Over 20 years ago I climbed 'West Coast Boomer' on Beinn Alligan, a route choice based rather naively on name alone, no recommendation or conditions tip off, just a cool sounding climb. The day blew me away, it was the ultimate winter fix. The excitement of venturing onto the huge boulder strewn corrie floor, to get a sighting of our line, was like nothing I'd ever experienced. It was into the unknown. I got so high on the whole Scottish winter climbing thing. I wrongly, and simplistically, attributed most of this euphoria to the route's difficulty, being one of the trickiest things I'd climbed to date.
Ten years on, it's a February day and it's been dumping snow across the whole Highlands. I'm again heading towards Beinn Alligan, this time intending to salvage an aborted climbing day with a traverse of the mountain. Instead of taking the conventional circuit over the horns we sidled round to the north to check out an alternative way up, 'Deep South Gully'. What a gully. In fact, the mother of all Scottish gullies. To come across its hidden entrance by a chance decision gave it an almost mystical feel. Plunge stepping slowly upwards between its sheer walls was straight from the pages of National Geographic. This was the best-kept secret ever.
The penny really dropped with 'Deep South Gully'. I had reached the same level of winter nirvana as on my 'West Coast Boomer' day a decade previously. I realised that quality days like these are about being in the right place at the right time and are independent of grade. This is more true of climbing in Scotland in winter than anywhere else. For me this marked the beginning of an unshakable enthusiasm for the North West Highlands and a passion for ferreting around the area's winter mountains. I guess this article is a clarion call to anyone who loves the Scottish hills and hasn't yet experienced the North West in winter.
There is no particular character that can be associated with the mountains of the North West Highlands. Each individual mountain range is starkly different with a unique topography. The isolated and solitary mountains of Assynt contrast sharply to Glensheil's long serpentine ridges. For me, the unifying trait is that of space.
For many people, especially those with limited time, it's so easy to fall back on the convenient honey pots of Ben Nevis, Glencoe and the Cairngorms. Understandable when UKC forums, blogs and avalanche reports provide almost 'real time' conditions information for these popular areas. Heading north might seem a risk to the contemporary climber when armed with just a weather forecast ...but that's always been part of the adventure. Despite the Torridonian and Glensheil mountains being little more than an hour from Inverness, there's still the unbelievable likelihood you'll have your mountain to yourself.
So where are these North West adventures? It's not an easy exercise choosing examples of mountain journeys that could do justice to such a vast area. The following suggestions are not 'the best of' by any means. Just favourites, each having a distinct quality. They are not climbs as in the modern idiom. More mountaineering excursions, where the interest lies largely with aesthetic quality rather than any technical challenge. They are simply great days out that showcase the wonderful North West.
I can't understand why 'Morrison's Gully' isn't more popular. Its ascent involves a visit to the classic Coire Mhic Fhearchair on the north side of Beinn Eighe and its scale dwarfs virtually everything south of the region. It is the huge, obvious cleft in the buttress forming the right hand gatepost to the corrie. It is so big that when looking outwards, its walls form a giant picture frame around the distant Letterewe hills. It's a toss up whether to climb Morrison's, which is straightforward, or to it's left, 'Lawson Ling and Glover's Route'. This more open route has even more impressive scenery but is a slightly spicier proposition. Both routes finish on the fine pedestal like summit of Sàil Mhòr, which juts out into the prehistoric looking Torridonian landscape. A sweeping airy saddle then connects to Beinn Eighe's main ridge by way of a short exposed scramble.
Moving further north, a mountain to see and then die is An-Teallach. Could this be the best ridge in Scotland? Maybe. But there's no doubting its claim to be part of one of Scotland's best winter enchainments when its traverse is combined with an ascent of 'Constabulary Couloir' and a descent of 'Hayfork Gully'. This combination leads you through the magnificent corrie of Toll an Lochain that would otherwise be missed in a normal traverse. Dropping down through Hayfork Gully it's hard to believe such massive, linear rock architecture has not been sculpted by man.
Mountain and sea
Low-level snow cover in the North West Highlands can bring out a host of rare prizes. The plum of them all is probably 'V Gully' on Quinag's Barrel Buttress. It's the beginning of another of the area's magical journeys, a foray into a deep wintry cleft followed by a circuit of easy winter scrambling along broad sandstone ridges overlooking the ocean. Of all the North West's mountains, walking along the crest of Quinag gives by far the greatest sense of being close to the sea. So close, that waves from Atlantic swells can easily be seen breaking against the Assynt shoreline.
There is an unquantifiable sense of openness about the summit plateau of Beinn Bhan on the Applecross peninsula. It is not a particularly high mountain but it is unchallenged for miles in any direction. It sits centrally between Skye and the Islands, the Torridonian mountains and the hills of the Coulin Forest. A timely late arrival at the trig point can give a sublime end to a day. Beinn Bhan also boasts a contender for the best Grade II ridge in Scotland, the traverse of A Chioch. A narrow and exhilarating spur dropping eastwards from the plateau and separating the otherworldly corries of Coire na Feola and Coire na Poite.
Off the beaten track
Short, sweet and rarely visited are the airy east ridge of Fuar Thol and the southeast spur of Beinn Damph. A winter journey to climb either of these provides a perception of being 'out there' that is disproportionate to their technicality (barely reaching grade 1) and their relative lack of remoteness. Both outings involve gaining high un-tracked corries and on their descent pass beneath and above impressively steep terrain. There's an uncannily big feel to both of these mountains yet neither have Munro status, which will ensure they never become too popular.
If there could be only one Scottish mountain, it would be Liathach. An impregnable looking chain of peaks that literally tower above the Glen Torridon road. Utterly mesmerising from any aspect. It is well know for its sensational ridge traverse and for some of the best icefall climbing in the UK. However, it is also home to some fantastic easy winter gullies and scrambles which when combined with the classic east-west traverse, or an equally good north-south crossing, result in un-forgettable winter journeys. A mooch around Liathach's northern corries takes you into a truly ancient setting. The unusually symmetrical amphitheatre of Coire Dubh Beag has a somewhat 'non natural' quality compared to the chaotic, primeval layout of Coire na Caime. The main ridge is accessible via easy snow gullies from each of the northern corries. All are worth the effort. Alternatively, the ridge can be gained by a number of devious scrambling lines, outflanking the mountain's sandstone terraces or breaching them via turfy grooves. The best lines being the north spur of Spidean a Choire Leith, or via the northern pinnacles of Mullach an Rathain or a weaving assault anywhere on the east buttress.
There are many more excursions like these in the Northern Highlands. This short list merely pays lip service to a region packed with 'one axe' adventures. The SMC's three 'Northern Highlands' guidebooks, along with their excellent Scottish Winter Climbs publication, provide more detailed information.
I'd strongly recommend you make your first winter acquaintance with the North West in a purist style. Forget about being a climber, bear the ignominy if needs be, and go with a single axe and unfettered by a heavy pack. Being out of the climbing headspace will remove the emphasis on climbing venues and lead to a wider connection with the landscape. Exploration in the North West isn't dependent on conditions, so head up there when your favourite haunts are unclimbable. Allow curiosity to be your guide and you never know what you might discover.
A shortened version of this article first appeared in the BMC 's Summit Magazine.
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