running down the quartzite scree. With each step I was travelling about 2 metres, a metre long step and then sliding a metre. Every now and again, a rush of small boulders would slide past me, travelling faster than I was. When this happened, I would lose control and only manage to hold myself upright by instinctively tensing up and sliding down with the boulders for about 5 metres. I didn’t even feel like I was concentrating, I was on auto-pilot. There was a faint path that was made up of smaller stones but my legs were ignoring it and just blitzing straight through the zig-zags, almost establishing a new, quicker and less controlled route. Finally reaching the end of the rocky scree, I could see the green start of grass. As I jumped onto it and managed to get control of my momentum again, I turned around and noticed the summit of Sgurr a’Mhaim was now out of view. I lay down and closed my eyes and waited on my mates, it was 17:00 and we still had more than 2 hours of descent ahead of us.

Nearly 10 hours earlier, we were having our ‘start of the walk’ photo taken by a Canadian tourist infront of a sign which read ‘Danger of Death’. We were fresh as daisies and itching to get up our first of four Munros on the Ring of Steall. This was our third attempt at the walk, the previous two had been failures. Infact they weren’t failures, they weren’t even attempts. They were complete non-starters. We had just decided we were too lazy to wake up at the time needed to do the full route in daylight. The big bad reputation of the Ring of Steall had scared some of the group…

Just a quick warning!

Just a quick warning!

So as we made our way along the path which led us through the Nevis Gorge, we joked about whether we were going to make it to the top of the last Munro. The weather was good, there was cloud in the sky but it was higher than the surrounding peaks, the MWIS forecast of a 90% chance of cloud-free summit was beginning to look accurate. The initial path is great to walk on, well maintained and placed at a good height to get a good view down into the gorge. It wound its way along for about 20 minutes, curving slightly round to the left before opening up into an absolutely glorious meadow. My guidebook told me earlier that I would definitley know when I came into the meadow because of the very obvious waterfall directly ahead, it was right! A few photos and a quick walk later, we were at the wire bridge. Luckily for us the river wasn’t even close to being in spate so we could’ve walked past the bridge a little bit and easily skipped over some stones and joined the path again. Where’s the fun in that though?

Arriving in the meadow.

Arriving in the meadow.

The bridge was a bit bigger than I thought it would be and way more wobbly aswell! With a heavy pack in high winds and with a fast flowing river underneath you, I could see why some people might think this was the hardest part of the walk! For us though, it was fairly easy, more awkward than anything else! We made it over and within another 5 minutes we were at the foot of the Steall Falls, I’ve not got a clue how tall the waterfall is but it’s definitely the tallest one I’ve stood in front of. We stopped to take more photos and have some water, and generally fanny about for a bit before we started off again. By the time we had crossed the burn, walked over a boggy patch and joined a substantial path again, we were already an hour into the walk and had probably only gained about 20 metres in height!

Crossing the wire bridge.

Crossing the wire bridge.

Fast forward another hour and we were well on our way to the first summit of the day. We had walked up into a coire and up god knows how many zig zags, before swinging to the right and skirting underneath a cliff face. It was quite a long detour to gain the ridge but obviously the safest route. Before turning left again to start an ascent onto the summit ridge, the path levels out for a while and the route exposes a brilliant view of the day ahead. We could see the full ridge from Am Bodach right the way round, over the Devil’s Ridge to Sgurr a’Mhaim, the last munro of the day.

As we were nearing the summit, the snow patches were beginning to grow and become more regular. With the time of year, we knew there was going to be snow but what I hadn’t thought about was just how eroded and unstable the cornices would be! Some of them were at least three metres deep with massive cracks right along the edge of them, the ridge we were on was probably fairly narrow but with the cornices, looked much wider. We were coping with the snow fine, considering none of us had cramp-ons with us until we came to what can only be described as a wall of ice. Nothing too intimidating or big, it was probably only about a metre taller than myself and actually seemed safe enough to climb. There were plenty holds for us to scramble over, but it wasn’t until we looked more closely we realised we were standing in the middle of a 2 metre wide crack in an otherwise pristine cornice! It must’ve been at least 4 or 5 metres deep in the depth of winter. With that in mind, we decided to find another way past and back tracked about 100 metres.


Barrier of ice. (Bad photo!)

Barrier of ice. (Bad photo!)

After taking a route which brought us out on the opposite side of the snow we were at An Gearanach’s summit cairn within 10 minutes. The panorama view from the top was unbelievable, a perfect view of every summit we had planned for the day. We could also see south over to the Glen Coe mountains and a great view east to the other Mamores.

Panoramic view from the summit of An Gearanach. The other 3 Munros in view with the Glen Coe mountains in the distance.

Panoramic view from the summit of An Gearanach. The other 3 Munros in view with the Glen Coe mountains in the distance.

After taking our standard ‘man-leg’ photos we got a move on since it was starting to get cold. I’d read in a guidebook that the ridge that lay infront of us was apparently worse and more exposed than the Devil’s Ridge on the opposite side of the horseshoe, luckily it wasn’t windy or wet and the cloud was still sitting well above the summits. When we finally reached a point on the ridge where we had no choice but to put our poles away and clamber over, I realised we were at the stage the guidebook was talking about. My mate Hammy chose to go first over the awkward looking, knife edge rock. For not having much hill experience, he was pretty game for scrambling over this part. I told him I’d wait back and try get some ‘action shots’ with my camera. He seemed to be loving it, maybe he likes being on his hands and knees…?


Scrambling over the An Garbhanach arete.

We had a good laugh scrambling over the airy ridge which was actually pretty easy, just a little exposed in places. We joined the path again and descended to a bealach where we stopped for a two minute break and got our poles out again. The climb to the second Munro of the day starts from here and is fairly short. Quite steep in places but you can see the summit cairn from about halfway up the ascent which is a relief, there’s nothing worse than a false summit! We reached the top to see the views from Stob Coire a’Chairn are amazing and I chose to sit facing south while we ate our lunch. The view in front was over to Glen Coe and we could tell how far we’d come from the first Munro since Buachille Etive Mor seemed much bigger than before! We sat here for almost 45 minutes, chilling out and soaking up the views. It was hard to think we were still only about a third of the way through the day.

Looking towards Ben Nevis from the summit of Stob Coire a'Chairn.

Looking towards Ben Nevis from the summit of Stob Coire a’Chairn.

There’s an option to turn east at this point and head out towards Na Gruagaichean, but there was no way we were making the day longer and adding on an extra hill! So we headed on towards the next hill, Am Bodach. From where we were it didn’t look that far away but there definitely seemed to be more of a descent and ascent in front of us. My mates charged on ahead and as usual I was still strapping up my rucksack as they left the cairn. My legs were starting to give me the ‘geez a fuckin break’ feeling. I’ve always been a slow starter and even slower at getting going again after having a break. Sometimes I think I might just be better charging on without resting, but I’m far too lazy to test that theory. I eventually caught up with the other two. As usual, I get carried away when descending on my own and end up going onto auto-pilot and more or less run and jump off the hill. The views east from this side of Stob Coire a’Chairn are great. The coire between this mountain and Am Bodach is impressive and was still holding a lot of snow, even for this time of year! Am Bodach looks intimidating from this side, it looks steep and I could clearly see a massive cornice still overhanging up near the summit. The route was hard to make out from where we were but when we finally started climbing, it led us into the rocky face of the mountain. We had to scramble up parts and squeeze through tight gaps that I expect bigger guys might struggle to fit through. Luckily us lads are young and lean…

Near the top of the summit, we met a couple who had little to no gear with them besides a camera. They said they had come up from Kinlochleven and joined the ridge on the other side of Am Bodach. That was about all we talked about since they were letting us pass through and also because I was breathing out my arse! We reached the summit cairn a few minutes after that and again, Buachaille Etive Mor in Glen Coe looked even bigger! We had another quick rest at the top of the mountain, although it wasn’t long since our last we were all starting to feel the strain. We were standing on top of our third Munro of the day and had only been out for 6 hours. With plenty of ascent in there! As I inhaled a snickers bar, my mates started heading off again. Standard practice now. We descended Am Bodach in a westerly direction, the three of us about 100 yards away from the other and I was already looking forward to the flat ridge that lay ahead. We had reached the most southern point of the walk and as we progressed off Am Bodach we started getting a view of Ben Nevis, the big brute with its tiny looking partner Carn Mor Dearg. We’d always been able to see the Ben but this was the first time of the day it hadn’t been at our backs. It looked huge from where we were and the Carn Mor Dearg arete looked awesome in the clear weather. The flat, level ridge I had been eyeing up for about four hours was over quicker than I expected and before I knew it we were all sitting in a cairn at the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair. This top had been a Munro from 1981 to 1997, who knows what that’s about? The way the Munro tables get updated now and again has always baffled me! But today, it was only classed as a ‘top’. After another chocolate boost, we started off towards the intimidating sounding Devil’s Ridge.

The Devil's Ridge and Sgurr a'Mhaim in the background.

The Devil’s Ridge and Sgurr a’Mhaim in the background.

The Devil’s Ridge has a reputation amongst walkers, especially those who haven’t walked along the ridge. And maybe those who’ve walked the ridge in torrential rain and heavy winds. Or maybe those who have walked it in winter. Or maybe even those who’ve done it blind folded. But in clear, calm weather the Devil’s Ridge has no real difficulties apart from walking it without stopping to get the camera out. The views back over to the other side of the horseshoe and the three Munros we had walked over earlier in the day were outstanding! It seemed ages ago we were sat on top of An Gearanach. The views down into the glen were also brilliant. The only other difficult part of the ridge is probably where the reputation comes from. A small rocky section where long arms and legs are definitely a help. There is an easier bypass route which one of my mates actually took without even realising this was ‘the scary bit’ we had been talking about earlier! When I reached the section I tried to cross over it. There was nothing scary about it after all, the drop either side was only about 2 or 3 metres but the actual jump from one rock to the next was too far for me. I literally couldn’t figure out how to get across without leaping about 2 metres, and that wasn’t gonna happen with a full day pack on. So I relunctantly took the bypass route with only a hint of disappointment…

Looking back along the Devil's Ridge.

Looking back along the Devil’s Ridge with Bidean Nam Bian looking glorious in the background.

On the summit of Sgurr a'Mhaim. Exhausted.

On the summit of Sgurr a’Mhaim. Exhausted.

That out the way, there was about a further 20 minutes on the ridge before we were all sitting round the cairn on top of Sgurr a’Mhaim. The cairn marked the fourth Munro of the day and at eight and a half hours, we’d taken our time that’s for sure. The views were again amazing from the summit. This time the chat was minimal and there was even a few yawns and we still had a good few miles ahead of us before we were back at the car. Half an hour at the top was enough, the temperature was starting to drop and all three of us were getting the urge to get off the mountain. So on jelly legs, we set off. It was 16:45 and after a long descent which included running down scree, excellent views along Glen Nevis and up to the Ben, sliding on grass and falling face first literally inches from a boulder (that gave me a fright!), running out of water and at least a mile of tarmac… we finally reached the car. What a day, but one to remember. I slept well that night.