A blast of winter at Loch Lochy

December 10, 2018 0 By NatalieM
A blast of winter at Loch Lochy

It’s been a week when my energies were low. I’ve had spiralling home costs due to various problems: roof leaks, central heating malfunctions – just one barely affordable thing after another.

Things came to a head last Monday, when I learned that I will need a new boiler. I got the letter telling me this just as I was heading out on a trip to Fort William with a friend, to climb two Munros near Loch Lochy. We’d decided to stay in a hostel overnight, as sunset would be at 3.45pm, so we’d need a very early start for our walk.

Money worries always hit the emotions hard, and emotional issues have a knock-on physical effect. So I wasn’t at my best on Tuesday, when we did our walk. I wasn’t ill, but I felt more sluggish than usual, and a bit moody.

Weather forecast fail

In addition, the weather wasn’t looking great, and we had a few concerns about whether it was even safe to do the walk. One of the challenges of winter walking is that the weather is more changeable than normal at this time of year. We’d decided to take the time off to do the walk because the weather forecast was looking great – two days of bright sunshine. But as the days went on, the bright sunshine forecast dwindled to one day, and that day was pulled forward to Monday, instead of Tuesday and Wednesday, as initially forecast.

Crampons and winter boots: great in snow, but heavy on non-snowy terrain.

We couldn’t change our schedule, as the hostel was already booked – and in any case, both of us had other plans for Monday. This is always a possibility with Scottish weather, so we weren’t too disappointed. However it meant that we had to bring lots of extra gear, just in case it was needed: winter boots, crampons, ice axes, and also microspikes which can be worn with non-winter boots.

This hillwalk has a long walk-in at a low level, and winter boots tend to be very uncomfortable on flat, well-surfaced roads. It was the kind of weather where it was difficult to tell how high the snowline might be. The forecast put the freezing level at 900m, and the mountains we were planning to climb were only just over 900m. Should we take our crampons?

Crampons have to be worn with stiff winter boots. Microspikes are like smaller versions of crampons. The spikes don’t extend as far through the snow and ice as crampons. They are fine for giving you traction in icy conditions, but if there’s any danger that you could be swept down a steep slope or over an edge, crampons are essential. I’ve been known to take along two pairs of boots on some hikes – my stiff, heavy winter boots for the frozen sections and a lighter pair for the lower paths.

This Steemit post from 11 months ago describes what it’s like to be swept over a steep icy slope. I think it’s one of the great under-rated Steemit posts, and it’s well worth a read.

This map shows our route: a 6km walk along relatively flat ground, and then two steep ascents up each mountain. 

I really didn’t feel in the mood to carry an extra pair of boots with me to the Loch Lochy Munros last Tuesday. I considered wearing the lighter pair on the long walk in and then leaving them at the foot of the hills, but that would mean carrying my heavy winter boots on my back for 12km. It was a gamble, and we decided to just go with the lighter boots and microspikes. If we got to the foot of the mountains and found there was more snow and ice than expected, we would just have to cut our trip short.

To get to the start of the walk, we had to drive up the main A82 road to the northern end of Loch Lochy, and then drive back along the other side of the loch, on a single-track road. Finding the small car park and then parking in pitch darkness was not easy, but at least there was no ice on the road.

Tight schedule

We set off at a brisk pace, hoping to get back to the car by 3pm, as we were both going to the annual Winter Safety Lecture by Heather Morning in Glasgow that evening, and it was due to start at 7pm. Glasgow was a three-hour drive away.

After walking along a tree-lined road for about three kilometres, a narrower path led off from the right, up a very steep incline through a forest. The gradient levelled out considerably after about 100m of ascent, and the path led up through a valley. This marks the track of an old “Coffin Road”, a route that crofters used to carry their dead to the Kilfinnan graveyard.

Eventually the Cam Bealach came into view. This is the lowest point between the two mountains we were going to climb that day, Sron a’Choire Ghairbh (937m) and Meall na Teanga (918m). It was a welcome sight, but it actually looked a lot closer than it really was – it took us another 30 minutes or so before we actually reached it.

The Cam Bealach, the lowest point between the two mountains we were going to climb.

I was really tiring by now, and my backpack felt very heavy. I decided to take out my flask of soup and my green smoothie to reduce the weight. It was only 9.30am, a long time before lunch, and I kept a sandwich with me just in case anything went wrong.

My friend Nicky taking a photo of the Cam Bealach. It was bleak!

Nicky spotted a small herd of deer watching us from the slopes of Sron a’Choire Ghairbh. They kept watching us as we got closer and closer to the bealach, and it was only when we were almost directly below them that they moved away. They must have been wondering what we were up to!

We decided to climb the bigger of the two mountains first, Sron a’Choire Ghairbh (Nose of the Rough Corrie). There’s a good zig-zagging stalker’s path covering most of the steep 300m of ascent. From a distance it looks precariously steep, but it’s actually quite easy to walk on.

Path zig-zagging up the south-facing flank of Sron a’Choire Ghairbh.

When we reached the ridge of Sron a’Choire Ghairbh there was clag (heavy mist) everywhere. We should have seen breathtaking views over the enormous corrie and lochan, but there was nothing but mist – and it was very cold. We were just able to see the southern shoulder of the mountain to the right, dusted with snow.

The southern shoulder of Sron a’Choire Ghairbh.

It was an easy walk to the summit cairn from there.

Me at the summit of Sron a’Choire Ghairbh: Munro no. 101.

Even with just a light dusting of snow, cornices were already starting to form along the edge of the ridge. It made me think how treacherous this mountain could be in deeper snow and with poorer visibility. At least we could clearly see where the edge was!

A chilly lunch

We made our way back down to the bealach and had some food. Even though we were in quite a sheltered spot, the westerly wind was whipping through the bealach, and I kept my gloves off a little too long in order to eat my soup. By the time we were moving on to the second mountain of the day, Meall na Teanga (hill of the tongue), my fingers were numb with cold.

I put on my big winter gloves, but it took ages for my fingers to thaw. It was my own stupid fault for not putting my gloves on earlier. I kept having to stop and hold my hands down, shaking them about to warm up. I felt a bit cold and miserable.

I noticed that Nicky, who was up ahead, was talking to someone. We’d spotted another car in the tiny car park, and had wondered if anyone else was on the hill. It turned out to be a man who was camping at an altitude of 700m in the bealach between a smaller mountain called Meall Dubh, and Meall na Teanga. He was tall and slim, and looked to be in his late 50s. He had camped the night before and he was planning to camp there for a second night, to photograph the sunset.

He had an English accent. I wondered if he’d also been fooled by the excellent weather forecast for the Tuesday and Wednesday, and had decided to take a short break in Scotland. I wish I’d asked him, but my fingers were just starting to thaw painfully, and I felt too uncomfortable to talk much.

A very cold, bleak and isolated campsite!

The man, whose name we didn’t get, had climbed Meall na Teanga and was now about to make his way up Sron a’Choire Ghairbh. We said our goodbyes and headed up towards Meall na Teanga.

It was much more snowy and icy than Sron a’Choire Ghairbh. We soon found ourselves trudging through deep snow.

“View” up to Meall na Teanga. 

Despite the low cloud, our way was clear, and we were soon at the summit plateau. I noticed that cornices were starting to form, and I felt that I would not want to be on the top of this mountain in very deep snow and poor visibility. You would have to be very certain of your navigation skills to  know which bit was the ridge and which was the cornice!

We were very happy to reach the summit. My balaclava was a bit wonky, because my hands had been so cold I didn’t want to take off my gloves to adjust it!

At the summit of Meall na Teanga.

As we approached the bealach on the way back down, we marvelled again at the man who was about to bed down for a second night 700m up in the cold Loch Lochy hills, just above the “Coffin Road”. With the sun going down at 3.45pm, it would be a long night, and there probably wouldn’t be any stars.

The view down to the bealach with Meall Dubh.
Closer view of Meall Dubh, showing the position of the tent. 

Once back at the track, we belted back to the car as quickly as we could, hoping to get there by 3pm. We actually made it by about 3.15, but we needed to get changed and have some refreshment before hitting the road. I had a flask of tea and some chocolate tiffin, providing caffeine and energy for the three-hour drive back to Glasgow.

As I sipped my tea, I could hear a shepherd bellowing aggressively at some sheep. It sounded quite scary! Effective though. After about 10 minutes, a herd of 30 or 40 sheep thundered past my car, followed by a couple of sheepdogs. The dogs were followed by a farmer on a tractor. He was slightly built with wispy grey hair and a friendly expression, quite an unexpected figure after the loud bellowing voice! He asked us if we’d been climbing the hills, and then said, “There’s a man who’s staying out there for two nights.” We said we’d met him, and we guessed from his line of questioning that there weren’t many people passing through the area at this time of year. I said, “It must have been difficult here last winter.”

“Oh aye,” he replied, shaking his head. “Very difficult. Last year was a bad winter, very bad.”

Beautiful scenery, but a tough place to live in winter.

It’s not easy to make a living as a sheep farmer these days. Farms in such isolated beauty spots can look idyllic, but the reality of life there must be very tough in the long, hard winters. There are some holiday cottages there, but when the single-track road is frozen, I wonder how many people would make the journey.

Knowing my limits

As we drove back to Glasgow in the dark, I said to Nicky, “That walk would be the limit of technicality that I’d be prepared to do in terms of winter walking, until I build up more experience, especially with navigation.”

It wasn’t that I felt unprepared. I had enjoyed the walk, but it made me even more aware of what can potentially go wrong when walking in ice and snow.

When we got back to Glasgow and Heather Morning spoke about the five tragic deaths in the first few months of this year caused by cornice collapse, it reinforced my thoughts on this matter. And when I posted photos of our walk on Facebook, one of my climbing friends wrote, “I nearly died on those hills.”

I said I would ask her for the full story next time I see her. 

If I don’t get views from the summit of a hill, I make a point of climbing it again, and I can’t wait to climb these two mountains again. But I’ll probably do it on a nice summer day!