Saturday, 16 December 2017

ARRAN: "The Wasteland" Traverse

Upper Glen Iorsa.  Oh yes, we're well off the beaten track now!

A west-east, coast-coast traverse of the island via an audacious route through Arran's wildest, remotest glen, followed by an ascent of Arran's remotest ridge - the N ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn.

This is followed by the Tarsuinn-Nuis ridge.

A route of two very distinct halves.

True 'middle of nowhere' stuff in the upper reaches of Glen Iorsa.



Bus to Dougarie, then:

  • Glen Iorsa - Loch Iorsa/Boathouse
  • Continue along Glen Iorsa
  • ...Keep going along Glen Iorsa (!!)
  • Ford the Allt Tigh an Shiorraim (see article for more detail)
  • ....Keep going....
  • Ford the Iorsa Water (again, details in article)
  • Contour into the Garbh-choire Dubh to base of N ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn
  • Ascent of N ridge to summit of Beinn Tarsuinn
  • Tarsuinn-Nuis traverse
  • Ascent of Beinn Nuis
  • Descent to Glen Rosa, onward to Brodick & the ferry terminal

Distance = c.14-15 miles.  

It is difficult to give an 'exact' distance for this route as you'll be winding your way through Glen Iorsa.  Measuring from straight-lining would be ineffective.  

Now, if I used one of those GPS watch things I'd be able to give you an exact distance.  But I don't, so, that's that.  :) 

Video overview Here.



Prior to any description, attention needs to be drawn to the two river fordings encountered on this route.  

And general principles of river fordings.  

I've seen some crazy things in my day - especially so with runners unaware of the basics of wilderness travel.  This ranges from not knowing how to read a map/use a compass, to more 'intricate' issues (such as river crossings).

Running solo over the mountains/through wilderness areas probably seems dangerous.  What I personally consider dangerous is running over the mountains/through wilderness areas with little knowledge or experience.  And it is one of the primary reasons I avoid 'organised' running events.

Organised trail courses etc - to a point I understand the appeal.  Incompetent runners can enter environments they wouldn't normally be able to.  By 'incompetent' I don't meant minute-per-mile pace/running ability etc - I mean, as stated above, outdoor craft.  

The above likely offends a large swathe of the running community.  This is ok, as I feel it is something that has to be said - and should be said to any runner considering going out there and doing a route such as the route of this article.  I'd rather a runner read this piece, realised their skill base was completely lacking, and didn't kill themselves in the process of biting off more than they can chew.

Every year we read stories of weather closing in during organised events and runners perishing.  Now, each case is unique - and each case is highly unfortunate - but for the love of God, get yourself on a navigation/fieldcraft course before entering mountainous environments.  Yes - the events may be enjoyable - yes, you have someone to hand you a cup of water every 5 minutes - but don't confuse having completed 10 or 15 organised events as having fieldcraft.  

I suggest all serious mountain runners do the following:
  • Mountain first aid course (BASP do a good one)
  • Mountain Leader training (summer AND winter)
  • Navigation course (Glenmore Lodge etc offer good navigation courses)

Also get a good few hillwalking seasons under your belt.  I'd recommend at least 3 years of hillwalking experience (across all seasons).  It'll familiarise you with not only terrain/environment - but also with carrying a pack.

Back on track:

The fordings of this article are potentially very dangerous - not only due to the crossings themselves - but also due to their location (i.e. deep within Arran's wildest glen).  Thankfully on the day of filming (15th Dec 2017) the rivers were relatively tame.  On a different visit to Glen Iorsa they were almost uncrossable - the Allt Tigh an Shiorraim due to its sheer force, and the Iorsa Water due to its depth (armpit/chest high).

If running this route in winter conditions (i.e. of the included images), you are going to be ascending snow-covered peaks after the river fordings.  The danger here is potential frostbite (...your feet will be soaking wet - and very cold...) and hypothermia.  

Fording a river then ascending a mountain in winter requires specialised conditioning (I'll do an article on winter-specific training soon).  

If specifically cold-conditioned, you should be OK.  If unconditioned (even if you are knowledgeable & very fit), you are stupidly playing with fire (with ice?!! haha), and asking for trouble.   

In general, as long as heart rate is high, feet will stay warm (hence the principles are different for runners & hikers etc).  But this is not the case when entering a semi-arctic environment.  Your feet will get cold irrespective of heart rate.

I'm not going to lie - you'll be in pain - even if/when cold-conditioned.  But the point is to build up the tolerance to pain to where you won't become extremely slow, or wish to simply stop & cry (...I've seen it happen before!!).

There are some basic principles for fording rivers that all runners should be aware of (if you know how to ford a river safely, skip over this section - the intention isn't to sound 'preachy', but rather, give sound advice):

1)  Unclip all pack straps (i.e. unclip waist/chest straps etc).  If you fall when fording, your pack can snag on a rock and cause you to drown.  You should be able to easily abandon your pack if needs be.

If I have a very serious river crossing, I have a specific pack I use.  It is a military hydration pack.  (I wouldn't walk down the street with it over my shoulders - but for the wilds, it's great).  It is quite heavy - but the principal reason for using it is it has quick-release buckles on the shoulder straps - see the image below:

Quick-release buckles for shoulder straps.  Potential lifesaver

Personally, I think this is a feature all packs should have.  Well, maybe not all packs, but there's certainly a place for it.  It is a very difficult feature to find.  If your running involves remote adventure running, consider quick release shoulder strap buckles as a feature to look for.  They could be a lifesaver.  

2)  DON'T take your shoes off.  There's a common misconception that shoes should be taken off when fording a river.  This is one of the worst things you can do.  Consider the consequences of standing on a sharp rock - you'll instinctively react by pulling your foot back/up - at which point you can easily lose balance and be swept away.

If you must, you could take your socks off.  I don't bother with this, as if water is above the height of my shoes, the inside of my shoes will get soaked anyway.  I'd be putting dry socks into wet shoes.

If I know I have a river crossing, I tend to wear thin socks (thin socks dry quicker).   

3)  If the river is very fast and/or has a strong current, face upstream.  If you face downstream, the current will feel like Ronaldo is kicking you full-force behind the knees.  If you face across the river, you'll likely be knocked sideways.

Shuffle your feet side-to-side - don't try to step one foot in front of the other.  This will throw you off-balance.  

Yes - facing upstream into a strong current is scary.  But it is better than being swept away.

(PS if you have to face upstream, also consider a stick etc for support)

Don't enter the river directly across from where you wish to exit.  In a strong current, you'll be forced downstream.  Enter further upstream.  There are principles whereby you can work out exactly where to enter a river (principles based on river width/current speed etc) - but they are beyond the scope of this article.

4)  As counter-intuitive as it may seem, DON'T wear waterproof shoes.  I don't own waterproof running shoes.  They are relatively pointless.  Their only real use is to keep feet dry if splashing through some puddles during weekly road & trail runs.  

The trouble with waterproof shoes is.... they keep water in.  

In the mountains, this is the very thing that can lead to runners with frostbitten toes.  

It is far better (as a runner) to have shoes with good drainage.  

When fording a river, the water will be above the height of your shoes.  Ergo, it is going to get in anyway (...this is the point when many take their shoes off i.e. when faced with a river higher than shoe/boot height.  They solve one problem - but create a potentially far worse one).  

5)  Be aware of how cold water affects heart rate.  Your heart rate will spike when you enter cold water.  This can, in certain instances, cause cardiac arrest.

On the day of filming, the river crossings of this article weren't high at all (just above knee height at highest).  When the water reaches waist height, that's when you'll feel it affect your heart/breathing.  

Entering cold water can and often does cause hyperventilation.  And if you fall in, the shock of the cold will trigger your gasp reflex (this is called cold shock response).  This gasp is what kills many who cross rivers: many have drowned by the body's natural physiological reaction to the extreme cold i.e. the gasp for air has led to swallowing litres of water.  If you slip and take a dunk, you're in real trouble.  The entire subject of cold shock syndrome/response is no matter to be treated lightly, nor should it be wrapped up in cotton wool and tied with a bow for gentle consumption.  Have a read of this and this for more detail. 

CWT (cold weather training) can 'push out' this response.  You can, to a point, build up a tolerance.  But the training is quite extreme. 

Remember that when running your heart rate is already elevated...

To the river crossings themselves:

Allt Tigh an Shiorraim

This is the outflow from Loch Tanna, draining into the Iorsa Water.  It isn't a wide river (it is more a burn than a river per se) - but it is fast, and has some force behind it.  After heavy rain, it is thunderous (the sound of a river can be the scariest part!).  I've been here before when I had to track upstream for a good while as the river was uncrossable.  

The included footage will seem relatively tame - but don't underestimate the river on a wild day.

In terms of depth: I'm slightly over 6ft tall and the river was, at its highest point, just above my knees.  Again - consider the included conditions as 'good'.  

The crossing point is obvious - but be aware the deepest point is at the far bank.

Unedited footage below of the crossing in its entirety - excuse the bad camera work!  I was focusing on not stumbling in the river.  It is difficult to see the depth at the far bank due to my shoddy footage - but I trust readers will take my word when I say it is just above knee height (you'll also see the water line on my leggings).

In terms of boulders: there are also principles for crossing rivers RE boulder location.  I could see the base of the boulders in this river, hence simply 'getting on with it'!

Iorsa Water

See the route description for details on where to cross.  

The Iorsa Water is a slow & relatively wide river (as far as mountain rivers go.  Of course, it isn't an Alaska shale 100ft wide monstrosity - but it is wide enough).  Glen Iorsa maintains a fairly level elevation - hence the slowness of the river.

It is obvious from the 1:25000 that the river is slow i.e. 52m spot height far up the glen, and 44m at Loch Iorsa i.e. only an 8m drop over a few miles.  

It is deep.  Very deep in places.  

The problem with the glen is: after heavy rain, entire areas flood due to the level elevation.  Where I crossed isn't always crossable - this area often floods completely, and becomes an open water plain.  If you cross where I crossed, you'll notice the ground is really nothing more than a thin layer of blanket bog on top of water.  Proceed with extreme caution.  I chose this route to reach the shallowest part of the river.  Aside from this point, most of the river averages c.4ft deep, occasionally 6ft at the meanders.  

If there's been heavy rain, you'll have to cross further upstream.  Possibly much further.  

Returning to principles RE river crossings - I trust readers know the outside of a bend is the deepest point.  Keep this in mind when picking a crossing point.  

If you are short, either consider a different route, or save the route for after a very dry spell.  The river could well be above head-height.  

In any instance, the Iorsa Water is one of those rivers that can appear tame yet is potentially very risky (it is also very silent - beware of unbeknowingly running straight into it!).

Here is footage of the crossing of the Iorsa Water - thankfully only calf-high!  If you can't find this specific point in the river, you'll likely have a very wet crossing!

(PS I didn't bother shuffling side-to-side as the river wasn't deep at all, and the current was gentle.)

Again - remember that if running the route in winter conditions, you'll be entering a snow/semi-arctic environment after the river crossings.  You'll be wet & cold - and if untrained/unconditioned, taking a grave risk...

From the above crossings to this:

OK - to the route description.



* Also refer to images at bottom of article for details.

I assume certain readers here own the SMC District guidebooks?  I remember many years ago (1998, to be precise!) reading the Arran section, poring over every detail (I was 16 at the time and hadn't explored anything other than the hills & glens with paths/trails), and reading the following description for Glen Iorsa:

"Glen Iorsa looks like a tempting walk but in fact gives very hard going over hummocky and marshy terrain... not recommended"

('The Islands of Scotland Including Skye', page 53)

I don't know about anyone else, but for me that's too much of a temptation to pass by!

Such an awful-sounding place certainly merits exploration.

Back to the subject at hand:


Get the bus to Dougarie and begin at the entrance to Glen Iorsa.  No need for a Day Rover - you'll be finishing the route in Brodick.  Presently a single is £3:10.  Not bad at all!  

Description unnecessary for the run to the boathouse at Loch Iorsa: simply follow the glen/estate track.

At Loch Iorsa you'll see an ATV track heading into the glen - follow this track - it leads most of the way through Glen Iorsa.  It is very boggy - but it is better than nothing at all.  Don't expect fast running - going is tough.

Note the Pools of Iorsa off to your R - silent and scary.  I'm convinced kelpies dwell there.  That, or the pools are an underwater entrance to hell.  I'm not quite sure yet which it is.    

You'll reach the Allt Tigh an Shiorraim - refer to earlier in the article for details.  

A short distance further up the glen you'll reach an important point on the ATV track - and one that could well be missed.  The track splits, with one branch heading R down towards the Iorsa Water.  For ease of reference, here is an image of the split point - 

Follow the R track.  Impassable after very heavy rain

This is before the confluence of the Allt na Boin-airigh & Iorsa Water.

However - as previously stated - this track/area is occasionally completely flooded.  If so, you'll have to track further upstream - considerably so.  

Proceed here with caution - you'll notice areas of superbog either side of the track.  The track itself is essentially floating.  

Soon you'll reach the river.  Downstream is deep (c.5ft at the far bank) - upstream is similar.  Choose the crossing point carefully: a boulder sticks out of the water - cross here.  Only a few feet further downstream the river is considerably deeper at the far bank (by a few feet) - take your time.  

Once across, head up and across the hillside, shooting off for the base of the N ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn.  This slope is quite steep - but at least it is drier than Glen Iorsa!  

After a good slog you'll contour into the base of the Garbh-choire Dubh, and to the low rocks at the base of the N ridge.  This point is probably the remotest on the island.  Escape points from here are very difficult indeed, and would involve one of the following:
  • Gleann Easan Biorach to Lochranza (best choice from a very poor list of options)
  • Glen Iorsa to Dougarie (this will take forever and will involve the previously mentioned river crossings)
  • Over to Cir Mhor via the A' Chir avoid path, then Glens Sannox or Rosa (likely not going to happen if you're injured - neither is a descent of the Devil's Chimney at the head of Glen Sannox).  Descent to Glen Rosa from the A' Chir/Cir Mhor col is possible - but very long
  • Up the corrie to the Bealach an Fhir-bhogha, from where you'd have to ascend & descend Beinn a Chliabhain to reach Glen Rosa - via the Daingean headwall path (extreme caution in winter - the path is gone and the slope is often very steep neve) - if injured, this option isn't going to happen  

Best-case scenario is a very long extraction via one of the glens.  

It feels very remote.  This can either be disconcerting or inspiring.  

The N ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn is a joy.  By far the remotest ridge on Arran, I doubt it ever gets any more than one or two ascents per decade.  It isn't a technical ridge (it is little more than a walk - however, the lower section is similar to the easier stretches on the Dubh Ridge - as you'll see from the photos below), but it is worth the trek - not only for the ridge itself - but for the piece de resistance, the greatest views possible of the W flank of A' Chir.

Views from the ridge to A' Chir are breathtaking, and very unique.    

The photos of A' Chir in this article are probably, at least for climbers, the best mapping of the W face available.  In terms of climbing, the face doesn't have much on it - but given an exceptional freeze, there's potential here for some winter lines.  The problem is the altitude & aspect.  But I'm sure someone will muster something special here one day. 

The N ridge of Tarsuinn continues ever upwards, and soon reaches the summit ridge.  Make sure you don't veer off L - this could easily happen if you are unfamiliar with the area.  

Tarsuinn - Nuis Ridge

In summer there's a path all the way, giving some of the finest running on the island. 

In winter conditions, the path is gone, and the ridge demands respect - especially so just after the summit of Tarsuinn.  Between the summit and the Old Man of Tarsuinn the ridge often narrows - occasionally to a knife-edge arete of snow.  If you've only visited the hills in summer, you'd likely be very surprised at conditions.  More like the Chamonix Aguille than Arran!!

However, things soon ease off and the ascent to Nuis is without problem. 

Descend via the standard route, head across the moor, drop down to Glen Rosa and head for Brodick.  


In terms of time: it is difficult to say how long this route will take, as it is very dependent on a number of factors, namely:

  • River conditions in Glen Iorsa
  • Feasibility of crossing the Iorsa Water (& where this will take place, depending on conditions)
  • Seasonal conditions - add plenty of time if the Tarsuinn-Nuis ridge is snow-covered
  • 'First-footing' on the snow.  You'll notice from the photos (and when I upload the route video) that my tracks are the first in the snow.  If breaking trail, expect to be far slower.  If following & using existing footprints, the going is far easier.  

If getting the first ferry/bus (that's what I did), you'll reach Dougarie at about 9:15am.  After checking my camera etc I started running at about 9:40am, and managed to finish the route in time for the afternoon ferry (it leaves at 13:55).  I made it by about 15 minutes (i.e. arrived at about 13:35.  Take note that the gangway is removed c.10 minutes before ferry departure), but this could be a lot faster - and certainly will be - especially so if someone tries the route in the height of summer after a dry spell.

Presently I'm suffering from the flu on top of a chest infection, plus I was faffing about to get good shots of the Boathouse, the Western Hills, A' Chir, and the ridge itself.

Of course, if you're hiking, this is a long nightmare expedition that will take a small forever.  I first explored this area walking as opposed to running - I have 18-inch hunting boots I wear for walking (rather than hillwalking boots; I plan on doing an article soon on the gear I use) - I'd advise knee-highs if you're planning on walking through the glen....

If running - if you're a strong fell-runner - between the morning & afternoon ferry is certainly feasible.  

...But don't quote me on that...!

Photos/notes in captions below



Back again for another wild route!

Glen Iorsa & distant Beinn Nuis

Ford at the Scaftigill Burn.  Don't even bother trying to keep your feet dry - there's plenty of the wet stuff to come!

A few shots for the boulderers - this is Creag a' Chromain, on the S flank of Sail Chalmadale.  Faces the right way.  You could cycle the Glen to here.  Or walk in.  It isn't far

Upper wall on Creag a' Chromain

Crag from a different angle.  The low overhang followed by a pull up the edge looks like a good problem.  I'm going for a look in the springtime, probably with a rope to ab off (if even necessary?!) and give it a good clean.  PS if anyone has visited here with a mat, do let me know.

Upper crag again.  Looks like a couple of good R-slanting problems on the main crag just R of centre - the edge, and the crack on the face

Approaching the boathouse

Iorsa boathouse.  This would make a great wee bothy!

Front of the boathouse

Loch Iorsa & the Tarsuinn/Nuis ridge

Joining the ATV track just after the boathouse.  Now the feet get wet....

Profile shot of the N ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn.  Quite a distance to reach it!

Upper Loch Iorsa.  It isn't a very big loch - more of a widening of the river.  Still a nice feature, though

Good underfoot conditions.  Ha!

One of the Pools of Iorsa.  Scary stuff...

Looking up the glen.  The distant cloud-covered peak is The Castles

Carn Mor on The Castles

Tough going!

All Tigh an Shiorraim.  Deeper at the far bank

Looking up the Allt

Just about knee-high at this point.  Very cold

Upper Glen Iorsa

Iorsa Water.  Very, very deep in places

Getting there...

Nope.  Still miles to go!

Deer on the moor

ATV split point

Heading across to the river.  Note the superbog.  This area is often flooded

Approaching the Iorsa Water

One of the few crossing points

Cross just to the R of the boulder.  That is, if you can find this point

Not too deep at all today (thankfully!)

Up the slope to the base of the ridge.  Despite the apparent timidity of this shot, the approach slope is a c.1200ft heather slog.  It is tough!  Prepare yourself!!

Looking to the Western Hills.  In profile here is the Capuil ridge and the summit of Mullach Buidhe

Sail Chalmadale & Glen Iorsa

Looking to Beinn Nuis.  Unique view

Looking back down the ascent slope

Glen Iorsa.  The micro-peak in the distance is Beinn Lochain

Western Hills again

Great profile shot of the Capul Ridge, subject of the previous article.  The steep boulder beginning I mentioned can clearly be seen here at the base of the ridge

Beinn Bhreac, Beinn Tarsuinn, and Meall nan Damh, plus the numerous tributaries of the Allt na Boin-airigh

Looking to The Castles

Stunning!  Cir Mhor enters view beyond the N ridge of Beinn Tarsuinn (similarity to the Dubh Ridge obvious in this shot)

Looking down the N ridge to the vast expanse of Garbh-coire Dubh

Good shot profiling the previous route.  Capuil Ridge, Eagle's Castle, Mullach Buidhe, plus the descent line from the Bealach an Fharaidh clearly visible.  What this photo amply illustrates is the wild land one must cross to reach the base of the Capuil Ridge

Looking up the N ridge

Oh yes.  A' Chir enters view

Profile shots for climbers.  N half of the W face of A' Chir

Summit area

S section

W face in its entirety

- Edit to add - Included below are the potential winter climbs I imagine would go on the west face (Glen Iorsa face) of A' Chir.

Again - the aspect isn't ideal - but given good conditions this entire face could be opened up.

No recorded winter lines at present.  And only two summer rock climbs (on Mauvais Pas buttress; not indicated on images below)

North of summit:
Yellow line is the gully dropping from the Mauvais Pas.  Dark red line variations on the longest route would, I imagine, increase the grade

Summit area:
Steepest section of the face.  Dark red line looks difficult.  L of this - I imagine a strong climber will see something futuristic here.  Primary red line looks like a great route to the summit.  If cold enough later this season, I'm going for a look.  The triple-tiered slabs just to the L at the base of this line are an obvious feature when under the face.  Light brown line(s) could be used as descents

Short gully climb.  Rock rib to its L could prove interesting

OK, back to route photos:

Pulling up the N ridge

Vapour trail & plane over A' Chir's summit

The Rosa Pinnacle takes a bite out of the A' Chir ridge

Almost at the summit of the N ridge

More shots of A' Chir.  Summit area
S section

N section

Atop the N ridge

Mist moves in

Beinn Tarsuinn summit, looking down the gully

Beinn Tarsuinn - or the Alps?!

Narrow section on the ridge

Yip - narrow today!  I've seen it narrower, but this is relatively narrow.  In exceptional conditions this forms into a knife-edge snow arete

The Old Man keeps a watchful eye over the Ealta Choire

Looking back along the narrow section of ridge.  If you've only ascended Tarsuinn in summer, this image will likely surprise!  It could easily be a shot from the Mittellegi Ridge

Heading along to Nuis

Looking back to the summit of Tarsuinn; Meadow face on the far R

Beinn Nuis summit

Nuis-Tarsuinn ridge from the summit of Nuis

Descent slope, looking to Pt.670m 

Quick look back to Nuis

A' Chir & Cir Mhor

Beinn a Chliabhain, Goatfell beyond

Descending to the deer fence

Goatfell looking resplendent beyond the deer fence/gate

Glen Rosa

Leaving Glen Rosa

Heading for the ferry

Back in Ardrossan; half the day left!  However, in an attempt to stave off the flu it was straight home and into bed!

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