An overnight camping trip to the Northwest Highlands taking in all seven Munros of the South Shiel Ridge with a wild camp towards the western end and a return via the Quoich glens south of the ridge
Date: 18 June 2021
Hills: Creag a' Mhaim (Munro), Druim Shionnach (Munro), Druim Shionnach West Top (Munro Top), Aonach air Chrith (Munro), Maol Chinn-dearg (Munro), Sgurr an Doire Leathain (Munro), Sgurr an Lochain (Munro), Creag nan Damh (Munro)
Weather: Warm, sunny, little wind
Route: View on OS Maps
Back in April 2011 I came to Glen Shiel with an ambitious plan; a full circuit of both the northern and southern ridges starting and finishing at the Cluanie Inn. I set off with high hopes; enjoying a full traverse of the Brothers Ridge before starting on the Five Sisters of Kintail. Here a combination of near-drought conditions, increasing wild fire risk and a very windy night left me dehydrated and exhausted as I completed the Five Sisters and dropped down to reach the road near Shiel Bridge. The thought of another day and night in similar conditions on the South Shiel Ridge did not appeal and so I caught the bus back up to the Cluanie Inn and headed home, vowing to return…
More than ten years later I once again found myself parking up at the Cluanie Inn, this time ready to tackle the South Shiel Ridge. The forecast was excellent for both Friday and Saturday and I’d enjoyed a pretty pleasant drive up the A9 and across to the west via Spean Bridge and Invergarry. Parking east of the Cluanie Inn was in short supply but I managed to squeeze into one last space.
After a croissant and the last of my coffee I shouldered my pack and headed off along the tarmac’d road that leads to Cluanie Lodge and then over the hill towards Loch Loyne. To the south I looked at the long march of the South Shiel Ridge, seven Munros representing one of the highest single day hill hauls outside of somewhere like the Lake District.
The road climbs gently up the hillside, revealing panoramic views over Loch Cluanie and the Munros to the north of the glen. There has been planting going on in this area and the view looks like it should improve greatly over the next decade or two as trees mature and the harsh tide lines of Loch Cluanie are somewhat softened.
As the road turned sharply left and crossed over the Allt Ghubias I stopped to refill my water bottle. Conscious of dehydration on that previous ridge walk, I wanted to refill at every opportunity. I also slathered on some sunscreen as the clear blue sky indicated a long day in the sun. High above me I could see a couple of hillwalkers leaving Creag a' Mhaim at the eastern end of the ridge.
The road wound its way up to the watershed before starting to drop gently down towards Loch Loyne. On my right now were the rocky flanks of Creag a' Mhaimh.
The views were excellent back north and opened up more as I left the road and wound my way up a stony path onto the slopes above. Soon I had a view over Loch Loyne to pointy Beinn Tee and along the hills lining the Great Glen.
It was hot work in the sunshine but the path is excellent with just a couple of rockier sections and a bit of bog. The views developed nicely as I gained height, including over to Gleouraich and Spidean Mialach, the rocky mountains that sit above Loch Quoich. Further off the distinctive whaleback of Ben Nevis could be seen, snow patches picking out its upper slopes.
The path winds its way back and forth across the slope, rising in an easy series of switchbacks with views alternating from the hills beyond Cluanie to the north, to the peaks of the central Highlands further south.
With just a final rise I was soon enough up at the summit of the first Munro. Here there are panoramic views all around. Westward the eye is drawn to the ranks of the South Shiel Ridge. To the north there were clear views of the Cluanie and Affric Munros beyond the calm, reflective surface of Loch Cluanie.
Off to the east the land dropped towards the Great Glen. I stopped for refreshments and to send a quick message home. It was a little before 1pm and an afternoon of fantastic ridge walking now awaited me.
I dropped down easy slopes following the clear path that led onwards to the next Munro, Druim Shionnach with its southern spur cradling a dark lochan. Beyond it across the winding River Loyne there was a grandstand view onto the ridge linking the Loch Quoich Munros which are both wild and rugged on their northern sides.
As the ground rose towards the Munro the broad ridge became narrower and more interesting with some easy scrambling along the crest.
The scrambling was over all too soon and as the flattened summit appeared I picked the clear path back up and wound my way the final few steps up to the summit of Munro two on the ridge. Creag a' Mhaim already looked some distance back behind me and in front I now had a clearer view down the length of the glen towards the Five Sisters. Off to the north the twin peaked top of Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan could be seen with some snow patches clinging to its slopes.
The conditions were just about perfect. There was still a little chill in the breeze but the sunshine was warm and it looked set to be a fair afternoon. I applied some sunscreen and had a bite of lunch, watching as someone appeared on the next Munro to the west.
The ridge now drew me on westward, easy slopes dropping down to a glassy bealach which enjoyed views down to the blue waters of Lochan nan Leac. Ahead of me the next Munro of Aonach air Chrith, with a crenelated summit ridge, could be seen drawing closer beyond the intermediate western top of Druim Shionnach. The eastward heading hillwalker appeared and we stopped for a chat. The upper slopes of Coire an t-Slugain had some interesting rock formations and I spent some time looking back down to the Cluanie Inn and across to Affric.
The path wound gently up to the west top of Druim Shionnach where I met another eastward walker enjoying the weather and the views. After this meeting I deviated briefly from the ridge to pick up some water from a bubbling spring that I could just about make out from further up the slope. On a warm, almost windless day I was glad to take a long cooling drink and refill my water bottle.
After this brief refreshment break I continued on towards Aonach air Chrith. The views from the ridge here started to open up nicely with the hills of Knoydart now starting to come into view beyond Loch Quoich.
As I gained height on the east ridge of Aonach air Chrith its dramatic northern ridge, pinnacled and rocky, was revealed. This looks to be an interesting scramble coming up from west of the Cluanie Inn.
The east ridge presented no difficulties at all and I was soon on the final pull up to the summit. At 1,021m this is the high point of the South Shiel Ridge and has commanding views in all directions.
Eastward I could look back along the fine series of summits I had already traversed. To the south beyond the Loch Quoich Munros I could see the distinctive profile of Ben Nevis. To the north the Brothers and Sisters of Glen Shiel. To the west I could look along the remainder of the South Shiel Ridge with the Cuillin on Skye a dark presence in the background. It was sensational.
I loitered up for here some time, enjoying these serene views, and the fact I had the place to myself. By now it was after 3pm and the light was starting to change as the sun shifted westward. With the good conditions continuing I was keen to make progress along the ridge and so continued on, picking up the west ridge of Aonach air Chrith and heading for the next summit, Maol Chinn-dearg.
The next stretch of ridge is delightful, narrowing to a slender crest high above Glen Quoich. The path drops down a couple of stony scrambles and then hugs the crest of a series of rocky crenellations.
I made good progress and was soon looking back up the slab slopes of Aonach air Chrith, one of the roughest stretches of the entire ridge line.
Beyond this point it became gentler and grassier again and after reaching the next bealach I followed the winding path up the long eastern ridge of Maol Chinn-dearg. More of Loch Quoich had come into view and the Rough Bounds offered tantalising views. Nearer at hand was the Munro of Sgurr a' Mhaoraich which I had been up on a sublime day in late October 2010.
The good path meant that I was soon almost at the summit of Maol Chinn-dearg, pausing for a moment to look back at the rocky spine of Aonach air Chrith behind me.
Another few steps brought me to the lofty summit cairn marking the 981m high Munro. From here the eye was immediately drawn westward along a sinuous stretch of ridge leading to the next top, Sgurr an Doire Leathain. Beyond it the Five Sisters were drawing closer, as well as the hills near Glenelg.
After a 15 minute or so break for refreshments I resumed my steady progress, dropping down the grassy slopes towards the next bealach. I soon met a guy coming east and had a pleasant chat in the late afternoon sunshine.
By the time I was climbing back up beyond the bealach he had made it to the top of Maol Chinn-dearg.
Sgurr an Doire Leathain has a straightforward eastern ridge, with one distinctive buttress on it. Over my shoulder Loch Cluanie was about to disappear beyond the hills. The light was becoming distinctly golden and it was wonderful to be solitudinous in this huge mountain landscape.
There was a remnant snow patch at the headwall just below the summit which I curved around and above to reach the summit itself which is some way to the north of the main line of the ridge. This is probably one of the very few places where you could go wrong on the ridge in poor weather. However, I wasn't having any trouble on that front and from here there were views away to Ben Nevis and off towards the heartland of Knoydart and the western coast.
Suddenly the views west had changed with the pyramid shape of Sgurr an Lochain being revealed in front of the blue waters of Loch Duich.
The summit cairn is somewhat paltry but enjoys fine views from this 1,010m Munro. The late afternoon was growing a little hazy with mountain peaks now standing up against skies that were getting increasingly cloud. Still there was enough sunshine about to pick out the details of the rocks on the ridge stretching back to the east.
Sgurr an Lochain was my final Munro for the day, with my plan being to camp beyond it, leaving the last Munro of Creag nan Damh for the following morning. I was contemplating an out and back to bag a nearby Corbett but would make a final decision on that at the bealach the next day. For now I was content with an easy walk along the ridge between Sgurr an Doire Leathain and Sgurr an Lochain which stood prominently ahead.
I wended my way along the path and was soon climbing up through a series of rising balconies towards the top. Below me the eponymous loch looked quite inviting but I didn't have too much concern about the viability of a summit camp with the current fairly benign conditions.
Sgurr an Doire Leathain looks like a big lump from the west.
In no time at all I was at the summit of Sgurr an Lochain at 1,004m. There were fine views all around from this pronounced summit and I was almost tempted to camp up here.
The views were spectacular, with the peaks of Knoydart now looking close at hand.
Pondering camping options I gave the map another look and used the zoom on my camera to check out a couple of potential options. Ultimately I decided that the summit of the next intermediate top, Sgurr Beag, looked a great option and would have the benefit of not being on the main baggers path just in case there were any late evening or night folk about on the ridge.
With my mind made up I dropped off the top of Sgurr an Lochain and made my way towards the day's final stretch of uphill.
At the bealach I ignored the bagger's path heading off to the left and continued to follow the fence line up Sgurr Beag. The path here was much fainter but the ground was easy going and I was soon enjoying the fine views back to Sgurr an Lochain.
I came across a stone shelter nestled under the summit of the hill before the final pull to the top. The clear skies of earlier had rapidly given way to a roof of cloud, the sun managing to find a last few chinks.
Once on top I did a bit of scouting around to find the best spot for the tent, selecting a nice soft site with good views both east and west. By the time I had the tent up and had gathered water for the evening the sky was almost completely clouded over.
It suddenly felt quite a bit chillier and I was glad to have the shelter of the tent and a hot drink inside me. During the evening the sun would occasionally find a small hole and shine down onto the landscape but these moments were fleeting. At 8pm I tuned into the radio commentary of the Scotland vs England group match taking place in Wembley as part of Euro 2020 (delayed by Covid).
Throughout the evening there was some pleasant light on the hills but nothing spectacular. Late in the evening a head torch appeared to the east and slowly made its way below me, eventually heading up Sgurr an Lochain. I felt pleased about my choice of campsite off the main path.
Just a few days before midsummer it was still late well into the evening but after the football finished it wasn't long before I had my head down for sleep.
Day 2 - 19th June
Dawn came as murky as the previous evening. I'd set the alarm for sunrise, a little after 4am, but on poking my head out of the tent it was apparent there was just going to be a brief glimmer of gold as the low cloud stretched far to the east. I zipped up the tent and went back to sleep, waiting for a slightly more civilised hour to get up.
I slept well for another few hours, eventually emerging to find the expected grey day. I had my usual breakfast of coffee and trail bars whilst staying cosy in my sleeping bag. The cloud was sitting above the summits so there were at least some limited views to enjoy.
I was dithering about what to do on this second day, beyond picking up the final Munro on the ridge which lay just to the west. One option was to do an out and back to the summit of Buidhe Bheinn. This is one of two summits of a similar height separated by a long ridge. I'd previously been up to the northern summit as part of a day that took in the Forcan Ridge, the Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine. Resurveying in 2012 had determined that the southern summit was slightly higher and so was now officially the Corbett summit. However, this ridge is long and arduous going and would add on at least a couple of hours to an already long day. Instead I decided to stick to my original plan of looping back to the car by way of the glens to the south of the Glen Shiel Ridge.
Once everything was packed up and the only sign I'd been there was a small patch of flattened grass, I headed off west, returning to the summit of Sgurr Beag and picking up the path that now descended to the next bealach.
The bealach itself was lumpy and boggy but the path wound its way across and soon I was heading up the far side to the final Munro of the ridge.
There were good views back to Sgurr Beag and down into the glen which I would be tramping through in a couple of hours' time. The silver burn snaking its way down towards the Quoich was very distinctive despite the flat light.
From here I got a view of the long crenelated ridge of Buidhe Bheinn, confirming my plans not to add it on to today's mileage.
The path led me up to the summit of Creag nan Damh where I was now almost in the clouds that were billowing through on a wind that was steadily picking up.
The cairn is a rather half hearted affair but as I sat for a short while the cloud did rise again and I got some views back along the ridge. The sunshine of the previous day seemed a distant memory but I was glad I'd had good conditions for 6 of the 7 Munros!
After a short break I continued on, now aiming for the next bealach and the low point at the western end of the South Shiel Ridge. From there it should be possible to drop down off the ridge and into the glen to the south. Before that though there was a mild bit of scrambly rock to traverse.
It was only a short climb up some greasy rock, but did feel a little out of character for the mostly easy going ridge. From here there were lofty views down to the wide bealach to the south of Buidhe Bheinn. I had come that way in the teeth of a storm a few years previous whilst escaping from Knoydart.
I crested the top of the scramble and now there was a section of stone wall to follow leading me on towards the bealach. The views down Glen Shiel to Loch Duich were excellent.
I was now dropping down to the Bealach duibh Leac and as the cloud cleared in front the hulking shape of the Saddle emerged.
I wasn't sure how distinct the path would be on the south side of the bealach so as I approached the low point I took one last look down into Glen Shiel and then headed down the gentle slopes, thinking I might intersect the path fairly quickly.
Despite the lack of a clear path the descent was easy enough and I lost height at a gentle pace, following the rough line of the path as it appeared on the map. At times there was a clear path but at others it seemed to get lost amongst grass and boulders, only to reappear some way further down.
As I got lower I could see the more distinct vehicle track that comes down from the south side of the upper glen and eventually angled over some boggy ground to reach this.
This look me along the north bank of the burn with Gleouraich seen in the distance. Above me and to the left were the shoulders of the South Shiel Ridge. I was now heading back towards the car, though it was a long way away still.
One thing I hadn't accounted for in coming west was the late running of the TGO Challenge. I had thoroughly expected to have these quiet glens to myself, but coming down the bealach were a couple of people with large backpacks, and there was a small group someway in front of me.
On the clear track I started to make good progress. Around one bend I came across a small herd of Highland Cattle. Most were off to one side or the other, but a handful were on the track itself. There were calves around so slightly warily I picked my way around, giving them a wide berth. All went well and they took very little interest in me.
The track rose gently up and as I'd been on the go for a few hours I decided it was a good time to stop for a brew and a snack. I found a nice rocky perch and set up the stove for a cuppa. I was sitting enjoying tea and some chocolate when I looked back up the glen and suddenly noticed that the whole herd of cattle was now on the move and heading my way. It seemed that the backpackers behind had taken a slightly less subtle approach and had ended up getting all of the cows moving along the track, effectively driving them along in front of them.
I rather rapidly finished my tea and got everything packed up in time to not get trampled, pulling my pack back on and setting a rather hasty pace eastward...
I made some ground quickly, turning back to see that the cattle had reached where I'd stopped for tea and were fanning back out across the hillside. It looked like the backpackers had made it through with a diversion down along the side of the burn. Relieved I moderated my pace and walked on, dropping down the last few kilometres of the West Quoich Glen to reach the lonely farmhouse at Alltbeithe.
I picked my way around the house and outbuildings, getting a brief glimpse down to Loch Quoich and the bridge that carries the narrow road towards Kinlochhourn.
By now the day was improving and there were hints of sunshine and blue sky as the cloud started to break up. The way was now gently uphill, climbing into East Glen Quoich.
Somewhere around here I caught up with the pair ahead of me, who did indeed turn out to be TGO Challengers. We had a good blether before I left them to enjoy their break. I made my way up towards the next watershed with the hills of the South Shiel Ridge continuing to unfold on my left hand side.
Across the watershed and the track continued to be pretty good for the most part, occasionally turning a bit more grassy or boggy, but allowing good progress. The ridges of the north side of Gleouraich and Spider Mialach were very impressive on my right. Soon enough though the far end of the South Sheil Ridge could be glimpsed, along with my route up and over to get back to the car.
The land now started to slope gently down to where the burn, gathering waters and forming the River Loyne, meandered its way into Loch Loyne some way further east. Here the track got a lot more grassy and less well trodden. It made for some very pleasant walking.
Eventually I came to the point where a path branched off uphill, climbing away from the River Loyne and towards the shoulder at the eastern end of the South Shiel Ridge where I had been the previous morning.
The path was a good stalkers' one, and brought me quickly up into Coire Odhar, passing a series of waterfalls before emerging out on the shoulder with views down to Loch Loyne below. The afternoon was advancing now and the light was excellent after the cloud and gloom of the morning. At the high point I paused for a final snack break, fuelling up for the descent down the hard surfaced track to the road.
Shortly after the snack stop I reached the point where I had branched off to ascend to the ridge the previous day. Below me I could see the old road to the isles and I dropped rapidly down to it on the good path.
This just left me with 5 or so km to tramp back downhill to the car. It had been a long, unrelenting day and I was grateful that I hadn't tried tacking on the Corbett too!
Coming around the corner there were some very nice views down to Loch Cluanie with the light much better than the previous day.
My pace got me down fairly rapidly and soon enough I was down in the glen looking west along the line of the ridge which I had now successfully traversed. A couple of ladies who were staying overnight and planning the ridge for the next day quizzed me about how long it would take and whether there was much scrambling. I left them to head to the pub as I reached the car, ready for a quick change of clothes before starting the journey home.
The drive home was fairly long but not unpleasant, including stopping to take in some fabulous light besides Loch Lochy. Eventually I was back home feeling very satisfied with an enjoyable overnighter and 7 new Munro ticks.