Liathach and An Teallach - back to back winter traverses!
by Riverman » Fri Mar 02, 2018 11:18 pm
Munros included on this walk: Bidein a'Ghlas Thuill (An Teallach), Mullach an Rathain (Liathach), Sgurr Fiona (An Teallach), Spidean a'Choire Leith (Liathach)
Date walked: 21/02/2018
Time taken: 25 hours
Distance: 32.3 km
Ascent: 3371m9 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
In mid-February, toying with the idea of a winter mountaineering trip to the Pyrenees or the Sierra Nevada, scouring the long range forecasts I noticed that winter conditions in Scotland promised to be pretty amazing from around the 20th onwards. So I contacted Martin Moran (whose winter mountaineer course had been my introductions to the Highlands in 2012) to investigate guiding possibilities on two big ridges I had in my sights: An Teallach and Liathach.
Fortuitously, I was able to tag onto the end of a course for the Wednesday and Thursday with other climbers who shared similar objectives. I could also get a day’s guiding with Martin for either the Friday or Saturday according to the conditions and my energy levels after the first two days. I quickly booked flights to Inverness via Amsterdam and set about packing my kit bag.
On arrival at Inverness airport on Tuesday I was pleasantly surprised to be offered a free upgrade to a swanky Mercedes estate by the kind fellow on the Europcar desk. Happy days. The drive over to Strathcarron in afternoon sunshine was a delight as far as the views went, although I had forgotten how bad the potholes were this far north west. I think since I was last in this neck of the woods 6 years ago the popularity of the NC500 has probably not done much for the state of the roads.
Wednesday 21st // Liathach traverse // 9.3km // 1372m ascent // 8 hr 29
We left Strathcarron at 0730 and assembled at the foot of Liathach around an hour later. There were five of us: Martin Moran, me and three more of Martin’s clients. Beginning the steep slog up towards a col at the eastern end of the ridge it was hard to imagine the alpine conditions that awaited us higher up. The glen and lower slopes had lost their snow during the thaw the previous weekend. However, there was (as we were to find out) plenty of snow left up top!
Sublime conditions on the Liathach traverse
It took around 3 and a half hours to reach the summit of the first munro, Spidean a’ Choire Leith. It was good to add another to my tally after such a long gap - although I do have the sense that I’m now cured of bagging fever. I still want to climb them all but I’m certainly not in a rush and some alpine objectives will inevitably take priority over the next few years. In 2014 the thought of not bagging a munro for two years would have been unconscionable but these days it doesn’t stress me in the least. They’ll get done eventually and in the meantime there are lots of other lumps of rock and ice to go play on.
Go west where the skies are blue!
The views from the summit were stupendous: nothing can compare to the magic of Torridon and its ancient giants tumbling into the sea. We saw a paraglider soaring above us who probably had an even better view. After a quick bite to eat we roped up, ready to take on the Pinnacles most of which was navigated by traversing on steep and exposed snow, though with some direct sections on the rock as well. This part of the day required real concentration and focus but we moved pretty efficiently for a rope of five. There was only one other party on the mountain, a pair who overtook us on the way up to the ridge and stayed ahead of us for the rest of the day - so we really had the mountain to ourselves.
Coire na Caime and Beinn Alligin beyond in the distance
After the physical and mental challenge of the Pinnacles it was nice to be off the rope for the stroll up to Mullach an Rathain which we reached in warm sunshine just after 3pm. Things would have been much chillier for climbing parties down in the north facing corries though. Another group of Martin’s clients were taking on a grade 3 route (George) and another team a grade 5 (Poacher’s Fall). I would certainly like to return to that side of the mountain in winter to attempt some of the well known routes there.
Easier ground but mind that cornice!
Approaching Mullach an Rathain
Our descent to the road took about two hours and we arrived just as the sun was dipping in the west beyond the furthest reaches of Loch Torridon. After two years away from Scotland I couldn’t have wished for a better day.
Looking back towards SCL and the Pinnacles
Thursday 22nd // An Teallach - central gully and traverse // 15km // 1299m ascent // 10hr 20
After Wednesday’s exertions on Liathach I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Coulags lodge and slept like a baby. However, we were up and on the move again by 0630h Thursday morning. Heading up towards Ullapool for An Teallach I realised I had never been this far north on the mainland before. Conditions were fair. Colder, cloudier and breezier than the day before but the tops were all clear and the visibility good.
Toll an Lochan - central gully visible just left of centre frame, leading directly to the low point on the ridge
It took us a couple of hours to reach the Toll an Lochain corrie. First we had to bushwhack through the rhododendrons near the road before a long and gentle climb up to the loch. The view that greeted us could only be described as majestic. Surely this is one of the finest mountain corries in Scotland? We headed further into the corrie above the frozen loch ready to rope up to climb a grade 1 gully onto the ridge. Before setting out, one of the team decided they would return to the car by a different route rather than join us on the traverse. They had been out every day since Sunday and were shattered so it was probably a good call as the next several hours would prove to be exhausting.
Let's be honest, it's not the worst view in Scotland is it?
Although central gully is only a grade 1 climb the slope was rock hard. Avalanches from a few days before had carved a smooth, hard piste of solid snow in the gully. As a rope of four we moved quite a long way up the steep gully simply moving together and didn’t need to establish a belay until quite close to the top. Martin then went ahead to find a safe route out of the gully, avoiding some of the enormous cornice at the rim but finding some hard ice near the top. All in all the climb took us about an hour and a half.
View from the base of the gully
It was at least another two and half hours (if not slightly longer) before we reached the summit of Sgurr Fiona. In terms of sheer physical effort required to gain a munro summit, I’ve probably only expended as much on Tower Ridge. The scrambling on An Teallach felt more serious than on Liathach. This could have been the conditions though - less sunshine and more wind makes everything feel a bit tougher on a ridge. We admired Lord Berkeley’s seat from below - no way were we heading up there today. We also got to peer down into Lord's gully, which was absolutely plastered with snow. Martin told me that the gully has been skied in the past - a terrifying thought!
Some decent exposure on the ridge
After the second, northerly munro, we began our descent down firm snow slopes that would presumably be pretty miserable, pathless going in summer conditions. We roped up for some of the descent which was steep. Happily I experienced no knee pain at all so those long walks in the Ardennes must be doing me some good. Nonetheless, hour after hour in crampons is hard work on the ankles and it was a massive relief to remove them at the base of the slope. Walking out we kept our helmets on though - a tired slip on rocky ground after a hard day up high would be all too easy.
Back at the lochan
From the shore of the lochan we had about another 90 minutes walk back to the car in fading light. Towards the end of the walk out I sensed moonlight beginning to light the way. However, for the last few metres through the rhododendron jungle head torches were definitely needed! Arriving at the car I felt tremendous. Back to back traverses of Liathach and An Teallach in perfect winter conditions! What more could a mountaineer want? Well, a slap up dinner and a drink perhaps? Happily both were on hand back at Coulags an hour or so down the road.
Saturday 24th // Blaven - Escape from Colditz // 8km // 700m ascent // 6 hr
I took Friday as a much needed rest day, driving over to Kyle for fuel and lunch and then snoozing for much of the afternoon. On Saturday morning Martin and I went over to Skye to tackle a grade 3 gully on Blaven called Escape from Colditz. Blaven was the second munro I ever climbed, back in October 2012. Today we wouldn’t be going to the top but up to around 700m after the climb. During our walk-in the coastguard helicopter circled several times above us. They appeared to be conducting a search although may just have been training.
A very pleasant walk in - our climb was around the first dark rocky patch after the snow starts at the very far left
Approaching the climb, obscured by the rocky buttress at left
Escape from Colditz is a grade three gully of about 60m length, so two pitches. Real hardcore winter climbers would laud the route but probably complain that it was too short. For me, a relative novice with two axes in hand and with some tired legs, it was a perfect day out. Climbing with an experienced and competent leader always gives you confidence. But the second still has to do the climb and I was determined to do it well and not have to rely on the rope. Happily I succeeded, though there was one tricky move on the first pitch and up on the second pitch my calves were screaming after so much time on my front points.
Martin leading the first pitch
A nice spot to sit and eat lunch after a fantastic climb
Topping out the views were mesmerising and any complaint from my calves was instantly banished by the view. What a spot to sit and eat your sandwiches. I love Skye. I’ve only been twice before and never in winter so this short day out at the end of my trip was a real treat. Earlier in the week, before I arrived in Strathcarron, other clients of Martin had been up Sgurr Nan Gillean and I would definitely love to try some of the climbs and scrambles on the main ridge in proper winter conditions. Who knows, maybe there’ll be an opportunity before this winter is out? I still have some days of holiday to use before the end of April and the way the weather has turned since my return to Brussels, I think this is going to be a long winter in Scotland.
Sea, snow and sunshine
All in all I had a fantastic four days in the North West Highlands. It was actually on one of Martin’s courses in 2012 that I enjoyed my first introduction to the Highlands having never walked or climbed anywhere in Scotland before. That trip in 2012 opened up a new world of adventure to me that I’m continuing to explore. Even though most of my time in Scotland has been spent below the Great Glen, this particular corner of the north west around Lochcarron and Skye will always feel like a kind of spiritual home to me. It’s where my mountain journey started in 2012 and for sheer wilderness and beauty it's pretty hard to beat.
by Alteknacker » Sat Mar 03, 2018 12:59 am
by Mal Grey » Sun Mar 04, 2018 8:59 pm
by weaselmaster » Sun Mar 04, 2018 9:09 pm
What a great choice of hills for the conditions...just fab
by gaffr » Mon Mar 05, 2018 9:10 am
by spiderwebb » Mon Mar 05, 2018 5:20 pm
by ancancha » Tue Mar 06, 2018 10:28 am
Very well written and photographed report
by Riverman » Tue Mar 06, 2018 1:58 pm
by dav2930 » Mon Mar 12, 2018 6:50 pm
Everyone I know who've done both in winter say An Teallach is the more serious of the two.
Karl and me were in Torridon a couple of weeks later, hoping to do the big three if conditions allowed. As it turned out we only managed Alligin and Eighe, plus Slioch, as there'd been too much fresh snow by the time the weather cleared enough to consider Liathach. We noticed Martin Moran's van parked outside the bunkhouse at Kinlochewe at one point.