A fight there and back

A’ Chailleach (930m); Carn Sgulain (920m)

  • Pronunciation:            Uh Chalyok; Karn Skoolern
  • Translation:                 The Old Woman; Hill of the Basket
  • Total distance:             21km
  • Total time:                   7hrs 45mins
  • Total ascent:                993m
  • Weather:                      Bright and sunny. Very cold with thick snow and strong wind
  • Start / end location:   Car-park in Newtonmore [Grid Ref: NN 715 993]
  • Map:                              A map of route can be found here– it may take a few moments to load into a separate window.

    Looking WSW beyond the summit cairn of A' Chailleach towards Carn Dearg

Today’s outing saw us parked at a small car-park just off the main street in Newtonmore and heading to tackle two Munros almost due north of the village. The usual staring point for these two hills is about 2.5km further NW along a small single-track road running directly out of the village. However, as has become customary, the snow on the roads prevented us for going any further than our parking spot in Newtonmore – hence instantly another 5km (return) was added to our route.

Tin hut bothy on the SE slopes of A' Chailleach

After our 2.5km walk along the icy access road we came to a junction to the right, which signaled the “usual” start of the route. We followed a land-rover track north for 1.5km before it merged into a walkers path heading alongside Allt a’ Chaorainn burn. The snow was quite deep along the track: approximately 5 inches and the trail of a recent skier carved neat parallel lines that we could easily follow.

En route we were overtaken by two other climbers, who told us that they were aiming to complete our two Munros then, by a high-level traverse of 7km, take in a third Munro called Carn Dearg. This is quite a long walk, even in summer conditions.

Approaching the summit cairn of A' Chailleac

At the point where the land-rover track stops and a simple walkers path continues instead, a secondary path leads off to the left in a northeasterly direction, crossing the burn as it does so. The two chaps that we had spoken to headed along this “new” path, whilst we continued tracking the burn for another 500m before we too found a suitable crossing point. Having safely crossed the burn we then took to the SW aspect of the hillside aiming for the high bealach connecting A’ Chailleach with Geal Charn (a different Geal Charn from the Munro that we climbed two days ago).

Cameron on the summit of Carn Sgulain

Here there was no discernible path, but we could clearly see a small bothy made of corrugated tin about a quarter way up the hillside to aim for. On this short section of climb it became all too apparent that today’s outing was going to be tough. The snow was so deep in most places: generally to the top of our calves, but at times actually to mid-thigh (even higher on Elaine!). I was breaking trail through the snow and it was exhausting and soul destroying. On arriving at the tin bothy we stepped inside to get out of the wind and munched on a biscuit before setting of to tackle the remainder of the slope to the top of the bealach.

As we made progress higher I caught sight of the two chaps we had spoken to earlier. Despite them overtaking us they were now only slightly in front and to the left hand side of us as we all aimed towards reaching the bealach. They were ending up traversing more diagonally up the slope compared to our more direct frontal attack.

Fence posts on the summit of Carn Sgulain heading in NE direction

As we trudged ever upwards we managed to get quite close to a small flock of Red Grouse. Compared to our sighting of bigger flocks of them a couple of days ago, the light today was much better for us to clearly see their dark red brown plumage and the white ring encircling their eye with a small red bar above. We also saw (separately) numerous mountain hares dashing about over various part of the hillside. About this point the skier whose tracks we had seen earlier descended passed us. His tracks caused indentations on the snow of 2 inches maximum! When I tried to walk in his tracks I sank down to my knees. There is a lot to be said for the benefits of ski touring in these conditions.

Looking SW from the summit of Carn Sgulain

Once we eventually reached the bealach we crossed the tracks of the other two climbers and so fell in line following their footprints heading NE towards to the summit of A’ Chailleach. It suddenly felt great for me not to have to break trail: up ahead they were taking turns leading the slog.

From the bealach it didn’t take us too long to reach the cairn on the large domed summit of A’ Chailleach (930m or 3.051’). By the time we had got there and stopped for a quick snack the two chaps in front had already started their descend to the north: heading into an incised valley that separates A’ Chailleach from the next peak of Carn Sgulain.

Descending deep powder snow from the summit of Carn Sgulain

Off we went again, gratefully following in their footsteps once more. We caught up with them having lunch in the sun (and out of the wind) on the other side of the incised valley.  I chatted to them about their aim of completing the three Munro circuit, to which they responded: “Nah, we knocked that idea on the head halfway up the first mountain!” After a few more minutes chatting about mountain biking and other outdoor adventures we set off with me back in the lead again. It was a good opportunity for me to repay them by breaking trail all the way to the second summit of the day: Carn Sgulain (920m or 3,018’)

There are two small cairns on the summit expanse of Carn Sgulain. When you are standing at one of them you swear that the other one is taller (and vice versa). Of the two the one at grid ref (NN 684 059) is the true summit by a metre or so. They are only 100m apart so we obviously visited them both.

All smiles at the moment - but the snow only gets deeper

From the summit, a row of old fence posts fortuitously mark out the route of the high-level traverse round to Carn Dearg: but that was an objective for another day. Instead, we aimed our descent SSW towards the head of the incised valley, which we then lead to a short uphill section to reach the bealach from earlier today. The problem however, was that the snow was even deeper on this side of the mountain and caused lots of angst as be battled our way through it. By the time we reached the bealach we were pretty tired, by the time we reached the tin bothy again we were knackered, and by the time we crossed the Allt a’ Chaorainn burn again we were absolutely “done in”. Still, all that remained was another 4.5km trudge back to the ‘van.

It was getting dark by the time we made it back. We were knackered but really enjoyed the day – that’s what I’ve told Elaine at least!

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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