Any winter’s day in the Deargs, especially when snow is on the ground, of necessity must be tackled apace. Thus it was, that the walk through the forestry of Inverlael went by in a blur of dark pine and sandy tracks. With relief, we finally burst through the last of the trees and passed through the final gate.
Gleann Squaib, with the grassy flanks of Druim Saoibhaidh, rising steeply on our left and the rockier walls of Beinn Dearg, on our right, welcomed us with promises of grandness. The sky was blue and frosty, the air was snow-tanged and sharp, as we stepped along the excellent path that was to lead us, gently at first, into the heart of the ‘Deargs’.
The path eased us along above the dashing River Lael. From our vantage point, we could gaze down on its foaming waterfalls; if the day had been longer we might have dropped down to linger by the lovely blonde waters of Eas Fionn. Instead, we contented ourselves with the views across the water to the frost-glazed cliffs below the plateau, now topped with an icing of recently-laid snow; the Diollaid a’ Mhill Bhric.
The stalker’s path eventually stepped down to trot alongside the ever-shrinking burn, crossing and re-crossing at will, as it climbed ever higher towards a great snowy col. In that direction, dark clouds were gathering; the heights ahead appeared to be drawing a shawl around their shoulders.
Often you can tell a mountain’s intentions simply by looking at her; if she doesn’t want you there she’ll tell you straight. She’ll throw every form of foul weather at you she can. Today the signs seemed only half-hearted. She could be brewing up a blizzard, just for us. Or perhaps she thought that by frowning, she could worry us away.
We decided to push on, at least as far as the col. If the weather didn’t worsen we could then go onto Cona Mheall’s summit. That seemed straightforward enough and at least my companion would get a Munro.
As we climbed, so the snow deepened underfoot, burying the path long before it reached the lochan on the saddle. But where was the lochan? Frozen over and buried beneath many feet of snow, that’s where it was! We could have walked right over it and never known; we could have gotten very wet and cold..!
We gave its presumed location a wide berth to its left, rising onto Ceapraichean’s southeast shoulder before fighting our way back down in steep, deep-but-fun snow. A windswept knoll led us onto the final stony slopes of Cona Mheall. As the thick gloom shifted and swirled we were allowed tantalising glimpses into the depths of Coire Ghranda, or we were treated to mesmerising views of Cona Mheall’s heavily-corniced western flank.
It was too cold to tarry at the cairn, so we scurried back down to the bealach, this time contriving to pass the lochan on its southern side.
Almost as far as the summit a wall, as tall as a man, marches up Beinn Dearg’s steep northeast ridge. All we could see of said masonry was a couple of grey inches, protruding from the snow. At least we had a guide.
This was undoubtedly the best section of our day’s walk. The snow was deep and steep and, lower down, gave us a tussle for our pennies. It lead us almost to the summit, which we found in as pure a white-out as I’ve ever been in; the cairn seemed to float in the air, and so did we! We milled around the viewless summit just to relish the weird conditions.
As a precaution, we set a compass bearing for the wall end, somewhere below us in the shroud. It proved superfluous, our footsteps told us all we needed to know.
Next stop, Meall nan Ceapraichean. We climbed again, though this time the easy, stony slopes had been swept of snow by the prevailing westerlies, affording us not much more than a plod.
The summit duly bagged, our eyes turned towards the north. With the cloud base still below us the views were nonexistent, but all we really wanted to see now was the last Munro of the round, Eilidh nan Clac Geala.
Heading blindly for some lochans in the col far below, we picked a complex route down the grassy, northern slope. A hummocky climb on white-frosted grass, then snow, put us on our final summit. Southwards, this fine little mountain looks over a steep corrie, a real Gaelic-looking kettle with its kidney-shaped Lochan a’ Chnapaich. All we saw of the kettle today was steam! And that was our way down.
Dropping south-westwards, we covered the snowy ground at a steady rate. After a while we found the tidy little stalker’s path that snakes down, quite boggily at times, to join our outward path in Gleann Squaib. The views, though still very watery, had improved during the past hour or so. Thus we were able to pick out the main hills in the Fannichs. To the west, though today by no means at her best, An Teallach dominated. The hills of Coigach in the north extended an open invitation, an invitation we were to accept in a few days time.
But the best views were into the glen itself. Not that they were untouched by the gloom shed by the canopy above; yet tiring as the long snow trek had so far been, the view was homeward. Mostly downhill now, it was no less hard on my aching bones and muscles. The walk out, beautiful though it was becoming, especially now that the sun was casting cloud shadows on the slopes around us, brought with it a definite weariness, yet a weariness liberally laced with contentment. Though in places deep snow made it seem so, it hadn’t been a particularly long or hard day. It had been a fine walk with much variation and plenty to draw us back another time. But by the time we arrived at the hostel, we were glad not to have to cook a meal. As I finally sank into a comfortable chair, to plan our next day’s outing, I for one, secretly blessed the hostel bed that awaited me upstairs.