The North Shiel Four – [# 188 – 191]

Ciste Dhubh (979m);  Aonach Meadhoin (1001m);
Sgurr a’ Bhealaich Dheirg (1036m); Saileag (956m)

  • Pronunciation:             Keeshtyer Ghoo; Ernoch Veeyann; Skoor uh Veeyallach Year-ick; Sarlak
  • Translation:                  Black Chest; Middle Peak; Peak of the Red Pass; Little Heel
  • Total distance:             17.2km
  • Total time:                    6hrs 55mins
  • Total ascent:                 1746m
  • Weather:                        Started out with mist covering all the tops. This cleared to provide a bright and generally sunny day. There were only light winds so it also felt quite warm.
  • Start location:              Car park beside the Cluanie Inn on the A87 Glen Garry to Kyle of Lochalsh road. [OS Map Sheet 33 – Grid Ref: NH 076 117]
  • End location:                Car park on the A87, 1,75km east of the Glenshiel battle memorial. [OS Map Sheet 33 – Grid Ref: NH 008 137]
  • Map:                               A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. The map displays on most browsers, but not unfortunately Internet Explorer.

Saileag (foreground) and the Five Sisters of Kintail taken from just west of Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg

Elaine ascending the final summit slope of Ciste Dhubh with Sgurr an Fhuarail in the background

Cameron on the summit of Ciste Dhubh

Ciste Dhubh from the NNE ridge of Sgurr an Fhuarail

Cameron arriving at the summit of Aonach Meadhoin

Our route began at the Cluanie Inn just as it had on the 14 June when we climbed the South Shiel Ridge. However, today we crossed over the A87 main road and immediately began to follow a rough bulldozed track northward through the glen of An Caorann Beag – sandwiched between the ridge of Am Bathach to the east and the SE ridge of Sgurr an Fhuarail to the west. The bulldozed track faded in and out of view as it roughly followed, along its west bank, the course of the Allt a’ Chaorainn Bhig burn. The track was quite muddy in places as it rose gently towards the Bealach a’ Choinich. Before finally reaching the bealach the track was replaced by a indistinct walkers’ path that inclined more steeply as it climbed the glen’s corrie headwall: arriving at a tiny lochan on the bealach at a height of 590m.

We crossed the bealach, which was wet and muddy in places, before beginning a stiff climb up the southern slope of Ciste Dhubh. Ciste Dhubh is essentially an outlier hill that doesn’t really naturally connect with the other three Munros, which can all be traversed via a high-level connecting ridge. The steep path up the first 150m of the climb, like the bealach itself, was muddy, and hence slippy. However, this tricky section soon gave way to a really good quality path, which although still steep, climbed over sections of short grass and boulders until it intersected the broad and easy-angled SW ridge extending down from the hill’s south top (887m). Once we were on this ridge we were able to quickly progress to the top, where a slight drop to the north brought us on to another ridge. Towards the end of this ridge we bypassed another small subsidiary top (929m) to its west before we veered around to the NE to climb to the summit of Ciste Dhubh at 979m or 3,213ft. The summit was shrouded in mist so we were denied any notable views.

From the summit of Aonach Meadhoin looking NNE to Ciste Dhubh

Elaine at the summit cairn perched on the ridge of Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg

We then retraced our route back to the Bealach a’ Choinich and as we descended passed the top at 929m the mist began to clear from some of the surrounding mountain tops, including our next objective, Aonach Meadhoin, about 3km away. The problem with the bealach being at only 590m meant that we had to lose a great deal of height before we were able to begin the ascent of our second Munro: there was, however, no other alternative.

The first part of the climb first took us up the NNE ridge of Sgurr an Fhuarail (987m) (a subsidiary top) before we briefly dropped to the west to reach a col ahead of another ascent to reach the summit of Aonach Meadhoin at 1001m or 3,284ft. From the cairn at the top we were able to look back to our first Munro of Ciste Dhubh, which was now just clear of mist. To the west the flattish profile of Sgurr a’ Bhealaich Dheirg, created by its long NE ridge, with its distinctive “pimple-like” summit cairn, could easily be recognised.

Cameron sitting at the edge on the summit of Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg

The summit cairn of Sgurr a' Bhealaich with Ciste Dhubh (L) and Mullach Fraoch-choire (R)

We descended west to a col on the ridge and then ascended quite steeply in a north-westerly direction to reach the top of Sgurr a’ Bhealaich Dheirg. The summit actually sits on the flat but narrow crest of the hill’s NE ridge and is marked by a large rocky cairn at 1036m or 3,399ft. The breadth of the cairn actually takes up the whole width of the ridge and has perilously sheer drops on either side.

From the cairn we turned back and retraced our steps for a 100m or so to regain the main westerly ridge where we then began a long drop downwards for a couple of hundred metres. Our final Munro, Saileag at 956m or 3,136ft was the smallest of the four today, and as we looked west in its direction it was a bit overwhelmed by the Five Sisters of Kintail, its bigger neighbours, which lay immediately behind. Despite its modest size compared to its peers, Saileag did provide an excellent vantage point to view the Five Sisters as well as Beinn Fhada to the north and the South Shiel Ridge across Glen Shiel. From here we could even look down into Glen Shiel and pick out the white roof of our ‘van parked a long way below.

Elaine on the summit of Saileag with the Five Sisters of Kintail in the background

We continued west dropping down to the Bealach an Lapain, which was also our starting point on 15 June for our traverse of the Five Sisters of Kintail. At the bealach we turned south and made the steep (and knee-jarring) descent right back to our awaiting ‘van parked by the roadside on at A87 below.

[Excluding our first Munro of Ciste Dhubh, the remaining three mountains that we climbed today, coupled with a traverse of the Five Sisters of Kintail sometimes gets referred to as the North Shiel Ridge as a complement to its southern namesake across the opposite side of Glen Shiel.]

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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