For me Ullapool is always a favourite place to stay, especially during the quieter winter months when the streets, empty of summer tourists, are peaceful. Loch Broom dominates the town, its little fishing harbour enlivened by the popular ferry for the Summer Isles.
The town, and particularly its harbour, has seen busier days; when the fishing was more reliable even Russian Factory ships used to berth here, their crews adding colour to the lives of many a local and visitor. Even so there’s always something to see in and around the town, if not always a great deal to do.
However, when the weather is reasonable there is always plenty to do for the hill walker; a long gaze south down the length of the Loch will show you two particularly fine days out, if not more. Down that way, little more than a handful of driving minutes distant, rise the Deargs, while to the east, and to the west, there’s The Fannichs. And when the snows arrive, as they just have, either option offers a superb day out.
To which end we parked by the bridge over the Abhainn an Torrain Duibh, just along the road beyond where the stream runs into Loch Glascarnoch. Snow was well down on the flanks and the sky gave promise of more to fall in the form of frequent showers.
In fact a thin layer of snow greeted us as we stepped from the car; frost had made it crunchy and we were hopeful that the frosts of the previous couple of nights would have firmed up the snow enough to give us comfortable going.
In fact a good stalkers path is picked up virtually from the roadside. And indeed the going was good!
For a couple of miles we walked though the glen formed by the snowy flanks of Benin Liath Bheag and the darker wooded slopes of Corbett, Beinn Liath Mhor a’ Ghuibhais Li, a mouthful of a hill if there ever was one.
Soon the river we followed changed its name. The Abhainn a’ Ghuibhais Li lead us gently onto snowier ground between our day’s final summit, Creag Dubh Fannaich and Drochaid a’ Ghuibhais Li.
As the path died beneath our feet we aimed at the gap between two smaller stumps, at last turning south to walk near the eastern shore of an already partially frozen Loch Gorm. With the snow-smeared crags of Meall Gorm, well over to our right, we began the steep ascent onto the Bealach Ban.
And well named the bealach was today. All about us was white under a good coat of fresh snow: there was the bonus too of a terrific view south, down to a sky blue Loch Fannich with its lonely Lodge.
As we turned to climb southeast, to the summit of An Coileachan (the hen), the first of these threatening snow showers raced in to blind us. Below our feet the snow was deep enough and soft enough to have us kicking steps, yet thankfully never too soft to have us floundering.
We reached the 923 metre summit in a mini storm. The cairn, set amid a half buried jumble of stones, was big enough to allow us some respite from the driving snow; time for an icy fingered cup of tea. We knew from previous trips how wonderful the views can be from up here, alas, for the moment, we could only imagine them. True we did get occasional glimpses as the snow showers now and then relented, though for the remainder of the day those showers came with all too ferocious frequency.
But that didn’t matter. The walking throughout was superb, mostly perfect, even on the odd occasion when crampons were required and never steep enough to tire us as snow so often can.
Meall Gorm was our next objective; we set the appropriate compass bearing and, as soon as a lull arrived, took off for a delightful romp back down to the Bealach Ban, and for just a few moments, a grand view east to the mighty Deargs. Cona Mheall stole the limelight in that direction. Little Loch Gorm, now far below, stared up at us like a little black eye.
Meall Gorm tops out at 949 metres, but first there’s a preliminary Top at 923 metres. This we reached easily over gentler slopes than those of ‘the hen’. A kilometre’s stroll over virtually flat ground had us at the true summit, though at the centre of yet another blizard.
Northwest we dropped now to cross the little lump of Creachan Rairigidh. Far below more small lochans appeared in and out of the shifting cloud and flurrying snow. And that snow continued on and off for some time; we remained for the most part swaddled in cloud and reliant on the compass.
Our next hill, the biggest of the day, made its presence felt in the guise of an ascent, first to the west, and then to the north, as we climbed the beautiful snow slopes of Meall nam Peithirean. The continuing slopes to Sgurr Mor’s 1,110 metre summit were long but gentler.
The summit cairn sits close to the top of cliffs which gouge savagely into the mountain’s eastern flank. I’ve stood at this spot when the cornices were stupendous, when the utmost care was needed. Apparently we are in for a long hard winter, perhaps those cornices will return; today there was very little. But the corrie rim provided us with a hand rail and welcome respite from the compass work. We were led practically all the way to the foot of Benin Liath Mhor Fannaich, our penultimate Top for the day. Yet another snow storm was waiting for us there.
We were at the dying end of the day by now. It had been a long but satifying tramp so far, despite the relative lack of vistas. And by now our limbs, and especially our calves, were beginning to weary a little; we were glad that most of the way from here was all downhill.
The snow turned a little softer as we tried to speed our way along. The day’s final summit, Creag Dhubh Fannaich, meant a slight detour for what was but a little bump along the way. Soon we were dropping back towards the still distant looking Abhainn.
The snow became ever softer as we dropped, a little tiresome as the final slopes levelled out. We could see the black line of the road far below us, and beyond, rising abruptly from the fag end of the Dirrie Moor, the savage cliffs of Cona Mheall; her top was hidden in a cauldron-like fury of snow-laden cloud.
Cona Mheall and some of her siblings too, was our objective for tomorrow. As we drew ever closer to our car, we prayed that, come tomorrow, those clouds would be gone to allow us a view of the hills we’d so much enjoyed today.