The Five Sisters of Kintail : Mysterious Scottish Wilderness

   Despite the exhausting 11 hour mountaineering session we had on Saturday on the A’ Ghlas-bheinn mountain, some of us were eager to try something harder on Sunday. Nothing could have been better than the famous 5 mile long ridge of the Five Sisters of Kintail.

We started our walk before dawn, under a light rain shower. It was very unpleasant and it didn’t seem to stop. We were a team of 4 and everybody was really fit. We walked very fast and I was happy to have the opportunity to do this legendary ridge with them. I was a bit worried not to have the required skills to keep the pace though.

It stopped raining some time after we had left the road. We were now in a elevated valley from which we could see Loch Duich and Sgurr an Airgid behind us, and the beginning of the ridge leading to the first sister ahead of us. The area was extremely boggy and my boots were soon completely wet. After a while, we were high enough to make out the route we would actually have to follow. I was seized by the steepness of the two snow-covered peaks I could see in the distance. It was very cold and cloudy. I wasn’t confident but I knew I was walking with pros. At some point, we reached the actual ridge. It was sharp but not too much, and all snow-covered. There was an impressive drop on the left-hand side.

We reached the first sister without any problem. We then walked to the second one and had to face a very steep section in the fog. We progressed slowly because the snow had turned into ice. It was very exhausting. Once we reached the second sister, we had to go down again, and up, and down, and so on. We passed through lovely places. I’m usually sad when it’s cloudy and foggy because I can’t see the landscape, but today the fog made the whole trip much more interesting. During 8 hours I felt like I had entered in a parallel universe in which there would be no sky. During 8 hours, I was thrown in a colorless and absolutely silent and quiet world. At some point, we got lost. Absolutely everything around us was white. We stayed there for maybe half an hour, trying to guess what was the right way with the compass. I want to praise our team leader for his orientation skills here because he figured out a solution very professionally.

I will remember the last section for ever. I was completely shattered by the 11 miles route we had done in these hostile mountains. Now, the slope was steep and boggy and slippery as hell because of the melting snow. In a word, it was a nightmare. It reminded me of the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, punished by the Gods to roll an immense boulder up a hill for ever, but this time, it was my turn to be punished by going down a never-ending mountain. I fell so many times in this descent that I soon stopped counting. I usually try not to fall to keep my dignity but this time I literally rolled down the mountain like a brainless thing, without caring if I was crashing in a puddle of mud, on a rock, or in an ice-cold stream. When I finally reached the A87 highway, my legs could barely lift me, but I was delighted by this adventure.

– February 2011

è-Photos

Five Sisters of Kintail from Loch Duich

The Five Sisters of Kintail from Loch Duich. I didn’t take this photograph, but I thought you would want to have an overall idea of what they look like from far away.

Beginning of the walk and already exhausted. Beautiful view on Loch Duich, Invershiel and the mountain of Sgurr an Airgid.

The beginning of the famous ridge of the Five Sisters of Kintail. The first three sisters in sight : Sgùrr na Ciste Duibhe, Sgùrr na Càrnach and Sgùrr Fhuaran. I was a bit scared when I saw these two peaks on the right... but I didn't say anything to my teamates!

The beginning of the famous ridge of the Five Sisters of Kintail. The first three sisters in sight :Sgùrr nan Saighead (left), Sgùrr Fhuara (center) and Sgùrr na Càrnach (right).

Reaching the freezing level. On this picture: us on the ridge to Beinn Bhuidhe, the beginning of Glen Shiel (left), Loch Duich, Sgurr an t Searraich, and Invershiel Village at the bottom of Sgurr an Airgrid (right).

Moment of doubt in front of the snow-covered ridge. It reminded me of the insane Aonach Eagach ridge, with snow as a bonus.

Moment of doubt in front of the snow-covered ridge. It reminded me of the insane Aonach Eagach ridge, with snow, except this time I was prepared.

Magnificent contrast on the slopes of the opposite mountain

Magnificent contrast on the slopes of the opposite mountain.

Sgùrr nan Saighead (left) and Sgùrr Fhuaran (right).

Sgùrr nan Saighead (left) and Sgùrr Fhuaran (right).

The first sister, called Sgùrr nan Saighead.

I don’t know how the hell I took this photo. Better hide it from Mom.

Gorgeous forms and colors formed by the snow on the rock.

Gorgeous forms and colors formed by the snow on the rock.

Conquering Sgùrr nan Saighead.

Conquering Sgùrr nan Saighead.

The ridge from Conquering Sgùrr nan Saighead to Sgùrr Fhuaran.

The ridge from Sgùrr nan Saighead to Sgùrr Fhuaran.

Sgùrr nan Saighead as seen from the south ridge.

Sgùrr nan Saighead as seen from the south ridge.

Steep ascent to the second sister. Penetrating into this thick cloud was like entering in another dimension. From this moment until the last descent section in Glen Shield our visibility was minimal.

Nice surprise while climbing the second sister.

And down again…

Even more down than I thought…

This walk was a surreal experience. Imagine yourself in a universe of absolute silence, in which rare black rocks would be your only fixed points in a mysterious and constant white haze.

Reaching the top of the third sister.

The inability to see the surrounding landscape made the walk mentally challenging. We couldn’t figure out where we were, we couldn’t estimate the distances and at the end of the day I had lost both my senses of time and space.

Suddenly, a menacing craig blocked our way and we had to scramble it. That was the most exciting section of the walk!

From the top of the craig.

On the ridge again. I think this here peak is the fourth sister. The ridge was borded by two big drops and I was afraid to scramble this icy peak, slip, fall, and disappear in the impenetrable mist.

I believe this is the last sister, Sgùrr nan Spàinteach. When I saw the guys climb it, I was like “Gandalf where are you?”

Jo taking insane risks to pose for the photograph, and I taking insane risks to take it.

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15 Responses to The Five Sisters of Kintail : Mysterious Scottish Wilderness

  1. Collette says:

    I loved reading your experience hiking the 5 sisters! I will be traveling to Scotland and hiking them in June and it was neat to hear your experience. Would you be willing to share you knowledge of the area with me? We have a rental car that we were hoping to park at the end of the hike but are not sure how we are going to get back to the Eastern end since we want to hike from East to West. Do you know if there is any kind of public transportation that could take us back to where the hike begins? And what does parking look like there? Is it pretty marked and easy to navigate where to go?

    • Hi Collette,
      The Five Sisters sounds pretty cool and I hope you’ll have better weather conditions if you do it. Yea I’m definitely up for helping you organizing your trip. You can contact me by email if you want, you need to click on my picture to see it.
      For my hike of the 5 sisters we got picked up by a friend at some point on the A87. It’s a pretty exhausting hike and the ridge in itself is long so I wouldn’t recommend doing a loop, unless maybe if you parked next to Loch Duich and fancy a walk back down in the valley (but it’s going to be a very long day). What you can do is park the car next to the A87 (I don’t remember any parking spot though) and hitchhike from there to the village of Invershiel. In the summer it should be easy to hitchhike there bc there’s a lot of traffic to the Isle of Skye.
      Public transportation is rather minimal that North and it’s likely to stress you out finding the bus stop or getting there in time. But you can have good public transportation between Glasgow and Fort William and you can be dropped next to good hiking spots in that area.
      The 5 sisters’ path doesn’t have any physical marker along it but path is reported on the OS maps. I don’t know if the path is always clear (it was snow-covered when I did it). If it’s sunny I think it should be easy to navigate because the ridge is well defined. If it’s foggy though it can become extremely confusing and dangerous because of exposed sections. Weather can change within minutes in the Highlands so you have to have a map 1:25000 or 1:75000 at least and a compass at all times for safety. The only marked ways in Scotland that come to my mind are the West Highland Way and the Ben Nevis tourist track but these are not very interesting.
      Don’t hesitate to ask me further questions as they come! :)

      • Collette says:

        Thank you so much for the information! From research I was doing it didn’t look like anything was very well marked so it’s good to hear that I wasn’t just missing this information. I am going on this trip with 2 other girls and although we are all fairly active and in shape we are no means expert mountain climbers. Have you hiked Ben Nevis? That is the other mountain that we were considering doing. Do you think Ben Nevis would be more clearly marked and easier to hike logistically? Or do you have another spot that you would recommend?

        • I think you need to know how to navigate if you want to have fun in Scotland. The West Highland Way is pretty boring and the Ben Nevis tourist path too, and you’re not even sure to have good weather on the top. But it also depends if you are looking for 1 day trips or many days trekking.

          There is a good website I used a lot, Walking Highlands, where you can have a summary of the trip, the distance, elevation and difficulty. They have a page for the Five Sisters : http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/kintail/Fivesisters.shtml

          As I said the walk is 15km and takes between 8 and 10 hours, so I think you should forget about a roundtrip. I am not an expert either, I think it’s more a question of physical endurance and navigation skills if it’s foggy. If you know how to use a compass and read a map and have had the experience of being lost in the fog that should be alright during the summer :) There should be other mountaineers on the hill in June.

          I can recommend all the trips I’ve done and wrote about on this blog. You can find them through the Interactive Map or in the category “Scotland”. I especially recommend for a matter of scenery and landscapes: The Cobbler, Ben Lui & Ben Oss, The The Ring of Steall, Bla Bhein on the Isle of Skye. There are many other mountains that I didn’t have the chance to climb and with a car you can go anywhere! You can look up Walking Highlands and find good routes! I had many projects that seemed cool at the time but can’t remember all the names.At least with the names I gave you you can look at the pictures and stories on the blog.

          I climbed Ben Nevis twice, and the first time was actually during my first trek in Scotland. I wrote about it on this post: https://backcountrytranquility.wordpress.com/2011/11/19/climbing-ben-nevis-from-the-nevis-gorge-giubhsachan-valley/
          I recommend to climb Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg and Carn Beag Dearg arete. It has a very cool scenery and not boring at all except on the way back. It’s good because there is a parking spot (Alt A’ Mhulinn Car Park in the village of Torlundy) and it’s a big loop. I don’t recommend climbing Ben Nevis by the tourist track, it’s boring and you don’t see anything. I recommend using it to go down hill though because it is safe. Again you need to know how to use a map and a compass. The top of Ben Nevis is very flat and when it’s foggy sometimes people walk and fall from the big northern cliffs :P

          • Collette says:

            Thank you so much for all your suggestions! I have been enjoying reading through each of your adventures and getting ideas!!

  2. surfnslide says:

    Great write up, been a long while since I did the ridge (mid 80’s I think – showing my age!) and in very similar conditions. Atmospheric photos and write-up to match

  3. Superbe ambiance et magnifiques contrastes entre les couleurs du bas et celles d’en haut.

  4. Jo Woolf says:

    Wow, your pics are just surreal! Amazing descriptions of the atmosphere and the silence on the summits. Also a bit alarming to hear that you just ‘rolled down the mountain’ on the way down!!

    • Ahah yes. I could’ve had a leg broken but luckily it didn’t happen. It really was a hard time. I didn’t properly rolled down the mountain although it would have been good in some ways since the punishment would’ve ended faster :)

  5. Great trip report Orel! Great images too, in less than perfect light conditions – a combination of dramatic scenery and skillful photography. Well done!

  6. FANTASTIC trip report. Excellent photos. This looks like it was an unforgettable climb and hike. Well done.

  7. It was great to read this, takes me back to what is still one of my favourite days in the Scottish mountains. From what I remember you were never tired though, leaping around like a wee mountain goat all day.

    You’re right about the disorientation of time and space in the grey mist, crazy stuff. It was a pleasure to experience such a great day with three awesome people.

  8. Your pictures are fabulous and your description; well let’s just say I’m going to have to wait for my next lifetime to tackle those sisters! Kudos to you for overcoming your doubts and making that hike! A reminder of the power of nature, and to be sure when taking on hikes of that nature to ALWAYS have an experienced guide. I was also very impressed and intrigued at how definative the snow line was on these mountains. Interesting!

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