Classic Winter - Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh

© James Roddie

Standing proud between the mountain drama of Torridon and the sprawling wilds of Monar, the hills of the Coulin Forest are easily some of the finest in the Northwest Highlands. Whilst lacking the airy ridges and deep mountain corries found further north, these rugged peaks surrender nothing in terms of atmosphere and character. On an exceptionally fine winter's day, I set out to walk the classic Corbett and Munro combination of Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh.

Deep snow on Fuar Tholl  © James Roddie
Deep snow on Fuar Tholl
© James Roddie

Having spent around half my life in the company of other hillwalkers and climbers, I have become aware that many of us have a 'nemesis' hill. One that takes us numerous attempts to finally get to the summit of, often just down to bad luck. For me, that hill has to be Fuar Tholl. In the past I had set out to climb Fuar Tholl on at least four different occasions, and had been turned back by a variety of minor mishaps that were completely out of my control. As I was to discover however, on this most perfect of mid-winter days, it was worth the wait.

With an almost full moon and a forecast for completely clear skies, it was a perfect opportunity for an 'Alpine start' and to get up high for the sunrise. I knew that it had been snowing hard to low levels for a few days, so I gave myself some extra time for the approach. A slightly tense, icy drive over from Inverness got me to the carpark for just after 5am. It was -6 degrees when I left the car, and when I found the gate at the start of the walk to be frozen shut, I knew I was in for one of those deep winter days which don't come around so often any more.

Maol Chean-dearg at sunrise  © James Roddie
Maol Chean-dearg at sunrise
© James Roddie

As I started my approach along the banks of the River Lair, I could already see the full height of Fuar Tholl towering above, shining in the glow of the moon. I had hoped to climb the East ridge straight to the summit, but with a considerable avalanche risk on Easterly slopes, I decided on the safer option. Progress was rapid for the first half mile or so, but with surprising abruptness, conditions underfoot deteriorated. I couldn't remember seeing such deep snow at such low altitudes in this part of the Highlands before.

Clearly, only one or two people had been along the path since the biggest dump of snow. A line of deep boot-prints led off towards Coire Lair, and I followed them gladly, wondering how far they would go. I had walked this path numerous times before whilst approaching winter climbs on Sgorr Ruadh, and it was unrecognisable under such a deep blanket of fresh powder.

Moonlight on Sgorr Ruadh  © James Roddie
Moonlight on Sgorr Ruadh
© James Roddie

After half an hour, despite the steepness of the path, I had to stop to put on another layer. A layer of frost had already started to form on my rucksack. I started to feel a little concerned about the upcoming river crossing. How icy would it be? Breaking away from the main trail into Coire Lair, I just about managed to follow the existing boot prints towards the usual crossing point on the river. Once I reached the water, however, it was clear that things were not going to be at all easy.

Whoever had been here before me, had obviously gone back and forwards repeatedly in search of a safe crossing. In the light of my headtorch, black ice glinted off every rock protruding out of the river. On a day this cold, I couldn't risk getting wet feet, so simply wading across was out of the question. It took me multiple attempts to find a safe crossing. Eventually, with some lateral thinking, I managed to find a devious route across, linking rocks for around 30 metres downstream before reaching the other bank.

Above the Mainreachan Buttress  © James Roddie
Above the Mainreachan Buttress
© James Roddie

Beyond the river, the depth of snow was impressive. Every rock, boulder, stream and puddle was completely buried under a perfect blanket of white. As beautiful as it was, I would need to be careful to avoid hazards underfoot. With some relief, I quickly found the boot prints again, and they were following the approximate line of the path towards Fuar Tholl. Once again I followed them gladly, but not before a stop to inspect the map.

After several hundred metres I reached a frozen lochan. With the cliffs of Sgorr Ruadh shining in the moonlight beyond, it was an almost impossibly beautiful scene. I stopped for a few minutes to take some photos and just breath it in. I'm glad that I did, as a few hundred metres beyond the frozen lochan, the day was about to become considerably more difficult. The line of boot prints stopped.

The mighty Mainreachan Buttress  © James Roddie
The mighty Mainreachan Buttress
© James Roddie

The mystery trail breaker had clearly decided to call it a day. With the snow knee-deep with almost every step, it was hardly surprising. I'll admit, I gave serious thought to following their cue and heading home, as the idea of breaking trail through such deep snow was not appealing. But it was shaping up to be one of the most beautiful winter days I'd seen for years - I was determined to keep going as far as I could.

It took me over an hour to cover the next mile. What would normally be an easy approach path, was an almost uniform slope of snow around 3 feet deep. It felt like a huge effort to reach the bealach between Fuar Tholl and Sgorr Ruadh. It was with significant relief that I found the conditions to be far easier as soon as I reached steep ground. A wind-scoured scree slope felt like a haven after wading through deep snow for so long.

From below, the route up Fuar Tholl was not easy to identify. To reach the easier ground above, I needed to negotiate my way up Creag Mainnrichean - an area of very steep, craggy ground with no obvious way up. Any sign of a path was buried, and there were no footprints to show the way. In the end I simply 'followed my nose', linking several small gaps between the craglets. Firmer snow would have been preferable, but using a combination of my ice axe and my hands, I found my way up fairly easily.

Hard going on the ascent of Sgorr Ruadh, with Fuar Tholl behind  © James Roddie
Hard going on the ascent of Sgorr Ruadh, with Fuar Tholl behind
© James Roddie

Above, a short walk took me to the top of the Mainreachan Buttress - the monumental cliff that defines Fuar Tholl, and a legendary winter climbing crag. My attention was soon drawn to the sunrise however, which was rapidly spreading 'Alpenglow' over the hills. It was an utterly silent moment, save for the distant croaking of a ptarmigan. Once I had finished taking photos, I made quick progress to the summit.

It had taken so much effort to reach the summit of Fuar Tholl, that I was genuinely tempted to give Sgorr Ruadh a miss. The idea of breaking trail up a second hill was not appealing! As luck would have it, however, I caught sight of a group of walkers just reaching the bealach below, and they started making their way up Sgorr Ruadh. I would have a trail to follow.

Returning in my footsteps, I found an easier way to negotiate Creag Mainnrichean than I had discovered from below. Still, it required concentration, not least to avoid some spooky areas of windslab. Once at the bealach, I was feeling tired, but now far more keen on the idea of continuing to Sgorr Ruadh. I followed the trench that the other walkers had dug, weaving in and out of an area of lochans and slabby ground. In places the snow was extremely deep again. On more than one occasion, I found myself up to my waist.

Sunset over the Coulin Forest and distant Skye, from Sgorr Ruadh   © James Roddie
Sunset over the Coulin Forest and distant Skye, from Sgorr Ruadh
© James Roddie

From the ascent of Sgorr Ruadh, the view back towards Fuar Tholl became better with every step. I paused repeatedly to take photos, and to rest my tired legs. I felt to have been moving uphill for quite a while but making little progress, but at least it wasn't me breaking trail anymore. The steepest ground over with, I broke out onto a large area of open hillside leading towards the summit. To my right were the summits of Academy Ridge and Raeburn's Buttress - both challenging mountaineering routes.

Before too long, I found myself on the summit, looking down into Torridon. I gave brief thought to continuing and trying to also take in Beinn Liath Mhor, but realistically I just didn't have enough daylight left. It looked to be shaping up to be an exceptional sunset, so I hunkered down in my duvet jacket for an hour and waited for the sun to break out beneath a band of cloud. As I had hoped, 'Alpenglow' spread across the hills once again, and I spent a wonderful twenty minutes taking photos in every direction.

Last light over Beinn Eighe  © James Roddie
Last light over Beinn Eighe
© James Roddie

With the temperature starting to plummet, I began the long, steep descent back to the road. Tired and with aching legs, but filled to the brim with the sense of calm I can only find in the hills.

Start/finish: Car park near Achnashellach train station (NH004483)

Distance: 17.25km/10.7 miles

Total ascent: 1384m/4541ft

Time: 8-10 hours

Summits: Fuar Tholl (907m), Sgorr Ruadh (962m)

Maps: OS Explorer (1:25,000) 429 (Glen Carron and West Monar); OS Landranger (1:50,000) 25

Route notes: Though not particularly lengthy, this is a strenuous route due to the very steep nature of the terrain throughout. In poor visibility, be particularly aware of the cliff edges on Fuar Tholl. Crossing the River Lair always requires careful routefinding, and in winter this can be particularly challenging. After heavy rain/snowmelt, the river crossing may be impossible. Due to the popular nature of these hills, the car park fills quickly at weekends, so arrive early to avoid disappointment!

Route variants: Conditions allowing, continuing to Beinn Liath Mhor is possible for fit walkers, and makes a very satisfying round.

12 Nov, 2021

Lovely stuff, what a day you had, around one one of my all time favourite places (Coire Lair). The views from these summits are amongst the very, very best and in those conditions are astonishing. Getting Alpenglow at both the beginning and end of the day must have been special.

I once fell in the river in similar snow conditions, luckily on the way back down, attempting to match my lanky mate's leap from rock to rock. I still resent his "go-go-gadget legs" to this day. We'd summitted up the big obvious gully next to the Cold Hole itself, complete with dodgy finish past a collapsed cornice which we were entirely too inexperienced to really attempt, but hey, we were already there and at least we were fit and strong (the long lost feeling of immortality when 21!)!

We've slightly struggled with routes down from Creag Mainnrichean in poor vis and dodgy snow, not as obvious as you'd think and we always seem to end up too far left leading to a loose or slippery traverse, when attempting to avoid the crags.

Thanks for a great read and superb photos.

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email