An Teallach is one of Scotland's most famous mountains, and deservedly so. Its jagged ridges, pricipitous drops and panoramic views make it an irresistable draw for hikers, but when the weather changes it can become dangerous, as we discovered!
The ascent of An Teallach at the end of 2014 turned out to be both the most enjoyable and most terrifying moment of the year. As a landscape photographer it holds a special place amongst UK mountains. Even the name ‘An Teallach’ fills me with excitement. I had been discussing the hike for a few years with my friend and fellow photographer Guy, but this was our first chance to tackle it in winter.
With a great forecast for the 29th December we decided to make our way up on the 28th to camp so that we could make the most of the limited daylight hours the following day.
The route up from Dundonnell was fairly straightforward; icy, boggy and steep it was much like the ascent of any other UK peak. The summit remained in cloud for the duration and we reached the snowline at around 500m. The snow was soft and consistent so we carried on to our intended campsite without problem.
We set up the tent on the top of Sron a’ Choire at 868m to be within easy launching distance of the summits. The forecast from MWIS gave no concern with respect to wind, a 15mph northwesterly was forecast on the summits overnight strengthening to a 25mph southwesterly the following day. We set the Ultra Quasar tent up pointing directly into the northwesterly wind and went to sleep around 8pm.
We awoke at midnight to a stiff breeze buffeting the side of the tent making it rather noisy inside. Spindrift was blowing under the fly so we covered everything that was left in the porch and tried to get off to sleep. I’m not sure that I slept after that, it was too noisy, but we were warm, dry and had no concerns.
As dawn approached the skies began to clear but the wind strengthened further to perhaps 30mph, enough to delay us heading up in the dark. By 8am, an hour before sunrise the wind dropped off again and we quickly packed up our kit. We headed up to the summit of Bidein a’ Ghlas Thuill with ice axes in hand and crampons in our packs.
The scene on reaching the summit was sensational. I go out of my way to see spectacular sights in great light, but the view from the top was a revelation. The jagged mountain ridge of An Teallach was sidelit by the rising sun whilst in the distance were all the peaks of Fisherfield and Torridon.
At the bottom of the climb the snow started to get a little harder so we put on our crampons as a precaution, finding them helpful for a number of sections of the 150m climb. It’s fair to say that Guy and I were having the time of our lives with the wind still a very manageable 30mph or so.
The views from Sgurr Fiona were every bit as good looking along the ridge to Lord Berkeley’s Seat or down to Beinn Dearg Mor and Loch Na Sealga with the Fisherfeild 6 beyond.
We met another hiker on top who warned us of strengthening winds, but it was only 12.50 and 10 minutes later we left to make a quick detour. We probably should have paid more attention to the spindrift starting to blow off the top of Sgurr Creag an Eich. But the winds on Sgurr Fiona were fine.
An hour later, after a number of photo stops on route, we were on our third peak, but with the wind now fierce and destabilising. It came as a surprise to both of us just how quickly the wind strengthened. On the ridge we were probably in sustained wind speeds of 50mph with blinding spindrift (we should have brought glasses or goggles).
I had wrongly assumed that once we were over the edge and hiking down in the direction of our camp we would be out of the wind. Unfortunately the wind was still very strong indeed, whipping across the side of the slope.
The snow was much harder than we had experienced up to that point making proper crampon and ice axe use essential on what was an extremely steep slope. The Grivel G12s on my feet inspired a reasonable degree of confidence but Guy was wearing Monta Rosas which didn’t bite quite as effectively. It’s fair to say that at points we were both scared, there was no room for error and strong gusts of wind regularly stopped us in our tracks. Fortunately we made it off unharmed, glissading the last snow slope at the bottom.
The next worry was the tent, we could see waves of spindrift flying over the top of the hill (Sron A Choire) where we were camped. On arrival found the tent completely flattened by the wind. The Ultra Quasar had been destroyed by a combination of 50mph winds hitting it side on (with much stronger gusts) and very considerable snow loading on the inner and fly (we struggled to lift the snow off). All the guy lines were still firmly anchored but all 4 poles had bent very severely and 1 had snapped. Standing there surveying the damage was a bit like being in a freezing sand blaster.
We crawled in to the now coffin like tent and had hot drink whilst rapidly packing away our camping kit. Guy burst into laughter and I couldn’t help but laugh too, what a nightmare!
Here’s a video:
It was apparent that only the flysheet was salvageable and with some considerable difficulty we managed to remove it. The poles were so badly bent that we struggled to remove them from the inner particularly given the wind. The pole sleeves were partly torn in places or the stitching had gone. After 10 minutes trying to remove the poles I cut them free with a knife and packed up the remains.
We headed back down to the car at 3.40pm, 10 minutes after sunset. We were tired for the walk back in the dark (it took us 3 hours) but relieved to finally be out of the wind. We did have some time to reflect on some of the mistakes we made, such as taking on a very tricky route in what became quite dangerous winds and of course leaving the tent unattended in an exposed location.
Back at a pub in Ullapool I asked for a couple of pints of the local ale to which the barman responded: “We have a nice dark ale called An Teallach” we laughed.