A runners perspective

I hope this blog is of use/interest to walkers, runners and cyclists living in or intending to visit Scotland. Most of my entries below are described as long-distance runs - just because that's currently what I enjoy doing...

Friday, 13 April 2012

Torridon and Damph Loop

Distance: 39 miles (62.5km) Ascent/Descent: 1220m/1220m
Start/Finish: Strathcarron Station
Terrain: 50% good trails, 25% Forest track, 15% Vague/Rough trail, 10% surfaced road
Transport: train station at Strathcarron (infrequent)
Route: Route Map

Looking back N over Glen Torridon towards Beinn Eighe (from Bealach Ban path)

This loop takes in two passes through the mountains between Strathcarron and Torridon, including a scenic trail through the Torridon giants of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe. At time of running, refreshments were available at the nice store/cafe in Torridon village.  This is a wonderful area to explore by foot, with numerous tracks cutting between steep-sided mountains.  I ran the loop clockwise, which has the advantage of tackling the roughest part of the day when freshest.  However, I had to regularly stop and look back as the opposite direction seemed to offer the best views.  (I have no problem with regularly stopping and looking!)

Looking over the head of Loch Carron from above Tullich
 Inspiration for most of my running routes come from just staring at OS maps, joining together paths that look like they go through somewhere interesting.  If I'm greedy my route choice gets distracted by nearby Munros or Corbetts.  On this occasion I'd already sated my appetite for summits having done the South Shiel Ridge a couple of days prior (and the fact I'd visited most of the summits in this area in the past) I was keen to explore the tracks through corries and bealachs instead. 

My day's run started at Strathcarron Station at the Southern-most point of my loop.  The sky was clear and the wet, brown hillsides were lit by a low sun.  I'd had to scrape ice off the car this morning.  I settled into an easy run along the road to Lochcarron.  My route of escape into the hills was at the gate for Tullich on the A896 (there's a gate on right-hand-side with waymarker arrow).  The arrows took me on a non-intrusive route around the houses, the boggy path still frozen in places, then I was onto a very wet and rough track into the hills.  I eventually lost this track in bog.  The OS map suggested the route was on slightly higher ground to the W, so I ascended, following some deer for a bit, then came across old mossy cairns and traces of path again.  I found it hard work, but with hindsight I can say this was the hardest part of the day, both in terms of effort and route-finding.

Hazy ridges of Attadale, from the summit of Bealach a Ghlas-chnoic

Beinn Bhan (from E) over the Allt a Ghiubhais
Higher up the Bealach its easy to get routed away to the W by the course of the burn, whereas the "path" crosses this and heads NW over rocky lumps where views open up down the other side.  From here a rough track winds down quite steeply at times back towards sea-level. 

Do not cross the bridge into the woods like I did - I quickly realised my mistake and retraced my steps back over the bridge and onto a less-obvious continuation of the track down towards the Moine Mhor.  My route disregards the OS map at this point and follows an unmarked but good track N across the wetland to Kinloch Damph at the base of Loch Damh.  Additionally, there is no longer a bridge over the river at Kinloch Damph - but your trailshoes will be soaked by now anyway so wading across is no problem.

Loch Damh
A wooden fingerpost by the ex-bridge marks the start of the "Loch Damh walk", a great loch-side trail that would take me over to Torridon without a road or car in sight (well until the end bit that is).  I stopped for a break above this beach (photo) as it was such a nice spot.  From here the wet trail proceeds through pockets of newly-planted native woodland before arriving at a fishing lodge, from where a wide track, presumably maintained for access to the fish farms, continues the route N down to Loch Torridon.  Beinn Alligin looked nice and sunny across the water, however the bulk of Liathach was cloaked in menacing cloud and it wouldn't be long before I'd get my first wee blast of hailstones.

The road alongside the incredibly clear and calm water of Loch Torridon

A hail shower moves across Loch Torridon, Beinn Damh behind
On reaching the A896 above the loch, I crossed the road slightly to the left where a new signpost marks the start of a good track along the shore (presumably an old section of road?) to Annat.  As I arrived at the Torridon Hotel, the grounds-keeper (I think, judging from the attire) approached and asked me if I was training for the Triathlon, which makes my run today look soft!  He told me there was a path that cut the corner to Torridon Village ahead, so its possible to do even less on-road running around the loch than I thought.  I missed it and continued on my planned route to the junction and the Youth Hostel, campsite and toilets.  A short jog down the road from here and I was enjoying a fantastic slab of carrot cake and cappuccino in the new cafe/shop, with a view back across the loch to where I'd been running earlier.

From here I was lured by a waymarker onto a nice trail above the road - another section of old road perhaps?  It was nice to be back off the tarmac but I warn you that you have to drop back down to the road when the next waymarker post tells you otherwise its a rough passage through boulders and scratchy bushes!  With hindsight I'd have just stayed on the road - which is very quiet and means I could look at the scenery for a bit rather than where my feet were going.

Looking E towards Beinn Eighe, snow on Liathach visible top right
Soon I was at the busy carpark beneath Beinn Alligin and the start of the track around to Coire Dubh - the next leg of my journey.  The first few kms along this trail are heavenly - a gentle slope and a feeling of progressing easily up into dramatic mountains!  A very low-flying propeller-powered aircraft (a Hercules?) rumbled overhead, just a couple hundred metres or so, it looked like it was coming down to land in the glen ahead! 

Liathach from the NW
The sun was shining again, and it felt warm for a moment while I stopped and chatted to a couple coming the other way.  As I progressed E behind the impressive bulk of Liathach, the terrain became very rocky, and progress became much tougher as the large boulders and bog broke up the rythym.  Hailstones were followed by snow, it became very cold when the sun wasn't shining and so the layers were on and off many times for the rest of the day.  Once past Loch Grobaig the route joins the very popular route to Beinn Eighe's Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair (a fantastic wee walk in itself), and the progress is much, much faster along this good maintained track down to the road.  I didn't encounter anyone on this path in spite of the full carpark - everyone else must have been up on the summits!  From here my run followed the road for a short distance E over a bridge to a green right-of-way sign marking the start of the through-routes to Achnashellach and Coulags (my final pass of the day).

Liathach over Lochan an Asgair
This next section of trail was excellent.  A narrow gravel ribbon up past a waterfall and back into the hills.  I made fast progress up this at first, but as it steepened it also deteriorated and so I took a tactical picnic higher up with a great view (title photo) back N over the glen.

The gradient does eventually relent, cairns now marking the way on rocky but drier terrain as I found myself looking into Coire Grannda.
Coire Grannda
Bealach Ban
The way onwards for me was not into the Coire, but instead a SSW traverse, crossing the burn above a waterfall and picking up the excellent and obvious path over the Bealach Ban at 540m.  The path drops down steeply at first then contours SW to a junction with another path rising towards Bealach na Lice.  Here I turned left (downhill) towards the lochan below, the trail remaining good all the way down to the Coulags Bothy.  There was no one staying at the bothy when I took a nosey around.

Coulags Bothy

From here it was a gentle drop down to the road.  I was looking forward to my dinner by now - a family meal in the Plockton Hotel booked for 6:30pm!  After following the A890 Lochcarron road SW for a few minutes, I was able to escape the tarmac just before a picnic spot where a sign marks the start of a woodland walk to Strathcarron down along the river, where salmon pools are marked by signs ("Johnny's Pool", "Hill Pool").  The waymarkers lead me back to the road bridge over the river where it was a short final sprint along tarmac to beat the next squall.  Great day out (and just part of a brilliant week with family in Plockton).

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

South Shiel Ridge

Distance: 27.5 miles (44km) Ascent/Descent: 2000m/2000m
Start/Finish: Cluanie Inn, Glen Shiel
Terrain: 30% gravel/surfaced road, 60% good trails, 10% ridge-top, mild scrambling
citylink bus services Cluanie Inn (Gla/Edi - Skye service)
Route: Route Map

Descending on Maol Chinn Dearg

A munro-baggers' classic, this ridge of 7 munros lies to the South of Glen Shiel and the road to Skye. After completing the ridge from East to West, the route follows a stalkers path S into the remote Glen Quoich, and with most of the hard work done a great trail-run takes you back beneath the summits along Glen Loyne, then over a small Bealach to the estate road leading back to the Cluanie Inn.

I'm really glad I went for it. Leaving Cluanie Inn on the road to Cluanie Lodge, with the Loch still and reflecting snowy peaks, my sense of adventure was there but a bit dampened by the expectation that I'd probably encounter ice along the ridge and have to turn back.

A good track leading to the base of Creag a Mhaim
I enjoyed gaining height easily up this gently-graded road above Loch Cluanie, eventually to a 430m Bealach from where I started expecting to find a stalkers' path branching off onto the SE shoulder of Creag a Mhaim. The snow-level was only about 300m above here.

The path did appear on the right just before a little bridge, and it looked nice and gravelly and so very runnable. After a km or so this path forks - I was heading right up onto the ridge, but later today I'd be returning here from the left.

Loch Loyne from the SE ridge of Creag a Mhaim
The path up onto the ridge remained excellent, zig-zagging to take the sting out of the ascent and so I was quickly up into the snow. Surprisingly there were no bootprints in it!

As always it felt good to reach the summit cairn, cloud came down then back up and I was still getting reasonable visibility along the ridge ahead, which at this end is broad.

Druim Shionnach
The ridge doesn't drop much before ascending to Druim Shionnach, and as the snow deepened and ridge narrowed I stopped running and settled into a walk. Snow flurries came and went, but I was cosy in serveral layers and jacket (I also had a full set of spare dry clothes and gloves in the bag as I have a healthy fear of the cold!)

After some mild scrambling I was on the 2nd peak of the ridge and moving on, the NW wind beginning to pick-up as forecast.
Looking back E towards Druim Shionnach

I had a third text-message exchange with my dad, he now knew it was my intention to proceed.

Between the summits I was often back below the cloud base and taking in views down from the ridge, both sides, including back NE to Loch Cluanie. A couple of times I did try to run the less exposed downhill bits but the snow deepened as I headed W and rocks hidden by the snow made it a bit silly. And after the third summit - Aonach air Chirth - the ridge became a bum-cheek scramble along snow and rock. I didn't want to slip here. Fortunately nearly all the snowfall was fresh, and I did not encounter any ice.

Loch Cluanie in the distance
I met a couple of guys walking the other way, they were also surprised at the lack of people on this popular ridge, and said there'd been no other footprints along the way. Well they had mine to follow now, and I had theirs.
Final rise up Sgurr an Lochain (rusty fenceposts!)

The narrow ridge of Maol Chinn-Dearg was a highlight (title photo), being able to see down both sides. It goes over a bump and broadens back out to the summit at 981m, then the ridge remains relatively broad from there as it descends over a subsiduary top down to an 820m Bealach. It was along this section when the air filled with high velocity polystyrene balls. I pulled my hat and hood around such that I could only see with the left eye. I also changed gloves. For the next hour or so I didn't see much other than snow, rock, blizzard, and battered rusty fence-posts which appear along this section. I summitted Sgurr an Doire Leathain, ignoring the quickly-filling bootprints as I remembered to head slightly N from the main spine to find the summit cairn. Next was the penultimate Munro of the ridge, Sgurr an Lochain, which looks like a nice peak in other people's photos but I wasn't seeing much!
The head of Glen Quoich with distant Knoydart hills beyond
Descending steeply from there, I finally got out of the murk and found myself looking across at other mountains and blue sky to the W. The snow became slushy, it was melting fast, and the Munro-baggers' path re-emerged. I got a great view over the head of Glen Quoich to the Knoydart hills beyond.
Looking towards Sgurr Thionail from Bealach a Fraoch Choire
As I was already quite tired, I happily ignored the 896m lump on the ridge and kept to the Munro-bagger's track which by-passes it to the S. This leads to Bealach Fraoch Coire, the lowest point of the ridge. From here I power-walked back up into the snow one last time to reach the lumpy summit of Creag nan Damh, then retraced my steps to the Bealach to pick up the top of an old zig-zagging stalkers' path down (S) into the remote Glen Quoich. This path hasn't been maintained, it was mossy, steep and greasy (yes I had a couple of slips). But it is nonetheless a reasonably safe route down onto the brilliant trail along the glen.
Looking down Glen Quoich towards Gleouraich
I was really glad to reach the river-side track. After the slow progress along the snowy ridge, I immediately enjoyed this very-runnable trail back E, down to Alltbeithe then gently back up to the watershed of the River Loyne.
Looking back (W) up Glen Loyne
There was one last climb to do, which was a left fork back up between the lower slopes of Creag a Mhaim and the 500m lump marked "Craig Liathais" on the OS map. I took a much-needed breather ascending this lump (somehow my phone received a text message here - my dad asking me to update if I had reception which I didn't!). I was grateful to get over this last "hurdle" and be heading back down into civilisation, now able to reply to my dad's text to let him know I just had an easy few miles down to the car. Not the sort of day I'd expected after the recent mild weather, but entertaining for sure.