Location: Badenoch and Strathspey Map: OS Landranger 42 Distance: 14 miles (23km) Time: 7-9 hours Grade: Serious mountain walk
THE A86 Laggan to Spean Bridge road must be one of the most scenic in the country. With the massive bulk of Creag Meagaidh dominating one side and the hills of the Ardverikie Forest on the other, the section that runs alongside Lochs Laggan and Moy offers an intoxicating blend of water, forest and mountain scenery.
One hill always grabs my attention when I travel that road. Beyond Loch Laggan and the craggy outline of Binnein Shuas the long ridge of Beinn a’ Chlachair suddenly comes into view, a fairly ordinary hill made special by the beautifully sculpted corrie that has been gouged out of its northern slopes, the classic hanging valley. I’ve lost count of how many days I’ve enjoyed on Beinn a’ Chlachair’s flanks, but despite the number of times I’ve wandered up its north-east ridge from the high Bealach Leambain or skied its northern slopes I’d never actually traversed the mountain from one end to another. Since the hill is predominantly linear, as opposed to its neighbouring Munro of Creag Pitridh, which is squat and rounded, a traverse seemed the obvious way to enjoy its best aspects.
Beinn a’ Chlachair runs in a slight north-east trending curve with its north-facing slopes broken by the beautifully sculpted Coire Mor Chlachair. The south slopes of the hill form a long and steep escarpment, the Garbh Bhruthach, whose scree slopes drop down to the remote watershed of An Lairig. The best view of this aspect of the hill is from the Fara, high above the eastern end of Loch Ericht from where it appears as a high steep-sided wedge. With the sheer headwalls of Coire Mor Chlachair on one side and the high-angled slopes of the Garbh Bhrutach on the other, the traverse of Beinn a’ Chlachair’s upper slopes gives an impression of walking along a high and narrow corridor of stone.
Bulldozed tracks from Luiblea on the A86 give access to Lochan na h-Earba, but just before you reach the loch another track bears off to the right, close to where the Allt Meall Ardraighe flows out from a smaller lochan. This track eventually degenerates into a rough path as it climbs beside the waters of the tumultuous Allt Cam which tumble down in a series of marvellous cascades between Meall Cos Charnan and Beinn a’ Chlachair’s western slopes. I had chosen a bright but blustery day and it was tempting to sit by the burn and enjoy the sun and the song of a ring ouzel, the mountain blackbird. I was uncomfortably aware that once I left the path and climbed the ridge I’d be exposed to the strong south-western wind but that, after all, was the main reason I’d chosen to traverse the hill from west to east – so I’d have the wind behind me.
And so it was. Grassy slopes led me to a broad rock-strewn ridge which in turn narrowed appreciably before broadening out again into a stony plateau. No wonder this is the “stone-mason’s hill” – the tradesmen of old would have had more than enough to choose from. The gusty wind had me slithering across snow patches and resorting to a rather timid form of boulder-hopping before the huge summit cairn appeared in the distance, tempting me on with the promise of some shelter.
Beinn a’ Chlachair is well positioned within the Ardverikie Forest. To the north, across Loch Laggan, lies Creag Meagaidh, although its prime attraction, the cavernous Coire Ardair, is well hidden from view. The long Aonach Beag ridge dominates the view to the south, and to the west a plethora of shapely peaks fill the horizon, culminating in the highest of them all, Ben Nevis.
As it was the summit cairn didn’t offer much shelter from the wind at all so I pushed on to the far end of the ridge where a short but extremely steep descent made me take extra care. No point in running the risk of a slip at this stage in the day.
Sheltered behind a boulder on the summit of the Bealach Leamhain and looking down at the wind flurries on Loch Bhealaich Leamhain, it seemed that up here at least winter had still refused to relinquish its grip. The consolation was that I knew that within a few minutes I’d be descending back into the warmth.
Beinn a’ Chlachair: a fairly ordinary hill made special by the beautiful corrie on its northern slopes