Saturday 19th December 2009
Weather/Conditions: Rough, rough weather. The snow, high winds and difficult underfoot conditions were easier to deal with, but the spindrift put the difficulty factor through the roof, especially descending the headwall of the corrie. Crikey...
Distance/Ascent/Time: 6.7km / 800m / 6h
Accompanying: Michael Coffield
Michael and I originally planned to climb the Munros Beinn Fhionnlaidh and Sgor na h-Ulaidh from Glen Etive, though the single track road down the glen wasn't gritted or ploughed. With several inches of snow on the ground and more forecast, we couldn't chance getting stuck down there. Sitting at the junction where the Glen Etive road meets the A82, we decided upon climbing the Buachaille. We'd both climbed it, but it would be a good adventure anyway: neither of us had done it in snow.
We parked at Altnafeadh and got everything ready. This itself took a while and since the weather was forecast apparently to be dreadful today, (wind chill giving temperatures at 900m of -22˚C), it would be a bummer to forget anything. We crossed the road and got on the path towards the corrie. The wind had scoured the slopes and stopped build-up of snow. In addition to this, winds would be high today and spindrift seemed to be blowing around at the top of the corrie. The weather was mainly benign for now and we made steady progress up the corrie.
Crampons and axes came out as we approached the headwall where Michael and I disagreed on the route to follow to the summit ridge. He wanted to follow a snow gully, I wanted to take the conventional route. I was adamant it was a stupid idea to climb the gully, but Michael went anyway. We'd split up and I'd hoped we could locate each other on the ridge. Spindrift was pouring over the corrie rim and winds were sure high up there. Winds were high enough in the corrie - when the wind picked up snow, they hammered us together and visibility temporarily became nil.
I climbed the final section to the ridge, not sure whether to go up or down, whether to sit and wait on the ridge or try and locate Michael. I almost considered descending, considering it the safer option but feeling angry in a situation I didn't know the solution to. I climbed to the top of the corrie and after a few minutes pondering over a course of action, I located the top of the gully he'd climbed. Just as I found it, Michael climbed out the top.
The winds had been high, and I was glad we'd met when we did - the winds suddenly picked up and hammered us for several minutes, blasting fine particles of snow across the ridge. I lay on my ice axe, which I'd anchored firmly into the snow. With my face away from the inferno, I kept my head down. Michael did too beside me and we waited for the conditions to settle, for the moment we could get up again and carry on.
When the winds finally eased, we carried on and got onto the ridge towards Stob Dearg's summit. The winds were still high though it was at least possible to make progress. It was a long walk to the top, but not as great a slog as I'd remembered it to be when I was last on this ridge in 2005. We arrived on the summit without incident and with conditions less than ideal and bad visibility, we only spent five minutes on top.
We met plenty of walkers - I counted about 14, including ourselves. Many were on their way up as we descended, but when we arrived back at the head of the corrie, we took a rest. This was enough time for others to catch up and they became the first to discover just how bad conditions had become in the corrie.
Descent down Coire na Tulaich
Since we'd climbed up the corrie, wind direction had changed 180˚ from south to north. So even though we'd faced into the wind on the way up, we'd be doing the same on the way down. All that snow that was blasted into the corrie on the way up was coming straight back out the way it arrived.
I looked over the edge first. Wind speeds were notably higher and the blast of snow was unbearable. It was impossible to look into our path of descent, the snow would whip our faces raw. I had goggles, but the ice had already managed to get inside them (!) and a film of ice rendered them useless soon enough. I could scrape the ice off, but the the residual water was just as hard to see through.
The couple of other people that were on the ridge weren't descending for the time being, so Michael and I became the first to descend. Michael went in front (he was using functioning goggles) and I followed, with my face shielded by my jacket, leaving enough of a gap to see his feet in front and to follow on. The angle of the face steepened leaving it easy for my feet to slide away underneath in the powder snow. The snow slopes became interspersed with rocks, leaving ledges to climb down. With wind hammering upwards, it wasn't a place you could get comfortable. Every energy was on staying warm and descending with care.
I didn't feel in any great danger though. The conditions were just so inconvenient that any action became hard work and it was a battle to stay on route, retain feeling in hands and keep warm, all while balancing on snowy ledges with snow firing up from below. The one time I felt any way in danger was where powder snow was covering a slab of rock which still high in the corrie, sat at a steep angle. Once I'd climbed down with Michael, it wasn't possible to get back up. With snow offering no purchase, it was necessary to find handholds in the rock, either digging about or swinging the axe into ground that looked secure. To get to easier ground, we needed to traverse the slab which Michael did fairly quickly.
I don't mind climbing above drops, but only when the holds are obvious and sound. Dry-tooling with hidden hand and foot holds isn't my idea of fun, but I got across by ditching the axe and using a crucial handhold. I'd got across without incident but it had seemed dangerous. I'm not a big one for cheap thrills, but it was exhilarating anyways. All the terrain left to cover could be walked and once the angle of the corrie had eased, all that was left was descent to the car.
If all that had happened so far wasn't enough, the weather front from the north that had hit us cleared over in an instant. We were nearly off when in a period of ten minutes, grey skies were replaced by a beautiful winter sunset.
The drive back involved several stops on the A82. Rannoch Moor and the hills were thick with snow, bathing in the half-light with clear skies washed blue and pink. We had these views until it became dark around about Ardlui. It was the Southern Highlands at their best and a magnificent way to round off a great day on the Buachaille.
Blackmount and Rannoch Moor on the way home
(0.00) 9.15am Altnafeadh
(2.10) 11.25am Bealach, head of Coire na Tulaich
(3.05) 12.20pm Stob Dearg
(3.40) 12.55pm Bealach, head of Coire na Tulaich
(6.00) 3.15pm Altnafeadh