Some mountains get into your soul. I remember 30 years ago leafing through my first book of Scottish mountains becoming increasingly inspired by photos of classic Munros. Some were gradually visited, some were more remote. A few were very remote, whilst a select few were extremely remote – and scary too. As we became familiar with the mountain playgrounds of Glencoe, Glen Shiel, Torridon and Skye, one extremely remote scary mountain became the Holy Grail – the 3,474ft serrated sandstone massif of An Teallach (The Forge). For some hikers it’s simply the best mainland mountain in Britain.
Sitting majestically in the far North West Highlands beyond a range of almost equally magnificent peaks, it’s remoteness only adds to the mystique. For the past 10 years a framed picture of An Teallach has hung on my lounge wall taunting me, yet I’d rarely ever seen the mountain in the flesh, (or the rock). There had been brief distant glimpses from mountains further south, whilst my only trip that far north was dogged by 3 days of mist covering even the lowest foothills.
Last year however saw the closest encounter yet during the ascent of mighty Slioch near Kinlochewe. A perfect peaky panorama of remoteness burst into view with the unmistakeably huge bristly shape of An Teallach looking menacingly broodingly hugely erm bristly. You see normal adjectives just aren’t enough for An Teallach.
It bristles due to the notorious Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles which necessitate an exposed scramble above sheer drops down to Loch Toll an Lochan. Ever since seeing those early guidebook photos there had been a fear & apprehension about An Teallach, mixed with wonder & intrigue. Over the years various route guides & trip reports had been read, many pictures examined and pinnacles pondered upon. Questions were posed;- how did it compare to others, was it beyond us, would we be forced back, and would we ever be able to plant our arses on Lord Berkeleys Seat?
Time and knee joints were ticking away so whilst up on Slioch gazing at the bristly behemoth, we resolved that the fear had to be faced and in 2013 we would plan a return to the far North Highlands to hopefully attempt the Holy Grail.
And so in July 2013 during the national UK heatwave we arrived in Ullapool – only to be dogged by 3 days of persistent storm force winds which kept us off the high mountains. Day 1 saw me blown over on Cul Beag, Day 2 was a low walk out to remote Sandwood Bay & Day 3 an amazing ferry trip in the gales & rain to Stornoway & the Outer Hebrides.
It was soon our final night in Ullapool, the chance we had waited for all these years seemed to have gone. There was nothing we could do about it and at least we had managed 3 great days in a wonderful location despite the 70mph mountain gusts. We wanted clear weather to enjoy An Teallach at it’s best and for safety reasons too. Then on that final evening in Ullapool the forecast did something fatefully unexpected, it finally changed for the better.
Morning arrived and a quick check of the trusted forecasts confirmed a bright but hazy day, some cloud patches, dry and crucially little wind. Our guesthouse was full that evening so I’d booked the next 2 nights in picturesque Plockton 2 hours drive further south. Plan A had always been to include a Munro on the way but trying to fit An Teallach in was looking logistically impossible. The usual ascent route is a clockwise traverse around it’s big U shape ridge with the notoriously exposed pinnacles barring the way to the two Munros. Taking the pinnacles clockwise meant ascending the steep exposed sections (reportedly easier than descending). If the pinnacles were too difficult then a lower bypass path could be taken which is reportedly worryingly worn by countless boots and exposed. Note the use of that ‘exposed’ word again, as I get older I’m becoming less comfortable with ‘exposed’ situations and the knees just aren’t enjoying the scrambling like they used to, it kinda hurts.
Exposure = empty space below a climber, usually referring to a great distance a climber is above the ground or large ledge, or the psychological sense of this distance due to being unprotected (Wikipedia)
This all adds to the fear factor of the Forge and if we were to attempt the full traverse then we would need plenty of time to tread carefully, this was not a place to slip. Time however was one thing we didn’t have, yet the opportunity and that weather looked so inviting, we needed a Munro and would be driving right past the Holy Grail.
My mate Alan however had a plan B. This involved doing the route in reverse thereby reaching the two Munro summits first and without any exposed sections. We could bag the two tops then gaze out over the ridge and maybe even try tottering out to Lord Berkeleys Seat (info later). We could call this a preliminary trip to check out the full route for next time. This plan also fitted our time constraints and mentally eased 30 years of apprehensive fear. So we had a plan and if anyone asked us why we were wimping out of the pinnacles we could explain the time constraints whilst still retaining what little manly mountain dignity we had left. Luckily Alan hadn’t shaved so that was a good start and I had my poles & knee supports. Doh, that’s the dignity buggered!
And so once upon a time that morning we drove south to attempt An Teallach, as you do. Even though this was to be a wimpy safe ascent route we were subconsciously apprehensive, I certainly hadn’t felt this way before any previous trip. This one was different, this one was personal. Soon we drew nearer along the Destitution Road (built in 1840 to provide relief during famine) and then An Teallach came into view, typically still playing hard to get with all tops hidden in cloud. The pits of our stomachs had that unnerving feeling. I reassured Alan that I was 100% sure the cloud would lift and we would get views ( I was actually 86% sure). We drove past the visible foothills and parked in the large lay-by at Dundonnell. This was our destiny, (cue Darth Vader music).
We were strangely quiet getting our gear ready and boots on, then set off walking past the large Mountain Rescue Hut, hmm wonder why it’s situated there! We crossed the road by a cottage and followed a path zig zagging up through good ground gaining height quickly. It’s worth mentioning An Teallach is one of those mountains where the ascent is very definitely from sea level, no high starts here as the photo below illustrates 🙂
We reached a small cairn where the path splits either straight up following the river or an older route zig zagging further west over Meall Garbh then arching south. Having read previous recommendations we chose the latter and it certainly seemed straightforward. This even started feeling like a normal mountain with no hint of the pointy bits ahead. Eventually we came to an expansive flattish moonscape with the two Munro tops now poking above the horizon and clear of cloud. Silently we knew it was soon going to start feeling unlike a normal mountain.
We soon came to the end of the moonscape boulder field and rounded the head of the stream (Coir a Mhuilinn) by Sron a Choire. Despite the cloud swirling in again we were given a hint of what lay ahead by the first sight of sharp things, the infamous pinnacles. The low one in the middle is Lord Berkeleys Seat. Kinda nice to see it at last, especially at this safe distance (cue Vader music).
After a little traversing we found a rocky path skirting up the steep shoulder of Bidein a Ghlas Thuill, the first of An Teallachs two Munro tops. Finally after nearly 3hrs it felt that we were at last getting to grips with this mountain and consequently the reality, excitement & fear of what lay ahead began to resurface. Things were about to become more interesting.
Alan had gone on ahead whilst I stowed my poles, he reached the skyline, waved and pointed, I clambered up to have my visual senses assaulted by a view I’d waited 30 years to see. It’s an oft used word but this was truly breathtaking.
Taking in this scene was all a bit overwhelming, after a period of open mouthed gazing I took the pic above on my phone and sent it to Twitter. I typed the only words I could think of,“Let me present to you An Teallach”.
I sent it and a strange thing happened, my eyes started to water. What the heck, this doesn’t normally happen, come on Mart get a grip, for goodness sake I was wearing tight Ron Hill leggings and any sign of emotion might attract the mountain goats. I wiped a tear away and gazed again at the scene, it had really got to me, I just didn’t realise what this bloomin mountain had meant and how much I’d probably been apprehensively avoiding it. I walked up the short distance to the trig point where Alan was already videoing the peaky panorama. Big smiles on our faces, I wasn’t going to mention the watery eyes thing cos he’d only laugh but then found myself shamefully admitting it. Alan replied matter of factly “hey yeah me too, had to wipe away a tear”. I couldn’t believe it, the great big wuss!!
Distant views were hazy, sadly much of the sea views were lost, yet the incredible view behind us commanded attention perhaps more than any previous incredible pointy panorama. It was pretty damn good up here on An Teallach. Due to the light the photos don’t really do it it justice, what’s needed is a dodgy 360 degree video with commentary;-
We were joined on the summit by a guy we had seen back down at the car, it turned out he was a Geordie. For some reason many summits seem to come complete with a Geordie, luckily we speak the language and he agreed to take the photo above. Just below us we spotted one of the fabled An Teallach goats…I checked my Ron Hills, pleasingly all was in place and the goat remained aloof. After a 20 minute stop on top we retreated down to the lower viewpoint for some more classic pics of the classic view. Note extensive demonstration of the classic bent raised leg posing technique with arms on hips. Classic.
Time was pressing so we made our way to the second Munro, Sgurr Fiona involving a slight descent then a diagonal path up to the skyline left of my head in the photo above – of course by then my head was on the skyline but lets not complicate things. With only a short pull remaining up to the summit there was a brief diversion to take in some more wondrous views over the remote Fisherfield Forest & the pointy Corbett of Beinn Dearg Mor. This is another remote pointy peak that’s long fascinated me, so this was extremely satisfying to say the least, a classic smiley moment.
We couldn’t stay long. From here it’s a 45 degree easy scramble to the top and time to stow the walking poles away. There’s no place for poles on what lies ahead.
More of a clamber than a scramble to the top, Fiona was soon reached and proved to be more airy than Bidein with a closer intimate view over the Ridge. It was another brilliant moment. We sat down trying to work out which pointy bits were which, then we spotted the lower bypass path with some walkers scratching their way along. There were two walkers sat with us on top and one was explaining Lord Berkeleys Seat which made us realise that it was totally camouflaged against the higher pinnacle.
360 degree video, from Sgurr Fiona;-
Now for a decision, do we end the hike here perfectly satisfied with the day, or do we go out onto pointyland to investigate. We had come a long way after all these many years and despite time pressing and despite the trepidation we clambered down and edged carefully along one of the higher rocky paths. We were being watched by the two guys behind on Fiona so tried looking like we knew what we were doing, whilst a slight tightness of the stomach indicated perhaps we didn’t. The infamous shape of Lord Berkeley’s Seat gradually separated itself from the background and it certainly lived up to expectations standing below. Wowza!
Lord Berkeley’s Seat is the first (or last) pinnacle and sensationally overhangs the sheer cliffs below. The story is that Lord Berkeley is supposed to have sat on the top with his legs dangling over the edge whilst he smoked a pipe (probably drugs). It’s become a symbolic feature of An Teallach and it provided another emotional mountain moment, I’d particularly wanted to reach this point, and particularly wanted to try getting to the top. We deferred this by carrying on edging carefully around the base of Berkeley then descending slightly before starting the scramble up towards the next higher pinnacle.
You can see traces of a path on these photos and you get very close to the sheer edge at times but it’s not yet too exposed. It’s certainly interesting, we wanted to try to get up this higher pinnacle then call it a day. We got close, removing rucksacks and stopping at the final ledge at the top which wasn’t difficult but the situation just got to us and we retreated.
Time to turn back however one thing remained, Lord Berkeleys Seat! It didn’t look too difficult so we had to go for it, leaving everything including cameras & phones at the base we scrambled up from the east. It’s ok if you don’t think of the plunging precipice just feet away. I purged it from my mind, until Alan reminded me. I requested politely that he shut the **** up 🙂 We got there, not to the actual seat to dangle our legs but to the main top and sat there proudly taking refreshment (no pipes). Then we started to feel the situation again and clambered gingerly down the west side which turned out to be easier. There just remained the clamber back along and up to Fiona which brought a relieved end to our tentative exposure adventures. The hard part was over, relax and breathe at last, just time for some final views then reverse the route down.
Rather than reascend Bidean we skirted left keeping levelish across stony scree slopes back to the head of the Coir a Mhuilin. This put us back on schedule and we chose to come straight down the easier looking path to the right of the stream.
This route started encouragingly on a good firm nicely angled path then deteriorated becoming messy & eroded. We concluded our ascent route was the better choice although probably more difficult to locate if coming down in mist. Eventually we turned a corner and I experienced THAT moment when you see the car and every aching muscle & joint in your body silently cries out in joyous relief.
Back at the car after 8 hours on one of the most iconic mountains in Britain, yet having only seen 13 people all day (plus one goat)! We were far more relaxed figures than the two apprehensive old guys who had set off into the unknown that morning. After a quick change it was time to drive down to Plockton and a class Plockton Shores meal. There was one last distraction, something in the car mirror demanded attention, a final photo was taken.
That night we feasted on good food, good beer & tales of daring do. Due to the haze we had missed out on some mouthwatering views of the far north highlands & western seascape. The day though had been a huge success, more about the mountain and fulfilling a long held dream. Some of that fear had finally subsided (not gone, just subsided). Is it the best mountain in Britain? We will have to defer on that one, hopefully we will return one year for the full An Teallach experience including those views & pinnacles (or the high bypass path) and maybe, just maybe try a leg dangle on Lord Berkeleys Seat. This all seems quite easy as I type this below my now more familiar framed picture of An Teallach the Holy Grail. You see some mountains get into your soul.
- Distance = 9.68 miles (16.5 km)
- Duration = 8 hrs (inc lots of view time), start 9.50am, finish 5.50pm
- Total Ascent = 4,800 ft (1,463 m), max height 3,484 ft (1062 m)
- Start/Finish = Layby on nth side of A832 at Dundonnel, near Mountain Rescue Hut
- Munros = Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill (3484ft, 1062m, Munro 72) (pinnacle of grey-green hollow), Sgurr Fiona (3478ft, 1060m, Munro 73) (white/fair peak)
- An Teallach = pronounced “An Challach”
- Date = Sunday 7th July 2013
The next day brought clearer weather and maybe an even better day on another classic, Beinn Eighe!