CREAG MEAGAIDH is a spectacular mountain at any time, but under deep, fresh snow its charms are multiplied tenfold.
The great walls that enclose the head of Coire Ardair take on a more ferocious look, the black ramparts almost pulsating against the slashes of white which fill every gap. Massive cornices hang precariously, and the steep rise to that famous nick in the skyline, The Window, is transformed into a serious winter ascent.
My last traverse of this grand massif involved coming in over that other awesome winter beast, Beinn a’Chaorainn. It turned out to be a classic day – but it also provided a stark reminder of the perils of winter walking.
We took the forest track in from Roughburn on a cold but clear morning, the views all around revealing snow-laden peaks under brooding skies. As we rose so did the effects of the wind; we were being pushed sideways by gusts whipping across the ice-blasted rocks on the open slopes, spindrift stinging and dancing with gleeful malice.
Glimpses of blue sky and cotton wool clouds on the horizon spurred us on, the snow cover starting to fill in more and more of the gaps. Rays of sunlight penetrated the black at our rear, beautiful and threatening at the same time.
Our first objective was the South Top of Beinn a’ Chaorainn. Great care must be taken on this triple-topped Munro, the line between the summits from south to north blurred by the unblemished white cover, the huge bites out of the skyline heavily disguised, lying in wait for the unwary to step through.
A previous winter encounter here in zero visibility provided one of my most satisfying mountain experiences, dog-legging carefully around these hazards, counting my steps. The satisfaction, I hasten to add, was combined with a great sense of relief that my navigation lessons had paid off when it really mattered. There were no such problems this time. The route ahead was clear, the next two summits easily distinguished as the highest bumps under the white blanket, the danger areas between the peaks easier to avoid.
The cornices were hypnotically beautiful, not a blemish or a footstep to be seen. There was a part of me wanting to explore that virgin snow but the stakes in this game of Russian roulette would be far too loaded. Better to admire from a safe distance. The sky was broiling black and snow flurries were stinging our faces, but the cloud remained high and we were soon standing at the ice-blasted cairn of the main summit. From this angle Creag Meagaidh was a shapeless mass of white filling the horizon, its spectacular cliffs and corries under wraps for the time being.
We trekked ankle-deep round the next curve to the North Top, the cornice again making sure that views into rugged Coire na h-Uamha would have to stay on hold for a bit longer. There was no sign of the cairn on this top either. It was buried deep, but with good visibility we didn’t need it as a marker for safe passage to the Bealach a’Bharnish.
What happened next highlighted how easily things can quickly go wrong. The three of us were walking a short distance apart. I was in the middle, turning round every so often to check we were still a three. The snow was deep, the chill biting hard and the wind muffling every sound. Talking was not an option but we were moving at a brisk pace.
Then the back marker stopped for a toilet break, but the front man kept going. Within seconds I had lost sight of both. I hung back a bit then thought it better to try to catch the leader. Unfortunately, he then started to go off line, looking for a temporary shelter spot. As I caught up, I looked back to see the third member now disappearing into the mist trying to find us on the original line. Our shouts were lost in the wind and he continued away from our position, so I set off to catch him before he vanished into the white.
Once regrouped, we continued the long ascent of Creag Meagaidh on open slopes through increasingly deeper snow. We were again walking beneath wonderful skies, black, bubbling and threatening one minute, fluffy white balls of cotton fleeing across a sea of azure the next. Small flurries of snow and hail kept blowing in but without any real conviction.
We were following a fence line uphill, the posts varying in height depending on the snow depth, sometimes only the head having managed to break the surface. Behind us, Beinn a’ Chaorainn was lit beautifully by the low light, three summits in perfect profile above their plunging corries.
We snow-ploughed on, rising all the time on a ridge of ever-decreasing width. It would be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security here, but as the summit cairn comes into view the terrain squeezes in with big drops on either side. It’s typical of Creag Meagaidh, a vast and complex octopus of a mountain with long sections of flat plateau intercut everywhere by huge corries, long ridges and soaring cliffs ringing the entrances and exits, a dangerous place in whiteout conditions.
We met a party coming the other way who had experienced a steep snow climb through The Window needing axes and crampons. We reckoned it would be even trickier on the way down so decided to stay high and follow the ridge line on the right all the way down. This meant another careful navigational squeeze, this time between Puist Coire Ardair and the plunging cliffs of the Moy Corrie on to the Sron a’ Ghoire ridge, another link that could prove tricky with limited vision.
Driving snow added to the Alpine feel of the walk, our corries vanishing and then re-appearing as the light shifted and reshaped the landscape, the walking continually lop-sided as every step became a lottery as to how far we would sink.
Mercifully, this eased as soon as we started climbing, moving on to rockier, more ice-shaped terrain. This ridge provides the ultimate in Window shopping, a superb eagle‘s eye view of this prominent V-shaped gap on the skyline and an appreciation of its steepness which is not always obvious when approaching from the corrie below. The gradient of ascent seemed to intensify with every step along the ridge.
The massive cliffs all round were topped by waves of snow, giant quiffs in a form of suspended animation, hanging perilously above the black and white streaked ramparts, looking as though the merest breath could bring them crashing down with a fury belying their beauty.
It was a mountaineer’s dream, this constant unveiling of the Coire Ardair faces standing guard over the dark ink well of freezing Lochan a’Choire far below, the water looking at its finest when mostly starved of light, conjuring up visions of a dark, bottomless pit.
Everything soared, nothing was insignificant. Ridges and faces reared up on all sides, the cliffs glistened in the light and then darkened threateningly as the cloud base lowered for its 15 minutes of fame. We were reduced to mere specks, mortals in the realm of the gods, but we felt privileged to be here to salute their glory.