We had come to Creag Meagaidh to film a walk for the BBC’s Adventure Show and, by the very nature of such activities, time is rarely on your side. It’s a slow process getting to the top and by the time you reach the summit cairn, film the final piece to camera, it’s usually a fast scuttle back down the hill again before darkness falls.
We had wandered up the length of Coire Ardair from Aberarder, on Loch Laggan-side, climbed up and through The Window, the glacial breach on the corrie’s cliffs, and made our way across the plateau in thick cloud, pretty much the standard route of ascent. It was gone 3.30pm by the time we left the summit but at least we made it back to the excellent path in Coire Ardair before darkness overtook us. It was on this dark descent that I promised myself a return visit to Creag Meagaidh to traverse the mountain, climbing it by the standard route, but descending by the hill’s curving south ridge down to the foot of Loch Moy, a much better way to treat a grand mountain like this.
While “The Window” route to Creag Meagaidh’s summit also offers opportunities to include the other Munros in the range, Carn Liath and Stob Poite Coire Ardair, you can also climb Meagaidh by the a two-and-a-half-mile ridge that curves seductively above the long and sinuous corrie that has been formed by the eroding waters of the Moy Burn. By using two cars you can easily traverse the mountain, making a great mountain day and taking in all the finest features of the hill.
Those features include one of Scotland’s greatest conservation stories, the regeneration of the birch woods at the foot of Coire Ardair. By simply reducing the number of grazing animals, sheer and red, Scottish Natural Heritage gave the trees an opportunity to regenerate naturally without having to erect the hideous protective deer fences that cover so much of our highland landscapes. The agency came in for a lot of criticism at the time, about 20 years ago, but have been proven correct with exploding regeneration of the birches, rowans and aspens and a return to the area of many birds and invertebrates that hadn’t been recorded there before. A real success story that every land manager in Scotland can learn from.
Beyond the rejuvenated birch woods the path (a new one – all the old railway sleepers that once formed this path have been removed) curves up into an altogether wilder landscape. A huge array of vegetated cliffs tower above the black waters of Lochan a’Choire, cliffs that are breached by a high bealach known as The Window, a glaciated gap that offers access to the high summit plateau.
In winter these cliffs of Coire Ardair offer some great examples of the idiosyncracies of Scottish mixed climbing – that mixture being rock, ice, snow and frozen turf! There are even a couple of relatively straightforward gully climbs for those hillwalkers who enjoy such chilly disciplines.
Going through The Window is like passing through a portal into another world. From the cold, dark confines of the corrie you enter a world of open slopes, gazing across Brae Roy towards the Loch Lochy hills before a zig-zagging path makes its way to the summit plateau. A huge pile of stones known as Meg’s Cairn lie here and beyond it a final rise leads to the summit at 3701ft/1128m.
Straddling the mountain spine of Scotland, the ancient Druim Alban, you can clearly identify the watershed with the River Roy draining to the west, and Spey Loch (just hidden from the summit view by an intervening ridge) sourcing the infant Spey as it drains to the Moray Firth in the east. Great hills surround you - the Cairngorms, the Monadh Liath, the Loch Lochy and Glen Garry hills, Ben Nevis, the Grey Corries, the Treig twins and the Geal Charn/Carn Dearg ridge with Ben Alder’s summit peeping above it.
Rather than return the way you came continue now in a south-west direction down a narrower ridge with slopes falling away into the Moy Corrie on your left and into Coire an Laogh on the right. Fropm the summit cairn a line of old fence posts will lead to a rather more permanent navigation aid.
Suddenly and without warning a drystone wall appears, an incongruous sight in such wild surroundings. This is no ordinary broken-down relic of wall, such as you’d see throughout the highlands, but a perfect example of the art of drystane dyking, perfect in its symmetry and form, stretching out down the spine of the curving ridge that falls away below you. I can’t think of any real reason for this wall other than signifying the boundary between Lochaber and Badenoch.
Beyond the end of the wall some steep ground has to be negotiated down the slopes of Creag na Cailliche from where long, tussocky grass slopes lead down to Moy, where hopefully, your car will be waiting for you, the end of a traverse over one of Scotland’s finest mountains.
Map: OS Sheet 34
Distance: About 10 miles
Approx Time: 8-9 hours
Start/Finish: Aberalder on the A86 GR479875; Moy on the A86 GR422827
Route: From Aberarder follow the path up Coire Ardair all the way to Lochan a’ Choire. Climb grassy slopes, then rocky screes in a NW direction to The Window. At the far end of this col turn left and climb the rough path that leads to the plateau, bearing right towards Meg’s Cairn. From there follow a narrowing ridge to the summit. Continue in a SW direction to pick up the ridge between the Moy Corrie and Coire nan Laogh. Follow the wall to Creag na Cailliche, negotiate some steep slopes to the SE and follow the Moy Burn to the rtoad at Moy.