Monday, 15 February 2010

SKYE, GLEN SHIEL, TORRIDON AND THE BEN - 6th Feb and 11th-14th Feb

Not written on the blog for a while now as life has been so busy, what with starting a new OU course and not having a car at the moment, needing D to chauffer me about.  This leads to my biggest bit of news………D and I got engaged on my Birthday at the end of January and I’ve never been happier.
So, to the hills…………
D and I had an impulsive trip to Skye on 6th of Feb which was absolutely amazing.  We’d originally thought to go either to Glen Shiel and do Forcan Ridge or to Torridon to do Ben Alligin, but a report on UKC about the Cuillin being in good nick had us over in Skye.  Neither of us had been in winter before so we didn’t want to do anything too taxing, so decided on bagging Bruach na Frithe, the easiest munro on Skye.
We arrived pretty late in the day and drove down Glen Brittle way to doss in the van.  We hadn’t really looked at the munro books or any guides about the easiest way up the hill, but upon looking at the map we decided going up the NW ridge looked best, though it would seem that in reality going up Fionn Coire is the easiest walker’s way.
The ridge is nothing at first, just a walk, but it then steepens and narrows and we found  ourselves weaving around blocks and up steep, little steps.  We eventually got to a point where the ridge got so steep that neither of us felt very comfortable without a rope so we tried to find a way around.  We followed a small, snowy ramp to the right of the crest and I kept climbing up steep gullies to find a way back on to the crest.  At first it seemed I’d get back on, but the gully would become so steep and slabby with such a thin layer of soft snow that it was impossible to get purchase and I was forced back down again.  We were starting to worry that we’d have to bail, can you imagine the shame of being spanked by the easiest munro?!   Thankfully we managed to find our way onto the crest again and after some more weaving we found ourselves on the summit.  Imagine our surprise about 10 mins later when a couple came up the same ridge with crampons and all roped up!  One of them seemed to know his way about when we enquired about the easiest way up the hill and probably thought we were a couple of clueless numpties.  Turns out that this ridge is grade I/II in winter.  So, that’s another winter route for D, without him realising, and an exciting day that we hadn’t banked on!
We didn’t plan on doing much the next day as D had to drive us back home again, so we went for a short walk down Glen Sligachan.  We only got as far as being directly across from Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean when I decided to turn back as I was feeling pretty tired, hormonal and grumpy and really couldn’t be bothered with doing anything other than laze about.
Conditions on Skye hadn’t been as great as I’d thought they’d be.  The snow was soft and crusty and the rock a bit verglassed in places, but it was utterly amazing to be there all the same as it’s such mental place.

The end of the week saw RB off school and away to Germany with her Dad and Stepmum, and me with a couple of days free to go climbing.  I had arranged to climbing with Helen Rennard, a lass I’d bumped into a few years ago when new routing up in Fisherfield.  I was really looking forward to climbing with her as she’s one of the few woman I’d heard of who was keen and who could actually lead some hard stuff in winter.
We drove up to Andy’s on Wednesday and finally decided on going to Glen Shiel the next day, Andy and Dave McGimpsey heading to An Teallach.  Helen and I arrived in Glen Shiel at around the back of eight and set off up the hill for Creag Coire an t-Slugain .  Helen was off in a shot, leaving me behind like a huffing, puffing heap of lard!  I just don’t understand why I seem to get unfitter every time I go out rather than the opposite.  My legs felt tired, my back felt sore and even though the walk in is pretty short, I found it difficult going.   We arrived in good guidebook time though, so I obviously wasn’t going too slowly.
We’d planned to do a route called Rose Garden which Andy had recommended then if we had time, dropping back into the corrie and doing either Flaky Ridge or something else.   Andy had said Rose Garden would be a grade harder without any ice on it and the route certainly didn’t look icy.  I was worried that Helen would still want to go for it and I’d embarrass myself by struggling up what would then be either V or tech 5.  Fortunately for me, Helen didn’t seem too keen on climbing it without any ice either.
We ended up doing Flaky Ridge in the end.  I started off on the 1st pitch and found it difficult from the word go.  Each steepening up the crest seemed to get progressively harder and more awkward and at one point I wasn’t sure whether going left or right looked easier.  I tried going directly upwards, over a bulging slab of rock.  I had my axes placed over the bulge, one on either side and as I was trying to move up my foot slipped and I was left dangling by my axes!  F*ck, f*ck, f*ck!!!  Time seemed to slow right down as I hung there and I wondered what it would be like fall.  Thoughts of my nut placement about 10 foot below which wasn’t 100% and a warthog in slightly squidgy turf didn’t inspire confidence!  Oh f*cking sh*te!!!  I swung my body weight over to the left of the bulge but there was nothing for my feet there but a blank slab.  Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t!  I began pedalling furiously with my right foot, trying to find some kind of purchase on this slab.  I couldn’t look down to see what to do with my feet as I was pretty stretched out.  Eventually the edge of my crampons seemed to find a tiny nubbin high up on the slab and I rocked over onto it with all my might, power screaming like a banshee!  Oh thank f*ck, thank f*ck!  I leaned against the rock huffing and puffing and trying to calm my heart which was threatening to burst out my chest with the exertion and adrenaline of it all.  Helen shouted up, very concerned and said to take a belay when I could if I was struggling.
I’m okay now though.  A few more moves up the crest and I find a belay spot, but it’s taking ages to dig out placements and about 10 feet above I can see 2 massive flakes that will take slings, so move up there instead.
Helen climbs quietly and quickly at first and I’m thinking, bugger, she must be finding this easy!  But the rope soon slows and I feel more reassured that it’s no doddle.  Helen’s head finally appears over the last steepening and the first thing she says is that she found it pretty awkward so I feel better about my struggle.
Helen’s pitch takes her out of view and after about 20 or 30 metres she takes a belay as she’s run out of slings and I’m good to go.  I’m faced with another steeping which looks pretty brutal!  I have to get my foot up really high, drop my axes and use a flake as a hand hold and it feels pretty damn hard.  I’m thinking, jeeze, this route is desperate for a grade III!  You put a new grade III leader on this and they’re going to be in trouble!  The ridge now narrows to a definite knife edge and I’m forced to sit on my bum, leg either side of the ridge and shuffle along.  It’s damn awkward getting my bum onto the damn thing and ouchy once I’m on, the schist digs in and is pretty sore, especially when I jar myself on a wee spike of rock!
This takes me to a spot where I can sit in relative comfort and belay Helen up the next bit seen as her pitch was so short.  And to be truthful, I’m thankful as the next bit looks even more desperate!  The sharp knife edge continues, but with flakes that you can use as a hand/axe rail.  Only problem is, it’s really blank for your feet.  Helen tries to go direct to no avail, then tries to go left to no avail.  She then goes right, traversing precariously along the slab.  The rope catches on a flake and she’s forced to climb back again to sort it as it won’t flick off.  She gets across the slab and into a steep groove, but the turf is dubious and things are looking pretty hairy with not much good gear.
I shout down that we could always escape off into the gully below to the right.  Helen doesn’t take much persuading not to continue and managed to down climb the groove and come back across the slab.  She decides to down climb into the grade III gully to the left however and I’m crapping myself at having to follow her.  She’s got a bomber hex above her, but when it comes to my turn, the rope is below and I’m faced with a fall into the gully if I come off.  Thankfully the down climb isn’t as steep as it looks from above and before long I’m into the gully and up beside Helen.  We deliberate whether to continue upwards as it’s now well after 4 o’clock.  How the hell did it get so late!  It has taken hours to climb a 100m of what should have been grade III ground!  Andy had mentioned it was top end III 4, but this seemed desperate to us!  We decided in the end to carry up rather than ab off as we weren’t sure the ropes would reach the bottom and sod being faced with not being able to find suitable anchors lower down to ab off.
Then the ropes decided to get tangled.  Why do they choose to do that when you’re in the midst of having a tad of an epic?!  Finally sorted, Helen led the final rope length up the gully, after we decided she’d probably be quicker having more experience than me.  I seemed to be waiting forever though and once I set off I realised why.  She got in a very token ice screw, mainly to keep the ropes running smoothy and then one bulldog in a crack which came pinging out when I boshed it with my axe and then was faced with a steeping and small cornice of terribly soft and deep snow.  The spindrift was blowing wildly and you had to make the final moves completely blind and just trust the feel of what you were doing.
Woohoo though!  Finally up!  Which way to descend though?  We decided on the longer but easier option of heading across to Druim Shionnach and heading down the North ridge and back to the Alt Coire an t-Slugain.  Once out of the snow line it was now dark, I stopped to get my torch out and sort out my sack, stupidly having burried my water down at the bottom.  I told Helen to carry on as I’d be a while and I’d meet her back at the car.  I ended up arriving 20 minutes after her, after following the bank of the wrong river and ending up right at the head of the loch Cluanie.  Great, just what I needed!  I was being blinded by the  lights of the Inn and by oncoming traffic and was struggling to pick out where Helen’s car might be.  On top of that, I was trying to wind my way through exceedingly boggy ground to get away from the loch and back to the correct river bank.
I eventually saw Helen’s head torch and used that as a guiding beacon through the marsh and back to the car.  11 hours on the hill, what a day for a blooming grade III!  Boy was I glad to be back and get my boots off.   To make matters worse, back in Inverness we stopped for Fish and chips then Helen’s car wouldn’t start as the battery was drained.  I was inwardly groaning at the thought of hours waiting for the RAC, and I’m sure Helen was cursing as it was her car afer all.  Thankfully my RAC was only 10 minutes as he was in the area and just finished with a call out and I wasn’t long before Helen was given a new battery and we were on our way back to Andy’s, battered and bruised.   I wasn’t sure I was keen for another day, but Andy reckoned a late start of 6.30 am would see us get up the new route I’d discovered previously on Liathac, and back down to the car again in good time.  I was eager to climb this line I’d spotted last time especially after drooling at it when it wasn’t in good enough nick, so there was no way I was backing out no matter how tired I felt.

A fitful 6 hours sleep saw the alarm go off at 6.30 and me stumble out of bed bleary eyed.  I haven’t a clue what time we left the Ben Eighe carpark for walking around to the back of Stuc a’ Choire Dhuibh Bhig on Liathac but I found the walk up to the point where you leave the path not too bad and thought I was going well.  I saw the prow of Rambler’s Rib and thought that was my route, thinking it didn’t look as steep as I thought.  But I quickly realised my mistake and there was my buttress, sitting high up on the right of  Chi Squared with plenty of snow on it this time.
What a slog up to the start of the buttress though!  One initially clambers up to the right of Chi gully, then you actually enter the gully itself for a step, then back out the gully, scrambling over grade I steps as you go.  I was finding the going really difficult, my back was killing me at my SI joint and my legs were screaming with the exertion of it.  I really wanted to just say I’d go back to the car, but how could I?  This was *my* route and there was no way in hell that I was having Andy and Helen climb it without me!
Finally, we arrived at the foot of the buttress.  It looked much easier than I thought from below, grade II Andy reckoned.  So much for my thoughts that it might be III/IV, and I felt a bit guilty for saying it should be that grade to Helen, worrying that she’d be fed up of 2 days of not climbing anything hard for her.  But she was totally cool with it, and said she enjoyed the route, comparing it to Central Buttress on Lochnagar.
I was curious about soloing up the start of the route as both Andy and Helen felt confident to do so.  But in the end I decided against it as I wasn’t too sure if it might get harder higher up and I wasn’t too keen on soloing if things did get harder.
Helen was happy to rope up with me though and Andy soloed off ahead.  I’m not entirely sure whether he should have soloed ahead as it began to feel like he was the 1st ascentionist and Helen and I were merely following.  But we did agree that it was fine for him to solo ahead so only myself to blame for that.  I had to comment though and tell him to stop clearing gear placements as that was going a step too far and was getting a bit annoying.
The 1st pitch followed a snowy ramp and the going was hard.  The snow was deep and at points was so soft that I was sinking in and not getting very far.  Andy suggested booting my feet in hard and that certainly made it a little easier.  My bad arm was feeling the strain of the easy ground and repetitive movement though and by the time I was belaying Helen up, my arm was in so much pain that I had to stop pulling the rope up every so often, before gritting my teeth once again.
Helen led the 2nd pitch over a nice wee step that felt around tech 3 ish (if there is such a thing!) and was really quite nice and then I led the 3rd pitch over smaller steps and a final steep groove.  I reckoned this was pretty much the end of the route proper, so Helen and I unroped and soloed the last 30/40 metres or so.  Across a snowy arete and up a final wee steepening where I thought, hmmmm careful here without a rope on!
Then it was the most hellish slog ever up to the summit of Stuc a Choire Dhuibh Bhig where I had to stop every so often and recover, forcing myself to go atleast 50 steps before leaning into my axe and groaning.
Helen and I were keen to descend via the walker’s path but Andy the stubborn goat was having none of it and insisted we follow him down the NE prow of Dhuibh Bhig.  His thoughts on how hard it was changed every 2 minutes and even Helen raised her brow at the conflicting opinion.  Firstly it was just a small down step of grade II, just a few feet with no exposed ground and was a doddle.  A few minutes later it was atleast 20 or 30 feet and you really didn’t want to fall off the top!   Grrrrr!  I was feeling really nervous and I don’t think Helen particularly likes down climbing either preferring to take the longer, easier option at the end of the day if possible.  Still, we were committed now.  Andy set off to try and find the correct way down with me insisting that he come back up to show me the correct way.  I was crapping myself!  Thoughts of my fall on the Aonach Eagach forever on the back of my mind.
The first part of the down climb was easy enough and you could face out, but the 2nd part was the scariest!  Andy reckoned I should sit on a block and reach my leg across a gap and down to another block.  Only problem was that my leg wouldn’t reach the block by a mile!  He reckoned I should just slither down until my leg reached, but that didn’t feel good at all!  It felt totally out of control and I had to have tension on the rope to reach down.   Helen managed it be facing inwards and climbing down properly and that was the much better way for us short folk to do it I reckon.   The next bit had you facing inwards down a steep groove and Andy pointed out an axe slot in the corner.  That bit wasn’t too bad and looked scarier than it actually was.  That took us to the bottom of the 1st tier that you had to down climb.  The 2nd tier had a step that was easy, followed by another bit where you had to face in, get down on your knees and sink your axe into a hole between rocks and use it to lower yourself down a groove/slab.  Again that was easier than it seemed and not as long as it seemed from above either.
That was it, we were down off the hard bit, phew!  All that was left was a traverse across steep snow, into a snow filled groove that took you right down onto the path again.  Andy tried to bum slide all the way down but the snow was too crusty.  Helen and I preferred to walk.  Conditions were good though and it didn’t take long.  After a few slides on the boggy/slabby ground after, we finally arrived on the path and were back at the car for 6 o’clock.

D came to pick me up around 10ish and we drove off the North Face carpark of Ben Nevis to spend the night in the car.   I was knackered by this point and fell asleep in a heap, not before suggesting that I was totally fine to manage a day doing Carn Mor Dearg, followed by the CMD arete and then up to the Ben itself.   The alarm went off at 8am and I sure didn’t feel like I’d had a good sleep, not having gone to bed until around 1.30 am.  We slogged up the new forest path and up onto the Alt a Mhuillin, leaving it shortly to slog up the slopes of Carn Beag Dearg, bypassing that summit and onto the summit of Carn Dearg Meadhonach.  That was an utter killer!  My legs were so tight and sore from the previous 2 days that I was having to continuously stop and rest for a pause or two.  We arrived at the summit around 1.30pm and I was thinking it might take me another 3hrs to get to the Ben summit so slow was I going.  But the final pull up to Carn Mor Dearg was easy enough.  We had a brief sandwich stop, then it was crampons on and axes out to cross the arete.  There was loads more snow on it from when I did it previously and this made it a lot easier, not that it’s ever hard!  It’s all walking really, with just little bits of exposure and a final wee step up at the end which is literally just the one step, and it’s much easier to use your hand rather than axe in the conditions of soft snow we found.  Lovely views across to the Mamores though and it was a  shame because just as we reached the end of the arete, the cloud came down and that was us shrouded for the rest of the day until we got lower.
The final pull up to the Ben summit was just as hard as I remember it, only this time I was managing around 50/60 steps before having to stop for a breather.  The summit was shrouded in cloud and visibility was down to around 20 metres.  Navigation time.  We’d only packed D’s 1:50 map and it didn’t take me long to figure this wasn’t that great for navigating off the Ben!  I managed to get the 2nd step of the navigation just fine but I was struggling to get the first step.  Each time I tried I was getting a different reading as it was pretty much impossible to tell from the map the correct bearing as the step was so small on the map.  D realised that he had the bearings off the Ben written on his map and a quick look got us the 1st step and confirmed I was correct about the 2nd step.
Pacing off the 1st step at 231 degrees for 150 metres was bang on and we soon saw foot prints of the masses.  There had been plenty of footprints at the top but it was impossible to see where they were going as they were all over the place!  My pacing was bang on and the 2nd step at 281 degrees saw us come to a line of cairns that guide you off the hill.  We didn’t really need them, but I must admit they are very reassuring all the same.  The footprints took us down into the Red burn and I remember thinking that Andy would have  field day bum sliding down there!  As it was D and I walked down the soft snow and we were down at the half way lochan really quickly and the path around the loch.  The path runs out at the loch and I remember thoughts of some on UKC that the path should be extended down to the carpark.  Must say, I normally don’t agree with that but the new path seems to guide you away from a deer fence where the going is usually dry, and into more boggy ground.  We were okay today as the ground was frozen enough and it wasn’t long before we were back at the North Face carpark, 8 hours after leaving the van, knocking an hour off my previous time doing the arete.  Fitter than I thought eh?!

Today I’ve been lazing around the van with D, visiting the Ice Factor for lunch and to say hello to the manager there and friend, Jamie and we’re off to the Jimmy Marshall lecture this evening to hear about Dave MacCloud and Andy Turners exploits on the Ben, repeating Jimmy’s routes from 50 years ago.  Should be a good evening if I can still move by that point and am still awake enough!

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