In our series of bite-sized intros to Britain's best-loved hills, Alex Roddie finds out why Creag Meagaidh exerts such a strong pull on winter mountaineers. But on this sprawling mountain with hidden depths there's plenty for walkers and skiers too.
Height: 1130m (3707ft)
Personality: Creag Meagaidh is a mountain of exceptional quality. While it looks dull from the road – there's little to distinguish it from all the other rounded lumps as you drive past along the A86 – the concealed Coire Ardair is home to one of the finest mountain walls in Scotland, a multi-buttressed face rising above the waters of Lochan a' Choire. The corrie crags stand in stark contrast to the vast Cairngorm-like summit plateau, a serious place in winter.
What's in a name? Appropriately enough, Creag Meagaidh (pronounced Meggy, which has become its nickname) translates approximately to 'bogland crag' in English.
Best route: The best walking route to the summit is a circuit taking in Creag Meagaidh, Stob Poite Coire Ardair, and Carn Liath. The route begins at Aberarder, climbing up through regenerating woodland to the spectacular coire beneath the north-eastern cliffs of the mountain. It then climbs steeply to a feature known as the Window – a narrow bealach between crags – before ascending gentler slopes and traversing the featureless plateau to Creag Meagaidh. The route then doubles back to the Window and continues along the ridge to Stob Poite Coire Ardair and Carn Liath before descending back to Aberarder.
Most unfrequented route: For a quieter day out, approach from Coire na h'Uamha. The usual approach for Beinn a' Chaorainn's East Ridge leads to Bealach a' Bharnish after a rough, pathless climb, which you're almost guaranteed to have to yourself. Creag Meagaidh's western flank is a rounded, gentle shoulder with decent views, but it lacks the panache of the Coire Ardair route.
Any scrambling options? Not really. The dank, vegetated cliffs of Coire Ardair are best known for their winter routes, and there are no established summer scrambling lines. A nearby worthwhile alternative is the East Ridge of Beinn a' Chaorainn, the next Munro to the west. It's a worthwhile Grade 2 scramble in summer conditions, and Grade II in winter (and low in the grade in either season).
So this peak is all about winter, then? Definitely. In winter conditions, the face overlooking Coire Ardair is a place of swaggering magnificence. These cliffs are some of the highest in Britain, and considered one of the best venues in Scotland for winter mountaineering and climbing – up there with Ben Nevis and the Cairngorms. Although the real classic climbs tend to start at around grade III, with a preponderance of routes Grade V and above (Last Post, Smith's Gully, Pumpkin, The Wand etc), there is plenty of scope for easier winter mountaineering too. Easy Gully is a big, impressive Grade I gully slashing diagonally up the cliff, and although avalanche risk can be high in certain conditions, it's a favourite objective for would-be winter mountaineers. Raeburn's Gully, also grade I, is possibly even better, a long snow climb in striking surroundings.
Crab Crawl: Creag Meagaidh's most unusual route was first climbed solo by winter legend Tom Patey in 1969. The Crab Crawl is a 'girdle traverse' of the entire crag, and at around 2400m in length, it's one of the biggest climbs in Britain. Today it gets Grade IV,4, making it a serious undertaking for experienced climbers.
Woodland regeneration: Creag Meagaidh's National Nature Reserve covers 4,000 hectares, and was one of the first places in Scotland to begin a programme of woodland restoration. The remnants of ancient birch forest were dying out, under pressure from overgrazing and the threat of commercial spruce plantations, but in the late 1980s efforts began to reverse this trend. Heather burning was stopped, sheep were removed, and the population of red deer was drastically reduced via a combination of live capture and traditional stalking. Today, the result is a thriving woodland well on the way to recovery. Wildlife now flourishes in these woods thanks to decades of conservation, and a similar process is underway in other parts of the Highlands, including Beinn Eighe and Glen Feshie.
Hidden gem: If you're looking for a quiet spot on the mountain, Lochan Uaine is worth seeking out. This lochan, surrounded by a cluster of smaller pools, nestles beneath the secluded north-west cliffs of Creag Meagaidh. It's a grand spot for a wild camp, and is easily accessible from the Window (or, for the intrepid, via a long and largely off-path walk from Glen Roy).
Where to stay? There are very few options in the local area. Roy Bridge is the nearest village; the Stronlossit Inn offers affordable rooms. In the other direction, the Newtonmore Hostel offers a warm welcome, and is run by experienced backpackers in the Scottish mountains.
Local pub: The Stronlossit Inn is your best bet locally
From some angles it's all drama; from others it's hardly there at all. Steeple is a fell with extremes of personality, says Alex Roddie, in our ongoing series of bite sized intros to Britain's favourite hills.