The Mountain's Silhouette

Hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Scotland

Beinn a' Ghlo

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Distance: 13.8 miles
Time: 6hrs 54mins (including brief stops)
Ascent: 5,164ft
Munros: Carn Liath (975m), Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain (1070m), Carn nan Gabhar (1129m)
Weather: Fairly mild, little wind, cloud base at around 850m
Route: Click to view

Another early start from Aberdeen this morning, but for a change the thermometer wasn’t in the red, but instead, at 5:30am with light cloud cover, showed +5! Spring is truly on its way and it was a much more straightforward drive without the worry of ice and snow. After a quick run up the A9 I turned off, passed through a sleeping Blair Atholl and gently climbed up on the single track road, past the old Bridge of Tilt and out across open farm land to the parking point at the junction up to Monzie farm.

The parking point was a quagmire of mud but I managed to get the car backed up onto a fairly solid piece of ground and got out to boot up. The heavy cloud cover was a bit discouraging, but it seemed like it might lift just above Munro height with some time. As it was, Beinn a’ Ghlo was living up to its name with the first summit, Carn Liath, wreathed in mist.

As I was getting ready two other folk arrived, parking their cars by the side of the road and discussing whether there was enough room for a tractor to slip by. I said ‘hello’ as I passed and dropped down to the gate marked Shinagag, which led onto a vehicle track climbing up rolling snow-covered slopes towards the mountain.

It was easier to walk on the raised verges than the snowy track and I enjoyed this first part of the walk. There was no breeze and my winter layers were already a bit too much for the relatively mild conditions. Below me, across the frozen surface of Loch Moraig, a faint mist hung in the valley containing the A9 and Blair Atholl. At just before 9am, and being first off the marks, it was calm and peaceful all about me.

At the pair of huts I left the vehicle track and struck north across a boggy area of land, riddled with numerous streams, some frozen some flowing. A path came visible here and there, eventually meeting the line of an old stone wall and turning towards Carn Liath south-west flank. As the ground rose the path became more distinct and I made good progress up to the start of the snowline at around 700m.

Here the going got a bit tricky with the snow quality changing step-by-step from soft and slushy to hard ice. I was following a distinct set of footprints up the mountain but at times these were reduced to the merest slit in the ice. I was committed and didn’t have a chance to stop for crampons so instead front pointed my way up, occasionally step-cutting with my axe and reached the relatively safety of a patch of bare, heathery ground. I was probably only around 150m below the summit by now but used the opportunity to don crampons. With these attached the slope was taken with much greater confidence and soon eased off, just as I entered the cloud.

I passed by the first marker and eventually came to the snow-blasted trig point, a beacon of dirty-grey concrete in a white, disorientating world. It was 9:30am and with no views I paused only briefly for a glug of water before heading off the summit in a north-westerly direction. As I descended the cloud billowed and for a few moments a vista of the route ahead was revealed. The second Munro Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain was wreathed in cloud but Airgiod Bheinn and Carn nan Gabhar looked more promising. I also saw the sinuous line taken by the ridge I was on, bending first west, then east, then west again to drop to the bealach with BCCB. No sooner had I taken a few quick snaps but the mist closed in again and I continued on my way.

The compacted snow gave great conditions for crampons and I made good progress, following the ridge line and then dropping down to the bealach. Occasional breaks in the cloud gave me views ahead until I dropped out of it completely.

The slope was steep on the far side but a distinct line of tracks followed the curve of the mountain as it came around from east to north, making a line for the summit. I passed a couple of Ptarmigan waddling around in their winter coats. It was only at this point that I spotted the people following me as they summited Carn Liath just as I disappeared once again into the clouds.

I navigated along the ridge to the cairn on top of BCCB and sat down on the far side to take a spot of tea and enjoy a snack. It was 10:30am and already I had made good progress despite the poor conditions.

I knew the next bit of navigation was going to be key. In near whiteout conditions the lip of the cornice on my right hand side was the key handrail. With map, compass and GPS I kept this at a steady distance to my right and followed my progress until the line started to bend away. I then paced out the steps to get to a point approximately midway on the ridge (GR 953728), double checked my GPS and then turned, finding with some relief a number of tracks congregating as the ground dropped.

Again I came out of the billowing clouds to find the next bealach below my feet and an easy crampon descent down to it on compacted snow. To my left the ribs of Carn na Gabhar stretched off down a wide gully running north-north-west. To my right I could see the first possible descent route off Beinn a’ Ghlo. Strangely, investigation of the area revealed only a set of ski tracks heading down from the bealach.

Ignoring this puzzle for the moment I started up the steep slope to reach the south ridge of Carn nan Gabhar. The snow again was hard and easy to walk up in crampons and again I disappeared into the cloud. Contouring beneath Airgiod Bheinn I came up to the ridge at the wide col between the two hills and struck north towards the summit. As I climbed a momentary break in the clouds revealed the first cairn.

On this ascent I encountered the first really deep snow of the day, which, in crampons hampered my progress. It probably would have made life easier to have removed them but I continued valiantly on, clambering up to the cairn to take in the magnificently white views. I then struck out across the flattish plateau, in short time reach the trig point, the south side of which had had its hoar frost covering chipped away.

I continued on to the true summit which the OS claim to be 9 meters higher than the trig point. This is clearly baloney, a vicious rumour started to ensure hillwalkers wade another few meters through deep snow just to get the tick! Despite this I arrived just before twelve and in time for a delightful lunch.

I returned by my outward route, passing the trig point and reaching again the first cairn. Here the clouds parted to give some views back towards BCCB and beyond.

I watched as two skiers made their way down to the bealach, and further behind them, the two walkers who I had said hello to at the car park just leaving the summit point. I dropped down from Carn na Gabhar and went back onto the compass as I was wrapped once again in cloud. I decided to try the descent of Airgiod Bheinn, in spite of some warnings of its steepness. The ridge itself was fairly featureless but narrow enough that I could easily keep sight of both sides and stay towards the centre. As the map indicates the western side is very steep but the eastern gentler so as I descended I veered more that way, following to roll of the ridge as it dropped out of the cloud. Here and there I found footprints coming up the way which was somewhat heartening.

Once out of the cloud I could see my target, the path dropping down the side of Beinn Bheag. The descent at this point became very steep but I was still able to crampon down quite happily holding my axe ready to arrest a fall. The ridge came down into a steep snow-filled gulley which I chose to avoid by moving to the right and dropping down slopes that had increasing patches of heather peeking through. Eventually the gradient relented and I was able to pick a starting point and glissade down to the stream bed. Here ski tracks and footprints dropping down from the bealach converged, crossed the stream and picked up the path on the far side. I followed them and on reaching the path paused for a final brew and a chance to properly stow the crampons and lose a layer of clothing.

The walk out was uneventful. I followed the path as it contoured around Beinn Bheag giving views back up to Airgiod Bheinn and the other peaks of Beinn a’ Ghlo. The light was strangely flat and had barely changed since 8 that morning. The track was a mixture of bog, mud, snow and ice and I walked in the heather more often than on the track. Eventually it gave way to a muddled set of tracks and bogs which I turned away from and dropped onto a vehicle track. This eventually merged with another, more substantial track that led me back to the huts. A chap was lying on the grass beside one taking the air, I waved as I passed but was on a mission to get back to the car. With Carn Liath behind I made rapid progress back down, arriving at the now congested parking area 7 hrs 54 mins after setting off.

It had been a very satisfying day, despite the lack of views, and gives me a few ideas for a return in the summer where I’d like to start off with the two Munros further west and then come on to Carn na Ghabar from the north and return along the ridge, hopefully getting the views I missed this time around. I might throw in a wild camp in Glen Tilt along the way!

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