Visitors from abroad probably look at our modest mountains in the UK and wonder what all the fuss is about. True, our mountains are lower in height than the peaks of Europe, North America, Africa and Asia, but our more northerly latitude often catches out visitors. In addition, we tend not to waymark our paths as they do in, say, the European Alps, which sometimes causes problems for visitors. It’s a fair generalisation though, that for a long mountain day in the UK you need to go to Scotland.
Critics of Scottish mountaineering will tell you about bad weather and the curse of the Scottish midge, but a visit in May or late September will often give perfect conditions. Scots poet Robert Louis once said “…. to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”, and early in May we did that – our trip to the Northwest Highlands of Scotland did not disappoint, with a day out on Quinag being one of the highlights.
Quinag is the English form of the Gaelic A’ Chuineag, which translates as ‘little milk pail’, though in fact it’s more like a milking stool with three legs – The mountain is complex, and is more like a mini mountain range with three separate peaks and several smaller subsidiary peaks. My route started up Spidean Coinich which translates as Mossy Peak (1 on the map) before dropping to a prominent Bealach (pass) at 2 then rising up to a col at 5. From there it was up to Sail Gharbh (Rough Heel) at 3, the highest peak in the group, before backtracking to the col to collect a couple of minor summits, then on to the last of the major peaks, Sail Ghorm (Rough Heel) at 4. To finish, it was back again to the col at 5 before dropping down to the small Lochan at 6.
The start was impressive enough – a broad ridge of rock slabs leading up towards an unnamed summit before continuing to Spidean Coinich. Apparently these are as slippery as polished marble when wet, but blue skies suggested that this wouldn’t be a problem on this trip. In fact, it was only the presence of a sharp, cold breeze that prevented the day from being a scorcher.
Spidean Coinich was interesting enough, with fierce, steep crags on the northern aspect being a total contrast to the gentle slabby approach. The star of the show on this section, however, was an unnamed peak with a spot height of 713 metres. To say it was exposed was an understatement – the very top was little larger than the size of a single bed, with the sides dropping off steeply on each side. It was easy, non-technical walking, but a careless stumble would have been terminal! (The photos above illustrate what I mean)
The path from spot height 713 dropped down to the pass of Bealach a’ Chornaid. Ahead was another unnamed peak at spot height 745, from which the three ridges of Quinag radiate. I didn’t take this directly, but instead I took a rising path to the col between spot height 745 and Sail Gharbh, taking a quick trip out to Sail Gharbh first before heading back to collect spot height 745 from the col. The trip out would have delighted a geologist, with the red sandstone suddenly turning to grey quartzite – the summit was a delight for anyone, with the whole collection of summits laid out.
Having returned to the col, it was now on to spot height 745 – from there the ridge to Sail Ghorm was ‘up and down like a fiddler’s elbow’, making a much greater total height gain than expected. Another unnamed summit had a cheeky little traverse on its eastern side – from there it was onward and upward to Sail Ghorm, the last peak of the day. The view out to sea from the summit was the cherry on top of the cake!
Having traversed the whole ridge system, it was time to return – that entailed reversing the route to the col, then heading down the path towards Bealach a’Chornaidh, before branching off to drop down to the small lake at Lochan Bealach Cornaidh. From there a gradually descending path gave rapid progress back to the start point. If only all our mountain days were as good!
Text and images © Paul Shorrock