Càrn Gorm on the Glen Lyon Horseshoe
January 23, 2018

Nestled between Loch Tay and Loch Rannoch in central Scotland, Glen Lyon is scenic and secluded. A couple of hours’ drive up from Glasgow, it rises from sporadic but dense woodland at the bottom of the glen to remote, craggy Munros and Corbetts above. Last weekend I headed up there with Marie for a weekend of winter camping. Càrn Gorm (1029m) is usually done as the first of four munros in the Càrn Mairg group, also known as the Glen Lyon Horseshoe.

The waymarked start of the trail

The forecast wasn’t very good, with cloud and January winds on the way, but I felt secure in the knowledge that the Terra Nova tent would be able to stand up to the worst the weekend could throw at us. We started off on Saturday afternoon at about 2pm, planning to head up to a broad area of flat ground at around 930m and set up the tent. I don’t usually camp so high up in winter, but I really liked the idea of waking up to a winter sunrise and only having another 100m to climb to the summit the next morning!

To get to Càrn Gorm, a winding path takes you past the decaying ruins of an 18th century lint mill in the hamlet of Invervar. We were greeted by a playful and friendly Old English Sheepdog, who I guess lived in one of the nearby houses but was allowed the run of the woods surrounding them. A hydro track took us up to a rusting metal bridge over a small burn, by which time we were rosy-faced from the chill winter air.

A broad ridge provides a nice approach to the snow-covered Càrn Gorm. Trudging through the damp snow, we made good time upwards but at about 750m we entered the cloudbase and visibility dropped to just metres. The Scottish mountains in winter are so changeable – one minute you can be walking along with views of many kilometres around, but as soon as the cloud surrounds you the world becomes narrow and stifling. When the wind dies down, the silence in the white stillness is eery but peaceful.

Whiteout on the way up

With Marie leading, we hiked onwards, feeling good. Further up the ridge and to the right, the summit of Càrn Gorm was defended by the brooding bulk of Creag Ghlas, so we stuck religiously to the high ground. We made it onto the flat shoulder of the mountain with light fading, and set up the tent without much trouble. Under a crust of rime ice, the snow was only about a foot deep so I dug down to ground level to push the tent pegs into the earth below. The final effect was a nice low profile, because the snow around it was higher than the ground it was pitched on.

Camped on Càrn Gorm

This proved to be a good thing because overnight the wind picked up to storm force, fiercely buffeting the fabric walls of the tent. It was a fantastic feeling though to be warm in our sleeping bags, defended by the tent from the Arctic elements; a squat green lifeboat in a Scottish storm. As morning light filtered through the surrounding fog the wind kept up. Our walking poles, standing upright in the snow outside, were decorated with flags of rime ice.

After a hot breakfast we layered up with everything we had and set off on a compass bearing in the whiteout. This was good practice for winter navigation and I enjoyed the challenge. With only 100m of vertical distance to climb, we made the summit within half an hour but the wind was gusting fiercely at the trig point – just standing upright was tricky! It was no place to hang about and we immediately turned back after a quick victory photo, staggering drunkenly as the wind shoved us off balance.

Taking the tent down proved to be the toughest part of the weekend! With winds gusting to 110kph (70mph) it was ready to take off like a kite. Marie sat inside it to weigh it down while I tried to take the poles out without them snapping. Although this was difficult, moving around kept me warm and I felt bad for Marie – it was probably tougher for her sitting still in a wind chill of -10 °C! After packing up we dropped out of the cloud and back into the grey light of day at 800m. The way back to the car was easy and uneventful compared to the morning’s drama.

Coming off the snowline on the way down

Càrn Gorm in this weather had been a challenge, but it was good to bag another winter munro and a great experience. Now that winter has really arrived in Scotland, doing the same thing again would, I suspect, involve a lot more digging down through the snow to find the ground!

Note: It’s not normal or generally advisable to deliberately head out in difficult weather conditions in winter. Scotland’s mountains can be very dangerous in high winds and snow. I’m currently working towards my Winter Mountain Leader qualification, so I need to seek out challenging winter days. If you want to start winter walking for the first time, check out Five tips for getting into winter hillwalking

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