There hasn’t been a great deal so far this year and even by the time I got out to The Drumochter Pass (A9), the white stuff seemed already to be disappearing fast, due probably to the raging gales that had blasted the hills over the past week. Even so there was plenty snow left to make the going underfoot considerably more toilsome than usual.
I was here with two companions, both experienced in winter conditions, well used to Scottish winter mountaineering and both champing at the bit.
These Drumochter Munros are very popular so we were not surprised, as we left our own vehicle, to see other cars drawing into the A9 lay-by, disgorging yet more enthusiastic day trippers.
A track led us under the nearby railway line and across a raging burn, then into Coire Dhomain, a deep sided glen nestled snugly between The Sow of Atholl and her consort, The Boar of Badenoch. Though there was plenty of high cloud, the high tops’ ranging around us in all directions, were clear and already sunlit.
Way up the glen, to westwards, the pristine snowy flank of Beinn Udlamain, loomed enticingly. Above us, to our right and guarded by The Boar, A’ Mharchonaich’s ridge stretched away north.
But it was upon the hill across the corrie’s torrent on which we all fixed our gaze. Sgairneach Mhor, today boasting a fine cornice of wind blown snow around its corrie lip and already catching the morning sun, lured us upwards.
But first we had to cross that torrent..!
Actually there should have been no problem-it wasn’t wide or deep and its boulder floored bed normally facilitates and easy paddle. My two companions made light work of it, getting across dry shod.
But not so me! Somehow I managed to achieve the impossible and found probably the only spot in the burn where the water could get over the tops of my gaitered boots. For a moment the air was as blue as the frozen wastes around me! For the rest of the day I was obliged to tramp the hills with sopping wet feet.
We took to the moderately steep heather clad slopes of Sgairneach Mhor’s north-west ridge. Soon ravens were in the air, cronking their friendly greetings and dancing on the buffeting wind.
As we gained height the snow deepened making for heavier going. We took turns in breaking trail. Higher up the wind-swept ground gave way to a stonier floor; (the mountain’s name means: ‘big stony hillside’).
These hills are popular with the ski-ing fraternity and as we neared the summit dome we saw the tram-like tracks of a recent enthusiast’s progress. A little short of the summit cairn we stopped for a close up view of the mountain’s surprisingly, (for so early in the season), big cornice, a beautiful wreath of wind-blown snow which, as if on air, hung over the corrie lip.
By now, as if to torment us, a fierce and icy wind had whipped up; the wind chill factor made it feel so cold that we had to keep moving or freeze. I soon discovered that I hadn’t enough on. In spite of my super warm GoreTex coat, (and that above my winter fleece), the chill fingers of the arctic’s hands were finding their way in.
No shelter in which to don extra clothing or for even a warming cup of tea. With gritted teeth we headed straight into the battering wind, south-east at first, across the exposed plateau, then thankfully north and down to a sheltered col. On went two extra layers to warm me up outside, and down went cups of tea and sandwiches to warm me up within.
Croaking and burping in its distinctive way, a lone ptarmigan watched us from some nearby frozen boulders. We saw another two, each a flash of brilliant white and both with a little jewel of scarlet above their eyes.
Across the barren col rose the gentle slopes of Beinn Udlamain, (‘gloomy mountain’). From this side the hill looks innocuous, so easy is the walk to its summit cairn. Not so from the north, where its almost precipitous slopes of scree plunge into the black depths of Loch Ericht. Nor its southern flanks, riven as they are by deep and steep sided gullies- today choked with snow.
The ascent out of the col and onto Beinn Udlamain’s long ridge took us barely any time at all. But clouds had arrived to give the hill a quiet and eerie ambience. After a short plod in the company of an ancient broken down fence and in almost white-out conditions, we arrived at the snow filled ring cairn.
Sitting for a second lunch break we were surprised by a young walker who seemed to just suddenly materialise out of the mist beside us. He seemed to be equipped with every item of mountain gear possible. Unnecessarily and potentially dangerously, he was wearing crampons when the conditions simply didn’t warrant their use.
We retraced our own upward route until we reached a point along the ridge where we could glissade, on steep virgin snow, deep into the head of Coire Dhomain’s glen. Hereabouts was the birthplace of the allt which was to lead us all the way back to Drumochter’s A9 highway.
This seldom frequented fastness is a wild and lonely place, a narrow rock filled defile to begin with, where the mountains on either side of us seemed to lean over us broodingly, testament to the great power of the cascading rain waters which scour the slopes in times of heavy precipitation. The resultant scree and water loosened debris piled up by the waterside made progress even tougher.
The snow brindled hills of the glen made for a fantastic homebound panorama. Across the floor of the distant Pass of Drumochter rose the hills east of the A9, rounded but deeply riven by their own choked gullies.
Our painstaking scurry eventually put us on an old stalker’s path; this in turn developed into a good track, the same in fact that had set us on our way this morning.
Sgairneach Mhor showed us its rugged rocky side; the ravens came back to tumble on the clouding sky. On every Munro skyline little black figures, in ones and twos, occasionally threes and fours or more, betrayed the presence of other winter stravaigers.
And now the weather was on the turn, with greyer clouds and a stiffening wind punching at us from the west. Content with the memories of yet another superb day now locked away for fireside savouring, we were glad at last to reach the car and settle for the journey home. And, aahh! The bliss of dry warm socks, at last...