Schiehallion MSc – Mountain of Science

Schiehallion (1083m)

  • Pronunciation:             Sheehallion
  • Translation:                  The Fairy Hill of the Caledonians
  • Total distance:              10.7km
  • Total time:                    3hrs 1min
  • Total ascent:                 762m
  • Weather:                       Misty above 550m. Mainly dry, but with occasional wind driven snow flurries. Very cold (severe wind chill), especially for last 200m leading up to the summit.
  • Start / end location:   Braes of Foss car-park located a few miles west of B846 Tummel Bridge to Aberfeldy road [OS Map Sheet 51 – Grid Ref: NN 752 557]
  • Map:                               A map of route can be found here – it may take a few moments to load into a separate window. The map displays on most browsers, but not unfortunately Internet Explorer.

This morning we travelled from Braemar, where we were staying at the brilliant Invercauld caravan site, to near Pitlochry. The route took us back up over the Pass of Glenshee (where the ski resort is located). Only two days ago the Glenshee road had been closed all day due to storm-force wind-driven snow drifts blocking the A93. However, the problem this morning was black ice. As we travelled up the glen the road was perfectly clear and only looked a little damp from the surrounding fog. This little bit of dampness was actually black ice, lying not in patches, but across the entire width of the road and continued up the steepest section of road for a few miles to the summit of Glenshee. The first that I noticed the ice was when the ‘van’s engine revs appeared to start “hunting” up and down the rev range, then followed by the steering “crabbing” as I tried to turn. At first I thought that there was a problem with the ‘van’s engine losing power so I had to stop on the carriageway. When I stepped from the ‘van I instantly realised what the problem was: black ice. I could hardly keep myself from sliding back down the road.

Luckily the road was extremely quiet at this time in the morning and so I quickly fitted the snow-chains and only had to flag a couple of cars that passed us: having to let the ‘van roll back for half a revolution of the wheels to get the chains fully engaged. Once I had the chains fitted the ‘van behaved much better and slowly we got to the brow of the pass and then safely down the other side, which has sections of 1:5 or 20% gradient!

Giant rime frost sculptures on Schiehallion

We eventually arrived at the start of Schiehallion quite a bit later than we’d hoped for, but as the guidebook time for the route was just 3hrs and 45mins we still had sufficient time to complete the climb.

Schiehallion, as well as having a lovely name and majestic profile, is a mountain steeped in scientific endeavour and experimentation. A memorial placard on a cairn by the entrance to the car-park explained a little about some of the men of science who have carried out experiments on Schiehallion. For example, in 1774 the Rev Nevil Maskelyne FRS, Astronomer Royal, investigated the gravitational forces attributable to the mass of Schiehallion by observing deflections in plumb-lines observed at either side of the mountain: this was denoted at the time as “the attraction of mountains”. Reuben Burrow of the Royal Observatory Greenwich carried out the survey of the mountain, with mathematician Charles Hutton, FRS, supporting the mathematical calculations required. Perhaps most interestingly from a mountaineer’s perspective was the fact that Hutton was the first recorded person to use land surface contour lines: a technique that is now universally employed in most forms of cartography to denote rises in elevation.

A very misty Schiehallion summit

A few other cars were parked when we arrived and a couple of small groups had begun the ascent ahead of us. As we started out on our walk the weather was very misty and a bit windy, but not yet raining or snowing. We very quickly caught up with a couple of groups and overtook them to take up the lead – our mountain fitness has noticeably increased since our adventure begun in November.

We were making great progress when I noticed behind us a couple of fell-runners who soon caught up and then overtook us. They were travelling very light, but we did notice that they were wearing the equivalent of (our) YakTraks on their fell-running shoes to give themselves extra grip on the snow and ice. May be we’ll try a bit of fell-running in the summer months … or again, maybe not!

There were no difficulties on the route as it followed the broad ridge all the way to the summit. The only slight challenge was deciding exactly where the true summit lay. Near the top, the ridge comprises a reasonably narrow rocky spine and in the mist and snow it was hard to decide where was the actual summit. So, we ended traversing the whole rocky outcrop and even headed beyond to make sure that beyond was definitely descending. We were happy that we’d definitely passed the highest point. We retraced our steps back to the summit and were met by a couple that we’d overtaken earlier in the walk. They very kindly took a picture of us both at the summit, and we reciprocated for them. By this time the wind had really picked up producing a very strong wind-chill – obviously the norm on Schiehallion judging by the heavy 3 feet long rime frost. Even our jackets and eyebrows became coated in wind-borne frost!

The descent back to the car-park was at lightning speed with Elaine out in front. We met a small family party who had all the proper gear but had decided not to climb all the way to the summit due to the strong winds and poor visibility, and had instead found a lovely snowy slope to practice their ice-axe arrest techniques – and pretty good they were at it too.

We arrived back in a shade over 3 hrs, which was well ahead of the guidebook time for the route of 3 hrs 45 mins.

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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