What better time of year to visit Glen Affric, with the autumn colours in full flow and the roar of stags echoing in the mountains? We had a long day planned, so arrived at the upper reaches of the glen early, when only a few overnight visitors were stirring.
There’s a newly created car park at Chisholme Bridge, a mile or so before the end of the road, and a well-constructed path makes its way gently up through the trees to access Gleann nam Fiadh. It’s a vast improvement on plodding up the track all the way as you once had to do.
Higher up, the path joins the track before venturing through a high gate and towards the Affric Munros. Long ridges wind their way up, culminating in the highest point north of the Great Glen – and our objective for the day – Carn Eighe.
But throughout the day our conversation returned to another of Affric’s magnificent mountains, Sgurr na Lapaich. It’s the first prominent hill seen from the loch-side as you head west past Affric Lodge. From this approach it had a different, even wilder feel to it, as we followed the course of the Abhainn Gleann nam Fiadh past a new run-of-river hydro scheme and a dramatic waterfall beyond.
The 2MW hydro scheme fitted fairly well into its surroundings and, as we continued onto the boggy ground beyond, we almost wished it was further upstream to aid our progress.
This is wet country – next we had to cross the Allt Toll Easa, not always possible when the burn is in spate but not too bad today, before continuing below the southern slopes of Tom a’ Choinich.
Soon the start of the real climb would begin and Peter Evans and I looked for the start of a path between two burns. It’s a vague line but it does just about exist! We managed to make our way up to a more obvious crossing point of the Allt Coire Mhic Fhearchair, from where the path became somewhat easier to follow.
It even climbed higher than we had anticipated, aiming for the high ground behind the crags of An Leth-chreag before a pathless stretch up a protrusion that leads to the bealach below Sron Garbh.
Across Gleann nam Fiadh, we looked across to Sgurr na Lapaich again. This 1036m (3400ft) mountain was on Sir Hugh Munro’s original 1891 list of mountains over 3000ft – the Munros – but has subsequently been demoted to a mere mountain ‘top’.
Why it was demoted baffles me. By any accepted definition of a Munro, Sgurr na Lapaich fits the bill perfectly. Its height is not in question, meaning its demise comes from whether there is “sufficient separation” from neighbouring hills – a term open to any number of interpretations, though the character of the hill and the time taken to travel between it and its nearest peak are taken into consideration.
An accepted level of separation has been deemed to be 30 minutes walking time using Naismith’s rule. My rough route plan had the summit over 3.5km away from Mam Sodhail and with 170m height gain to be negotiated, meaning the walking time would be more than an hour.
And as for character, this original Munro is a prominent landmark in Glen Affric and in my view deserves its place back on the list! Perhaps it suffers from the fear of confusion with its namesake a few miles away in Mullardoch.
Whatever its status, we intended climbing it anyway. But that would come later – first we had to gain the ridge that leads sharply up to Sron Garbh. From the bealach, it’s a rocky scramble that leads straightforwardly to the top – or it would if it weren’t for the dusting of snow adding an element of doubt as to the security of every step.
The views now led our eyes in all directions, taking in the Mullardoch hills to the north and the western Affric tops ahead of us. From Sron Garbh’s cairn, the ridge stretched beautifully ahead over the subsidiary tops of Stob Coire Dhomhnuill and Stob a’ Choire Dhomhain to Carn Eighe.
With nooks and outcrops, the narrow but never nerve-wracking ridge offers some potential scrambling fun but we took the bypass path to the left of the most appealing bit, as soft patches of wet snow made it awkward.
At Stob a’ Choire Dhomhain the ridge bends sharply left, dropping slightly before the final climb to reach Carn Eighe. We pondered the out-and-back baggers’ route to climb Beinn Fhionnlaidh (Peter may be a Munro compleater but I’ve not done that one yet) but decided our route was far enough for an autumn day if we wanted to get back in the daylight.
Instead we dropped south-west down to the bealach then straight back up the wintry-looking north ridge to Mam Sodhail, with its prominent cairn.
What happened next was one of my more surreal experiences in the mountains. Two women approached the summit and we got chatting, as you do. Somehow the subject of singing in the mountains came up and Peter then put on his finest Welsh twang and bellowed out some notes across the glens. It was some competition for those mighty stags!
From our second Munro of the day, we now had the long ridge walk to complete the horseshoe, ending in our unofficial Munro of Sgurr na Lapaich, which offered us fine views over Gleann nam Fiadh to the route we had taken earlier in the day.
Heading down the south-east ridge, Loch Affric was lit in the late-afternoon sunshine, with occasional showers drifting across the glen as we descended. Lower down a slog across the moor – tough going after such a big day – eventually led us to the corner of a track which headed to Affric Lodge, from where we turned left along the road back to Chisholme Bridge.
Carn Eighe, Mam Sodhail and Sgurr na Lapaich
Distance 16 miles / 26km
Terrain Path, track and road lower down but mostly mountain ridges with occasional easy, often avoidable scrambling. Navigation skills required
Start/finish Chisholme Bridge car park, Glen Affric
Maps OS Landranger 25; OS Explorer 414 & 415
Making the case for a missing Munro in Glen Affric