Wednesday 12 May 2021

Two Mountains: Liathach and Ben Macdui


Back in 2018 I, along with other regular contributors, wrote about our favourite mountains for The Great Outdoors magazine. Now choosing a favourite is actually impossible. There are so many fine mountains. But I had to pick ones so I went for two key mountains from two of my favourite areas of the Scottish Highlands -  Liathach in Torridon and Ben Mavdui in the Cairngorms. These are two very different mountains. Here's what I wrote about them.


Towering above Glen Torridon in the North-West Highlands a great ragged rock wall some 8 kilometres long Liathach is one of the most dramatic and impressive mountains in the UK. More a mini mountain range than a single mountain Liathach is built of layers of dark reddish Torridonian sandstone, the highest points capped by pale quartzite. Its name comes from the latter, Liathach meaning the grey one. There are two Munros on Liathach – 1055 metre Spidean a’Choire Leith (peak of the grey corrie) and 1023 metre Mullach an Rathain (summit of the pulleys) – plus four subsidiary Tops. Sir Hugh Munro listed it as just one mountain though – Mullach an Rathain wasn’t granted Munro status until the 1981 revision of Munro’s Tables.

The classic view of Liathach is across Loch Clair, which lies to the east. This make a perfect mountain scene with the mountain reflected in the water which is fringed with trees and reeds. Easy access means that this view is much photographed. Only the eastern end of Liathach is seen however and the full size of the mountain is hidden. To see the whole southern aspect of Liathach in all its glory you need to go further and higher, up into the hills south of Glen Torridon from where the whole magnificent mountain can be seen stretching out. 


From Glen Torridon Liathach looks impregnable, the sandstone terraces very steep and only split by narrow gullies, and there are indeed only a few ways up for walkers and these are not easy. The finest route is the traverse of the whole mountain. This involves some Grade 2 scrambling if the dramatic Am Fasarinen pinnacles, which lie between the two Munros, are taken direct. The rock is rough though and the holds good. There is a narrow traversing path on the south side but this is very exposed and eroded in places, especially where it goes round the head of gullies. It’s slippery when wet too. Looking down into Glen Torridon the tiny cars on the road seem to be almost directly below. This mountain really is steep. If you don’t fancy the pinnacles or the path each Munro can be climbed separately but this is to miss out the essence of the mountain.

Spidean a’ Choire Leith is a great cone of angular quartzite blocks. The usual ascent is via a very steep stony path that leads up Toll a’ Meitheach from Glen Torridon to Coire Liath Mhor and a dip in the ridge between the easternmost Tops of Stuc a’ Choire Dhuibh, which gives superb views of Beinn Eighe across Coire Dubh Mor, and Stob a’Choire Liath Mhor. Rocky walking leads over the latter to Spidean a’ Choire Leith.  From the ridge there are spectacular views into the northern corries and across a wild watery landscape to primeval looking hills. There are other routes to Spidean a’ Choire Leith from Glen Torridon but these are pathless and require good route-finding skills.

From Spidean a’Choire Leith the whole of the mountain can be seen. What really draws the eye are Mullach an Rathain and the Northern Pinnacles, a spur of the Munro running out to Meall Dearg. The last is the most difficult Munro Top on the mainland. The traverse of the loose Northern Pinnacles is a difficult and exposed scramble, with some sections Moderate rock climbs. Dropping down into the corrie to the east and then climbing steep slopes to the col between the Pinnacles and Meall Dearg is much easier but the ascent still involves some scrambling.

The sting in the tail of Meall Dearg only concerns completionists collecting Tops as well as Munros. For everyone else the difficulties of the traverse are over once the Am Fasarinen pinnacles are climbed or bypassed. The walking to Mullach an Rathain is the easiest so far, the ridge broad and less rocky. Once the summit is reached there are splendid views west to Beinn Alligin, Loch Torridon and the distant Isle of Skye.

The southern slopes of Mullach an Rathain can be ascended or descended anywhere west of the Allt an Tuill Bhain right down to Torridon village.

The north side of Liathach is very different to the south. Instead of an unbroken wall there are deep corries and long spurs. This complex side of the mountain is well seen from the path running up Coire Dubh Mor and then down Coire Mhic Nobuil. Coire na Caime with the Am Fasarinen pinnacles at its head looks particularly splendid from this path. Once out of sight of the road in Glen Torridon the feeling is one of remoteness and isolation. The landscape is chaotic and unforgiving, dotted with boulders, lochans and rushing streams. There are many possibilities for spectacular wild camps. This side of the mountain is one for exploration, for wandering into the great corries below the mountain walls to revel in the wildness of a mountain sanctuary. Few people venture here.

Under snow Liathach looks truly alpine, a tremendous white mountain soaring into the sky. There is no walking in these conditions, just mountaineering. The ridge traverse is a Grade II winter climb. Just climbing either of the two Munros requires winter skills and knowledge. Liathach is a serious mountain at any time but especially when there is snow and ice.

Ben Macdui 

The highest summit in the Cairngorms and the second highest in Britain 1309 metre Ben Macdui is a great sprawling complex mass of a mountain covering a huge area. Far from roads and with many lower peaks close by Ben Macdui isn’t easily visible from the valleys of Strathspey or Deeside and when it is picked out it just appears as a rounded bump. You need to climb high in the hills to realise just how splendid it is.  From Lochnagar and the White Mounth to the south-east it appears as two gentle domes rising above huge Coire Sputan Dearg. Seen from Braeriach and Cairn Toul to the west it’s a rolling plateau falling steeply into the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru. These two views reveal the bulk and height of the mountain in a way that cannot be seen from lower down.

The northern side is different. Here Ben Macdui is the final rise of the vast Cairngorm Plateau which is itself mostly above 1000 metres. Approach this way from Cairn Gorm and there’s a feeling of the arctic even in summer as you cross a landscape of gravel scree, boulders and sparse arctic-alpine vegetation. In mist it’s a mysterious place where careful navigation is needed. When snow covers the Plateau it really feels as though you could be in Greenland or Antarctica. Only the trig point on the summit of Macdui shows you are in Britain, if it’s not buried in the snow that is. In winter conditions Ben Macdui is also potentially very dangerous. In a white-out the terrain is featureless and there is no shelter for a long way. Good mountaineering and navigational skills are needed when it’s snowy.


The south and the east give very different ascents, both requiring long walk-ins, and both showing the complex nature of the mountain. The climb up the long Sron Riach ridge from Glen Luibeg has tremendous views into Coire Sputan Dearg, that from Glen Derry winds past Loch Etchachan, set in an impressive bowl below the cliffs of Carn Etchachan, then above the Coire Sputan Dearg cliffs.

The views from Ben Macdui are spectacular and wide-ranging but the best ones are not from the very top where there is a large cairn with the trig point on it plus a panoramic viewfinder erected in 1925 by the Cairngorm Club. However the big gently rounded summit means that views are cut off and only the tops of nearby hills can be seen. Walk a few hundred metres south or west until the slopes start to steepen and the views open out. The most tremendous is straight across the Lairig Ghru to the massive east face of Cairn Toul while to the south there’s a long view down the lower Lairig Ghru and out over lower hills to distant Beinn a’Ghlo.

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