A Weather Window on Creag Dhubh
It had been a pretty wild week, weather wise. Strong winds all week, and a constant series of heavy showers pushing through the Torridon area had kept us low for much of the week. We made the best of it by heading for Creag Bothy for a few days, but still wanted to get some hills in. The forecast was suggesting there might just be the odd weather window on the Friday, but east looked better than west so it was time to move.
First, we headed for Strath More, the glen running down to Loch Broom, south of Ullapool. Staying at the excellent Forest Way bunkhouse, we had just one day there, before heading for Newtonmore for our last two nights. Steve headed off for home due to prior commitments, but Nigel and I planned a local attempt at the hill immediately above us, Ben Enaiglair. Our cheerful host, Iain, proved useful as he told us of a sneaky way directly on to the hill from the forest walks opposite, which would save us a considerable walk in.
The forecast was for a decent enough morning, but a band of bad weather was approaching. Some forecasts said it would arrive by lunchtime, some a few hours later. We hoped for the latter, and figured we'd see it coming anyway. Forest tracks took us up through the steep woodlands, and immediately after that, we hit the snow. Soft and mushy, it slowed us a little but wasn't too deep. As we climbed, parallel to a deep cleft down which a stream tumbled over dozens of waterfalls, the views behind opened up. Crossing the stream, the main ascent started, the snow slowing us but not too bad. Pausing to rest every few hundred metres, the Fannaichs were visible, with a dark band of clouds gathering behind them. Behind us, the remarkable fortress of An Teallach was plastered white, and awesome sight.
The first sleet reached us as we were looking for shelter from the cutting wind, so we could grab some food before getting on to the exposed ridge. Sheltered below a small crag, our dining room had wonderful vistas of the hills, though those furthest to the south west were disappearing one by one into the grey clag.
It hit us almost immediately we left our sheltered spot, just as the slope steepened and the snow deepened. For a while, we plodded on, from landmark to landmark in the way you do when climbing a slope with limited visibility. The weather was now getting a bit grim. Though the wind was strong and chilly, the worst thing was actually that it wasn't quite cold enough; wet sleet was hitting us rather than snow. We called it a day a bit further up, knowing that this band wasn't just showers. By the time we hit the woods again, it was raining properly, and didn't stop until we'd passed Inverness several hours later.
Newtonmore is a nice little town, and the hostel there has become a regular haunt over the years. Just to the south west of the town, a long ridge line rises to the summit of Creag Dhubh, an alluring line we could walk without needing to drive. What's more, the forecast was good, with even sun and blue skies on the menu, as long as we didn't hang about and could get down before the afternoon showers built up too much.
A track zig-zags its way uphill from behind a nearby riding school, through twisted forests. Soon all traces were covered in snow, soft but less mushy than that of the previous day, so we picked a line through clearings, avoiding the very wet boggy areas just underneath the white cladding. It was slow going, especially through the woodland sections, all the time we were up to our calves, occasionally up to our thighs, in white snow. Coming out of the trees, we were nearly on the ridge, heading for a gap on the skyline. At last, the snow had firmed up a bit.
We stopped on the ridge for a breather. Ahead, a fabulous panorama of the Monadhliath hills, dressed all in white, made up instantly for our lack of hills all week. Below us, a couple of figures were following our tracks, and caught us up quickly. After a friendly chap, our fitter Aberdonian new friends led off; it was their turn to break trail. We turned to follow, though still more slowly than them.
The ridge is formed of a series of subsidiary summits, with small bealachs between them. Though the wind was cold, the skies were mostly clear, and the conditions were just perfect, even more so after a week of bad weather. Taking our time, with far more photos stops than were really necessary, we made our way over this white-clad landscape. After one gap, a narrower ridge was sculpted by the wind into fantastic shapes, leading the eye onwards to the snowy flanks of the summit.
It took us a while to get there, but I revelled in every step we took, a joyful ascent through a winter wonderland. Our new acquaintances passed us on their descent, but finally the summit was in sight. I let Nige go on ahead; for photographic reasons, not because I was tired, honest!
The summit cairn was clad in winter, the panorama fantastic. It was cold, exposed and not a place to hang around, but it was sunny and the view divine. We spent a few minutes there, then turned for home.
The decent was, unsurprisingly, much faster. As the clouds gathered behind us, we grabbed a last opportunity for a bite to eat before the sun went, sheltered by a snow drift. The first flakes touched our faces a little later, but now we didn't care. Though we'd only had one brief window of good weather in a whole week, we'd grabbed it and it had been well worth the wait.