There's a lot to be said for winter climbing - we wouldn't put ourselves through it for nothing. Yet it does seem a perverse, self-punishing sort of activity. I often wonder about the way the axe-wielding brigade so willingly seek out the coldest, shadiest crannies to suffer in. Yes of course, that's where the conditions are. But how often have you shivered on a spindrift-raked belay in the chill of a north facing gully, gazed from your icebound hole to sunkissed ridges, all snow glint and blue sky, and caught yourself wishing you were out there in the light, moving steadily and able to feel your fingers? It happens to me a lot.
After a dark and dreich spell of weather, John and I finally hit a decent window. We felt starved not only of climbing, but that rare Scottish winter phenomenon, sunshine. As if to order MWIS were promising bright sun, and views as far as the eye could see. So naturally, like any self-respecting climbers, we headed to a north-facing corrie to get a decent route in. Halfway up Fingers Ridge, just about warm enough, I had my usual moment of self doubt. Why were we here scratching around in the shadows, when out on the slopes beyond it all looked so shiny and appealing?
With a second fine day in prospect it seemed we both hankered after something a bit less stern. There's nothing like a mountaineering ridge on days like these, a route exciting enough to keep the adrenaline topped up, sufficiently easy to stay moving and warm, and best of all (if you're lucky), bathed in dazzling light. You'll find a good one near Laggan - the East Ridge of Beinn a' Chaorainn (I/II). Big-ish but manageable, a graded climb but only just, it's a great option whether you're a climber seeking fast-moving fun, or a walker taking their early steps into the world of winter mountaineering (safety disclaimer: if this is you then rope in a more experienced friend, or hire a guide).
It never attains the status of true knife-edge, but there's a grand sense of scale and height
On the basis that you can't overdo these things, this would be my fourth or fifth visit, but a first for John - a bit of a surprise since I'd assumed everyone in Scotland has done it at least once. If you recall a boggy slog of an approach then things have moved on since you last came, a new forestry track now making access quicker and less gloopy. With a pre-dawn start we were nearing the foot of the ridge as the early sun hit the upper slopes. Cold, clear and calm, just as predicted; things looked almost too benign for Scotland in January.
Starting with the crux, a steep turfy buttress and a weave around craggy bits, the route then rises in a series of steps, hitting the plateau of Beinn a' Chaorain, as all good ridges should do, just a few strides from the summit cairn. A thaw had stripped the lower nose, so we gravitated to the side where a ribbon of crusty snow in a shallow gully offered a more wintry alternative - worth bearing in mind if you find you don't fancy the steep turfy bit on the day. Regaining the crest, we emerged squinting into hard-edged, low-angle January sunlight (not a great day to forget your sunglasses) with the ground getting firmer and a lot more like winter as we ascended, and every tiny crystal gleaming.
Each distinct step on the ridge offers a choice, something for everyone: a direct scramble up the blocky crest, or an outflanking line on snow. It never attains the status of true knife-edge, but there's a grand sense of scale and height, and a cool outlook on the mountain's rugged eastern corries, often impressively corniced, with the big dome of Creag Meagaidh across the glen. Free from the shackles of a rope (an option that mixed-ability teams probably ought to consider) we made smooth progress. While this is lovely ground for moving fast that does have a downside, and I have to admit feeling slightly short-changed when all of a sudden we popped out on top. It might provide a few hundred metres of perfectly-pitched grade I/II entertainment, but my only beef with the East Ridge is that it's not longer still. It's the sort of route you could happily do all day.
Topping out on a winter climb before lunch isn't something I manage that often, and while a quick return to the road might have seen us back at our desks before the end of the working day (safety disclaimer 2: note the seasonal advice in our Route Card) there's nothing like blue sky, clear views, and a promise of frozen bogs to tip the decision in favour of bunking off. John needed no arm twisting. If anyone asked, we were reviewing a load of gear; but of course there was no one to explain ourselves to on a deserted midweek hill. From here you could loop Creag Meagaidh into a big round, but perhaps the more obvious alternative is neighbouring Beinn Teallach. This is a nondescript lump of a just-about-Munro, but the panorama over Lochaber is a cracker, and it's a great pretext to eke out all the short hours of winter sunlight on offer.
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