Andrew Cubed - Full Winter Ullapool High Camp
by andygunn23 » Tue Mar 06, 2018 10:23 pm
Route description: Beinn Dearg - the Four Munros circuit
Munros included on this walk: Beinn Dearg (Ullapool), Cona' Mheall, Eididh nan Clach Geala, Meall nan Ceapraichean
Date walked: 03/02/2018
Time taken: 32.5 hours
Distance: 27 km
Ascent: 1789m25 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).
As I begin to write this, my 34th Walk Report, I would be happy to accept that I may never have a better all-round winter experience in the hills and I really hope this Walk Report can do it justice.
1. having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be.
"arguably the perfect weekend"
synonyms: ideal, model, without fault, faultless, flawless, consummate, quintessential, exemplary, best, best-example, ultimate, copybook
2. absolute; complete (used for emphasis).
"a perfect stranger"
synonyms: absolute, complete, total, real, out-and-out, thorough, thoroughgoing, downright, utter, sheer, consummate, unmitigated, unqualified, veritable, in every respect, unalloyed
Now the perfect outing means many different things to many different people. For some - wall-to-wall sunshine, for some - battling against all odds, most of my mates - many, many pints, and for me? Truthfully I have no idea but a good mixed bag has to be involved. Easy is unlikely to ever be my perfect outing and neither is a combination of numerous perfect elements. Perfect requires the not-so-good to emphasise the good. Make sense? No probably not. It (kind of) does to me.
Simply put the majority of the not-so-good was focused on the start of this outing so in an attempt to keep your interest for the duration of the report I will give you a brief glimpse into some of the very good and a first introduction to "Andrew Cubed".
Andrew Cubed, from left to right - Andrew, Andrew, Andrew.
Andrew, Andrew and I (Andrew), set off from Aberdeen at the crack of dawn, quite literally in the case - 06:10. Andrew (okay this may get confusing - middle (in the above photo) Andrew) was driving and Ullapool was our destination. Also worth mentioning now that all credit should go directly to middle Andrew for the title of this report.
Musky looking start just south of Ullapool
We set off from the car at 09:45 with numerous different plans for all occasions. As Andrew (left) and I (Andrew right) left work on Friday most of the office was aware of our plan to camp at ~850m in the depth of winter. This was mainly due to other colleagues spreading news how stupid we were . Although it was my, actually all of our, first attempted winter high camp I was pretty unscathed by those comments and I had the utmost confidence in the safety and enjoyment of Plan A right through to Plan Z . Typically speaking most people I work with immediately jump to the conclusion of "idiot" as soon as my weekend plans expand past their own preferences or experiences.
"But you have never done it before how do you know...."
Technically yes, but I had never camped high in summer until my first summer high camp and since then I have had some amazing nights high on the Ring of Steall, the Fisherfield 6, and scattered all over the Cairngorms just to name a few!
Cold and scattered rain / sleet showers early on
By the time we had reached 500m the rain instantly turned to wet sticky snow which made for some hard walking conditions given we were all carrying heavier than usual overnight bags. Thankfully the wind by this point died down - in hindsight it was only because we were more sheltered than what was to come.
The real beginning of the adventure
It is now worthwhile mentioning why I had picked the Beinn Dearg 4 Munro Circuit for the first attempted winter camp. It was 100% not a "I haven't bagged those so they will do", I would like to think I put a lot of time picking this route and would highly recommend it for others! Firstly, the avalanche risk for the route up between Beinn Dearg and Meall nan Ceapraichean was acceptable, I can't specifically remember the rating but it most definitely was not above "considerable". Secondly, the escape route down along the River Lael would be an easy, although possibly long and embarrassing if we had to bail out in the middle of the night. Thirdly, and not least, the weather on the Sunday was best in the North West Scotland!
Plan A: reach Bealach an Lochain Uaine and set up tent dead centre between the three munros (Beinn Dearg, Meall nan Ceapraichean, and Cona' Mheall).
Plan B: if we were too exposed or tired for Plan A then Lochan Lathail would offer far more shelter and we could camp there (downside being Sunday would be a longer day!)
Plan C: bail out and head back to the car. Andrew Cubed had firmly agreed at the start if anyone makes the suggestion of anything (other than our sandwich choice) being a bad idea we would unanimously agree to head back.
Plan D - Z: numerous slight variations on Plan A - C!
The Proposed and Implemented Route
As we found out in more detail on the Sunday the length of this four munro circuit, in my personal opinion, would be way too long to complete in the depth of winter as a day walk. Fair enough you could do large portions under head torch relatively easily but surely that defeats point of doing hills with such great surrounding views.
Our forecasted weather had Saturday as a bit of a miserable day with heavy snow showers and winds that were ranging up towards 30mph but nothing that would normally cause me any concern. We embraced the relatively speaking poor Saturday weather knowing that we should awake to a tremendous day on Sunday whilst at the same time not getting our hopes up too much - it is Scotland after all!
Lochan Lathail - the site of Plan B
At the Lochan Lathail visibility was nearly non existent and the biggest risk was we would accidentally end up in the Lochan as it was covered in a layer of snow . For the previous couple of kilometres there was well-defined footprints in the snow but as soon as we approached the Lochan these disappeared. We stopped very briefly to refill water bottles as it was likely to be the last running water for the next 24 hours (this turned out to be a good call). It was remarkably calm and offered a sense of security knowing that we could easily set up camp around here. It was so early on in the day that I think we were all reluctant to just get into the tent already.
The call was made - we would head up another couple of hundred meters for Plan A, and in the event of it being too exposed we would retrace our steps down to this Lochan. By now the idea of at least starting a winter camp was well established and bailing back to the car was less of an idea.
It was a steep climb from 670m to 877m and crampons were nearly employed but most sections were thankfully just deep powder snow. Upon reaching 877m the old brick wall heading up toward Beinn Dearg was 99% buried and all that remained was the wind scoured top. Talking of wind, this had now had picked up, walking was still easy but the wind chill was severe! Only 200m higher up from the Lochan it was a completely different world. We spent what felt like a long time walking finding different boulders looking to see if there was any shelter or flat snow pack.
We had a quick debate on whether it would be too extreme for the night or would it be best to head down to Plan B. My only concern was the tent as it is described as a three season tent and we were most positively in season four! Our decision was the tent had survived some severe gale winds (albeit in summer) in the Outer Hebrides so the wind should not be too much of an issue .
Confident in the tent? Not massively.
Confident in our escape route? 100%!
14:30 on Saturday 3rd February
I got out of the tent to get that photo and it became quickly apparent we were in for a very long night . It was brutally cold and the tents' three season capabilities were becoming more and more evident. It was almost a downside that we set off so early. Surely none of us would be able to sleep so early on considering we had not really expanded that much energy reaching camp.
Once in the tent and settled into sleeping bags I began to seriously doubt this was a good idea in my own head. As it was my suggestion, I had planned the route and it was my tent I felt, rightly or wrongly, more responsible if something was to go wrong. In jest, or at least I think it was in jest, I mentioned how much more peaceful we would be at Plan B. We had a good laugh and embraced the fact that we had another 16 hours at least until Sunday daylight...
The biggest issue tent-wise was condensation. As the tent offered too much ventilation snow was effectively blowing in under the outer cover and settling on the mesh above, with our body heat this was melting and making the tent walls soaking - the inner tent was turning into more of a melting igloo. Middle Andrew smartly took a bivi to sleep in which offered complete dryness as well as ventilation. The two outside Andrew's both had emergency shelters which we employed to offer some protection from the now wet tent.
At 15:00 we all seemed to pass out into a surreal sleep. I slept amazing, until we woke at about 18:00 absolutely sweltering hot. This eased the fears of being too cold . Hard to say for sure what the temperature was but it was easily below -15 incorporating the wind chill, felt closer to plus 20 inside the tent.
We got another couple of hours kip before 20:00 when I woke in a near panic - what on earth was happening? It was pitch black and something was resting on my face?! Quickly we were all awake only to find the weight of snow had collapsed the inner tent and it was resting coldly and damply on our foreheads . After a quick tent fix we joked about the need to set an alarm for the next morning - this really was set up to be a long night! Regardless, I set an alarm for 07:00.
I think we all had a varying quality of sleep, my emergency shelter (obviously) had zero breathability and my sleeping bag quickly became soaked, my feet were in a puddle of ever increasing water. Unenthusiastic for any attempt to put on any more layers I spent most of the night slightly below an ideal temperature and slept on and off. Clearly Andrew and Andrew did not have this same issue as they slept right through until my alarm!
What a morning to wake up to - I will let the photos do the talking!
We packed up as quickly as our cold hands would allow before setting off for short but steep scurry up towards the summit of Beinn Dearg. By now I was nearly fully relaxed; the wind that had battered the tent for nearly the whole night had completely subsided and the promised weather appeared to be materialising.
First stop to take some layers off. Looking towards Cona' Mheall
View towards Meall nan Ceapraichean
Andrew leading the way
Enjoying the views but aware we had a long day ahead
The rainbow halo
09:05 and we were at the first summit, Beinn Dearg. All full of energy considering our very long nights sleep we were already estimating what time we would be back at the car!
A peaceful Beinn Dearg summit
Retracing our steps down from Beinn Dearg on route towards Cona' Mheall our camping location became more surreal at how amazing it was. We pitched our tent, spent a night getting battered by the winds completely oblivious to the beauty that was hiding behind the clouds and drifting snow.
Now that there were no clouds it was truly sensational, almost surreal. The snow however had drifted quite substantially and made for a very deep route towards Cona' Mheall.
This is Scotland at its very best!
Heading up Cona' Mheall, this time with Beinn Dearg in the background
Quick rest at the top of Cona' Mheall - 10:05 (an hour after Beinn Dearg)
Retracing our steps. We left backpacks just at the bottom
With the snow drifts the route from Cona' Mheall to Meall nan Ceapraichean was always going to one of the hardest parts of the weekend. It lived up to this expectation and obviously as there were no footprints before us it was a case of each taking a turn at setting the pace. With the unknown exact location of the buried Lochan (again) we took a wide birth keeping slightly further right then recommended. In single file we held a frighteningly good pace occasionally swapping out the snow basher at the front and often stopping to enjoy the views.
This single file method also provided some of the best photos from the weekend.
One slow heavy foot at a time
Summit of Meall nan Ceapraichean by 11:30
We stopped here for a good few minutes to savour the view, confident in the knowledge that our route was now firmly heading back in the right direction towards the car. After a quick check of the maps we agreed on the best route forwards to make it safely down towards Eididh nan Clach Geala. I assume this would be pretty straight forward in the height of summer, but in the depth of winter the unassuming drifts did not offer a clear route down.
What a camouflage
Still in good spirits
The final approach up towards Eididh nan Clach Geala was one of the only parts of the day where we were swallowed by a low lying passing cloud. It was absolutely roasting, the wind was nearly non-existent and in only a t-shirt and base layer I was absolutely sweating buckets. The snow here was probably the deepest section of the day so it made for a long slog which we spread out and wet up at our own pace.
Just about to exit the cloud
By the time we reached the summit of Eididh nan Clach Geala it was 13:10 and the few clouds that had been lingering had nearly completely disappeared - what are the chances of all four summits cloud free?
One final team photo
On heading down the ridge to Sidhean Dubh it seemed only natural to get down a bit quicker with a few bumslides. In the perfect conditions with loads of daylight remaining we took our time on the descent, the only thing that made us speed up was the need for water!
Even although it had been (presumably) below freezing all day we had all worked up a fair heat and consumed all of our water. Knowing that as soon as we got down below ~500m there would be an abundance of ice cold water to enjoy.
Looking back towards Eididh nan Clach Geala
[/View from Sidhean Dubh towards Meall nan Ceapraichean & Beinn Dearg
Once we were hitting the streams flowing into River Lael the sun was now low enough that we were covered by the giant shadows of the surrounding hills. It instantly felt very, very cold. We only stopped briefly to down a few bottles of water and finish of what little remaining food we had.
All that now remained was to retrace our steps from the day before back to the car and given the cold we did not want to hang about. We set of at lightning pace which was only maintained for a couple of hundred meters. Having spent so long pounding through mid-calve deep snow to finally be on a flat solid surface was surprisingly unwelcome. I had become used to not really having to balance as all the snow provided the same footing as the previous thousands of steps. Once of the rocky path it took far more mental and physical energy than before to balance across the rocks and icy slush.
Knowing we were on the home straight, and as you inevitably do we subconsciously slowed to a more leisurely pace and only made it back to the car at 17:00 just as daylight was becoming a premium.
The views we never got the day before.
The final photo.
We made it back to Aberdeen by 20:55 after a quick pit-stop in Dingwall for a fish and smoked sausage supper (and that was just mine!). It was a very long drive back with three very tired Andrews and I can reassure you I slept like never before on that Sunday night.
I appreciate this may have been too long for a traditional Walk Report, but this was far from most traditional Munro-bagging outings and it was my first winter camp. Who knows where I will end up when I am old and unable to get out in the hills but if I happen to be sitting in an old folks home with little memory I am sure this will be an easy one to recollect. Going forward I can guarantee it won't be my last, I have already started looking at more winter appropriate tents and sleeping bags and just need to hope for more winters like this.
Finally I had to say the biggest thanks possible to both of the other Andrews - I would never have been confident enough to attempt on my own and I am glad I found two other "idiots". I started off this Walk Report by saying my interpretation of perfect involves a combination of elements that are far from traditionally perfect. On this outing we had strong winds, freezing cold temperatures, noisy / collapsing tents and a very long and exhausting day of walking with little to no water. During the not-so-goods there was not one single moan or gripe, everything was kept in high spirits and I am sure we enjoyed this as much as any group of three possibly could! I may, or may not have done this Walk Report justice but the only thing worth emphasising is I could not have asked for better company
I think that is as good a note as any to finish this report, so thanks for reading!
Until next time.
by Graeme D » Tue Mar 06, 2018 11:21 pm
by EmmaKTunskeen » Wed Mar 07, 2018 8:04 am
by Pastychomper » Wed Mar 07, 2018 11:35 am
by Mal Grey » Wed Mar 07, 2018 12:13 pm
A full on winter camp, with all the trepidation of knowing what you're getting yourselves into, but survived due to planning, gear and no doubt a little shivering. Then the reward for your travails, the most wonderful day on the hills. Great description, backed up with plenty of atmospheric pictures. Love the morning shots with the half-buried tent. I've yet to do a high camp in such snowy conditions, but have done a few now in winter where I've been very glad when morning came, after a night wondering if the tent was going to implode/explode in the wind at any second, so can imagine how you felt.
That "bowl" where you camped, between the 3 summits, must be the sort of place that always attracts deep snow I suspect.
This one is going to take some beating for Trip Report of the month!
[You might want to look at the differences between your trip and our 2-hill walk almost exactly a year ago, the summit cairn of Dearg is quite different for instance. viewtopic.php?f=9&t=70565 That day would support your thought that doing all 4 in a day in winter would be a big ask, even with bikes for the approach like us. Of course, without the wading, you could be wandering happily on a crunchy neve, making excellent progress.]
by malky_c » Wed Mar 07, 2018 3:40 pm
Good effort for just going and giving it a go - I've yet to camp out properly in the snow, and always end up finding a bothy instead (or not going at all). It can be hard to break out of a comfort zone at times
by weaselmaster » Thu Mar 08, 2018 9:26 am
These hills look great in a snow coat.
by KatTai » Thu Mar 15, 2018 6:49 pm
by spiderwebb » Thu Mar 15, 2018 9:27 pm
Don't apologise for the length, its fascinating reading of others experiences, what worked, what didn't, I went back through to see if you'd mentioned the make of tent you used, mainly as I couldn't distinguish the shape, or was it just a bit 'flattened'
Great report and photos, well done
by Alteknacker » Fri Mar 16, 2018 7:16 am
And I really do envy you that Sunday weather!!!