SEVEN Munro ticks on a gentle rolling traverse of just 11 kilometres, little more than 1,800 metres ascent: it's easy to see why the South Glen Shiel Ridge is a bagger's dream.
For many aspiring Munroists it's an early tipping point, when the realisation kicks in that it doesn't have to mean settling for a day with just one or two additions to your list. That was certainly my experience.
We had racked up around 50 in piecemeal fashion when our eyes turned to Glen Shiel. Seven in a day? How could we resist? It was a rapid step-up in momentum. Those were exciting days, the unveiling of new landscapes, a constant voyage of discovery in our own country.
Glen Shiel was a revelation to mountain novices. There were so many peaks compressed into a relatively small area, rocky rollercoaster ridges with rich reward. There was never any doubt we would be going for the magnificent seven. We were blinded by the numbers. All we could see was tick after tick.
Experience has since taught me that quality is more important, more satisfying, than quantity, and that when it comes to the South Glen Shiel Ridge it can be better to do things by halves. Two days are better than one, the halves greater than the sum of the whole.
Instead of regarding these seven Munros as a single entity hitched together like a freight train, I have come to see them as seven individuals, each with their own characteristics and identity. The northern aspects in particular are riven with deep, complex corries, and subsidiary ridges pushing steeply on to the backbone, providing spectacular situations for those who choose this way up.
Having twice done the full ridge – once in my days of naivety, once leading a group in their days of naivety – I wanted to explore more of these hills. Instead of the unbroken run from Creag a' Mhaim to Creag nan Damh, I would split the traverse, taking my time to explore some of the connecting ridges and peer down into these often-neglected corries. No matter how you break it down, there's always the logistical problems with transport.
The Cluanie Inn was often the centre of frantic bargaining with other groups of walkers to make sure there was a car waiting when you descended. An 11-kilometre uphill road walk was the last thing needed after a big day on the hills.
The first time we entered into negotiations for a shared effort, we were snubbed by a pair who told us they intended to be moving fast, the implication being they didn't want to take the chance we would hold them up. Needless to say, after we had made other arrangements, we passed two limping figures struggling back up the long miles at the end of the day. We stopped and offered them a lift which they sheepishly accepted. Not surprisingly, they avoided small talk on the way back.
This is a glen where the thumb can be your most valuable friend. There are no long, fast straights like you find in Glen Coe, for instance. Here the road twists and winds, hemmed in between constantly dramatic slopes, and that natural traffic calming provides the perfect conditions for hitchhiking, especially with so many fellow mountain lovers passing through.
I was confident my lone excursions wouldn't be a problem: I would just travel to my chosen spot, get the gear on and then stick out my thumb. On both days I struck it lucky almost immediately.
Day One: I passed the end of Loch Cluanie, which would be my starting point, and travelled four kilometres further on to a parking area beside a section of forestry. My thumb had hardly got warmed up when a VW camper came puttering along and pulled over and I was greeted with the singular drawl, “Hey buddy, you wanting a ride?” It was the tranquilising vocal tone and speed of someone whose day moved at a whole different pace from the world around them. This was Scooby Doo's Shaggy in the flesh. I was almost disappointed by the lack of a large cartoon Great Dane sitting beside him. To describe this guy as laid back would be an understatement. He was almost horizontal.
He was crushed in to the front seats with three others – and that was just the advance party of the entourage. There must have been about a dozen crowded in the back, including a couple of youngsters and a dog or two. I doubted there was room for me, but one of the front seat passengers climbed over and offered me his space. I appreciated the offer. It was only a short hop, and I was sure I could survive the squeeze. Anyway, there was no chance of being involved in a high-speed crash. If we were going 10mph I would be astonished.
They were members of a band from south of the border who had been performing at a music festival in Skye. Families in tow, they had been on the road for weeks. At this speed, it would be another few weeks before they arrived home.
They asked what I was doing, and I told them I was going to climb a few hills. This seemed to come as a surprise. I did wonder what else they could possibly have thought I'd be doing dressed and equipped as I was. As we trundled along exchanging pleasantries, I became aware of a slight fug in the van, then the smell. That helped explain the chilled-out mood, and the somewhat half-hearted communal singing which accompanied the occasional strumming of a guitar.
By the time I was dropped off, I was feeling a little mellow myself. The farewells were long and heartfelt. I wished them well and in some ways wished I were going with them, but it was good timing. Another few miles in that atmosphere and I may have spent the day lying in a field of flowers, conversing with the sun.
My head was soon cleared by the route march on the old Tomdoun road round Loch Cluanie. Just after the old stone bridge, I took the faint path which zig-zags through boggy ground and then a more direct line on to the short north spur above Coirean an Eich Bhric and the first summit of the day, Creag a' Mhaim.
The rise to the cairn on Druim Shionnach always feels imperceptible, a mere 120 metres. The name seems to refer more to the ridge pushing out north than the summit, an all-encompassing moniker pasted on as an afterthought.
The interest increased round the rim of Coire an t-Slugain with its vertiginous drops from impressive slabby limbs spearing off. The highest point of the whole ridge is Aonach Air Chrith, the 'ridge of trembling'. There's some mild clambering to be had amid superb rock scenery but nothing to make you tremble, before the more open aspect of the expansive Coire nan Eirecheanach is reached and then the final peak of the day, Maol Chinn-dearg.
The descent starts immediately from the cairn. The north-east ridge of Druim Coire nan Eirecheanach was steep at first, but it soon relented, turning grassy before reaching a stalker's path which led to the road, just east of the highest point of the A87 on the watershed between the Shiel and Cluanie rivers.
There was a feeling of satisfaction in watching the day's summits recede off to the east while building anticipation for the western ones to come the following day.
Day Two: The approach for the second half of the traverse is shorter and sharper, and there are only three Munros compared to the previous day's four, but there are two lower summits to take into account so overall the distances and height gain are virtually the same.
The choice for the descent was key. The shorter way down is directly from Creag nan Damh through Am Froach-choire, but it can be a slimy, messy way out with a somewhat confused finish emerging near the site of the 1719 Battle of Glenshiel site. The better way looked to be to continue west along the ridge to the Bealach Dubh Leac and then to drop down by the lively waters of the Allt Mhalagain. This turns before the Corbett of Sgurr a' Bhac Chaolais and swings below the walls that link Sgurr na Sgine and Faochag before emerging at the foot of the Old Military Road, the usual starting point for The Saddle. The difference between the two finishing points is about three kilometres so I had to make a choice and stick to it.
A bright, sunny morning. The road was quiet. I booked my spot and got my gear out. Just as I was pulling on my socks, I spotted a lone car struggling uphill. I couldn't wait – this might be the only chance for a while. I half-walked, half-hopped out on to the road, thumb gesturing frantically in my desired direction.
If the driver was disturbed by the sight of a half-dressed man frantically trying to put on his socks and boots while charging across the road, he didn't let it show. Instead, he stopped, and opened the passenger door. Bingo! Less than 30 seconds after parking, I had a lift. I love it when the day starts well.
This was John, and he was in a particularly good mood, heading home to Manchester after completing his Munros the day before. Not only a fellow walker, but one with something to celebrate. He was so chilled and happy, I reckon that even if I had appeared naked, covered in blood, with a dead stag over my shoulders he would have picked me up. Nothing was going to ruin his mood.
I was dropped at the same point of yesterday's finish, and with a few toots of the horn, John was off. The stalker's path was again put to use, but this time I took the western fork over the Allt Coire a' Chuil Droma Bhig and then climbed on to the Druim Thollaidh. It's an 800m rise to the top of Sgurr Coire na Feinne but the angle is consistent, and the thought of the riches looming ahead on the ridge is a constant draw.
Yesterday's final peak, Maol Chinn-dearg, was within touching distance, but today's first Munro, Sgurr an Doire Leathain, was about 20 minutes away around the edge of Coire a' Chuil Droma Mor. This is the summit which is slightly offset from the ridge, and in thick weather it can be easier than you think to miss.
Shapely Sgurr an Lochain, the most magnificent of the seven, takes its name from the body of water it cradles in the tightly enclosing arms of the corrie, and is merely a short hop. Then comes the sting in the tail. Creag nan Damh is three kilometres away and it always feels like a longer haul than any of the other six. There's also another top in the way, Sgurr Beag, but that can be bypassed, and often is, on the long haul. However, it seemed churlish to ignore this summit when the traverse was broken in two and it's hardly a knee-breaker.
Purists will tell you that the bigger cairn on Creag nan Damh is not the actual summit; a small pile of rocks on a crag a few metres further west is the highest point.
The continuation of the ridge westwards is a joy, narrow rocky sections and comprehensive views until you reach a seemingly impassable wall. It turned out to be easy on closer inspection, and there followed a stepped drop leading into a wonderful corrie complex, high walls all round, the sound of rushing water everywhere. There's a true feeling of human insignificance here, where you are reduced to a speck on the landscape.
It's worth pointing out that this descent is a different proposition in wet conditions. On my last outing here, I was taken by surprise by the volume of water roaring down to form the Allt Mhalagain and it required a waist-deep wade to reach the road. Not so bad when so close to the finish, but not a good way to start the day.
Arithmeticians may tell you that two into seven doesn't go. When it comes to the South Glen Shiel Ridge, I would suggest it goes just fine.