Stradding Druim Alba – Creag Meagaidh

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IT was just over 40 years ago that Dr Tom Patey, a GP from Ullapool and one of Scotland’s finest mountaineers, completed what he considered to be one of his finest expeditions. He called it Crab Crawl, and it was an awesome 8000ft (2438m) girdle traverse of the Coire Ardair face of Creag Meagaidh.

As I made my way up the length of the corrie with that buttressed and gullied face drawing me towards it, the incredible achievement of that sideways climb impressed me once again. Patey’s interest in the route had been aroused by an article he had read and he tried to tempt the well known Lancastrian climber, Don Whillans, into accompanying him. “I don’t get much excited about girdles,” replied Whillans, “especially 8000 foot ones.”

“But it’s perfectly simple,” insisted Patey, “you have two parties starting simultaneously from opposite ends, crossing over in the middle. The left-hand party led by a right-handed leader and the right-hand party by a left-handed leader.”

“Look mate,” Whillans interupted, “Do you know what you want to do? You want to team up with a crab. It’s got claws, walks sideways and it’s got a thick head. This isn’t a climb, it’s a bloody crab-crawl.”

And so the route was named, even before an ice axe had been hammered into it, but perhaps Don Whillans guessed something about Patey’s character, particularly his obsession with climbing solo and unroped. The doctor eventually managed to find some companions and arrived in Coire Ardair with mountain photographer John Cleare, London journalist Peter Gillman, and fellow climbers Jim MacArtney and Allen Fyffe. MacArtney’s girlfriend, Mary Anne Hudson, came along too – it was her second winter route!

Some years after the event, Allen Fyffe, then an instructor at Glenmore Lodge, told me the story. Being pretty late in the day and realising that Cleare was planning to take photographs, Patey decided to solo alongside the others. “A rope of five with a leap-frogging snap-happy photographer is as mobile as a constipated caterpillar,” he later wrote. But Fyffe was convinced the climbers had been set up. “He set us up as camera fodder,” he told me. “That was his intention all along.”

By the time they reached the end of the first pitch Patey was disappearing into the mist. It was the last they saw of him, although he occasionally left encouraging arrows on the snow to show he hadn’t forgotten it was a team effort!

At the head of Coire Ardair, Lochan a’Choire lies deep, reflecting the huge array of vegetated cliffs that tower above it. Laid out for more than a mile and in places reaching higher than 1500 feet above the dark waters, these cliffs are breached only by a high bealach, commonly known as The Window, a glaciated gap in the rock curtain which offers access to the higher plateau and summit slopes.

To sit by the loch-side and contemplate the climbing history of these crags makes you realise that through the years many who have tackled the great buttresses and gullies make up a who’s who of mountaineering. One of the first pioneers was Harold Raeburn, who first tackled the two gullies that lie on either side of Pinaccle Buttress – Easy Gully and Raeburn’s Gully. Later Jimmy Bell and various partners climbed some of the steeper gully lines but the historical high-point arrived in the 1950’s and 60’s with the likes of the Edinburgh climbers, Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith and of course, the ubiquitous Dr Tom Patey.

Curiously, Creag Meagaidh’s array of cliffs are only of interest to climbers in winter when the cliffs tend to be protected from any warmth that’s offered by the low sun. Above the cliffs the storms from the west blow the snow across the rolling plateaux and down into the gullies and steep faces where the shattered schist and frozen turf holds the snow and ice in place, often when other crags are snow-free. The steep gullies themselves are natural drains for the vast upland plateax and when those waters freeze climbing conditions can be sensational. In summer conditions the cliffs are too grassy and wet for modern climbers.

While the cliffs of Coire Ardair attract winter climbers from all corners of the world, Creag Meagaidh has also much to offer the hillwalker, in all seasons of the year. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve climbed it, by a variety of routes, and I’ve experienced its glories in all kinds of conditions, from the parched days of high summer to the Arctic cold of winter. I’ve always enjoyed it, particularly the walk in from Aberalder Farm through woodlands that make up one of the great conservation success stories of Scotland.

Just over 25 years ago,  the future of these woods in Coire Ardair looked grim. The trees were dying and there was no progeny, due to overgrazing. The estate was sold to a private forestry group who wanted to coniferise the mountain’s lower slopes, but a public outcry led to the purchase of the estate by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1985

The NCC’s (followed by Scottish Natural Heritage) subsequent management plan included two vital objectives –  to allow ecosystems to evolve with minimum interference, and to encourage regeneration and extension of native forests and boreal scrub vegetation. But how on earth was the NCC to achieve these objectives without erecting fences all over the place to keep the browsing sheep and red deer away from the young plants?

The answer was a simple one – remove the sheep and the deer. A programme of deer culling and sheep removal began and the results have been staggering. Juniper has been recorded for the first time, and there has been tremendous regeneration of birch. There is also a plentiful growth of rowan, willow, alder and oak.

Over a quarter of a century later we can see the rewards of those conservation objectives. In springtime and summer you find yourself walking through woodlands of new, green growth – birch, alder, willow, rowan and oak, trees that have been given an opportunity to grow without having their heads bitten off by sheep or deer. There are even young rowans growing above 2000 feet. There has also been an increase in plant eating invertebrates, many species of plants have become abundantly visible and the deer that remain are bigger and healthier than their predecessors. All this has all been achieved without the conservation agencies having to erect a single metre of deer fencing.

Building deer fences to protect woodland and forest plantations is nothing more than a tacit admission that traditional deer culling methods have failed. And why have they failed? Because there are not enough stalkers on the ground. Traditional deer-stalking jobs should not be under threat – the fact is in many areas of Scotland we need more stalkers to keep deer numbers at a manageable level.

What’s been created forms a wonderfully encouraging start to a mountain walk – throughout the length of Coire Adrair there is the scent of hope, promise and luxuriant new life.

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The glacial breach known as The Window

From the shores of Lochan a’ Choire it’s a steep climb to The Window – a narrow, grassy moraine gives way to loose scree and boulder slopes but the climbing eases off once you enter the narrow confines of The Window itself. A couple of hundred metres through the bealach the western views to the Loch Lochy hills beyond Glen Roy offer a few moments of respite before a faint zig-zagging path leads to Mad Meg’s Cairn, a huge mound of earth covered in stones, before a final climb to the summit at 3701ft/1128m.

According to local legend Mad Meg’s cairn, one that is often mistaken for the summit cairn on misty days, marks the grave of an 18th Century suicide who was denied burial in the local kirkyards. Her family apparently buried her up here, high on Creag Meagaidh, covering her grave with stones and sandy soil.

The summit of Creag Meagaidh lies slap-bang on the mountain spine of Scotland, the ancient Druim Alban. You can clearly identify the watershed with the River Roy draining to the west, and Spey Loch (just hidden from the summit view by an intervening ridge) sourcing the infant Spey as it drains to the North Sea in the east. Great hills surround you – the Cairngorms, the Monadh Liath, the Loch Lochy and Glen Garry hills, Ben Nevis,  the Grey Corries, the Treig twins and the Geal Charn/Carn Dearg ridge with Ben Alder’s summit peeping above it – one of the best views in the country.

Not only does Creag Meagaidh form the watershed but more often than not she also forms a ‘weathershed’ with the hills and glens on one side blanketed by dark cloud while the other direction is bathed in sunshine. It’s a phenomenon I’ve never experienced with such regularity on any other hill in Scotland, so don’t be surprised to find the western hills cloaked in cloud while the hills to the east are clear.

If time permits its well worthwhile re-tracing your steps to the bealach above The Window and returning home via the long undulating ridge between the Munro summits of Stob Poite Coire Ardair and Carn Liath, the route followed by most Munro-baggers, but  if you can arrange the transport at both ends, it’s well worth considering a full traverse of the mountain, this mastiff of a hill that lies on the boundary of Lochaber and Badenoch.  Instead of returning to The Window, descend by the two-and-a-half-mile ridge that curves seductively above the long and sinuous corrie that has been formed by the eroding waters of the Moy Burn.

From the summit cairn continue in a south-west direction down a narrower ridge with slopes falling away into the Moy Corrie on your left and into Coire an Laogh on the right. A line of old fence posts will lead to a rather more permanent navigation aid. Suddenly and without warning a drystone wall appears, an incongruous sight in such wild and bare surroundings. This is no ordinary broken-down relic of wall, such as you’d see throughout the highlands, but a perfect example of the art of drystane dyking, perfect in its symmetry and form, stretching out down the spine of the curving ridge that falls away below you. I can’t think of any real reason for this wall other than signifying the boundary between Lochaber and Badenoch.

Beyond the end of the wall some steep ground has to be negotiated down the slopes of Creag na Cailliche and below the crags you’ll have to negotiate your way over some tricky ground, awkward because of the long grasses that hide rocks and boulders, and the tussocks that threaten to twist your ankles at each step. As you curse the long grass bear this in mind – the success of the Coire Ardair woodlands has been due to a reduction in browsing animals, those same beasts that would probably have kept the grasses short on these slopes that lead down to Moy. There’s two sides to every conservation story! Stick with it though, stay optimistic, for the Laggan to Tulloch road isn’t far below you now, where hopefully your car will be waiting, the end of a traverse over one of Scotland’s finest and most challenging mountains.

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 Far-flung views from the summit plateau

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