Saturday 21st January 2012
Weather/Conditions: Most mental conditions I've ever experienced. Rough, wild in the extreme, crawling at 1000 metres with wind screaming over the ridge. Utterly mental.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 10.2km / 900m / 5h 10m
Accompanying: Bealach M. C. - Struan
I drove up early on Saturday morning: the mountaineering club were staying in Lagangarbh but I'd decided to drive up in the morning to save some money. Up Loch Lomondside, the wind blew the trees and heavy periodic rain created a tunnel-vision effect. With the roads empty, the headlights channelling my vision ahead, Mogwai blared out the speakers until they distorted. It was absolutely hypnotic. I passed through a quiet Crianlarich, Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy, and headed up onto Rannoch Moor. I was excited about this because it was my first time driving across the Moor. And what better time to do so: the light was dim in the east, the mist was heavy, the Moor dark and wild. I felt very much alone in this place. I put on Rush and savoured the location.
Judging by how isolated the Moor felt, it seemed odd to step out of the car at the Buachaille, walk down to Lagangarbh, open the door and expect that I'd break my sudden isolation. The mountaineering club were staying here and one by one the guys in the club got up and I sat having breakfast with them.
Beinn a' Bheithir seemed to be on everyone's mind. The Aonach Eagach in winter conditions was put to bed by the wild weather outside. Paul would drive everyone to Ballachulish in his Landrover and I would take myself and Struan in my car. (He didn't mind much that I had to stop for photography breaks!) Except when Struan and I reached the car park at the head of Gleann a' Chaolais, we found no evidence of the others. Perhaps they'd driven on up the track? We geared up and set off, expecting to see a Landrover cheekily parked up the private track. But there was nothing, and since we were on our way we decided to keep walking.
Forestry works closed the track to Coire Dearg, so we followed signs and a path into the coire between the two Munros. Even in the forest, trees swayed and bent to the wind; wild and erratic. We thought about how it would be up high.
In the coire leading to the bealach at 755m, we discovered severe conditions: wild winds whipping up particles of snow, sandblasting faces and chilling us. This was going to be fun on the ridge! We started up the the summit ridge to Sgorr Dhearg where winds were strong enough to knock us around. We could still walk, but as we gained altitude, we started having to crouch and crawl. Now high up, the screaming wind picked up sheets of powder snow, spun it, lifted it through the tin air to one side of the ridge and slammed it down again on top of us.
We donned ski goggles, one item that was absolutely essential in the chaos. Spindrift was whipped around and showered everywhere. We were in the firing line as it was pushed from one face onto the other. During the heavier gusts, we dropped to the ground, grabbed tufts of grass and waited for the gust to pass. Then we'd move upward for some steps then drop again. This became tougher when the terrain changed to stone. We started having to trust rocks to keep us on the ground, and suddenly the price for falling over was to be beaten down onto sharp rocks. I started making movements between 'safe' stones, leaving four points of contact to make progress while hoping a gust wouldn't come and knock me down.
All the while, the wind screamed back. Communication became impossible between Struan and I. I didn't feel this place in terms of fear, more awe and respect. I never feel the feeling-like-an-ant thing among mountains, but on this occasion we were completely at the mercy of the weather.
Before long we couldn't move. Struan was out of contact and when the great gusts arrived, I grasped at frozen scree and tucked my head to my chest. I would maintain that position for perhaps five minutes, until it was apparent the wind wouldn't ease. Then I would make tentative moves; maybe a few metres at the most; careful movements, and then the gusts would arrive and then I was rendered immobile. My existence had become a curled ball on the ground, fighting the elements, being worn down by the wind and by being attacked from all sides.
The wind came to my back, grabbed my rucksack - tightened tightly around my waist - shoved it way up toward my head to expose my bare back. Bullets of spindrift pummelled my back, I was screaming in pain and yet - I couldn't move. I couldn't do a thing. Oddly, I was still having fun... don't ask me to explain.
When moving from rock to rock, I fell surprisingly little, but it was bound to happen. A couple of times I bashed my shin bone off sharp rocks, and howled in pain as a result. I screamed at the top of my lungs yet the wind stole them away. Struan, a few metres away, heard nothing.
At some point, I'd realised the 'fun' was turning quite serious. The pang of internal fear made itself known. It is difficult to know exactly how close we got to the summit, but we were very close. In practical terms, we must have been thirty minutes to an hour away - up ground you could run up in a few minutes. When we got to around 900m, I made a strong attempt to catch up with Struan who was crawling some metres ahead. I shouted up close to his ear (an indication of the volume) and suggested we'd gone far enough.
I was getting cold - no wonder when we couldn't move. It would take us about half an hour to get back to the bealach - thirty minutes more to get cold. (Imagine we'd gone to the top, that would add another hour to our time on the ridge) Rocks became coated in verglas. This wasn't just exhilarating anymore, I could feel the exposure of our position. Should the wind pick us up we'd be hurdled off the edge of the ridge. It was time to pull the plug. Struan seemed to agree. We turned around and started down.
I was keeping myself together to get off. It would be so easy to get lazy of my footfalls and not think, but the safe placement of hands and feet demanded effort. I also discovered the wind was driving me mad. All I'd heard for half an hour or so was the wild ripping of wind. Screaming wind means something altogether when you've actually been there. The tearing wore thin and I remembered reading of Himalayan climbers being driven mad by the sound of wind outside their tents. Imagine camping in these conditions...
At first Struan and I crawled and lay on the ground, then when we reached grass we crouch-walked short sections, dropping to the ground when the wind returned. (Ice axes make great anchors in grass) Finally, we could walk back to the bealach. Without stopping, we dropped into the coire, where we found wild winds, but simply nothing like we had found on the ridge.
We were buzzing all the way to the car. Even before we got off the hill, I was ecstatic from the thrill of the climb. No summit had been gained but I was simply not bothered: we'd pushed it pretty damn far and that was enough for me.
When we got off the hill, we drove back to the Clachaig where (no surprise) we found everyone else who, as it had turned out, had tried Sgorr Dhearg from the Sgorr Bhan side. They hadn't managed any summits either but by the sounds of things had had an exciting time on Sgorr Bhan's east ridge.
I stayed the night at Lagangarbh, but the next morning I had to get home. The Buachaille and Glen Coe looked like Mordor but the skies cleared at Loch Lomond and the Clyde area was sunny. I notice time and time again that a southbound journey from the Highlands has this effect. As I drove back into Glasgow I felt like I'd been away a lot longer than just over 24 hours. It almost didn't feel like January anymore.
I was glad Struan and I turned around when we did. I felt that the point we reached breached the upper level of my acceptable safe limits. I acted on my gut instinct and stopped when I knew I was chilling in a place where we'd become very much trapped. But there was no fear attached to this; just cold, rational judgement. I felt very much in awe of the mountains. I've never seen wind pick up vast sheets of snow, raise them vertically hundreds of metres in the air, and spin and toss them across the ridges like we did. These mountains were so immensely wild that for once we simply struggled to exist among them. We went right to the edge of what I could take (I think Struan would have gone all the way to the top) and retreated on my own terms. Even though the descriptive prose sounds like torture, but we actually enjoyed ourselves! (That's why we went there in the first place.)
We had a great time...
(0.00) 10.05am Car park
(2.10) 12.15pm Bealach
(3.10) 1.15pm Turn around (approx.)
(5.10) 3.15pm Car park