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Into the Wild White West

Into the Wild White West

Postby joenorris » Fri Dec 14, 2012 3:59 pm

Munros included on this walk: Garbh Chioch Mhòr, Sgùrr na Cìche, Sgùrr nan Coireachan (Glen Dessary)

Corbetts included on this walk: Fraoch Bheinn, Sgùrr Mhurlagain

Date walked: 10/12/2012

Time taken: 30 hours

Distance: 38 km

Ascent: 2900m

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Having had a few great days out in the hills the last few winters, I was proper psyched when I heard the first reports of snow in the hills. I still had a few weeks of imprisonment left in the Midlands before I could come back and get out for some winter walking. I couldn't believe it, then, that the forecast for my first few free days was one of constant high pressure, no rain or snow and barely any wind. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get out and give my tent its first taste of winter, so I packed the car on Sunday night with a plan to camping at the western end of Loch Arkaig and spending a couple of days in the hills there.

I headed off fairly early on Monday morning, aiming to be walking by lunchtime up the two Corbetts north of Strathan - Fraoch Bheinn and Sgurr Mhurlagain. It was a new area to me - part of the reason I chose to head to Loch Arkaig was that I had an infinite number of route options as I had never walked there before. On the drive across I got a taste for what was in store for me in the coming days, with blue skies and white peaks seducing my eyes from the road.

The Ben

The view up Loch Arkaig

I eventually got to the end of the road having negotiated the endless single-track ice rink along the side of the loch. I set up camp, had a bite to eat, and had headed off by about 11.30.

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The view from the camp - Streap and Sgurr Thuilm.

The track from Strathan took a few turnings not marked on my 1976 OS map, so there was a bit of bog-hopping involved to get back on the right path. Nevertheless, I soon gained height and left the path to head up the S ridge of Fraoch Bheinn, with views to the south and east along the loch continuously opening up.

Looking south along the ridge

East to Sgurr Mhurlagain and along the loch

As I got higher up views began to open up to the north and west too - Sgurr Mor, one of my options for the following day, appeared, with the Knoydart peaks and Beinn Sgritheall emerging as well.

Sgurr Mor and the west

Druim a' Chuirn and the Sgurr na Ciche group

The summit appeared more quickly than I anticipated, obviously distracted by the cracking views. I had a leisurely lunch and glissaded back down part of the ridge before cutting off in the direction of Sgurr Mhurlagain.

Passing over the col between the two hills was simply a process of finding the shallowest snow possible, which I managed with only limited success. The ridge gave some nice walking on rocky ribs, however, and, just as the sun was beginning to disappear, I reached the top.

Sgurr Mor to Sgurr na Ciche

This was when I became grateful that I hadn't managed a particularly early start - the sunset over Streap and Sgurr Thuilm was pretty magnificent.


Sunset over Streap and Sgurr Thuilm

I rattled my way down the hillside, getting back to the track at the col and skidding my way down the frozen path back to Strathan. I managed to just beat the darkness back to camp, ready for a chilly 12 hours in the tent. (It turns out it hit -9C in the night - pure baltic!) The night sky from the glen was really incredible - the clarity of all the details was really quite amazing, with a few shooting stars adding nicely to the teatime atmosphere.

I had felt more fit than I expected having not properly been out in the hills for 4 months, so I decided I could be ambitious the following day, planning to take in the three Munros to the west - Sgurr nan Coireachan, Garbh Chioch Mhor and Sgurr na Ciche. The alarm was set for 4.15am and I conked out by 8pm.

In the morning the conditions in the glen had changed considerably - I woke up to find visibility reduced to a couple of metres in very thick fog, but still with no wind. I set off along Glen Dessary by 6am, with no sign of sunlight to appear for well over an hour.

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The atmosphere was really quite surreal - stags were occasionally calling out from the surrounding hillsides, and the fog still had my visibility down to five metres or so. I could hear the river gushing somewhere down to the left, but other than that there was an eerie silence. I worked out that I was approaching Upper Glendessary by hearing a strange rumbling sound that gradually increased in volume for about 5 minutes as I approached it. I assume it was a generator in the outbuildings, but it created a very spooky atmosphere around the empty house.

As I left the track at Upper Glendessary I emerged above the fog into warmer air - it seems a temperature inversion had formed overnight. Visibility began to improve once I was out of the fog, with the silhouettes of the surrounding peaks towering above me in the darkness. Perception of distance was impossible in the light - I couldn't tell if a silhouette was of a 1000m peak 5 miles away in Knoydart or of a small hummock 30 metres away.

I eventually stumbled upon the south ridge of Sgurr nan Coireachan just as daylight was beginning to emerge, and I began to get a sense of my surroundings. I could see the bank of fog from above now - it was only sitting above the eastern end of Glendessary but created a magnificent light carpet as the first hints of sunlight began to emerge.

SW from low on the ridge

I was walking by natural light by about 7.30am - it was still dark, but the clear sky made visibility surprisingly good. As I negotiated my way through the various crags on the ridge - with many of the nicely angled slabs covered in a sheet of black ice - the sun began to create some incredible effects on the surrounding landscape, with a brilliant contrast between the pinks and oranges of the sky and the white of the mountains.



The light emanating from beyond Gulvain

Views steadily opened up - Rum and Eigg to the west were to become a common view for the day.


Glencoe appeared on the horizon.


The Garbh Chioch Beag ridge looked enticing.



Finally, after two hours or so of anticipation, the sun emerged from behind Gulvain, casting all of the surrounding peaks in a dazzling bright white glow. I reached the summit ridge just as the sun appeared, perfect timing for the ideal breakfast.

South to the subsidiary summit

An Eag, Sgurr Mor and Sgurr an Fhuarain from the summit ridge, with Ben Tee on the horizon

North over the endless carpet of peaks

Today's targets - Garbh Chioch Mhor and Sgurr na Ciche, with the Black Cuillin in the haze

I could see everything: the steep arete of Liathach and the rest of Torridon to the north, the Applecross hills and as far as the Strathfarrar peaks to the north; the Monadhliath, Loch Lochy and Lochaber hills to the east; the hills on the islands and Knoydart, as well as a dominant Beinn Sgritheall, to the west; and the magnificent silhouettes of the Glenfinnan Munros and Streap to the south. What a panorama.

I set off after a while of absorbing the views and negotiated my way down steep slopes to the col before Garbh Chioch Beag. The going from here was tough - the thigh-deep snow and lack of path (or visible path) making every step an effort. At least navigation was straightforward - stay on the ridge. I resorted to balancing my way along the half-buried stone dyke which, with crampons on, wasn't the most graceful thing I've ever done. It did make progress much quicker though and eventually, knackered, I emerged on Garbh Chioch Mhor.

Back along the ridge, Garbh Chioch Beag with Sgurr nan Coireachan behind. (Note the Ben on the horizon).

The view to the west was astonishing - Sgurr na Ciche looked increasingly formidable as I got closer, and the view down Loch Nevis was fantastic.

Loch Nevis

The W end of the Bidean a' Chabhair ridge and Loch Nevis

Back to Sgurr Mor

On my way down to Feadan na Ciche I planned my route up Sgurr na Ciche. The guidebook had been suitably vague, relying on the reader just following the path, which obviously wasn't much help today, so I plotted a route up a series of ramps and ledges, scrambling up some parts of the central rib. It was all fairly straightforward, with the crisper snow here making walking much easier.

That trusty wall on the way down to the col

S from Feadan na Ciche

Sgurr na Ciche from the col

I was ahead of schedule when I reached the top, so took a while to have an early lunch and take in the stunning views.

West to Ladhar Bheinn and beyond

Loch Quoich and the melee beond

Loch Quoich and Sgurr Mor

Rum and Eigg

After tearing myself away from the cairn, I retraced my footsteps to the col and set off down the descent gully to the south. This gully was really cool - snow bridges between boulders and over streams needing a bit of care. There was the constant sound of falling ice, as the early afternoon sun began to melt some of the many icicles and wacky frozen formations.

Looking down the gully

Some lumpy, rounded stalagmites below a waterfall

Back up the gully

At the bottom of the gully I traversed below the south face of Garbh Chioch Mhor to the constant sound of falling ice and rock. It looked like a serious face - I wonder if anyone has climbed any mixed routes up there.

The S face of GCM

I met the path just below a small cairn, from where I could see quite how far I had to return. I took a last few moments to savour the views to the west before I left them, and the sunlight, behind.


The long way home

It was a freezing walk back along the glen, but it was interesting to see where I had walked in the pitch dark earlier that day - the generator was substantially less spooky when I could see it.

Mam na Cloich' Airde

Spot the face

Darkness gradually shrouded over me, with the bright whites of the snow turning dull and the sky turning gradually greyer and paler. The temperature inversion was still in place, so it was freezing down in the glen. There was no sign of anyone at A' Chuil bothy or in any of the various lodges along the track, though, so it was only me that felt the chill of Glendessary that day.

Looking back up to the heights

I eventually reached the car just as darkness properly fell, and the view of Streap and Sgurr Thuilm was strikingly different to the previous day.

Streap and Sgurr Thuilm from Strathan

What a couple of days it had been though - the Scottish hills at their very best.
Last edited by joenorris on Mon Dec 31, 2012 8:13 pm, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby doogz » Fri Dec 14, 2012 4:53 pm

Absolutely brilliant !!!

I done these with snow too ... But with someone to help break trail

On your own !! bravo
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby dawnfoth » Fri Dec 14, 2012 5:02 pm

Thoroughly enjoyed reading your report! Great photos - very jealous of the super weather you were treated to. Looks like you made the most of your time - Cheers :D
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby Gable Gable End » Fri Dec 14, 2012 5:31 pm

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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby The Rodmiester » Fri Dec 14, 2012 5:33 pm

Wow! what an adventure in the Scottish hills :D , Brilliant photographs and good read :D , thanks for sharing, I felt the cold in the tent, when reading this :clap:
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby brpro26 » Fri Dec 14, 2012 6:10 pm

Man that looked good. Best report I've read in a while...gets my vote this month. Doesn't get any better. :clap:
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby malky_c » Fri Dec 14, 2012 7:00 pm

Spectacular - perfect weather :D . Could be a potential report of the month for me. Wish I'd taken a day or two off this week now.

Did these Munros the first time in snow and ice, but had forgotten my axe and crampons. The ascent onto Garbh Chioch Mor from the Feadan na Ciche was a bit dicey.

Still trying to pluck up the courage to get the tent out in winter. Was going to have a go this weekend but weather and other things have conspired against me (reckon I would've found an excuse to cry off even in perfect conditions though) :? .
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby pigeon » Fri Dec 14, 2012 7:36 pm

Brilliant joe, :clap:
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby Lenore » Fri Dec 14, 2012 9:55 pm

Ooooh me like!!!
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby robertphillips » Fri Dec 14, 2012 11:09 pm

Excellent 8)

Great report enjoyed reading that, still to do those corbetts up that glen this winter. 8)
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby dunrig » Fri Dec 14, 2012 11:23 pm

wonderful-thats what we all want - blue skies and white peaks
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby Scotjamie » Fri Dec 14, 2012 11:40 pm

Stunning Joe - above and beyond!! :clap:
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby tamw51 » Sat Dec 15, 2012 5:00 pm

Absolute belter. Did the same round last November cracking day but no snow. What a day you had very jealous!
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby mrssanta » Sat Dec 15, 2012 6:31 pm

fantastic, I'm very jealous
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Re: Into the Wild White West

Postby wilkiemurray » Sat Dec 15, 2012 6:51 pm

loved the report and absolutely fantastic photos :clap: :clap:
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