A winter wildlife bonanza

Geal Charn (926m);

  • Pronunciation:            Geeya Charn
  • Translation:                 White Hill
  • Total distance:             35.3km (includes 22.4km cycle to start of route)
  • Total time:                   7hrs 15mins (including 2hrs cycling)
  • Total ascent:                973m
  • Weather:                      Started off with heavy snow, but brightening into a sunny day
  • Start / end location:   Laggan on A86 WSW of Newtonmore [Grid Ref: NN 614 944]
  • Map:                              A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window.

Summits of Geal Charn (left) and Beinn Sgiath

We found a wonderful place to wild camp last night – only about 4 miles from the start of today’s climb. It was hidden well off the road (A86) within thick pine forest. Reaching it from the main road was along a short but thankfully level track, which, although covered in thick snow, presented no problems for the ‘van.

A snowy cycle to the start of Geal Charn climbing route

Overnight temperature once again plummeted to -8.3°C and by this morning a thin fresh layer of snow had fallen. The snow was still falling when we left our overnight camp around 07:30 to drive to the hamlet of Laggan on the A86 and the start of our outing. No other vehicles had travelled along the snow-covered A86 before us on this Sunday morning but we soon arrived safely at Laggan.

The start of the climb itself begins at Garva Bridge [Grid Ref: NN 522 947], some 7 miles west of Laggan along a very narrow single-track road, which follows one of the original roads constructed by Major-General Wade. I probably wouldn’t even attempt to drive the ‘van along this type of road in summer weather and so definitely wouldn’t today, with its covering of snow. So our plan was to park the ‘van at Laggan on the A86 and cycle the 7 miles up the glen, following the course of the River Spey, to Garva Bridge.

Elaine ascending the broad ridge of Geal Charn

As we cycled up the glen, wearing our winter mountaineering boots and carrying our big rucksacks loaded with crampons and ice axes, the winter weather began to close in with further thick snow falling continuously. The only reason that we didn’t just turn back to the warmth of the ‘van was because, despite the falling snow, the visibility was still around 100m and good enough to make an attempt on the climb. It was a non-technical route after all.

An hour after starting out we arrived at Garva Bridge and the weather was showing the first signs of improving a little. So we locked up our bikes and made a start on the route.

Once you cross Garva Bridge the track splits with the more road-like one continuing west to follow Major-General Wade’s route all the way to Fort Augustus. The other land-rover track heads NNE before quickly crossing another bridge over a tributary of the River Spey called Feith Talagain. Once over this second bridge we followed the track for another 150m before taking a path northwards, which continues to follow the course of the Feith Talagain. Actually, in the snow there was little evidence of a path and so we just stuck to the side of the burn and made our own course upwards.

After about 2.5km we came to a further tributary stream called Allt Coire nan Dearcag, which joined from the east. We turned course to follow this upstream for about 200m before finding a suitable point to cross it and then breaking out to tackle the broad NE ridge of Geal Charn. By this point in our walk we had already seen huge herds of red deer: seemingly everywhere we looked. There were several herds numbering 50 plus stags, numerous sightings of lone stags, stags sitting amongst the Caledonian pine forests – in fact I think that all the deer that we saw today were stags.

On the broad ridge there was no discernible path to follow (although without a snow covering I think there is an obvious one). All that we could do was to “fight” our way up the deep and very powdery snow and heather – oh joy! The monotony was, however, broken on several occasions. Firstly we kept disturbing flocks of red grouse, presumably grazing on the tips of the heather protruding through the snow. They would fly up en masse with a loud call and fly very fast and quite low to settle again elsewhere on the mountainside. Higher up the mountain, quite close to the summit plateau we came across three ptarmigan, which instantly took flight, and then a little later, a single one, which allowed us to get a bit closer before it too flew away and down the hillside.

Close encounter with a snowy-white mountain hare on Geal Charn

However, probably the highlight of this winter wildlife bonanza was when we came across a snowy-white mountain hare just sitting calmly at the entrance of its snow-hole burrow. I was able to “creep” to within 15-20 feet of it: all the time taking photographs. Eventually, I got too close for comfort, it stretched up tall on it front legs, lifted its long white ears tipped with black and shot off at great speed, leaving only its tell-tale characteristic foot prints to say that it had ever been there: but it had – the proof is in the photograph!

Cameron approaching the summit cairn of Geal Charn

The start of the plateau summit begins some 600m before the true summit of Geal Charn (926m or 3,038’) is reached. Here the snow was particularly infuriating as some parts were rock solid and others knee deep in powder: there was no way of getting into a stride. After a quick lunch stop at the summit cairn we turned and began to retrace our steps back down the hillside – disturbing yet more flocks of red grouse on the way. By this stage the weather had really improved giving good visibility westward, right to the Grey Corrie range above Roy Bridge.

Looking west beyond the summit cairn of Geal Charn

Back at Garva Bridge we unlocked our bikes and cycled the 7 miles back to the waiting ‘van at Laggan: at one stage having to barge our way through a large heard of mountain cattle that appeared to relish blocking the road and were rather reluctant to move. We made sure that we walked our bikes between them and us!

During our climb we hadn’t seen another living soul, which I guess isn’t too surprising given the weather and snow at the start of our outing.

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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