Sgurr nan Coireachan - 956m (no summit)
Saturday 11th December 2010
Weather/Conditions: Calm weather - little/no wind and rain or snow. A big thaw had taken place even in the previous 24 hours, releasing this part of Scotland from deep winter (At least for a while anyway). Only oncoming darkness and being apart from Kev McK forced turn around on the summit ridge
Distance/Ascent/Time: 7.7km / 850m / 6h 50m
Accompanying: Kev McKeown
Travelling and Bothy (Friday Night)
This trip came about as the result of a Facebook group, and Kev and I made plans to meet in Glasgow. We met at Queen Street - Kev was driving and Davy McKeown was in the front too. They'd been pretty late so we headed off up the motorway, across the Erskine Bridge and onto the A82.
Glenfinnan is a fairly long drive from Glasgow and we would arrive in the dark. I've only been along the Fort William to Mallaig road once back when I was eight, and always prefer to see the mountains surrounding the road instead of the car-lit tarmac of night. That said, the A82 south of Fort William is always an amazing car journey, so I've no complaints there...
When we arrived at Glen Finnan, Kev decided to drive the car up the glen. He'd tried getting in contact with the estate but received no reply. With a lot of fire fuel in the car (logs, coal, etc), we thought it reasonable to drive supplies up as the estate hadn't got back to say otherwise.
So we piled our gear, fuel and food into the bothy and got a fire going. Once started, it was superbly comforting - a class bothy night. The bothy was however a bit big to be warmed, so I was always wearing all my layers. I was only really warm inside my sleeping bag so spent much of my time there.
All was well and quiet, until a Land Rover parked up outside the glen. We knew why. The estate manager (I think) walked in the door, well over six feet high, wearing wellies and tweeds, demanding the car be moved to the car park at the bottom of the glen. Kev, the politician that he is, did the talking but it was no banana as they say, the car had to move.
Kev, the politician he is, did however get a lift back up the glen from the estate manager, a reasonable man doing his job, a fact we were happy to accept.
Morning light brought a fresh perspective on the glen, and although the air was cold, bothy door views were refreshing. The bothy is set so close to the surrounding mountains as to give little hint to their architecture, though Sgurr an Utha (a Corbett) is an exception. Views are good across the hummocks of it's craggy east Top, Fraoch-bheinn. Today there was only a dusting of snow, far different to the snow-plastered eastern reaches of Scotland. There was even extensive snow coverage on my local Campsie Fells, but not at Glen Finnan. This is not such a bad thing if it meant quicker progress through the mountains.
It wasn't so early when Kev and I set out from Corryhully bothy. Perhaps a December start should have been several hours earlier, but we had set out just prior to 11am and would have about 4 hours on the move before darkness fell. We didn't anticipate things to be too slow-moving either and were confident that we could make it.
Sgurr nan Coireachan (almost)
Kev knew the way far better than me, having been here in the past with Michael, to climb Sgurr Thuilm. The track that leads up the glen from Corryhully bothy eventually takes you through Coire Thollaidh, in the bowl of the Glenfinnan Horseshoe, or alternatively around the side of this cradle, through to Glen Pean to the north. We wanted to leave the track quite early on, then follow a stalkers track up the side of Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich and over onto Sgurr nan Coireachan.
Beyond the rickety bridge pictured below, a cairn and signpost marks the turn off. Kev had suggested I go around Sgurr Thuilm and meet him on the summit of Coireachan, but I wanted to stick together - the chat was good anyway and if for whatever reason we couldn't meet on the Coireachan summit (which seemed like a possibility worth considering) then it could spell trouble.
We climbed ever gradually up the shoulder of Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich, talking a lot, taking photos of the views south down Glen Finnan. It was getting late for a winters day, although still we'd hoped to make it up.
This 'Corbett Top', Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich, is relatively speaking pretty obscure. It's not a common name thrown around the Scottish hill-scene and sits in the shadow of the Munro. From most angles it appears as simply an extension of the Munro - some impressive serrated cliffs hanging on the side of Sgurr nan Coireachan. But when you're actually below it and looking up, it is completely different - not only because you know you have to climb up it! It has a symmetrical form, inspiring in me an element of fear the way the Torridonian mountains do. It reminded me a little of Torridonian form and I wondered for more than a moment about how we anticipated to get on top. Today it was covered by thawing but thick snowfields, interspersed with grass and boulders. An ascent shouldn't be too hard, I guessed. There would be a way.
But in the meantime, Kev's knee was causing him problems. It had been grating away and as time marched on (it was lunchtime and we were at 700m) it appeared today might not be his day. A trip into a gap, aggravating the knee further, confirmed this. But we plodded on for the moment. The impressive and (maybe) impenetrable Riabhaich turned out to have an 'easy' ascent path around the left hand side, which would be very easy on a summers day, but hardly so with thick blocks of unstable snow hanging above a fall-line that ended in a cliff!
I got up, but here came the point that Kev decided it was time to turn around. Damn. It had been his mountain too, his 200th Munro. But when I'd managed to clear the tricky sections of scrambling, he told me to go have a try at the summit. Well - why not? And as Kev began his descent, I headed upwards again, unsure as to the final outcome.
Last push, turning around and Descent
At first I was hopeful. I probably had about two hours until complete darkness and in that time, I would have to summit and get back to Kev. First of all, I had to see the summit of Riabhaich. So I pushed hard to get there and glimpsed my first views over to the north when I arrived on top. Most importantly, I saw for the first time the summit of the Munro we'd been trying for hours to reach.
My God, it was miles away.
I could see the mountains surrounding the mighty Sgurr na Ciche to the north - dark and menacing, thrilling all the same. Garbh Chioch Mhor and surrounding mountains looked utterly bleak. Completely cold. It was thrilling.
Cloud didn't conceal my hill, Sgurr nan Coireachan, in any way to make it seem further away than it was, but the distance and terrain made me stop and think twice. It was quarter to three in the afternoon, I had over a kilometre to walk just to reach the top then do the same back. The ground would be unpredictable cliffs, Knoydart style, scattered among thawing snowfields. Well, onwards I went... it was a worth a shot, surely?
Tension was building, winding tighter and tighter as I went. Just descending to the saddle was tiring, nevermind the long ascent on the other side. With each step, I sunk in which was utterly exhausting. The summit was longer away than I could comprehend climbing safely, and darkness was making itself felt. More important than the summit was getting back and I wasn't prepared to flounder around, alone, at the night.
Finally, the stress was doing my head in so greatly, that at a magnificently impressive cliff (above, 2nd from right, much more impressive in life!) I decided to turn around and go back. What a relief! It would be better to come back another day than risk being caught out in this wild world.
Not knowing when I'd be back up here, (it could be a year or more) I took a panorama of the summits to the north, a self-portrait, and around I went. On my way back, the tension was released and I enjoyed my situation for the first time since I left Kev below. I was completely comfortable with turning back.
Below, I was glad to see Kev and we continued descent in the dark. Company makes the whole situation a lot easier to weather, and the long walk down the ridge was just fun, though I was fatigued. We continued into the night without pulling out head torches and emerged back at the door of Corryhully bothy by the dim glow of moonlight.
There was another nice story attached to this dark descent. Kev lost his camera somewhere on the way down. A week or two later, I posted on a forum, in the thread of a guy who had been on the horseshoe the day after us. I mentioned where I had been. Not making the connection to Kev's camera, he began asking strange questions about our walk, and the penny dropped when he wrote "I may have something of Kev's". Ah ha!
Wind on a few weeks, and Kev's digital camera was slotted through his letterbox, thanks to an honest guy from Scottishhills.co.uk. I think Kev was glad. It's great to see honesty like this among the hill-going world.
Bothy (Saturday Night)
Anyway! Back in the bothy I slept instantly, waking up a while later to Kev and Davy sitting around a roaring fire. Davy had kept the flame going all day while Kev and I were on the hill. It was another quiet night in the bothy, with three of us at one end and the other climbers gathered around the other gable end. They didn't socialise much, but again neither did I, curled up in my bag!
With Sgurr nan Coireachan unsuccessfully climbed, I decided to solo up Sgurr Thuilm in the morning. The forecast was looking superb and it would be a crime not to go. In retrospect I'm only too glad I did. It became a magnificent morning, a quick dash up and down, sucking down the cold mountain air, feeling free, once more morning and once last time before going home.
And to finish things off, Kev and I would be back at Glenfinnan in a matter weeks to tidy up the unfinished business. Kev climbed his 200th Munro, and the mountain gave us an epic more brilliant than we would have expected - a summit well worthy of his 200th.
Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich - North Detail
(0.00) 10.50am Corryhully bothy
(3.55) 2.45pm Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich
(4.00) 2.50pm Turn around on summit ridge
(6.50) 5.40pm Corryhully bothy