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Walk the Ben Cruachan horseshoe in winter

Written by Fiona

February 28 2022

Read about a winter walk on the classic mountain route of the Ben Cruachan horseshoe. I wrote about this in The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article, why not buy a Scots Magazine, or a subscription?

Rob on Ben Cruachan.

A classic climb

Lifting my rucksack on to my back at the start of a walk to visit two Munro summits, I am reminded that it’s winter. 

My pack is heavy with the addition of the season’s essentials, including crampons and ice axe, walking poles, plenty of spare clothing, heated gloves, waterproof over trousers, emergency shelter and a flask of tea, plus food.

The extra weight also necessitates a slower pace, especially as the route of the Ben Cruachan Horseshoe begins on a steep path.

Yet, at first, there is little evidence of the snow that featured prominently on every high peak as I journeyed to meet my friend Rob in a layby on the A85, close to Falls of Cruachan railway station in Argyll & Bute this morning.

The shelter of woodland means the well-trodden path is surprisingly dry with only small patches of frozen mud.

It’s still early and the temperature is barely above zero degrees, which turns my breath into white clouds in front of me.

Of course, as always happens, we quickly become over-heated and stop to shed a layer. 

Coming out of the trees, we climb a stile over a deer fence and then join a wide and roughly tarmacked track. 

Up ahead the huge stone wall of Cruachan dam dominates the immediate horizon, with a backdrop of stunningly white mountain slopes below a brightening sky. 

We dodge solid-ice puddles and walk carefully over large patches of crunchy snow.

There is a long metal staircase that leads on to the dam itself and suddenly there are vastly more dramatic views across Cruachan Reservoir and the steep-sided mountain ridge that connects Ben Cruachan with its neighbouring peak, Stob Dàimh.

We stay close to the western shore of the reservoir following a track that becomes increasingly thick with snow.

This is the last obvious sign of a route that we will see for the next few hours.

Usually, there would be an obvious path to the north of a stream, heading westwards uphill but it is hidden below deep snow.

After checking the map, Rob and I begin a slow ascent of rugged Coire Dearg. 

Beautiful Ben Cruachan.

Fact: Hidden deep within Ben Cruachan is Cruachan Power Station, which is housed in a gigantic man-made cavern that is tall enough to hold the Tower of London.

Noelle climbs the dam ladder as we climbed towards the slopes of Ben Cruachan.

I can hear the bubbling of water, presumably hidden below the winter covering of white stuff, and I look upwards to see an almost cloud-free blue sky.

The setting is winter picture postcard perfect, although I am quickly realising progress is going to be slow today.

I am thankful that we started the walk early, knowing that daylight is short in February.

On reaching a flatter section, we consider the next pull up towards a bealach and agree it’s time for crampons.

While crampons can feel heavy and cumbersome, the sharp spikes bring greater confidence on the compacted snow and ice.

We also swap walking poles for an ice axe, which means that should we slip or fall, we would hope to be able to arrest a potentially life-threatening slide downhill.

There is always the added danger of avalanches in the mountains at this time of year and we have been careful to check the Scottish Avalanche Information Service before planning today’s trip.

The northern slopes were considered to be most risky and fortunately the Ben Cruachan circuit avoids this aspect.

Despite all the precautions, we still need to take each step with care. The terrain is a unpredictable patchwork of ice and wind-hardened snow, as well as holes and pockets of thigh-deep snow.

Our chat ceases as we focus on a traverse of a slope that feels precarious, mainly due to the steep sweep of white below us, before making a testing climb over snow and ice-covered boulders.

Finally the 1126m summit of Ben Cruachan comes into view and we can see the outline of a cairn, which today is coated in a thick snow and hoarfrost layer.

It’s the highest point in the region and provides a superb vista of mountains and lochs in all directions. 

In particular, looking westwards, we see Loch Etive shimmering like a ragged-edge pool of mercury. It leads to the sea and a sublime view of many island outlines.

And there, in the nearer distance, stretching east, is our next challenge, the rocky ridge towards the second summit of the day at 998m.

I have previously read about a “bad step” in this section and I worry the large slab of rock, with a big drop on almost all sides, will be precariously slippery in winter.

Rob and I chat as we eat lunch. I wonder if we should return the way we came having bagged just the one Munro, or if we should continue. 

Despite the sun, it’s chilly and I put on an extra insulated jacket and my wonderful heated gloves. 

However, it is still early enough to believe that with care and a steady pace, we will enjoy daylight until we return to the start point and the conclusion is we will “see how it is on the ridge”.

Walking downhill in crampons on a mix of snow, ice and boulders is not easy. Each step down needs to be deliberate and I find myself occasionally sitting and using my axe-free hand as well as my feet to increase confidence. 

The “bad step” arrives and there is an option to bypass it to the right but this would call for us to lose height and we choose instead to make a careful traverse.

I don’t enjoy airy ridges and I keep my eyes on the immediate ground in front rather than the vertigo-inducing drop-offs.

I notice that instinctively, I have my ice axe raised and close to the snow and ice, ready for action at the first sign of a slip.

In dry conditions, I can’t see the step being too difficult but it’s the “what ifs” that make my head swim slightly with anxiety.

The rest of the ridge is far less unnerving, although it requires concentration in winter with some narrow sections and many undulations over rocks and boulders. 

Around halfway along the riddgeline, and just as we can see a high top of Drochaid Ghlas, the route descends again, then flattens a little before another steep push up to the summit of Stob Dàimh.

The view back along the ridge is spectacular, especially as the setting sun creates a gorgeous light pinky-orange hue on the white slopes.

The ridge continues south to reach a bealach before a short climb to Stob Garbh, which is only around 20 metres lower than Stob Dàimh.  From here the route heads gradually downhill, first south and then west-south-west.

We keep on our crampons for as long as we can so that we can enjoy the grip and easy descent on the still thick snow. 

Finally, we regain the reservoir, this time on the eastern shore and pass the dam, continuing south and back on to the wide track that returns to the woodland.

It feels odd to be back on snow-bare paths and walking on the soles of our boots. Rob and I reflect that the circuit, with snow, ice, ridges, varying terrain, two high summits and superb views, provides a truly classic winter Scottish adventure.

We enjoy a glimpse south and below us of the vast expanse of Loch Awe, it’s waters dark and cold looking, before continuing uphill.

Kit list for a winter hike

  • Winter sized rucksack
  • Sturdy walking boots
  • Walking poles
  • Waterproof jacket and trousers
  • Baselayer
  • Insulated layer
  • Spare baselayer and jacket
  • Gloves x 2
  • Headwear
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Ski goggles
  • Sunglasses
  • Mobile phone
  • Map and compass
  • Bivvy bag / emergency shelter.

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