Breezy thaw on Drumochter 4

Route: A' Mharconaich and Geal Charn, Drumochter

Munros: A' Mharconaich, Beinn Udlamain, Geal-charn (Drumochter), Sgairneach Mhor

Date walked: 26/04/2013

Time taken: 8 hours

Distance: 25km

Ascent: 1100m

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The forecast was a bit iffy… “Expect heavy snow showers above 600m, with 20-25mph wind through the morning, with risk of thunder, giving way to 50mph winds and persistent snow at all levels in the afternoon. Temperatures -1C at 900m.”

Still, I could take it one hill at a time without too much commitment, and there were few objective hazards on the route, just the opportunity for lots of ‘exercise’. I 'd missed last week due to a heavy cold so was itching to get out... anywhere. And besides, who needs an excuse?

Arriving at Balsporran Cottages at ~9:45 due to a road closure on my way over from Fyvie forcing a bit of a detour, I was booted up and on the the Gael Charn track by 10:00. The luxury of late April being a long day ahead if I needed it. There was even some blue sky, though I was surprised by the lack of snow cover below the very tops.
Turned out to be even milder than forecast, and the pull up onto Gael Charn was wet. Sopping wet heather gave way to slushy wet heather, and the clouds rolled in to remove any views. Then the snow started. And the wind, though only about 20mph or so. I planned to get to the top of Gael Charn at least, for the exercise if nothing else.
Higher up, once clear of the heather, big gaps in the rollling cloud cover would appear and give framed views of the surrounding hills, notably of A’Mharconaich- my next top if I continued beyond this one.
The slope eased off as it rose, and dried out too, and walking was easy, if disappointingly frost free. Freezing level obviously above 917m today.
At 12:00 the top took me by surprise, by its character as much as anything. In the middle of a huge level plain of rocky rubble there was a small pile of rubble.
Much more interesting were the glimpses I’d been getting of the next hill, A’Mharconaich, and the deep U of the An Lairig to the west.

An Lairig.

The highlight had to be the view West that appeared after I’d decided to wander down to the bealach to see if I was going to go up hill number 2. Just as I came off the summit of Gael Charn, the views across and down Loch Ettrick opened up. That lifted my soggy spirits a great deal, so A’Mharconaich was on.

Image Looking back at Gael Charn from the Bealach.

The cloud continued to lift so I could see where I was going, and I opted for a snowy runnel rather than a heathery plod. From the view on the way down from Gael Charn I'd picked out a snowy route that looked like it would get all the way on to the A’Mharconaich ridge. Given that this was a north facing slope and the snow looked like it was lying in stream runnels, I figured the snow would be relatively stable and I had the option of staying near the edges if I felt any doubt.

I had crampons and an axe with me, in addition to the pair of poles that had propelled me thus far. Come to think of it, I had three poles, having just found one at the bealach –which explains the impression of a radio tower I’m doing in the summit photo below...
Anyhoo, the snow was firm but not icy, and a quick profile showed it was consistently stiff down to the heather. It would take a footprint without need of crampons, but without sinking through, so I set off up the runnel that ran for about 600m, rising the full 200m or so to the top. The slope was fairly gentle, but as a concession to common sense I stowed the poles and carried my axe in the ready position just in case.
On the way up, the clag came and went in 10 minute cycles and in 30 minutes I was on the broad ridge that looked a bit like Gael Charn summit all over again. This would be fantastic skiing if there was another six inches of cover to hide the rocks, but today it isn’t even really frozen. No sign of any horses though.

Off East for a bit to find the summit, and then, because it’s 13:10 and since it looks sooooo level, I opt for the third hill of the day, Bein Udlamain. To be honest at this stage that’s because it looks like it’s no distance away and it doesn’t look like any big drop or reascent is required.
Natty titfer, no? I was trying it out for snow -brim was a big help, and twin fore and aft chinstraps held it surprisingly securely. Luckily I didn't meet any fashion police...
Image A'Mharconaich Summit Cairn.
Image]Looking back to Gael Charn.

The wind is starting to rise a bit too. And the clouds are darkening. And the snow is being flung a bit harder when it comes. Still, bailing out down the NE nose of A’Mharconaich, or even further on, en route to Udlamain by dropping down on the north side shouldn’t present any great difficulty, and the ridge is flat enough to make retracing my steps straightforward.

That’s a fair length of ridge! (I must be getting too used to looking at my 1:25000 Cairngorm map and I’m using 1:50000 today) .And there’s quite a dip down before the ascent of Udlamain, but I’m quite happy being blown along and the slopes are all fairly gentle. On the way across visibility went from a few yards, to occasional glimpses of Schiehallion. At one point I had a cracking view of Ben Alder and in the 5 seconds to get my camera out everything disappeared as I watched. The windspeed was noticeably rising. Image
Typical view today, along the A'Mharconaich ridge toward Beinn Udlamain

On a clear day, you can see Schiehallion from here (zoom). 70% of the time today I'm happy when I can see the ground.

The way ahead, Beinn Udlamain on the right, before the clouds close in again

Udlamain has a false summit –I found it – a smallish cairn in a landscape I’m getting used to by now. And the ground seems to fall away from it in all directions. Had there been a view I would have had a clue this wasn’t the summit, but I didn’t so I hadn’t.
Eitherhoo, from the summit (real or imaginary) I planned to walk off south, so did so, and found a line of fencing going my way. Confirmation, or so I thought, that I was in the right place. Until the fencing abruptly swung west and the ground started to rise (which I’ve found it doesn’t usually do after reaching a real summit). Oh well, maybe there is a better cairn to be found after all… and there was. I was at the top of "the Gloomy Hill" at 14:45. The freezing level is evidently above 1011m today.
Ghosts of views loomed occasionally, intent on letting me know what I was missing…

Now to head south in anger. Over painfully rocky ground, and another south-running fence (shamefully apologetic about its earlier imposter, this one ran all the way down to the bealach at the head of Coire Dhomhain).
Intermittent views of the wild peaty hinterland to the south opened up, bounded to the south by the pyramid of Stob an Aonich Mhoir, to the west by blue of Loch Ettrick and the high battlements of the Ben Alder range, and to the east by the flanks of Sgairneach Mhor, the final hill of the day and its south ridge to Mam Ban.

Sgreanach Mhor from Beinn Udlamain's South Ridge

Out of the north wind for a bit, I sat and had lunch and most of a flask of coffee just staring at all that space. The flat bits looked like they could be wet and a lumpy mix of peat hags and soft snow, so I played at join the dots to plan a route across to solid hill. I also worked out a strategy for zero visibility on Sgearnich Mhor so I could stick to turf on this south easterly slope where I expected the snow would be too soft for easy going. I was glad I’d done both of these as the wind and snow settings were about to be turned up a notch or two.

The peat hags weren’t so bad, and the snow in the dips was sound enough to cross carefully , though I was mindful of the possibility of running water underneath and late season fragility. Once on the definite upslope of Sgairneach Mhor I relaxed considerably. Steering east of the corniced corrie I followed the plumbline rather than the compass. ‘Up’ was good, and had to lead either to the summit or the ridge of Mam Ban. Walking north though, I had the full force of the wind in my teeth and had to break out the goggles again. Once over the first shoulder I found a huge snowfield on the north west facing slope –sticks away, axe out and a half mile rising traverse in mostly firm snow took my mind of the weather (and photos unfortunately). Just off the top of the snow field, at 16:00 I ran out of ‘up’ and could see the trig point. The wind was fairly shrieking now, and the closeness of the corniced crags of Coire Creagach could really be felt in the turbulence.

No view to admire, so I carried on over the NE ridge and to what turned out to be the most challenging part of the day.
The NE ridge of Sgreanach Mhor from the summit. Cornices on left.

The snow was heavy, thick and wet, and the wind was on the pessimistic side of forecast, making it hard to see with or without goggles. Bare eyes and brimmed hat worked best. Dropping a little to the south side of the ridge as I descended gave some shelter from the Northerly blast, but not as much as I’d hoped. Going all the way down to the East was an option, but I preferred to get into Coire Dhomain and onto the road that way, rather than muck about in the horizontal stuff near the river. All I needed to avoid were the crags on the end of this ridge, before the Sow of Atholl (which I had no intention of scaling). Taking stock, it was just a case of ignoring the noise and sticking at it. I’d be losing height fairly quickly and hopefully get some change in the character or sheer volume of snow.

And that’s what happened. After about 20 minutes the ridge noticeably flattened and, well clear of Coire Creagach could walk round to the north a bit. I stopped to get my breath at a tiny one-sheep sized stone shelter, then a respite in the snowfall let me get my bearings and I could see across the Coire Dhomain, even to making out the stalkers road on the far side of the Allt.

ImageLooking back at the steep ground I wanted to avoid, at the end of the NE ridge down from Sgairneach

Continuing down through increasingly gurgling heather I was ‘out from under’ the worst of the weather. The river proved easy to cross at the shallows (my 1981 revision OS map didn’t indicate the bridge I saw a little further east) and I made it with dry feet. Then a fair tramp along a vehicle track back to the A9.

At the A9, the heavy weather caught up with me again, and the few miles back to Balsporran against the gale were wearisome and chilly – I arrived back at the car covered in snow and more than ready for whatever would fit in the Jetboil.

All in all a bigger day than I’d intended to let myself in for, dominated more by the sky than the hills, and I hadn’t seen a soul on the round. The tail end was a bit uncomfortable but I knew I had a towel, warm food and dry clothes in the car. It also left me with a hankering to get over to the other side of Loch Ettrick…

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Mountain: Liathach
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Distance: 25 km
Ascent: 1100m
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