Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A magic week in Scotland February 2010

The Essians

Home sweet home

Stob Ban, my tracks from earlier in the day can be seen.

Into the Grey Corries  ridge
Well I waited until something worthwhile was done before I started my blogging career. As I'm just back from a solo week in bonnie Scotland there is a lot to report. There is no doubt that when conditions are right Scotland is a match for anywhere in the world. Mostly blue skies, no wind and snow down to sea level made for a memorable experience. I was looking for a different experience this time so off I went with a large rucksack stuffed with enough cloths and provisions to last me for three or four days of bothie to bothie travel. Weighing about 40lbs this took some getting used to but off I set from the hostel at Tullock train station on Tuesday morning February 16th. There was some low cloud but it was dry and windless as I set off on the two mile road trek to the base of the gentle ridge that leads to Essians. I was well pleased with how I was able to carry the bag. While mindful of it, I made steady but good progress up the ridge. As height was gained the views became more expansive and I soon found myself above a thin layer of cloud with great views in all directions. The first bit of interest came on the steep climb up on to the shoulder at Meal Cian Derg. This was a steep section with a little exposure which allowed height to be gained rapidly to 790mtrs. Thereafter I was well and truly above the snowline. Firm snow and a gentle incline made for very pleasant going and I soon found myself on the summit push for Stob a Choire Mheadhoin(1105mtrs). Unfortunately just as I was summiting a bank of cloud arrived and cheated me of any view. For the next little while the compass was required and I made my way down to the bealach before Stob Choire Essian(1115mtrs). The steep 160 meters to the top was soon over and my second munro of the day was behind me. The descent was very straight forward and I was able to take a direct line for my final destination for the day a bothy at Leacach. I arrived at the bothy at around 3pm so I had plenty of time to make myself at home. A change of cloths and a hot drink and the evening was mine to do with what I willed. The bothy was basic but I had all that I needed. They are a great resource and I felt that I was having a truly wild and remote experience.
 A perfect morning

The Binneans

Alpenglow over the Nevis Range

Towards Rannoch from Binnean Beg

heavy snow but hard work

The views around the bothy are great with the imposing Sgurr Innse just across the valley and Stob Ban and the Grey Corries looming just behind. At around 5pm it started to snow gently so I stayed inside for the rest of the evening. It was quite cold but thankfully I had purchased a good insulated jacket before I went and that combined with my down sleeping bag meant I stayed fine and warm. I made my evening meal at about 6pm and retired to bed with a book straight after. I had a very active mouse for company who busied himself looking for flapjack crumbs and anything else he could get to. There ensued a fitful night as I wasn't used to the discomfort of the sleeping mat but eventually I did fall asleep. I awoke at dawn the following morning to a cloudy, windless winter wonderland. nearly a foot of snow had fallen overnight. While pretty it promised tough underfoot conditions. I took my time over breakfast and eventually left the bothy at 08.20am and set off into the whiteness on another days adventure.

And so day two began with a plod through soft snow in a silent wonderland that was transformed from the previous day. All paths and tracks were now invisible. Leacach bothy is at 450mtrs and the first target of the day was Stob Ban at 977mtrs. From what I'd seen the previous evening this was a shapely mountain with a fairly steep descent to a bealach before a steady rise to Stob Choire Claurigh(1177mtrs) the highest point on the Grey Corries. With all the fresh snow I decided to assess what conditions were like at the top of Stob Ban before I would commit to the descent to the bealach. I was soon in the cloud and the ascent had to be accomplished by the use of compass and GPS. When you are alone it is vital that you are proficient at their use and success brings confidence and a sense of accomplishment. White out conditions are hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced them but at times it's almost like walking blind. You find yourself kicking the snow in front of you so you can see that there is no hole or fall there. Its slow going and a little scary but the map didn't show any crags and the ground was fairly safe. Eventually the top was reached and a quick assessment of the descent slope showed that it was good to go. A quick drop of 150mtrs and I was under the cloud. The day seemed to be improving and I was hopeful for the remainder of the day.
Binnean Mor
The near 400mtrs climb to Stob Choire Claurigh was tough going with the heavy bag and deep soft snow. I persevered however and the ever lifting cloud kept teasing me with intermittent views and the promise of a possible clear day. Eventually when I did reach the top the promised clearance did arrive and I was treated to wonderful views down to Rannoch Moor and across to the Essians. The mist clung stubbornly to the ridge but it did clear enough for me to see that the fresh snow had formed into a narrow snow arret and that the crossing would not be boring. After a bite to eat I set off on the two mile traverse to Stob Choire an Laoigh(1116mtrs). As promised the ridge was always narrow and as it was occasionally corniced it necessitated frequent crossing to avoid them. The going was very heavy and I was sometimes reduced to almost wallowing to try to get through the drifts. The cloud clung stubbornly to the ridge all day and there were no more views to be had. Eventually the bealach under Stob Choire an Laoigh was reached and with careful navigation the top found. She southeast ridge led easily down and I was soon under the cloud and enjoying expansive views across to the Mamores and left to Rannoch moor. My target for the evening was Meanach bothy. This meant that I still had 3 miles to walk When I reached the lower ground the going turned out to be torture as it was a continuous succession of peat hags and bog holes. From the constantly serpentine progress I wouldn't be surprised if the 3 miles ended up closer to 4. It was gone 6pm when I arrived and I was very tired when I entered. I quickly got myself changed and organised in the remaining light and soon had my stove going for dinner. The sky had by now cleared completely and a hard frost had set in. It was wonderful to stand outside and no matter what direction you looked there was not a light to be seen. The sense of isolation and wilderness was wonderful. In the bothy there was the remains of an old rucksack and a grotty sleeping bag. these I burned in the open fire and the heat generated was considerable. I was also able to dry somewhat my ice encrusted pants and boots.

I emerged the following morning after a decent nights rest to a flawless winter landscape. As expected temperatures had plummeted in the night and I would estimate that it was around -15 at 7am. The nearby river had frozen and the snow surface had turned crystalline. I had originally intended to climb Aonach Beg and Mor and cross to Carn Mor Dearg and on to Ben Nevis. This would have been a huge day and with the underfoot conditions I decided to head instead to Binnean Beg and Binnean Mor and descend to Kinlochleven over Na Gruachaichean. Three munros with approximately 1200mtrs of climbing is not to be sniffed at so it seemed a reasonable alternative. It also had the advantage of shortening the distance I would have to walk across the bog considerably. As I was crossing the wettest bits I was sinking through the insulating snow into water. This froze almost immediately on the boot when it was lifted. Very soon I would have to hack at the boot with my axe to dislodge the ice. The going was therefore difficult and it took until I was at about 550mtrs on the slopes of Binnean Beg before the ground improved. I soon came to a nice snowslope of about 40degrees which was nice and firm and allowed rapid(ish) progress to the 943mtrs summit.

 The views in all directions were stupendous. Alpine scenery to rival anywhere was mine to savour and this I did at leisure. Ever onwards and the 200mtr descent to the bealach meant that there was a full 400mtrs of climbing to the top of Binnean Mor(1130mtrs). A shapely mountain, the ascent was always interesting and the ever expanding vistas spurred one on. On reaching the summit I didn't dally as some cloud was coming in from the west and threatening to envelop me in mist again. I headed straight away for Na Gruagaichean(1056mtrs) along a narrow but not difficult ridge. The two kilometres soon passed and the cloud stayed at bay. After a short rest I made the long descent to sea level and civilization and arrived in Kinlochleven at 4.30pm. The first time I saw people since 8am Tuesday morning. At this stage I was very tired and I resolved to go to Fort William and stay a couple of nights in a b&b. So I thumbed to Ballachulish and caught a bus to town. I found a nice b&b in the west end and after a quick supper I was under the covers before 8pm.

Towards Ben Nevis from Aonach Beag
After a full Scottish fry at 7am the following day I emerged with my now light bag into a sunny, frosty winter morning. A short walk to the bus stop and I caught the 7.40 bus to the Nevis Range ski station under Aonach Mor. I was planning a nice leisurely day and a traverse of Aonach Mor and Beg with a descent to the Steall waterfall was the route. So the first gondola of the morning deposited me at 650mtrs and I enjoyed a beautiful day in windless sunshine crossing the broad gentle slopes. It was nice on the ascent of Aonach Mor not to have to break trail and i followed a well used trail to the top. From the summit(1221mtrs) I headed across the gentle slopes to Aonach Beg(1234mtrs). Remarkably I had both mountains to myself and the summit of Aonach Beg was pristine unbroken snow. The view across to Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis were amazing and the whole experience was truly alpine. The descent to the falls was gentle and the use of extensive snow fields made for rapid progress. I noticed that I was sunburnt. It was the middle of February for gods sake. On reaching the bottom I enjoyed the walk out the Nevis Gorge. After another couple of kilometers I got a lift into town thus saving me a further 5K walk. Another great day.
Looking up at Tower Ridge

Ice climbers near the CIC hut

Down to the great tower
View down No3 gully

The CMD arret

Ben Nevis and the CMD arret

The plan for Saturday Feb 20th was to climb Ben Nevis. I had decided to climb No3 gully and continue to Carn Mor Dearg via the CMD arrete. I emerged after breakfast to another stunning day. Off to the bus stop to get a bus to the Nevis distillery where the trail begins. There didn't seem to be a Saturday service so I set off to walk the 4K to the trailhead. I hadn't gone far when I was passed by the very bus I was looking for. So after a long walk I was eventually making progress on the track towards the CIC hut. The Ben was looking magnificent. The extensive cliffs covered in snow and fat ice falls everywhere in evidence. as was to be expected there were lots of parties about. Climbers could be seen on Tower Ridge and not far from the hut two magnificent icefalls were seeing some action. Suitably booted and suited I headed on up to Coire na Ciste. This amphitheatre offers stunning scenery in every direction. The variety of climbs that can be undertaken from here is bewildering. It's easy to see why climbers come from far and wide to scale this great mountain.

 No 3 gully is a straight forward grade 1 snow climb. There was a lot of deep soft snow, but previous traffic made going fairly easy. when I reached the gully proper I found that I was the first to venture in since the snowfall so once again I had to break trail. I was a bit concerned about avalanche but the surface was just powder and hadn't formed a slab that might go in unison. The gradient is about 45 degrees until you reach the exit. This can vary considerably and this time the left exit was the easier but was still about 20mtrs of 60degree slope. This was unfortunately crusty with crud underneath and didn't inspire great confidence. I wouldn't have minded a my second axe and I was happy when I emerged onto the plateau. The top of Ben Nevis can be a savage place but today it was a benign paradise. The roof of Britain on this day offered uninterrupted views in all directions. The view down Tower Ridge was beautiful and I wished I had been on it. After a bite to eat at the summit(1334mtrs) I headed on down the slope to the CMD arret. In these conditions was a joy and was like an easy alpine route. Quite busy as you would expect but everyone was in a good mood on this glorious day. Carn Mor Dearg(1220mtrs) soon passed and the easy slopes made for a quick descent. This time I got the bus back to town at the end of another memorable day.

Cliffs on Stob Ban the Mamores

My final day on the mountains I had planned to do Sgurr a Mhaim and the Devils Ridge to Mullach nan Coirean in a neat horseshoe walk from the lower falls in Glen Nevis. However after a leisurely start when I was on the trail I discovered I had forgotten my crampons. This ruled out the Devils Ridge so I opted instead to go in the valley under Stob Ban(999mtrs) to a bealach and climb Stob Ban and then continue with the horseshoe from there. The going was easy and height was gradually gained. The route up Stob Ban was like the steps of a stairs and the loss of crampons was no disadvantage. Yet again the day was stunning. The gentle ridge to Mullach nan Coirean(939mtrs) soon passed. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch and reflected on what was a great week. The gentle ridge back to the glen was a joy and the trusty thumb worked again and I was back in town in good time. So ended a wonderful trip on the mountains. One final treat lay in store. The train journey the following morning to Glasgow was stupendous and must be described as one of the most beautiful in the world. Do it if you can.
 Until the next time.
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