The Ballachulish Horseshoe – Beinn a’ Bheithir

Sgorr Dhearg (1024m); Sgorr Dhonuill (1001m)

  • Pronunciation:                Bine yer Veeyersh; Skor Jerrack; Skor Ghorneel
  • Translation:                     Hill of the thunderbolt; Red Peak; Peak of the Donalds
  • Total distance:                17.9km
  • Total time:                       8hrs 21mins
  • Total ascent:                    1536m
  • Weather:                          Fabulous: very sunny and clear – but cold
  • Start / end location:      Midway between Ballachulish Bridge and village [Grid Ref: NM 060 585]
  • Map:                                  A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. 

I should start by explaining that Beinn a’ Bheithir is the name of the mountain massif itself, with two main peaks (or Sgorrs) separated by about 1.5km from each other (a drop of >250m in between). Beinn a’ Bheithir lies immediately due south of Ballachulish Bridge, which itself spans the channel that separates Loch Linnhe from Loch Leven.

Elaine on Sgorr Dhearg with Ben Nevis in background

The circuit, or traverse of Beinn a’ Bheithir is known as the “Ballachulish Horseshoe” and includes two Munros: Sgorr Dhearg and Sgorr Dhonuill.

The weather for our outing was bright and sunny, not too windy, but with snow covering the tops at around 800m. These conditions offered superb long-range views in all directions.

Elaine nearing the summit of Sgorr Dhearg

Our start was at a forestry lay-by at the side of the A82 adjacent to a lovely little church and manse (perhaps Elaine’s favourite house in the Highlands???). From our parking spot we had a short leg-warming 1.5km walk along the A82 towards the village of South Ballachulish. The name “Ballachulish” comes from the Gaelic for village of the narrows (ideal place for a bridge then?) and was famous for the Ballachulish slate that was quarried there for over 250 years: from 1693 right through to 1955.

Elaine's little snow angel

The route enters the village, which sits on a small detour from the A82, and passes the small village primary school before taking a rough land-rover track for a further 400m. From here a walker’s path continues almost due south until it gets intersected by the NNE ridge from the 947m top on Sgorr Dhearg. (Note that a gated fence also intersects the path at around this point.) About 50m past the gate we veered off the main track to our right and picked our way up the NNE ridge. The path started very faintly (and a bit boggy in places) but was soon more distinctive as we gained height and the ridge narrowed. At around 800m there was a reasonable covering of soft new snow: the kind that you plod through, with each step plunging down about 10” below the surface. (Although we carried our ice axes and crampons with us we didn’t use them throughout the day.)

Cameron with Sgorr Dhonuill in background

Towards the upper parts of the NNE ridge there was an exciting small section of scrambling (grade 1) before the ridge reached up to the 947m top. This seemed like the ideal place for Elaine to practice creating a snow angel – enough said!

From the 947m top it was a short descent before we were climbing again to reach the summit of Sgorr Dhearg (1024m or 3,360’). From the summit the views towards Glen Coe (due east) and the Nevis and Mamore ranges (NE) were breathtaking. The hills still had their rich autumn hues but were topped, like a Christmas pudding, with a thick blanket of pure white snow. The view due west clearly showed the next stage of our outing: the crossing of a smooth broad arête linking our summit to Sgorr Dhonuill about 1.5km away. The descent from Sgorr Dhearg to the col on the arête was achieved relatively quickly because the soft snow, which had hampered our ascent up the other side, was ideal for taking long striding heel-plunging steps all the way down – great fun.

Elaine on ridge leading to Sgorr Dhonuill

Elaine on ridge leading to Sgorr Dhonuill

From the col (at 757m) we climbed the arête ridge directly to the summit of Sgorr Dhonuill (1001m or 3,284’). During this section we met a chap completing the traverse in the opposite direction to us. After a short exchange we reached the summit (cairn). Two other people were sitting nearby having a lunch stop. From the top we continued round the “horseshoe” for about another 2km to a col at 759m (marked on the map). This col signifies the top of a steep ravine that we descended (NNE) down into Glenann a’ Chaolais.

Cameron on summit of Sgorr Dhonuill

A couple of points to note: (1) there wasn’t a discernible path from the col to the glen below – it was a very steep descent in places, and (2) once down to the corrie floor you quickly enter a dense conifer plantation … no one wants to end up trying to navigate through confir trees searching for the forestry road! I have to say that the SatMap was really helpful in the trees giving us the assurance that the road was only a few hundred metres away.

Looking back towards Sgorr Dhearg from Sgorr Dhonuill

Once on the forestry road we chose the appropriate track (from many choices) and eventually made our way back to the car after about 4.5km. It was completely dark when we arrived and for the last 1.5km a robin fluttered and hopped in front of us all the way to the car. Pity that we didn’t have any crumbs to reward it for guiding us home. We then headed to the Ballachulish Hotel for a wee celebratory drink – what a perfect ending to a perfect day.

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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1 Response to The Ballachulish Horseshoe – Beinn a’ Bheithir

  1. Dave Palmer says:

    That view to Ben Nevis is just stunning, you lucky (and brave) people!

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