Winter on the Tarmachan Ridge
We had been set on a Glen Coe adventure and had been following the Mountain Weather Information Service all week. Its late October and the snow has arrived in the Scottish Highlands. Our first winter mountaineering day of the season.
We keep willing the forecast to improve in Glen Coe; 50mph gusts, sleet, snow, potential white out conditions and -15 wind chill, 30% chance of cloud free Munros. The day before and there’s still no real change. We are not prepared to take clients out in these conditions.
For a small country Scotland’s a remarkably big country with diverse weather conditions just a few miles apart. Further east the forecast looks a lot more appetizing: there’s still the wind / wind chill to deal with, there’s snow on the ground, but no precipitation forecast and 70% chance of cloud free Munros. Perfect for a real winter mountaineering experience.
During planning we talk around a few options and quickly decide on Meall nan Tarmachan, or as its better known the “Tarmachan Ridge”. Decision made. We check our equipment, which now includes ice axes and crampons for the first time this season. It’s exciting!
Mountain day. As we drop down the A85 towards the Killin turn off, the ridge suddenly comes into sight for the first time. Its stunning; a broken mass of peaks and ridges, snow white against an early morning cobalt sky. We point this out to our chattering clients. Silence for a few moments. Then a lot more chattering and excitement.
Slowly through Killin and over the Falls of Dochart. We point out the ancient burial ground of Clan MacNab on the other side of the Falls, and then its winding along the banks of Loch Tay.
We branch left and head up steeply to the Ben Lawers car park gaining valuable meters. Its 9am and there’s plenty of cars there. And why not? These are accessible mountains and it’s an absolutely magnificent early winter day. We quickly but a £3 parking ticket, these are optional but all funds are directed back into helping maintain this beautiful wilderness. It’s a small price to pay.
Out we get and it’s chilly! On with boots and winter clothing, hot tea and snacks in the rucksacks along with spare gear, ice axes and crampons. And as always; be bold – start cold. It may well feel seriously chilly but pile all your gear on and after a few hundred yards you’ll be stopping to take it off!
We plan to do a reverse loop. This way rather than backtracking on ourselves we wont cover the same ground twice. We head out at the bottom of the car park, over the burn and across the track through wild heather to the landrover track. Here we branch left and make our way around the base of the mountain heading west.
As we head along the track we are well out of the wind and on a south-facing slope with a winter sun beating down on us. High above the Tarmachan ridge sits like a white silhouette against an impossibly blue sky. We look back at Ben Lawers at 1214m and Beinn Ghlas and it’s a different story. Cloud shrouds the top and we can see the power of the wind forecast, as spindrift is ripped from the ridgeline. Make no mistake; this is winter in Scotland with fast and unpredictable changing conditions.
We near the end of the landrover track and break north aiming to hit the ridge between Creag na Caillich and Beinn nan Eachan. As we start to gain height we drop a layer of clothing and make our way into the snowline. There really is something magical about snow. We were all a child once. A brief and cheerful snowball fight breaks out.
It takes about 2 hours to hit the ridge from the car park. And then everything changes. The forecast was for 40mph gusts, perhaps hitting 50 and dropping through the day. From experience we put it at 50mph plus, and sustained. Layers back on, gloves, hats and shells. Its now full winter conditions, spindrift and deep snowdrifts carved by the fierce wind. Ice axes are distributed although crampons are not yet required. Very quickly we are in -10 with the wind chill.
The pace slows as we carefully make our way along the ridge, ever mindful of the power of the wind. Verbal communication is difficult and the snow drifts surprisingly deep. The views are breathtaking in every direction, snow capped peaks fading into the distance and vanishing into the forecast storms in Glen Coe.
We reach the top of Beinn nan Eachan and gradually drop into the coll below. If anything the wind speed is increasing. We need to recognize this change and respond to it. At the base of the coll we find shelter and huddle together out of the wind, still in bright sunshine, still in high spirits.
Time for a break, hot tea and chocolate. We talk about navigation, planning and the wind. We talk about the snow conditions and avalanche awareness. Good practice, good skills. We also talk about what is now in front of us. On a summer day it’s a simple scramble at the base of Meall Garbh. Todays wind and icy conditions may represent something far more onerous.
We fit crampons and make our way to the base of the scramble to investigate. We see a group of climbers at the top coming towards us. Gradually they stop, clearly uncomfortable. They then back track upwards and begin to make a wide detour. An exploratory scramble tells us all we need to know; we are not taking clients up this. Not today. We head back to the group to explain the situation, carefully outlining the conditions, the risks and the reason for our decision to make a safe detour.
We make the detour to the north of Meall Garbh through deep snow with the wind battering us and the spindrift racing by. This is adventure; this is why we are here. Right now nothing else matters. We are little specks in a snowy wilderness and we are fizzing with life.
As we move on we approach another group of climbers coming towards us. There’s always a hello and a smile. There’s more this time as we offer some friendly advice not to descend the scramble, which is gracefully received. We are all equal up here; we are all equal before a mountain.
And then it’s on to the summit, Meall nan Tarmachan at 1043m. Happy faces, smiles and cameras out. We look across to Ben Lawers and its still wild as the wind strips snow from the mountain. To the north west winter storms are battering the mountains while Loch Tay below basks unaware in sunshine.
We start to make our descent. How privileged we are to be here. Alone in the wilderness we are reminded what’s important. We are reminded that a love for these beautiful wild places also requires us to protect them. Wilderness for its own sake, without having to justify itself. Wilderness for wilderness.
“What a day! Spectacular weather and views. Lots of snow and it was freezing! First time with an ice axe and crampons. The guys at Ocean Vertical were brilliant. We talked about planning, decision making, navigation and how to use our technical equipment - I now know how to fit a crampon! huge thanks and will be back!"
Emily | Edinburgh