A truly alpine profile – [# 282]

Sgurr nan Gillean (964m)

  • Pronunciation:             Skoor nern Gillian
  • Translation:                  (probably) Peak of the Gullies, but usually taken to mean Peak of the Young Men
  • Total distance:              11.0km
  • Total time:                     4hrs 50mins
  • Total ascent:                  980m
  • Weather:                        Dull and overcast with blustery showers and low cloud cover.
  • Start / end location:     Roadside parking beside the Sligachan Hotel (A863 / A860 junction). [OS Map Sheet 32 – Grid Ref: NG 486 298]
  • Map:                                 A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window.

A rare break in the clouds reveals Sgurr nan Gillean, with Am Basteir and Bruach na Frithe still slightly hidden

Our penultimate Munro found us leaving the car park by the Sligachan Hotel in dreary overcast weather, which was a real shame as an ascent of Sgurr nan Gillean in fine weather offers some truly remarkable views. Nevertheless, we were on a very tight schedule and could not wait for a favourable weather window.

Looking down Glen Sligachan from near the start of the path to Sgurr nan Gillean

From the hotel car park we took the path that soon crossed the Allt Dearg Mor burn at a recently constructed footbridge. We continued to follow the path over some gently sloping ground until it reached the NW bank of the Allt Dearg Beag burn. We walked along the bank for a short distance where we passed a couple of small waterfalls before then arriving at a junction in the path. We took the left hand branch and crossed the burn by another conveniently placed footbridge. This path now climbed round the base of a small sloping rib that formed the eastern arm of the Bhasteir Gorge. We continued on our path and descended slightly into Coire Riabhach where we crossed the base of the corrie until we were below and directly in line with Sgurr nan Gillean’s Pinnacle Ridge. Climbing Pinnacle Ridge is a magnificent route, and as its name suggests, involves ascending and descending several pinnacles (some abseiling is required). Knight’s Peak, at the top end of the ridge, is the fourth and final pinnacle before a short rock climb brings you out directly on the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean. [This was a route that Elaine and I climbed in 2004 – absolutely excellent.]

The Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean - a magnificent route that we climbed in 2004 - photo taken June 2011

Today, however, we continued passed the base of Pinnacle Ridge, climbing quite steeply up a scree-covered path on the southern enclosing wall. From here, we skirted round some crags before entering another much more boulder-strewn corrie. We negotiated our way to the back of this corrie and climbed another scree-covered path to eventually reach the southeast ridge of Sgurr nan Gillean.

Once we got onto the ridge we stayed close to the crest where the going was easy at first. Soon we encountered our first real obstacle in the form of a stepped crag that blocked the ridgeline. We climbed passed this crag using an obvious crack that ran vertically up the face and provided excellent hand and foot holds. Even in the damp conditions the rock provided us with a very reassuring grip. We continued on the crest until yet another crag blocked our passage. This time we used a small chimney on the right to breach the crag – and once again the rock provided us with clean positive holds wherever we needed them.

(L-R) Garbh Bheinn, Clach Glas and Bla Bheinn from high on Coire Riabhach north of Sgurr nan Gillean

A further short section of fractured blocks brought us to the last real test of the ascent: a smooth, sloping, red slab that cannot be avoided and that perches airily on the ridgeline and is extremely exposed on both sides. The first time that we did this route back in the late ‘90s, Elaine and I passed an elderly gentleman just before we got to this final part of the ascent – which was literally only metres from the summit. On that occasion, the weather was glorious and we both confidently got ourselves onto the slab and delicately walked across on excellent high-friction rock – although, it is fairly exposed because peripherally you can see the steep drop-offs on both sides of you! Just beyond the slab we rejoined the narrow ridge and quickly reached the tiny summit. A few rock climbers were arriving after climbing various rock routes such as Pinnacle Ridge. We waited on the summit for a little while and then retraced our steps back to the red slab and found the elderly chap sitting on a rock at the lower side of the slab. I asked if he was okay and he told me that this was his third attempt to climb to the summit (over many years) and he’d never managed to get himself over the red slab. I offered to help him by returning to the summit and getting one of the climbers with a rope to protect the chap whilst I guided him over. He (and I) made it to the summit – and needless to say he was simply overjoyed. I chaperoned him back down and he rewarded us with a beer at the Sligachan Hotel. It had been great seeing the elation on the chap’s face when he finally faced his fear of crossing the slab and then summiting the peak.

Today, we once again crossed the red slab without incident – despite it being damp and misty – and continued on the narrow ridge to Sgurr nan Gillean’s tiny summit and cairn at 964m, or 3,163ft. This time the summit was deserted, very much like most other Munro summits that we’ve visited this year. The wind was fairly blustery, and with the intermittent showers and almost zero visibility, we hastily retreated from the summit back to the red slab. We crossed the sloping slab and then followed our route of ascent all the way back to the hotel, where we stopped for a hot coffee. As we sipped our coffee and stared outside the cloud base lifted just enough for us to glimpse and appreciate Sgurr nan Gillean’s truly alpine profile.

We returned to the ‘van and prepared for our journey to Aviemore in the Cairngorms for our 283rd and final Munro ascent.

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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