Hillwalking - An ultra sharp ridge

There aren’t too many really good scrambles to be had in Glen Shiel; here and there, with a little contrivance, you can eke out one or two.

Sunday, 22nd March 2015, 7:00 am

Unless, of course, you set your feet on The Forcan Ridge...

Sgurr nan Forcan, ‘the peak of the little fork’, provides by far the best way onto its mother peak, The Saddle. This ultra sharp ridge, (in a fashion rather belying its name), cuts the skyline like a gigantic blade.

Not quite up there with the likes of the Aonach Eagach or the famed ridges of Liathach and An Teallach, The Saddle’s satellite ridge provides a nonetheless exciting route in summer conditions; in winter conditions it provides a spicy proposition.

To be fair, as we drove along Glen Shiel, and in spite of a sharp overnight frost, we were a little disappointed to see that The Forcan Ridge carried so little in the way of snow.

This is often the case with arêtes, snow has little chance to settle before fierce westerly’s sweep the ridges bare. The Saddle itself, the system’s reining peak, looked a somewhat different proposition.

And so, after a cold night in the back of the Picasso and with the sun yet to breach the glen’s northern and eastern barrier rim of hills, we crossed the road and found the stalkers path. The flat, grassy meadow-like tract of ground we crossed was grey in the grip of days of frost, the path beneath our boots as hard as iron.

Meallan Odhar, a mere 610 metres high, loomed ahead in the half-light. To its north, and thus our right, rose the higher Biod an Fhitich (‘the point of the raven’).

The well-maintained path meandered gently up towards the Meallan, before deviating in its deep shadow to put us on the col between the two tops. Impatiently we dropped to the other side, then doubled back to the foot of The Forcan Ridge.

The game could now begin.

In fact, although there’s plenty of rock about, we ascended the initial steep rise on frosty grass. And then... we found ourselves on top of the tump, gazing incredulously at the pyramid of rock that rose before us.

Alluringly Magnificent! That describes it best. Buttressed on either side by sometimes seemingly perpendicular walls, the slabby ridge, much foreshortened from our vantage point, flew away in front of us.

Although the arête is in some places very sharp indeed, necessitating an almost tip-toe approach rather than a hands-on climb, the scrambling is never hard. By staying religiously on the crest we had our exciting moments, yet the exposure was rarely serious. Though snow lurked only in little pockets, here and there, there was plenty enough ice to keep us wary. More than once along the ridge we contemplated donning crampons. The real trick though was avoiding any easier ‘cop outs’.

Thoroughly absorbed, we were astonished to find ourselves already at the summit; yet only of Sgurr nan Forcan. There was more fun yet to come. A little farther on we arrived at a seemingly unavoidable obstacle in the form of a sheer drop of about ten metres. On my first ascent of this ridge, many years ago now, we’d opted for an easy gully by-pass on the left.

But not this time; definitely crampons now! We each in turn lowered ourselves into the gap, very carefully feeling for footholds in the snow choked, but thankfully, not too icy rocks. The holds were there in plenty.

Once safely down, the ridge continued, easier now but still interesting and requiring a liberal use of hands. The Saddle’s East Top first and then, at last, The Saddle’s summit signalled the end of the excitement, as far as scrambling was concerned. A short, snowy walk across the actual ‘saddle’ and another stiff but short lived ascent, had us on the mountain’s reigning peak.

As we’d scrambled, completely oblivious of anything but the rock we’d clung to, last night’s starry sky had filled with the forecasted clouds from way out in the west. We stood by the summit cairn in swirling mist; no views, not even of the Forcan Ridge, rewarded us. And yet we were far from disappointed, so exhilarating had been the scramble up.

From not very far below the summit’s supporting buttress, an old wall drops steeply down the mountainside to an obvious bealach and for some distance its ramshackle remains thread a course below The Forcan Ridge. This was our chosen route of departure. First we dropped west a little below the summit to find a safe way down; deep but soft snow gave us exactly the footing we wanted.

The wall, I assume, was built sometime during the hey day of the great Victorian sporting era. Much dilapidated now, it was all the same a good guide onwards. Even so, we must assume that this region is still a favourite haunt of sporting men, (mostly men from foreign places nowadays). And yet not a stag or hind did we see all day. And little wonder really; hardy beasts though they be, these animals will be lurking much lower dawn in relatively warmer, sheltered places. Ptarmigan we disturbed as we descended and a raven or two croaked, but that was all!

Well down we walked in the shadow of the looming Forcan Ridge, its rocky bastions now rising formidably and cold above us. Mischievously, or so it seemed to us, the mist had followed us down.

Our rough, bouldery path, hemmed on the one side by those soaring cliffs and on the other by the broken wall itself, made for cramped walking.

And now, dropping away towards Glen Shiel with its already audible traffic, walled on the far side by the steep slopes of Sgurr na Sgine (ironically: ‘the peak of the knife’), and Faochag, and restricted on our side still by The Forcan Ridge and little Meallan Odhar, the broadening valley of Coire Mhalagain, looked dreary in the deepening gloom of this winter’s late afternoon.

We still had a fair way left to trot. But soon the path improved and the walking became more relaxed. In no time at all we were winding our way around the foot of the Forcan Ridge and rejoining the path that had brought us here this morning.

Even here there was need for care; in many places the path was glazed with treacherous ice. We took our time. Beneath a towering Biod na Fhitich, and with only a mile or so to walk, we re-crossed this morning’s bealach.

Although we had walked from dawn till dusk, it had been a short day by hill going standards, yet it had been a day packed with interest and spiced with absorbing scrambling.

It had been a week day and only two other walkers had we seen all that day, surprising really, given the justifiable popularity of this fine mountain. As we finally pulled away from the lay by we couldn’t resist a backward glance... but there was nothing left to see, so completely had the clouds descended to hide the mountains from us. And but three or four minutes later, as we headed south and homewards, the rain began to fall.