Superb alpine weather returns

Carn Dearg (945m);

  • Pronunciation:            Karn Jerrack
  • Translation:                 Red Hill
  • Total distance:             24.3km
  • Total time:                   7hrs 40mins
  • Total ascent:                861m
  • Weather:                      Sunny with cloudless skies all day. Felt moderately warm in the sunshine. Only slightly windy on summit ridge.
  • 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.

    Cameron admiring a perfect temperature inversion en route to Carn Dearg

Today we were again parked at Newtonmore to complete the third of the trio of hills that feature to the north and northwest of the village. We parked the ‘van in the centre of the village and set off on our mountain bikes along the minor (no-through) road to the NW. There had been a dusting of snow overnight, but not enough to cause us any concern on the bikes.

Cycling towards Glenballach (dwelling) en route to Carn Dearg

After about 2.5km of cycling the tarred minor road comes to an end. However, a couple of land-rover tracks continue: with one track heading due north (the one we took on our trip back on 11 January), and the other heading WSW, which we continued along today on our bikes. After another 2km we reached the derelict buildings of “Glenballoch” where the land-rover track turns 90? and heads NW into the glen containing the Allt Fionndrigh burn. We could only manage to cycle another 0.5km before the incline became too much for us on the bikes.

High up beside Allt Fionndrigh with Carn Dearg on the right

We locked the bikes at a fence at the bottom if the incline, shouldered our rucksacks and continued to follow the track up the glen. Apart from the initial incline the track was fairly level and we could have possibly pushed our bikes to the top and continued cycling. However, with heavy winter rucksacks to contend with we decided it best just to walk. On the slopes either side of us we could see big herds of deer. However, in contrast to our other recent deer sightings this time the herds only contained hinds.

Carn Dearg (left of centre) in winter conditions

After 3km the track gave way to a walkers path, which gently swung WNW for 0.5km leading to a small bridge across the Allt Fionndrigh burn. Once the burn was crossed the path turned sharply SSW and inclined through a short incised valley that reached up to a higher broad col. At the col the path petered out with only the hint of a couple of stalkers’ vehicle tracks just visible.

The view from the col was excellent. A beautiful temperature inversion had formed in the glens to SSW of our position and to the WNW the escarpment and cliffs of Carn Dearg, our objective of the day, was spectacular in its heavy covering of snow. We headed NW from the col into Gleann Ballach following the 560m contour as much as was practicable, with our aim to reach the head of the glen.

Elaine ascending snow slope on Carn Dearg

Much of this glen comprised slopes of heather moorland and all around us we heard little “gangs” of red grouse chattering noisily to one another. It turned out that many of these little “gangs” were actually male and female pairs – probably beginning their courtship routine. The males had slightly more uniform dark red brown plumage with a distinctive red wattle (bar across the top of the eye) compared to the females, which were slightly lighter brown in colour and a little mottled all over. As we approached they would eject themselves from the heather calling loudly – which was always very startling.

Once we reached the head of the glen we turned WSW and climbed up the steep slope between Carn Bàn and Carn Dearg: just to the NW of the obvious ridge that extended down from the latter. The snow here was quite thick but reasonably consolidated and it was easy to kick steps without having to put on our crampons.

Nearing the summit of Carn Dearg with perfect temperature inversion to the southwest

High up here on the mountain, above the snowline, pairs of ptarmigan in full winter plumage were calling to one another. Their call was very different from the red grouse below. At this time of year their plumage was almost entirely white, except for the tail, which was black.

We quickly reached the summit of Carn Dearg (945m or 3,100’) and enjoyed the magnificent view in all directions: from the Cairngorm arctic plateau to the craggier peaks to the west. After a few quick photos at the summit we continued along the summit escarpment in a SSW direction to include the Munro Top at 923m. Our intention was to return by the way that we ascended because our guide suggested that there “was no easy way down” [accept the way we came up]. However, I had a quick look over the edge of the escarpment and found the snow to be solid and the incline not impossibly steep. After Elaine’s excellent descent on steep snow and ice yesterday from Stob Coire Easain I though that we’d have no trouble with this choice.

Cameron on the summit of Carn Dearg

We put on our crampons, swapped our walking poles for our ice axes and began our descent. We front-pointed with crampons and daggered with our ice axes on the steep ground and made swift but careful progress back down to the glen below. This little detour actually saved us around 3.5km of walking back down the glen to the top of the broad col that led to the little incised valley from earlier in the day.

We stopped at the bottom of the snow climb and enjoyed our flask of tea whilst watching a big herd of deer in the distance and listening to the continual chattering of the red grouse on the moor. After tea it was a quick descent through the little valley and back to the land-rover track, which took us back to our locked bikes. The route back to Newtonmore on our bikes was mainly downhill – it doesn’t get better than that!

Elaine on the summit of Carn Dearg

Today was the first time in many years that we’ve used our walking poles. We found them to be a fantastic aid – especially when charging through the deep heather moors. They seem to help us get into a steady rhythm and certainly reduced the jarring on our knees whilst descending. Despite them being yet another thing to carry, we agreed that the benefits far exceeded the small additional weight. They will become an essential part our daily walking gear from now on.

Steep descent route from the Munro Top to SSE of Carn Dearg

Elaine negotiating steep descent using daggering with ice axe and front-pointing with crampons

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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