If the bridge, as the guide books say, is there, I’ve never once used it

Creagh Meagaidh: Hillwalking with Frank
Creagh Meagaidh: Hillwalking with Frank

For ice climbers Creag Meagaidh is one of Scotland’s premier playgrounds; alongside Lochnagar and Ben Nevis, she ranks very high. The mountain, in company with Stob Poite Coire Ardair and Carn Liath, provides a fabulous summertime hill walk, long and satisfying with glorious views over half of Scotland. In winter the mountain asks for caution.

In the mid-1980s The Nature Concervancy (now Scottish Natural Heritage) bought up the area, with the aim of rescuing the corries from complete arboreal denudation. Indeed a drive through Glen Spean will alert the casual driver to the extent to which the region has been given over to commercial afforestation, most of which will eventually be felled. Secluded Coire Ardair has bucked the trend.

Off the A86 stands the once working farm of Aberarder. The farmhouse, as far as Creag Meagaidh is concerned, is now the headquarters of SNH. There’s a covered display ‘shed’ adjacent. Better still, there’s a good car park, offered for the use of nature loving visitors and mountaineers alike.

Beyond the car park a well-maintained path passes the house and its thick stands of birch and heads quickly into the glen. It was early as I headed off, the sun just rising in the east enough to paint the tops of the still dark hills ahead rosy pink.

Very quickly the path begins to climb; with lying snow and ice, mostly trampled hard by previous visitors and slippery, the going was a little slow. And yet it’s good to take a little extra time in Coire Ardair. It’s a corrie as a corrie should be. Most nowadays have been stripped of their once splendid clothing of birch and oak. Over the past 25 years this corrie has been under the process of re-planting. It is now a beautiful glen, especially when spring or autumn foliage brighten the slopes. Even on a winter day, the birch, barren though they are of leaf and stark against the white of the glen, gives the glen a warm and friendly purple shimmer.

I wandered along the path in a rapture, not hurrying as the glen swept itself around its great curve. As the trees thinned so, on either side, the slopes steepened, rising to unseen tops in expanses of blinding white; there can be good ski-ing on some of the gentler slopes up there.

It was small wonder, then, that I failed to notice the great cliffs suddenly hoving into sight. The Posts. Great perpendicular narrow and often snow clogged gullies between fearsome buttresses of black rock soon to be vice gripped by the coming winter’s ice and snow. Here are the proving grounds of intrepid ice climbers.

As my ascending path approached this monstrous mountain amphitheatre the cliffs seemed to grow; soon I had to strain my neck to view them from head to toe! The heart of this bowl is filled with the waters of its own little lochan; I’ve been here when that lochan was iced over and could easily have doubled as a curling pond, today the water looked cold, black and uninviting.

This being a week day I wasn’t surprised by the absence of other walkers, certainly the Posts had not yet accumulated snow enough to please the climbers. The path showed signs of previous walkers however, in fact I’d been grateful, as the snow had thickened, to use these footprints, it saved me the burden of constant trail breaking.

Not the warmest spot for a cup of tea! Yet still a good place to pause a while and gather thoughts. It is from here, you see, that potentially the trickiest part of the day begins.

From the lochan the rough (and usually boggy), path climbs into ‘The Window’. This famous feature is the nick at the top of the corrie’s final boulder choked gully. It’s a pain at any time of the year, those boulders being wet and slimy and ever ready to snag an unwary boot. Today those boulders were buried beneath freshly laden snow, so not so much a problem.

Except that under snowy conditions the gully often becomes a dangerous avalanche trap. Thankfully the avalanche forecast had been good these past few days, there wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, given the uniform layer of snow and the hardness of a few nights of frost, I found my cramponed progress up and out of the gully the easiest I’ve ever enjoyed here.

Soon I was standing on the narrow col. Time for a good look back and forth. Behind me, east the way I’d come, I looked over a wonderful winter landscape, a desert of tan and white enlivened everywhere by the dark greens of those aforementioned plantations. Beneath me a sizeable section of Loch Laggan formed a thick blue ribbon against the rolling hills beyond; the whole of middle Scotland lay beneath me! I turned to view the gentler ramblings of the Monadliath, this time looking north over a huge, crisp Scottish mountainscape, sublime!

Now for another climb. A stiff plod onto Creag Meagaidh’s spacious plateau. I’ve gone astray up here in foggy weather! That wouldn’t be happening today; an almost cloud free sky made light of any navigational requirements.

With vast white vistas in all directions I climbed up beside the mountain’s north west cliff top. Down below, Lochan Uaine (Green Lochan), winking up at me the purest blue, belied its name. Ahead rose a big cairn. Not the summit though; ‘Mad Meg’s Cairn’, this. Who was Meg? Goodness knows! But the cairn was erected in her memory many years ago. And a strange pile of stones it is too; once it even had a little staircase!

The true summit, with its more modest cairn, sits atop a little rise a short distance further westwards. The Ben looked great from here! But it was here that I once got mislaid in thick cloud and rain. That day I lost a good half hour or so relocating the cairn in order to set fresh compass bearings. Today was easy.

It’s always worth returning by way of Creag Meagaidh’s north east ridge. That way lies Puist Coire Ardair and a view of the stunning bowl of Choire Choille-rais, with its own lonely little lochan; again, the cliffs are magnificent. (But do beware the cornices as you creep down cliff-wards for a better view.)

Next came Creag Mhor with more breath taking views into the deep corrie I’d so recently climbed out of. After which the ground fell away steadily, passing over Sron a’ Choire, on its way back down into the mouth of Coire Ardair. This soon became, as it does no matter what the season, the less exciting section of the day. Wet boggy slopes give way to wet boggy flats, no less the case today despite the snow. It was a trudge!

Most guide books recommend making the inevitable crossing of Allt Coire Ardair, via a footbridge close to the farm. If the bridge is there I’ve never once used it. But that’s probably due to my impatience to be back on the corrie path. On all my other visits, and so today, I sought a suitable spot along the allt and boulder-hopped across.