The most difficult Munros

Cameron McNeish looks back on some Munros that have presented him with problems – and they’re not always those you’d expect

Illustration photo of The most difficult Munros

WE CREPT ALONG THE NARROW RIDGE IN THE MIST, WELL AWARE
that a steep ramp of loose scree would indicate we had come too far. That ramp would carry us upwards to the top of Sgurr Dearg on the Cuillin of Skye but that wasn’t the Munro summit we were after. Our summit lay on the top of an unlikely finger of rock that poked its head above Sgurr Dearg – the Inaccessible Pinnacle.

I had first climbed this Munro at the age of 16, but then I was safely cosseted between two outdoor instructors from Glenmore Lodge. Today, some thirty years later, I had a small group of friends relying on my skill and experience. I didn’t want to let them down by failing to find the start of the scramble up this notorious ridge. We found it sooner than I had expected, helped by various shouts from above – mostly calls of encouragement, although others had a terrified edge to them. My own little group coped superbly well, with only one person calling for a rope about halfway up.
Everyone in my group had abseiled before so we had no problem getting off the Pinnacle, although I was aware that for most nonclimbing hillwalkers such an abseil would be something of a challenge.

For non-rock climbers the ‘In Pinn’ probably represents the most challenging of all Scotland’s Munros and it’s for good reason the Scottish Mountaineering Club gives warning; “A bizarre summit comprising a vertical blade of rock set on a dome of scree. The highest point (of Sgurr Dearg) the Inaccessible Pinnacle, is the only Munro that calls for rock-climbing ability, and many Munrobaggers have to call for help from one or two of their rock-climbing friends to get to the top of this one. The ascent of the Inaccessible Pinnacle should not be undertaken without at least one experienced rock-climber in the party, a rope and some previous practice in the art of abseiling, and it should probably not be attempted on a wet and windy day for in such conditions the ascent of the Pinnacle may be distinctly unnerving.”

I wonder how many hillwalkers have climbed every Munro other than the Cuillin summits? Hamish Brown, in his fine book, Hamish’s Mountain Walk, wisely recommends aspiring Munro-baggers to climb these mountains while they are still young and fit. The Cuillin Munros don’t get any easier with age…

Other Munros that require a bit of rock scrambling skill include the Aonach Eagach in Glen Coe and An Teallach – if you choose to followthe crest of the Corrag Bhuidhe buttresses. But you don’t have to – a footpath bypasses the buttresses on their west side. A similar situation exists on Liathach if you choose to follow the crest of the Am Fasarinen pinnacles.

I guess I’ve been lucky. I had spent years rock climbing before I began ticking off Munros, so hills like the Cuillin and the Aonach Eagach were more of an attraction than an obstacle. Indeed, I would often seek out the scrambling routes on Munros as something of a relief from the interminable, and often busy, Munro-baggers’ paths. Good examples of this would be the Buachaille Etive Mor by Curved Ridge, a long
scrambling route on the north-east face of the mountain, or Ben Nevis by the North-East Buttress (which takes you directly to the summit).

I first climbed this route to the top of our highest mountain with former TGO editor Peter Evans on a late August day a number of years ago. As we approached the top of the climb, and the hardest section, it began to snow, and we were wearing smooth-soled rock climbing shoes. Snow was the last thing we expected in August! Fortunately we managed to find a niche in the rocks to change into our boots, which we had carried in our packs in preparation for the long descent off the mountain.

DIFFICULT MUNROS
So which Munros would I regard as the trickiest? This is a very difficult question because it depends on a number of factors including remoteness, inaccessibility, the weather and, indeed, how I was physically feeling at the time.

A good example was my first ascent of Meall Dubhag in the Cairngorms. This hill was chopped from the Munros list away back in the 1970s and I approached it on a dark and dour day as a Hogmanay celebration. We had been partying all week and I took myself off to the Moine Mhor above Glen Feshie to clear my head, partly in preparation for the next bout of New Year festivities.

To say I wasn’t in particularly good fettle would be an understatement and I struggled up the old Foxhunter’s Path from Achlean to the dip just south of Carn Ban Mor, which incidentally was also a Munro at the time.

It was an easy, almost flat, stroll to Carn Ban Mor but as I turned south again I became aware of a veil of cloud that was rapidly covering the vast expanse of the Moine Mhor. I also sensed the wind picking up and I hurried along wishing I had a bit more energy.

I was halfway between Carn Ban Mor and Meall Dubhag when the storm hit me. It came with such a violent ferocity that it shook me and within a minute or so I was blinded by windblown spindrift. Eventually I realised that the only way I could escape the blinding blizzard was to keep as close to the ground as possible and so began what was to become a long crawl on my knees, trying for the life of me to follow a compass bearing at the same time.

It was the first of only a very few occasions in a long hillwalking career that I thought I was going to die in the mountains. I crawled and half-stumbled for a good forty minutes or so before some sixth sense suggested to me I was going downhill. I realised I had missed the summit of Meall Dubhag and was crawling instead towards the edge of the steep-sided Coire Garbhlach, the long and twisted glacial corrie that bites its way into the massif of the Moine Mhor.

Concerned that I might stumble through a cornice, I turned tail and climbed back uphill again, still battered and rocked by the wind. When the dim shape of an ice-encrusted cairn eventually came into view the relief was immense and I almost cried. I could now take a proper bearing and head virtually due west, downhill all the way into the safety of Glen Feshie. Thirty minutes later I stumbled out below the cloud and the wind was still intent on knocking me over I could finally see where I was going. It was the hardest Munro I’d climbed, but at least it cleared my head!

FAR OUT
Other Munros tend to be awkward rather than difficult, particularly those out-and-back affairs that we so often leave for another day. Two of them stand out in my memory because I eventually had to make special efforts to climb them when I was ‘tidying up’ the remaining Munros on my first round.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh sits in isolated splendour above the south shores of lonely Loch Mullardoch and its cairn lies 2.5 kilometres north of Carn Eighe. The latter is usually climbed along with Mam Sodhail from Glen Affric in the south or from Gleann nam Fiadh in the east. However you climb them, Beinn Fhionnlaidh lies out on her limb, with a descent and reascent of about 350 metres in both directions, as if to taunt you. It’s so, so easy to leave that long out-and-back for another day, citing any number of reasons that come to mind – the weather, tiredness, lack of time or just honest-to-goodness procrastination!

It took me three rounds of Carn Eighe and Mam Sodhail before I eventually conquered this procrastination and climbed the hill. On two occasions I was with others who didn’t happen to be Munro-baggers and couldn’t understand why I wanted to climb a hill that was way out on a limb, and on the other occasion the weather was so bad I just wanted to get down and off the hill as quickly as possible. I eventually bagged it as part of a big three-day round climbing all the hills that circle Loch Mullardoch.

And it was on that backpacking trip that I climbed the other infamous out-and-back – Mullach na Dheiragain, the north-east Munro top of Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan. The main Munro is remote enough, rising steeply between Glen Affric and the western end of Loch Mullardoch, but the out-and-back to the Mullach puts Beinn Fhionnlaidh into the shade. That long ridge rolls on for about seven kilometres into the West Benula Forest with the Munro summit about halfway along. It’s enough to make you consider climbing it from Iron Lodge in the north-east, but that would necessitate a long bike ride from the road-end at Killilan before you even started climbing the hill!

Backpacking has been my saviour on so many multi-Munro sorties, especially on subsequent Munro rounds. I had learned valuable lessons after my first Munro round and as I became older and a tad wiser, I realised the value of multi-day trips taking in big ranges like the Mullardoch Munros; the Cairngorms; the Grey Corries, the Aonachs and the Mamores on a big round from Ben Nevis; the south Glen Shiel ridge and the Sisters of Kintail ridge; and the Ben Lawers summits.

WINTER MOUNTAINEERING
You can’t write about the difficulties of Munro-bagging without mentioning winter. Under cover of snow and ice, and when temperatures barely rise above freezing, the climbing of our Munros changes dramatically from pleasant tramps on the hills to nothing less than pure mountaineering. Extra skills are required, more equipment is necessary, and a different mindset and a greater degree of fitness also help keep you safe.

Relatively straightforward Munros take on a new character in winter. Mile upon mile of wading through calf-deep snow can exhaust you; the cold and the wind strip you of warmth and energy; easy slopes can become avalanche-prone and the consequences of a simple slip can be fatal. And sometimes, just sometimes, the snow can act as an
impassable barrier.

A number of years ago I tried to climb three Munros above Loch Cluanie in Kintail – Carn Ghluasaid, Sgurr nan Conbhairean and Sail Chaorainn. The first two summits came and went fairly easily but the ridge between the last two was heavily snowed up and corniced on either side. At one point between the tops the ridge narrows considerably and on this day it looked like an Alpine arête. I tip-toed along carefully but I was sending down huge slabs of snow on either side of the ridge. The snow was soft and deep and I certainly didn’t like the way it broke off. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable I eventually gave up, dropped a long way down towards the Allt na Ciche to where the snow cover looked less avalanche prone and then climbed up again more or less directly to the summit. Then I had to do the whole thing in reverse. I was a weary Munro-bagger by the time I got back to my car but not as weary as when an old friend of mine and I almost got stuck on one of Scotland’s easiest Munros.

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE EASY ONES
Laggan’s Geal Charn suffers the ignominity of being labelled as one of most the boring Munros and, for those who “climb it as a quick excursion from the road” as one guidebook suggests, it’s perhaps not surprising that the mountain fails to throw up any treats. Time-saving Munro-raids are often unmemorable affairs but every hill, if you give it the courtesy of your time, will display its potential. Even Geal Charn has potential and can offer a very exciting ascent, as we discovered.

My climbing partner John had climbed Geal Charn by its more popular western route, from Garva Bridge and the Allt Coire nan Dearcag, but I managed to convince him that a long snow plod up Glen Markie to the east of the hill could well bring its rewards. This route follows an ancient drove road up the glen for about four kilometres before crossing the Markie Burn and climbing into Geal Charn’s redeeming feature, the grand cliff-girt corrie that lies above Lochan a’Choire.

Our original intention was to climb the slopes north of the lochan and so avoid the crags that form the corrie walls. We would then head south-west across the plateau summit slopes to the cairn, returning to lower Glen Markie by the south slopes of Geal Charn’s neighbour, Beinn Sgiath. That was our plan, but the words ‘best laid’ and ‘gang awry’ come to mind. In short, we were beguiled by the mountain’s glistening raiment into something rather more challenging. As we crossed the iced-up flow of the Markie Burn the steep east prow of Beinn Sgiath reared up above us, steepening out in its final 30 metres or so into what looked like a good sporting snow climb. We’d had enough of snow plodding – it was time to use our ice axes!

Initially the climb was hard work – the snow was deep and unconsolidated but was broken here and there by rocky outcrops. These fins of rock, we soon discovered, made an easier passage than the snow.

Higher up on the slope, great flows of green ice hung from the rocks, forcing us back onto unconsolidated snow again and as we reached the topmost section, just below a ten-metre wall of snow formed by a cornice, we realised that we had reached a point of no return. Neither of us wanted to down-climb the icy rocks but the potential for a safe upwards ascent depended very much on how solid the cornice above us was. If it was soft and unconsolidated like the snow below we could be in trouble. A fall from here, over steep and rocky ground, could be serious.

A short traverse led to the foot of the cornice and I managed to ease my way across to it, virtually hanging from my ice axe that I had hammered into a patch of frozen turf. With the toes of my boots on a couple of rocky niches I gently eased the ice axe from the turf and swung it into the snow above. The solid thud as it planted into the snow was incredibly reassuring and moments later I was kicking my way up and over the slightly overhanging cornice onto the plateau above. The first thing I noticed was that I was shaking slightly! Meanwhile John was having his own adventure and I was relieved when an ice axe appeared over the cornice rim and whammed into the snow beside me.

“So much for your sporting route,” he muttered darkly as he hauled himself
over the edge. The rest of the day was an anti-climax as we trudged across Beinn Sgiath and onto Geal Charn’s broad plateau. From the summit we returned to the corrie rim and followed it north to where long slopes led down into the corrie and the route back to Glen Markie. As we waded through knee-deep snow by the Piper’s Burn more words of Munro guru Hamish Brown came to mind. “You cannot exhaust the potential of even the dullest hills in Scotland,” he once wrote. The potential is always there – we just have to look for it. Often enough that kind of potential is only a thin crack away from difficulty and danger, but that’s when the straightforward pursuit of Munro-bagging becomes something altogether much more adventurous and rewarding.