The Cold Hole - Fuar Tholl in the snow

Fuar Tholl in the Coulin Forest

Towering over Glen Carron, Fuar Tholl is a spectacular looking hill, a great pyramid split on its eastern side into a great gash of a corrie just below the summit. This is likely the Cold Hole for which the mountain in named. Once, 25 years ago, we’d climbed up the gully at the back of this hole in bad conditions, right to the summit. This was not something I had any wish to repeat these days, so this time we'd pick a slightly more sensible route up around the back.

After our excellent day on Beinn Damh the day before, there was no talk of a rest day, for the forecast was once again superb and we couldn’t wait to get out crampons on snow once again. So, as on many days before, we headed for Coire Lair, just down the valley from Gerry’s where we were staying. We’ve done Beinn Liath Mhor and Sgorr Ruadh several times, and relatively recently, but the third magnificent peak of Fuar Tholl hadn’t been revisited since our early years of winter walking in the 90s. That was therefore the obvious target.

Leaving the car at the phone-box layby below Achnashellach Station we quickly crossed the level crossing, with its bizarre painted markings to show you where to walk, and were soon walking through a scene of devastation, for the forest is currently being harvested here. As we headed up the wide track, our might intended dominated the view ahead.

Liathach from the path to Beinn Damh

The stalkers’ path up into Coire Lair is a true great amongst mountain approaches. Leaving the track to follow the tumbling waters of the Allt an Leth-creag, beneath fragrant pines, it soon turns to wind delightfully up the hillside without every feeling like hard work. As you approach Coire Lair, the ice-scoured rocks push through the thin topsoil, like the very bones of the earth , and your feet grip securely to slabs laced with crystalline veins. Suddenly, you reach a cairn, and this magnificent corrie opens out before you, Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor dominant.

The stalkers' path up to Coire Lair
The stalkers' path up to Coire Lair

Beinn Liath Mhor popping its head up ahead of us

Fuar Tholl
Fuar Tholl

Nearing the lip of Coire Lair

Sgorr Ruadh
Sgorr Ruadh

The magnificent NW face of this spectacular peak

The Coire Lair hills panorama
The Coire Lair hills panorama

Fuar Tholl, Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor

We’d just about reached the snowline, and a little confusion ensued where I initially missed the path down to the ford over the River Lair. Soon we were on track and, somehow missing the most obvious place to cross, tottering from ice-covered rock to ice-covered rock across the freezing cold water. Here, as Nigel and I had gleefully hoped for after years of walking together, Steve promptly found himself almost falling through having somehow picked a bad spot to step, a particular habit of his it has to be said. He looked at the ice cracking around him, the opening hole looked at him greedily, but luckily he escaped its icy jaws this time.

 

Our climb began across the relatively gentle slopes towards Bealach Mor, linking up the faint traces of the path whilst picking the snowiest sections to walk up. For the snow was in perfect condition again, firm but not yet icy enough to need our spikes on. We progressed quickly upwards, stopping occasionally to gaze upwards at the steep flanks of Fuar Tholl, behind across Strathcarron, or ahead to the magnificent North East face of Sgorr Ruadh.

Crossing the River Lair
Crossing the River Lair

Steve nearly takes a dunking

Sgurr na Feartaig
Sgurr na Feartaig

Looking to the hills south of Glen Carron

Climbing towards Bealach Mor
Climbing towards Bealach Mor

Fuar Tholl in the background

Sgorr Ruadh from the ascent
Sgorr Ruadh from the ascent

Easy walking on firm snow towards Bealach Mor

Our thoughts turned to the route ahead. As we rounded the shoulder of the hill, the Coire of Mainnrichean opened out, divided by the stupendous buttress of the same name. I’d thought the gully to the right might go, for on the map it looked less steep. However, the cornices at the top were obvious, and our days of such exploits behind us. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that, as the back of the coire came into sight to the left, the slope up to the ridge looked steep but manageable, and there was clearly no cornice at the top. That decided us, we would head that way.

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

The immense buttress of the same name on the right

Heading into the Coire
Heading into the Coire

Our route of ascent is up the centre ahead

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

Steep, icy snow making up the back wall of the coire

Patterns in the snow
Patterns in the snow

Runnels, presumably formed in soft snow before it froze over in the recent cold weather

A convenient rock offered us a place to stop, to take on some hot tomato soup and our first lunch (there’s always more than one), and to don crampons. Ahead, the route looked steep, clearly it was going to be a calf-burner. An initial steep section between rocky bluffs seemed to lead at a reasonable angle to a slightly lower angled section, followed by a final steepening to the top.

We headed off. Steve’s the fittest of us, so was soon heading up front, with me in the middle and Nige behind. The snow had firmed up here, in a place rarely touched by the sun, the crampons biting securely, but the surface hard enough that kicking a firmer step for a rest was not easy. However, height was being gained very quickly.

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

Steve starting the climb

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

The steeper central section

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

Nige leaving the steeper section

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

Nigel on the steep part

Once the steeper section was behind us, the last bit relented a little, though there were still a few short bits that were harder work. By the top, our calves were telling us we’d been making a lot of effort, but the views more than made up for it.

Coire Mainnrichean
Coire Mainnrichean

The gentler upper slopes

Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor
Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor

Topping out from Coire Mainnrichean

South towards Knoydart
South towards Knoydart

Beinn Sgritheal on the right

Cornice, Mainnrichean Buttress
Cornice, Mainnrichean Buttress

Relief to our calves after the steep ascent

Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Alligin
Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Alligin

Tom na Gruagaich peeping through

Strathcarron Hills
Strathcarron Hills

Sgurr a Chaorachain, Sgurr Choinnich and Sgurr na Feartaig

The 200m of climbing up the back of the corrie had brought us almost to the top. Ahead, snow slopes offered a route around the boulder fields, and we quickly worked our way up to the top.

Summit slopes of Fuar Tholl
Summit slopes of Fuar Tholl

Linking snow patches to avoid taking off crampons

South from Fuar Tholl
South from Fuar Tholl

The hills above the west end of Loch Monar

Another day, another truly remarkable summit. Like yesterday on Beinn Damh, ahead the top fell away suddenly into the corrie, again offering us that “top of the world” feeling that is so wonderful. We wandered over to the nearby gully top, to peer over the dangling cornice at the route which we once came up. Nope, never doing that again!

Fuar Tholl summit
Fuar Tholl summit

Above the gully at the top of Fuar Tholl's eponymous Cold Hole

Fuar Tholl cornice and summit
Fuar Tholl cornice and summit

The top of Fuar Tholl's most obvious gully, summit cairn beyond

Second lunch became dominant in our thoughts. Today there was a modest breeze which, as the temperature was well below freezing, was quite bitter. We therefore “dug in” below the top, always a satisfying thing to do in the snow, making ourselves seats and cup holders for our soup. As we sipped and chewed, we gazed out over the mountains in simple wonder.

An Ruadh-stac and Maol Chean-dearg
An Ruadh-stac and Maol Chean-dearg

from the summit of Fuar Tholl

Panorama from Fuar Tholl summit
Panorama from Fuar Tholl summit

An Ruadh-stac, Maol Chean-dear, Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor, with the Torridon hills behind

Liathach
Liathach

Zoom from the summit of Fuar Tholl

Maol Chean-dearg and Beinn Damh
Maol Chean-dearg and Beinn Damh

Zoom from the summit of Fuar Tholl

Again, we stayed a while, though it was colder than the previous day as the sun was now intermittent, occasionally bringing warmth through a gap in the high clouds. It was time to descend, as the sun lit up Loch Carron ahead.

Loch Carron from Fuar Tholl

The way down would take us back past our route of ascent, over the top of the Mainnrichean Buttress, and down to the Bealach Mor, outflanking Creag Mainnrichean on the way. We’d descended this way in the cloud on our first visit, and my memory was of a slightly awkward descent to avoid the steep parts of the buttresses above the col.

 

Perhaps we should have tried a direct descent from Creag Mainnrichean, for looking back up later steep snow slopes led through the steepest crags. Instead, though, knowing the drop to be steep, I led us down to the west at an angle, following a faint and loose path. This was no fun. In fact, as we tried to maintain height to angle around towards the Bealach, it was pretty awkward, very loose and definitely a bit precarious. As most was on rubble and scree, we’d taken off our crampons, but we now found ourselves having to cross steepish snow slopes between tottering piles of choss. Fortunately, the snow was soft enough here, on the south west slopes, to allow the kicking of slightly better steps and whilst long-legged Nigel pushed on ahead, using his go-go-gadget legs to stride across the snow, Steve and I took it a bit more steadily and chose to drop down once we could. A few minutes later and we were on easy slopes above the Bealach, looking back at the crag above, which didn’t look nearly as bad as what we’d just crossed to avoid it.

Descent from Fuar Tholl

Leaving the sun behind for a while, we strapped the spikes back to our boots and descended quickly and easily back into the corrie below.

Descending Fuar Tholl
Descending Fuar Tholl

Steve crossing the icy slopes into the corrie

Leaving Coire Mainnrichean
Leaving Coire Mainnrichean

Easy descending on perfect snow

The descent was relatively easy, again the snow making it smooth and quick. The mountains looked down upon us, the folded flanks of Beinn Liath Mhor catching the first hint of the warmth and softness of the evening sun.

Steep slopes in Coire Mainnrichean
Steep slopes in Coire Mainnrichean

Starting the descent in the cold shadow of the buttress

Reaching easier slopes
Reaching easier slopes

Walking our from Bealach Mor

Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor
Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor

Dropping down into Coire Lair

Folded rocks, Beinn Liath Mhor
Folded rocks, Beinn Liath Mhor

Amazing contorted formations on the flanks of this wild Munro

Crossing the river easily about 20 yards downstream of our morning route’s icy stepping stones, we were soon dropping back towards Glen Carron through the woodlands, at the end of another memorable day in this truly special part of the world.

Glen Carron and Sgurr nan Ceannaichean

I’ve always said that, once I’m gone, this is one of the places where I would like my friends and family to come and remember me. I’m not really bothered about the sprinkling of ashes, but this is the sort of place where I would like a hint of me to remain. Perhaps by writing about it, it does, in memory at least. Hopefully there are plenty more visits before then though!