- Alex Rambles
Magic with The Grey One
My favourite of all of Bilbo Baggins’ lines is: “I want to see mountains again Gandalf. Mountains!” This is a pull, an allure, that we all who are enthralled by the high places have felt. The mountains are calling. And I must go. As mountains go, I would liken Torridon giant Liathach to Gandalf. Ancient, magical and underestimated at your peril. Not convinced? Bare with me. So, every winter, The Grey One - that’s Liathach - becomes The White One, a transformation that the wise old wizard was not unfamiliar with, having himself graduated from grey to white. He became the greatest of his order, in much the way that Liathach is the greatest of its order, arguably Scotland’s finest mountain when in full winter knick. For the purposes of this article, we are sticking with The Grey One, that is, Liathach without the snow. Ancient. The mountain is, in fact, much more ancient than even Gandalf, who is only 2,019 years old. A wee nipper then, when compared to Liathach. Get this, the foundations of gneiss that the mountain sits on are in the region on 2600 million years old! This is some of the oldest exposed land on planet Earth. When in Torridon, you are in the presence of primordial majesty.
Magical. If its age does not blow you away, its appearance certainly will. It is monstrous. A behemoth. A leviathan. It towers over Glen Torridon with an air of impregnability. Of course, there are ways to breach its defences. Even Gandalf is not immortal. The magic only increases once one stands on its ridges, as the beauty of the North West Highlands unfurls on all sides. But underestimate Liathach and it will have the last laugh. “The staff! I told you to take the staff!” I park in Glen Torridon and set off up the trail that leads to the bealach beside Stuc a’Choire Dhuibh Bhig, the eastern termination of the mountain that gives it that overturned ocean liner appearance as seen in hundreds of loch reflection photos. The climb is a pretty one, beside a tumbling burn, and after an hour and a half’s hard graft I find myself on the ridge. Although it is not a Munro, I still make for the summit immediately to the east. My main reason? Beinn Eighe.
Torridon has a mountain triptych as famous as any in Scotland. Liathach, arguably the King. Beinn Alligin, the jewelled mountain that wears a feminine robe and is staggeringly beautiful. And Beinn Eighe, a sprawling giant that is more like an entire range than a single mountain. From my viewpoint on the summit of Stuc a’Choire Dhuibh Bhig it stretches away, flexing its quartzite muscle, promising great adventures to come in the near future. Back to Liathach and it is time to attack its highest summit. Spidean a’ Choire Leith is a gigantic dome of quartzite, aloof and as grand as any cathedral. It is this shattered grey quartzite that gives Liathach its moniker The Grey One. Before it is gained, there are some fairly narrow rocky ridges to negotiate, a mere amuse-bouche for the main course yet to come. After a couple of leg sapping undulations in the ridge and a lung busting final climb to the summit, I stand on the loftiest perch on Liathach.
The view is stupendous. The eyes widen. The pulse quickens. The game is on. There are other places in the British mountains that I can liken to this moment, but they are few. For example, when topping out at the start of the Crib Goch ridge, seeing the rise and fall of the razor-sharp arete, the pinnacles ahead and glorious Snowdon beyond. It doesn’t feel like Britain. It feels wild and perilous. You can’t quite believe you’re there. This is the same. Only better.
Put simply, the 360 degree vista is incredible, the North West Highlands in all of its glory. But it is trumped by what lies ahead. Mullach an Rathain, The Summit of the Row of Pinnacles, is a gigantic throne, bristly yet mighty, broken yet beautiful and beckoning. Before any pretender to the throne can lay their claim, however, they must first get past another breathtaking example of savage mountain architecture. The Am Fasarinen Pinnacles.
This is where it is wise not to underestimate Liathach. The Am Fasarinen Pinnacles are exposed, committing and, to the uninitiated, downright frightening to behold. Some are almost as pointy as Gandalf’s hat! They represent a grade two scramble not dissimilar to Glencoe’s Aonach Eagach. Unlike the Aonach Eagach, there is a bypass path that skips the majority of the scrambling. But if you have a fear of heights, you are better off sticking to the crest of the ridge. The bypass path skirts the terraced, steep sandstone sides of the pinnacles, is badly eroded in places and is just as vertigo-inducing as taking on the pinnacles (or so I am told as I, of course, stuck to the ridge - I’ve a reputation to maintain after all).
The scrambling is a tremendous romp. Truth be told, it is not as sustained, nor as technical as The Aonach Eagach but it is in the same league, whilst the surroundings are arguably more spectacular. The tiny blue dot that is my car looks as though it is vertically below me in some different world where different rules apply. Up here it’s just me and the mountain.
There are so many airy platforms that look out into the Torridon hinterland. Beyond Mullach An Rathain I can see beautiful Beinn Alligin, her graceful curving ridges illuminated by the midday sun. Next to Alligin is glorious Beinn Dearg, shrugging off the insult dealt to it by the Munro tables (it is inches too short) to rise as a sublime sandstone mountain that offers peerless vistas of the Torridon triptych. Further afield is shapely Baosbheinn, The Wizard’s Mountain, another Corbett. Yet more mention of wizards!
The last of the pinnacles are the grandest, offering entertaining but never nerve-shredding climbs and then that’s it, the end of the scrambling. The regal throne of Mullach an Rathain is now closer at hand and a mere hike away. The glittering prize earned by the conquest of the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles. From up here, Loch Torridon stretches seaward, shimmering in the suns light. Beyond all of this the Trotternish Ridge of Skye can be seen in the distance. Liathach does not end here. It is a huge mountain, so the ridge carries on for a few kilometres yet. However, the main path down to Torridon village begins here and it is time to leave the magic of The Grey One behind. Back down on the ground, I still had some distance to walk along the road and back to my car. As I walked, I pondered the journey I had been on over the last six hours, of the magical World that exists a thousand feet above and just slightly to my left. From here it looked impressive, yes. But nothing about its appearance now even hinted at the sheer grandeur and richness of adventure that I had just had. As grand and adventurous as any Middle Earth quest. Perhaps I was wrong to compare this mountain to a fictional wizard. Liathach is much more ancient, much more magical and the Am Fasarinen Pinnacles contain enough peril that they should not be underestimated. More than anything, Gandalf is not real. Liathach is real. The adventure is real. As Mallory once said of Everest: It’s there! Is it not about time you made Torridon and Liathach your own personal quest?
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