Chasing the sunset down to Glen Nevis
by BlackPanther » Wed Apr 01, 2015 12:27 pm
Route description: Aonach Beag and Aonach Mòr from Glen Nevis
Munros included on this walk: Aonach Beag (Nevis Range), Aonach Mòr
Date walked: 21/03/2015
Time taken: 8.5 hours
Distance: 18.1 km
Ascent: 1648m12 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).
My story comes in the right time, I think, with all the current discussion on the general forum, including giving/taking advice, mountain safety and using common sense. I don't want this TR to shape up as a Greek tragedy... It's just a little lesson we were given by mountains and I'd like to share it with other hillwalkers.
On Saturday the 21th we planned a longer Munro bagging day, hoping to climb Aonach Beag & Mor in Nevis Range. Apart from The Ben itself, I didn't climb any hills here in winter/early spring conditions, all was done in the middle of hot summer or on hazy autumn days. So a sunny, crispy March day seemed a good opportunity to try some spring mountaineering on the highest Scottish tops.
We had one failed attempt on these two, a few years ago when we only got to about 500m and had to retread because of torrential rain and us getting completely soaked. I wanted to finish the business with the Aonachs and tick them off to forget the failure
From our own experience we know, that our usual walking pace puts us well "on the top side" of the times given by WalkHighlands. For the Aonachs, it says 7-10 hours, so even considering winter conditions, we calculated we should be able to get down in 8-8.5 hours. As it turned out, we finished in 8.5 and with about 30 minutes of daylight to spare, but only because we were lucky.
Our route was supposed to be the classic WH version, but due to circumstances I'll describe in a minute, we had to change it slightly:
Early morning in Glen Nevis was sunny and warm. Surprisingly warm, so we decided not to pack up additional warm tops, but took crampons and ice axes of course. Later, the spikes saved us some precious time!
Glen Nevis morning marching:
Great day shaping up:
An easy walk along an obvious path took us to the bridge by Steall ruins. Our plan was to cross the river and climb up steeply to Sgurr a'Bhuic first. I studied the uphill route, looked steep but manageable. Another walker was already half way up, so that encouraged us a bit:
For the first 100m or so, there is a path, though wet. It follows Allt Coire nan Laogh:
As soon as we tackled the slopes, hey, here comes The Ben!
Kevin complained about getting boiled alive Yes, we had to strip to t-shirts, the sun was very sharp, but we kept a good pace (or so I thought ):
Sgurr a'Mhaim across the glen was the main feature at the moment, but as we gained height, more and more views appeared:
...like the pointy tops of the Binneins:
A short break for a slurp of water, at this point the path petered out, but it was easy to follow the grassy slopes on the left hand side of this photo, so far we could avoid all snow:
Steep... but with views to kill for:
A faint path reappeared later on, but soon it disappeared again... under this patch of snow:
Rather than digging up crampons just to take them off five minutes later, we avoided the snow patch by walking above it, (it took some time as ground here was wet and very slippery) and took the first opportunity to gain the ridge of Sgurr a'Bhuic. Here, the angle was much less acute and views even better!
There was no snow on the rocky approach to the summit of Sgurr a'Bhuic and when we landed by the small cairn, we felt like we deserved a short break - if only to take pictures. Wooow, now it was mountain porn to its full extent
Summit cairn is perched on the very edge of an almost vertical cliff. Don't look down!
Zoom to Devil's Ridge:
A happy girl:
From Sgurr a'Bhuic, a short descent on a steep, rocky north-east slope took us to the col, from where we still had about 300m of ascent to the summit of Aonach Beag:
There is an obvious path following the ridge higher up, and as we stopped to catch a breath, we couldn't help but just gaze at the views behind us. The pointy profile of Sgurr a'Bhuic with the sharp ridge of the Mamores behind - fantastic. It was worth all that sweat just to see this:
The path appeared and disappeared again under the snow, but we had no problem following the edge of the cliffs, here me studying the next top on our way:
Looking down along the ridge with the Grey Corries in the background:
On the top of Stob Coire Bhealaich we decided to sit down and have something to eat - we have burned our breakfast toasts long before! And what a spot for lunch it was, with views to Ben Nevis:
It was so boiling hot that Kevin pulled up his trouser legs They looked like lederhosen from the distance Next thing he should take a yodelling lesson...
The imposing cliffs of Aonach Beag:
From Stob Coire Bhealaich we walked across to the final, steep climb to the Munro summit, we agreed it was crampon time now.
Panther's investigations... Curiosity didn't kill the cat this time.
The snow wasn't rock hard but it would be too slippery and steep to try climbing without spikes. In crampons we kept a good pace, though I must admit I was beginning to feel tired towards the end:
Looking down, zoom to the big cornice:
The Mamores to the south:
As the steep approach began to ease off, I knew we were close to the summit, but nothing prepared us to what we experienced when we arrived there - it's a completely different world. Mind boggling.
The summit cairn was buried under a thick layer of snow so we had to estimate where the highest point was, and I posed for "summit" photo:
A wider pano east, with Grey Corries in the foreground:
To the north, the massive bulk of Aonach Mor and all the hills beyond...
To the south - the Mamores and Glen Coe hills behind:
Zoom to Beinn a'Bheitr:
But all this was nothing compare to the massive shape just across the glen. As beautiful as it could ever be, dressed in white, but by no means innocent, Ben Nevis...
We snapped pictures till our fingers went numb and as we had lunch earlier, Kevin suggested, we should carry on to Aonach Mor without a longer break here, but not before he posed for another "veni, vidi, vici" photo:
The traverse to Aonach Mor seemed easy now, even though it was another 100m of descent/ascent, but the slopes were friendly enough... We kept spikes on for a time being:
Face to face with the giant:
Traversing to Aonach Mor took us about 40 minutes:
The white world of countless mountain peaks...
We took a longer break on the summit of the second Munro - it was nice enough and other people started to arrive (mostly skiers). I wandered around with the camera whereas Kevin got more interested in whatever was left in his sandwich box
The Ben with a small cloud lingering above the summit:
People on the summit of Aonach Beag:
The south-eastern panorama from Shiechallion to Lawers range:
So far, so good. Now, having bagged both summits and snapped enough photos to fill a whole album (choosing the best ones for this TR was a god-damn struggle ) we began to think about the descent.
Of course, we intended to get down into Coire Guibhsachan, but it turned out to be a tricky task. We descended a short distance from the summit of Aonach Mor and started looking for the best line to drop into the corrie. But to our annoyance, the ground was so steep and slippery everywhere, slushy patches of snow, very slippery grass, rocks tumbling down from under our feet with every steep down we took... We tried in a few different places, but it simply felt too risky. We lost about an hour trying to find the descent route, but eventually we admitted defeat and returned to the col between the two Munros.
Here, we checked the time - we had only 2.5 hours of daylight left and we were still on over 1000m Of course, we could go north and catch the gondola, but that would leave us in Fort William, miles away from the car. The only viable option then, seemed to return the way we came, over Aonach Beag. But now time was the issue - we had to be quick, to be back in Glen Nevis before it got dark!
We both carried torches so it wouldn't be a total disastahhh, if we were caught in the dark, but the descent route, if going down via Stob Coire Bhealaich, is wet to say the least and we didn't fancy trudging down that path with no daylight...
So it's back up there again...
I admit, there was a moment when I felt scared. I was kicking myself that I didn't consider such situation before we set off - should have left the Aonachs for a longer day, I thought. What if we run out of time? What if we have to spend a night on the hill? But on the other hand... I pulled my crampon strap as tight as possible and shouted at myself (in my head): No panic on Titanic, we're not sinking just yet!!!
With spikes back on, we tackled Aonach Beg for the second time this day. The snow was not too slushy and going wouldn't be too bad but for the fact that we were both tired and our muscles were shouting for a break. Sadly, this was the only thing we could not afford - time was crucial now!
I don't know, what carried me forward - my stubbornness? At some point the pain in my legs became howling mad, but I kept pushing to keep up with Kevin, who suddenly found some well hidden energy and was running uphill like a young stag I didn't realise I could push myself through such discomfort. Somehow I managed to stay calm, kept my nerves on the leash. Panic not allowed.
I breathed a sigh of relief on the top of Aonach Beag. We didn't even stop, just walked across the summit plateau and continued down the southern slopes. Good snow for running down in crampons, we picked up speed and moved much quicker now. At the level of about 1100 m Kevin stopped and pointed at Coire nan Laogh:
- If we cut straight down this way, we can use snow patches to walk fast, we'll be down by the river in twenty minutes. Going over Stob Coire Bhealaich will take too much time.
- Well, let's take it then. Let's chase the sunset!
It had to be a quick decision. As soon as we started descending, I spotted footprints in the snow. Somebody else has taken this way of descent before. We knew there were no huge cliffs anywhere on this side of Allt Coire nan Laogh so the risk was worth taking.
On the way down into Coire nan Laogh - snow running:
Looking back up. There was enough snow between the rocks to keep us going quickly:
One of the "snow bridges" over rocky sections:
Lower down, we had to cross a small tributary of Allt Coire nan Laogh, but due to a thick layer of snow we could hardy tell where it was. Carefully we walked across another snow bridge.
We noticed the old footprints again, and followed them for a short distance:
Following the northern side of the river, we entered the snow-free zone but kept crampons on - the ground was soaked here and still very slippery, so spikes were very helpful!
Down to about 550m, we found an appropriate "ford" across the Allt - just a few half-submerged stones. Thank heavens, the stream was not in spate! Funny for the first time in my life I crossed a river with my spikes still on
Across on the other side, we took of crampons - they were yucky and muddy but who cares It was now a formality to locate the faint path we used on the ascent. The day was slowly dying out, but we knew we won the race against the sunset:
Just as well we crossed the river higher up. Now it was coming down in a cascade of waterfalls - we even had enough time to stop and take a few snaps:
We reached the bottom of Glen Nevis with 30min of daylight left - just about enough time to return to the car. Lucky escape, some would say. On the other hand, maybe I'm exaggerating now, maybe it's some kind of post-traumatic syndrome???
The last moments of the day, me posing with Steall falls:
Our GPS said we did 1650m of ascent - no wonder my legs were screaming!!
Well, it was an adventure and a good lesson. No matter, how confident you are, you should always have respect for the mountains. And we were taught once again that a summer route may not always be available in winter. Maybe we could have found the way down into Coire Guibhsachan and with more time to spare we would have nothing to worry about. I must praise us both for staying calm (especially me, the panicking, meowing cat) and taking quick decisions. And if it wasn't for the good, old crampons, we wouldn't be able to move so quickly... Still, as this story proves, one is never TOO EXPERIENCED when dealing with Scottish mountains.
Thank you for reading my story and I hope it didn't sound like a soap opera Meow!
by Mal Grey » Wed Apr 01, 2015 1:14 pm
I suspect most of us who walk in winter have chased the sunset a few times after an unexpected delay.
by weaselmaster » Wed Apr 01, 2015 2:51 pm
We had similar conditions doing these two hills and had an unpleasantly steep descent into Coire Guibhsachan on treacherous snow- Allison still remembers being a bit freaked out by it. Your decision to head back up Aonach Beag the sensible one, i think
by Huff_n_Puff » Wed Apr 01, 2015 4:22 pm
by BlackPanther » Thu Apr 02, 2015 7:41 pm
weaselmaster wrote:Your decision to head back up Aonach Beag the sensible one, i think
Looking back at it, I think the same... Trying to find the way down to the corrie was unnerving to say the least
By the way nice to know we were not the only ones scared by this descent!
Huff_n_Puff wrote:we've had a few trips which ended up with a head torch
So did we, once we came down from Beinn Alligin in total darkness... And we didn't have torches on that occasion... Luckily the good old Moon lit us the way
Maybe doing the Aonachs circuit clockwise (up Coire Guibhsachan first) would make it faster - I always find it easier to actually climb the steep slopes rather than descending them - especially in wet conditions.
Mal Grey wrote:I suspect most of us who walk in winter have chased the sunset a few times after an unexpected delay.
Yes, I guess most folks here will have similar stories to tell... So our case is not so extraordinary. I only hope that this TR will be a good reminder that sometimes, up on the hills, things can get out of control. But days are getting longer now, so it will be easier to fit in longer walks
by rockhopper » Fri Apr 03, 2015 5:46 pm
by hopper68 » Fri Apr 03, 2015 7:57 pm
by BlackPanther » Fri Apr 03, 2015 9:50 pm
rockhopper wrote:Found it slippery enough descending into the corrie in June without the snow - not sure I'd like to try it at this time of year either - cheers
Aha, that's one more vote for the voice of reason
Seriously, the more I think about it, the more I'm sure we took the right decision.
hopper68 wrote:Excellent report and pics, I was on Ben Nevis that day
Nevis looked busy that day! We spotted quite a few people doing the arete and more near the top:
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