Hillwalking - Boasting a sublime day... in spite of pea-soup fog: An Teallach

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It isn’t often that you can boast a sublime day out in spite of a pea soup fog that prevents you seeing much more than the boots on the end of your legs.

An Teallach gave us just such a day.

At the end of a cold week of sunshine and showers and on the forecaster’s promise of reasonable weekend weather we’d driven up to Dondonnell and dozed away Friday night in the car. Saturday morning had dawned dull and unpromising; surely the day would improve as the morning wore along...

Our target was ‘The Forge’, alias An Teallach, (to give it its better known Gaelic name) By 8. 30, after a hurried breakfast (cold), we were booted up and ready to go.

‘The Forge’, was living up to its name this morning! The cloud was low enough to give our mountain’s head, or more correctly, heads, a swirling hat of foreboding gloom, much akin, in fact, to the reek of a typical blacksmith’s lair. Not to worry though, the aforementioned weathermen had predicted a lifting of the smoke by lunchtime...ahem!

We set off for the mountain’s flank. Through trees and rhododendrons and a lot of boot churned mire we followed a path of sorts along the Garbh Allt. It soon broke out into the open to develop into a fine and easily followed trail. Over the heathery moorland, in the company of cataracts and mini waterfalls and a scattering of little lochans, we gradually climbed towards the shrouded ridge of Glas Meall Mor. There is probably a path, if not a boot worn smear, up the nose of this, An Teallach’s outrider, but we followed a fainter trod into the wildly beautiful Coire a’ Ghlas Thuill.

A climb directly up the far west wall of this great grassy bowl would bring the walker onto the ridge of An Teallach’s first Munro, Bidean a’ Ghlas Thuill, but up there, in the mist, crags were waiting to waylay the unwary; at best a headlong charge up into those quarters could be a frustrating and time consuming exercise.

Our favoured option was to climb, albeit steeply, onto the grassy ridge above us. It was a slow but not uncomfortable haul up steeply angled grass peppered here and there with shifty boulders. Stopping frequently to catch our breath we chatted our way up. Before we knew it we were on the skyline, the red sandstone bones of the mountain crunching beneath our boots and the mountain’s hood of cloud our cloak.

Now, to our heart’s content, we could follow a proper mountain path. Hoping that the sun might soon take up the battle with the all consuming cloud, we walked along the stony ridge that led us to the foot of Munro number one, the wonderfully named ‘peak of the greenish grey hollow’, (Bidean a’ Ghlas Thuill). For such a steep peak, the going-well over on the northern flank and away from the plunging southern cliffs-was easy; the only thing that spoiled the walking a little was the sad erosion that is evidence of the popularity of An Teallach.

No matter; soon we were standing at the summit cairn and attendant trig point. Eerie it was, shrouded in a mist that seemed to muffle even our own voices. All we could do was sit there and imagine the drops at our toes, especially those into the mountain’s huge north western corrie- its floor well over a thousand feet below.

A long drop down the Bidean’s nether side and a tight, windy col followed by another climb of similar character, had us almost at the top of Munro number two, Sgorr Fiona, or to give it its English name, ‘The fair peak’. At 1060 metres she is beaten for height by her northern sister by only seven feet. But it was not height that slowed our progress to her summit’s rocky plinth. Rather it was the sudden bursting forth of the sun, lighting up the bulk of Sgorr Creag an Eich, which stopped us in our tracks and had us sitting and marvelling in the company of a beautiful male wheatear. And yet no sooner had the sun burst forth, tantalising us with a watery view over Loch na Sealga to Beinns Dearg Mhor and Bheag, than it crept back behind the clouds again to leave us in our former smoky world.

A quick and simple scramble had us at the summit and settled down for lunch. All about us gloomy mist. And through that mist came voices. We waited but no one came; we discovered why a little later. As we sat there the mist began to slowly shred again and the ridge below us materialised; it was exactly what we’d come here to see. The path below stretched away like a tight rope, along the very edge of an overhanging cliff top the supporting walls of which plunged into a precipice, sheer for a thousand feet or more.

Just ahead rose the strange pillar of Lord Berkeley’s Seat, a huge nipple of sandstone topped by a platform not much larger than the proverbial postage stamp. Lord Berkeley, an Irish philosopher and old time mountaineer, had sat there after his own ascent, his feet dangling over seven seconds of free fall. After making the easy scramble onto said tiny platform we were content just to sit there and shiver, our feet firmly rooted to the spot.

Next came the Corrag Bhuidhe Pinnacles, a series of sandstone rock towers and turrets which provide an entertainingly airy scramble. These in turn are followed by the more dangerous Corrag Bhuidhe Buttress.

Now we found out where those voices had emanated from. As we climbed the first pinnacle we found ourselves virtually tripping over climbers who’d evidently approached from the opposite direction. Having finished with the traverse of the airy ridge they were draped around the base of their final pinnacle enjoying lunches of their own-even some of their belongings were posited in some of the deeper holds we were reliant on. We passed them by and got on with the airy traverse of An Teallach’s famous pinnacles. At times the scrambling was on the verge of hard, but always absorbing, demanding concentration, despite the fact that the mist hid the fearsome drops below our feet.

Beyond the pinnacles, and with watery glimpses down into Toll an Lochan shifting in and out of the mists, we marched on to the lesser summit of Stob Cadha Gobhlach. We did so with many a backward glance at the stunning rock scenery behind us.

Crossing Cadha Gobhlach, we passed by another strange rock formation and stupendous gullies that plunge steep and rocky to the corrie floor below. One more short ascent had us on the beautiful shattered grey quartz of Sail Liath (Grey heel). How this hill must glow like snow on a moonlit night!

This was the final hill of the day. Our chosen route of descent was by way of its tedious boulder fields and into Coire Ghubhsaichean, with its to mile length of bounding cliffs of quartz of palest grey.

We had intended to walk along the top of this aerial walkway, a delight which should have led us virtually all the way to journey’s end. However a misinterpretation of the terrain from above had us on the wrong terrace, necessitating an awkward drop to reach the river below. It was nonetheless a good way off.

With a fine waterfall and backward glances at the stupendous ridge above, we ambled those last four miles back, tired now but satisfied with a thrilling ten hour romp over one of Britain’s finest mountains.