A shattered fortress looming moodily out of barren moorland, An Teallach is the grandest mountain in Scotland - or as near as dammit. Monumental corries; tortured ridges bristling with sandstone turrets; an outlook over ribbons of sea and ranks of peaks; this complex range on the far flung fringes of Fisherfield is the very essence of the coastal northwest. And it's never better than in winter. Snow cover turns the famous scramble of the An Teallach skyline into a mountaineering journey, the most aesthetic of the great mainland winter ridge traverses, and among the more challenging. It's a big day in wild surroundings, and one well worth saving for a blue sky forecast. With February high pressure in charge, and reports of dreamy conditions, the time seemed ripe.
A quick phone around, and my friend Patrick was on board for a mid week hit. The routine is familiar from a hundred post-work escapes: the hurried pack; the long night drive north; a chip shop supper; and a late roadside camp on hard-frozen lumpy tussocks - a crap pitch, but needs must. We had a lazy frostbound lie-in next day, then thawed out in the car on the ten minute drive to Dundonnell, our final destination.
"It's the grandest mountain in Scotland - or as near as dammit"
On paper at home, the north end of the range had looked fairly close to the road, but this morning the walk-in seemed to have grown. We were aiming for Coire a' Ghlas Thuill, the lesser of An Teallach's two main corries. Lesser but by no means least, its snow-streaked crags rose gradually out of the landscape ahead. They looked giant. Beaming out of a cloudless sky, early sunshine glared on the jagged corrie rim, seeping gradually down the walls. For full mountaineering value we hoped to access the ridge via a gully, something easy that wouldn't slow progress, but a route with plenty of atmosphere nonetheless.
Hayfork Gully looked to fit the bill perfectly, 300m of grade I fun, and 'straightforward' according to the guidebook. A ribbon of neve led up through scree into the gulch, little jumbles of old avalanche debris set hard into its surface. A superb natural line through impressive surroundings, the gully lived up to its easy billing without disappointing in the slightest. Towards the top something suspect and windslabby seemed to be happening in the snow, so we tied on for a precautionary rope length or two, up under an impending side wall to a sudden emergence from deep frozen shade to the blinding light of the ridge crest. Here you are socked between the eyes by one of Scotland's most stirring views, across the huge space of Coire Toll an Lochain to monumental layered crags topped by the graceful Sgurr Fiona and the snarling Corrag Bhuidhe pinnacles, the meat of the ridge traverse.
Easy, airy ground took us on up to the Munro summit of Bidean a' Ghlas Thuill, the high point of An Teallach and a great spot to stop for a game of name that distant mountain. Wall to wall sunshine, flawless neve, spacious exposure and million mile views - more accustomed to the usual gritty reality of a Scottish winter, this seemed to us almost too good to be true. Exchanging our disbelief with a passing team - the only others we met all day, despite the weather - we got to grips with lovely Sgurr Fiona. It begins to feel like proper mountaineering on the way up, and the summit is a textbook pointy one.
Next come the pinnacles, intricate sandstone scrambling above 500m of air. Take the towers direct or weave around looking for the line of less resistance - either way it's the best half kilometre of ridge on the British Mainland. While winter still gripped Toll an Lochan, days of sun had burned back the south flank to leave a multi media collage of conditions - rough dry rock and bare grass shining a striking green, long stretches on concrete snow, and ledges puddled with turquoise ice. You might call it summer Alpine nick, but however you'd classify it, grade II winter climbing or a grade 3 scramble, it was sheer unadulterated fun.
"Next come the pinnacles, intricate sandstone scrambling above 500m of air. Sheer unadulterated fun"
The pinnacles go out with a bang, an abrupt wall that's met in descent if, like us, you're heading south. From above it is an intimidating barrier, and given the terminal drop below I'm not sure I'd be comfortable downclimbing this Moderate/Difficult pitch even on a warm summer day (it's great in ascent). Having actually remembered to pack a rope we took the obvious choice of a quick abseil.
We must have been dawdling - as you should in that weather. By now the day was wearing thin, and shadows thickening in the hollow spaces of Fisherfield. A little more downclimbing on snow and steep grass brought us to easy ground. We went on down to a low col. From here you could descend into Toll an Lochain via the grade I Chockstone Gully, but keen to eke out the last rays of sun we opted to stay high. It wasn't over just yet, with a plod over the tops of Stob Cadha Gobhlach and Sail Liath still to come as sunset turned the sky flourescent.
We picked our way down Sail Liath's rough flanks in the last of the light, and located the Corrie Hallie path by headtorch. It's a long walk-out, and seems futher still when all you can talk about are your empty insides, and the critical question of whether the Chinese takeaway in distant Gairloch will still be serving later. They were. Now we just had to find another roadside pitch for the night; tomorrow's forecast was to good to waste.
- For a description of the An Teallach traverse, minus Hayfork Gully, see this UKH Route Card.
For more of this sort of thing see these articles from our archives:
- Lakeland's Classic Winter Ridges
- Winter Mountaineering in Northwest Scotland
- A Winter Cuillin Traverse
- Ten Must-Do Routes at II and III
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