Friday, 30 April 2010

The Ascent of the Dragon's Tooth

Beinn a' Bheithr--mountain of the monster--dominates the western end of Glen Coe and dwarfs the village of Ballachulish that cowers at its foot. I have climbed the easternmost and highest peak of this mountain, Sgorr Dhearg, more than once although I have always missed out the slightly lower westerly Munro of the chain, a peak known as Sgorr Dhonuill. This mountain rises up at the head of Gleann a' Chaolais above a strath filled with forest, but in front of the peak itself, arresting the eye and inspiring the imagination, is the jutting pinnacle known as the Dragon's Tooth.

The Dragon's Tooth (also known as Sgorr a' Chaolais) is of modest height but is a precipitous peak in its own right, a jagged northern spur of the main mountain bulk. It is named after the dragon of legend said to once inhabit the high coire. An ascent of the Dragon's Tooth, followed by Sgorr Dhonuill, is something I have considered for some time but never got round to doing.

With a mediocre forecast, Isi and I decided against going to the Buachaille although as it happened the weather turned out quite fine. The walk-in through the forest, initially on a good road, was very pleasant and made a gentle introduction to the wonders of Gleann a' Chaolais, perhaps the most picturesque of the valleys hereabouts. Soon, however, we departed from the road and struck off through the trees, and this was where the adventure began.

The path leading into the high coire began innocently enough, but soon we found ourselves battling through humid vegetation and thick mud beside a burn crashing in high falls through the forest. The pungent smell of wet vegetation and loam dominated the senses. Our battle through the jungle climaxed with a ridiculous scene in which we were forced to climb through a tree in order to avoid a deep quagmire!

As suddenly as we had entered this arboreal underworld, we broke out into open moorland and were confronted with our first close view of our objective. The Dragon's Tooth divides the upper coire in two, and our route lay on the rightmost of two rocky spurs coming down from the bottom of the hill.

The spur proved to be highly vegetated, quite possibly the most vegetated route I have ever done! Luxurious heather and moss growth carpeted the entire route although some rock steps were more or less clear of vegetation (these proved to be slimy and loose). Nothing too hard although a couple of steep steps did require thought. Certainly not a place for a novice scrambler, given the impossibility of safeguarding passage with a rope.

After the spur, we climbed a long grass slope interspersed with little granite outcrops: these provided some lighthearted fun on the way up, trying to find the most difficult possible way up some 3m high crag! We eventually reached the summit of the Dragon's Tooth itself and here the character of the route changed. We now had to negotiate the narrow, twisting arete to Sgorr Dhonuill.

The arete was nowhere very difficult, but required constant attention thanks to the combination of (at times) breathtaking exposure and some suspect rock, although in general the rock was much better here in the open than on the dank lower ridge. Two pinnacles in particular required care to negotiate, with an improbable ledge traverse in descent, albeit with excellent holds. The final climb to the summit, up tilted slabs and granite ramps, was most enjoyable and perhaps had the most sound rock of the entire route.

We topped out to be greeted by a group of walkers who had come up the normal route. One of their number was determined to descend the arete to the Dragon's Tooth, and despite our warnings of slime and loose rock he proceeded confidently, no doubt a far more experienced mountaineer than either Isi or I.

After our visit to the summit (where a Brocken Spectre stubbornly failed to materialise), we continued over to Sgorr Dhearg and descended the N Ridge back to Ballachulish. All in all, an excellent day on a new hill with good company, although I am a little regretful that I didn't bring my camera, so have no photos of the climb.

For information. The ascent of the Dragon's Tooth, in summer conditions, is about Grade 2 in the standard scrambling system, roughly similar to the Aonach Eagach but shorter and more escapable. The rock quality is in general far poorer, however. In winter, the route is Scottish II but I suspect this involves avoiding the hardest sections.


  1. A wonderfully written little account that Alex, makes me want to get off my lazy behind and start doing something useful in the hills.

  2. Cheers Lauren! It was a good day, particularly after my long week at work since my last days off...