Tuesday 9 October 2012

Storms over Glen Affric

View west from Mam Sodhail

Hood up, head down, I crouched as the next blast hit me, clinging onto my trekking poles. The wind was roaring up out of the corrie far below, hurling stinging hail and freezing sleet into my face. Thick clouds swirled all around. Shattered rock pinnacles rose out of the mist, stark and alien, suspended in the air. I slithered on the wet, greasy rocks and muddy grass. I was on the east ridge of Carn Eige in the Northwest Highlands. This narrow rocky section of the crest, called Stob Coire Dhomhnuill, is no more than a walk but in this storm, which threatened to blow me off the mountain and down into the depths of the corrie far below, it was challenging and exhilarating.

Camp in Gleann nam Fiadh
I’d set out the day before, walking up Glen Affric on a rainy evening and then over boggy moorland to Gleann nam Fiadh, where I managed to find a fairly dry area by the river to camp. The roaring of rutting stags rang round the hillsides, guttural and savage. The forecast was for the rain and wind easing with a promise of much sunny weather for the next two days. Dawn came with a clearing sky and a fresh breeze. The clouds racing overhead were just brushing the highest summits. I followed the delightful river, all bright cascades and foaming waterslides and dark pools, upstream a little way, my pleasure in the water somewhat allaying my dismay at a freshly gouged multi-channel off-road vehicle track that ploughed through the soft ground, obliterating the old path. 

Mam Sodhail
Soon I left the river and the glen and climbed rough, steep slopes into Coire Mhic Fhearchair and then onto the ridge where I felt the full force of the storm. There was little sign of blue in the sky now and sleet and wet snow was sticking to rocks and to my clothing. The lower legs of my trousers, wet from rain-soaked vegetation, began to freeze. Three subsidiary tops lay between me and the shelter of the big cairn on Carn Eige. Counting them off was impossible though as any bump could have been a summit. Eventually the slopes broadened and the wind, though still very strong, was less gusty as it was no longer squeezed between corrie walls. Soon the summit appeared and I was able to crouch behind the cairn and have a little food. The air was damp and cold, my thermometer recording just 2ÂșC, so I didn’t linger but was soon on my way down the slopes towards Carn Eige’s invisible twin, Mam Sodhail, the pair making up the two highest hills north of the Great Glen.

The summit of Mam Sodhail
As I descended I came out of the mist to a sudden view down to Lochan Uaine far below and the dark slopes of Mam Sodhail with torn dark clouds ripping round its summit rising ahead. A hooded walker passed me heading the other way and we shared brief greetings and smiles, the only other person I saw all day bar a distant silhouetted figure on the ridge above as I ascended Coire Mhic Fhearchair. Mam Sodhail was wind-blasted but cloud-free and again I sheltered by the summit cairn. Looking back Carn Eige and its long east ridge were still hidden in the clouds.

Evening Light over Loch Affric on the descent from Sgurr na Lapaich
I descended via the east ridge over two more subsidiary tops, the last one of which, Sgurr na Lapaich, dominates the view up Glen Affric. I had intended to camp somewhere on this ridge or just below it but the fierce wind changed that idea and instead I went straight down from Sgurr na Lapaich to Glen Affric, a route that proved slower and more awkward than anticipated as it was mostly on steep slopes, slippery with rain and moss and covered in half-hidden rocks and miniature crags. Out to the west there were pink-tinged clouds and patches of pale blue sky as the sun faded away. Eventually as the evening grew dark I reached easier ground and then the strip of woodland along Loch Affric. Here the wind was gentler and broken by the trees though I could see white lines of wind-blown foam out on the loch while high above the clouds were still tearing across the sky. The forest floor was mostly boggy and bumpy but I found a dry heathery hummock just big enough for my shelter and here I spent a peaceful night. The stags were roaring from the hillsides and the wind rattled the trees but these sounds didn’t stop me from sleeping deeply after a hard but satisfying day in the hills.

Camp in the woods above Loch Affric
The rising sun shining in the shelter door woke me. The forest was alive with light and brightness, the wet vegetation shining and sparkling. The birches and bracken were turning gold and orange, the sky was deep blue. After a grey and white day colour had returned to the world. 

Glen Affric camp


  1. Superb photo's Chris,it sounds like an interesting outing! Greetings from Mark&Helen.

  2. Looking at the picture of the camp in the woods above Loch Affric, it's hard to credit some of the stuff which went before. The highlands, eh? Be ready for anything on just about any day of the year.

  3. Just come across your blog and really enjoyed those superb shots. Looking forward to your next post.