Days Like This, No 8: The Five Sisters of Kintail

sisters 1

I HITCH a ride from Shiel Bridge along Glen Shiel. I used to do a lot of hitching but times and attitudes change. People are more wary of strangers these days. Everyone is less communicative. But what the heck. The sky is flawless blue and the sun burning savagely. My driver is a friendly chap from Fort William who is happy to drop me off in a lay-by beneath Bealach an Lapain. From here the only way is up . . .

This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring a memorable walk and the contemporary events surrounding it . . . 

Anyone who has climbed to the crest of Bealach an Lapain from the A87 will know what a torturous slog it is. But I pick my way up its steep slope with the sun on my neck, sweating like a navigator, and eventually arrive at a dip in the middle of one of Scotland’s most splendid ridges. This is Bealach an Lapain.

The Five Sisters roll off to the north-west like a row of grumbly aunts at the seaside. From some directions and in certain atmospheric conditions they can resemble Gaelic maidens in sombre shawls, dancing nimbly through the dawn or dusk. But up here on a hot day they are formidable matriarchs waiting impatiently for milky tea and a fish supper. Mess with them and they’ll give you a belt around the ear. Nae bother.

If you are unfamiliar with Britain and the customs of its inhabitants, it might surprise you to learn that the first thing we do when the sun comes out for more than two hours is take our shirts off, get sunburnt, drink beer, then squeal like babies in the shower before we go to bed. It’s a tradition in the same vein as the state opening of parliament, only instead of wearing stupid and outdated national dress, people who climb mountains cast it off and later regret their actions. Really, no matter what we do, we can’t win

If you are unfamiliar with Britain and the customs of its inhabitants, it might surprise you to learn that the first thing we do when the sun comes out for more than two hours is take our shirts off, get sunburnt, drink beer, then squeal like babies in the shower before we go to bed. It’s a tradition in the same vein as the state opening of parliament, only instead of wearing stupid and outdated national dress, people who climb mountains cast it off and later regret their actions. Really, no matter what we do, we can’t win

Anyone who knows anything about mountains will tell you that although they are called the Five Sisters of Kintail there are actually six of them, but only three are Munros (peaks above an elevation of 3,000ft). Quite where the “Five” comes from I’ve no idea. Perhaps Enid Blyton had a hand in it.

The Munros are, from south to north-west, Sgùrrna Ciste Duibh (1,027m or 3,369ft), Sgùrrna Carnach (1,002m or 3,287ft), and Sgùrr Fhuaran (1,067m or 3,500ft). The high ground doesn’t end there. It continues over Sgùrrn a Saighead and Ben Bhuidhe. There’s an extra option of Sgùrrna Moraich, but I intend to bail out on Ben Bhuidhe.

sisters 3And off I go, along rocky ridges in furious sunshine, over stony peaks in a landscape that fills the walker with awe. But halfway through this marathon walk I run out of water and soon begin to suffer the effects of dehydration.

sisters 2 sisters 4 sisters 6 sisters 7By the time I reach Ben Bhuidhe I’m suffering from a blinding headache, dizziness, bone-dry mouth and lack of will to continue. Those Sisters really have given me a belt around the ear. But I find a sunken stream low on Ben Bhuidhe’s western ridge, a mere runnel of water in a shallow cut in the ground, which is almost covered with vegetation. In fact, I hear it before I see it. Water has never tasted sweeter.

sisters 8Learnt a lesson there. When walking in the hills, always take more water than you need. Even in Scotland. And if you’re in Kintail, take a flask of tea for the Five Sisters. They can buy their own fish suppers.

The Five Sisters of Kintail, September 2002

 

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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.
This entry was posted in Beer, Camping, Climbing, Environment, Hiking, Mountains, Walking, Weather and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Days Like This, No 8: The Five Sisters of Kintail

  1. teigl says:

    Breathtakingly beautiful photographs, all the more impressive for being done the old-fashioned way with film. An entertaining narrative, too as per usual…I’ve done the nominally five sisters myself in dreich weather, but got dehydration on the ridge along the much tamer Carlin’s cairn and Bow in Southern Scotland. Not a lot of fun…thank goodness for mountain streams.
    cheers,
    Iain

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Iain. Yes, dehydration is a nasty business and if it creeps up on you and there’s no water supply in the area it can really cause problems. Interestting that you suffered from it in Scotland as well – that should undermine one or two myths about the weather.
      Cheers, Alen

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  2. Andy Dawkins says:

    Have come down off Saileag via Bealach an Lapain and the road never seems to get any nearer – a slog in either direction. What weather you had. Bet you wished for a tent as well as water up there.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Andy. I used to know a chap who carried an umbrella in his rucksack to keep the sun off his bald head. I could have done with one myself that day. Bealach an Lapain is a killer in both directions. I’ve been up it once and down it once and that’s enough.
      Cheers, Alen

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  3. Fantastic – I did a couple of them many, many years ago, with a very fit nurse (fit as in good at walking, but ‘fit’ in other ways as well…). It rained very heavy when we got to the summit and we bailed out, next day we did the other one (can’t remember which they were though)…Your photos are a joy to view…brilliant

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    • McEff says:

      James, I’ve never had the opportunity to climb mountains with a very fit nurse so having read your comment I feel my life is somehow incomplete. Shame about the rain, though.
      Cheers, Alen

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  4. Mjollnir says:

    When was it ever that dry and sunny anywhere near Fort Bill? 😀

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  5. Hanna says:

    Great enthusiastic tale, Alen. It’s beautiful mountains and an amazing view.
    I have just retweeted Calling Mountain Rescue. Here is an excerpt: “For instance, make sure you have more than enough food and water to last for the walk and do not attempt walks which are way too challenging for your level of experience.”
    When I ran out of water in Corsica is was very uncomfortable. And I have also violated most of the rules in full text in Calling Mountain Rescue.
    You have fortunately managed ‘your paragraphs’ without having retrieved by helicopter 🙂
    All the best,
    Hanna

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    • McEff says:

      Hej Hanna. It’s easy to underestimate liquids when walking in Scotland because the entire country is usually so wet and there are streams everywhere. I leanrt to my cost that the streams on the Five Sisters are non-existent in hot weather. I shall know better in future.
      I have seen pictures and read articles about the mountains of Corsica and it looks like a dry sort of place. I fancy going there sometime and seeing it for myself.
      All the best, Alen

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  6. I hated that ridge – and now I’ve got to do it again as we missed the top of Saighead by about 30 feet or so – not mist – fear on my part – I said it was a top so we didn’t need to do it and could we please get off the ridge as soon as possible – my nerves were shredded by then! Now, of course, I’m doing tops so I intend to visit it soon. I’ll probably get Moraich on the way up via the waterfall at the western end of the ridge, go over Beinn Buidhe to Saighead and then descend your way via Serraich. I won’t be going onto Fhuarain, Carnach and co again though.

    I’ve only ever descended that side of the Bealach an Lapain (from The Brothers) – we went up the back of the bealach from Glen Lichd the day we did the Sisters. Still a slog but not scarily steep…

    Love your photo of Saighead – makes it look as spiky as I remember it…
    Carol.

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    • McEff says:

      You’re up late again Carol. I was very impressed by Saighead because it had the most fascinating sloping crags that shot down into Glen Lichd at a crazy angle. They don’t come out very well in the picture, which is a shame.
      I read your description of the descent from Bealach an Lapain and it made me laugh. The cars and vans beneath your boots that never get closer. Why the hell do we do these strange things?
      Cheers, Alen

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      • I’ve also got the dreaded Forcan Ridge to attempt this next trip as well! 😮 Then I really will be wondering why we do these things!

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        • McEff says:

          I was dreading the Forcan Ridge but in the event I found it enjoyable and exhillerating. I latched onto a group of four people – three women and a bloke – and they had never done it either. Safety in numbers. There’s only one bad bit – the Bad Step – and that can be avoided if you cut down to the left about 50ft and come up under it. You’ll have a great day.

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  7. John says:

    Wonderful Pictures and great post,thank you. Sorry to hear about your job.Did the NUJ not help?Oh well more time to write your great blog and get out in the hills.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi John. Good to hear from you. The NUJ were great and we had a strike and won some concessions and saved a couple of jobs. Not mine though. Still, no regrets.
      All the best, Alen

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  8. Extremely stunning views!
    Yeah, when dehydration strikes we surely get ourselves in big trouble. Situations like this usually happens on mountains that we’re not familiar with yet, that’s why we do a background research first before the go and yet we can’t escape from situations like this.This could also happen even to our most visited places. Man has no power over nature. All we can do do is to take precautions and extra careful. In times like this, I do prayer,focus, and “mind over matter” way of thinking. 🙂
    In the end, no matter how hard it was… the journey of experiencing the beauty of God’s creation still continues… Well, maybe until the day my bones will say ” It’s enough”. 🙂

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    • McEff says:

      Thanks Loty. Yes, I am usually very careful. When I climb mountains in Spain I usually take two or 2.5 litres of water with me and that gets me through. You just don’t expect to get caught out in somewhere as wet as Scotland. I shall try the mind over matter thing next time I’m in a tight place.
      Cheers, Alen

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  9. Jo Woolf says:

    Wow, Alen, that could have gone very badly wrong! Great retro photos – they really show how scorching hot it was – and I’m glad you lived to tell the tale! If that was a strenuous walk by your standards I reckon I would have flaked out half way up! I’ve been caught out before by not taking enough water (it weighs so much!) but it wasn’t nearly the same scale of risk. I think it was probably somewhere in North Wales and there are always plenty of streams, albeit some of them rather sheepy.

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    • McEff says:

      Hiya Jo. It was a strenuous walk, but it does us good to stretch ourselves at times. Wouldn’t like to try it in my present state of fitness, mind, but there you go.
      Sheepy streams present other problems apparently, but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced any side effects from drinking out of them. Mind you, I do suffer from panic attacks when I see mint sauce and wellington boots so perhaps that has something to do with it.
      All the best, Alen

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  10. backpackingbongos says:

    Long gone are the days when I used to hitch everywhere. Every weekend from Suffolk to Nottingham to meet up with my now wife. I would stop and pick folks up now but it is rare to see anyone with their thumbs out at the side of the road.

    Like

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