South Glen Shiel Ridge Ski Traverse
Many times I have passed through Glen Shiel, looked up to the South Cluanie Ridge and wondered what it would be like as a ski traverse. Having run it once many years ago, my memory was of grassy amenable slopes, and with this in mind it was certainly on my radar for a ski traverse on lightweight ‘skimo’ gear. But would I ever manage to get there when it was in condition?
On 16th December 2017 I was able to be in the right place at the right time and complete a traverse on ski, starting from just east of Cluanie Inn, ascending to Creag a’ Mhàim and then taking in all the Munros heading west to The Saddle, before descending again to the A87 in Glen Shiel.
Setting off a little before sunrise I skinned along the old Fort William road right from the car. Heading south and up into Coirean an Eich Bhric there was some fantastic morning light and I was amazed by how close the Nevis hills looked. A short section on foot took me up the north ridge to summit Creag a’ Mhàim, the first of the nine Munros I hoped to visit.
|Creag a' Mhaim|
|Skins off before the first descent|
Heading west along the broad ridge I ascended into the mist, managing to keep the skis on past some narrow rocky sections. After Aonach air Chrith I ran a short distance as again the ridge was narrow, rocky and scoured. Snow showers would blow through making things a bit unpleasant but then would recede as quickly, leaving me alone with the silent untracked snow again.
Getting further along the weather improved and I had more expansive views down to Glen Quoich, fully blanketed in snow. Following the old fenceline for a lot of the route made for mostly easy navigation through the intermittent cloud, although some careful contouring used the skis to their advantage in enabling a more direct line that avoided several sub-summits. The snow cover was good, although the base was variable. In practice this meant for quick uphill skinning but required careful descending to avoid rocks, fenceposts and unconsolidated drifts. Due to the nature of the undulating ridge it was quicker and more efficient to leave skis in ‘uphill’ mode for some of the short, gentler descents. As anyone who has free-heeled downhill with skins on will know, this can be pretty ungainly!
|Approaching the top of Creag nan Damh|
By Creag nan Damh the sun was out and I had great winter vistas south and west, as well as glimpses through the cloud to a pristine looking snowy Saileag to the north. Following the fenceline down to Bealach Duibh Leac and up onto Sgùrr a’ Bhac Chaolais was fun although undulating and not totally straightforward. Sgùrr na Sgine was a beauty, its steep eastern cliffs a barrier that I would have to go around. Skis off for a steep rocky descent, then a lovely gentle slope traversing southwest under the cliffs. I spotted two climbers doing one of the chimney lines on the cliff, and then startled a fox from its snow covered hideout in an old wall. I watched with primitive delight as it shot up the wide white slope, helter skelter, disappearing over the horizon. Following it more slowly I arrived at Sgùrr na Sgine and looked across to The Saddle, which was still bathed in cloud. The snow was less consolidated here, closer to the sea, and the hills seemed rockier too. An awkward traverse down to Bealach Coire Mhàlagain was not free of rocky scrapes, but certainly would have been more arduous on foot, sinking deep in the soft snow.
|Heading up Sgurr na Sgine (fox top right)|
Heading up The Saddle I felt tired. I had only taken a litre of water and not enough food, so I needed to concentrate. The cloud lifted as I got to the 1010m summit and I had evening views to Loch Duich and Skye. This peak is quite complex and knowing I had only about half an hour of daylight left with which to commit to my descent route focussed the mind, adding feelings of urgency to those already engendered by the lonely harshness of the land. Skiing down the featured corrie heading east did not look totally straightforward, but walking off by any route would have been slow and exhausting in these conditions. Carefully avoiding rocks I skied the corrie and then traversed back to the base of the Forcan Ridge.
Ascending a final time I passed Meallan Odhar and joined the stalkers track before jogging out the final 2km on foot, just as it became fully dark, and 8.5hrs after setting off. Thumb out hopefully, walking along the road in the darkness, I was a lucky boy as the first vehicle passing stopped for me! Thanks to Helen and Neil from Cioch Outdoor Clothing who gave me a lift back to my car for some food and rehydration.
The next day was nasty, milder weather, and so I had hit the end of the skiing conditions window. Reflecting on the day gives me a lot of pleasure for a variety of reasons but foremost is the satisfaction of using the ski as a tool for travel in winter mountain terrain when it is also the best option. Walking or running the same 32km route would have been implausible in these conditions due to exhausting slow trail breaking: the skis were not perfect but they made this journey possible in these conditions. Maybe the resultant jubilation in part explains the allure of trying to eke out long ski traverses in Scotland, where ski conditions are very often marginal, and the outcome is far from predictable.