Scotland's Mountain Ridges

Review by planetFear
Monday 27th March 2006

Scotland's Mountain Ridges, by Dan Bailey
Cicerone Press, 2006, £17.95

‘Ridges are epic. Graceful carved walkways
slung between summits... these can be
the most beautiful of mountain landforms.’

So states the cover to Cicerone’s new guide to the ridges of Scotland. And I agree! Whenever we look at a chiselled mountain, isn’t it the ridges we see first? Isn’t it they that define its shape and constrain its faces, however dramatic?

The human eye is very good at picking out lines. Lines not only form the boundaries between different ‘things’, but they also suggest movement, a passage, a way through. It’s no coincidence that climbers refer to a ‘good line’, and I doubt I’m alone in my preference for a bold line over a bold climb. A ridge is the epitome of line and there’s little so satisfying as climbing the airy ramp of a mountain shoulder, poised between light and shade, with dizzying drops and wildly contrasting views on either side.

‘We all live on a metaphorical knife-edge; sometimes it’s
instructive to be reminded of that fact by pitting ourselves
against the real thing.’

These are Dan Bailey’s words, author of Scotland’s Mountain Ridges. I only had to flick through this inspiring guidebook and already I’m planning my next trip to the Highlands. The 256-page guide describes in detail 48 of the grandest ridge climbs in Scotland - from well-known classics on Ben Nevis, to the remote and unfrequented Beinn Lair. ‘There’s something special about every featured route, be it beautiful line, quality climbing or beautiful location,’ states the author. But note we’re talking about climbs, not walks; everything here is at least a graded scramble, and with rock routes from Mod to VS and winter from I to III. ‘This is a mountaineer’s guide.’

Each ridge is graded for both summer and winter conditions (where reasonable), and has a useful OS Landranger map snippet as well as tabulated logistical stuff - such as distance, ascent in metres, estimated time, start and finish points, maps, accommodation and public transport. The ridges are grouped by region: Arran and the Southern Highlands, Lochaber, Cairngorms, North and West Highlands, Skye and Rum. A map at the front of the book shows these areas.

In benign conditions most of the ridges described can be completed in a day, but as some involve distances of over 30km there are suggested doss spots (bivvies, wild camping, bothies). Each ridge route is broken down into Approach, Climb, and Descent. There is information on possible continuations and variations; and for the climbs, as opposed to scrambles, each route is described pitch by pitch. On the OS map extracts, the line of each route is clearly marked - and colour coded to differentiate ‘walk’ from ‘climb/scramble’.

The book strides that tricky gap between walking/scrambling guides and full-on climbing guides. But it also poses the old question: when exactly does scrambling become climbing? We’ve all been caught out in the mountains on something ‘easy’, that in deteriorating conditions has quickly become a roped-up nightmare! Aiming at a mid-grade market, this book could appeal to anyone; the tone is very much on experiencing freedom and enjoyment in the hills. ‘It’s hard to imagine routes more entertaining than the ones detailed in this book.’ Dan Bailey’s writing is lighthearted though thoughtful throughout.

At the back of the guide there is a useful Route Summary Table, listing all the ridges in ascending order of technical difficulty. Overall there are:

12 scrambles (graded 1 to 3)
2 scramble/climbs (graded Mod)
19 climbs (graded Mod to VS)
15 winter routes (graded I to III)

A couple of small gripes: Whilst the overall map of Scotland showing the various regions is useful, it would be far more reader-friendly to show (a) quick-reference page numbers for each area, and (b) the location of the routes themselves, perhaps on separate maps.

The guide measures 24cm by 17cm and is packed with photos. There’s a whole variety of shots here, from Foto Friday winners ;-) to really amateur snaps. This variety is hardly surprising considering some of the unfrequented subject matter, and certainly doesn’t detract. Anyway, if I want to see what a route is really like, it’s heart-warming to see the odd picture of someone like me struggling up it in the rain, or in a headnet!

This ‘honest’ guide will always be within reach on my bookshelf. While it doesn’t yell out high grades and extreme difficulties, it does take you aside and say: Look, here’s a bunch of awesome ridges with some of the most exhilarating routes in Britain - and they’re fun. So go and enjoy them!

I think I will!

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