Classic Winter - Beinn Eighe's Black Carls

© Dan Bailey

It's been a winter of wind. I can't recall a season so wild, one storm barrelling into the next with no respite. Weather windows have been narrow and far between; and when that rare chance might be your only one, the injunction to seize the day has never meant more. On the promise of a one-day lull in the barrage, I steered to Torridon.

Spidean Coire nan Clach from Sgurr Ban  © Dan Bailey
Spidean Coire nan Clach from Sgurr Ban
© Dan Bailey

In an area rightly revered for monumental winter ridge traverses the first big decision is always which to go for. Liathach tops the bill for mountaineers of course, while the slightly gentler Beinn Alligin yields nothing in aesthetic perfection. But you can have too much of a good thing, and as I'd done each several times in winter without once tracking snowy prints across neighbouring Beinn Eighe, the choice today was obvious.

Weeks of westerly blast had scoured back the windward flanks and summits, dumping all that snow on lee slopes and hollows. Would progress be slowed by wading? Beinn Eighe is a big beast, a range of multiple peaks and ridges rather than a single entity: a full traverse is always a tall order, so I'd start in the east and just see how far I got.

Hard work on the ascent of Creag Dhubh  © Dan Bailey
Hard work on the ascent of Creag Dhubh
© Dan Bailey

Rising above the pines of the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, the eastern aspect of the hill tends to hold more snow than elsewhere in Torridon, and today was no exception. On the right the conical peak of Creag Dhubh was a mix of deep-looking deposits and wind-scoured streaks; further left, the rocky pinnacles of the Black Carls jutted like dark little molars from the smooth white ridge crest. In the past I'd traversed them as a scrappy grade 1 scramble, but never in the snow. At a winter grade of I/II the Black Carls, or the Bodaich Dubh, fall beyond a winter walking remit. As a solo mountaineer they would be the crux of my day.

But first I'd have to get to them. Wind-blown snow had gathered on the lower slopes, and as the scattered pines of the National Nature Reserve thinned out the path became progressively more buried. I joined another walker toiling the same way - Gillian from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service, heading up to make the area assessment for the day. It's not a busy place mid-week, and it was nice to share the burden of breaking trail. Boot deep, sometimes to the knees, the soft snow made purgatory of the ascent. Up on the east spur of Creag Dhubh I left Gillian doing her thing with the snowpack, and pressed on up the ridge, here a beautiful wind-honed edge. The snow sank with every step, the sun broke through the morning haze, and for the first time in months I felt its warmth.

Classic signs of wind scouring and deposition on the way to Sgurr nan Fhir Duibhe   © Dan Bailey
Classic signs of wind scouring and deposition on the way to Sgurr nan Fhir Duibhe
© Dan Bailey

As expected the Black Carls proved exciting, with some interesting little climbs and downclimbs over the array of pinnacles on a mix of icy rock, wind-scoured frozen turf and deep drifts. Compared to a summer crossing the scale felt grander and the sense of exposure magnified. A last hard step saw me pause for thought. Traversing either flank looked insecure, while a direct ascent was steep enough to class as proper climbing. If I'd had a partner and a rope, here's where we'd have used it. I gingerly tested the rocks of the direct climb, torquing the axe into cracks and painstakingly brushing off every hand and foothold; a fall from here would not end well. A few nervous metres, and I was up.

Looking back over the Black Carls from above the crux step  © Dan Bailey
Looking back over the Black Carls from above the crux step
© Dan Bailey

From Sgurr nan Fhir Duibhe the main crest of Beinn Eighe runs west for several kilometres, sending out spurs north and south to enclose a series of spectacular corries. Dips between the summits add a lot of height gain to a traverse, and I got stuck into the first of them, picking down the stony ridge into the gap below Sgurr Ban. This rose above as a spectacular wedge-shaped peak, buttressed to the north with steep crags. Having lost some hard-won height I now stepped from wind-scoured ground back into the deep snow that blanketed all the eastern aspects - quite a workout with no trodden trail to follow. This stop-start progress was beginning to eat time, and already the idea of a full crossing to the western end of Beinn Eighe was beginning to lose its appeal.

Looking back to the fearsome Black Carls from Sgurr Ban  © Dan Bailey
Looking back to the fearsome Black Carls from Sgurr Ban
© Dan Bailey

Glen Torridon and the Coulin hills from Sgurr Ban   © Dan Bailey
Glen Torridon and the Coulin hills from Sgurr Ban
© Dan Bailey

With a lofty perspective on Glen Torridon and the wild tangle of the Coulin hills, Stob Ban is quite the viewpoint. Out to the west the hulking form of Liathach had muscled into view, while the topmost fringe of the Skye Cuillin poked out on tiptoe beyond flat-headed Beinn Bhan. Still on gloriously untracked snow, I headed west into the light. Here the hill narrows to a defined crest, an airy stride with occasional hands-on moments. Alone on the ridge, walking the line between bright sunshine on one flank and deep blue shadow on the other, this must have been my most ecstatic half kilometre of the winter. Too soon I was back to snowploughing through the deep stuff, puffing like a steam train on the ascent to Spidean Coire nan Clach.

The mighty Liathach from Spidean Coire nan Clach  © Dan Bailey
The mighty Liathach from Spidean Coire nan Clach
© Dan Bailey

The lower of the massif's two Munros, Spidean Coire nan Clach, nevertheless serves as the linchpin of the ridge, the central hub from which the various spokes of the wheel radiate. An impressive summit that's comparatively quick to reach from Glen Torridon, it's an understandably popular winter goal, and I was back in company here, sharing the sunny summit with a friendly guided group. Unusually, the high point of the range, Ruadh-stac Mor, stands as an offshoot from the main ridge, tucked away above the water-pitted wilds of the northern hinterland. Reaching it adds a lot of leg work to your day - and doubly so if you've started way out east. With afternoon now progressing, and a lot of deep snow between me and that second Munro, I for once took the lazy option. It's not often this winter I've been able to lounge about on a summit, soaking up rays without being battered or frozen by the wind. Seize the moment, as they say.

  • Grade - I/II (winter) 1 scramble (summer)
  • Length - 9.6km
  • Ascent - 1100m
  • Time - 6 hours
  • Start point - Allt a' Chuirn path, from A986 just south of Kinlochewe
  • Munros - Spidean Coire nan Clach
  • Maps - OS Landranger (1:50,000) 19 & 25 - Because the hill straddles two OS sheets, a Harvey map would be a better alternative: Superwalker (1:25,000) or British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Torridon & Fisherfield
  • Route notes - At any time of year the eastern end of Beinn Eighe is a classic ridge walk. A snow-free traverse involves only some limited grade 1 scrambling. In winter conditions however the traverse takes on a mountaineering character, with the Black Carls forming the chief unavoidable difficulty. At a winter climbing grade of I/II these exposed pinnacles have to be considered an easy climb rather than a hard walk, and roping up would not be at all excessive.

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