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  • Alex Rambles

Into the Highlands - Part Three - The Ring of Steall


1 man. 4 days. 3 nights. 1 wildcamp. 13 summits. 8 Munros. 4400 metres of ascent. 1 failure. 3 successes.

That is one way to sum up my solo jaunt into the Highlands of Scotland this August. If you prefer a qualitative rather than quantitative analysis of my time there, read on...

Monday had seen a failed attempt on Buachaille Etive Mor's Curved Ridge. On Tuesday I opted for the hiking route to the Buachaille and completed a traverse of its graceful ridge. The big one was conquered on Wednesday: Ben Nevis via the CMD Arete. Before the realities of weather, fuel money and time had forced a rethink, I had planned to get further north to Glen Shiel and Torridon. But these highly praised mountain arenas would have to wait for another day. I was staying in Lochaber. So today there was one obvious option. A mountain horseshoe about which that those-in-the-know wax lyrical. A route which has lovers of the Highlands gushing superlatives. The quintessential mountain horeseshoe on the British Isles? Perhaps. It is of course The Ring of Steall in the glorious Mamores. So, what did it have in store?

My day started in Kinlochleven, literally right under Am Bodach and Sgor an Iubhair, two of the peaks that make up The Ring. However, the classic traverse begins in Glen Nevis on the other side of the Mamores, forty-five minutes away. Of course, I was tempted to access the peaks from where my tent was pitched. It would mean an hour and a half's less driving and a significant saving on fuel. But to start the Ring of Steall from Kinlochleven would be to rob it of some of its most memorable moments...

Three quarters of an hour later, I am snaking my way along the glorious single track road that delves deeper and deeper into Glen Nevis, with Sgurr a'Mhaim promising great things ahead. To my left, is the unseen bulk of Ben Nevis and to the right are the corrie bitten Mamores. Eventually the glen narrows enough that the road must come to an end, at a small but busy car park. This marks the start of the route and a path carries on where the road could not follow, into the dramatic Nevis Gorge. The Water of Nevis tumbles noisily down the gorge and a sign warns of drama ahead.

Sign on the path through the Nevis Gorge.

Realistically, the sign is designed for families with children. Any seasoned ridge walker would have absolutely no trouble on the path that climbs up through the trees, with a drop to the Water of Nevis to the right. It is all very atmosphereic and the first of four good reasons to start the hike here rather than in Kinlochleven. The second good reason comes as something of a surprise. All of a sudden, the narrow gorge opens up and before me is a lush, wide Alpine meadow hemmed in by mountainous walls. At the far end is the third good reason - the majestic An Steall waterfall crashes down the side of the mountain. It is like something from a fantasty novel. A hidden World on the other side of the gorge.

The Steall meadow with An Steall waterfall beyond.

The final reason that a start in Glen Nevis is not only recommended but essential is the wire bridge crossing that gets me to the right side of the Water of Nevis. The bridge consists of three wires, two for handholds and one, tightrope-esque, for my feet. They all wobble as I progress across the river below. A dunk today would not be the end of the World but I can imagine this takes on a whole new level of anxiety in winter when the water would be Arctic-cold. It is all so exciting. I can not remember many other mountain days that have so much to shout about before feet have even begun ascending.

Careful progress on the wire bridge.

Yet another treat is ahead. An Steall waterfall now looms large and I have to cross the waters directly beneath it. This crossing is not as simple as most, as the water has a certain degree of momentum and the rocks are treacherously greased. After some careful route selection, I edge my way across the stream and join the path that leads to the foot of my ascent up An Gearanach. It is now a long, zigzagging pull up the grassy flanks of the mountain. The popularity of the route is clear from some of the erosion on the path. I'm making mental notes, imagining what this way would look like under snow. You see, The Ring of Steall is particuarlarly sought after in winter and, ever the assiduous sort, I like to study a route in summer before attempting it with my ice axe and crampons.

Since waking up that morning, the cloud had been hiding the summits of all of the Munros. However, the forecast was set to improve, with a high chance clear summits as morning became afternoon. As I ascend the grassy flank of An Gearanach, I should be able to see the immense spectacle of Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete swooping in a graceful arc across Glen Nevis. However, today a thick veil of grey hangs at around 1000 metres, unmoving, frustrating what would be an immense scene. Even more frustratingly, this veil would remain all day, meaning that Am Bodach and Sgurr a'Mhaim would remain in cloud and the sun would at no point highlight the immense landscape with its golden touch. As I got higher and higher, this veil got closer and closer. It was also windier, colder and wilder than the previous three days. This was set to be a ghostly, atmospheric mountain day, without the stunning views that would otherwise be evident, but certainly not lacking in drama. The Ring of Steall had laid its hand, it was time for me to rise to it.

Pleasingly, the dramatic twin summits of An Gearanach and An Garbhanach were below the cloud. This is one of the two most reputed sections of The Ring of Steall, one of the two sections of sustained grade one scrambling. Things get narrow as I summit An Gearanach and An Garbhanach bears its teeth and ruffles its craggy spine in a show of defiance. The elements and the mountain are teaming up to make this feels more intimidating than it would otherwise. This is what I am here for. The mountain ridge. The airy scramble. The personal challenge.

As with most mountain ridges, the most enjoyment is to be had by sticking the the crest. In reality, An Garbhanach is no more technical than yesterday's Carn Mor Dearg Arete and much shorter lived. However, it is a pleasure nonetheless that adds variety to the route. After a quite a steep descent, the next Munro rears it head. Stob Corie a'Chairn is much broader than An Gearanach and An Garbhanach and is made of two summits, the first being the main Munro. Today, it is most notable for a striking view back to the pointed peaks from which I had just come, as the view of the next Munro - Am Bodach - is lost in the unmoving grey veil.

A view to An Gearanach and An Garbhanach from Stob Corrie a'Chairn

The immensity of the landscape only really hits home when I see distant figures on the south top of Stob Corie a'Chairn, silhoutted against the grey and tiny on the mountain beneath them. Across Coire Ghabhail are three more Munros in Na Gruagaichean, Binnein Mor and Binnein Beag. Binnein Mor in particular looks impressive with its three ridges and main summit jutting out above the valley. I have heard it described as the finest of the Mamores and this is enough to deem it worthy of my attention one day.

But not today. My next Munro is Am Bodach. The slog up to this summit is the most lung busting on the entire round. I pass the tiny figures I had seen on Stob Corie a'Chairn on the way up this section. They have stopped for a breather and we discuss how the weather was supposed to be better than this. I wish them well for the rest of their journey and continue the steep clamber to gain Am Bodach summit.

I reach the cairn in poor visibility and decide not to hang around. As I descend, I consider how quickly three Munros have been knocked off. In fact, I realise that I have only ever done two Munros in a day previously. Today I would do four. That is one of the great attributes of the Mamores, their proximity and accessibility. A Munro bagger's dream. Strangely, I am now maybe only two and a half kilometres across and one kilometre up from Kinlochleven, where I had woken up this morning. What a great deal of time and effort had gone into getting here, though all of it had been a privilege. Soon I'm at the bealach between Am Bodach and the top of Sgor an Iubhair.

I had been here before, back in April, in almost identical visibility. My friend Lee and I had ascended to this point from Kinlochleven and summited Sgor an Iubhair before turning back due to worsening weather. It is all very familiar as I make the summit of Sgor an Iubhair - a mountain that was promoted to Munro status in 1981 before being demoted again in 1997. The Middlesbrough of the mountain World then. On that day in April, I had incorrectly congratulated Lee on reaching another Munro. My erroneous knowledge possibly due to the fact it would have been a Munro when it featured on 1980s TV programme The Munro Show with presenter Muriel Grey makin a point of it on the summit. Only when we got back to Kinlochleven, soaked, did I discover the bad news. Munro or not, it is still a mountain and a worthy one at that.

Once off Sgor an Iubhair, the most notorious section of the Ring of Steall awaits - the dramatically titled Devil's Ridge. The question is: how satanic can it be? In this reduced visbility, the traverse of the ridge is spookily atmospheric. What's better, the devil you know, or the devil you don't? This time it is certainly a case of the devil I don't know, as I can plainly see that the ridge drops away dramatically on either side, but I can not see what it drops to. For a while, there is a rocky scramble remeniscent of An Garbhanach; then, for a time, the terrain under foot is flat and accomodating. It is at all times narrow and I take an interesting photo with my GoPro that shows the airy nature of the walkway.

The narrow walkway of The Devil's Ridge.

There's one section that feels more serious than the rest. More Aonach Eagach than Striding Edge. I scramble up a small rocky pinnacle to find a gap yawning between this and another rocky pinnacle. This is undoubtedly the crux of the ridge and I wonder why no one has ever Christened them as the Devil's Horns. Well, now I have. So there! It is probably possible to jump between the two, but - like The Munro Show's Muriel Grey before me - I opt for the bypass path over to the left. As I make my way around it it, I hear her jokey chicken noises mocking the pair of us. Bypass path it may be, it is just as precipitous as the rest of the ridge. Much of the devilish bits are done now and I know that ahead of me should be the impressive form of Sgurr a'Mhaim, but the grey is immovable and I ascend into it.

A mountain summit in zero visibility is a strange place. The wide cairn of Sgurr a'Mhaim summit greets me but all is grey. I should have unforgetable views. I should be thinking that Sgurr a'Mhaim is one of the greatest platforms on which I have ever stood. But as I start my bittersweet descent towards Glen Nevis, I am left reflecting on what The Ring of Steall has been, what it is and what it could be. Let's start with what it has been today. The walk in was undoubtedly glorious, varied and exciting. The summits of An Gearanach and An Garbhanach were a real pleasure and the ridge scrambling was exciting. The Devil's Ridge was suitably devilish underfoot and superbly atmospheric. Next, I consider what the Ring of Steall is - a sublime horseshoe route over four worthy Munros and two sections of great scrambling. It is certainly up there with the very best UK horseshoe hikes.

And finally, the most exciting to consider is what it could be. I imagine a crisp, sapphire-blue mid winter's day, with endless skies and white, towering mountains. I imagine those narrow ridges under snow. I imagine the great spires of An Gearanach and An Garbhanach like white daggers thrusting into the sky. I imagine the trembling knees of the hiker crossing an ice cold Water of Nevis on the wobbly wire bridge. I imagine endless views across the Western Highlands to the Aonach Eagach, the Buachaille, the Bidean, the other Mamores and, most of all, Ben Nevis across the glen. I am imagining the winter traverse of The Ring of Steall. It is when it is supposed to be at its best. When I reach the car, I am in no doubt that I will be back here to tread where I have tread today once again. I am not finished with The Ring of Steall.

 

As I drive back to England, I consider my four days alone in the Highlands. I have a new found respect for Buachaille Etive Mor. It is not a mountain to be taken lightly, particularly its iconic show of crags on its north and east faces. The sense of isolation on my wildcamp was both liberating and humbling. I have grown to love Glencoe even more through both of these experiences. The day on Ben Nevis was fantastic, with the Carn Mor Dearg Arete living up to its fine reputation. Despite the low lying cloud's best attempts, The Ring of Steall was still a delight on which to trod and I now look forward to the prospect of returning in snowier conditions. Glen Shiel and Torridon, I have yet to lay eyes upon. But one thing I realised on this trip is that you do not have to keep driving around to find adventure. After all, there is enough mountain adventure just in Lochaber to keep a person going for a lifetime. Better to make it a week in Torridon, a week in Glen Shiel and a week in Lochaber separately than try to do a week taking in all three at once. The mountains will always be there another day.

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