Return to the Highlands; a week dodging the weather
by Mal Grey » Wed Mar 18, 2020 10:54 pm
Grahams included on this walk: Creag Dhubh (Newtonmore)
Date walked: 24/02/20194 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).
So, it was with a higher than normal sense of anticipation that this year’s trip approached. The knee has steadily improved with a bit of physio, and I was up for giving it a go. The forecast, though, wasn’t brilliant but that seems to have been a them all winter, so Nige and I headed north to Fife to meet Steve anyway.
As so often before, we started off our week with a few days in Gerry’s. Simon, Gerry’s son, was welcoming and the fire warm, though the rest of the place was flipping freezing as he’d had very few people in this year. Over a few beers and a dram or two, we tried to fit in some hill plans with the very mixed forecast.
Loch Clair and Loch Coulin
Sunday’s forecast pretty much summed up the week. A constant strong wind driving belts of showers, sleety low down, blizzards higher up, but with enough possible clear spells to get us out of the door. To keep our options open, we headed round to Loch Clair, with the plan of heading up on to Sgurr Dubh if it cleared. As we pulled in, the views were less than impressive.
We lurked in the car for twenty minutes, until we could at least see the bottom of the hills, before gearing up. Its not often that we actually start the day in full waterproofs, but this was one of those days. It was going to be a case of just seeing how far we got, and the track down to Loch Clair is a simple and quick way to leave the road behind.
Southwest of Coulin Lodge, which sits between Loch Clair and Coulin, the glen of the An Leth-allt climbs gently through delightful woodlands. We took the small but good path, and headed steadily uphill. Though it was still damp, the pines and the tumbling stream were delightful.
Ahead, there was no sign of a clearance, but we didn’t really care. I think we’d all realised it wasn’t going to be a hill day unless we were really determined to fight the weather, and we’re too old to bother with that these days; we’ve had our share of such days in the past. Instead, we dropped down to the stream and enjoyed a lunch break by the sound of the cascading waters, before heading back downhill.
Of course, it immediately cleared a little….
Nonetheless, our decision was made, and we diverted round the back of Loch Coulin to make a day of it. Yep, it continued to stay clearer, but the photos only show the brief clear spells funnily enough! The walk round the loch is lovely anyway, and the views it provides of the hills are fabulous, atmospheric when the clouds withdrew.
So, we’d salvaged something from a pretty poor day and I’d really enjoyed just being out.
Monday was grim. Properly wet all day, always driven by that wind. We wandered up the track opposite Gerry’s for a couple of hours, but that was it. Still it was good to get out for a while.
A few days living on the edge
When the hills are wild, increasingly over the years our thoughts have turned to the coasts. We also like a bothy trip, so combining the two has become a regular thing. In fact, quite a few of my reports on here have been about those; Camasunary and Uags for example. So with the forecast looking no better, we pored over the maps and plumped on Craig, the former SYHA hostel on the coast beyond Torridon.
The little road to Diabaig twists and turns as it climbs over the rough foothills of Liathach and Beinn Alligin. A little wet snow was lying on its highest reaches, but as we dropped towards the sea, the chaotic landscape of scoured rock and heather above sheltered coves, that is unique to Diabaig, lay free of the white stuff. We geared up at the end of the track, piling our bags with winter gear, food, whisky and fuel for the stove. We don’t travel light.
The track that leaves the road for Craig is pretty good, crossing moorland and a few small streams with relative ease, and follows a fairly level contouring route. Mind you, with heavy packs there were still enough false summits to start to wonder if we were ever going to get there. In the end, though, it was a relatively simple walk until we were stood on the lip of the valley of the Craig River looking down on our new home.
Craig was a small settlement, nestled behind the beach in this relatively sheltered valley. A few ruins behind the beach tell their story of abandonment, when the living became too difficult as recently as the 1930s. The bothy was the home of a shepherd and his family, before the SYHA took it on in 1935, eventually closing it in 2003. The MBA took it on 3 years later, and it remains an open bothy with one large communal room with multi-fuel stove and a kitchen area, as well as 1 downstairs and 3 upstairs rooms for sleeping. It even has a loo, round the back, albeit one you flush with a bucket of water from the drainpipe water butt. We settled ourselves in and had a brew.
A little later, we wandered down a boggy path to the beach, and explored the clear waters of the Craig River.
As we returned to the bothy, the sun was lowering quickly behind the Isle of Skye, backlighting the layers of cloud and snow that made Trotternish and the Storr almost glacial.
Slightly obscurely, a massive shape was doing manoeuvres out on the Sound; HMS Prince of Wales on sea trials.
Closing the bothy door against the chill, we were soon enjoying a pleasant evening in front of the stove, enjoying Steve’s traditional curry, a dram or two and some folky music.
Morning brought a brighter day, one which would probably have allowed a summit, but having made our decision to come to Craig, we were a fair way from any! We were happy, though, just to enjoy the outdoors. We spent the morning down by the beach across the tumbling river, once I’d tempted the lads out of bed by bringing them a brew.
I really enjoy these days spent just pottering about, exploring the nooks and crannies of a wonderful wild spot, spending time immersing myself in such places, not just passing through. After returning to the bothy for lunch, we headed up the valley above, where a hidden waterfall lurked beneath the moors. Exploring the hillsides above, we were treated to sudden views of the magnificent but lesser known rear side of Beinn Alligin.
We trudged back over squelchy land on the rim of the glen, treated to a little soft warmth, and to views towards Red Point.
After another night relaxing in front of the fire, not even managing to finish our coal supplies, so much had we brought, it was time to leave our bothy home. The walk out the next morning was with lighter loads, through intermittent squally, sleety showers, and by lunchtime we were having warm soup and coffee in the Torridon stores café.
by Mal Grey » Wed Mar 18, 2020 10:58 pm
A few hours later, and after some hasty phone calls stood outside in a blizzard to get a signal, we had accommodation booked for the next 3 nights. Unfortunately, neither venue could do all 3, so it would be 1 night in Strath More up from Loch Broom, and then a move to Newtonmore. So we headed east and north on the wonderful road from Torridon via Gairloch.
Forest Way is an excellent bunkhouse and we quickly settled in and chatted with the owner, Iain. With Steve heading home first thing due to other commitments, Nigel and I were watching a brief weather window, and looking at the map of the hills opposite. The obvious one is Ben Enaiglair, which rises almost from our door. Iain told us of a sneaky route up through the woods from the nature trail, to a hidden opening in the deer fence at the tree line.
The next morning, that was where we headed, climbing steeply through the forest. The forecast was for a good morning, then a weather front coming in later. Some forecasts said as early as 1pm, some as late as 4pm. We pushed on upwards and found our gate, which would never be spotted without inside knowledge.
Now we were out of the trees, the ground was immediately snow covered, though it was wet slushy stuff that barely came over our toes at first. We were ascending alongside a deep gorge, just occasionally glimpsing splashing water below. Eventually we found a way across where the ground levelled off, and turned towards our hill. Behind us, there were great views of the Fannichs and some of the Fisherfield hills.
Unfortunately, we could also see that the clouds were dark in that direction, and we knew we were in a race against time. We could see our ridge line above, and if we could get most of the way up that before the front arrived, we might have a chance of nicking the summit. We plodded on upwards, the snow now starting to become deep, and never of a nice consistency to aid our progress.
Nigel did most of the trail-breaking, using what we call his “go-go-gadget-legs”, the lanky old…..
With the wind chillingly cold, but in a damp way rather than a crisp way, knowing we’d be very exposed on the ridge, we decided to grab an early fuel stop and headed for a little crag that gave us shelter. The views from our little terrace were magnificent, An Teallach displaying its remarkable outline against the darkening sky.
Suitably re-fuelled with pies and soup, we continued upwards. Coming out from the shelter of our rock, it became quickly clear that the weather was already changing. The snow was also getting deeper, slowing us down as we trudged steeply upward, from landmark to landmark in the thickening clag.
It was pretty grim. Wet sleet was battering our faces, somehow more miserable than proper blizzard would have been. It wasn’t long before we gave it up, clearly this was no brief shower, and we were still some way off the ridge thanks to the slow pace in the snow. Time to turn around.
Of course it all seemed quite easy and sheltered now, as we very quickly dropped back down, but a few glimpses back to the ridge, or should I say the cloud, proved we’d have had no fun up there. We crossed the gully once again, and dropped back to the woods. By the time we got there, it was properly raining this low down, and it didn’t stop for several hours, by when we were drinking coffee in Inverness on our way to Newtonmore.
At last, a day to remember on Creag Dhubh
The hostel in Newtonmore is a regular stop off of ours over the years, another great place to stay, with a decent pub opposite as a bonus. After a night there, Nige and I were praying that the good forecast for Saturday we’d been seeing all week, would hold just long enough. Having had enough of driving, we again chose to walk from the front door, the shapely ridge of local Graham Creag Dhubh rising from just outside town. As we opened that door, drizzle started instantly. This wasn’t supposed to happen!
Fortunately, it was only kidding, and the forecast clearance was building. We wandered out of town to the southwest, and found our way into the woods above a riding school. Here a track zig-zagged upwards, covered in light snow even at this low altitude.
Soon we left the woods behind, and the track disappeared under the snow. Our route seemed obvious enough, heading for a nick in the skyline, but we’d have to avoid hidden bogs and make our way through tangled, stunted woodlands as the slopes steepened.
Here on the sheltered NE slopes of the hill, the snow was deep at times. It was, at least, less slushy than yesterday’s, and though it was hard work breaking trail, I was enjoying that feeling of a proper winter day out.
Nige took his turn up front, and soon enough we were approaching the ridge line, spotting two climbers following our trail behind. At the small bealach, we waited for them to catch us up, whilst gazing out into the Monadhliath mountains ahead, plastered in thick snow.
The two chaps caught us up, and we chatted, each happy to be in the hills on a wonderful day. They’d come over from the Aberdeen area, choosing a spot that would give them a chance of a good summit in the brief weather window like ourselves. Being fitter and faster than us, we were happy to let them lead off, and they soon left us behind.
The ridge of Creag Dhubh is over a mile long, undulating over numerous other tops, whose geology tended to make for short steep climbs between level sections. After the first 614m top, the ridge narrows slightly. Our friends cut the corner ahead, but Nige and I chose to stick to the ridge itself, and were rewarded for this approach. As we left the little bealach, a narrow section was full of sculpted snow, wind-scoured shapes which led the eye towards the higher summits beyond.
With our sugary sculptures left behind, the ridge opened up, and we climbed steadily onwards. After a few false summits, we met our Aberdonian friends returning.
By now the snow was mostly firm, and we heard that beautiful sound that only winter walkers know, that sort of crunchy squeak as boot enters snow just enough to give a perfect platform for the next stride. It was wonderful, and we were revelling in our location after a week spent making the most of bad weather. I let Nigel get ahead, for photographic reasons of course, nothing to do with energy, honest!
Finally, the views opened out ahead, and the large summit cairn appeared. Ahead, the views were fabulous, snow sparkling in every direction, the Spey twinkling below, and all around the endless hills led the eye into the far distance.
It was chuffing cold, though, so we didn’t hang around. The first signs of showers were hanging over the south west horizon, so we turned and headed back, intending to stop in a sheltered spot lower down for a bite to eat.
We found that sheltered spot just before the sun started to be cloaked by hastening clouds. A coffee and a bit of food gave us energy for the quick dash over the final bumps of the ridge, casting glances into the Monadhliath’s deep glens, and then we were plunging through the deep snow in the ridge and heading for home.
Farewell to the hills, for a while, but we will be back.
by HalfManHalfTitanium » Thu Mar 19, 2020 10:50 am
by Klaasloopt » Thu Mar 19, 2020 11:23 am
Especially the coastal bothy trip is a splendid idea. Safe, but still wild, judging by the photos.
by jmarkb » Thu Mar 19, 2020 1:52 pm
by Mal Grey » Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:54 pm
HalfManHalfTitanium wrote:Great TR with some superb photos!
It is wonderful when the weather works out... but sometimes a week making the best of dodgy weather can be great too.
Is the wreck still there at Diabaig?
Cheers Tim. Weather adds to the atmosphere, but some of it could bu88er off to be honest!
Didn't actually pop down to the bay this time, so not sure about the wreck to be honest.
by Mal Grey » Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:55 pm
Klaasloopt wrote:Excellent report, showing some cunning ways to work around the weather.
Especially the coastal bothy trip is a splendid idea. Safe, but still wild, judging by the photos.
Thanks. Its not the wildest spot we've been on coastal trips, but it was lovely and the view to Skye fabulous.
by Mal Grey » Thu Mar 19, 2020 7:56 pm
jmarkb wrote:Nice one - you got some great shots despite the weather. Have just had 5 minutes fun looking at the map and trying to work out where the "secret" Beinn Enaglair approach goes!
Thanks mate. Happy to PM a GR and rough description to anybody who needs it, but I'd rather not post it publicly..
by Jaxter » Fri Mar 27, 2020 10:47 am
by Mal Grey » Fri Mar 27, 2020 10:25 pm
Jaxter wrote:Oooft belter looks like you earned that final day i loved Craig bothy too, the only disadvantage of the toilet was that you couldn't close the door whilst sitting on it
I think that is entirely appropriate. Almost every other bothy I've used has a loo with a view too!!!