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A scramble up the Forcan Ridge to reach the Munro summit of The Saddle in Glen Shiel

By Jenny Gillies

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Admiring the upper ridge from an airy viewpoint.
Admiring the upper ridge from an airy viewpoint.

In the past I spent a lot of great days scrambling and climbing in the Scottish hills but gradually, as priorities changed, I have got more and more rusty.

A very enjoyable week doing my summer Mountain Leader training reminded me how much fun hill walking is and I am trying to challenge myself on steeper terrain and in more testing weather conditions again.

A stay on the west coast meant the impressive Forcan Ridge, one of the many mountain jewels in Glen Shiel’s crown, was within easy reach and the graded scramble along the ridge was a really good goal to start regaining some of my previous confidence on steep terrain.

There were only a couple of cars in the lay-by alongside the A87, surprisingly empty given the skies had lightened to reveal the forecast bluebird skies of a calm, cold winter’s day.

We successfully located where the path leaves the verge of the trunk road, and after this the navigation at the beginning of the walk is pleasantly simple on the brain. In contrast, the relentless way the stalkers' path winds its way up the side of Meallan Odhar is less relaxing for the body and, after a summer carrying only a light runner’s rucksack, I could soon feel the weight of a winter walking load on my back.

Peering through a chink in the rock on the diversion around the around the hardest section.
Peering through a chink in the rock on the diversion around the around the hardest section.

The frosty morning was now welcome as the effort of climbing began to take effect and even I, someone who welcomes summer heat-waves, was glad of the December air. Below us we could see where the coldest air had sunk into the glen overnight and left a legacy of thick hoar frost on the vegetation of the lower slopes and riverside fields.

We reached the top of Meallan Odhar and had our first glimpse of the Forcan Ridge ahead. I’ve done the ridge before in summer, many years ago, but had completely forgotten the imposing scale of it. Rising up in front of us, the rocky spine looked like the back of a sleeping dinosaur, waiting for the winter sun to warm it after the cold night.

At the base of the first rock steepening I stopped to tighten up my laces, my feet already suffering slightly from the stiffness of winter boots, the bones not quite ready to be broken into a La Sportiva boot shape.

It took a while to get used to having my hands back on rock but it’s a gentle introduction to the scrambling and time passed quickly as we made our way steadily up, sticking to the crest to make the most of the interest.

The dry, cold rock had good grip to begin with and it was only as we got higher that I began to be a little unsettled by the contrasting conditions of the dry rock on the sunny, south-facing side of the ridge and the sometimes icy and slippery rock on the wintry, north-facing side.

All hands on deck as the rock begins to steepen lower down on Forcan Ridge.
All hands on deck as the rock begins to steepen lower down on Forcan Ridge.

Eric was patient as I got used to the exposure again and the combination of short scrambling and ridge walking sections gave plenty of opportunity to enjoy the ever-expanding vista around us.

Just before reaching the trickiest part of the scramble, I admit I had been made a little nervous by the icy rocks – not bad enough to warrant crampons or axe, but slippery enough to make every hand and boot placement a little unsure – so we decided to use the sun-warmed gully on the south side of the ridge to turn the difficulty rather than tackle it direct.

Looking back up, once safely around the buttress, I began to wonder if I had been too quick to take the easier option, but I had to remind myself that it’s important to make sure you stay within your limits and make sure you are still there to enjoy another day in the hills.

Still the ridge continued onwards with a couple of the classic arêtes to negotiate – the pride of an enjoyable and elegantly executed traverse of the first arête was immediately cancelled out by a distinctly un-elegant “a cheval” dismount of the second.

The ridge finally widened out slightly to allow a path to zigzag up a final rise to reach the trig point on top of The Saddle or, in Gaelic, An Diollaid. The name of The Saddle refers to the short ridge between two tops of the hill that looks (with a bit of imagination) like a riding saddle with the pommel and cantle as the two tops. It seems that whichever of the tops you stand on, it’s the other that looks higher.

Taking off my rucksack to rest, I slowly turned to survey the scene around, the sun already low in the southern sky despite the early afternoon hour. A white frozen lochan close to the summit looked out of place among the brown, snowless grass around it.

The frozen lochan looking out of place on the snow-less summit.
The frozen lochan looking out of place on the snow-less summit.

We started down the steep path, taking us south-west off the summit towards Bealach Coire Mhalagain. There now followed a small period of melodramatic personal strop at the uneven and loose descent towards a break in an old wall running along the southern base of the Forcan Ridge.

One route suggests following the wall below the face, but we opted to cross it and continue along the path towards a lochan in the middle of the bealach, hoping for easier ground. True, the gradient did ease, but big patches of ice across the hillside negated any easing of effort.

Reaching the lochan and looking down into the corrie we began to regret our decision to take the longer route, as there seemed to be no obvious path contouring round the hillside to rejoin the stalkers' path on Meallan Odhar.

We both set off downwards, deciding to pick our own way across the open hillside towards a mutual goal of a large erratic rock. After the slow going on the upper slopes, the ground was actually easier than it looked and we made quick progress, meeting the ascent path after a short climb to gain the col between Meallan Odhar and the beginning of the Forcan Ridge.

It felt like a long way down to the road – I’m sure a lot of this was a lack of hill-walking fitness. I think it’s a fitness different from running, cycling and any of the cardio sports and something you take for granted when you are in the hills every weekend.

Fingers crossed, with my winter walking kit now out of storage, I’ll have some of it back in no time.

Looking north-west towards Loch Alsh and the southern tip of Skye.
Looking north-west towards Loch Alsh and the southern tip of Skye.

Route details

The Saddle via Forcan Ridge

Distance 7.5 miles / 12km

Terrain Hill paths with sections of scrambling on the ridge. In winter conditions the route is a serious undertaking for experienced and well-equipped mountaineers only

Start/finish Roadside lay-by on A87 at grid ref NG965145

Maps OS Landranger 33; OS Explorer 414; Harvey British Mountain Map – Knoydart, Kintail & Glen Affric

A grand mountain day using the airy Forcan Ridge to reach the Munro of The Saddle at the west end of Glen Shiel

Looking back down the ridge and on eastwards down Glen Shiel.
Looking back down the ridge and on eastwards down Glen Shiel.

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