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When is a mountain summit cairn not a summit marker?

Written by Fiona

February 18 2019

This weekend I was delighted to tick off two new Corbetts, Geal-charn Mor and The Fara in the Cairngorms. But then I discovered I will have to revisit The Fara. Here is the story.

At the top of The Fara, having battled wet and windy weather, hubby G, Rob and I reached a large cairn. We touched the top and looked around to make sure we were at the highest point.

We looked down on a tor (a rocky outcrop) some 50m south-west. We asked each other if it seemed lower. It did. We could not see any higher ground or higher rocks.

We checked the OS map, looked up the Walk Highlands website and then checked again. We did this electronically by GPS app on a phone.

Everything pointed towards us being at the 911m summit.

The original plan had been to head along he ridge on a south-westerly direction to make a long walk of this mountain but the wind was in our faces and we decided to retreat on almost the same route of ascent.

We were pleased we had made it to the top in difficult conditions.

But then I posted a photo of us on that cairn on social media and I had a few comments questioning if we had gone to the “true summit”.

A cairn marks the top? Nope!

The true summit of The Fara

Rob and I did some further checking. We looked again at Walk Highlands, checked the SMC Corbetts book and the map and all seemed fine.

A more specific Google search: “Is the cairn on the summit of The Fara” revealed a seemingly obscure report by The Munro Society. It was obscure to me because I had never thought to ask the question.

It turns out that in 2010 a survey of The Fara concluded that the aforementioned tor was the highest point. This is an extract from the survey:

we set about the first task of identifying the highest and therefore the true summit of the mountain. Since the large boulder by the cairn protrudes above the summit of the foundation and above the base of the cairn itself, we determined it very unlikely that there was a portion of the underlying natural rock formation protruding into it that could be higher than the boulder.

“The outcrop, if indeed natural, formed the base for the foundation and was only visible in the lower parts of the structure.  However, it would be a major task to dismantle the cairn to prove unequivocally that this was the case and it was not considered practicable or even desirable to attempt to do so.

“Next, the level was set up at a convenient point where all the potential summit features could be seen and the staff was placed on each of them in order to determine the highest.

“It may be seen from measurements that the summit of The Fara, noting the caveat above, is the rock tor that lies 100m SSW of the main cairn.  This is 0.17m higher than the boulder adjacent to the main cairn and 0.29m higher than the small cairn that lies 25m NW of the main cairn.”

Gahhhhhh!

Both Rob and I are rather miffed. (Hubby G just shrugged his shoulders because he is happily ticking off Munro round number two and not concerned with Corbetts.)

I have sat in the “eye” on the Cobbler but not climbed to the top of that rocky outcrop.

A cairn but not a summit

It now seems likely that we did not reach the true summit as detailed by The Munro Society and therefore the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

I asked around some learned mountain baggers, including Anne Butler. She says that it’s the resurveying of Scottish mountain summits that can be a “total pain”. She adds that aside from the Munros, there is a lot of “fiddling about with summit locations”.

Anne says: “Up until the survey [of The Fara] most people thought the cairn was the high point so l suspect a large majority of Corbett completers haven’t been to the true summit.

“I also went only to the cairn the first two times on The Fara as this was the OS map summit and the guidebook one as well.

“When any survey is performed, the OS have to ratify the data. If they agree with it then they will change the summit location or height only the next time the digital or paper maps are printed.

“It could be that your map is out of date.”

Anne now makes sure that she checks with the website, hill-bagging.co.uk, when climbing anything except Munros and a hill lists app on iPhone, which gives 10 figure grid references.

There are a number of other tricky summit locations. For example, the Munros Beinn Dorain , Ben Vorlich (both of them), Slioch, The Saddle and Spidean Mialach to name a few. It can be easy to get confused when there is a cairn marking one high point and then a rocky outcrop at, perhaps, another high point.

In poor weather, you can hunt around for ages trying to find the highest point on a summit. I am sure most Munro and Corbett baggers have been in this situation at least a few times.

What is frustrating for us on The Fara is that we would normally wander across the summit and, if the weather had been better, we planned to traverse the ridge in a south-westerly direction and, presumably, we would have bumped into that tor.

Now the question is, can we count this Corbett as being bagged?

Is this the elusive top of The Fara? I found this photo by Nic Bullivant on the website www.themountainguide.co.uk

Re-walking The Fara

I think probably not. It will nag away at me – and I know I now have to return to see where we made the error of judgement.

I emailed Walk Highlands and they have now changed the description of the true summit of The Fara so hopefully fewer people will make the same error.

Also, in the course of the discussion with others about summits, it turns out I will need to re-summit another Corbett, The Cobbler. I have been to the top of the mountain many times but I have never “threaded the needle” through the rocks at the top, nor have I scrambled up on to the top of the rocky outcrop. I had no idea, until today, that I was required to do so to claim that Corbett.

I mean, how many people have climbed to the top of the bolster stone on the Cuillin Munro, the Inaccessible Pinnacle? As Anne says: “The In Pinn is another grey area. It is clearly the high point but how many actually climb to the top? I have scrambled up the top of the boulder below it and touched the top but l am certainly not climbing up it.”

At the end of the day, we all have parameters that we follow when ticking off Munro and Corbett summits. Anne’s excellent and interesting article highlights some of this.

What are your thoughts? Have you been caught out by difficult summit markers?

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