On the traverse of the western Drumochter summits

As you zip up & down the A9 from the Highlands, the hills on either side of the road are easily seen from the car with Drumochter often used to decide where to head at the weekend. However, in your haste to get to somewhere else how often have you purposely stopped to ski the numerous lines, corries & summits at this, the most accessible of all the Scottish touring venues?

Read on for some tips on the options available:

On the initial approach towards Sgairneach Mor

On Sgairneach Mor

  1. The classic round of Sgairneach Mhor, Beinn Udlamain & A’ Mharconaich

Deservedly the most popular tour at Drumochter starting & ending at one of the summit laybys.

Head south for 80m or so to join the old A9 which is followed for a short distance downhill before a bridge allows access underneath the railway. Turn back north following the obvious track into Coire Dhomhain for approx 2km leads to an obvious modern bridge over the river. Cross the bridge & take a SSW traverse line heading over a subsidiary burn (great for snowholes) to reach the broad ridge leading to the summit of Sgairneach Mhor.

For a shortened day the ski down from here retracing the ascent route gives a superb run especially if a more direct line into the coire is chosen.

However carrying on the summit views are superb with the cliffs & corries of a distant Ben Alder beckoning the eye to the west whilst to the south Schiehallion & Ben Lawers stand out from the crowd. With time pressing & the summit of Beinn Udlamain looking rather remote, the need to keep going means skins can be removed for the easy 2km descent to the col (gr ref NN5823 7283)

On the broad ridge of Beinn Udlamain

Ben Alder appears much closer now with the big gash occupied by Loch Ericht acting as a natural barrier between the two ranges forcing the skiing line towards the north where another wide & easily ascended ridge leads quickly to the top of Beinn Udlamain. From here you are now more than half way round and the next summit deceptively looks close enough to touch. Skins off lead to another rapid descent to the next col before the final climb to A’ Mharconaich. Although the lowest hill of the day & closest to the road it feels remote with serious ground on several aspects and the Boar of Badenoch preventing views of the A9.

The best descent of the day awaits but first the skin tracks need retraced to the subsidiary top of Bruaich nan Lomnairean. From there follow the line of best snow direct to the track which can is easily followed back to the rail line. 4-5 hours

The day can be extended to include Geal Charn to the north, however the 4km skin or ski carry by the side of the A9 back to the car means leaving Geal Charn to another day is a better option.

A wild day on Beinn Udlamain

Descent towards A' Mharconaich

2. Geal Charn

Starting from the large car park at Balsporran cottages this is a hill for a short easy day.

Cross the railway line, follow the hill track before continuing up the broad shoulder taking the lines of shallow depressions which are great snow holding features. The summit area is rocky and exposed to the wind & so often has insufficient snow to reach the cairn by ski. A choice of descents can be chosen with the most popular being down Coire Beul an Sporain, a magnificent snow holding bowl. Alternatively, far steeper lines run to the south of the summit, whilst the quickest & arguably most satisfying way down is to retrace the ascent line which allows an uninterrupted ski all the way to the rail line. 2-3 hours

The broad easy slopes of Geal Charn above Balsporran

3. A’ Bhuidheanach Bheag

This greatly underrated Munro to the east of Drumochter summit provides another wonderful short day with some superb snow sure lines leading back to the A9.

Starting at the summit layby (east side) take a slanting line up immediately north of the Allt a’ Chaorainn which quickly leads to the broad open slopes above where an old fence line helpfully leads to the broad flat plateau. In good visibility & provided the snow depth isn’t too great the line of old fence posts can be seen to lead all the way to the summit across an extended area of flat featureless ground.

The plateau is a wild open place with the view east looking over the huge area of wild uninhabited high ground above the headwaters of the Feshie, Tarff & Geldie waters. An area rarely accessed & particularly remote, but offering fantastic scope for a multi-day self- contained ski tour.

The wonderful Allt an Creagach

About to drop down to the A9

The descent awaits with two main alternatives lines to chose from, both following burn courses back to the road. Of the two, the Allt an Creagach, the northerly of the two lines invariably fills with snow early in the season & takes a wonderfully mellow line right to the edge of the final steepening above the A9. Avoid the the watercourse at this point where it terminates in a waterfall. Instead take a diagonal descending line with the final schuss often allowing you to run right to the road. 3 hours

If a second car is left at the entrance to Dalnaspidal lodge then a longer tour involving a descent due south from the summit quickly takes you into the steeply sided Allt Coire Mhic- Sith. A wonderful variant especially if the snow has come in on strong northerly winds. 3 hours

End of season & Allt an Creagach is still skiable to almost its full length

4. Carn Na Caim

Another quickly ascended hill from the A9 with a snow sure ascent via a deeply indented land rover track which fills with snow in all but the leanest winters.

Park in the layby ½ km south of the Dalwhinnie & cross the road to the break in the forest where the landrover track starts (gr: NN6399 8215). From there the ascent line follows the track to the summit plateau terminating at an old quarry. Heading in a NE direction an old fence points the way to the summit which lies 3km across the plateau.

The descent back down the landrover track is non-technical at a shallow angle & can be highly entertaining. Alternatively pick one of the lines down one of the 5 NW facing gullies before traversing round to pick up the track back to the car. 4 hours

The last two tours can be combined to give a relatively straightforward day of approx. 5 hours.

The landrover track up Carn na Caim

Heading down on a misty December day

5. The Fara

Often overlooked in favour of its bigger neighbours, this is a wonderful hill particularly worth heading for on those days when the Drumochter car parks are full of other tourers.

The best start lies to the north of Dalwhinnie, past the distillery & over the railway line to park at an obvious opening to a hill track. (Gr: NN6365 8583) The route up alongside the forestry is fairly obvious with the trees often forming a good snow break with snow lying deeply alongside.

On the moor below the Fara

Once past the woods pick up the old landrover track until it eventually peters out on the NE flanks of the hill. The way up remains fairly obvious heading towards the easiest break in the long south trending ridge which is easily followed to the summit.

Some of the best views in the area await with the wild land of the Ardverikie forest stretching away westwards towards the Gey Corries & Ben Nevis. Further north the eyes are drawn to the complex corries, cliffs & ridges of Creag Meagaidh whilst east the Monadhliath appear as an immense barrier of rolling summits hiding behind the open reaches of the Spey valley. Further east, the high summits of the Cairngorms are prominent with Braeriach particularly obvious, whilst near at hand the long trench occupied by Loch Ericht stretches away to the SW.

The descent is best taken by following the line of ascent taking great care not to head over the edge of the ridge until much further north. The area is known for avalanches especially after a period of strong westerly winds where huge deposits of unstable snow at over 30 deg have caught the unwary.

Along the summit ridge with Creag Meagaidh behind

So next time you want some relatively mellow touring, with plenty of routes to choose from, consider the obvious & enjoy a day at Drumochter.

You won’t be disappointed!