Munros above Drumochter Pass, 19-20 January'20

A blog post from one of our mountain adventures in the Scottish hills and mountains. Two days of guiding mountain-hiking in winter conditions bagging the Munros either side of Drumochter Pass. John King was leading.

Munros above Drumochter Pass

Day 1 - West Drumochter Munros

This winter season has been a bit up and down so far with a few good cold spells but a seemingly greater number of relatively mild weather days. Fortunately, the forecast for this trip was set cold and we were due to experience a bit of proper winter weather. Driving down the A9 to the day's start point at Balsporran Cottages the snow started to fall and by the Drumochter Pass there was a descent covering of snow on either side of the road. So we started as all good winter days should start, with snow from the road!

After meeting our group for the day - Laura, Eileen, Brian O, Brian S, Mark, Ray and Alan - we headed off for the day's first summit, Geal Charn. This is one of the smallest Munros and with a start point at 425m above sea level we were able to gain the high ground quickly. Breaking trail up easy angled slopes covered in fresh snow we enjoyed a nice sunrise before entering the cloud and wind. The windchill was intense but we were well wrapped up and it didn't slow us down, reaching the summit in an impressive 1 hour 20 minutes. It wasn't a place to hang around though so we descended southwards towards the bealach with our next Munro and found some shelter to have break. Back in the sun and out of the wind it was quite pleasant!

By the time we got going again the cloud had lifted and we could see our way towards our day's next summit, A'Mharconaich. We made steady progress up scoured terrain, disturbing a couple of mountain hares along the way and quickly emerged onto the summit ridge. Unfortunately the cloud came back in and, with little shelter from the wind, we made the quick diversion to the summit then about faced and headed briskly onwards toward Beinn Udlamain, the highest peak of the day.

Beinn Udlamain translates as the Gloomy Hill but for us it was anything but as we emerged out of the cloud again and on this hill we enjoyed fine conditions with views stretching to the Lawers Range and the Black Mount. The snow underfoot was solid and, if it had been any steeper, crampons would have been essential, but for us it made for easy walking and we were soon at Munro summit number 3 where we huddled in behind the big summit cairn for a well-earned lunch break.

Descending to the bealach with our final Munro, Sgairneach Mhor, we dropped right out of the wind and it was tempting to stay down in the bealach in the winter sunshine, but we climbed on with the wind at our back and completed the round of 4 Munros. After the obligatory team photo at the top it was time to descend back to the A9 down the east ridge of the hill.

A short distance down the ridge we emerged into a short section where the wind was locally whipping round the hill. With big gusts coming from all directions and icy conditions underfoot we were taken a bit by surprise but made a quick escape down the south side of the hill and were able to enjoy a pleasant walk back to the car in the sun, taking in the narrow valley separating the Munros from the Sow of Atholl along the way. Reaching the A9 around 4pm we finished the round in a good time 7 hours 20 minutes and with cars tactically left at the southern end of the round we were spared the long walk back along the A9!

Day 2 - East Drumochter Munros

The eastern Drumochter Munros are part of a vast rolling plateau which can be a wild place in winter storms. Today though, we had a good forecast and we enjoyed another nice sunrise as we climbed up the track that leads away from the A9 up towards the plateau. Often this track can be tough going in the winter, with big drifts of snow forcing you to walk up the sides, but today the snow was shallow and firm and made for nice walking. We climbed steadily up hill and emerged on the plateau before 10am.

We could see our days first summit, A'Bhuidheanach Bheag, away off in the distance and, while it looked quite far away, we were now well warmed up and made good progress over the plateau towards it. The sun made a few appearances along the way and we got some nice views over the plateau. There was a brisk wind blowing as well but this was sending up some spindrift which glistened nicely in the sunlight. After a short dip in the plateau we headed up uniform slopes and emerged at the summit trig point at 1045, a little over 2 hours from the cars!

As with yesterday, the summits were not the place to hang around and we headed back in a generally northwards direction, towards our uphill track to find a bit of shelter for a break. Our route took us past the tops of A' Bhuidheanach Mhor and A' Bhuidheanach and between these tops the windchill was particularly fierce, but we soon found a nice sheltered hollow to stop and enjoy a break. Here we were also passed by Steven, out for a run with his dog Charlie en route to a bigger 3 Munro day taking in the summit of Meall Chuaich as well!

After our break we headed back out into the wind but we now had it behind us and we were blown across the plateau towards our second Munro of the day and last of the weekend, Carn na Caim. In places the wind had scoured the plateau clear of snow and a thin layer of ice covered the rocks, requiring some careful walking, but these bits were not sustained enough to justify crampons and could often be avoided by linking together areas of neve that were making for very pleasant walking. Unfortunately there was no avoiding the icy bits on the final 100m or so to the Munro summit but we all managed to pick our way across and touch the top.

Turning for home we now had the wind in our faces but we soon got into a rhythm and once again returned to the top of the track. The visibility had got better as the day went on and we were able to walk back enjoying views to the our hills from yesterday with the Ben Alder hills behind and even Ben Nevis poking up above everything else in the distance! With a weather front approaching from the west, the high-level clouds were quite dramatic as well and there was some nice winter light on the hills. Back at the track it was a nice easy walk back to the car and we were down in a little over 5 hours, a successful 6 Munro weekend complete.

Thanks to everyone in the group for a great weekend, with good chat and teamwork and especially to Brian H for a fine display of fielding to catch my ski goggles which got whipped off my head in Saturday's winds!

More photos by John King, Laura and Steven are here on Flickr.

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