Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The Highland Controversy

Following yesterday’s long day out on Quinag, wet weather set in and motivation was lacking amongst our group.  The Inchnadamph caves were an option, as was a trip to Ullapool but with a thirst for education we went to the Knockan Crag visitor centre in the North West Highlands Geopark.

The Highland Controversy was as a result of some radical geological thinking.  There is a geological feature now known as the Moine Thrust which has a layer of rock lying on top of another, a common occurrence, but as layers are often set down as a result of sedimentation, younger rocks lie on top of older rocks.  But at the Moine Thrust the reverse is true with the upper layer being 500 million years older !  Some geologists questioned whether this was actually the case here but these doubters were eventually overcome with the ultimate outcome being the proof of plate tectonic theory.

rock layers showing the Moine Thrust

Geologists Ben Peach and John Horne worked out that the older rocks had been forced over the younger rocks, an American plate had pushed itself over a European plate.  Although controversial at the time, Peach’s and Horne’s resultant paper has come to be regarded as a classic geological text and the discovery is held by some as important as Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Peach and Horne

Knockan Crag has some trails which are easily followed with a number of sculptures and points of particular geological interest.  I would recommend a visit whatever the weather but a wet day in Scotland can be made quite a bit more interesting.

"Globe" by Joe Smith

Seven Summits of Quinag

“… one of the best mountains in one of the wildest parts of Scotland” (1)

“… one of the most majestic mountains in Scotland” (2)

Quinag from the walk-in

Although all of us had visited Assynt before, none of us had been to the top of Quinag with the summit being just one of three Corbetts that lie within this massif.  In addition to these major summits the Database of British and Irish Hills (DoBIH) lists another 4 lesser summits.  A long day appeared to be ahead of us.

We followed the obvious path for a short while to a cairn which marked the turn past the lochan and up on to the eastern slopes of Spidean Coinich.  Easy-angled quartzite slabs led us up to the first summit of the day which is a minor top before reaching the summit of the first Corbett, Spidean Coinich.  We took in the view with the realisation that there was a lot of mountain still to walk.

Sail Ghorm behind Sail Gharbh

The descent off Spidean Coinich leads below an imposing buttress which has some impressive terrain for the rockclimber.  The guidebook lists quite a few routes but I’m sure that it doesn’t regularly see any climbers.

Spidean Coinich summit crag

Continuing along the ridge leads to the third summit, marked as a spot height of 714 metres on the OS Explorer map, but it is a nondescript heather-clad bump that the footpath passes over without any obvious cairn to mark the spot.  The next summit has a significant climb leading up to it and forms the crossroads that leads to each of the three Corbetts.  It is at this point, Sail Gharbh west top, that decisions can be made about the route to follow.  The easy option is to drop to the bealach between it and Sail Gharbh and head down to Lochan Bealach Cornaidh, picking up the old stalkers’ path back to the car park.  A slightly more strenuous option is to walk over the bealach and up to Sail Gharbh, which is the highpoint of Quinag.  But the big day out is to continue west towards Sail Ghorm.

Spidean Coinich

A couple of our group chose the Sail Gharbh option with the remainder of us choosing the long day out so we left summit number four and headed for Sail Ghorm.  We passed some impressive gullies to our left, making a mental note that they would probably give some good winter sport, if they were ever to come into condition.  The broad ridge led gently to the broad top of the day’s fifth summit which was also the second Corbett of the walk.  We retraced our steps and a couple of us had a little scrambling diversion to summit number six, a tabletop summit marked as a 687 metre spot height.  This left us with only the ultimate summit left to tick.

The path skirts Sail Gharbh’s west summit to a bealach before following some broken terrain up the ridge.  It was here that we saw a ptarmigan in semi-winter plumage, standing proud before flying down into the coire with its white feathers standing out against the snow-free slopes.


The true TRAIL 100 summit of Sail Gharbh, and therefore Quinag, is not the trig point but a block that lies a few yards to the north.  A few silly selfies were taken as some drops of rain fell and then we were off down to Bealach na Chornaidh and the descent to the main path before striding out towards the car park with jelly babies and sherbet lemons providing the end-of-day sugar boost.

While walking out on the stalkers’ path the ascents and descents of the surrounding summits become more obvious.  Some guidebooks suggest ascending Sail Gharbh as the first summit of the walk, but if you intend to tick all three Corbetts, I would strongly recommend following the route that we did – the ascent to Spidean Coinich looks like a brutal way to finish the day.

All of the group met up at the Altnacealgach Inn for refreshment where Guinness isn’t on draught but the device for getting the traditional head on the pint is surely witchcraft !  And the landlord is a Scouser, what more could you want ?

(1)        quoted from     “Scotland’s Best Small Mountains”
            author              Kirsty Shirra
            publisher         Cicerone Press

(2)        quoted from     “Walking the Corbetts Volume 2: North of the Great Glen”
            author              Brian Johnson
            publisher         Cicerone Press

Stac Pollaidh

“… is a perfect mountain in miniature” (1)

Stac Pollaidh

After a five year absence my climbing club was returning to the SMC’s Naismith hut in Elphin, a super little hut in magnificent Assynt.  It’s a long way from Liverpool but the journey is well worth the reward as there are magnificent mountains to be climbed.

We split the journey with an overnight stop at the Alex MacIntyre hut in Onich before the final leg to the far north.  Most of those on the meet had been up Stac Pollaidh before but I found a couple of willing volunteers to accompany me.  After donning the boots we started to make our anticlockwise way on the pitched path which gradually winds around to the back of the hill, avoiding the horribly eroded direct ascent which is now actively discouraged as a way up.  The path carries on to surround the hill but at some point you have to decide on a way up to the crest.

There are tantalising glimpses of a ruggedly crenelated ridge above but it is only when you arrive that you can start to fully appreciate the landscape.  A 360 degree panorama of the Assynt peaks rising out of the surrounding moorland evokes a longing to extend your visit to climb them all; the walking in this far north-western citadel of Scotland is superb.

Quinag, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor

The scrambling on the ridge can be as easy or as hard as you choose to make it.  I made a long step across an exposed gap only having to reverse it when I encountered some far more exposed moves shortly after.  I’m sure that I wouldn’t have thought too much of the seriousness of the moves if I had a harness on and was attached to a rope but the lack of that security gave me pause to consider the seriousness of a slip.  So I dropped down to path that traverses under the crest to avoid unknown difficulties.

An easy scramble up the top of the old ascent gully regained the ridge an easier ground led to the crux of the route.  At this point it is reputed that many who ascend regard the moves ahead to the true summit as too hard and claim the tick as the ridge hereabouts is almost as high.  Ralph Storer says in his guidebook(2) that “perhaps more expletives are uttered here than on any other Scottish mountain” which may be true considering that the moves to gain the true summit are graded “Difficult” in rockclimbing terms.  Claiming an ascent of Stac Pollaidh when only this point has been reached is a cop-out; the summit is the highest point and only surmounting this difficulty will lead there.

Although only a few moves long, the way up the final obstruction will feel a lot easier to someone who has rock-climbing experience.  It’s been a few years since I have done any serious climbing but I was happy that I’ve got a reasonable number of mountain routes under my belt.  A steady nerve is needed to find the best holds before arriving at the gentle stroll along to last few yards to the summit cairn.  After taking the obligatory photos of the view it was time to consider reversing the crux moves !

Cul Beag from the ridge

Now is the time not to panic – climbing down is always harder than climbing up.  But traversing in from the right (facing out) makes the most of some good ledges before getting to the hardest moves.  At this point you’ll be facing the rock and if you can find the good hidden sidepull handhold on the right your way down to the notch will be a lot easier.

At some point further along the ridge a decision has to be made about where to descend back to the main path.  There are many options and if you choose wisely you’ll back on it in a matter of minutes.  From this point you can relax and enjoy looking up towards the pinnacles of the western slopes.

Pollaidh's pinnacles

Stac Pollaidh is a TRAIL 100 mountain and is fully deserving of its inclusion in that list.  It may be just a few feet higher than 2000 feet and is little more than a half-day’s walk, but it is worth the long journey.

(1) (2)  quoted from     “100 Best Routes on Scottish Mountains”
            author              Ralph Storer