Sgorr Dhearg (Beinn a' Bheithir) - 1024m
Sgorr Bhan - 947m
Saturday 28th November 2009
Weather/Conditions: Snow above 800m, in places deep, sometimes icy. Had mundane weather at the beginning, but walked above the snow line and then out the top of the clouds. A real beautiful day. Then followed steep ridges and sharp snow arêtes across the summits beneath deep blue skies and sun. A magical day.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 11.9km / 1300m / 7h 10m
Accompanying: Bealach MC (formally Up A Mountain MC) - Dougie, Dave, Colin, Iain
And the result was perhaps the most amazing mountain day of my life, so far. It's funny how the biggest surprises seem to come from the most unassuming of places.
First Munro: Sgorr Dhonuill
We followed the forestry tracks up Gleann a' Chaolais from South Ballachulish and make gradual progress towards Coire Dearg - the corrie you climb up just before emerging onto the first Munro, Sgorr Dhonuill, above. The forestry tracks went right to the base of the mountain and then we followed a path through the last of the forests and into the corrie above.
There was some cloud around with a few breaks and snow above 800m. There was little to hint at what would emerge above - the weather forecast hadn't even mentioned anything. I was just glad that I'd finally be treading on snow again after so long. The summer had been good, but now I was ready for some winter days. The path faded in the corrie, so I headed in the general direction of a scree gully at the corries head.
Here, the path emerged again and wound it's way among rubble to to the ridge above. I stopped for a few moments to let the other guys catch up. Each footstep would shift a couple of boulders, and you can't be knocking rocks onto the others below because you just keep walking ahead. But when I realised that the scree wasn't so bad further up, I continued to the head of the corrie and onto Sgorr Dhonuill's broad west ridge. Up here was where the conditions that would follow started to emerge. I realised that the cloud we'd walked into was thin, and we'd more than likely break through the top. We stopped for a break, but I couldn't wait to go upwards. I knew what was awaiting and couldn't wait to see it.
Myself teeming with anticipation, we finally went onwards and I shot onwards, straight out the top of the clouds. The sky was a deep azure blue, with snow on the ground and clouds now below. It was 'alpine' in every sense of the word (Not that I've been to the Alps...) and an unbelievably beautiful place to be.
A couple of things were nice to notice. There was almost no wind, so I didn't have to wrap up then feel miserable in a bitter wind. It was completely possible to stand and drink up the views, feeling comfortable all the same. The sky was also a darker shade of blue than I'd ever seen, and although I reckoned I was fooling myself, I wasn't. The air must have been that clear.
Over the ridges: Sgorr Dhonuill, Sgorr Dhearg and Sgorr Bhan
Last of all, the ridges that followed were the icing on the cake, and a complete pleasure to spend the day following. All the way from Sgorr Dhonuill's summit, across Sgorr Dhearg to the subsidiary top Sgorr Bhan was utter joy. It was quite steep on the descent from Sgorr Dhonuill (lightly exhilarating) then down into the cloud to the saddle and up the long ridge to Sgorr Dhearg's summit.
All the way, I couldn't help but feel that this is it. This is what I'd been looking for. I don't mean this in a pretentious way, (although that's easily achieved) but I felt quite literally that I'd found the experience I'd been searching for in the mountains. The the wind sculpted snow arêtes, the alpine beauty of the place and the snow and ice was what I loved - the mixture of the scenery and technical ground too.
Arriving at Sgorr Dhearg's summit (the highest point of the Ballachulish Horseshoe) I chatted with a couple from England for five minutes when the others arrived at the top too. We spent a long time in this beautiful place, taking time and letting the time float by. We only left the summit as the sun was dipping towards the south western skies. The last peak - the subsidiary summit Sgorr Bhan - was awaiting and as we descended the peaks of Nevis, the Mamores and Glen Coe turned gold with the sunset. The low cloud was clearing too, and we followed the ridge downwards (crampons a good idea for this bit, it got quite icy) and then up to Sgorr Bhan.
We spent time at this summit, but left the cairn and headed towards Ballachulish where we'd parked a second car. For me, leaving this summit was a special moment. Call me overly thoughtful or whatever, but Sgorr Bhan was seemed to be the termination of a couple of hours of the most memorable of mountain experiences of my life. In the past, I'd climbed sharp ridges and seen the Highlands just as beautiful, but the preceding couple of hours had seen several ingredients come together at the right moment.
Never had I been so certain of my path in the mountains nor felt the satisfaction and joy that this day brought me. I was hardly chasing something unattainable but instead knowing I'd arrived at something. All day I thought to myself, This is it, this is what you've been looking for...
We descended towards Ballachulish during sunset and growing darkness, away from the peaks. Glen Coe turned golden, then red, then the sunlight disappeared. The descent actually became quite tough. (we had to descend the broad arm of Beinn Bhan instead of the more direct, steeper route down the east ridge of Sgorr Bhan. This east ridge was snow covered and a little too steep to descend efficiently)
But we arrived in down Ballachulish in twilight, the days walking now a memory. To top off the day, I had my first visit and first pint of Guinness at the legendary Clachaig Inn at Glen Coe. (The guys kindly made a toast to my first pint at the Clachaig!) Outside the Clachaig, while making a phone call home I watched specks of torchlight descending Bidean nam Bian, knowing the sort of day they must have had. And I was glad to have had my day, knowing that I'd be dreaming of this kind of walk again, planning for the future but thinking to the past affectionately.
Alps, next, is it?
Images (lots!): Descent from Sgorr Bhan
(0.00) 8.55am South Ballachulish
(2.30) 11.25am Sgorr Dhonuill
(3.00) 11.55am Sgorr Dhonuill (left)
(3.30) 12.25pm Bealach
(4.20) 1.15pm Sgorr Dhearg
(4.50) 1.45pm Sgorr Dhearg (left)
(5.10) 2.05pm Sgorr Bhan
(7.10) 4.05pm Ballachulish