Demons on the Forcan Ridge (The Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine)

The Forcan Ridge

SCARY things are lurking beyond the edge. They’re out there now. Like Grendel wading through the Danish marshes in the half-light of a winter’s dusk, they are waiting for us to drop our shield walls. Then they will pounce from the shadows, these malevolent entities, and tear out our hearts.   

Several have been circling me for years. Black things on the fringes of nightmares. Occasionally I glimpse them through a break in the clouds. Once or twice I have beheld them in the full light of day, evil brutes that can crush men with the shrug of a shoulder – and frequently do.   

One is Liathach. Then, like Grendel and his mother, there’s a dysfunctional family: the Cuillin. And lastly, and probably leastly, a great knife-edge of rock known as the Forcan Ridge, the northerly arête that sweeps down from The Saddle, in Kintail. And that’s where I am now.   

The strange thing about today’s expedition is that I am actually feeling good about it, even looking forward to it. The Forcan Ridge is Striding Edge multiplied by three, and with added height and attitude. It is the only way to climb The Saddle, unless you want to wimp out and take the easy route.   

So I climb from Glen Shiel to a bealach east of the A82, and arriving on its crest in a blast of freezing wind get my first view of the Forcan Ridge.   

It’s long, it’s steep, it’s rocky, it’s jagged, it’s never-ending and impossible-looking. But moral support arrives in the form of three women and a bloke. I don’t usually crave companionship on the hill, but this is a case of safety in numbers. We exchange greetings, and after a bite to eat embark on the first rocky stage of the ridge.   

Some steep, hands-on scrambling takes us to a grassy ledge just below a plateau, where I stop to take pictures. Then comes the next stage.   

Bloody hell. This razor-edged spine of rock several hundred feet long and shaped like the back of a stegosaurus – with sheer drops on either side – scythes off into the distance, ascending higher and higher to broken crags.   

We make our way slowly along the arête. I hear a drum beating wildly in the glen below. Perhaps it’s Beowulf and his war-band. No. It’s my heart pounding. Foot by foot we edge across the crest of the ridge like sparrows on the roof of a cathedral, until we reach Sgurr Forcan, the highest point but not the end. Somewhere ahead of us is a geological anomaly the guidebook refers to as the “bad step”.   

Just a few observations on Scottish mountaineering guidebook terminology here. Guidebook writers are masters of understatement. For example, my idea of an “airy ridge” is something pleasant along which to ramble in a summer’s breeze, perhaps whistling lustily. “Airy ridge” is guidebook jargon for something you cling to with fingers and toes. Glance down between your knees, and you see the valley bottom 3,000ft below. One wrong move and you are no longer on your “airy ridge”. Here’s another: “Nervous walkers may feel the benefit of a rope.” This translates as: “Don’t go there under any circumstances if you have a bowel complaint. In fact, get off the mountain now.” So I just know that “bad step” is going to be “treacherous vertical drop that walkers really have no business going anywhere near.”   

Click to see Bad Step bypass

We arrive at the top of the bad step and peer down. It’s a vertical drop of about 35ft. Without a rope, it’s beyond my capabilities – and everyone else’s.   

But we find a path to the left, down an incredibly steep boulder chute to a rock chimney that cuts through the buttress and delivers us without much bother to the foot of the bad step.   

We are joined by a sixth person coming up the rear. He proceeds to tell us that the last time he was on the Forcan Ridge – about 15 years ago – some old boy fell off and killed himself. “Very tragic circumstances,” he says solemnly. “Can’t remember much about the ridge because I was so concerned with getting to the summit so I could get down for the mountain rescue.” This is a snippet of information I am glad I did not possess before I embarked two hours earlier.   

On the Forcan Ridge

After another section of knife-edge ridge, the circumnavigation of a snowfield, and a rocky scramble up the final buttress, we arrive on the summit of The Saddle (above) and congratulate ourselves. And after a quick bite, I leave my companions to feast around the cairn, and strike out for the next peak – Sgurr na Sgine. And I feel elated. I have traversed the Forcan Ridge. I’ve waded out into the marshes and chased Grendel from Heorot, perhaps even ripped his arm from his shoulder socket like Beowulf did.   

I have pushed against a personal barrier and it has slid a few feet before jamming against something else – probably the Cuillin. Or Liathach . . .   Or Grendel’s mother.

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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6 Responses to Demons on the Forcan Ridge (The Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine)

  1. Alistair says:

    What a cracking blog sir! The Forcan is a favourite of mine, just wonderful. You can bypass the whole thing by following the dry stone wall to the summit though that would be cheating. It does make a good return route through.

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    • McEff says:

      Cheers Alistair. It took me several years to build up courage to do that route. If I’d been by myself I would probably have followed the wall – bit I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a cracking climb.

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  2. Hated Liathach – and I didn’t do the Am Fasarinen – just did 2 separate walks – the western end was okay… I’m definitely all for taking the “Coward’s route” round everything though and, until I got to the Cuillin this year, have managed to do pretty well avoiding such horrors as the Forcan Ridge. My friend did it on his own while I went round the coward’s route and he descended the bad step without taking the by-passes ‘cos he completely forgot my advice as he set off to go either side of it down gullies! 😮

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Carol. I’m dreading Liathach. I’ve wondered about doing it in two separate walks, but I reckon that the longer I keep putting it off then the chances of me setting a foot on it at all decrease. I found the Forcan Ridge quite exciting, though I glad I wasn’t by myself. The bad step looked bloody impossible.
      I’ll have a look at your Cuillin reports if they’re on your blog. That’s another thing I keep putting off.
      All the best, Alen

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      • Yeah the Cuillin reports are on my blog. If you click on the Hebridean category it will narrow it down to Skye and other island posts – the Cuillin ones are the latest so are at the front. I had to get a guide after doing the only easy few and I think that’s the only way I managed to do the next 4 I managed – I’d have got nowhere if it had been just me and my friend. My 2 ends of Liathach are on there too but, you’ll probably see, I really didn’t get on with the eastern end at all – there was no way to make it pleasant in my book!

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