A Scottish challenge: crossing the Corrieyairack Pass in snow

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Heading up the Corrieyairack Pass

Okay, I admit it, I laughed when Anthony sank to his waist in the soft snow near the top of the Corrieyairack Pass, silly me as minutes later it was me that was floundering in the deep snow.  Frustratingly, the snow would take our weight most of the time and then without warning one of us would cross a particularly soft and deep patch and down we would sink.  Walking on this unpredictable surface was hard work and really not what we needed on a long day of 33 kilometres of walking but the sun was shining and I was achieving an ambition so didn’t complain.

We were tackling the Corrieyairack Pass, a remote old route that stretches across the Monadhliath Mountains in Scottish Highlands.  In 1731 General Wade was responsible for constructing military roads across Scotland to enable troops to move quickly around northern Scotland and the Corrieyairack was part of his route from Fort Augustus, on the shore of Loch Ness to Laggan and Ruthven Barracks.  It is now so long ago that I can’t remember when I first noticed this old road on a map but from the moment I did I knew I wanted to walk this route one day.  This was the day.

We had left our campervan at 07.00 on a glorious morning, the mist hanging in the valleys and the promise of sunshine in the air.  Our cheerful taxi driver told us stories about living in this part of Scotland and joined us in gasping at the beauty of the mountains reflected in the loch as he drove us to Garva Bridge where we intended to start our walk.  From here it is 28 kms to Fort Augustus and 500 – 600 metres of climbing.  The tarmac road continues a little beyond Garva Bridge to Melgarve where there is a tidy bothy with a fire and a wooden sleeping platform and a room called General Wade’s office.  Cars are not allowed beyond Melgarve and we got in to the stride of the walk from here enjoying the isolation and peacefulness and the feel of the sun on the back of our necks as we took turns in spotting red deer on the hillsides.  We had packed our rucksacks for survival in wintery weather but it was so warm we could have walked in shorts and sunhats.

Today the Corrieyairack is also crossed by pylons and these giant structures punctuated most of our route.  At each stream I found what remained of the old stone General Wade bridges; a few of them are intact but many are gone.  At Allt a’Mhill Ghaibh we had been expecting to have to paddle over the burn and were pleased to see a new wooden bridge had been constructed.  By the corrie that gives the pass its name the route becomes steeper and General Wade constructed the road in a series of zig-zags.  In early April weather after heavy snow the week before these were under a few feet of snow and so we tackled the hillside directly rather than taking the easier graded zig-zags.

The top of the pass is at 770 metres (2,526 feet) above sea level and this exposed spot caught the wind and the snow was frozen and shone blue with ice crystals.  We needed some of those layers we had been carrying here while we admired the view.  This was breathtaking; snow-clad mountains stretched from left to right to our north and we struggled to take it all in, looking for any familiar shapes among the multitude of mountains.  I posed for a photograph grinning at having achieved the top and tried to take in the beauty and the remoteness of where we were.

We had some difficulty route finding from the top with so much snow underfoot but in the clear conditions we headed left and eventually picked up signs of the familiar old road running parallel with the pylons.  After the excitement of climbing up the pass our slightly longer descent could have felt a bit of an anti-climax but the Corrieyairack had kept some surprises for us.

We were delighted to spot three mountains hares in total; one sat by the old road, its long ears twitching alertly as we froze and watched before it scented us and hurried away.  The hares were still in their white winter coat and soon disappeared in the snow.  Once we were off the snow the route finding was once again easy and here there were wooden posts beside the track to mark it.  With no one around we sang old songs as we descended and the panorama of mountains slowly disappeared.  We stopped to rest by one of Wade’s stone bridges and on the bridge at Allt Lagan a’ Bhaihne we met the only other people we had seen since Garva Bridge, four cyclists on their way over the pass.   I asked them where they were from, ‘Holland, said one, ‘You keep saying that,’ said another sitting opposite and explained, ‘We’re not from Holland we’re from the Netherlands.’  They asked about the snow conditions at the top and told us about their Scottish coast-to-coast route.

On the lower slopes of the Corrieyairack we saw red grouse flying low across the heather and nearer to Fort Augustus strips of heather were being burnt, the acrid smell didn’t encourage us to stop and rest.  The end was in sight as we got our first glimpse of Loch Ness spreading out to the horizon.  It was now the early afternoon and starting to cloud over after the bright blue start to the day as we passed the pink Culachy House.

The last section in to Fort Augustus is a pretty walk by the river and through a peaceful old burial ground.  We arrived in Fort Augustus very tired and in our weary confusion failed to notice the bus stop and therefore watched the 15.12 bus to Inverness drive by.  At Fort Augustus’ main bus shelter we checked for the next bus and found we had over an hour to wait.  As we were dallying a tourist from Taiwan approached us for help and even in our befuddled state we managed to sort out her public transport needs (ask any of my friends, I missed my vocation as a travel agent).  We watched three boats climbing up the series of locks on the Caledonian Canal and decided we had time for a drink before catching the next bus.  On entering the nearest pub the bar man recognised two exhausted walkers and suggested a pint each, how could we refuse.  In Inverness we feasted on chips in the amazing and popular Charlie’s Cafe, a real greasy-spoon of a place with motorbikes on display above the tables and started to revive.

The 18.45 train from Inverness got us to Newtonmore at 19.45 and we walked back to the campsite in the dusk.  Every single muscle in my legs ached but despite the pain I was happy, I had at last walked over the Corrieyairack Pass.

Practicalities:

The Walk Highlands website has a description of the route.

We used Gerry’s Taxis in Aviemore and he was on time and friendly.

We stayed at Invernahavon Campsite near to Newtonmore.  They have some lodges and cute wooden caravans as well as pitches for tents and motorhomes.

We walked a total of 33.5 kms.  Garva Bridge to Fort Augustus is 28 kms (Melgarve at the 6 km point, the top of the pass at 12 km, the hut at Blackburn at 18 km and you reach the road at 24 km).  This took us eight hours to walk, other people could certainly do it in less time.  From Newtonmore Railway Station we had a further 5.5 kms to walk back to the campsite, this took us an hour.

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Nearly at Fort Augustus
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Reaching the snowline

Author: memorialbenchstories

I am interested in the stories behind the people commemorated in memorial benches. I come across these benches in different places and they always make me wonder. Do get in touch if you have any stories.

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