Land of flood and mountain” is an oft used and apt term for Scotland; nowhere is this better seen, for instance, than in the far north, where a traveller could better use a boat inland. Elsewhere geological events over eons have criss-crossed the land with fjord like ribbons of water, most locked tight by vice-like mountains. All of this makes for some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.
Lochs Eil and Linnhe meet to form a watery elbow by Fort William. From the sea and within the elbow’s crook, rises Stob Coire a’ Chearcail. Although rising to only 770 metres, its ridges and east facing corrie present an alluring aspect from across the loch a few miles south of Fort William. From Ben Nevis she looks superb. As if to repay the compliment the view from the summit, across to Ben Nevis, is stunning. It was for that view that we chose this hill on a day of high winds and bitterly cold temperatures.
Finding the correct starting point proved the most difficult task of the day. Various tracks leave the road from Loch Eil’s southern shore; all we knew for certain was that ours started approximately one kilometre east of a phone box at a cluster of houses with the name of Bhaic.
Initially climbing gently above birch spattered moorland, it’s a good track. And as we climbed we turned often to survey the widening vista behind us.
Across the loch, climbing out of dark plantations, the snow white ridge of Gulvain took shape. With height gained, Streap and eventually, the hills of Corryhully, raised beautiful heads and burly shoulders. By the time we’d reached our ridge on Ceann Caol, the alp-like hills of Loch Sheil and beyond, jostled in a jumble of peaks and sculpted ridges. Sublime!
Well before we arrived on Ceann Caol, we met the snow; it came down to meet us, furtively at first, in strips and patches which brindled the dark heathery slopes, then in abundance and depth enough to slow us down.
Facing us on Ceann Caol was a gently undulating ridge culminating, two miles farther west, in the as yet invisible cone of our Corbett’s summit.
In normal conditions this would be a pleasant ramble; today, with a bitterly cold and sometimes violent wind, blowing seemingly, from the heart of Ben Nevis itself, it was a trial.
Tucked as we were into our Gore-tex hoods, we paid little attention to any views; of Ben Nevis we could see only its upper half, in any case.
Though great quantities of snow had fallen in recent days, the ridge top had been partially cleared by the broom like wind. There were sizeable patches nonetheless. One of which undid me!
Most snow patches, some margined with ice, we simply ploughed through. But you never know what lies beneath. And beneath one patch lay a watery hole-a- waiting. It sucked me in. Feeling my boots filling with icy water I tried a backwards dive, landed on my rear and got sopping wet pants to add to my misery. The wind would soon dry my trousers, only walking would stop my feet from freezing.
The ridge narrows pleasantly on Braigh Bhaic.
We walked along a high walkway painted with the deep reds and yellows of sphagnum moss, the copper and gold of last year’s grasses and the dark browns and dead purples of ubiquitous heather.
Snow patches glared in the sun and stretches of frozen water gleamed like silver.
The views grew to stun, none more so than that of huge Ben Nevis climbing from the cold waters of Loch Linnhe. Far below, shadowed by the monster at its back, Fort William sat in a wintry mood. Though photography was difficult in the buffeting wind, it was mandatory; the support of a rusty old fence post offered some help.
We dropped down into one last little col along the ridge. Suddenly a flat calm; not a breath of wind. In front of us Coire a’ Chearcaill, opened up its snow gorged maw, a black buttress, snow laced and gully riven, breaking the otherwise clean line like a roman’s nose.
An easy angled slope on deep virgin snow led to the summit.
Keeping as close to the cornice as safety would allow, we marched up. Not quite perfect, the snow took our weight for most of the way to the summit, only in one or two places did it let us down and cause us to flounder.
The trig point and cairn of red stones which adorn the broad summit seem to have had an argument; aloof they stand of each other by many yards.
There’s a feeling of space up here, almost Arctic.
Oblivious to the cold for a while, we wandered around relishing the views and taking photographs.
It had been a long time since breakfast, bellies were rumbling. We’d earlier agreed to forego elevenses until we were back in the windless col. We relished afresh the snow slope and made our way hence.
When we got back down the col had been transformed; when we’d passed this way less than an hour since, the wind must just have been taking a breather. Back there now we found ourselves in a wind tunnel; how fickle our mountain environment!
No suitable shelter here we made our way back along the ridge. I didn’t notice my companion lagging behind for more photos; when I eventually turned off ridge for the shelter of a low outcrop, he was nowhere to be seen.
I snuggled down and poured a cup of tea. Minutes past, still no friend. Eventually I spotted him; in a world of his own he sauntered along the crest and past me. I stood and shouted. The wind tossed my words somewhere over Knoydart! I shouted more; no response. I took out my whistle and blew a few shrill blasts. He didn’t hear those.
He was only a few dozen yards distant but no way could I get his attention. Soon he’d be a mile in front.
Just as I thought I might have to go running after him he turned.
e’d done so “Just for the view behind me,” he told me when he reached me; he hadn’t heard a thing.
Even in the shelter of those rocks our break was a hasty affair; the wind can find you anywhere. We were glad to don our packs and gloves and be off again.
Occasionally we’d had the company of a sketchy path, though none was needed on such a well defined ridge. There are fence posts, long since bereft of wire and our own footsteps over patchy snow led us in the right direction. Soon, near where Allt na h-Eirigh cuts a little rocky ravine in the side of the hill, we regained our upward track.
In spite of the winds up here the weather had been kind, blue skies and the kind of lighting that only winter days can bring, made for expansive views.
We took our time descending; with Loch Eil stretched beneath us, backed by tiers of snow draped mountains reaching all horizons, who would want to hurry.