Distance: 15.3 miles
Time: 6.75 hours (incl stops)
Weather: Perfect winter conditions, sub-zero, no clouds
Munros Attempted: Beinn Fhada
Munros Summited: None
Another perfect morning in Kintail: the air icy and cold and the sky already a deep shade of blue as I ate my breakfast. The surface of Loch Duich was ruffled only by a pair of herons as I walked briskly along the side of the A87 to the turn off at Allt a’ chruinn. Sgurr an Airgid was delighting in the feel of the morning sunlight on its snow-speckled upper reaches.
Strath Croe had a typical Sunday morning feel to it and only a couple of four-wheel drives passed me as I turned up towards the Activity Centre, clearly not active all year round. The views onto the notched ridge of Beinn Fhada, and the more gentle A’ Ghlas-bheinn were stunning. From here I followed a track close by the Rive Croe until it crossed a bridge by Innis a Chrotha (NG 969 211). It wasn’t clear exactly where the track went as it passed by farm buildings but it was clear that I took a wrong turn as I ended up on boggy ground close by the river and on the wrong side of a large deer fence. With only a couple of cows to witness I clambered over the fence and found the actual track just metres away.
It was now a case of following this well made track on into the wilder regions. Ahead lay A’ Ghlas-bheinn. I skirted the base of Beinn Bhuide, the northernmost part of Beinn Fhada. A couple of kilometres on I glimpsed through the trees a couple of cars parked at the Falls of Glomach car park. The path now turned right into the depths of Gleann Choinneachain, hidden from the low winter sun by steep mountains on all sides. The path here is excellent, and I steadily gained height as the slopes of A’ Ghlas-bheinn passed on my left. Ahead I could see Meall a’ Bhealaich and to the left the Bealach an Sgairne which carries a right of way through to Glen Affric.
Ahead of me on the path was a solitary figure. I eventually caught them up at the crossing of the Allt Coire an Sgairne (NH 003 212) which came tumbling down in a series of impressive falls from Beinn Fhada’s northern corrie. The river was wide and fairly swift but the main problem was the sub-zero temperature which meant any exposed wet rock was like an ice cube. Following the advice of the person, who had already crossed, and with the aid of my pole I semi-waded, half-danced across and paused for breath and a chat on the far side. The chap was heading to A’ Ghlas-bheinn.
From here the path climbed in a series of wide zig-zags, heading towards the pass. At a small cairn (NH 007 213) a track forked off to the right and I took this, heading for Beinn Fhada’s northern corrie. Although the path lower down had some treacherous stretches of ice it was on this section that I met the first snow. It was deep and well consolidated though gave good purchase on the axe which had now replaced pole. A set of prints were seen coming down the track and these made the whole thing a lot easier as I could use these where deep enough, or enlarge them with my axe if necassary. In this way a lot of step-cutting time was saved.
I was soon enough in the impressive surroundings of Coire an Sgairne with jagged peaks to my right and the headwall of dark cliffs to the south. The stalkers track continued to give up a good route and was largely snow-free until I reached the final steep pull to the ridge. At this point I left the track and headed more or less directly up, using lines of turf and rock to scramble up. This tactic paid off until I got within ten meters or so of the summit at which point the snow was unbreached. The ice axe was now used to cut a series of steps up the incline until, with much relief, I reached the top (NH 011 202).
It was well worth the effort, the views were spectacular and the sky still carried not a shred of cloud. As I stood catching my breath, and buttoning up against the wind I heard a cheerful “hello”. Two guys were coming nonchalantly down the snow slopes from the summit. They reported excelent views from the top though had doubts of my ability to step-cut all the way. Crampons would have been brilliant at this point but I didn’t have them (it’s a long story!).
Instead I repeated the previous tactic, keeping close to the broken edges of the west rim of the mountain, I scrmabled my way up to the 930m point. Here, unfortunately my way was barred by a vast snow slope, unbroken and disappearing up over a false summit (NH 014 196). Concious of the time of day and my energy levels I decided that the mountain had won this time and that I wasn’t going to step cut up. I took a few photos, admired the view for a while and then started my descent.
The views all around were superb. Immediately below I could see the Loch a Bhealaich. To my west Glen Affric stood. South the jagged tops of the Five Sisters just peered over the summit plateau. That plateau, the Plaide Mor, stretched around, covered in shimmering white snow, to the magnificent peak of Sgurr a Choire, which has a very Alpine flavour. North I could see the Torridon Peaks, away beyond the bumps of A’ Ghlas-bheinn.
The tactical retreat was easier than I expected, taking the same line down the first steep part of the descent until I regained the track in the coire. Here I sheltered behind a large boulder and ate lunch, enjoying the views down Gleann Choinneachain to Beinn Bhreac. I then followed the stalkers path back down to the fork. The snow slopes going down were no worse than they’d been going up, and the work I’d done enlarging steps made it all pass by quickly and securely.
With plenty of time to spare I enjoyed a more casual walk back, crossing across the Abhainn Chonaig near the Glomach car park (NG 982 223) and talking a line down the other side of Strath Croe. In the low winter sunshine it looked idylic. There were deer and sheep grazing on the lower slopes of Sgurr an Airgid and the waters of Loch Duich shone.
I returned to the hotel at around 3:30 for a well deserved bottle of Red Cuillin and a feeling of satisfaction despite not having summited. With crampons this climb would have been much less dramatic and safer but I kept within my ability and turned back before I could get myself into a difficult situation.