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A TORRIDON APPRENTICESHIP

Updated: Mar 5


I suspect that most keen hillwalkers can identify the moment they got hooked on hills, and for me it was on a family holiday in Torridon, watching the morning mists lifting off Liathach. One minute there was just a bland greyness with only some low ground showing, then suddenly bands of cliff became faintly visible through the mist. A moment later pinnacles appeared way up in the sky, much higher than I had expected the hill to reach up to. They were in sunlight but cloud frothed around them, occasionally revealing gullies and buttresses below. As we watched the cloud bank fragmented and the upper slopes joined up with the bands of horizontal crag. Within a few minutes there wasn't a cloud to be seen and the hill was bathed in sunshine. I was only 12 but that view is seared onto my memory forever. Later in the same trip there was another moment when the sunset turned the whole of Liathach's southern terraces a blazing orange, such a vivid colour that it didn't seem real. Torridon (and Liathach in particular) has been a special place for me ever since.


Sunset on Liathach, Torridon

Sunset on Liathach


My parents were keen hillwalkers (they had tried each other's pastimes and he liked hillwalking more than she liked golf – I'm really glad it was that way round!). They toured the Highlands for a week every summer, leaving my brother and I with grandparents in Carnoustie. Eventually we got to go too and we tried several places until Martin and I noisily insisted that we went back to Torridon every year. Those teenage trips largely coincided with a run of superb summers in the mid 1970's, culminating in the scorcher of 1976. Although we had to go in August for parental work reasons it was often so dry and sunny that the bogs were unproblematic and the midge plague was confined to the odd late evening – we were thoroughly spoiled!


Sunset over Skye from Applecross

Sunset over Applecross (kodak instamatic version 😏)


Early walks weren't to summits, with Coire Lair above Achnashellach being about as high as we got. By 1972 it was a different story though, and I was itching to climb things. In common with just about everyone we met we had Poucher's guidebook and used it a lot. Even in the 70's its text sounded dated and we had fun sending it up (Hang on a sec while I "scan the tremendous precipices"), Despite this, and its often inaccurately drawn white lines, it had a superb selection of routes and I wouldn't quibble with his choice of hills even today.


On Beinn Shieldaig, Torridon

Martin on Beinn Shieldaig. Photo Sheila Thow


We started with the Applecross Beinn Bhan, largely because you can drive to over 2000 feet. There's more up and down than is immediately apparent though, and certainly more than Poucher implies. His ascent route crosses bands of slabby rock ribs, with a drop between each, and it's actually quicker to take the track most of the way up towards the first summit of Sgurr a' Chaorachain and then go down the connecting ridge. It took much longer than the time given, but we just managed to get to the summit and have a view down into the huge north-eastern corries before the clag rolled in. The plod back across the corrugations in the rain was rather less fun, but at least it made the point that hillwalking isn't always fun in the sun.


Beinn Bhan, Applecross

Coire na Poite, Beinn Bhan


My ravings about Torridon had persuaded a school friend and his family to make the trip there too and without really planning it we met them one evening while exploring the new road being built round the north end of Applecross. Thankfully our parents got on well (they stayed close friends long after John and I had left school) and as they were in a caravan just below Sgurr Dubh we arranged to go up that the next day. This time it was wall to wall sunshine and the views were terrific, especially looking across the glen to the quartzite wall of Beinn Eighe. The green cap of Coinneach Mhor pasted across the top of this made such a drastic contrast that we christened it the Golf Course. I already knew from earlier family walks that my dad often ignored paths and just went with the ground, so I wasn't phased by the steep heather we used as an approach or the piles of quartzite boulders on the hill itself. John's dad was used to the established paths of the Yorkshire Dales and the Lakes so was less enthused, but coped ok. As for me, I loved the roughness and wildness of the pathless ground and used up my then-boundless energy by scrambling up every piece of slab that I could find. I had already started reading Harry Griffin's books on the Lake District and had acquired his enthusiasm for scrambling, something that turned into a lifelong habit.


Sgurr Dubh, Torridon

Sgurr Dubh


The first really baking year was 1973. It was so hot that I was the only member of my family that wanted to climb hills, swimming and paddling being seen as preferable. Luckily by then I was trusted enough to be let off on my own for the day. I opted to climb Maol-chean Dearg from Annat, why from there rather than up the obvious track from Glen Carron I've no idea. Maybe it just looked good from there?


Maol Cheann Dearg, Torridon

Maol Cheann Dearg from the north-west


The old 7th Series one inch map was somewhat sparing in its marking of cliffs and rather approximate in its contours so when I got to the highest point of the stalkers path at Bealach an Eoin I was quite surprised to see that the upper part of the hill was an apparently unbroken line of cliff. There was a line slanting steeply up rightwards through most of it but it looked to get harder at the top. I started up this but once it steepened and became more committing I had second thoughts. By then though I could see into the small corrie to the left and realised that what had looked like one cliff from below was actually a set of tiered walls (typical Torridonian ground, I now know).


Maol Cheann Dearg, Torridon

Maol Cheann Dearg north flank. I took the L to R ramp until just before it narrows then slanted leftwards up the terraces to the LH skyline


As I was already above the lower walls I could traverse along one of the breaks to reach a wide grassy groove which led easily to the skyline. I did eventually get round to doing my original line thirty years later while exploring for Highland Scrambles North. The top section that had intimidated me turned out to be easy, although quite exposed. As an indestructible teenager I would have probably cruised it. At the top I sensibly opted to retrace my steps rather than descend the unknown west face. All this took time, but I made it up going back down the good track, getting very sweaty in the process. It was the hottest day recorded in the West Highlands for a decade and when I got to the road I just walked straight across it into the loch! My dad turned up almost immediately, which didn't seem surprising at the time but now seems ridiculously unlikely as neither of us had much idea of how long the walk was going to take.


Beinn Alligin, Torridon

The shoreline at Annat, Beinn Alligin behind


More good hill days followed in 1974 and 75 and we climbed most of the big hills between Glens Torridon and Carron, but the big three on the north side of the glen weren't on the agenda. Their dramatic steepness, particularly Liathach, psyched my parents out and they weren't about to let me loose on them either. Oddly they were fine with me going into the Cuillin though, which defies logic. Perception matters, I suppose.


Maol Cheann Dearg, Torridon

On Fuar Tholl, Maol Cheann Dearg behind. Photo Martin Thow


By 1976 familiarity had eased the intimidation factor, although perhaps they just got fed up with me pushing, so I was allowed onto Beinn Eighe on my own. We knew that the complete traverse was a long day so I was dropped at Cromasaig early and made a rapid ascent of Creag Dhubh. The scrambling along the Black Carls proved to be easy, if loose, then I met a twenty-something printer from Dundee on Sgurr an Fhir Duibhe. By then I was fit enough to keep up with him and we did the whole traverse, including going out and back to Sail Mhor via the steep scramble of the Ceum Ghrannda.


Beinn Eighe, Torridon

The east end of Beinn Eighe


On the final rise to the main summit my energy finally ran out. I now know that it takes longer to develop stamina than it does to develop speed, and that you have to learn to pace yourself, but back then I just went as hard as I could all the time. Energy had seemed a limitless resource, but that day I hit a physical limit for the first time. I was only a hundred yards from the cairn but I couldn't take another step, just had to stop and sit down. When I restarted I was staggering, but luckily the Dundee lad had some jelly babies which gave me a good sugar hit. From then it was all downhill, but I was still much slower than I had been. I had told my new friend that my dad was picking me up at Coire Dubh, and when it became obvious that I was going to be quite late (and we were down on the easy path) he decided to race on to let my dad know. Of course it may have just been that he was fed up with going at my pace 😁. I was about an hour late, but the Dundee lad had made the rendezvous and let my dad know so he wasn't worried.


Triple Buttresses, Beinn Eighe, Torridon

The Triple Buttresses, Beinn Eighe


Teenagers bounce back quickly so after a day's rest I was raring to go again. Mum and Dad felt that they could probably manage the non-scrambly part of Beinn Alligin so we slogged up Coir' an Laoigh onto Tom na Gruagaich. I then went on round over Sgurr Mhor and the Horns, coincidentally meeting the Dundee lad on the latter, along with a girl he had met in the Youth Hostel (undoubtedly preferable company to a knackered teenager 😁). The Horns were enormous fun, easy scrambling with a beautifully sharp ridge. The only minus was that it was a rather hazy day so the views of the Torridon backlands weren't all they could be. Beinn Alligin was quite busy, a contrast to Beinn Eighe where we had met nobody, and most people were going round anticlockwise. This is the best way as you then do the majority of the scrambling upwards, but these days most go clockwise as that's the way described on Walk Highlands. Poucher gets brownie points for describing things anticlockwise but then loses them because the white line on his photo heads off northwards from the last summit into the remote backlands. It's an illogical thing to do on the ground so I doubt it led to many actual mislocations.


Beinn Alligin, Torridon

Beinn Alligin


Looking back, I couldn't have had a better introduction to serious hillwalking than those weeks in Torridon. They taught me to cope with rough country, to judge ground and to treat maps and guidebooks with skepticism (said the guidebook writer 😏). I found out that you can't really judge the difficulty of something until you've properly tried it, that pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do is hugely rewarding and that singing in your head helps you keep going when you're knackered 😁. The Torridon hills set me up for years of adventures in Scotland and elsewhere, showed me just how stunning the hills can be and inspired me to spend a lot of time searching out obscure corners. They're still my favourite place.


Liathach, Torridon

Liathach terraces


AFTERWORD

In 2021 we scattered my mum's ashes in Torridon, near Shieldaig. It was where she always wanted to be. Later that day I went for a walk and came across this stag. It looked at me curiously and didn't run away even when I was much closer than deer usually allow. It obviously felt no threat and surely it sensed some emotion I was unconsciously putting out?


Curious stag, Torridon




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