Sunday, 6 June 2010

GLENCOE AND SKYE - 31st May - 5th June 2010

RB was away on a school trip to France this week so D and I used the oppurtunity and the promise of a decent forecast to go away for a few days.  Previously we had both talked about heading back to Skye, after our last trip there to do the NW Ridge of Bruach na Frithe in winter.  D had an inkling to do Pinnacle Ridge on Sgurr nan Gillean which is graded Difficult.
RB set off for France on the Sunday night, too late in the evening for D and I think about the long drive up to Skye.  A shame because the forecast looked excellent for the Monday.  Instead, we decided to drive to Skye via Glencoe, taking in the Aonach Eagach ridge on the way.
I'd done a traverse of the Aonach Eagach at the beginning of 2006 in somewhat unpleasant conditions of slushy snow and wet rock, interspersed with cold, dry rock.  Not a winter traverse, but not nice and summery either.  At that point in time I'd done no summer scrambling whatsover and didn't really have any experience of downclimbing either, especially not with a heavy sack with rope and crampons etc.  I'd been nervous of doing the ridge as I suffer from dizzyness in exposed situations and start feeling like I'm walking on a treadmill when walking along narrow paths.  I even nearly fell down backwards down a steep flight of stairs one time in a circus tent because there was no banister either side of the stairwell!  I recall the traverse being narrow and requiring concentration because of the snow and the dizzyness but all the scrambling sections seemed easy enough.
But one of the pinnacles seemed problematic to me.  In my memory there was a steep wall, not very high, and I was probably only about 10foot off the ground when I got into trouble.  I recall being unable to find a foothold and James, the guy I was with at the time, directing me rightwards to better holds.  Rather than look between my feet, or go back up to easy ground to then get onto the proper descent, I kept twisting round to try and see where I was going.  The twisting and weight of my sack, threw me off balance I believe and the next thing I knew I was falling and landing with a thwunk onto my bum on the path below.  I recall swearing several times and punching the rock in anger at myself.   I recall a lump in my throat and desperately trying not to cry, but then seeing the steep drop down the mountain to my left and realising what a really close shave I'd had.  Then James, in a very concerned voice asking if I was okay.  That was enough to release that lump in my throat and start the tears.  And the rest of the traverse was concluded with me being a shaky mess of nerves, interspersed with almost hysterical like giggles and needing to be roped up and lowered off the final slabby pinnacle.
So, that was then.  But back to  now.  As you might imagine, I was somewhat nervous of a repeat show on the Aonach Eagach and before now I'd never gone back.  The day was perfect for a rematch though, the sun beaming down enough to help warm the rock slightly and hopefully soothe the nerves.  And nervous I was!  I remember finding the descent off Am Bodach a doddle previously, but on this occasion it seemed the most tricky part of the traverse.  As we walked and scrambled along with ease, my nerves grew and grew and I was on continuous lookout for any hint of recognition of the pinnacle where I fell.  The ridge is longer than I recall it, and looked somewhat different from my memory, bar certain parts which seemed very familiar.  After downclimbing a really easy groove, I turned back and faced the point I'd just come down, realising that this was the point where I'd fallen.  I looked down left and shuddered a little at the drop down the mountain but felt faintly embarrassed that I'd struggled so much at this section, thinking what a complete and utter tit James must have thought me at the time to find it so difficult.
The next section loomed.  In my memory it involved a horribly awkward and steep slabby descent.  In reality however, the slab is easy angled enough to walk down and leads to a small chimney with massive blocky ledges and holds.  It's mental how fear can enlarge the scenery from easy ground into terrifying ground!
And that was it, after another wee scrambly section upwards, it was onto the final munro and a steep descent back to Glencoe and the a slog up the glen and back to the van.  Took 7hrs in total from van back to van which is pretty good compared to the epic day up there last time, though the slog back up the glen to the van was a bit tedious.  And that was that, a demon faced and a ghost laid to rest.

On Tuesday we awoke to lashing rain which died down later in the morning.  We took a trip into Fort William to buy another prussick loop for D, for the abseil off the 3rd pinnacle on Pinnacle Ridge.  Then we headed off to Skye.  The forecast had changed a little and Wednesday didn't look so great anymore.  Thursday's forecast looked really good however, so we decided to keep Pinnacle Ridge for Thursday and take a drive down to Glen Brittle on Wednesday and decide exactly what to do down there in the morning.
Wednesday morning dawned a bit dank and cloudy but upon parking at the Youth Hostel we decided to go for an ascent of Thuilm Ridge, followed by bagging Sgurr a Mhadaigh and then onto Sgurr a Ghreadaidh if we had time.
D had an old scrambling guide which said to follow the Alt a Choire Ghreadaidh to a slabby section and then break off left.  Well that's exactly what we did and we then came upon a path.  We both thought it odd that a path should be so well marked up to Thuilm Ridge as it's not really a touristy way up the hill.  But it seemed to be going in the direction we wanted so we just blindly followed it in the thick mist.  It was only possible to see about 50metres or so ahead and all the crags of the lower reaches of Thuilm that we were supposed to reach never materialised.  We came to another branching of the river and I was sure we should take the left branch again to reach the SW ridge of Thuilm but D reckoned the SMC munro book had mentioned that you could reach the start of Thuilm ridge from the corrie that takes you up to An Dorus.
So we carried on up the path, finally reaching the corrie.  Only problem was that it was so misty, we couldn't make out anything at all.  The cliffs above would loom out of the mist occasionaly only to be swollowed up again within seconds.  We decided under the circumstances to forget about Thuilm Ridge, no way were we going to find it and it was pretty windy and dank and damp up there in the mist anyway.  We decided to just head up An Dorus and then do an ascent of Mhadaidh and Ghreadaidh via the tourist route.  As the cliffs appeared and disappeared in and out of the mist, it was hard to discern the right way to go.  My map was off little use whatsover as it's the 1:25 map and there was simply far too much detail to be any good.  So D's grid ref wasn't off that much use either.  In the end we followed our noses up the scree and slabs avoiding the steep cliffs and finally coming to a gully of sorts which seemed the best way up.  Looming through the mist we spotted a few folk going up that way too and then came upon a path and knew we were on the right track.
An Dorus is a tiny gap between Mhadaidh and Ghreadaidh, like a small notch only big enough to fit a couple of people in.  The move up to establish yourself onto Mhadaidh's ridge is around moderate in standard and seemed quite spicy in the wet and gusting wind!  As did the rest of the scramble upwards, but it wasn't long before we were at the summit and then turning back down.  Under these conditions I was really  happy that we hadn't found the start of Thuilm as it would have been unpleasant!  Back at the gap of An Dorus and off up Ghreadaidh, but the only problem now is that I'm faced with another moderate move and I don't like this one, one little bit.  It's a massive reach up for me and is wet and slippery, don't think it's gabbro but one of the other rock types of Skye that isn't so grippy in the wet.  Going up wouldn't be so much of a problem, as although it's an off balance, reachy and comitting move I know I can do it going up.  I'm really nervous of that section coming down though and I think I'll find it difficult and unpleasant in the wind and wet.  So after up and downing a few times I decide against it.
I'd love to come back and do Thuilm ridge in better weather so I'll leave the ascent of Ghreadaidh until then.  Coming back down Choire a Ghreadaidh the mist had cleared lower down and we could see the cliffs below Thuilm and the branch of the river where you are supposed to cut off left.  It's well before the slabs though and the guidebook was very misleading!  Still, I'm glad we went out and managed to do something and the hills were made all the more spicy by the conditions.


This is what we'd come for and Thursday dawned into a magnificant day of bright sunshine and clear skies.  I wasn't entirely sure what to expect on hard scramble/Diff rock climb of this nature so as well as packing a rope for the abseil we knew we'd need to do, I also packed a handful of nuts, a couple of hexes and a few slings.  The one thing I stupidly forgot and that I felt quite naked without was my helmet.
The slog up to the ridge is a bit tedious and you can't really make out the pinnacles properly until you are underneath the ridge itself as you approach it face on.  Think we made it up to the bottom of the ridge in a couple of hours and then sat and had some lunch, letting the sweat of hard labour dry off.  The heat had been intense!  The first section looked easy enough to solo so I kept the rope in my sack but we put our harness on as I was concerned about needing to rope up and trying to gear up in a precarious position.  We were following the description from Dan Bailey's Mountain Ridges book and found the description for the 1st pinnacle a bit funny.  I think in the end it would have been better taking the pinnacle direct but the guide said to go leftwards and then right along a rubbly rake.  Only problem was that there were rubbly rakes everywhere!  But it was easy enough to follow your nose and we soon got to a basalt dyke which we went up, but rather than go up the gully that is mentioned in the guide we stayed clear as it looked a bit minging.  The 2nd pinnacle went up a nice slabby section and groove and shortly took you to the foot of the 3rd pinnacle.  The guide said this should go up a groove to the right of the crest, but the groove that we went up and folk infront of us had obviously went up, was just to the very left of the crest and I didn't find the moves 'stiff' at all.  I'd been quite nervous of soloing the route because the guide description made it sound quite hard!  But it was pretty easy to just follow your nose to find the best ways upwards.
The top of the 3rd pinnacle ended abruptly at a small perch and block and we were forced to wait beside a huge pile of human excretement.  Someone must have had REALLY bad guts that day, I've never seen a dump as big and runny as that before!  Maybe the fear of the upcoming abseil was all too much!  We were behind a guide and his client and the client got lowered before the guide abseiled down after untangling his new rope.  It was then time for me to untangle our rope!
A couple of days previously I had given D a short abseiling lesson off the rafters off our garage ceiling but I think he'd forgotten just about everything I'd taught him.  So easy to do when it comes to ropes and knots and it really does take regular practise before things come second nature.  I'd gotten far too used to Andy setting up the abseils when we'd been out climbing and it had been sometime since I'd been in charge of setting one up but I did myself proud.  There was so much tat there insitu anyway that there was no difficulty involved.  The main problem was that I would have like D to have been tied into the system and ready to ab off before I headed down, with me going down first so I could sort any tangles on the way.  There didn't really seem like much room for both of us to be on the rope at the same time though so I had to let D go first, and had to get things set up for him and remind him how to do the abseil.  He did it 100% though, with no difficulties, even though it's an awkward abseil to start off, quite steep and not straightforward to get established on.  I'd made sure beforehand that the ropes were freely hanging to the ledge we were abb'ing down too and the guide ahead of us shouted back that our rope was clear, so we were good to go.  The one thing I did forget was to knot the ends of the rope which was really bad of me, but not too bad as we could both see the ledge we needed to get down to and it was a 60m rope we had so plenty of free rope and no danger of abb'ing off the end.
After I was down and had coiled up the rope we had a peer down the awkward chimney that we still had to downclimb.  It looked a bit dubious to start off with and D had a go first and declared it no problem at all, and it really was much less intimidating than it looked.
Before abb'ing down we'd been watching a party, ahead of the guide and his client, roping up for the final Knights Peak.  They were really slow and were knocking down rocks right, left and centre and I felt so conscious of not having my helmet with me!  Luckily by the time we'd faffed with the abseil they had gone past the summit of Knights Peak so we were safe from falling rocks!
The beginning of Knight's Peak took you along a short rubbly ledge and past 2 narrowings.  I had D go first and he strolled along nonchantly, and could have easily have been strolling along the street with his hands in his pocket.  I'd been nervous as 2 of the parties ahead had roped up for this pinnacle, but there was no hard bits at all, although I was hugging the edge a bit more than D was!
The guide had mentioned going right around the base of the 1st tower above Knights Peak, when in fact it was much, much better to go around left and the back of the tower.  On the 2nd tower there was a ledge that one could scramble along to get to the base of the final pyramid tower up to the summit of Sgurr nan Gillean.  D took a higher ledge and had to downclimb to the lower ledge but I took the lower ledge from the start, finding it much more preferable.
The guide also mentioned a hard step left onto the final pyramid, but the step onto the final wall was actually moving rightwards and not leftwards!  And it was hard for the grade, not Diff by any stretch of the imagination!  It felt quite Severe to me.  The holds were big, but it was a lay off and the 2nd flake was horribly rounded, the move was a huge, reachy rockover with not much for your feet and then once my feet were high, I couldn't reach the next juggy hold and had to use a tiny gabbro nubbing around the size of my finger nail to move up on.  I tried it several times but just couldn't commit to doing the  move, what with the prospect of a long fall if I messed things up!  D went first but of course he has a much longer reach than I do and could reach the big holds.  I was frustrated that even on a Diff I was having problems with being 5 foot nothing!  My other option was head down rightwards slightly and up an even blanker looking wall and I didn't like the look of that, or to avoid the summit pyramid alltogether by a traverse rightwards, but I wanted to complete the route!
I went back to the hard move, gritted my teeth and committed to it, no bother!  But a pretty serious and tough move for a Diff!  The summit pyramid was utterly joyous!  I really, really enjoyed it, never too hard but always exposed enough to keep you thinking and then up a final basalt dyke and onto the top of the West ridge and then finally the summit.  Hurrah, my first serious scramble on Skye and done without pitching any of it either, I was really chuffed with myself!
When I got to the top I was pretty knackered and a bit drained from all the concentration below, that I wasn't sure I wanted to continue down the West Ridge of Gillean as it was graded moderate and I couldn't be bothered with any more excitement.  After a breather though and a bite to eat I soon changed my mind and we set off.  You have to start by 'threading the needle' which involves clambering down through a hole between perched blocks.  I wasn't quite sure I was going to fit through at first but it's bigger than it looks when you get there.  The next section was pretty thin for your feet and it took me a while to trust using such small holds and edges with my big boots on, but amazingly they stick well.  This took us down to a big ledge where we had to wait some time on 2 guided parties being roped up the ridge.  The first guide has to be one of the most unfriendly guides I've ever met on the hills and seemed a bit up himself.  Of course he was busy concentrating on his clients but he didn't even thank us for patiently waiting on him and I muttered a quick 'twat' as he left with his group.  The 2nd guide was far more courtious thankfully and before long it was our time to set on down.  You had to go down a wee groove/chimney and onto another ledge where there was a rope around a block obviously used for groups abseiling down a gully/chimney below.  We decided against the chimney and instead stepped across onto a small pinnacle with a ledge below where you had to cross across and round the pinnacle.  I was gripping on for dear life at this point, ever conscious of the death plummet below!  You then had to take a really wide stride and step across onto the next pinnacle so you were then left with one foot and hand on one pinnacle and the other foot and hand on the other pinnacle, with nothing but air between your feet!  It was the most exposed thing I've ever done and was utterly exhilarating in a,
'holy shit!' kinda way!
We then downclimbed a chimney which was a bit awkward in places but easy enough and that was us down the West Ridge and I was really glad we'd gone for that option rather than chickening out down the East ridge.  We dumped our sacks here and scrambled up to the summit of Am Bastier which was longer and trickier than it seemed from below and the correct way to go wasn't obvious at first.  I felt quite nervous on this summit as it was much more airy than Gillean and I hate standing about for long in exposed positions.  So we quickly headed down to our sacks and then the long, long slog back down to the van.  Choire a Bastier is a really, really stunning corrie and we spent some time near the lochan just gazing up at the cliffs and back up at the amazing view of Pinnacle Ridge where we'd just come from.  This was an utterly superb day out on the hills and definitely one of my favourite mountain days so far.  I was feeling so chuffed to have gone from being terrified of scrambling and exposure to happily soloing along and up Diffs and down exposed moderate ground.  After my fall on the Aonach Eagach I'd always been scared of going to Skye thinking it would be too scary for me, but it's just amazing there, a true playground.

FRIDAY -   I'd been suffering from horrible belly cramps the night before and wasn't feeling great at all later on Friday morning and was tired from an 11hr day on the hill before.  Was sorely tempted to forget about going up the hill today but finally forced myself out the van.  We'd driven down to Torrin to go up Blaven, keeping our option open to do the Clach Glas to Blaven traverse if we felt like it.  D has already done it and even though I'd managed Pinnacle Ridge, the Clach Glas traverse seemed a more serious option and I really didn't feel up to it today.  It took all my effort to start off up Blaven and I was having continual stomach cramps on the way up and feeling really quite sick, weak, dizzy and a bit out of it as if I were a bit feverish.  We went up into Fionna Choire and by the time we were up there I was feeling so poorly that I just had to sit for a while and try to recuperate.  I realised that behind the stomach cramps I was actually feeling really hungry having have not finished my lunch earlier.  I scoffed a fair bit to eat, including some chocolate and although the queasiness continued I felt alot better.  Until we started to head up the head wall of the corrie that is!  I was sweating buckets and feeling all weak again and so many times I wanted to give up and just sit down and head back to the van.  But I refused to give up!  And I'm sure that whatever was ailing me was eventually sweated out for as we approached the South top of Blaven I started feeling much better.
The rain came on in a short downpour and this cleared the air a little and things felt a little less oppressive and clammy.  We'd thought it would be simple walk between the South top and the summit but there was a downhill scrambly section.  A group had set down before us but seemed to have picked a weird way down a system of exposed ledges.  We overtook them by heading down a really easy chimney.  I think they avoided the chimney as it did have a fair bit of loose stone in it, but the ledges were so big that it was easy not to dislodge anything.  We were up on the summit before they made it down and after having another bite to eat we spotted a herd of folk scrambling down the chimney, a big massive line of them!  We decided that now was a good time to head down before the masses arrived!
Route finding on the way down was a bit thoughtfull in places and I reckon would be quite tricky in the mist but the going is never hard and before long we were back down at the foot of Fionna Choire and heading down Coire Uaigneich and the carpark.  We then drove around the head of Loch Slapin and spent the night in the van at Camas Malag.
This is a gorgeous spot!  It looks down Loch Slappin and out to the sea at one side and then across to Blaven at another side.  D and I spent some time on the pebbly shore taking masses of photos of the sunset over Blaven before retreating to the van for the night.

We both fancied an easy day on Saturday before the long drive home so we walked the 3 miles along the coast to Suisnish.  Here lie the remains of the crofts dated from the Clearances of the 1850's.  The people refused to leave their homes and were violently and forcefully evicted into the snow that lay deep in October.  Many elderly folk died of exposure and the Geologist  Archibald Geikie was frequenting the area at the time and recounted that,

'A strange wailing sound reached my ears. I could see a long and motley procession winding along the road that led north from Suisnish. There were old men and women, too feeble to walk, who were placed in carts; the younger members of the community on foot were carrying their bundles of clothes while the children, with looks of alarm, walked alongside. A cry of grief went up to heaven, the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach. The sound re-echoed through the wide valley of Strath in one prolonged note of desolation.'

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