Having been taking easy due to my back problems at the start of the year I felt it was time to get back out onto the bigger hills again. With another couple of days at work looming it would be a while before I could get out again so Wednesday was pencilled in for a trip away. The weather forecast was looking a bit grim, with heavy rain forecast, and most websites concurred on that, but I packed my gear anyway. The following morning looked peaceful enough and I thought I’d give it a bash anyway, although by the train arrived at Stirling the sky was darkening. I considered just bailing out at Perth and coming home, but instead stuck with it and by the time I arrived at Dalwhinnie it was “reasonable”. By that I mean of course raining, but that’s why we buy waterproofs…
It took me about an hour to cycle to the start of the walk. Last time I had attempted this walk I was blown off my feet when I got off the bike. This time the wind wasn’t as strong, and even if the weather was a bit grim, the walk was on! The railway line is the biggest obstacle to people accessing these hills and it would be nice if proper crossing points could be installed along logical lines of approach. Otherwise its a case of crossing over or under the line. There are one or two places north or south of the laybys at Drumochter where you can pass under the railway, the easiest being to go south, under the railway then north to pick up the track which leads up Coire Dhomhain. This is the highest point on the railway network, and the abandoned bothy and sign make for an interesting photo
The rain came down non stop, although varying in intensity. The low cloud and rain meant that taking any photos today would be hit and miss, and the near constant rain meant my camera would stay safely in the chest pouch. While this is good for the camera it means that I am liable to miss snap photo opportunities, such as a mountain hare in a mixed grey and white coat which bolted off over the heather, or the rescue helicopter flying low, using the A9 as a handrail through the mountains to avoid the thick cloud. Rescue helicopters always seem to focus the mind.
The path up the Coire Dhomhain rises and falls as it climbs up the glen. At one point a new bridge branches off to the left onto the eastern slopes of Sgairneach Mhor. I made note of this as it may come in handy for the return journey.
The plan was to go up Beinn Udlamain, drop down to Carn ‘Ic Loumhaidh, then ascend Sgairneach Mhor before coming down to rejoin the path to the start. However as time went on the weather worsened and the rain turned to big fat blobs of snow. Beinn Udlamain was hidden by a thick cloud, while Sgairneach Mhor flitted in and out of the cloud. I passed another bridge, this one had a track leading up onto Sgairneach Mhor. Nearby a newly constructed grouse butt gave me some shelter from the wind and snow. I surveyed the route up and it was time to rethink my plans. Field Marshall Helmuth Von Moltke once said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and my enemy today was the weather. I was determined to salvage something from the day, and Sgairneach Mhor looked to be the weak spot I was looking for.
Looking up at the ridge over a kilometre away and could see two faint parallel lines on the crest of the ridge. Below me was a new bridge and path leading up. If the two were linked that not only provided me with a dry crossing of the Allt Coire Dhomhain, but would take me up onto the ridge, with about another 1200m to go to the trig point. If the weather worsened I’d at least have worked out where the track led to. Plan B was a go!
The path up Sgairneach Mhor was well laid in parts, in others it was just a soggy mess of supacat tracks. It would up the hill, past more grouse butts, reinforced with stone. Another hare scampered off, grouse exploded at random from the heather, telling me to “Go Back”, and off to the east I watched as a white bird of prey flew low across the mountain before suddenly dropping into the heather. It then rose and flew off up the glen, covering 2km in around a minute. I later managed to identify it as a Hen Harrier, the first I’ve ever seen and a bit of a rarity.
The track did lead onto the ridge, and from here I could see the end of Loch Garry and Dalnaspidal. Once upon a time there was a station there, and it would be a far easier task to head there after the walk for a train. It’s a shame there is no station there anymore as it would open up some great options for walking and cycling using public transport. Before the journey home though there was a trig point to find.
I was now at the snow line. There was fresh snow here, and the heather gave way to rock. The lip of the corrie was lined with snow and I walked parallel to it to the point where the corrie turns northwards. Guarded by a ring of stone was the trig point, and I threw myself down into the shelter of the drystane wall. The wind whipped the snow along the summit. Glimpses of Ben Alder were fleeting and then gone.
Beinn Udlamain was still hidden in the cloud, and the wind was getting up. I’d been given a window of opportunity and wasn’t going to push my luck. I headed into the wind and downhill, following my footprints in the snow, to the track and to the bike.
The wind wasn’t done with me yet though. A look at the train timetable showed that the next train was in 50 minutes. 8Km in 50 minutes on most days would be, if you’ll excuse the pun, a breeze. Today I was on a folding urban bike with small wheels, carrying all my gear, and heading uphill. I put my head down and pedalled, glancing at the GPS which gave an estimated time of arrival at Dawhinnie of 1551- only 1 minute before the train was due! With chest feeling like it would explode and legs like jelly, I arrived in Dalwhinnie with four minutes to spare. The train arrived, as they do when you are running late, bang on time. As I sunk into my seat on the southbound train I looked out at the ground I had just covered, the hill I had just done and the cloud where the hill I have still to climb awaits. I hope that the weather will be kinder and it’ll be third time lucky for Beinn Udlamain