Draped in a snowy winter coat the Scottish mountains provide an irresistible allure for walkers. White-topped hills gleam against a deep blue sky, sparkling in the crisp, cold air. They invite challenge, adventure and the surefire certainty that a day climbing mountains in winter will provide highs and lows not experienced in the summer months.
If last weekend was anything to go by I was not alone in falling for the charms of deep powder snow. The laybys along the length of the A82 familiar to peak-baggers were rammed with cars; as busy as any sunny Saturday in July.
Framed by attractive seascapes and rugged mountains, Appin occupies a quiet corner of the West Highlands overlooking Morvern and Oban. Most visitors head south to Oban, the gateway to the islands, or further north to Fort William. It’s no surprise then that the hills of Appin are sometimes overlooked in favour of larger, more imposing mountains elsewhere.
And this suited me just fine. What I was after was a not-too-taxing winter walk so I could get back down in daylight. Ideally I wanted a hill with great views and in a location that would allow a cycle ride the following day. The Corbett Creach Bheinn fitted the bill exactly.
However, initial impressions are perhaps a little underwhelming. Creach Bheinn translates as ‘bare (or windswept) hill’, and it’s within sight of another similarly-named Corbett across Loch Linnhe in Morvern. (The more sceptical among you will no doubt be surprised that there are only two hills in Scotland sharing the same non-descript name). The approach, following a bulldozed track that winds its way up the glen to Coire Buidhe, is also somewhat under-inspiring. Or at least it would be in summer. But today, it provided a fast-track to the powdery white stuff and I was only too glad to recover my walking legs before reaching the interesting part.
And it didn’t take long for a so-far mundane walk to be transformed.
Ahead of me were two other parties. Having left the winding track I swapped the sound of boots scraping on hard-packed gravel for the almost silent ‘swooshing’ of footsteps through soft snow. I had the easier job, following their single-file path through the snow and critically assessing the line of ascent they’d taken through the rocky outcrops. The snow smoothed out the hollows, transforming a normally rocky hillside into a carpeted wonderland, and bringing with it a magical, deadening silence.
Up on the ridge the sun’s rays made a determined effort to escape the clouds, sending sharp tentacles down towards the depths of Loch Etive. The soft light reflected off the dark water, providing the promise of an improving day. As the sun topped the clouds its rays washed the snow with a brightening cast, throwing shadows across the frozen hillside. Then finally, as the bright sun escaped the clouds it illuminated the rime-covered stalks of grass bravely poking through the snow. The ice sparkled and shone with a brilliance that turned the ‘ordinary’ into a truly wonderful sight.
As I gained height the views north to Glen Etive opened up, giving fine perspectives of Beinn Trilleachan, the two Buachailles and the mighty Ben Starav. Reaching the apex of the ridge Ben Sgulaird also came into view. In summer many folk combine a walk up this munro with Creach Bheinn but with shorter daylight hours this is much more of a challenge in mid-winter.
While the light winds had so far betrayed the fierce conditions that can so often characterise the mountains in winter the windchill increased markedly up on the ridge. An arctic north-easterly blew me towards the summit as I donned extra layers. The wind had also begun to create an icy crust which changed my walking tempo: I much prefer crunching over the surface than wading, ankle-deep through snow.
I passed the two other groups of walkers as I approached the summit. One couple had three ‘low-rise’ dogs between them. Don’t ask me to identify the breed; all I can say is that in spite of having to bound energetically through the drifts in their snow-coats they seemed to be in doggy heaven. Pleasantries exchanged, I soaked up the trig point views before retiring to a sheltered hollow to grab a quick bite.
At 810m Creach Bheinn gives an inspiring 360-degree view of mountain and sea. Not only were the Glen Coe hills laid out in all their snow-topped glory but the sharp summit of Ben Cruachan dominated the view to the south. Due west my eye was drawn across Lochs Creran and Linnhe, beyond the narrow island of Lismore to the wintery skyline of Mull and Morvern. Somehow, with expert care, Winter had sprinkled icing sugar over the mountainous peaks to create a particularly eye-catching panorama.
Walking back along the ridge directly into the cold, north-easterly blast, I drew my buff up over my nose. At times like these, function, not fashion, are of prime concern! It was a straightforward return leg following the now, churned-up path through the snow, spiced up by the need to use an ice axe on the steeper gradients. Fortunately it was used simply for balance rather than grip on this occasion.
By the time I reached the end of the ridge, shadows were lengthening once more. The short window of daylight was beginning to close, bringing with it that softer, orange glow that makes routine photographs become utterly magical in winter. I didn’t stay up high to enjoy the alpenglow but instead enjoyed the clouds turning salmon-pink as I crunched back down the track.
What might have been a boggy and fairly unexciting summer hill walk had certainly provided some inspiring light, sights and sounds in just a few short hours. In this quiet corner of Appin, the allure of winter walking had lived up to its promise.