Day 1 – A'Chralaig and Mullach Fraoch-choire
After dropping off Gary, a fellow walker I'd met in the Trekkers Lodge at the Kintail Lodge Hotel the previous evening, I headed down to the car park at the Cluanie Inn. Most of the other car parking spots were still full of snow so it was good to find somewhere where I had a reasonable chance of being able to get out again even if it was at the cost of a little extra walking.
As daylight came on it was clear that this was going to be one of those rare winter days of great views. At that stage the hills were bathed in red – Wikipedia tells me it wasn't alpenglow 'just' the sunrise but whatever it was it still looked good!
As I crossed the road to start on the hills a large herd of deer were making their way from their overnight spot by Loch Cluanie up the hillside. Luckily there was no traffic around otherwise I may have been witness to a tragedy on par with Bambi.
Pretty as the snow-covered hillsides were it soon became clear that all this unconsolidated powder was going to make for an extremely strenuous day. Fortunately the views more than compensated from the toil up the first hillside. Even more fortunately the views warranted lots of pictures so I took lots of opportunities to rest (I mean compose photos!) on the steep drag up to A'Chralaig.
Eventually the top of A'Chralaig came into view. All that untracked snow was aesthetically pleasing but there were definitely a number of occasions when I would have been happy to be following someone else's trail.
The next target,and the main objective for the day, was to be the South Ridge of Mullach Fraoch-choire which provides an easy scramble over (or around) its pinnacles in summer. In winter it's nominally a Grade I route but in his book 'Scotland's Mountain Ridges' Dan Bailey describes it thus; 'But deep unconsolidated snow renders things very tricky; in such conditions this could well feel like the hardest grade I ever'! Luckily, although there was plenty of deep unconsolidated snow the day was otherwise perfect with no wind or any other challenges.
The ridge is fairly narrow and definitely a bit spiky with the pinnacles increasing in difficulty as you move along. The spikiest is the third but, although it took a bit of time to clear of snow and make sure of my footing, it was easy enough. I spent a lot longer trying to work out a way up the fourth and final tower that I was happy with but eventually settled for traversing it along a ledge at half height.
The fourth tower marks the end of the interest and a short stroll brings you out on to the summit of Mullach Fraoch-choire. From here all that remained was the small matter of dropping down to the glen and walking back out. In summer there's a well worn track down there but the blend of unconsolidated snow and breakable crust made it feel like one of the toughest walks-out I've done in a long while.
So, I was lucky enough to have a perfect set of conditions and a great walk with a bit of interest for my first trip to the hills in 2015.
Day 2 – Aonach air Chrith and Maol-Chinn Dearg
No pictures today – not a day for it!
The South Glen Shiel Ridge is well known for the opportunities it offers to bag 7 munros in the same day. Perhaps less well known are the opportunities it offers for winter climbing including in the corrie under Aonach air Chrith. The guidebook suggests there are routes up to grade V in there but I had my eyes set on the more modest ambitions of the Grade I north ridge of Aonach air Chrith (details here http://scottishwinterroutes.com/aonachaircrith.htm).
After the exertions of the previous day I started out with heavy legs which the steep snowy ascent into Coire na Doire Duibhe did nothing to alleviate. Eschewing the attractions of the gully that leads up to the ridge (reckoning on very dodgy snow conditions in there) I took a direct line up the side of A'Chioch to the col under the ridge itself. Under firmer snow it might have been a bit more of a spicy proposition but there was a good crust over consolidated but soft snow so the ascent felt secure (albeit exhausting!). There were a couple of patches of slabby snow but enough 'islands of safety' to give a feeling of security.
Conditions were a lot more challenging than the previous day with enough strength in the wind to give pause for thought and more than enough to send plenty of spindrift around. A day for goggles!
The ridge itself was of a similar quality to the previous day but made more challenging by the wind and the fact that a number of the slabby rocks had a good covering of ice along with the deep snow that I'd become used to. Other than that it was another good day out ending up with an easy descent from Maol-Chinnn Dearg – the scene of our club's ignominious retreat from the South Glen Shiel Ridge a couple of years ago!