Landscapes

Kintail wanderings: 9 Munros around Glen Shiel

Looking back along the Sisters and Brothers ridges above Glen Shiel in Kintail in the North-West Highlands of Scotland. The first summits of the day (A'Ghlas Bheinn and Beinn Fhada) are over on the left horizon. (Click to view larger)

I recently shared a stripped down gear list for occasions where I want to travel light outdoors but still wish to capture professional-quality images. Although the items of equipment I listed in that post are lighter than a full bag of camera gear, they are still too heavy for me to carry on occasions when I’m not working and I’d like to challenge myself a little in the mountains.

My inspiration for challenging days out on the hills comes from the athletes I photograph as well as my friends. I’m definitely not a mountain or a fell runner but I’ve had plenty of photography shoots with professional runners (and follow their adventures online) and the ease and speed at which they travel over rough ground has made me realise that I enjoy moving quicker than walking speed in the mountains (something which I have attempted to do in the past with a full camera backpack but my lower back seeks to constantly remind me).

In 2017, I purchased the lightest-weight camera I own, a Sony RX100 V for personal outdoor adventures where I want to move a bit quicker but still capture decent-quality images, especially when they aren’t the focus of my trip. The images I’m able to capture with the Sony RX100 are on the borderline of what I’d class as being acceptable for professional purposes (I’m happy to use them for editorial submissions and blogs) but the trade off when I’m not working is immeasurable. I can fit the camera into a stretchy front pocket of my backpack and easily fast-walk or jog with it up and down hills without any impairment on my activity, whilst still being able to document my day or take shots I can use later for location scouting purposes.

The type of outing I’d carry along a Sony RX100 on would be a trail run in the Alps, a long-distance mountain bike time trial or an attempt at multiple Munro summits in Scotland, where my objective is to achieve a relatively big thing (for me) in a certain period of time and I don’t wish to be encumbered with a heavy pack.

An example of this was when I was looking for ideas for a challenging day out in Scotland. My focus was on Kintail in the North-West Highlands of Scotland. If I wished to climb a lot of Munros in a day, Kintail’s South Glen Shiel ridge allows for 7 summits to be ticked off in a fairly easy fashion. Opposite them on the north side of the glen, there are 7 Munros that I could do the following day (or perhaps even on the same day).

The record for the most amount of Munros in a single day is 30 by Jim Mann from England who ticked off their summits in 22h 05mins in July 2017. The record for total Munro completions however is Steven Fallon, who’s completed 15 rounds (of 282 hills, sometimes more) over a twenty year period. A qualified mountain guide, Steven is also an accomplished hill runner and his website has a number of running options if you’re looking to join groups of Munros together to make a longer day and set yourself a challenge.

I settled on Steven Fallon’s Kintail Sisters and Brother route, a 39km circular route with c.4000m ascent that includes two nearby Munros and takes in 9 Munro summits. The route starts and ends at the outdoor centre at Morvich and my goal was to complete the round in a certain timescale, using some adjustments I prefer to Naesmith’s formula (which I calculate at 4km/h for every km travelled and 1 hour for every 600m ascent). This isn’t running pace but to achieve it means not stopping so I figured it was a good enough challenge and it would provide me with a day out that would test me but not break my legs (figuratively speaking, not literally). In the end, I didn’t quite manage to complete the route in Naesmith’s timings (it took me 16 hours instead of 15) but I still felt in great shape at the end and it was a memorable day out.

Glen Shiel Sisters and Brothers route (including two additional Munros)

  • Distance: 39km / 24 miles

  • Ascent: 4105m / 13,467ft

  • Time: 16 hours 03 minutes

(Steven’s website records this route as 35km / 22 miles in distance with 3,140m / 10,300ft ascent but my calculations were as above, which I corroborated with a friend).

Munros climbed

  • A'Ghlas Bheinn (918m)

  • Beinn Fhada (1032m)

  • Ciste Dhubh (979m)

  • Aonach Meadhoin (1001m)

  • Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg (1036m)

  • Saileag (956m)

  • Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe (1027m)

  • Sgurr na Carnach (1002m)

  • Sgurr Fhuaran (1067m)

Postscript

One of the reasons I wanted to attempt Steven’s Kintail route was because I have an itch to attempt Tranter’s Round and the time I took in Glen Shiel would give me an indication if that was feasible. It’s relatively tight, with an additional 5 miles and 8,000ft I’d need to cover in the remaining 8 hours (which sounds straightforward enough but at my pace, which will no doubt be slowing by then, it only gives me one hour to play with).

Mountain landscape: Kirkjufell ('Church Mountain'), Iceland

I visited Iceland recently on the request of Extreme Tris to shoot their inaugural Ísland Extreme Triathlon. My intention after the event was to spend some time exploring a unique image I felt I could create of the famous Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain. The common ‘Instagram’ composition of this peak, which is next to Grundarfjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, is a wide angle lens from c.150m away, with a waterfall in the foreground. The shot I had in my head was a drone-style image which I wanted to capture from above the mountain, after climbing to the top of the cliffs to the west of the peak, which would give some indication of Kirkjufell’s location on the coastline with the remote west fjords of Iceland in the background. Unfortunately, some really poor weather put paid to that shot and all I managed was some quick images of the peak from the side of the road as I photographed the race. It gives me a perfect excuse to go back.

Mountain landscapes: Glen Coe and Lochaber, Scotland

The rising sun casts lights and shadows across the Aonach Eagach ridge, the Mamores Munros, Ben Nevis, Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag in the Lochaber region of Scotland

The rising sun casts lights and shadows across the Aonach Eagach ridge, the Mamores Munros, Ben Nevis, Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag in the Lochaber region of Scotland

A key attribute for an outdoor photographer is obviously good health. In March 2018, I opted for surgery to address increasingly uncomfortable nerve pain I’ve been having since 2011 in the soles of my feet whilst I go walking or running. A skilled surgeon recommended that he break (you may use the term ‘sawed through’) three metatarsal bones in my right foot and re-adjust them to give the nerves a little more space. After 16 weeks recovery, and the ability to start cycling again (including a 62-mile commute home on my mountain bike following the route of the Tour de Forth), I felt my foot was strong enough to cope with an easy hill walk. I wanted to take advantage of a great spell of weather we’ve been having in Scotland so I decided that I’d combine my first trip back with a summit wild camp.

As I packed my camping gear and camera equipment, I looked forward to heading to Glencoe in the West Highlands of Scotland. I’ve shot in Glen Coe before and I decided I’d go back there for good reason. The landscape in such a small place is incredibly varied. In 2017 I bivvied on the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan and watched beautiful clouds that filled the glens at dawn. I returned not long after to sleep on top of Am Bodach on the Aonach Eagach across the glen and was treated to a lovely golden sunrise that turned the hills purple and lit up the sleeping spot I’d chosen on Stob Coire nan Lochan.

My plans for this return trip were to ascend from Glen Coe up into the corrie above Loch Achtriochtan, beneath Dinnertime Buttress, and continue up towards the mighty crags of Stob Coire nam Beith before I’d break off west onto the bealach beside An t-Sron. I’d then spend time making photographs as I continued up the ridge to camp for the night on the summit of Bidean nam Bian (which, at 1107m high, is a Munro).

The internet is such a valuable resource these days for a landscape photographer. With many useful tools such as Google Maps, Google Images and the Sunseeker app (alternatively the Photographer’s Empheris), you can plan out in detail exactly which locations should be worth going to and when, with the huge advantage of knowing in advance where the light will fall. An awful lot of work can be done at home or in the office in research mode and, for your shoot, it’s simply (ok, it’s never really that simple) a case of waiting for the right spell of good weather.I had the summit of Bidean nam Bian all to myself. There were two people on the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan for a short while, which is a kilometre away (I think they had scrambled up a route on Dinnertime Buttress), but once they’d gone it was just me and the uninterrupted 360-degree view I had of multiple beautiful Scottish glens, lochs and mountains. I’d read that just to the west of Bidean’s rocky summit there was good ground for camping and this proved correct - there’s a lovely lawn-like area with minimal rocks underneath the ground that is ideal place to pitch a tent. (You could also take a bivvy bag but I opted for the extra protection in case of due to my anticipation for midgies, which thankfully never arrived. I did though manage to lose a bag of semi-frozen grapes, which I’d HUGELY looked forward to in the heat of the ascent, to a crow. There was almost a murder).

At midnight, I stopped shooting and set my alarm for 3.00am (plus, as a precaution, 3.20am, 3.30am and 3.45am). Sunrise was scheduled for 4.30am but it never really got dark and at 2.30am I popped my head out my tent to find it remained relatively light and there was still a lot of colour in the sky. I decided to get up and I spent a very special few hours in a beautiful silence picking out landscapes on the horizon as the sun came up and allowed me to capture a range of new mountain landscape images that I’m really happy with and Iook forward to sharing with clients.

As for my foot? Unfortunately, it’s still not strong enough. An innocuous slip on the way down caused me to put all my weight through it and it didn’t cope well at all. After a painful and lengthy descent (and a recommended x-ray from the hospital - which thankfully showed I hadn’t re-broken it and it was likely tissue damage), I’m unfortunately now back on the mend and highly mindful of a friend’s advice, which was to be careful and, 'remember, feet are forever”. I think it’s wise for me to take some additional time out and concentrate on some more low-altitude work instead.

Mountain landscapes: Glen Coe, Scotland

Each year, in Summer, I like to take a few weeks out of the Scottish mountains to let the temperature cool down and remove the scourge that is the Scottish highland midge. By the time we reach the cooler months of September and October, I’m looking forward to ending my self-imposed exile and re-charging my own batteries, so to speak, as I head back out again into the hills.

My plan for this occasion was to sleep atop a mountain peak and photograph the sunrise for a personal client and scope out a location for a mountain running shoot I had pencilled in for later in the year. The internet is such a valuable resource these days for a landscape photographer. With many useful tools such as Google Maps, Google Images and the Sunseeker mobile app (or an alternative, e.g. the Photographer’s Ephemeris), you can plan out in detail exactly which locations should be worth going to and when, with the huge advantage of knowing in advance where the light will fall. An awful lot of work can be done at home or in the office in research mode and, for your shoot, it’s simply (ok, it’s never really that simple) a case of waiting for the right spell of good weather.

After some research, I settled on an ascent of Stob Coire nan Lochan, a rocky summit, 1115m high, that is part of the Bidean nam Bian massif in Glen Coe in the West Highlands of Scotland. As I packed my camping gear and camera equipment, I looked forward to heading back to Glen Coe. I’ve shot there before and I decided to go back for good reason. The landscape in such a small place is incredibly varied.

I parked at the popular Pass of Glen Coe at 6.30pm, trekking up Coire nan Lochan as it got dark. The ground was familiar as I’d been in the corrie before, en route to a popular winter climb called Dorsal Arete. Scrambling up the rocky flanks of Stob Coire nan Lochan by head-torch was somewhat tricky but good fun. When I arrived on the summit, there was a slight breeze but the air was dry. Settling in to my bivvy, I listed to the sound of stags braying loudly in the glens below and soon feel asleep.

One of the benefits of heading out in Autumn is you don’t need to get up super early to catch the dawn. Sunrise was expected at 7:37am and I was up at a very pleasant time of 7.00am. As I expected, I was on my own, with an uninterrupted 360-degree view of multiple beautiful Scottish glens and mountains. I hadn’t brought a stove (to save weight), so, after a few arm swings to warm up, I set up my tripod, camera and wireless trigger in the gloomy light of pre-dawn, pre-visualised what frames I thought would be worthy to photograph and waited to see what would happen. As it turned out, there was no spectacular sunrise but I was witness to some wonderful views as clouds filled the glens and wild rays of light were projected onto the landscape east of Glen Coe. I kept shooting as the sun rose higher in the sky, despite the fact it was cloudy. Lower clouds had lifted from the floor of the glens and had started to drape over the mountain ridges and I was duly rewarded, once again, when shafts of light began to break through the higher clouds and atmospherically lit up the landscape. 

In all, I spent a very special few hours above Glencoe in beautiful silence switching between wide angle and telephoto lenses and shooting as many different compositions as I could. When the light died down, I packed up and headed out to visit the summit of Bidean nam Bian (one of the 282 ‘Munros’, Scottish peaks over 3,000ft high). From there, I had an enjoyable walk along the ridge to a second Munro, Stob Coire Sgreamhach, before I retraced my steps to the head of the beautiful Lost Valley and headed for home.