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Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...


Postby Helen Bruce » Sun Mar 30, 2014 6:14 pm

Route description: Gairich, Loch Quoich

Munros included on this walk: Gairich

Date walked: 26/03/2014

Time taken: 7.5 hours

Distance: 15 km

Ascent: 870m

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It literally only takes an instant, a ridiculous, banal loss of concentration, and Whoosh! One minute I’m descending the mountain, like I’ve done hundreds of times before, and the next I find myself sliding down a steep, sodden, grassy hillside on my stomach. “Surely”, I think, “I’ll stop in a minute”, but I don’t, I keep sliding downwards, faster and faster. My hands grapple and grab fruitlessly above my head at the wet grass and slushy snow I’m slipping down, trying without success to slow myself down, my fingernails trying to dig into the ground – but I’m still gaining pace. I’m shouting ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ in shock at the suddenness with which this has happened. Christ, I know how steep this hillside is, I came up it an hour earlier, and I know there are rocky outcrops I could hurtle over - but even if I avoid these it could be 200m before I come to a stop. It doesn’t look good, I’m going ever faster, my outdoor gear providing a lovely sleek surface to help me on my way.

Finally, thankfully, after probably only about 40 feet and the longest 10 seconds of my life, I somehow manage to arrest my slide – perhaps there was a shallow terrace that checked my speed, or a slightly less steep section, but anyway I’ve stopped. I cower, crouching and holding on to the wet ground, legs shaking, shouting across to reassure my equally shocked husband that I’m OK.

How did this happen? It’s certainly the closest to a serious accident – or worse – that I’ve ever come to on a hill in decades of walking. And it was so bloody, stupidly, avoidable too!

We were on holiday in Lochaber, and Gairich was my sole Munro aim for the week. It was one of the few Munros in the area I hadn’t yet done, and I felt it should be fairly manageable compared to most of the other mountains around there. We’ve both done a fair bit of walking in winter conditions but I like to avoid too much of a challenge. The forecast was perfect, so we had to give it a try! Even so, the first sight of the snowy summit when we set off from the Loch Quoich dam was slightly intimidating. Still, I thought, we can always turn back if it gets too difficult.
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Clouds clearing the summit over Loch Quoich

As anticipated, it’s a long boggy walk along the loch, and then still boggy along the ridge up to the plateau of Bac nam Foid, but the landscape was utterly stunning under dark blue skies with excellent visibility. We had clear views across to the Munros on the north side of Glen Quoich, and the mountains to the south of Glen Kingie, all striped with snow. At one point we disturbed a golden eagle which flew off over Glen Kingie, we stood and watched it slowly circling higher and higher, an amazing sight! However, it was clear that a major thaw was underway, and our feet were going deep into the drifts of wet snow, so it was hard going despite the beauty.
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Malcolm heading up the ridge

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The wilds of Glen Kingie

After around 6km of straightforward slog up to an altitude of 600m, the last 300m of height are then gained in about half a km, as the route heads straight up the rather intimidatingly steep east face of Gairich. We sat over lunch and studied the potential route. We could see signs of the path zig-zagging up, but unfortunately it was crossing large sections of snow and we expected this would be wet and unstable. The sun was so strong that we realised our crampons would not be much use today, and indeed, the snow was like butter – our ice axes buried up to the hilt with each step. So as we headed up, we left the path and kept as much as possible to the steep grassy slopes to the south of the mountain’s face, since this had more places where the snow had disappeared. There were one or two very steep and wet scrambles over rocky outcrops, and the grass was wet and slippy, but we gained the summit ridge without too much of a problem and followed the path across a number of snow drifts to the top.
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Studying our route up the east face

We spent a magical half hour on the summit, just taking in the incredible views - being a mountain out on its own, Gairich is a really fabulous viewpoint over Knoydart, Skye, Kintail and beyond, and at this time of year with the stippled snow on the mountains, it was a real privilege to be up there. However, throughout this time, I was nervous about the descent and knew I wouldn’t relax until we were back on the flatter section below. I hate wet snow, and there were some scary-looking cracks in the snow which was packed in the gullies visible from the summit, clearly avalanche-prone.
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North to Sgurr a'Mhaoraich

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Looking west, note cracks in the snow

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Me with Spidean Mialach, Gleouriach behind. blithely unaware of what was ahead

We began to retrace our steps downwards, and it was halfway down the steep section between the summit and the Beallach Coire Thollaidh below, where it almost all went horribly wrong. We were avoiding the slippiest sections where snow was still lying, and coming down on the wet grass. I had my ice axe to hand - not for the snow as it would have slipped through without any resistance - but to dig into to the wet grassy mountainside. Then I found I’d slightly misjudged a section which was steeper than I’d thought, and was a very boggy, mossy outcrop. I was trying to manoeuvre myself down it and needed both hands, so I dropped my ice axe to the bottom of the outcrop. I clambered down, and then, as I have done a thousand times before, I slithered down the last foot on my bum. My feet hit the ground, but instead of stopping, they slipped on wet snow and suddenly I was sliding down the hill and I couldn’t stop, my ice axe lying uselessly above me. I instinctively rolled over on to my stomach but, unbelievably, I wasn’t slowing down – the opposite, in fact. The grass, which in summer would have afforded some kind of handhold to hang on to and slow me down, was lying slick on the ground. Malcolm was 10 yards to my left and was shouting “Arrest, arrest!”, not realising I’d no longer got my ice axe in my hand.

It seemed to go on for ever, but the relief, the inexpressible relief, when I finally came to a stop. I really had thought that I would end up 200m down this steep grassy slope, and probably not in a great shape.
Unfortunately, my ice axe was still 40 feet above me where I’d started the slide, and Malcolm couldn’t get across to it, or to me, from where he was as we were separated by a gully full of wet snow and a large rocky overhang. So I had to gather myself and head back uphill, over all the flat, wet grass and melting snow I’d just slid over, to get it. I grabbed the axe and we headed downhill as fast as possible, using our axes all the way to brace against the wet ground and give us some security against a further fall. We were both so very glad to get to ground with an easier gradient.

It was then a straightforward return, back the way we had come, but we were both pretty subdued. Gradually aches and pains began to assert themselves; I’d twisted my back during the slide, and my hands were beginning to bruise, my shoulders were stiffening – and my trousers were soaked from the slushy slide. Our pace got slower and slower, and we were pretty relieved to catch a glimpse of the dam again, and our car waiting for us.
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End of the day, small lochan on way back to the dam

The magical West Highlands had delivered an amazing day, but for me Gairich will always be the place where I almost came unstuck. I hope to come back and climb it again, but perhaps I’ll wait till summer! I’ll never underestimate steep grassy slopes again, and if you’re reading this, remember that ice axes are not just for arresting you on ice – they can be very useful on steep, wet ground too. Don’t make my mistake and let it go!
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby gammy leg walker » Sun Mar 30, 2014 6:23 pm

Jeezo that made for a riveting read I wonder who got the biggest fright you or Malcom.glad everything woked out ok in the end.
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby AnnieMacD » Sun Mar 30, 2014 6:36 pm

Oh my, I came out in a sweat reading this. I would never have thought one would slide like that on grass. So happy you are OK and thanks for sharing this - I certainly have learned from it.

Great photos and report of an otherwise great day out for you.
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Fife Flyer » Sun Mar 30, 2014 7:37 pm

Wowee, a lesson for us all :wink: Glad you are OK, really enjoyed the report & photo's.
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Silverhill » Sun Mar 30, 2014 7:49 pm

OMG Helen, that was very scary! I hope your back and the bruises are getting better.
Reading this brought back memories of when I got stuck on a steep wet slope, which was scary enough even without sliding. I’m glad it ended well and I’m sure you’ll be back in the hills soon.
Stunning pictures of the day though! :D
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby rockhopper » Sun Mar 30, 2014 8:16 pm

Glad you got out of that OK and hope you're recovering. No matter how well prepared, these sorts of incidents always seem to happen just when least expected. Looked a nice day otherwise - cheers :)
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Collaciotach » Sun Mar 30, 2014 8:17 pm

Jeezo close one ! .... Glad your OK :shock:
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby RussellR » Sun Mar 30, 2014 8:36 pm

Great report and pictures! It is a great example of quickly things can go wrong, thankfully you got down safe.
Gairich has now moved up my list of ones yet to do!
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Helen Bruce » Sun Mar 30, 2014 9:06 pm

Thanks everyone for all your supportive comments, happy to hear you enjoyed the trip report. Yes, I'm feeling fine, now thanks!

I'm glad if others are reminded to hang on to their ice axes at this time of year, when the thaw is on. It was a good lesson for me, fortunately with a positive outcome!

And I would certainly recommend Gairich for a fabulous viewpoint.

Just pleased that my Mum doesn't read Walkhighlands!
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby pigeon » Sun Mar 30, 2014 10:26 pm

A close call Helen,the hills are treacherous just now,so easy to lose your footing and as you say the axe comes in really handy even on wet grassy slopes.Great view point Gairich,well worth the boggy trudge at the start :wink:
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby RocksRock » Mon Mar 31, 2014 4:03 pm

Very glad you managed to stop that slide.

I learned the other lesson about grass well over 40 years ago - that very dry grass can be very slippy. While geologising as a student, alone, slid on v dry grass above a sea cliff in Pembrokeshire, towards a sea cliff - urghhhhhhhhhhhh. Rolled over (instinct) and a geological hammer managed to arrest me in time although I yanked my ahoulder. Shudder to remember it!
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Huff_n_Puff » Mon Mar 31, 2014 4:09 pm

Thanks for posting this Helen, it was a riveting read and stunning pics - hope you have recovered :) . Its something of an eye opener to realise the lurking dangers of wet grass, you've probably alerted lots of us and helped make us safer.
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Helen Bruce » Mon Mar 31, 2014 4:30 pm

Thanks again for the comments.

Huff_n_Puff - I certainly wrote this with the hope that others would learn from my mistake.

RocksRocks - Goodness, a sea cliff sounds a VERY scary proposition, glad you had your hammer! (and it was quite cathartic to write about the incident - I've had a few disturbed nights since as you seem to have had too).

I was vaguely aware of the dangers of grass years ago, when I took the narrow bypass route on Beinn Alligin around the Horns of Alligin, and noticed the slope was almost vertical (I exaggerate slightly), wet grass. As I was in full waterproofs at the time, I realised that I'd end up right at the bottom if I were to slip. The actual Horns are probably a lot easier to deal with than that route!
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby GillC » Mon Mar 31, 2014 4:44 pm

Oooft! glad youre ok after that,,frightening when these things happen. Lovely pics by the way,,we had good views of the hill when we were up Sgurr a Mhaoraich the previous week,,looks like a slog up from the dam right enough,

Well done and stay safe :)
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Re: Gairich, my 1st Munro this year, almost my last ever ...

Postby Helen Bruce » Mon Mar 31, 2014 8:59 pm

Thanks Gill. Your trip looked quite tough going - amazing how much the snow melted on these hills in just 2 days, but the sun is pretty strong on a clear day. There was no suspicion of ice for us, and the snow was all granular and soft.
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