Weasel Screws Up - A Salutory Tale
by weaselmaster » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:23 pm
Munros included on this walk: Ben Vane
Date walked: 17/01/2016
Time taken: 14.25 hours
Distance: 34.1 km
Ascent: 2184m15 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).
For this weekend I was on my own, Allison having seriously injured her back. So it was back to Munros. I was on call til Friday evening, so no chance to get away up north on Friday night - must admit I quite fancied Kintail. But it was not to be, I needed somewhere nearer at hand that I could drive to on Saturday morning. Ben Lui had been on my radar for some time, with an approach from Tyndrum via Cononish, where you get to see some of the majesty of the mountain as you walk in. The other was Beinn Dorain, which I have long harboured a desire to tackle from Tyndrum, going up the steep southern shoulder. They seemed a suitable pairing for the weekend, with a stay at the Strathfillan Wigwams on Saturday night. The forecast seemed good - good chance of clear skies til mid afternoon. The weather had been very cold overnight and I blithely suspected that the slopes would be nice and crusted from about 600m, making walking easy in crampons. I began to think in terms of adding Oss and Dubhcraig onto Lui and a'Chleib. Oh how I would fall from that ambition
A nice drive up and parked at Tyndrum Station before 8.30. I was trying out my new bigger winter rucksack, which would allow me to take my winter boots and walk in wearing my usual Salewa Mountain GTX ones - much nicer on the feet for a longish walk in. There was an ominous red tinge to the morning sky as I walked over the railway crossing, but the air was fine and nippy (-5 when I left the car) and my hopes were high for a good day. I trotted along the forest track down to the River Cononish and along to the farm. Snow was powdery, a couple of inches deep, nice for walking on. I reached the river crossing, and started to follow the Allt an Rond for a bit. I had taken heed of the avalanche warnings, which had been indicating problems on east facing slopes - this ruled out any attempt to go into Coire Gaothach and instead I had planned to head round to the north of Stob Garbh and onto the northern shoulder of Lui which I thought would be relatively snow free. The weather, however was not keeping its side of the bargain - rather than clear skies, clag was down and by 10am it was starting to snow. Damn.
Nice start at Tyndrum Station
P1110877 by Al, on Flickr
P1110878 by Al, on Flickr
Lui up ahead
P1110879 by Al, on Flickr
P1110880 by Al, on Flickr
The going became steadily tougher. As I neared the slopes of Stob Garbh the powdery snow went from knee deep to thigh deep making progress slow and arduous. I thought it might be easier to head up onto the rocks on Stob Garbh itself, where the snow looked less thick, but was worried that the crags would become steeper than I was prepared for. I cut a compromise, sticking closer to the base of the crags and using up my energy floundering through the deep snow. I put my poles away and got out my axe, finding it slightly easier to plunge in the axe shaft and move on all fours like a crazy quadriped. I noticed someone was following me at a distance.
P1110881 by Al, on Flickr
P1110882 by Al, on Flickr
Time was getting on - I started off up a gully but after climbing about 50m decided it was unpleasantly steep to reach the top - I had no crampons on at this point and nowhere safe to fit them, so I descended and ate some lunch. I decided to keep contouring which meant more snow swimming. Eventually I reached roughly where I wanted to be on the northern shoulder and the wind whipped up a lot of the loose snow, making progress a bit easier. However, spindrift was blinding, even with goggles on. I persevered for a bit but by the time I had reached about 950m I couldn't see where I was going at all. There were another 200m of this to ascend, and it was already 2pm - much behind time due to the unexpected depth of the snow and having to constantly break trail. I decided I'd head back down, seemed the wisest decision to make in the circumstances.
So up to now nothing really to complain about - other than choosing the direction of ascent which was probably more likely to gather snow than from alternate directions. I'd head down, restore my energies and do something better on Sunday. I thought I'd keep to the left of my ascent route, near the spine of the northern shoulder, to avoid any avalanche risk. Unfortunately I was heading down NW, not NE and I had dropped below 850m before I noticed my mistake. The thought of heading back up into the spindrift was grim. in occasional breaks in the clag I could make out the bealach with Beinn a'Chleib and thought - God knows why - that this would be a better plan - I could head off Beinn a'Chleib and make it back round to my original route. Now the bealach between Lui and a'Chleib runs in exactly the opposite direction to where I was wanting to go - perhaps tiredness was driving me towards a recognizable landmark amidst all the clag, who knows. It didn't look too challenging to contour round Fionn Choiren to the bealach and I wouldn't have to do any re-ascending. What could be easier? And indeed the first section round into the coire was straightforward. However, as I neared the walls below the bealach the ground became increasingly steep. Plates of windslab started to slip around me and it looked a long way down below. I started to gently panic. I was contouring between rocky outcrops and steeply banked snow. I thought i was a goner when a 5 square metre sheet of windslab broke away directly above me and broke over my thighs - fortunately my axe was well planted. I glanced up to see a crown of dangerously unstable cornice above me - if that fell there was no way I could withstand it. Heart in mouth I tried to move as quickly as I could to the bealach, which was only a handful of metres away now - I chopped through a cornice on the coire edge and climbed through.
Shaken I was not thinking very clearly at this point. It was late - maybe 3pm and I was still a long way from where I wanted to be. I wanted to be off the hill, to lose height and be below the worst of the avalanche risk. I decided to drop into Coire Annaich and to take a low level, although long route back to where I wanted to be. The coire didn't look too bad an avalanche risk - I headed down the centre, following the stream. Unfortunately I was back amongst deep snow and progress was glacial. I'd dropped down below 650 metres when I had another look at my map. To my horror, there was one problem sitting between me and my goal of getting back to Cononish - the little matter of Ben Oss. My (paper) map ended below the coire to make navigation even more challenging (I did have my GPS map) - but there was really no way to go southeast without ending up somewhere in Glen Falloch, miles and miles from where I wanted to be, with a night of -10 degrees in store. To my shame I had omitted to pack my emergency bivvy bag, despite room in the rucksack. My panic was growing. I stopped to try and take stock of my options, forcing a mouthful of chocolate marzipan bar into my mouth to try and restore some of my depleted energies. The only idea I could muster was to climb up another 150m and contour round below Sgiath Dhubh until I reached Coire Laoigh and follow that down - despite the probably avalanche risk until I got to the River Cononish.
There now follows possibly the most enervating hour or two I can remember. The snow was still up to my bum for much of the time and to make matters worse, trying to contour round the side of the hill is made problematic by frequent gashes of streams as they tumble down the mountainside, meaning a deep chasm to be dropped down into and climbed up each time. I am so weary that I can barely move my legs - I curse those extra calories over the Xmas period and the lack of fitness. My fleece gloves are completely encased with ice over the fingers, although surprisingly my hands aren't cold. At times my hamstings threaten to go into cramp - I was talking to my brother this week about how he'd torn his calf muscle and I wondered what chance I had out here if something similar happened to my thigh muscle. i was utterly miserable, cursing my stupidity and thinking - for the first time with any substance - that I might have to call out the MRT. Darkness was falling around me, these mountains were not a hospitable place to be in these conditions.
I spotted a figure high on the ridge above. They seemed to look down at me for a while, then pressed on, or disappeared in the clag. This vision did hearten me a little - especially the possibility of there being a foot-trodden track through the snow. I continued to labour for what seemed like hours up towards where I had seen the figure - it took perhaps half an hour, perhaps longer, moving at a speed best measured in inches per minute than anything quicker. No trace of tracks, no sign that the person had ever been there. It is now getting on for 5 and quite dark despite the snow. At least I have reached the descending section of Sgiath Dhubh and kind of know where I am. The snow is marginally thinner, with the wind having blown some of the surface snow away. I decide to put on my headtorch. The difference this makes is considerable - despite the clag, twilight and spindrift, I can see where I am stepping. I offer up a small prayer to Martin for selling me such a fine torch (Lenser LED H14R) which creates a brilliant light path. I've never used it on the hill before, only for walks along the track or road at the end of the walk, but I'm still over 700m at this point with a long way to go.
I reach the flatter ground at the top of the coire. The map doesn't suggest it being too steep and I hope this is right - by this time I am worn out with worrying about avalanches and just plod on. Fortunately the snow is not as thick as that I've recently encountered - or maybe it's the sheer relief at heading down hill. I try and keep the Allt Coire Laoigh to my right - providing an auditory reminder of my route as well as a visual one. Sometimes the river plunges through a narrow chasm and I keep track of it but at a respectful distance. My confidence is starting to return as I drop height, out of the danger of falling snow, with a bearing in the right direction. There are still tributaries to cross and the odd sow hole which takes me unawares, but my fatugue has lessened and I know I'm going to make it. I have to cross and re-cross the river to avoid steep walls on one or other bank, but wet boots don't bother me now. My excitement when I come across a path of footprints in the snow is considerable and with a spring in my step (well as close as I can muster) I follow this along to the crossing where the Allt na Rund bifurcates that I'd taken so many hours ago. Such a relief to be back on the track. I stop and change back into my ordinary boots and pour myself a cup of coffee from the remaining water in my flask, ramming down an Orange Club biscuit. I spot a shrew in the light of my torch, out for a forage in the snow - I regret I have no food to offer it.
I guess it is about 6 or 7km from here back to the railway station. It takes me about an hour, legs propelling me despite their challenges earlier in the day. I think it's taking an inordinately long time to get from Cononish to the turn off up into the woods and worry about missing it by following the 4x4 tracks in the snow, but I come to it eventually and head up into the silent trees. No life stirs. I continue round until the path starts to head down towards the level crossing and a few streetlights from Tyndrum come into view through the trees. For a few hours today I didn't think I was going to see this. My car stands at the station, lonely and snow covered. I brush the snow from the windows with my gloved hands and think about what I'm going to do now. It's after 8pm. I don't really feel like driving home after the day I've had although the thought of a warm bed is alluring. I decided to keep to my original plan and drive the few miles to Strathfillan to pitch in the field by the wigwams. The shop is shut, but to my surprise there are 2 more tents pitched in the field. Hardy souls! I drive in through the gate and choose the first pitching spot I come to. There are 2-3 inches of snw lying on the ground. I care not a jot and quickly have the tent up, the sleeping bags and other stuff inside and make myself a plate of couscous. I'm not hungry, but reckon I should eat something. I crawl into my sleeping bag, pull another bag over the top and settle down with a book, drinking a cup of hot tea. The night is quiet and not as cold as I was anticipating. I can feel pain and tingling in the tips of most of my fingers - a bit of frostnip methinks - still there as I type this tale.
P1110883 by Al, on Flickr
I think this is roughly my route
Morning comes. It is dry, which is a plus. I make some porridge and wash it down with a coffee then pull on my belay jacket and go to pay the man - the shop is open making cooked breakfasts for the couple in front of me. I'm not tempted. I think I'll just head home after my adventures and pack up the tent. Maybe I should go for a wee walk to just stretch my legs - that might help them adjust after yesterday's torment. Maybe. I drive down the road. Quite a nice morning, no wind, air crisp. I get to Inveruglas and think I might go for a wander up to Loch Sloy dam, nothing too strenuous. But I pack my rucksack with full kit (including emergency bivvy - that won't be leaving my sack any time soon). You can tell what's coming. I talk to the guy in the 4x4 next to mine - he's doing Vane and hopes it will not require crampons, which he hasn't got. I set off up the track to Coiregrogain, quite a few other walkers out. I meet John, who is also going to try Vane, although he isn't set on getting to the summit. We walk together for a bit. We take the left turn that runs past the south of Ben Vane. My legs have been alright on this gentle incline, but I'm anticipating they will protest loudly on anything steeper. I haven't a route on my GPS for Vane, for some reason, and we pass the spot I remember starting up from the last time I was here - John's going up from the SE shoulder, just round the corner. I hope there will be a good track marched into the snow, still not really intending to go much further. He stops for a brew and I walk on - the ground is boggy and the snow soft and maybe 6 inches deep. Every footfall uphill is an effort. I continue for a bit, puffing away. I see a boulder up ahead - that's me, I'll get to the boulder and then turn back.
Morning at the wigwams
P1110884 by Al, on Flickr
P1110885 by Al, on Flickr
Start up Vane
P1110886 by Al, on Flickr
As I reach the boulder i don't know whether to laugh or cry. A clear path of footprints passes beside it heading up the hill. Snow compressed, easier walking. Trouble is, this is only at 300m - there are 600 odd more to go. I remember Vane as being a challenging hill with lots of crags to be managed. Clag is down to not much more than 400m, so routefinding may be a challenge. I decide to head up another 100 metres or so and see how I feel. I continue to feel exhasuted. Someplaces the track becomes obscured by deer trails and it takes a bit of detective work to find the right way. I make it to 450m, feeling absolutely done in and decide I've had enough. I have an early lunch in the hope that my sandwich and chocolate bar might re-animate me. It's not really happening though. Below me I spot several figures coming up the hill. Now I have been known to have a wee competitive streak at times, and I don't see why I shouldn't manage this hill if other folk are coming up. At this point the guy from the car park catches up with me and we have a bit of a natter. I press on, still far from committed to continuing uphill - after all we are still less than half way to the summit in terms of ascent, and it's steep in places. After another 100m the compacted snow is becoming slippy under foot. It's desicion time. I change into my winter boots and pull the axe off the rucksack - its shaft still encased in yesterday's ice. The path is now clear, no rogue deer this high up to mask it. I continue on, getting to around 650m where I stop to affix crampons - not strictly necessary but they do make the going more secure in this mix of soft and compacted snow. Mr car-park is keeping pace behind me. I an really pushing it now - my legs are aching and probably calling me all kinds of names. there's poor visibility, but the path ahead of me acts as my guide. I try and take 50 paces then stop for a breather - as I ascend the breathers get longer and the paces get shorter. One advantage of the steepness is that height is gained quickly. I get to around 820m - the start of a couple of steeper more scrambly sections. But the path is mostly clear to follow and I rely on axe and crampon bite to get up the steeper sections. I get near the top, still having to force myself onwards. I can see a faint outline of the summit ridge ahead, only 20 or 30 more metres. Part of me is still urging me to head back, but I blot that out and in a final push through deep snow, make it to the top. A triumph of bloody-mindedness if ever there was one
There's people coming up there
P1110888 by Al, on Flickr
The delights of a path to follow
P1110889 by Al, on Flickr
P1110890 by Al, on Flickr
Yes! Bloody-mindedness wins the day
P1110891 by Al, on Flickr
I turn around and head straight back down. Oh this is so much easier. I pass Mr car-park at the foot of the steepest section - he has no axe, as well as no crampons, and he looks a bit anxiously at me in full gear and he tries to get up with his poles. I wish him luck and press on, past 3 ladies well kitted out then a trio of guys with minimal kit, again no axes. However, after my humbling yesterday ui don't feel I can say much about other folk I keep my crampons on until I'm back down at the track - they provide good security over the soft snow and slippy grass underneath. It's time for a boot change again and I trot off towards the car, happy in that I've pushed myself hard today on the back of yesterday and I've still been able to function.
P1110892 by Al, on Flickr
So the lessons from this weekend?
1.Better route planning.
2.Use brain not anxiety when making decisions
3. Don't try and traverse coire walls in crazily dangerous conditions
4. Respect the weather
5. Try and regain some of my fitness - eat less crap
6. Take my bivvy bag in winter
7. Maybe sticking to Donalds over the winter wasn't such a bad idea
by Jaxter » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:42 pm
Very glad you got back safely, and good job getting back out there the next day.
You're not the first person to make some slightly dodgy decisions on Lui ( http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=57268 ) although I'd wager the stakes were an awful lot higher in your wintery conditions!
by Sick Kid » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:45 pm
But I'm glad you survived
by goth_angel » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:46 pm
I hope Allison's back is soon on the mend - have back issues myself so know how tricky they can be.
by Fife Flyer » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:48 pm
Having been out twice this week I appreciate how tough it is in challenging conditions. Maybe I don't have quite the competetive streak you do, as I turned back after a couple of hours of struggling on Broad Law
Look on the bright side - imagine the verbal abuse you would have got had Allison been with you
by Collaciotach » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:52 pm
BTW ....disappointed you never took a photographic record of these events
by weaselmaster » Sun Jan 17, 2016 10:56 pm
Collaciotach wrote:Glad you worked your way out of that Al , we all make poor decisions .
BTW ....disappointed you never took a photographic record of these events
Yes, it is a bit of a poor show. But clag and snow make for unrewarding photos. I did think about firing some shots off in the scary coire, but getting out of there as quickly as possible won the day
by Mal Grey » Sun Jan 17, 2016 11:02 pm
Thanks for sharing your misadventures, I'm sure it will help others. For a start, its made me get my own emergency bag back out, and into my emergency bag, as I'd taken it out a while back to use when I forgot my camping mat.
As for the fitness, for you to even attempt anything the next day, let alone achieve a summit in tough conditions, it can't be that bad!
by rockhopper » Mon Jan 18, 2016 12:05 am
Quite a tale - glad you made it back OK.
Had been planning to head south for some Donalds but with worsening forecast on Friday and reprts of deep snow, chickened out and stayed at home to catch up on the DIY - cheersweaselmaster wrote:7. Maybe sticking to Donalds over the winter wasn't such a bad idea
by dav2930 » Mon Jan 18, 2016 12:58 am
And it must have taken real determination (and perhaps considerable bloody-mindedness ) to get to the top of Ben Vane next day. I think I would have just gone home. Well done indeed.
by SAVAGEALICE » Mon Jan 18, 2016 8:28 am
by PeteR » Mon Jan 18, 2016 9:22 am
Still, you got out safe and still got one in the next day..........you're made of tough stuff for sure
by Borderhugh » Mon Jan 18, 2016 9:55 am
by IreneM » Mon Jan 18, 2016 8:21 pm
Just glad you are ok, and you still managed to climb a hill on Sunday!
by Silverhill » Mon Jan 18, 2016 8:28 pm
A great account of your adventure!