The Cold Hole - Fuar Tholl in the snow
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!