It was good to be on ‘real’ snow at last, even more so because I was with a like minded companion who was properly equipped for the conditions we were to meet and who wouldn’t need to be nursed along.
As a change from our usual forays westwards my friend suggested we ‘break ourselves in gently this winter’. His fancy was for the giant complex of Beinn a’ Ghlo, a long day out on any summer’s day; a tougher proposition on a winter’s day when fresh snow promised to hinder.
And, indeed, a fair fall of snow has occurred, and stayed, during the past few weeks; I looked forward to renewing my acquaintance with these hills under such conditions.
The forecast was for severe frosts and largely cloud free days; they didn’t get it spot on for our romp but still, it turned out not half bad at all...
As we booted up beside the still grey waters of Loch Morag, we could see Carn Liath’s slopes already disappearing into a thin veil of early morning mist; hopefully that might clear as the morning wore along.
But Beinn a’ Ghlo didn’t get his name on some ancient’s whim! Never forget that this classic range more than often lives up to its name: ‘Hill of the veil or mists’.
Thus, under a white rather than blue sky, we made our way along the track to Carn Liath’s toes. This 20 minutes is a good gentle warm-up, an opportunity to get the bones and muscles ready for what is usually a good seven or eight hour tramp, if you keep the pace up.
There was only patchy snow down at track level. The ground to the foot of Carn Liath, if crossed directly, is usually wet with a little burn or two to jump; this morning the ground was iron hard, every blade of grass was white with consecutive nights of hoar frost.
We made an easy beeline for the remains of the broken down wall that marks the beginning of the well worn path up Carn Liath’s broad south west facing ridge.
Carn Liath, is ‘The Grey One’, This appellative refers to the extensive scree and boulders that drape her flanks to east and west. Today the name might more aptly have referred to the gloom into which we soon found ourselves ascending! Though with constant backwards glances down to a rapidly disappearing Perthshire, the well trodden path led us quickly up to the snow line.
Higher up the earthy path becomes a deeply eroded gouge in the white and pink quartz of the mountain’s skeleton; in one or two places it has become almost braided, on a clear day you can see it from many miles away! We were spared the ugly sight today; before ever we reached that height our boots were crunching on frosty snow.
And as usual we were following in the boot steps of earlier weekend stravaigers, so popular are these hills at any time of year. Carn Liath is not a particularly steep hill; it was a pleasure to kick into the snow, ice axes and trekking poles providing a token support that wasn’t really needed.
High up the ground levels off and there’s a big rambling pile of boulders; although it is cairnlike, it isn’t the summit. Not yet thick enough to obscure the way ahead, a veil of mist clung to everything around us. Through this smoke we could make out the true summit, with its big ring of stones, just a few dozen metres ahead.
From the trig point (975 m), we could make out the rest of Beinn a’ Ghlo, a great smoky white gaggle of rock dinosaurs out there, waiting for us, daring us on.
The better view is on a little, along to the tip of Beinn Mhaol, Carn Liath’s more northerly spur. Less than a mile of pleasant, relatively gentle walking on easy snow, had us at that point. Before us rose our next objective, Braigh Coire Chruinn Bhalgain, (‘slope above the corrie of the little bag’), its own white shoulders disappearing into a creamy cloak of cloud. Over baby-like Beinn Bheag, Airgiod Bheinn, ‘the silver hill’, masked the bulk of Carn nan Gabhar, the system’s supreme ‘hill of the goats’.
We dropped down quickly to the intervening col and started up the Braigh’s snow clotted flank. There was a difference in this mountain’s snow, much harder it felt underfoot.
After half a kilometre of easy ascent the footprints we were following (there was no sign of the path beneath the snow), we made onto steeper and more open ground. After a while, as the broad back of the hill gave way to gentle ground, we hit the cloud base.
At the same time, the snow beneath our boots, now more open to prevailing winds, grew icier, harder. We reached the summit in a whiteout! “You look like you’re floating in a bowl of milk!”, my companion grinned as he took my photograph.
Time for crampons. And very careful compass work. (In these conditions spot on navigation is required in order to locate the next col). As it turned out we didn’t really need it. First, as happens so often around mid-day on cloud shrouded hills, blue holes began to appear in the white above us. Very soon we were witnessing clouds racing off the hill across us, revealing the wonderful white way ahead. A glorious afternoon was shaping up after all.
We found the col and were surprised at how much snow had been scoured from the slopes by previous high winds. We raced down to the shelter of the deep little saddle and stopped for lunch.
Our remaining Munro was a slog. Never steep (once above the col), but by degrees stonier and, atop ‘the goat’s’ big flat back, made shaggy by a myriad snow choked boulders, we needed care to avoid getting our crampon encased boots wedged in the countless snow hidden crevices that barred our way to each of the mountain’s three impressive cairns.
It was hugely worth it! Now we could look back on virtually our entire morning’s journey upwards, a white winter-land spread all about us. Not that far away Ben Vrackie and Ben Vurich climbed white from their heather dark surroundings while farther north the Glenshee hills and, beyond these farther still, The Cairngorms played hide and seek among the thicker clouds in that direction. In the west Scheihallion, The Farragon and the A9 Munros loomed; over all these the white peaks of the west, chief among them Ben Alder, peeked.
The short winter day was wearing on. After retracing our steps and completing this round via the vaguely elevated top of Airgiod Bheinn, we dropped back to our lunchtime col for the long icy trek between Carn Liath and ‘the silver hill’, till eventually we could pick up our original track for Loch Morag. By the time we’d reached the car park it was dark; Carn Liath, now a sombre black pyramid against an even blacker star pocked sky, was all that was left of our day up on ‘the hill of mist’.