Above the Drumochter Pass

Sgairneach Mhor (991m); Beinn Udlamain (1011m)

A’ Mharconaich (975m); Geal Charn (917m)

  • Pronunciation:             Skarnyoch Voar; Bine Ootlermern; Uh Varkerneach; Geeya Charn
  • Translation:                  Big Stony Hillside; Gloomy Hill; Place of Horses; Pale or white Hill
  • Total distance:              23.5km
  • Total time:                    6hrs 25mins
  • Total ascent:                 1050m
  • Weather:                       Started grey and misty but dry. Wind developed to gale force by midday with occasional driving hail showers. Considerable wind chill.
  • Start / end location:    Lay-by number 79, northbound side of the A9 a few hundred metres south of signs for the Pass of Drumochter. [OS Map Sheet 42 – Grid Ref: NN 634 751]
  • Map:                               A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. Unfortunately the map may not display on some Internet Explorer browsers.

Today’s plan was to tackle the four Munros to the west of the Pass of Drumochter on the A9.

The weather was dry but grey, with cloud and mist shrouding the rolling peaks above 500m as we got ourselves into our winter boots and finalized the packing of our rucksacks. We were parked at lay-by number 79 on the southbound A9 from where we headed west to first cross the Pitlochry to Dalwhinnie cycle route and then the main railway line to reach a land-rover track that headed westwards into Coire Dhomhain. This track followed the course of Allt Coire Dhomhain burn, which was flowing quite fast and deep due to melt-water run-off from the snow on the surrounding hills.

Elaine at the summit Trig Point of Sgairneach Mhor

We stayed on this track for around 1.7km, until we had passed on our left (south) the incised little glen that runs due north-south and which sits between the peak of the Sow of Atholl (or Meall an Dobharchain) and the point marked 758m on the OS map. Our objective, although hidden in the mist above, was to cross the burn and climb to the small col a few hundred metres to the west of Point 758m. We ended up having to continue up the side of the Allt Coire Dhomhain burn a bit further to find a suitable place to cross without getting out feet wet. Safely across we headed up to the col through patchy snow that thickened as we climbed higher. The lying snow was mainly quite solid and there was a trail to follow that had been left by a few walkers from previous days, which made progress through the snow much easier.

After reaching the col we headed first west for 400m before turning SW to follow the broad NE ridge to the summit plateau of our first Munro of the day, Sgairneach Mhor, at 991m, or 3,251’, where a Trig Point marks the top.

In these misty weather conditions we were completely reliant on following compass bearings set from our map to navigate our way along the route. In today’s conditions, on these high rolling mountains, I would normally have complemented this map and compass work with some quick looks at my SatMap GPS, which I kept in the lid pocket of my rucksack. However, when I switched the SatMap on this morning the battery was discharged: I think that I had inadvertently left it switched on overnight! So it was back to being fully reliant on map and compass, and a good lesson on why one mustn’t wholly rely on just a GPS for navigation in the mountains. [Aside from today’s hiccup with the battery being discharged, I’ve found the SatMap GPS and map system to be an utterly brilliant navigational tool – and would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of buying a GPS unit for outdoor activities such as mountaineering or cycling.]

Cameron at the summit of Beinn Udlamain

From the Trig Point summit, we went SW from about 1km until we crossed the 930m contour and then veered west until we dropped down to the very broad Carn ‘lc Loumhaidh col (810m). We crossed the col, still heading west, until we intersected the broad south ridge of our second Munro, Beinn Udlamain. This ridge denotes an old county boundary (probably Perth & Ross-shire from Inverness-shire) and has a series of rusty metal fence posts leading to the summit and beyond towards our third Munro of the day. In days gone by the posts were positioned probably every 20 feet or so, but today many had fallen and were now buried in the snow. Nevertheless, the ones that remained standing were a great navigational aid as we climbed the broad ridge: often they would appear to “run out” in the misty conditions, only for one of them to appear helpfully as we began to wonder if we’d strayed off course. We soon reached the summit of Beinn Udlamain, marked by a moderately sized cairn at a height of 1011m or 3,317’.

Cameron at the non-descript summit cairn on A' Mharconaich

The next stage of the walk was again aided by the regional boundary fence posts that continued from the summit first NNE before swinging sharply east to follow a steep short ridge to an unmarked col below. From this col we followed a short rise to the NE before dropping again in a NNE direction to another col. It is possible to turn SE from this col and drop down into Coire Dhomhain and pick up the earlier land-rover back to the starting point. For us, though, we still had another two Munros to climb, so instead we climbed NE up a broad ridge for 500m (horizontal) before the fence posts took a first dog-leg turn ENE, which we followed. After another 500m, the fence posts take a sharper dog-leg, turning ESE. At this point we left the “comfort” of following the posts and head in a northeasterly direction to reach the summit of A’ Mharconaich at 975m or 3,199’. The summit plateau is desperately flat and devoid of any features – at least in the mist. En route to the summit we did pass one tiny cairn, but new that we hadn’t travelled far enough from the last dog-leg in the fence posts for this to have been the summit. The summit “cairn” of literally a few rocks and a couple of strewn rusty posts is towards the far NE end of the plateau and only 100m from the edge of the NE corrie.

Elaine at the summit cairn of Geal Charn

The final part of our outing saw us retracing our steps back to find the sharp dog-leg in the fence posts before following them back WSW to the first dog-leg mentioned earlier. From here we left the posts again and headed in a northwesterly direction following the ridge to the NW side of Coire Fhàr. At the col we turned NNE and climbed directly to the summit of Geal Charn at 917, or 3,008’. En route the forecasted deterioration in the weather began as the wind picked up with gale force wind driven hail. We needed to use our ski goggles to avoid our eyes being pebble-dashed! It made the decent of Geal Charn, which should have been very easy, a bit more of a challenge as the snow on the slopes was far from uniform forcing us to look constantly at our foot placements. Constantly looking down caused our exhaled breath to rise directly onto our goggles, causing them to steam up. However, we were soon down the slope far enough that we could pick up the path that led us back to the railway line at Balsporran Cottages. From here it was an easy march back to the A9, which we followed south to pick up the ‘van.

So far, we’ve not had a decent view from any of the Drumochter peaks that we’ve climbed: now 7 Munros on three different days. We will need to return after our Scottish odyssey year-out is completed to climb at least one of these great hills in fine weather.

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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2 Responses to Above the Drumochter Pass

  1. Dave Palmer says:

    The map make is so much easier to “follow” your excellent descriptions of your route and waypoints. I find the combination helps with the mental picture of your journey. Excellent!

    • Cameron says:

      Hi Dave,
      I know what you mean about the maps adding a great deal to the route descriptions. Until I got the maps set up I’d be re-reading my blogs and thinking that it must be almost impossible for someone to “appreciate” the routes simply from the descriptions alone – even if they knew the area well.
      When I get some spare time I’ll update all of the previous route descriptions by adding way-marked maps to each of them.
      Very best regards,
      BTW: Great to be receiving your comments again.

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