A winter micro adventure in the Western Highlands

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I’ve had the good fortune to be able to explore the hills around Torridon for the past 15 or so years as my wife’s grandmother, a MacDonald, grew up on a croft just below Beinn Eighe in Kinlochewe. Although now 97 and having not lived there for almost 80 years, she still has a small house there which is used regularly by the extended family throughout the summer.  However, it’s rarely used in winter and over the last couple of years I’d been imaging walking amongst the beautiful snow covered peaks of Slioch and Liathach. I started planning a trip and although more than happy to go alone thought I’d share the idea with a few friends, expecting maybe one or two to show some interest.  I was surprised when seven of the nine on my invitation list promptly booked flights and all of a sudden there was some practicalities to attend to.  In my musing I’d not actually thought too much about about routes that would be safe and accessible for a bunch of novices, so I took out the maps and soon realised that the reality was quite different with very few routes that would not offer some potential dangers in winter.  This was when I turned to Google in search of some local expertise and soon came across Jim and nineonesix-guiding. The simple pricing and great communication from Jim made the whole process straight forward and allowed me to really enjoy the build up to the trip, rather than fretting about it.  Nor had I actually looked in any detail at the winter conditions or the propensity for snow in Wester Ross and this proved quite hard to come by.  As the days and weeks ticked by until our mid-January departure I was a little concerned by the lack of any persevering snow, which I was fortunate to have a live view on thanks to the great web cam at the Torrid Hotel  (http://torridon.wpengine.com/webcam) which looks directly onto the south side of Liathach.  Christmas and New Year passed and I was keeping a close eye on the weather and the webcam and still no snow had settled even at the height of the summits. Then with almost perfect timing, a week or so before departure, a cold and wet front started blowing in from the Arctic.  So, we got on our way and my concerns soon went from no snow to too much snow as we had to cross from the east coast to the west. We picked up our ‘click and collect’ from Tesco and got out winter gear fitted by the helpful crew at TISO before getting going.  As we neared the bucolic Glen Docherty Pass the snow was thick on the road and with no winter tyres the minibus was a little unsteady. Fortunately the snow ploughs and gritters were out in force and the descent into Kinlochewe went without incident.

Early on Saturday Jim showed up, along with our other guide Richard and after a concise briefing – where Jim really listened to what we wanted to get out of the day – we headed out to the ridge of Beinn Eighe which was pointing directly at us just outside the widow.  A stunning, steep sided track with a good covering of beautiful Scots pine eased us into the day before we got to the river crossing which signals the start of the climbing and we soon discovered how much more effort is required when there’s a good covering of snow.  Before long we found ourselves high up on the ridge using our ice axes for security and practicing some essential skills as we made our way up. Then, before long we unpacked the crampons and benefited from the the secure bite of these as we made our way up some steep and tricky  ground.  Up until this point the weather had been kind to us with sun often showering down on the beautiful, clean white hills around us, but things then started to close in and more snow began to fall.  We reached Creag Dubh at the top of the ridge and after a short break we took a different route down on the other side of the ridge; Jim & Richard having carefully assessed the snow conditions. This gave us a great chance to practice more of the skills we’d been learning including ice axe arrests and different methods for understanding the snow pack. On the safer slopes we also managed to enjoy frolicking around in the the kind of snow you just don’t get in southern England.  We eventually made our way off the mountain after the sun had set, already reminiscing about the day we’d just had.

We had set out with the idea of having a great, safe day high up in the mountains, while picking up a few essential skills along the way. That’s exactly what we got, thanks largely to Jim and Richard.

blog by Jamie Saward

more photos here at the nineonesix-guiding gallery

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