The pandemic was clearly heading our way and by early March the never ending newsreel of events beat an ever more frightening tone. At the same time ski conditions were rapidly reaching peak perfection across the Highlands. Snow was in tip top condition, summits were plastered, the corries filled with powder snow and the weather was settling into what was clearly due to be a prolonged period of settled high pressure.
By mid month government briefings became ever more foreboding and word was we might have to go into lockdown. Within days the possibility of lockdown translated into certainty, social distancing was in place and it became a matter of time before the mountains would be out of reach.
After a winter long wait for perfect conditions to arrive, the thought of being prevented from travelling to the hills let alone being allowed to continue skiing prompted an urgent call to Dave Mitchell and a plan was immediately initiated involving two cars, two tents & all the kit required for an overnight overnight ski camp. Within hours we were packed and in convoy we headed off up the A9 still debating exactly where we should go. A number of options were discussed and the various merits of different mountains weighed up but being so spoilt for choice it took until we reached Drumochter before we finally committed and turned the cars west to Kintail.
The views everywhere were spectacular, Creag Meagaidh sparkled in the sunshine, with its alpine coat giving the appearance of a summit several hundred metres higher, whilst the Grey corries were magnificent under an ermine coat of winter perfection. Invergarry, surrounded by Highland scenery at its best, was soon reached and at the high point above Loch Loyne the peaks of the West Highlands glistened with incredible clarity.
We hastened on mindful of the lateness of the day and of a big ascent to come.
On arrival at Cluanie, the snow level, cover and depth filled in the last bits of the planning jigsaw with a bold narrative decided of camping on the summit of the Saddle. Despite its proximity to the west coast, the Saddle reaches 1100m and with excellent snow catching terrain we were confident conditions would be good. First though we had to reach the snowline, so with rucsacks bulging with everything required for a high level winter camp and skis and ski boots strapped to the sides we struggled off, fortunately with the prospect of bearable uphill progress on the perfectly engineered stalkers track.
In March sunset arrives quickly and regardless of the fast pace we had barely reached the col between Meallan Odhar and Biod an Fhithich when the sun disappeared, long shadows started to cast their way across the mountains and the temperature plummeted. Underfoot the snow, which from the roadside looked good, turned out to be in perfect condition, firm but not icy with a shallow layer of recent snow on top. Walking boots were swapped for ski boots, head torches switched on and we quickly settled into the swish swish rhythm of skinning uphill. The foot of the Forcan ridge was gained and we traversed on round towards Bealach Coire Mhalagain in the gathering gloom. Darkness chased us up the mountain and slopes which in summer are straightforward suddenly became ones to be reckoned with height carefuly gained through a series of tiring traverses. On and up we moved aware the time was after 8pm and we had still over 300m of ascent to reach the summit. As the darkness effortlessly swallowing us into the mountains chest horizons and thoughts closed in on the narrow beams of torch light.
The Saddle is an unusual peak for the west coast, possessing serious terrain on all sides and yet having an amazingly level plateau located just below the summit. To reach the plateau requires the lower defences to be breached and with avalanche prone slopes just beyond the limit of the headtorches we carefully navigated our way through increasingly steep ground south of the summit plateau. In the darkness it was difficult to judge an exact position with frequent navigation checks required and night navigation skills fully tested before the ground eventually levelled off, the OS locate app confirmed our height and the terrain finally started to feel familiar.
An impression that the summit was close was reinforced by the rising wind which tugged at our jackets and lifted the snow into dancing spindrift devils which whirled their way across our route. The frigid air was painful to the skin and our focus urgently turned to finding a spot on which to pitch the tents. I knew of a small summer lochan sitting in a hollow circa 50m from the summit and suspected it might just give us the necessary shelter and sure enough a wave like feature appeared running adjacent to where the lochan would normally be seen. Cresting the wave and below us lay the flat surface of the lochan buried under deep snow and ice and proving just large enough to take the two tents which we hurriedly erected. Under an incredible night sky, with the Milky Way overhead and satellites repeatedly arcing their trails across the sky, a late meal was eaten before the freezing conditions chased us into our sleeping bags.
Waking early to a perfect West Highland winter dawn with frost feathers coating everything inside the tent it took little pursuasion to abandon the warm cocoon of the sleeping bags and head out into the transient blue light which precedes sunrise. The knowledge of ski descents from the door, stunning mountain scenery and having the mountain to ourselves soon had us skinning up to the trig point to greet the sunrise. The West Highlands were laid at our feet with ridge after ridge of snow plastered peaks visible in a 360 arc. As the sun lifted above the horizon, Ladhar Bheinn and Beinn Sgritheal lit up in hues of pink, red and then orange joined a few minutes later by Cuillin of Skye and Rum. Near to hand untracked snow lay everywhere and despite having forsaken breakfast we savoured the thought of the descents to come.
The first turns directly north from the cairn into a steep powder filled basin confirmed the exceptional conditions. Four inches of powder covered everything, whilst the deeper layers underneath which had been subject to weeks of continual freeze thaw and huge blizzards, had transformed normally rocky terrain into perfectly smooth piste like surfaces stretching in all directions. Constantly changing light had us chasing shadows down the mountain and in a few minutes of fabulous descent we lost over 400m before reluctantly turning around for the long ski back up to the summit.
With breakfast over and 10kg rucsacks threatening to throw us off balance, we gingerly repeated the earlier descent and on reaching the col jettisoned the sacks for the long haul up Sgurr na Sgine. Another straightforward ascent in summer but for us it had been transformed into a serious alpine face with no easy way through the steep slopes. An awkward ascent of a narrow couloir followed by a brief flat section took us to the summit dome. Bone hard snow barred progress so with skis removed and crampons fitted upward progress continued both of us mindful the simplest slip would have serious consequences. Once reached the summit showed no sign of any other recent ascents with the views across to Knoydart and east along the South Cluanie ridge stunning us into contemplative silence before we reluctantly turned around and readied ourselves for the return.
A careful choice of descent line allied to some technical skiing saw us safely back to the col where the rucksacks were repacked and we continued down.
Two hours later, transition back into walking kit completed and on the final section down the stalkers path to the cars we decided to stop at the Cluanie Inn for a bar supper, however little did we know but overnight all restaurants had been ordered to close. It was a long and hungry drive home followed by the premature end to the ski touring season as 48 hours later full lockdown was announced and the long hibernation began.