Nice day for a White Bagging - Drumochter whiteout
by Graeme D » Tue Dec 22, 2009 11:04 pm
Munros included on this walk: Beinn Udlamain, Sgairneach Mhor
Corbetts included on this walk: The Sow of Atholl
Date walked: 20/12/2009
Time taken: 8 hours
Distance: 18 km
Ascent: 1020mRegister or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Kevsbald had expressed an interest in coming along as well, and we had settled on a couple of possible route options that would keep us all happy (Bynack More? Something in the Monadhliath?). In the end however, Kev had to pull out. Ah well, **** happens, as Kev himself might say. So our preferred option became Sgairneach Mhor and Beinn Udlamain, with the Corbett the Sow of Atholl thrown in for good measure. Neither Darren nor I had done these hills before and it was a choice that appealed more as the week wore on and it became clear that some minor routes may well be blocked by the weekend if the forecast was to be believed - the road in to Meall Ghaordaidh via Glen Lyon certainly didn't look so promising. Still, I'm sure friends and family thought we had both taken leave of our senses to be considering going out when the forecast was predicting severe snow storms but we held our nerve and stuck to our guns. So, by 5.45 on Sunday morning, the kettle was boiling for coffee and I was gathering my bits and pieces together ahead of Darren's arrival at 6.15. A text message from him duly arrived informing me that he had experienced "issues" whilst trying to extricate his car from his ice-bound driveway and was consequently running 15 minutes behind schedule.
We made good progress up the very quiet A9 in pitch darkness and it was only really beyond Blair Atholl as we increased in altitude towards Drumochter summit that the carriageway began to become increasingly blanketed in a dusting of snow. Time wore on but still the daylight didn't come! It was absolutely pitch black - was the sky so heavy with snow that the daylight had been completely blocked out? This didn't look too promising! It's a bit freaky the way a road that you know so well can suddenly appear so alien and unfamiliar. We were reduced to paying careful attention to the lay-by numbers for some sort of fix on exactly where we were. Number 77 went by - nearly there now. 79 would probably be next on the north bound side, and it was..... and we missed it in the gloom! Darren pulled into the next lay-by, just a couple of hundred yards further on and prepared to do a U-turn....which begged the question "Do either of us know whether this is a dual-carriageway section or not?" The whiteout conditions had completely bamboozled us and so we had to sit and try and remember when the last time was that we met a car coming towards us! To be honest, we hadn't seen much coming towards us for a while apart from snowflakes! What the hell we thought, there's nothing on the road and it's only a couple of hundreds yards back to lay-by 79! However, as Darren edged the car back out onto the carriageway, we saw the green sign on the southbound side indicating that this was indeed a single carriageway stretch. Phew! Lay-by 79 was barely recognisable as a lay-by thanks to a considerable blanket of snow piled up in it. We pulled in and jumped out of the car - what were we doing here?! The darkness was only just giving way to a murky light and the snow was pelting down.
We jumped back into the car and sat in silence for a while contemplating our next move. We seriously thought about giving it a miss and heading back south. I had anticipated this eventuality and come prepared with a range of alternative OS maps. We both felt fairly comfortable about heading out onto the hills but less confident about the possible state of the road when we got back at the end of the day. As things got ever lighter outside, we decided to go for it - we were sure we could at least grab the Corbett before reassessing the situation from up top.
In all the drama and confusion, we had failed to see the entry to the service road immediately to the north of the lay-by. I had also somehow just assumed that it would be further south, so we headed off south down the A9 carriageway - it was still eerily quiet and any traffic that was coming towards us was going at a snail's pace, so it was probably a better choice than the service road anyway.
After a couple of hundred yards we jumped over the crash barrier and negotiated our way down the slope through knee deep snow towards the bridge under the railway, disturbing a group of local sheep who had obviously spent the night sheltering under the bridge. The next challenge involved getting ourselves across the river, especially difficult given how hard it was to decide exactly where the ground ended and the water started!
After a little bit of splashing about in the icy water, we were across and started heading directly up the north east slopes of the Sow of Atholl. It was hard going in places with deep powdery snow lying on top of the heathery slopes and the spindrift swirling around us, but we were increasingly rewarded with expansive views back down to the Drumochter Pass and across the surrounding hills. It looked at this early stage like we were going to really strike it lucky with the weather and the light on the hills to the north was especially stunning.
We reached the summit for about 10am and were greeted with stunning views all around – Schiehallion to the south, Beinn a Ghlo to the south-east, the Monadhliath to the north and nearer to us, the next two targets, Sgairneach Mhor and Beinn Udlamain.
We hung around for about 10 minutes at the summit enjoying the views before heading west towards the first Munro of the day. The western slopes of the Sow of Atholl soon drop steeply into the steep sided valley between the Corbett and the 758 feet knoll and we are faced with a choice of which way to head.
We head south to the broad bealach before turning west and ploughing through more deep snow covered heather up the broad ridge of Sgairneach Mhor. The going gets easier as we climb higher towards the lip of the Coire Creagach, from where it is a straightforward walk up to the trig point.
We both break out the flasks of hot juice at the summit before taking stock of the situation. The weather has really closed in now – the summits of Beinn Udlamain and A’ Mharconaich come in and out of focus every few seconds, but to be honest they are more out of rather than in focus.
As we head south west down the gentle slopes towards the bealach at the head of Coire Dhomhain the storm is getting into full swing and we are walking headlong into driving snow. Darren has to resort to the snow goggles but my sunglasses somehow don’t quite do the job! Mental note – please Santa, can I have a pair of snow goggles this year? I soon have to abandon the sunglasses and resort to shielding my eyes as best I can with my hands. The broad bealach offers some brief shelter from the storm before we have to tackle the south ridge of Beinn Udlamain. The ridge is broad enough that it has gathered enough snow to make the going difficult but at least it is a straightforward case of following the fence posts right to the summit cairn. Not for the first time today I stumble and fall as my eyes and my mind start to play tricks on me – the problem is that there is absolutely no frame of reference at all for distance or contour. Everything is white and starting to swim before my eyes.
As the ridge begins to flatten off, things close in completely to and we can see absolutely nothing at all. At one point Darren said it looked like I was floating in thin air. We stop and double check the map which confirms that the fence posts of the old boundary line continue all the way to and over the summit and that there are fortunately no crags or cliffs to fall over in the immediate vicinity. We decide to play safe and proceed by "steering" in a line and fortunately most of the fence posts are still there and loom out of the whiteness on the bearing we are following. We soon arrive at what appears to be the sprawling broken down summit cairn lying buried under snow but given the total whiteout conditions, we are not entirely sure that this is actually the summit. We take a quick look at the map again and decide to continue on the same bearing for another 100 metres or so – if we start to descend without having come across the summit, then this large pile of buried stones and buckled fence posts must be the summit. Right on cue, the ground starts to fall away and the fence posts soon start to curve to the right as expected. We had thought about playing things safe and retracing our steps down the south ridge to the bealach at the top of Coire Dhomhain but buoyed by the recent turn of events, we decide to continue on towards the bealach with A’ Mharconaich before cutting down towards the track in the bottom of the coire.
Our descent down the slopes could best be described as a “controlled tumble” and it is with considerable relief that we reach the relatively easy going on the track. Even then, it is still tough through several feet of snow in places and it is practically dark by the time the line of the A9 comes into view. We decide on a direct route to the car, up a steep embankment before showing flagrant disregard for the countryside code by clambering over a fence and onto the service road. From here is should just be a case of turning left and following the road up to the A9. Suddenly Darren takes a tumble after stumbling over the railway tracks! Holy **** – we’re on the railway! Just as well it is covered in deep snow and there are unlikely to be any trains happening along. We hurry off the tracks and over another fence on to the service road before traipsing up onto the A9.
The state of Darren’s car tells us just how much snow has fallen down at this level during the day and we have to use or feet to clear a path out of the lay-by. As we are clearing the snow the Inverness train speeds by on the railway just below us! Ooops!!!
After a fair bit of revving, Darren finally manages to coax the car out onto the carriageway but it is a slow 30mph single file crawl back to Perth, taking nearly 2.5 hours for what should have been a 1 hour journey at most. Still, things could have been worse – we could have been spending our Sunday evening sitting at a standstill on the north bound carriageway…….
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by Alan S » Tue Dec 22, 2009 11:34 pm
well done to both of you for managing anything in that weather
How did Darren mangage to get the car out of that
by Stretch » Wed Dec 23, 2009 1:20 am
- mountain coward
by Paul Webster » Wed Dec 23, 2009 9:52 am
Scary about the train!
by John Burgess » Wed Dec 23, 2009 10:14 am
And a really gripping report - thanks
All the best,
by Graeme D » Wed Dec 23, 2009 10:49 am
mountain coward wrote:Ah - I see the Drumochter hills are nicely covered again
That's one way of putting it MC! We cut round the steepest sections of descent and reascent and headed down towards the Allt Coire Luidhearnaidh before bearing west up to SM.
Stretch wrote:We did the four munros in early Nov. after a small snow and crossing the stream was a bit iffy to say the least. My mate ended up testing out his waterproof trousers the hard way
Managed to get across the river without such a major incident by choosing our spot carefully and effective use of poles/axes, but the boots still got a soaking. They were OK after that but totally inundated by the end of the day - they had just been totally overwhelmed by sheer weight of snow all day and couldn't cope any more.
by kevsbald » Wed Dec 23, 2009 11:34 am
However, I am sure the more adverse a day on the hill is, the more enjoyable it becomes - you masochists!
Well done Graeme and Curlywurly - the sense of excitment, trepidation and palpable relief comes through nicely. Hopefully see you guys in January.
by Nicla » Wed Dec 23, 2009 12:02 pm
by davetherave » Thu Dec 24, 2009 9:43 am
End of Nov we got the 4 munros and the Sow of Atholl bagged.
Then 2nd week in Dec we got the 2 on the East of the pass done and An Dun complete, this was a long day but we had good conditions.
by Graeme D » Sun Jan 17, 2010 8:47 pm
- Summit of the Sow - looking south to Schiehallion
- Sgairneach Mhor in background
- Sgairneach Mhor trig point
- Dodgy descent from Udlamain
by Paul Webster » Sun Jan 17, 2010 8:53 pm