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Just a Little Walk in the Snow - Bien Liath Mhor

Just a Little Walk in the Snow - Bien Liath Mhor


Postby Roger T » Tue Nov 24, 2015 12:10 pm

Route description: Beinn Liath Mhor, Achnashellach

Date walked: 24/11/2015

Time taken: 5 hours

Distance: 10 km

Ascent: 800m

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The snow had come and I wanted to walk in it, as high as possible. The trouble was, I had never done it before. I have no winter mountain experience, apart from years of skiing, which hardly counts, and with less than ten Munros under my belt, not a huge amount of summer experience either.
But I knew I had to keep up the momentum built up over the previous three months. It had taken a good while to get up to fitness. If I spent the winter hunkered over a log fire, I’d have to start all over again when the good weather returned. I was booked on a winter skills course for January, but a bit of familiarisation, not to mention the exercise, wouldn’t go amiss. And that white topping on the hills looked so seductive, so irresistible. I had to get up there.
With a Sunday forecast for early sunshine and virtually no wind, I soon hatched a little plan. It would have to be somewhere close, and somewhere familiar. My first Munro was Beinn Liath Mhor, so why not give that a go? Not necessarily to climb completely, but to push on up until I felt I had gone as far as I was able, or as far as was wise. I had no idea what to expect. This would be the start of yet another learning curve. These mountains seem full of them.
I was at the Achnashellach car park nice and early, just after eight. Dawn was still a little while away, but with a pristine sky there was plenty of light. I hoisted my rucksack on my shoulders, hoping that no one would see me. I felt a total fraud. Fixed to the rucksack was my ice-axe, the tip of which had so far penetrated nothing more wintry than my living room carpet. Inside the rucksack was a pair of crampons, they too unsullied by anything as untoward as snow or ice. I had spent an hour the previous evening trying to figure out how to adjust them and put them on. To make matters worse, I was wearing a brand new pair of walking trousers, proper super-duper, all-singing, all-dancing strides, the ultimate in mountain wear, won through the website writing competition; and I was wearing a new jacket, one bought a while ago on an impulse, forgotten about, and now pressed into winter service. I felt like the new boy on the first day at school; immaculately kitted out and knowing nothing. There I was, loaded down with all the accoutrements of an Eric Shipton, and armed with the alpine knowledge of a Paddington Bear.
I snuck up the lane to the station, mercifully empty, and set off up the hill.
This was to be a learning exercise, and the learning started pretty quickly. As well as all my rufty-tufty macho winter mountain accoutrements, my rucksack was weighed down with all the other paraphernalia of a winter ascent, not least a flask of hot tea. I considered the unfairness of it all: in winter the going is a lot harder, but you also have to carry a lot more. I gritted my teeth and settled into some sort of rhythm. The Lair was in boisterous mood, fulsome and merry as it rushed down alongside the path, and I soon forgot my embarrassment, my sense of misplacement. Anyway, above was a dawn sky of pale untrammelled blue, and ahead lay adventure.
It was my first day on the hill wearing thermals - good, proper Grandad-style woollen long-sleeved vest and long Johns - and despite the near zero temperature I was soon glowing. I glowed even more as Fuar Tholl came into sight, its buttresses and escarpments well-laced with white. That’s what I was here for, after all, to haul myself up beyond the snowline and have a little play. Maybe I would build a snowman.
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First hints of snow on Fuar Tholl.

I had been up the fine Achnashellach path many times, and so just put myself on autopilot to make the vertical metres. From time to time small residues of snow, now no more than thin pancakes of ice, layered the surrounding vegetation. Once I nearly slipped on an unexpectedly iced puddle of water. Even Paddington Bear knew that it was not yet time for crampons.
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Beinn Liath Mhor and Sgorr Ruadh sparkle in the morning sun.

Bienn Liath Mhor, its ridge a line of virgin white, pulled into view, and my heart raced a little more strongly. Down at my level, the patches of snow were becoming more general, and more snow-like. I pushed on through the narrow defile that always reminds me of an ambush location for an old-time Western, and after a few more minutes of easy going, there was the Coire Lair laid out in all its winter glory. The base of the coire was not fully snowed up, its lower reaches still thick with heather and tussock on a ground of snow, and so it had a mottled, textured quality. This gave way to purer white higher up the slopes of the surrounding hills. It was a beautiful, bleak sight, gloriously pitiless.
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A wintry Coire Lair, beautiful, bleak, gloriously pitiless.

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The Beinn Liath Mhor ridge looking nicely snow-bound.

In just under the usual hour I was at the cairn where the path divides, and struck off to the right without stopping, past the second cairn marking the path up the coire, and on towards the base of Beinn Liath Mhor. The steep path up the side of the eastern shoulder was still clearly visible to about halfway up, and then lost itself in the thickening covering of snow. Further to the east, a wild panorama of storybook mountains, almost unreal in the smoothness and perfection of their sculpting, set up a patchwork of sparkling white and soft shadow. I stopped for a swig of water, and set off up the hill.
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The storybook peaks of Fannich to the east.

At first the going was normal, but bit by bit more snow and ice encroached onto the path. I settled to a slow rhythm, planting each foot strongly and deliberately before transferring weight to it. Each footfall compressed the snow to an icy base that seemed to hold well. I worked my way up, growing more confident in the grip of my trusty Scarpas. Despite the snow and ice, the path held fewer terrors than on my previous ascents. I felt calm and comfortable, unmoved by what now did not seem such a steep gradient after all. Hell, since the last time up here, I had the Horns of Alligin and An Ruadh-Stac under my belt, and that made a palpable difference to my perceptions.
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Getting to the snowline. Fionn Bheinn to the right.

Up I went, and reached the inevitable point where the path was nothing but a thick layer of snow broken by just the occasional projection of rock and heather. Only the slightly exaggerated declivity that marked the path gave any clue to its whereabouts. I kept each stride short and compact, marking my route as clearly as possible with a steady trail of footprints. By now I could not be sure whether I was still on the path or climbing free, but that seemed irrelevant. All that mattered was to be able to find my way down again.
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Getting higher...

I was by now still on the steep section, but in a field of virtually unbroken snow. Once or twice I stopped and wondered whether I should continue, but could see no real reason for stopping. The going was slow but seemed quite safe and there was little prospect of a change in the weather. The snow sparkled under a clear morning sun; the air was ghostly still.
The gradient eased and now I was into deeper snow. It was only lightly crusted, allowing each foot to break through easily into the softer under-layer. Mostly I sank up to my ankles, occasionally to mid-calf, just once or twice to the knee, adding a professional patina of snow to my gaiters. There seemed no need for crampons; they would have been an encumbrance rather than a help. I kicked each toe down through the crust to find the bottom and good grip, and so kept on up, having by now abandoned any pretence at following a path.
There is a childish joy in making the first tracks through a field of pristine snow. It is somehow uplifting, primeval. To do it, for the first time, at nearly three thousand feet on the ridge of a great Munro, under the eye of the snow-capped peaks of Torridon and Monar and Fannich; alone, free, unconstrained, was blissful. From time to time I stopped and turned to consider my line of footprints. They made me inordinately proud. They were my footprints, mine alone, up here on this flawless winter’s day. I may not know what I was doing; my ice-axe may still be strapped to my rucksack; my crampons may still shine with showroom perfection; but what did I care? I was there. I was alive.
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Lone tracks in the snow.

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Fuar Tholl looking cold and nosey.

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The sun catches Sgorr Ruadh.

I was also, by now, way off the correct line of ascent to the first cairn. I would have liked to have reached it, although whether the final scree would have been feasible for a beginner is debatable. However, I had drifted too far to the left, too low around the bluff, and now found myself coming up to an un-passable rift in the mountainside. It didn’t matter. My legs were tiring anyway, and I wanted to keep plenty in reverse for the descent.
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Looking south-east to Monar, with Moruisg and Sgurr nan Ceannaichean in centre background.

It was by now about eleven. I found a convenient rock and had a flapjack and a mug of tea. I could see along the line of the ridge, and knew that I had neither the skill nor the stamina to take it on. It was heavily snow-bound. Every step through the snow would be the equivalent of two on normal ground. The path would be mostly indecipherable, the scrambling sections, easy in normal conditions, potentially dangerous. I had had my fun; I was immensely satisfied; it was time for an honourable retreat.
After enjoying the sun, snow, silence and solitude for a little while longer, I set off slowly down. For much of the descent I literally followed in my own footsteps, my left foot going into the hole made by my right on the way up. I thought about that other bear, Winnie the Pooh, and hoped I didn’t end up following my own tracks in an endless circle. Almost as soon as I started down I felt the need to use the ice-axe. I don’t know why – it just seemed right. I unclipped it from my rucksack and set off again, ice-axe in my right hand, using it to steady my descent. I don’t use poles, but the axe felt right: sturdy, meaningful. For a moment I almost had pretensions of being the real deal as I worked my way down, ice-axe in hand. If I met anyone now, I would feel a little better knowing that it had actually touched some snow and ice.
Any slight concern I may still have had about negotiating the steeper sections down were soon dispelled. I took my time, placing each foot carefully and keeping well-balanced. There were no slips, no hairy moments.
Halfway down I stopped to survey the scene and take some photographs. The sun had gone, hidden by a layer of cloud, and the altered light now infused the landscape with a cold, coppery sheen. The small plateau at the base of the hill, heavily dotted with lochans, and with the Lair weaving through it, had the look of Arctic tundra. I searched the various paths for signs of other walkers, but there was no-one. Somehow I had been granted the whole landscape, the whole day, to myself.
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Looking down to the Lair under greying skies.

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A bleak plateau like Arctic tundra.

Once off the hill I stopped again for a sandwich and some more tea, before making my way down. By now my legs were complaining. Although my watch timed the outing at a mere five hours, my legs reckoned it at more like six or seven. I reached the car park without meeting anyone, although there were a couple of other cars there now.
As I threw my gear into the back of the truck, gear which was now at least a little less virginal, I suddenly realised: I had forgotten to build a snowman. Never mind; there will surely be a next time.
Roger T
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Re: Just a Little Walk in the Snow - Bien Liath Mhor

Postby SAVAGEALICE » Tue Nov 24, 2015 4:45 pm

Sunday was a fab day to be out ...fingers crossed for more like that :D ....enjoyed your report :clap: :D
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SAVAGEALICE
 
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Re: Just a Little Walk in the Snow - Bien Liath Mhor

Postby spiderwebb » Tue Nov 24, 2015 8:41 pm

Thoroughly enjoyable read there Roger T, for your first tentative steps into the winter walking world. I recall doing a winter skills course back in 1985 and bought an axe just after I returned and it too only touched the carpet for a good while before it was used as it was meant :lol:

But if you felt unsure you did the right thing, but its a relatively easy ridge although the descent down the slabs can be tricky even in summer, snow makes it erm more interesting :wink:
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spiderwebb
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Re: Just a Little Walk in the Snow - Bien Liath Mhor

Postby Silverhill » Tue Nov 24, 2015 10:59 pm

Another very enjoyable read. You did well there and got all your new gear tested in the process. 8)
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