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Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers & Unstuc on An Stuc

Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers & Unstuc on An Stuc

Postby yokehead » Fri Nov 21, 2008 11:04 pm

Route description: Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas

Munros included on this walk: An Stuc, Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers

Date walked: 29/10/2008

Distance: 13.5 km

Ascent: 1102m

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Me and my 14 year old son, Chaz

Beinn Ghlas
The day started sunny with great visibility and with little wind, a grand change compared to what we had encountered so far this week. We pushed off from the Visitor Centre at 9.45, the nature reserve track was followed, in places this had ice sheets from the previous couple of days thaw and refreeze. Beinn Ghlas looked very wintery, we saw a couple climbing ahead through the snow at around 900m and it looked a fair way to go and a daunting prospect to get there. Time to get our heads down, we followed the zig zags onto the south ridge and plodded along, reaching the snowline. In contrast to the previous three days we were so hot that we had to take off fleeces, hats and gloves – showing the difference the wind makes. A couple passed us, an older chap with a satchel over his shoulder who looked to be a guide-type; I envied his stamina as he methodically climbed whilst talking non-stop. Snow conditions were fine for the climb, with us just needing to avoid icy patches in places. A push up the steeper section near the top and we were at the cairn at 11.25, nicely perched on the edge of the corrie.

Chaz on the last bit of the climb to Beinn Ghlas

I think this is a great wee spot with the drop below; Chaz got the camera out and tried the trick of asking me to move to the edge a little more. 10 minutes were spent at the top taking in the view and getting photos; we swapped photo sessions with a couple that had reached the summit just before us. There was a fair bit of high cloud cover and Ben Lawers looked fine in its covering of snow, a complete contrast to the photos I’ve seen in summer conditions. The snow hid the eroded path.

from Beinn Ghlas to Ben Lawers, stunning

Ben Lawers
Time to move on, a bit of a descent is first required and the walk along the ridge left us looking up at the reasonably steep climb to the summit of Ben Lawers where the cairn and trig point were easily visible. In the winter conditions with snow and ice covering the boulders the scene was very dramatic, particularly adding in the light mist that had moved in, along with the bright sun. The climb was straightforward and enjoyable but hard work; we reached the summit at 12.20 to encounter a marvellous scene, with a substantial amount of rime ice covering everything, thin mist and the sun diffusing the light enhanced this. More photos, and mutual photos with the same couple as on Beinn Ghlas.

Unstuc on An Stuc
Now it was decision time, go back or go on and really I also wanted to see what the infamous An Stuc was like. It was still early, given the calm and relatively warm conditions we decided to continue around the ridge and see how far we could get, then descend to Lawers and worry about how we would get back to the car later. It was still misty though, the other couple decided to descend. We started off down the ridge and within a few minutes the mist cleared giving us a fabulous view of an ink black and still Lochan nan Cat. The 50 minutes it took to reach the bealach below An Stuc were greatly enjoyed; we felt in tune with our surroundings. There was a short steep section at the start of the descent from Creag an Fhithich that required hands for the first time and this was good fun. We messed around a little at Bealach Dubh and then attacked An Stuc. From this direction there are no problems, the first section was steep but easily manageable and we reached the summit at 13.50.

the bump of Creag an Fhitich from Bealach Dubh

As soon as we got to the cairn we took off our sacks; while Chaz got the food out I went along to recce the way down An Stuc to Meall Garbh. There was soft snow on the plateau, a fresh pair of footsteps led through the snow to the north east edge of An Stuc, these did not have crampons and it must have been the couple that passed us much earlier in the walk. I followed the footsteps to where the slope started to steepen and I thought that the way down looked ok, I decided that we could follow as they appeared to know the route down what I had read to be the tricky side of the mountain even in reasonable summer weather – if they could do it then so could we? This was my first mistake.

We finally got to have our ritual soup, snacks and hot chocolate so dallied for a good while in the still great weather. After more discussion we decided there was time to go on to Meall Garbh as it was only 1km away and we were enjoying ourselves so much, then to get down to the track alongside the Lawers Burn – we had head torches if this was necessary. This would take maximum advantage of the weather and leave only Meall Greigh to climb on another day at the eastern end of the range.

me on An Stuc

We walked over the plateau and started down the steepening slope, the first stage of descent in deep snow was fine but we soon reached a large flat rock that sloped down and across the general slope. This was covered in snow and ice with no good handholds available. The couple had stepped around this on a small patch of turf right at the edge but this was not on for us. We deliberated over this for quite some time, thinking that once past this the route would improve. Finally I climbed down backwards using a small foothold in the rock that was quite a long reach and moved on to a patch of ground that offered security. This was my second mistake. I then helped Chaz to follow me down and he stopped just above me. This was my third mistake. Only now could we clearly see the next stage of the descent. There was a small boulder jutting from the slope about a metre away that blocked any view immediately below it. To the left of this and below there were some small ribs of rock with snow in between, this looked steep and was hard to get to. To the right there was a narrow snow covered ledge directly next to a vertical rock against the slope that was covered in thin ice and again offered no handholds. This is the way the couple had gone, they had stepped onto the boulder then turned right across to the ledge then turned left in the snow by a rib of rock. There appeared to be nothing below this ledge to hold a slip, in fact below our stance it looked like there was a completely sheer drop, we were in mist and we couldn’t see far down the slope, there was just a white void.

An Stuc towards Ben Lawers

This was as far as we could go so retreat was necessary; we were now faced with getting back up the sloping rock. Chaz started up first but the foothold was too high for him to reach and there were no decent handholds to provide a pull up. Most of the terrain was sloping, the snow was soft and rocks and turf were loose. He managed to shuffle up a little and ended up lying on his side at 45 degrees unable to find any foot or hand holds, he whacked his poles on the ground in frustration. I got around the problem by jamming a walking pole tip into a small ridge in the rock and holding the end to provide a step for him, doing this a couple of times he was able to move to a position above the rock and finally able to get a firm stance. I climbed up and onto the foothold with the aid of my poles, holding them at the bottom and jamming the tips into whatever small spaces I could find. I pulled myself up the last part by putting part of my weight onto a walking pole that Chaz held out to me. Difficulties over, we got back to the summit of An Stuc an amazing one hour after we had left it, at 15.25 and with cold fingers and toes.

At the time it was simply a case of staying calm and getting out of what we had got into. We talked about it a bit later but didn’t dwell on the experience, it was that night when I really thought about the ‘what ifs’. The worst thought was if I had fallen badly and Chaz had been left alone with darkness approaching. It was only when we got home a few days later and I looked at the photos that I was able to fully think through the events. I realised that when I did the recce of the route it was misty so I couldn’t see far down the slope, I had just kept my head down looking at the ground and hadn’t considered what I couldn’t see – my first mistake. The mist did clear completely whilst we were having our lunch break and Chaz took a wonderful 360-degree panorama, I should have looked at the route and slope then but it didn’t occur to me. Given the mist and that we couldn’t see very far the next mistake was in climbing down the sloping rock, I should have realised that it would be hard to get back up if we needed to. The third mistake was in getting Chaz to follow me down before I had properly looked at the next part of the route, it was of course going to be even more difficult for the two of us to get back up. With hindsight it was stupid getting lured into that situation by following others and not thinking clearly. I am actually quite a careful person in general so I’m amazed that I led us into the situation, it just goes to show how judgment can be impaired by a goal and having a good time! Anyway, huge lessons learned that will be of great value in future trips so in the end a worthwhile experience. We still thoroughly enjoyed the day and have not been put off, in fact in retrospect we’ve discovered that we like a bit of adventure but will take a more controlled approach in future! However, I still cannot fathom how the couple who had descended the slope would risk stepping onto a snow covered ledge not knowing what was underneath; turf, rock, flat or sloping and with no handholds. Either they knew what was there from previous trips or were using momentum to carry them through; our steps were much slower so this would not work for us.

An Stuc towards Meall Garbh and Meall Greigh

Now we had to get down, we descended from An Stuc back to the bealach and decided to get back to the car rather than descending to Lawers. It was now 16.00 and would be dark at 17.30 although it remained clear and calm. Not wanting to re-ascend Ben Lawers we planned instead to contour around it at about 975m and gain the path that leaves the ridge between Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas. We started through grass covered in a thin layer of ice topped with snow (‘snice’ as Chaz named it), this gave firm footing on a not too steep slope. As we progressed the slope steepened and we were slowed by a rocky area and numerous small frozen side streams, good fun though. Our plan was to try to meet the path before dark, as it turned out we must have contoured a little too low because we didn’t gain the path until the bealach between Beinn Ghlas and Meall Corranaich, we achieved this just before full darkness at 17.30. The sky was clear so we could still see fairly well, I suggested to Chaz that since we were here we may as well nip up Meall Corranaich, but I got no reply! Head torches on and we walked down the excellent drove road path that has a constant gradient, joining the Lawers path just before the nature reserve and reaching the visitor centre at 18.46. We were able to chat all the way down, something we had been unable to easily do in the windy conditions of previous days.

A nine hour day, very enjoyable and educational in many ways and with much experience gained.
Last edited by yokehead on Fri Sep 07, 2018 9:44 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers & Unstuc on An Stuc 29 Oct 08

Postby Paul Webster » Sun Nov 23, 2008 7:14 pm

:shock: Blimey - a bit too much of an adventure that day! I find An Stuc bad enough in summer conditions - let alone covered in ice and a dusting of snow. I don't really think it's a go-er in winter without full-on mountaineering skills - it'd probably be a graded climb. Getting dark on the ridge doesn't sound like fun either - glad you made it in the end.

Your photos are stunning - especially of Creag an Fhithich and of you on An Stuc. I don't know how you got such good ones with the camera pointing into the sun - really dramatic lighting. Presumably not quite enough snow to need an axe and crampons?
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Re: Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers & Unstuc on An Stuc 29 Oct 08

Postby yokehead » Mon Nov 24, 2008 11:55 am

A great adventure and not just in retrospect! But you're right, what we attempted on An Stuc in those conditions was a bad idea for us, climbing up would have been tough enough I think let alone climbing down. In my opinion, given the mostly early soft snow we encountered during our week, crampons and ice axe weren't necessary although it was probably marginal at some times as the week progressed. Walking poles, although not a subsitute of course, helped a great deal on steeper sections and where there was ice. Anyway we're back to Killin for a week in Feb and at the start of our week we're doing a winter skills course - can't wait! Shame that we've got to buy more boots though after having just kitted out with 3 season boots! As for the dark, we were well off the ridge by dusk and would have turned back after Ben Lawers if the weather hadn't been so kind to us.

Glad you like the photos, the thin mist softened the light and took away the glare so shooting into the sun didn't require any special technique. The colours were amazing at times.
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