SCARY things are lurking beyond the edge. They’re out there now. Like Grendel wading through the Danish marshes in the half-light of a winter’s dusk, they are waiting for us to drop our shield walls. Then they will pounce from the shadows, these malevolent entities, and tear out our hearts.
Several have been circling me for years. Black things on the fringes of nightmares. Occasionally I glimpse them through a break in the clouds. Once or twice I have beheld them in the full light of day, evil brutes that can crush men with the shrug of a shoulder – and frequently do.
One is Liathach. Then, like Grendel and his mother, there’s a dysfunctional family: the Cuillin. And lastly, and probably leastly, a great knife-edge of rock known as the Forcan Ridge, the northerly arête that sweeps down from The Saddle, in Kintail. And that’s where I am now.
The strange thing about today’s expedition is that I am actually feeling good about it, even looking forward to it. The Forcan Ridge is Striding Edge multiplied by three, and with added height and attitude. It is the only way to climb The Saddle, unless you want to wimp out and take the easy route.
So I climb from Glen Shiel to a bealach east of the A82, and arriving on its crest in a blast of freezing wind get my first view of the Forcan Ridge.
It’s long, it’s steep, it’s rocky, it’s jagged, it’s never-ending and impossible-looking. But moral support arrives in the form of three women and a bloke. I don’t usually crave companionship on the hill, but this is a case of safety in numbers. We exchange greetings, and after a bite to eat embark on the first rocky stage of the ridge.
Bloody hell. This razor-edged spine of rock several hundred feet long and shaped like the back of a stegosaurus – with sheer drops on either side – scythes off into the distance, ascending higher and higher to broken crags.
We make our way slowly along the arête. I hear a drum beating wildly in the glen below. Perhaps it’s Beowulf and his war-band. No. It’s my heart pounding. Foot by foot we edge across the crest of the ridge like sparrows on the roof of a cathedral, until we reach Sgurr Forcan, the highest point but not the end. Somewhere ahead of us is a geological anomaly the guidebook refers to as the “bad step”.
Just a few observations on Scottish mountaineering guidebook terminology here. Guidebook writers are masters of understatement. For example, my idea of an “airy ridge” is something pleasant along which to ramble in a summer’s breeze, perhaps whistling lustily. “Airy ridge” is guidebook jargon for something you cling to with fingers and toes. Glance down between your knees, and you see the valley bottom 3,000ft below. One wrong move and you are no longer on your “airy ridge”. Here’s another: “Nervous walkers may feel the benefit of a rope.” This translates as: “Don’t go there under any circumstances if you have a bowel complaint. In fact, get off the mountain now.” So I just know that “bad step” is going to be “treacherous vertical drop that walkers really have no business going anywhere near.”
We arrive at the top of the bad step and peer down. It’s a vertical drop of about 35ft. Without a rope, it’s beyond my capabilities – and everyone else’s.
But we find a path to the left, down an incredibly steep boulder chute to a rock chimney that cuts through the buttress and delivers us without much bother to the foot of the bad step.
We are joined by a sixth person coming up the rear. He proceeds to tell us that the last time he was on the Forcan Ridge – about 15 years ago – some old boy fell off and killed himself. “Very tragic circumstances,” he says solemnly. “Can’t remember much about the ridge because I was so concerned with getting to the summit so I could get down for the mountain rescue.” This is a snippet of information I am glad I did not possess before I embarked two hours earlier.
After another section of knife-edge ridge, the circumnavigation of a snowfield, and a rocky scramble up the final buttress, we arrive on the summit of The Saddle (above) and congratulate ourselves. And after a quick bite, I leave my companions to feast around the cairn, and strike out for the next peak – Sgurr na Sgine. And I feel elated. I have traversed the Forcan Ridge. I’ve waded out into the marshes and chased Grendel from Heorot, perhaps even ripped his arm from his shoulder socket like Beowulf did.
I have pushed against a personal barrier and it has slid a few feet before jamming against something else – probably the Cuillin. Or Liathach . . . Or Grendel’s mother.