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Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe


Postby dav2930 » Wed Mar 14, 2018 11:40 pm

Route description: Beinn Eighe (western summits)

Munros included on this walk: Ruadh-stac Mor (Beinn Eighe), Spidean Coire nan Clach (Beinn Eighe)

Date walked: 08/03/2018

Time taken: 9.5 hours

Distance: 17.6 km

Ascent: 1266m

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As Karl and I walked along the path out of Coire Mhic Nobuil towards the car park above Torridon House, happy to have experienced the delights and challenges of Beinn Alligin in such unexpectedly fine weather, thoughts turned to the following day. If the weather took a turn for the worse we could always go back to Fionn Bheinn, which we'd abandoned the previous day in particularly foul conditions. But if it stayed anything like it had been today, it'd be a shame not to try for something more substantial. There was too much fresh, unconsolidated snow about for Liathach, we decided. But how about Beinn Eighe? That would make a magnificent day out.

Back at the bunkhouse in Kinlochewe we got talking to a pair of younger chaps who were there for the ice-climbing. Their gear was strewn all over the floor - dozens of ice-screws and, more surprisingly, nuts for rock. Turned out these guys had climbed a grade 7 on Beinn Bhan the previous day. Today they'd done a grade 6 on Fuar Tholl; one of the pair had carried a 3kg paraglider up it and launched off the top, landing on a beach somewhere! :shock: 8)

Suitably impressed and humbled, Karl and me retired to the hotel bar to check out the forecast for the next day. We were delighted to see that wind speeds remained low and that there was an 80% chance of cloud-free Munros. Couldn't hope for better than that, so Beinn Eighe it was.

We were up at 6.30am. Had a peep outside and the weather looked fine, though a little cloudier than the previous morning had been. We were out of the bunkhouse about an hour later, in the car and on the way to the car park near Lochan an Iasgair at the head of Glen Torridon. A fine looking stag sat on the grass at the entrance to the car park, being admired by a couple who were just setting off up the path, climbing axes on their packs and helmets already donned. They were almost out of sight by the time we set off walking at about 8.15am.

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Nonchalant stag at the car park


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Mullach an Rathain


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Spidean a' Choire Leith


Kept our eyes peeled for the cairn that marks the start of the path skirting Sail Mhor.

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Baosbheinn and Beinn an Eoin


More snow appeared on the ground as we progressed, until some big, deep snowfields appeared, which were fun to cross. Some of the snow was soft and creaked under our feet, while other parts were hard neve. Where the slope steepened towards the entrance to Coire Mhic Fearchair, we put on our crampons.

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Fisherfields and Slioch


Then suddenly the great coire opened up before us. The loch was frozen and covered with snow, and behind it the three bastions of the Triple Buttress reared up in solemn majesty. It was an awesome sight, too sublime for words.

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Coire Mhic Fearchair and the Triple Buttress


We walked towards the outflow on an icy pavement of Torridonian sandstone, and crossed the stream. Two lines of footprints followed the edge of the loch, one line actually on the loch itself. We kept to the shore.

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Ruadh-stac Mor


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Baosbheinn, Beinn an Eoin, Beinn a' Chearcaill


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Triple Buttress across a frozen Loch Coire Mhic Fearchair


At the far end of the loch we began the steady rise into the upper corrie, weaving between outcrops and boulders, taking the easiest line. After a steepinging the corrie levelled out below the final, long slope leading up to the col between Ruadh-stac Mor and Coinneach Mhor. We got our ice axes out and put on our windproofs. A line of footprints led up so we made use of them - thanks to whoever made them :thumbup: The snow was firm but malleable. Towards the top the snow-slope narrowed between the enclosing rocks and hard neve emerged from under the softer stuff. It was just steep enough to warrant using the axe picks.

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Snow slope leading up to the col


The col was surprisingly narrow. From there it was easy walking to the summit of Ruadh-stac Mor.

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The broad ridge to Ruadh-stac Mor


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Looking back to Coinneach Mhor on the other side of the col


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The cliffs of Coinneach Mhor


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Sail Mhor


But, glancing back, I noticed the clag coming in over Coinneach Mhor. I tried to ignore it. I think Karl had noticed it too, but we didn't say anything. The summit of Ruadh-stac Mor was misted over when we reached it, but briefly cleared again. We stopped for a food and hot drink break.

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Ruadh-stac Beag, Meall a' Ghiubhais, Slioch, from summit of Ruadh-stac Mhor


We followed our own footprints back towards the col, visibility now being quite poor. Back at the col we were below the clag, but would soon be up in it again. Our only escape route was back down the gully - not an ideal prospect.

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Back at the col, looking down the ascent gully


Putting negative thoughts aside, we carried on up Coinneach Mhor, into the white mist.

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The way ahead from the col up to the east top of Coinneach Mhor


At the cairn on the east top we took a bearing for the col below Spidean Coire nan Clach. Visibility was poor, but it wasn't a total whiteout. We could see the cornices on our left, above the immense Coire Ruadh-staca.

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Cornices on the ridge towards Spidean Coire nan Clach


From the col steepening slopes led up to the minor 905m top of Spidean.

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Looking up to the 905m top of Spidean Coire nan Clach


After that the ridge narrowed, a second minor top crossed and then up to the trig point at 972m. This is not the summit but is the crucial reference point for the descent into Coire an Laoigh. Visibility was now very poor indeed.

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The trig point on Spidean Coire nan Clach. Not the summit but marks the descent route.


We headed off for the summit along an ever narrowing ridge, negotiating some steep, rocky steps along the way, until we reached an exposed high point, beyond which a lower top was just visible through the murk. All previous footprints ended here. We checked the GPS, which confirmed that this was the summit. There was something eerily impressive about this place. A quick photo, and we headed back towards the trig point.

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Karl on summit of Spidean Coire nan Clach


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Karl descending one of the exposed steps on Spidean Coire nan Clach


Back at the trig point we took a bearing for the cairn which marks the descent into Coire an Laoigh. Footprints went down this way, reassuringly. Soon, however, the lines of footprints diverged and seemed to wander aimlessly. We kept to our bearing until the slope eased towards the col and the cairn emerged out of the thick mist.

But now we had a problem. For overhanging the corrie into which we wanted to descend was a large cornice, beyond which we could see only a white void. The cornice continued along the edge of Stuc Coire an Laoigh and the slopes below it were very steep. I consulted the map. It didn't look like there was any easy way into the corrie by going over the Stuc. But it looked as if the cornice ought to disappear back up the slope above the cairn, since the contours indicated no distinct edge. So we carefully walked as close to the edge as possible and worked our way back up, until the cornice, thankfully, became a rounded edge that we could step over, onto a steep slope of hard neve that stretched to the limits of visibility. We faced into the slope to begin, working down slowly and carefully using the picks of our axes. We were surrounded by an unbroken wall of whiteness. After a while the gradient eased sufficiently to face out and use our axe spikes to steady ourselves as we carefully walked down. The slope was still steep and still there was nothing visible below us. But eventually some black rocks appeared to the right, then below. We kept going, and the gradient was easing, until a strip of bare, icy grass appeared below and left. We headed for that, then followed the snow to it's left, on which a line of footprints appeared. The slope eased off considerably.Then at last we could see the floor of the corrie, below the mist. We reached an area of rocks, with a view out to Loch Clair. We stopped there, removed our crampons, put our ice axes away and ate the rest of our food. We were glad to be back in relative normality after the uncertainties of the white void! We were also glad we'd resisted the temptation to attempt the Liathach traverse, given the unexpected deterioration in the weather.

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Below the clag at last in Coire an Laoigh


A very good stalker's path, which we followed in a mood of cheerfulness, elation even, led down to the road.

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Sgurr Dubh across Glen Torridon


It had been quite an adventure, and a fitting end to our Torridon trip. Back at the bunkhouse there was no sign of the two ice-climbers. We cooked our meals, then went into the hotel bar. At about 9pm the two climbers walked into the bar, still with their outdoor kit on and soaked through. They went through to see the manager then walked back out again. We never did get to find out where they'd been or what they'd done, but it looked like they'd had a fair epic.


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dav2930
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby ancancha » Thu Mar 15, 2018 10:17 am

It's a shame about the clag, I'd love to have seen the photo of the cornice you backed up and around from :( and expect the other views / photos would have been fantastic as well :!:
Still being in the middle of nowhere in the mist can be a phenomenally atmospheric experience 8)

Glad you had a fun time and a good adventure :wink:
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby Mal Grey » Thu Mar 15, 2018 11:13 am

Great story.

Its so often that the scariest thing in winter is that great white nothingness that you know you have to walk towards, because the compass or map is telling you so, but all your instincts say "don't, you can't see if its a cliff".
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby Alteknacker » Thu Mar 15, 2018 3:46 pm

What a fantastic day! Some cracking views, notwithstanding the later whiteout at higher levels. For example: being mentally focused on the triple buttress, I haven't really clocked Coinneach Mhor when I've been up there in the past - those huge vertical cliffs look absolutely superb in full winter garb.

As regards the Triple Buttress - and indeed Coire Mhic Fhearchair as a whole - just wonderful to be reminded of what a description-defying place it is. Quite apart from the awe-inspiring character of the place, I can't help thinking that among the 200+ routes up the buttresses, there must be some that could be scrambled...

And a serious dose of adrenaline at the start of the descent - it sounds to me like one of those situations that are more fun in the retrospective telling (because you're definitely alive to do so!) than in experiencing them at the time, when you're not absolutely sure you will be!! A really riveting story - I couldn't resist following your progress on the map and imagining the situation (ghoulish pleasure - the only thing I'm more scared of than cornices is avalanches!!). I couldn't figure out, though, why you didn't both simply try a paraglider descent .... :D

We visited Coire Mhic Fhearchair a couple of years ago in similar conditions (absolutely FREEZING!). All was fine until we decided to ascend Rhuadh Stac Mhor direttissima. When we eventually got to the ridge a little way south of the summit, there was a tremendous blow, and it took us an absolute age just to make it the couple of hundred metres down to the col - a sobering experience that has remained with me (only written up in my Walks Diary, as a reminder of how fierce and risky winter conditions can be!).

It seems from your account that you found ascending to the col at the head of Coire Mhic Fhearchair reasonably straightforward. Didn't you find it difficult in deep snow? We descended this way, and after the initial easy glissading, we found it extremely tricky and time-consuming getting over the boulder field.

Great report :clap: :clap: :clap:
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby rockhopper » Fri Mar 16, 2018 9:43 am

Enjoyed that - nice set of photos and a good read :thumbup: Just goes to demonstrate how a relatively straightforward walk in benign summer conditions through Coire an Laoigh can become very challenging with the addition of some snow and clag ! - cheers :)
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby dav2930 » Fri Mar 16, 2018 11:32 pm

ancancha wrote:It's a shame about the clag, I'd love to have seen the photo of the cornice you backed up and around from :( and expect the other views / photos would have been fantastic as well :!:
Still being in the middle of nowhere in the mist can be a phenomenally atmospheric experience 8)

Glad you had a fun time and a good adventure :wink:

Thanks ancancha. Yes, photos taken in near whiteouts don't really show very much :lol: I suppose I could have taken one of the cornice at top of Coire an Laoigh, but quite honestly I was more concerned to find a way down! Being, as you say, 'in the middle of nowhere in the mist' is definitely an experience not to be missed. It was a great day - I'm still buzzing from it :D

Mal Grey wrote:Great story.

Its so often that the scariest thing in winter is that great white nothingness that you know you have to walk towards, because the compass or map is telling you so, but all your instincts say "don't, you can't see if its a cliff".

Thanks Mal. Totally agree with that. Anyone who claims the 'great white nothingness' isn't scary is either lying or has no imagination! :lol: :D

Alteknacker wrote:What a fantastic day! Some cracking views, notwithstanding the later whiteout at higher levels. For example: being mentally focused on the triple buttress, I haven't really clocked Coinneach Mhor when I've been up there in the past - those huge vertical cliffs look absolutely superb in full winter garb.

As regards the Triple Buttress - and indeed Coire Mhic Fhearchair as a whole - just wonderful to be reminded of what a description-defying place it is. Quite apart from the awe-inspiring character of the place, I can't help thinking that among the 200+ routes up the buttresses, there must be some that could be scrambled...

And a serious dose of adrenaline at the start of the descent - it sounds to me like one of those situations that are more fun in the retrospective telling (because you're definitely alive to do so!) than in experiencing them at the time, when you're not absolutely sure you will be!! A really riveting story - I couldn't resist following your progress on the map and imagining the situation (ghoulish pleasure - the only thing I'm more scared of than cornices is avalanches!!). I couldn't figure out, though, why you didn't both simply try a paraglider descent .... :D

We visited Coire Mhic Fhearchair a couple of years ago in similar conditions (absolutely FREEZING!). All was fine until we decided to ascend Rhuadh Stac Mhor direttissima. When we eventually got to the ridge a little way south of the summit, there was a tremendous blow, and it took us an absolute age just to make it the couple of hundred metres down to the col - a sobering experience that has remained with me (only written up in my Walks Diary, as a reminder of how fierce and risky winter conditions can be!).

It seems from your account that you found ascending to the col at the head of Coire Mhic Fhearchair reasonably straightforward. Didn't you find it difficult in deep snow? We descended this way, and after the initial easy glissading, we found it extremely tricky and time-consuming getting over the boulder field.

Great report :clap: :clap: :clap:

Thanks for your very interesting comments AK, and for taking the trouble to follow the description on the map! :D
Yep, it really was a fantastic day, in some ways even better than the previous day on Alligin. Sounds like you had a pretty exciting adventure up there too - you're right, winter conditions can be very risky. Quite rational to be scared of avalanches (and cornices). You're spot on in saying that, at the time, such experiences are tinged with uncertainty as to one's survival, which sets the old adrenalin going! Fortunately the slope into Coire an Laoigh, though very steep, was all hard neve (facing east into the wind that had prevailed), so there wasn't much risk of avalanche. That paraglider would certainly have come in handy - though would probably have induced more adrenaline than I could've coped with :lol:

As for the ascent up Coire Mhic Fhearchair to the col, a lot of the snow was either fairly firm or rock-hard, so it was pretty straightforward. We kept to the right through the boulder-field and just follwed a series of snow banks, taking the line of least resistance. The big slope up to the col was soft enough to kick good steps into but firm enough to take one's weight, so it wasn't particularly hard work, and right at the top it was hard neve. Conditions were probably very different when you were there, by the sound of it. Thanks again AK.

rockhopper wrote:Enjoyed that - nice set of photos and a good read :thumbup: Just goes to demonstrate how a relatively straightforward walk in benign summer conditions through Coire an Laoigh can become very challenging with the addition of some snow and clag ! - cheers :)

Cheers RH, glad you enjoyed the report :D. Absolutely right. I did the same walk back in July 2008 so I wasn't expecting any particular difficulties on the descent into Coire an Laoigh; but the combination of very poor visibility and a banked-out slope of uniformly steep neve with a cornice to avoid completely transformed it.
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby ancancha » Sat Mar 17, 2018 10:27 am

dav2930 wrote:quite honestly I was more concerned to find a way down!


Ah yes :wink: , there are times when paying attention takes precedence over going through what you will write in the TR and getting the photos to embellish it :lol:

All the best...
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby weaselmaster » Mon Mar 19, 2018 11:39 am

Enjoyed reading that, sharing your anxiety when the clag closed in. As has already been mentioned, that feeling of stepping into white nothingness when you know danger may well lurk below your boots is not one of my favourites.
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby BlackPanther » Mon Mar 19, 2018 12:19 pm

Thanks for reminding me about my fav Munro :D As soon as the snow melts, we'll be up there again, for the umpteenth time. I can never grow tired of Beinn Eighe. I'm cooking up a scrambling route later this year :wink:

We once climbed up the stone chute in winter when the rocks were covered in thin ice. I don't know how we managed all the way to the summit of BE without putting crampons on :roll: But we were young and stupid back then...

The whiteout conditions on any hill, even a benign round lump always scare the S out of me. It's so easy to make a grave mistake. I remember one cloudy day we were doing some of the Lawers Munros, and when traversing from Meall Corranaich to Meall a'Choire Leith in total whiteout, I was chatting and giggling the way I usually do... Suddenly I realized, I was walking maybe 1m away from the edge of a huge cornice... Two steps to the right and BP would be history :shock:
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby malky_c » Mon Mar 19, 2018 8:54 pm

Great report, and it's good to get pushed out of your comfort zone once in a while in winter conditions (provided you mange to get down unscathed, of course!)

Did this route in similar conditions to you about 12 years ago, although perhaps the snow wasn't as hard. All I remember is that we went directly up the W face of Ruadh Stac Mor rather than the gully, as it looked less prone to avalanching that time. I don't remember any cornice issues so the conditions must've been a bit thinner. I certainly remember s similar fear on other walks though, even without the whiteout. When you're pretty sure that it isn't a proper cornice because the ground isn't steep enough below, but the bulge is big enough that you can't actually see over it, it can be disconcerting to make the first few steps over it. Add a whiteout and it makes your brain hurt :lol: .
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby dav2930 » Mon Mar 19, 2018 10:45 pm

weaselmaster wrote:Enjoyed reading that, sharing your anxiety when the clag closed in. As has already been mentioned, that feeling of stepping into white nothingness when you know danger may well lurk below your boots is not one of my favourites.

Thank you weaselmaster :D I don't think the feeling of anxiety in such conditions will ever go away. It certainly focuses the mind! At least the sense of possible danger when descending into Coire an Laoigh was mitigated by the knowledge that there were no crags between us and the Coire floor!

BlackPanther wrote:Thanks for reminding me about my fav Munro :D As soon as the snow melts, we'll be up there again, for the umpteenth time. I can never grow tired of Beinn Eighe. I'm cooking up a scrambling route later this year :wink:

We once climbed up the stone chute in winter when the rocks were covered in thin ice. I don't know how we managed all the way to the summit of BE without putting crampons on :roll: But we were young and stupid back then...

The whiteout conditions on any hill, even a benign round lump always scare the S out of me. It's so easy to make a grave mistake. I remember one cloudy day we were doing some of the Lawers Munros, and when traversing from Meall Corranaich to Meall a'Choire Leith in total whiteout, I was chatting and giggling the way I usually do... Suddenly I realized, I was walking maybe 1m away from the edge of a huge cornice... Two steps to the right and BP would be history :shock:

Thank you BP - you're welcome! :D Yes I think Beinn Eighe is one of my favs too, along with An Teallach and Liathach. I'd like to do the complete traverse (continuing east from Spidean). I'm intrigued about the scrambling route you have in mind - hope you'll write a report on it! :).

Crikey that experience you had on Corranaich/Choire Leith sounds a close call :shock: . I suppose those of us who live to learn that whiteouts demand the utmost respect are the lucky ones!

malky_c wrote:Great report, and it's good to get pushed out of your comfort zone once in a while in winter conditions (provided you mange to get down unscathed, of course!)

Did this route in similar conditions to you about 12 years ago, although perhaps the snow wasn't as hard. All I remember is that we went directly up the W face of Ruadh Stac Mor rather than the gully, as it looked less prone to avalanching that time. I don't remember any cornice issues so the conditions must've been a bit thinner. I certainly remember s similar fear on other walks though, even without the whiteout. When you're pretty sure that it isn't a proper cornice because the ground isn't steep enough below, but the bulge is big enough that you can't actually see over it, it can be disconcerting to make the first few steps over it. Add a whiteout and it makes your brain hurt :lol: .

Cheers Malky :D . Yep, that's what winter's all about! You've summed up the situation nicely. :lol:
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Re: Testing conditions on Beinn Eighe

Postby BlackPanther » Tue Mar 20, 2018 9:51 am

dav2930 wrote:I'm intrigued about the scrambling route you have in mind - hope you'll write a report on it! :).

I'm interested in plane crash sites, so I was hoping to visit Fuselage Gully and photograph the remains of the Lancaster. Some of it is scattered lower down by the loch, but there is a lot more higher up, wedged between rocks. The full climb up the gully to Coinneach Mhor is for rock climbers only, so my idea is just to scramble as high as I can without getting into trouble :D Of course it's a route for summer time when all snow is long gone.
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