Pre-Lockdown Ski Touring - March 2020

Posted by Paul Brooks on 2020-07-13

Mark Ireland, Andrew Hogarth and I were all set for a classic hut to hut ski tour in the Silvretta Alps on the Austria / Switzerland border. Everything was booked and even the weather was looking settled and very promising. Then coronavirus got in the way. Our tour was to start from Ischgl in Austria and guess where the Austrian outbreak was centred? As the trip approached, it became increasing unlikely. The day before we were due to fly, the huts were closed and flights cancelled (with hindsight, this was quite lucky as we may have found it extremely difficult to return home).
We needed a plan B. Scotland had had a pretty decent winter and some recent snow. A ridge of high pressure was due to build from mid-week and hold to the weekend. We were very conscious of coronavirus guidance and precautions and needed to think what was possible and sensible. We found an apartment in Fort William on AirBnB, which looked ideal.
As we travelled north, we could see that the snow line was around 500m, so we'd be carrying skis for a significant part of the day. Mountains where we could gain height quickly and stay high were what we needed. Above the snowline there looked to be good snow cover.
Day 1 Beinn a Chaorainn and Beinn Teallach from Roughburn
Forest tracks and sodden, heather-covered peat took us to the SW ridge. Hard going with skis, but the snowline was reached at 550m. We skied on skins directly to the south top with ever-improving views across to the Easains, Grey Corries and Aonach Mor. Skins stayed on for the traverse of the central (1052m) and northern tops (ever watchful for the massive cornices overhanging the eastern cliffs). Skins off and at first there was challenging saastrugi and hard crust, but it wasn't long before we found beautiful consolidated snow and had a lovely descent to the col at 614m.
Skins on again and we picked our way up through rocky outcrops to the summit of Beinn Teallach (915m). Some discussion over whether to ski the easier slopes south from the top or reverse our ascent to the col and ski down the valley. We chose the latter (probably not the best choice with hindsight) and found the snow slightly less forgiving than we expected to the col. The valley became quite a slow and tortuous route-picking exercise and we ended up back at the car in the dark at 8pm (not sure quite how we did it without head torches).
Day 2 Creag Meagaidh from Moy
We'd spent a lot of time discussing options, but a brutal up and down of Creag Meagaidh via the Moy Burn looked to promise maximum skiing. On the approach we took a fancy to the Creag na Cailliche ridge, so picked our way up this. We managed to get our skis on at 500m (with some careful route choices) and skinned up another 630m to the top. Again there were some magnificent cornices near the summit. On the way up we'd been looking into Coire na h-Uamha to the west and decided to change our plan entirely and ski west from the summit to Bealach a Bharnish, then south into the corrie. This was a great choice and we enjoyed a superb descent to the col, then in the corrie to the forest. The forest track had superb snow cover and allowed us an exciting ski all the way down to 400m before we ran out of snow and had to carry skis. It was a bit of a slog out to the road, but the path beside the crashing Allt na h-Uamha was magical, then a couple of kilometers back to the car.
Day 3 Meall nan Tarmachan
The plan was to ski Ben Lawers via Coire Odhar. The advantage of this area being that you can drive to 450m (the road to Glen Lyon actually summits at 549m). I'd received a phone call that I needed to head home (my deputy's wife was showing Covid-19 symptoms, so he needed to self isolate at home). The others drove to Ben Lawers to find the snow cover was poor. Instead Mark headed west and summitted Meall nan Tarmachan (1044m). He reported a worthwhile day, but not as good as the previous 2.
This was a superb trip, having grabbed some excellent ski touring after the disappointment of not going to Austria. Within 2 days of arriving home, the country was in lockdown.
Paul Brooks

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