Beinn-a-Ghlo-in-the-snow

2 05 2012

Sat 14 April 2012

I’d been itching to do Beinn a’ Ghlo ever since I started seriously collecting Munros – probably about 10 years ago now. I was quite tempted to do it in full winter conditions as, although Beinn a’ Ghlo encompasses three peaks, they looked to be quite easy from the photos and maps. However, after completing the round of the peaks, I’m now really glad it wasn’t in full winter conditions as I found it a pretty hard day…

After a night at Pitlochry Youth Hostel, where no alarm clock was needed as my fellow roomies got up at the ungodly hour of 0650 (not much later than I get up for early shifts!), I set out in blazing sunshine for the short drive to Blair Atholl. Well actually, the carpark for the start of the route is 3 steep miles above Blair Atholl by Loch Moraig at a convenient altitude of a little over 1000 feet.

I was kitted up and ready to leave the carpark by 0930. The first thing I noticed, however, was how bitterly cold it was up there despite the glorious sunshine. By the time I’d walked the first mile of vehicle track and then left it to cross a short boggy area to the foot of the hill, the first flakes of snow started to fall. The snow consisted of very dry square lumps which weren’t settling at all and so I wasn’t unduly concerned – in any case, I’d taken crampons and microspikes to cater for most eventualities.

I started on the very steep ascent of the wide and stony track running up the front of the first hill, Carn Liath – this track is visible for miles and can be clearly seen from the A9. I noted that there was a guy ahead of me and decided to measure my progress against his – he was probably too far ahead for me to consider competing and trying to pass him though. I was about 10 minutes behind him at this point…

I remained 10 minutes behind him all the way up the steep incline – I could see he was a young man so was pleased with my progress. As the ridge started to flatten out towards the summit, the north wind hit me – the windchill was pretty horrific. I knew I was going to be stuck with it for most of the day as my route across all 3 hills was in a north-easterly direction. Unusually for me, I did a great deal of the rest of the walk wearing absolutely everything and fully zipped up to the neck – I’m normally in a t-shirt while climbing hills as I’m a very hot walker – must have been cold!

The guy ahead hadn’t stopped on the summit and, as I never usually do, and certainly wasn’t about to in such cold conditions, I remained the same distance behind him. By now, what should have been fantastic views ahead had started to disappear into a more serious blizzard. I was pretty miffed as I think the second mountain is the best looking and I really wanted to take photos. I took a couple of misty shots as I could still make it out and thought conditions may get even worse.

I was even more miffed when I realised I’d just run out of film so was going to have to sit on the freezing summit ridge to change it. I was glad I did though as, a couple of minutes later, the peak, Braigh Coire Chruinn-Bhalgain, was now appearing out of the murk and its summit snows were starting to gleam in the sunshine. I wished some of the sunshine would head my way but Carn Liath was still pretty much in the gloom.


Across to Carn nan Gabhar – my 3rd peak

After a short descent, a long and pleasant ridge headed along to a final descent to the col between the two peaks. I was a bit daunted to see the huge drop between the two peaks and what looked like a very long climb up to the second hill. I’d seen plenty of photos of this bit but they hadn’t conveyed the scale of height loss very well. I checked my altimeter on the col and found I had a re-ascent of just over 1000 feet. There was still a great path but it looked long and arduous.

As I started the ascent, I was pleased to find the path was at a very easy gradient after the slog up Carn Liath and I was still going well.


Looking back to Carn Liath Descent

Despite there still being cornices along the edge of the ridge, there was no snow until right at the summit. As I neared the summit though, I saw my chap was literally miles ahead and starting to descend to the next col already!


Carn nan Gabhar

The summit was horrifically cold, probably more than Carn Liath had been, so I hurried on after him.

I wasn’t sure exactly where I should leave the next ridge to attain the col and really didn’t want to stop and get my map out in such cold conditions so went off the obvious path to follow the edge of the ridge and peer down to the col. Pretty soon, I found an easy slope heading down and, as I started down it, saw a path zig-zagging down just a few yards back to my right.

I pounded down the great path and, as I reached the col, I saw the guy I was following had taken a break and was only just setting off ahead of me. Being the sociable type on the hills, I tried really hard to catch him up and say hello but he seemed to want to escape and powered away up the hill (maybe I look scary!) I really couldn’t keep up with him on this next section – a raking path up to the saddle between the main peak and the subsidiary top. The path was clear of snow but there was lots of it just above the path and I could see the final peak of Carn nan Gabhar was “wick wi’ it” as we would say in Yorkshire!

Up to now, I’d eaten and drunk nothing since my light breakfast as I was feeling fine and well. However, as I neared the frozen and wind-blasted saddle to start the final ascent to the summit ridge, I realised I was rapidly ‘running out of food’. I couldn’t stop for a break there as it was dangerously cold and looked around in vain to see somewhere I could shelter to get my biscuits. Unfortunately, I could see there would be nowhere out of the killer windchill and that I’d have to press on at least to the first of the three summits on the ridge above.

The climb, although only a little over 350 feet, seemed to go on forever on snowy boulders and I started to feel awful – I had to reach the shelter of the little peak at the end of the ridge though. Two guys who’d been way ahead were coming back down just as I was about to reach the sheltered spot – by then I was staggering badly with exhaustion, cold and lack of food. They looked quite concerned and hailed me – I put on a cheery voice and gave them a wave and staggered on upwards. I finally reached the sheltered spot and collapsed onto a snowy boulder to dig out my biscuits and pour a hot coffee.

I wolfed down my two shortcake fingers and downed my coffee. As I did, I noticed I was disappearing into the cloud of another blizzard – I hoped it would be a short one. Before everything disappeared, I whipped out my compass and checked the heading back down to the rapidly disappearing Munro ‘top’ of Argiod Bheinn with the two chaps now strolling along towards it – my next objective after the main summit.

I then got to my feet, checked I was no longer staggering, and headed back into the wind for the rest of the ridge to the main summit. The blizzard had abated, the mist had cleared and I could see the second summit with a trig point not too far away and, to my surprise, the guy I’d been timing appeared right by me on his way back. As the main summit is past the trig point, I wondered whether he’d missed it in the mist as it seemed too soon for him to be heading back down already.


The Trig Summit from the Main Summit

To say it was a battle to the trig point summit and then the true summit beyond would be an understatement. The route became bouldery, the boulders were coated with soft and slippery snow and the wind was now a freezing gale which battered me one way and the next. I stumbled about on the slippery boulders and wondered whether my face was yet coated with a sheet of ice – it certainly hurt like it was! My only comfort was knowing that, very soon, I’d have my back to the wind for most of my return journey.

I made it to the true summit and then was blown back to visit the trig point summit – I didn’t wait around at either but just briefly touched them and hurried past.


My Shelter Peak from the Trig Summit

It was lovely to head down towards Argiod Bheinn and drop out of the main blast and get the full benefit of my windproof jacket and hood. Argiod Bheinn was a doddle…

I couldn’t decide whether to descend the end of its ridge as the two guys had done (the guy I’d been timing had completely disappeared off the mountain so must have missed out the top) or return via the previous col and descend the burn-side as most people do. In the end, I decided discretion was the better part of valour (I’d heard bad tales about the steep and loose ridge-end) and went back down to the main col between Carn nan Gabhar and Braigh Coire Chruinn-Bhalgain to follow the burn off the hill.


Returning from Argiod Bheinn

There were thick snow banks over the burn which kept me on one side of it until near the bottom of the slope when I crossed to the Argiod Bheinn side as that looked a better track. The way was pretty wet and slippery though, probably from all the snow-melt. It was about a mile before I exited the narrow burn valley and swapped back across to the path on the other side to contour round what I thought at the time was Carn Liath (a quick check of the map would have confirmed that it wasn’t but it didn’t matter really).


Looking back to col – Argiod Bheinn on Right

From a distance, the path ahead looked like it was dry, stony and good but I was soon to find out different. It actually mostly consisted of thick and sticky peat, luckily not very wet but soft enough for my whole boot to sink into and stick fast with annoying regularity – that was when it wasn’t sliding about on top of the stuff. There were also quite a few side streams to cross which meant quite a bit of up and down – on such an unstable surface, this was hard work! The path must have continued in this state for at least another mile by which time I was starting to feel tired and my legs started to ache a bit.

Luckily after that the track got firmer and stonier – it was here I realised though, that I wasn’t heading round the flanks of Carn Liath at all, but the small hill of Beinn Bheag. Carn Liath started to come into view in the distance, probably nearly a mile away. I knew there were still a few miles to go as then there was the landrover track. However, it had now come out nice and sunny and I decided to find a sheltered spot and have a proper break to soak up some warmth.

Not far from the start of the landrover track I found just the spot and sat on the dead bracken in the sun and out of the wind to drink more coffee and relax in the sun. After such a good recharge of my batteries I was ready to romp back to the car and set off at a good pace. I was pleased to round a corner soon after and find I was back to being only 5 minutes behind the guy I’d been tailing all day. I was now, at last, in my base layer top with my neck unzipped and my sleeves rolled up – much better.


Looking Back at Beinn a’ Ghlo Range in sun

About quarter of a mile from the car, and just before it came into sight, the blizzard I’d spied creeping up behind me finally hit. And what a blizzard it was – horizontal and thick snow blasting across me. It wasn’t very wet snow and I didn’t really want to stop and put on layers so near to the car so I ploughed grimly on.


Rounding Carn Liath Before Storm Hit

By the time I reached the car and got everything taken off and stowed away, I was frozen to the bone again and in a foul mood that it couldn’t have held off for another few minutes. I noticed it was only just after 4pm though and hoped that, if I rushed down the road to the village, I’d catch the cafe and get some nice, warming soup.

Unfortunately, as is sadly common for cafes in Britain, although there were lots of staff stood around, they were no longer serving – they’d stopped at four! 😦 I was pretty miffed and stomped off to the pubs to see if they were yet serving food. It’s common in Britain though for there to be a completely foodless couple of hours between cafes not bothering to serve any more and pubs starting their evening meals.

I was in luck – the first pub I called at, the Atholl Arms, was serving food all afternoon. I had a superb macaroni cheese with garlic bread and, although I’d hoped to also have a pudding, was far too full. I’d sat as near as possible to the fire and finally got more or less warmed through at last before setting off for the (equally warm and cosy) bunkhouse at Dalwhinnie for the night.

Stats: 14.5 miles, 4521 feet of ascent, 5 ¾ hours, 2 shortcake fingers and some coffee 😉

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8 responses

6 05 2012
bob

Good write up Carol.Severe Wind chill.No thanks 🙂 Thats why I,m never going to do a 2nd round of Munro,s.Some of the keener young folk in my club can extend the winter season on the mountains for at least another three months.I like to run towards summer like meeting a best freind.They can still find sub zero conditions in july and august most years.

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17 05 2012
mountaincoward

Love that comment about running towards summer – that’s exactly what I’m like – I hate the cold. A bit of walking in snow is fun sometimes, providing it’s perfect, but windchill is bloody awful and could never be fun! It also makes me exhausted very quickly!

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3 05 2012
chrissiedixie

I couldn’t have done all that on just a couple of shortbread fingers and some coffee! I’d have had jam sandwiches, cheese, nutella sandwiches, chocolate, flapjack……

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3 05 2012
mountaincoward

LOL! I don’t like to carry much weight on my walks and only have a very small bag with just essentials in it so I’ve trained myself over the years to do all my walks on that amount of food. I needed to stop a bit sooner though – probably on the col where the other guy did – then I wouldn’t have had any problems.
Carol.

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3 05 2012
fedupofuserids

Nice to see these hills. Apart from your blood sugar levels? and the wintry weather they didn’t seem to cause you any great difficulty and I’m sure in summer with a hearty breakfast you would of had a drama free walk!

I must admit I’ve never taken to the East side of Scotland and always find myself drawn to the West. It could be the limited view you get from the A9 as I’m sure its just as good if I was to give it a chance..

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3 05 2012
mountaincoward

My blood sugar’s pretty well-behaved – I just needed to stop a bit sooner… I can’t eat big breakfasts as I’m not a morning person – I’d just be sick if I did!

That area is one of my favourite areas for walking but Richard’s like you and prefers the spikier western side.

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2 05 2012
Paul Shorrock

A bit of an epic, but a good result.

That’s both the walk and the post ;-D

Good stuff, Carol!

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10 03 2014
mountaincoward

Oo-errr – do you mean an epic post as in rather long? I tried not to waffle on too much if so…

I was very pleased with my time. I was characteristically exhausted again after such a cold day though. The next day I did a much longer walk/cycle (although with much less ascent) on Carn Dearg from Dalwhinnie (report to follow) and wasn’t tired at all afterwards. So, it’s definitely the cold which exhausts me still

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