Sat 20th Feb - Sun 21st Feb, 2010
Members present: Graham Harkness, Bob Kelly, Sean Kelly. Guest: Katharine Bagshaw.
Winters come and winters go but this one will be remembered for a long time to come. The quantity of snow and low temperatures in the Highlands is the greatest for over 100 years. Even Wales and the Lakes have not missed out on this bumper winter with all kinds of new routes being done. When it stops snowing and the sun shines the conditions are truly awesome. And so it proved to be as I journeyed north, initially to Wales for a few days, and then on to Scotland for a further weeks climbing.
The hut on that cold Thursday night had not been visited since before Christmas and consequently interior temperatures were colder than outside! By the time the first of the working party arrived on the Friday evening some semblance of warmth existed within its stone walls. However the biggest shock of the day had been the parking charges at Pen y Pass being increased to £10! I kid you not. Arriving early from Devon I decided to tackle the 'Horns' sometimes referred to as the first or last nail in the 'Horseshoe' as a preamble up to the Trinity Face, hoping for some good photos en-route. By the time I stood underneath it was shrouded in typical Welsh mist rolling in off the Irish Sea, this after a promising start to the day.
I was up early the next day and headed up into Cwm Cnifion in search of ice. A very good but icy path below the Sub-Cnifion Rib attains the upper Cwm and another iced-up stream gave an easy climb up to Clogwyn Ddu, a dark sombre crag that dominates the cwm. This has in recent winter become a forcing ground for local activists with many desperate routes adorning its steep walls. The obvious gully was a continuous stream of ice with a least three parties spread over its length. Mist and a bitter wind shrouded the upper cliffs as I made my way via the gully right of Tower Slabs up to Glyder Fawr. Not surprisingly I encountered nobody on the plateau as I made my way down via the 'Kitchen' path.
The next day the 'Working Party' worked, as I sneaked out of the hut with ambitions on the Trinity Face. I suspected that conditions might be favourable and so it proved with hard neve to sink in front crampon points. I emerged onto the summit ice-field, with not another soul in sight and bright sunshine glinting off a million snow crystals. I paused to take in this wonderful scene, with abundant icefalls draped over the face, before continuing on to the summit.
My original Scottish partner, Mark had cried off so it was with some relief when Graham rang inquiring about the meet and was duly signed up. I had a booking for the Alex Mac for the week preceding the Blackrock Cottage meet, and Graham would arrive on the Wednesday evening. Monday in Scotland was a wet driech day with mizzle and sleet and so I opted for the minor top east of Am Bodach, A'Chailleach, a not inconsiderable top of 903 metres. A good path visible under the light snow cover, lead up from the old military road, now part of the West Highland Way, towards the minor top of Stob Mhic Mhattuin and so along to another minor top with the aid of compass bearing and increasing snowfall that slowly obliterated any path. A snatched granary bar on the well cairned summit then retracing my steps back to the Highland Way.
My previous two winters in the Highlands had been a washout, and so the Tuesday saw a repeat ascent of Stop Coire Sgreamhach along the lovely Lairig Eilde. Memories of my outing the previous year with Dave Lygate and Brian Street were wet in the extreme, but today promised well with unbroken blue skies and a good covering of snow and hard frost on the ground. I could make out two figures near the head of the glen but was very surprised to discover that they were mending the path in the depths of this winter. Tough lads! The recent new snow now caused problems as I sunk up to my thighs as I toiled en route to point 778 on the Sgreamhach ridge. Unnoticed, the weather had begun to gradually change as dark heavy cloud obscured all views to the north and the promised clear day another disappointment. The ascent to the summit seemed endless as I toiled through deep powder, as another false summit materialized out of the mist. My original plan to traverse all the Bidean peaks was silently dismissed as I made my way down to the col between the two tops. Locating the gap in the cornice to gain the Lost Valley proved troublesome, stretched out prone, probing with loose snow with my axe. A sling protruding from the cornice was a red herring, but a quick scan further along the ridge revealing a rucksack and below the way down to the Lost Valley. A final sting in the tail locating the exit path from the valley via obstacles of trees, rocks and snow.
Wednesday was a washout as it mostly snowed all day although some from the hut, skiing on Aonach Mor said conditions were much better. I was considerably cheered to see Graham that evening.
So Thursday saw us heading for Aonach Mor and an early Gondola, before the long climb in even deeper snow to the heavily corniced crest, in really wonderful weather, clear blue skies and no wind. A skier with touring gear, glided gracefully past as we struggled in the fresh powder on towards Aonach Beag, leaving deep tracks which would prove useful for the return trip in thick weather. The warden at the Alex Mac, Nick, remarked that the moist warm air from the coast caused this phenomenon to occur towards midday, then clear as evening approached. Although we had purchased tickets for the top chair Health & Safety rules barred us from using this aid on the descent.
Friday was an early start as I sneaked out of the hut shortly after five with head-torch, sometime successfully navigating the new path from the North Face car-park to the Ben, or more precisely Carn Mor Dearg. It had long been an ambition of mine to photograph the panorama that is the north Face of Ben Nevis. Today would afford that opportunity to realise this aim, as the sky gradually brightened, promising another fantastic day of brilliant clear light and distant hills, now mostly ascended, emerging from the morning mist. As I progressively gained height, the most impressive vista emerged before my eyes, accompanied by light so blindingly bright that I was appreciative of photo-chromatic lenses protecting my eyes from the glare. Never before can conditions in Scotland be described as Alpine, rather than the Arctic norm. I wonder to myself if Graham was appreciating this while skiing on Aonach Mor across the Allt Daim. The ascent seemed endless, but it did involve climbing over 4000 feet before the summit was gained. As I moved over Carn Dearg Meadhonach, past an improvised bivvy, the cornices assumed more menace and I wisely trod well to their right. Looking closely, I could make out and faintly hear, an early pair on North East Buttress and another party making their laborious way up towards Gardyloo Gully in the recent deep new powder. Relaxing on the top, I shot off pictures in all directions. A group of 3 appeared traversing the CMD arête and as they approached my lofty perch I noticed that they were in running gear, carrying lightweight sacs, and some sort of short crampon attached to their lightweight footwear. It emerged that they were also traversing the Grey Corries before descending to the lonely Leacach Bothy!
The descent was not without incident as I slowly made my way down, passing a group scaling the exposed pinnacles on the East Ridge of Carn Dearg Meadhonach. It was becoming increasing warm in the afternoon sun so I stopped to remove layers and carried on down to the junction with the Allt a'Mhuilinn path. But something felt wrong. I couldn't feel the weight and swing of the camera across my shoulder?it wasn't there! I must have put it down earlier when I stopped, but that was ages ago. I quickly glanced up the slope hoping that someone descending could pick it up for me, but the hill was empty, devoid of any human presence. I would have to retrace my steps, but how far was the question? So I re-ascended the mountain over heather and snow clad slopes, skirting around rocks, frantically scanning for evidence of a Nikon D300 with its bright yellow strap. The camera could be replaced I reasoned but the photographs I had were priceless. By now I had climbed about 1000 feet and there was no sign of any camera. Tired, I stopped and dropped my head, despondent, hands on knees?and there it was, at my feet. A few more inches and I would have stepped on it! With renewed vigour and feeling on top of the world, I literally danced my way back to the car.
Collecting my things from the Alex Mac I motored over to Blackrock Cottage and bumped into Graham who had also had a great time trying out his newish skis purchased from the famous second's shop that is Jim Gregson. A fire or two was quickly lit, then we retired to the Kingshouse for dinner, while the temperature in the hut approached normal. By the time we returned Bob and Katherine had arrived, and so the meet was officially together.
And so great plans were hatched for the following day. Ben Lui was quickly rejected because of the current avalanche risk. Bob fancied Bidean but that was retracing old ground or rather snow from earlier in the week. So it was that a traverse of the Aonach Eagach emerged, and cars were carefully sited at both ends. The weather continued glorious as we toiled up the endless grind to Am Bodach. Translated this means 'Old Man' which I certainly felt as I put one weary foot in front of another. Yesterday's exertions had taken their toll. It was with a certain sense of relief that the summit was attained and the enfolding view westwards encouraged my efforts, along with intake of food and hot drink.
I recalled from an earlier traverse of the ridge in the splendid company of Jim Hindley, John Dwyer and Lester Payne, that the descent from Am Bodach was not without problems, and so it proved. A belay was quickly arranged and Bob and Kath dropped down towards the col. I abseiled and got the following party to flick off the sling and so we traversed that wonderful ridge, with a clear path to follow in the powder, leading towards the pinnacles. The main problem here was caused by slow nervous groups ahead that are in essence, winter walkers rather than climbers. For good reason is the traverse of the ridge 3 in the current guide. And so it proved as no surprise that the party experiencing difficulties ahead were parents with young son in tow, complete with his new Christmas crampons. He was last on the rope, which offered little in the way of protection when he had to descend the pinnacles, and his father out of sight belaying. As he nervously skarted about on small holds I quickly set up a top rope utilising a large sling over a convenient spike, and with directions from us, his father carefully lowered him to the ledge. It was a relief to pass them at the next pinnacle as we had lost over an hour waiting behind them. The way ahead was now clear and apart from one or two bum slides on bare rock the top of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh was soon attained. Some mist that had drifted over the ridge now started to clear to preface a beautiful clear evening as Bob and Kath took turns performing giant bumslides down towards the road, wire fence and waiting car. I contented myself with tripping on a hidden wire across the path and landing somewhat ingloriously among large scree. With no broken bones evident we arrived at the cars, but Bob experienced key problems and spent cold nervous minutes effecting entry. We were all grateful that Graham had returned early from his skiing at White Corries as plumes smoke belched forth from both chimneys of the hut.
Black Rock Cottage can be found on the left of the A82, before you enter into Glencoe fully, this is the cottage that so many people shoot with the Buchaille Etive Mor in the background. You can park across from it. It's on a small single track road that ends at the Glencoe Ski Center www.glencoemountain.co.uk which has a photo of the hut + a web cam if you want to check the snow before you head up that way.
Accommodation: 10 beds with mattresses and some blankets. No camping is allowed near the cottage. Facilities: Electric lighting and cooking; microwave oven; utensils provided; coal fire; WC
Cost: 10 places @ £6pn. Can you please send cheques payable to the Karabiner MC to the Hon Sec direct (Al Metelko) and please let me know when you have done this so I can collate numbers. (8 spaces left!)
The hut is situated in a brilliant area for Winter walking, Ice-climbing or Skiing. Most importantly, there is a pub close by (the Kingshouse Hotel). For those that don't know the area I can provide ample details of just what is possible and do-able over the weekend. I shall be up in the area for the preceeding week (staying at the Alex Mac hut), and shall be at Blackrock Cottage sometime after 4 on the Friday afternoon for early arrivals.
I am hoping to tackle Ben Lui Central Gully over the weekend and the little Munro behind, having been turned back twice by appalling weather and impossible river-crossing conditions last winter. As I type this I note very heavy snow accumulations across the Highlands!