Pirates from Beauly and the curse of Black Chest
by BlackPanther » Mon Feb 17, 2014 4:42 pm
Route description: Ciste Dhubh and Am Bathach, Cluanie
Munros included on this walk: Ciste Dhubh
Corbetts included on this walk: Am Bathach
Date walked: 16/02/2014
Time taken: 8 hours
Distance: 14.5 km
Ascent: 1100m16 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Whereas AB on its own is an easy hill, even in winter, the neighbouring Munro, Ciste Dhubh, is a serious undertaking under heavy layer of snow and I wouldn't recommend it to beginners. In summer it's a delightful traverse along the narrow, rocky ridge. In current conditions - as we experienced ourselves - it's no gimmicks.
But we were up early morning on Sunday and ready for adventure...
The first "adventure" was actually driving from Beauly to Drumnadrochit - the A833 was not gritted and after a cold night a thin layer of frost covered the tarmac, so we crawled at 20/30mph all the way down to Milton (the steep downhill section near Gartally was the worst). From Drumnadrochit on, much better conditions, but we still arrived in Glen Shiel with about 30min delay, not that we cared that much
As we drove to the car park below Am Bathach, we noticed a large black patch on the steep slope between Creag a'Mhaim and Druim Shionnach. Zoomed photos confirmed, it was a fresh site of an avalanche:
Weather was gorgeous as we prepared for the jaunt up Am Bathach. At that point we were not sure if we were going to attempt the Munro, as well, we agreed to leave the final decision until the summit of the Corbett. At the moment, we admired the beautiful panorama across the glen to South Ridge:
There was a lot of sunshine, but a few clouds, as well. We started up the steep slope, very wet and boggy at first (the path was a stream ) and soon we found ourselves in the shadow...
...but looking up, there was our target, smiling happily, with blue sky above:
Am Bathach may be just a Corbett and an easy one, but it has a lot of character. During my previous two visits (both in autumn), I sweated a lot, tackling the steep southern slopes. This time, it was just as steep, and as soon as we entered the snow zone, we lost the path. We didn't think it was a problem, the slope may be steep but it's mostly grassy and climbing is straightforward. The world soon became bright and sunny again, as we moved up...
South Ridge, Glen Shiel and the lonely building of Cluanie Inn:
Creag a'Mhaim and Druim Shionnach across Loch Cluanie. The avalanche site can be clearly seen half way between them:
To our right, A'Chralaig was now cloud-free:
So far, so good, loads of fun and sunshine:
One more glimpse down to Cluanie Inn, now sun shining in the glen as well:
Loch Cluanie and Beinn Loinne (another great winter walk to this Corbett):
The final 50m or so before emerging on the ridge was a real tough work. Snow became very deep and quite soft, so crampons stayed in rucksacks, but we slowed down significantly. Every step meant sinking into snow up to our ankles. We took turns, changing in the lead. The second person always had an easier job, using the leader's footprints. We sweated, huffed and puffed, but didn't complain. It might have been hard workout, but so much fun at the same time!
Looking down, our footprints and Loch Cluanie:
Posing with A'Chralaig. Despite the soft snow, we made a good progress and my knee was OK (I was a bit concerned about it the week before, but luckily it hasn't ached since):
Sgurr an Fhuarail to the west is, surprisingly, not a Munro. Kevin climbed it once "just because it must be a good viewpoint" :
Back to Loch Cluanie and the sun shining through the cloud:
...but we were in a different world now. Looking north along the ridge, there was only one colour everywhere: white... WHITE... W H I T E...!!!
The first little "top" is about 700m in height, it has a tiny cairn. Beyond it, the higher top, at 734m, can be seen:
View back - simply stunning, but it was only the first of many stunning views that day...
As this photo shows, the whole length of the ridge was covered in loads of soft, sticky snow. To the right hand side, an obvious overhang which could be potentially dangerous, if one walked on top of it. It was crucial to be careful here and as we moved along, Kevin kept shouting: stay in the middle, stay in the middle!
It actually looked worse than it was, not as steep as the initial push, and soon we were standing on the lower top. Now, the summit of Am Bathach was only a stone throw away (if you could dig up any stones in that snow ha-ha-ha):
The white world and the Black Panther:
Isn't it pure magic? Or should I say "mountain porn" at its filthiest?
OK, I know, I know, too many photos again - but I simply can stop myself... A quick glimpse back:
The final steeper climb to the summit - and again, familiar voice behind me: Stay in the middle!
More mountain porn:
We reached the summit with no problems at all, just to face Ciste Dhubh in "cloudy" mood:
It was a bit windy on the summit so we decided to wait with a longer break until we found a sheltered spot on the col below. Just a short stop to sink in the unbelievable white panorama of Kintail mountains, take some snapshots and strike a few silly poses. The sun was shining nicely and, even despite the wind, we felt like the day has only started. We definitely were hungry for more!
A few pictures from the summit of Am Bathach - a good viewpoint at any time of year. Looking west towards the Brothers:
Me wandering around the summit area, with the Black Chest slowly clearing:
Now almost clear:
Silly summit pose - no change in statistics as this was a third-time repeat, but who cares.
Sunny world back south:
The Chest smiled at last... One of my favourite views in Scotland, the vertical cliffs of this hill:
We began descending to Bealach a'Choinich. There were footprints in the snow, probably from the day before, so we instinctively followed them down to the col. The snow was relatively soft, but we moved quite quickly. The Chest looked inviting so we decided we give it a try. Kevin said: "We have both done it already so if conditions worsen, we will simply turn back. No pressure whatsoever."
If only he knew...
Ciste Dhubh from the descent to Bealach a'Choinich:
We took a 10min break for a snack and a cuppa as soon as we reached the col. It was much less windy here, and the triangular shape of Am Bathach dominated the view:
Looking down Glen Caorann Beag, to the west of the Corbett:
To the east, Mullach Fraoch-choire proudly presented its rocky ridge. When we did it in summer, we enjoyed some good, relatively easy scrambling. Now I wouldn't dare going nowhere near this traverse:
To the west, another rocky crest, near the summit of Sgurr a'Bhealaich Dheirg. I did the Brothers Ridge, but didn't tackle this bit. Probably requires rock-climbing anyway:
Getting ready to tackle the Munro! The first stage, a 200m high steep slope, is quite wet in summertime, now it was covered in thick layer of snow:
We tackled the slope without hesitation, weather was still great, very sunny and surprisingly warm. Again, we endured some hard work, kicking steps in hard snow. We took turns in front, as we had before, saving some energy for the final summit push. Higher up, the angle eased off and we were rewarded with another "mountain-porn" style view:
...but our attention was immediately drawn to the bulky shape of An Cnapach - today wearing a snowy hat. It was hard to say, how much of it was an overhang?
We climbed to just below An Cnapach and stopped here to put on crampons and grab ice axes. The rest of the ridge looked pretty steep. I knew from my previous visit that there is a path traversing below An Cnapach and continuing along the ridge all the way to the summit. But today, with so much snow, no path could be seen:
Beinn Fhada. Weather was beginning to turn (you can see the dark cloud charging through the glen to the left of the mountain), and we knew we had to hurry if we wanted to get any summit views:
We started by crossing below An Cnapach, but soon discovered that it would have been easier to climb higher up this rocky outcrop, as the slope lower down was very icy. Without crampons it would be pure suicide. On the col between An Cnapach and the first, lower top, the snow became soft and sticky again, with what I anticipated was a huge overhang to our right. I lead the way, Kevin behind me kept shouting: stay away from the edge!
The final climb looked reasonable, but weather was turning and sadly we lost the distant views. Most people would give up and turn back here, considering the poor quality of snow, but I was so pumped up with adrenaline, that my mind was balancing on a thin line between bravery and madness. I turned from Black Panther to Snow Leopard again
The bad weather system was coming in from the west, the summits of the Sisters disappeared, but the view down to the glen was still breathtaking, all white with only a thin dark line marking the river:
The "lost valley" between Sgurr a Bhealaich Dheirg and Aonach Meadhoin:
We pushed on. Staying well away from the overhang was crucial. This photo shows well, how tricky it was. One bad judgement could end up in disaster. You really can't tell where the ground ends. The only way was to follow the areas of rock/vegetation protruding from the snow.
Just before reaching the lower top, Kevin managed to take the last set of photos before we were embraced by cloud. Here, looking down to An Cnapach - unforgettable view!
Brave (or mad) Panther charging on. All the time I kept repeating in my mind - stay away from the edge!
One more glimpse down to An Cnapach and the hills beyond:
I was the first to reach the lower top. By now, I was carefully measuring every step. I managed to catch a 5 sec view of the Chest itself, and then everything was covered in thick cloud. I descended from the lower top to the small col and waited for Kevin, who was a few minutes behind me. Together, we charged up the final 20mor so, checking snow around us. The biggest concern was not even the overhang, but the softness of the snow - it was "an avalanche-type snow", giving very little support, especially on steep slope. Luckily, there were enough rocks sticking out from underneath it, so we basically moved from rock to rock until we stood on the summit - or as close to it as we could. I didn't dare to look for the summit cairn, it was buried well below our feet! I probed with my ice axe and it went in almost to its neck.
Sadly, no photos from the summit (though our GPS confirmed we reached the highest point at 978m). It was snowing heavily now and we were in a complete whiteout, so decision was taken to turn back IMMEDIATELY. Kevin asked, maybe we could wait, maybe this snow shower will pass, but I didn't even want to consider this option. What if it doesn't and we waste half an hour, sitting here and freezing? Besides, the safest way to stay away from the cornices was to follow our own footprints down. So we counted to three and started descending.
Luckily, after we slowly walked down to the first little col, the snow shower thinned and we could see to about 50m. We kept safe distance from the overhangs and followed our earlier prints to cross the lower top. From there on, it was much easier and soon we walked out of the cloud and snow and into the sunshine
Such a shame we didn't get the summit views, but it's a small price to pay for the amount of adrenaline that rushed through my veins. Kevin was literally sweating
We continued carefully down the slope towards An Cnapach, eventually climbing higher up the latter:
As close to the overhangs as we dared:
The cloud has passed, but the best weather was lost, more dark front coming from the west. We knew we had to hurry:
Very scary view - this is no summer wander, this is serious stuff!
From an Cnapach it was now a simple walk down the slope. We kept crampons on, just as a precaution, and retreated our steps to the col between the Munro and Am Bathach. On the way, we admired the nice shape of the Corbett:
Two minutes break for a drink and a happy smile (adrenaline was still high!):
Kevin posing with Mullach Fraoch-choire:
From Bealach a'Choinich we turned east to follow Allt Coire Fhearchair to the track down in the glen. We still had over 2 hours of daylight left, so we didn't really worry, that the snow here was deep. We laughed and joked every time when one of us sank into thigh-deep white cover, but in fact, the progress was slow...
It took us an hour to cross the col and eventually find the track on the other side of Allt a'Chaorainn Mhoir. Just as we finally located the track (which was not as easy as it would seem), another cloud arrived with a fresh dollop of snow.
That's where we came from...
The snow shower lasted about 20 minutes and as it passed, we walked the rest of the distance, enjoying a lovely evening:
We spotted a small herd of deer, completely unaware of our presence:
It was still daylight when we reached the car, but it took us 8 hours to complete the circuit - which is much longer than expected, but that was due to conditions. I'd rather be slow but safe than fast and dead
Our GPS informed us, that we only spent 5.5hours walking and 2.5hours taking breaks. The only proper breaks we took were two short snack-hydration-crampons on stops, plus two minutes on the summit of each hill. The rest of so called "stops" were actually the times when we sank into the snow!
Summing up: we had a day we will never forget. Fantastic views, great atmosphere, but also a hard lesson in winter climbing.... I don't know if we were brave or mad, but I guess, sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference
Kevin is now convinced, he's under the Curse of the Black Chest - three times on the top of Ciste Dhubh and the summit view always eluded him!
Just one little warning: the snow is very soft, so please, for any of you who would like to follow our route up the Black Chest, remember that this is a dangerous ridge in winter conditions!
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