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Enlightning times on the SGSR

Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby kmai1961 » Sun Jun 10, 2018 4:52 pm

Route description: South Glen Shiel Ridge: 7 Munros

Munros included on this walk: Aonach Air Chrith, Creag a'Mhaim, Druim Shionnach, Maol chinn-dearg

Date walked: 09/06/2018

Time taken: 10 hours

Distance: 18.6 km

Ascent: 1643m

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A couple of years ago, I made a joke that it would probably take me at least seven trips to climb all of the Munros on the South Glen Shiel Ridge. I’m a bit notorious for my fails, or as I prefer to call them, recces. Six trips for the Mullardoch 12, three (!!) to bag the easy Drumochter summit A' Bhuidheanach Bheag, and my all-time best/worst/favourite, eight separate trips to get the five in the Creag Meagaidh massif. :clap: The list goes on...

The number of new Munros that I have left to climb is dwindling, and I was pleased (and maybe even a big smug) that I’d not yet done the SGSR. I was determined that I wasn’t going to do it on anything other than a good day—preferably with company, not only for, well, company, but also to help with the end-to-end transportation issue. It’s fairly rare for all of those events to come together at the same time. When Cat, whom I’ve not seen for probably three years or so, extended an invitation to join a small group of women of mixed ages and experience—there’d be five of us—to do the route, I jumped at the chance. All we needed was good weather.

And we had it, in the run up to the trip. Until only a day or so before, most of Scotland had been enjoying a good long run of decent weather. A day or two before, the Saturday forecasts starting saying “showers developing,” and even “some risk of thundery showers.” The BBC was fairly vague about where and when they “might” develop, and MWIS, as usual, covers such a wide area that it was difficult to make a call based on those two sources. I’d checked one of the summits on the Met Office site, and it showed heavy rain for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Cat had checked all of the summits, and one had predicted thunder at 11am, and several of the others heavy rain from 2-4pm. If the forecast was accurate, we were likely to get wet in the afternoon, but should be ok otherwise.

I was scooped up from the layby at the endpoint a few minutes after 8am. I’d been unable to get accommodation for the night before, so had left home ridiculously early. At least there’s no traffic at that time—even the lorries seemed most cooperative, either pulling over to let me overtake, or indicating when it was safe to do so.

We set off from the Cluanie just before 8:30. The first few kms, along the track, went pretty quickly, as we were chatting about various topics, but our progress slowed dramatically as we began the stiff climb to the first summit.

setting off -- a nice morning -- some inversions about

on the ascent

We reached the first summit, Creag a’Mhaim, about 11:30. While we were there, celebrating having made “the ridge,” having a bite to eat, enjoying the view, and fighting off midges, we heard the first faint rumbles of thunder in the distance. But the sky above us was still clear, and although we were aware of it, we weren’t particularly concerned because it did sound very far away. It was very dark over toward Glen Affric, and we talked about being glad that we weren’t there!

busy bees on Creah a'Mhaim: phone a friend! Instagram (and eat)! Just eat! Do mountain leader-y stuff (and eat)!

the way ahead, toward Druimm Shionnach

summit Druimm Shionnach, Aonach Air Chrith behind in the distance

storm clouds gathering and approaching

looking down on the Cluanie

We were on the long stretch between Druimm Shionnach (2) and Aonach Air Chrith (3) when we saw what looked like a heavy rain shower headed our way. We stopped to put on waterproofs, and within five minutes or so, the rain was upon us. We’d still been hearing the odd rumble of thunder since the first summit, but we’d not seen any flashes, and it still sounded far away. We carried on.

Before we started up the final bit of steep ascent to Aonach Air Chrith, Cat suggested that we sit and wait it out for a few minutes before going up even higher than we were. Good idea. We crossed over to a hollow—the lowest ground in the area, and sat atop our rucksacks. The heavy rain continued, soon turning to hail, then harder and bigger hail, then even harder and bigger hail that stung, even through waterproofs.

The first flash came. 1…we counted…2…3…4…to 7, before the thunder. Still fairly far away; we reckoned about 2k. We waited for what seemed a long time; there were big pauses between. Flash! 1…2…3 BOOM! Much closer; that's not good Wait, wait, wait. The hail continued.

The next flash and the thunder came simultaneously. The deafening noise drowned our shrieks of fright, and left our ears ringing in the aftermath.

There was another long wait, as we all tried to calm ourselves and each other. I sat in the brace position during this time, with my head on my knees, not wanting to look up, repeating some sort of mantra as I often do when I’m scared. I don’t actually remember what it was, but it was probably one of “sh**, sh**, sh**…,” “omigod, omigod, omigod…” (hoping that given the circumstances, it'd be correctly interpreted as a plea, rather than as a taking in vain), or “oh dear oh dear oh dear." (Actually, on reflection, there’s a much greater likelihood that it was one of the first two rather than that last one.) Cat said that she’d seen Louise’s hair—the bits that weren’t tucked into her hood—standing on end. As much as we didn’t want to experience THAT again, we also wanted to be able to judge whether the storm was moving away from us. Leona saw the next one hit the hill in front of us. 1…2…3…Boom! OK, good, that one might have been a bit further away than it appeared to be.

About this time, a party of five lads, who we’d seen quite some way behind us, marched over the rise. To have caught us up, they must have continued walking through the entire event. The next time we heard the thunder, it came without a flash, and sounded as though it was moving away. Soon thereafter, we decided it was probably safe to carry on. We met the lads at the summit of Aonach Air Chrith, and they asked whether we’d heard THEM screaming. They hadn’t known what to do, other than to carry on walking.

after the storm, looking back down toward the Cluanie again, from Aonach Air Chrith

brave smiles at the highest summit hide the fact that we'd just had the livin' daylights scared out of us!

As we continued heading west, the skies in front of us looked a lot more promising than the blackness behind us. We began to think that it was all going to be ok, and that we’d be able to finish, perhaps even in nice evening sunshine.

action shot from the wee scrambly bit between Aonach Air Chrith and Maol-Chinn Dearg

the still very dark and ominous skies behind us...

...and over Loch Quoich as well

We had a lengthy break at Maol-Chinn Dearg, to have some more food, and to talk about options; there was a path down to the glen from this summit. When we began the discussion, we were, to a woman, keen to carry on and finish what we’d started. But…none of us wanted to test the theory that lightning rarely strikes twice. There was still a lot of thunder rumbling behind us, and we weren’t certain it was still moving away from us. I recce’d the escape route, and confirmed that there was a good path down, as far as I could see, while Cat determined that we were well over halfway, distance-wise, and that we’d have a bit more than 600m ascent to finish. The deciding factor was what the weather was going to do, which of course, we had no way of knowing. As we sat there, the sky to the west, which had been looking brighter, began to darken, and the confidence that we’d be ok to carry on began to waiver. It wasn't a straightforward or easy call to make. Cat suggested that we take a vote, ala rock/paper/scissors: closed fist to descend from here; open hand to carry on. Five closed fists made it unanimous; descending it would be, leaving the three western-most summits for another day.

a bit of sunshine in the general direction of the ones that got away...this time...

The descent was long and steep—but it was going to be from wherever we did it, wasn’t it? But there was a good path the entire way that zigzagged nicely down the steepest bits. Somewhere along the way, we’d had the bright idea that one or two of us could thumb a lift to the Cluanie, since the path was going to bring us down nowhere near either of the cars.

looking back up our descent route

Cat and Christie carried on ahead, whilst Louise, Leona, and I kept a more leisurely pace—we’d meet them in the layby at the end of our descent. Sadly, no ride was forthcoming, and they ended up walking the entire way—about three miles. The three of us waited, hoping that we looked pathetic enough batting away the midges that someone would stop and ask us if we needed help and/or a ride. We’d say no, but ask them to keep an eye open for our friends further up the way, and offer them a ride. That didn’t happen either. So we simply waited, figuring that there was no benefit to be gained in beginning to walk in either direction (other than perhaps getting a break from the midges). Christie and Cat powered quickly through their extra distance, and the rest of waited for only about a half hour or so before they picked us up.

I’d kindly been invited to share a curry with the others back at the hostel, but I was desperate for a shower, and even more desperate for a beer. I found myself wishing I’d packed a bottle of whisky; that’s how rattled I still was. I extracted a promise that I’d again be invited when they came back to finish the job – to which Cat dryly replied that we’d have to do it together, because who else would want to do only the three, and not all seven? I said quick goodbyes and jumped into the car for the short drive to my B&B.

There might be some who’d argue that we had no business even setting off, given that thundery showers had been forecast. I’ve thought long and hard about this since it happened—it was a long drive home. It wasn’t like we’d not done any risk assessment. We were aware of the forecast; we were prepared for rain, certainly; we kept monitoring the weather around us, as best we could, throughout the day; and, thanks to Cat, we knew what the prescribed advice was when it got really hairy. I don’t know whether I’d have made any different decisions given the same situation.

I feel as though nearly getting struck by lightning bonded us in a way that no other experience could possibly do. Ladies, I’m so grateful that I wasn’t on my own out there; you were all brilliant throughout the entire day. Cat, a true ML, you were calm and coolheaded, and kept the rest of us from sheer panic (several times). Christie, Leona, and Louise, you might not yet have much experience, but you all showed a great deal of grit, determination, and good humour throughout an extremely challenging day. If I’d been through something like that during my early walking days, I’d probably still be in bed with the covers over my head! I’d be delighted to head out into the hills again with any of you. Any time.

Finally—looping back around to the way I started this story. In true kmai style, I’ve managed to split a route that most walkers do in a one-r into at least two separate trips. At the moment, I remain hopeful and optimistic that it really won’t take me seven…
Last edited by kmai1961 on Tue Jun 12, 2018 5:02 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby Petr Dakota » Sun Jun 10, 2018 5:32 pm

It was nice to meet you there in the layby. Pity, you did not finish the Ridge but safety on the 1st place. I was lucky avoided the rain/hailstones and storm just in time :crazy: Good you managed the descend :thumbup: , I remember that I wanted cut my descending route after the 7th Munro using the gully along stream as a shortcut which became much longer - slower because the terrain there and crossing the stream many times still there and back :roll: never again :lol: At least you can come there again either finish the three or made all of them in a better day. I saw almost nothing there in 2015 so need repeat the ridge some ( hope clear ) day.
All the Best !
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby gld73 » Sun Jun 10, 2018 8:15 pm

We were doing the Strathfarrar 4 at the same time, and heard the thunder/saw the ominous dark clouds to the south west, guessing that Kintail might not be such a good place to be .... :shock:
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby Sunset tripper » Sun Jun 10, 2018 9:45 pm

A bit of a shocker that - sorry couldn't resist :roll:

Great report and a wise decision to leave the rest of the ridge for another day. Good excuse to go back also.
All the best. :D
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby Alteknacker » Sun Jun 10, 2018 10:18 pm

OMG! I DEFINITELY wouldn't have survived that - my heart would have stopped from sheer fright!

It's probably statistically irrational, but I won't go into the hills if there's any chance of thunderstorms :roll:

(PS I wonder if the "sit on yr rucksack" advice has ever been tested in anger ...???)
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby Dunfie » Mon Jun 11, 2018 11:01 pm

Glad to hear you all got off the hill safely. We were about 45 minutes in front of you on the ridge. The rain/hail and thunder started as we were dropping off of Maol chinn-dearg and we did have a hairy few minutes while trying to work out which way the weather was travelling.

When we reached the top of Sgurr an Doire Leathain the rain had eased and we had a snack while staring at the darkness down the glen and into Glen Affric. Just as we were about to pick up our rucksacks to move on there was two parallel lightning sticks that looked like it was back at Maol chinn-dearg and the noise was almost instant. I actually jumped with the fright I got. We grabbed the rucksack and moved off as quickly as we could.

The really interesting thing for us and given how wet it was for 15/20 minutes - the path after Sgurr an Lochain was bone dry so nothing had fallen on that part of the ridge.
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby Scottk » Tue Jun 12, 2018 12:04 am

I did the same as you guys, looked at the weather, weighed up the chances and decided to go. The weather reports were so inconsistent-one said Lochnagar would have thunder storms but Broad Cairn would be OK. I think as long as you are prepared to walk away and have a retreat planned that is the best you can do.
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby rockhopper » Tue Jun 12, 2018 12:20 am

Jings - didn't like the sound of all that but glad you all got down OK - cheers :)
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby BlackPanther » Tue Jun 12, 2018 8:56 am

Wow. I'm glad we took a break on Saturday :lol:
We also split SGS ridge in two parts, incidentally. Climbed Creag a'Mhaim, Aonach Air Chrith and Druim Shionnach in mid-October when the day was simply not long enough to tackle the whole ridge. So when we returned for the second take from the west end, we didn't have to go all the way and we descended the same ridge you did. We had bikes waiting for us in the layby, but it still took us 8 hours to return to the starting point.

I remember our own encounter with thunderstorm two years ago on Maoile Lunndaidh, very similar circumstances minus hail. I was close to wetting my pants but held my nerves somehow :shock:

We were off climbing hills all week, mostly western/south western Highlands and the only time it looked iffy was on Thursday on Beinn Heasgarnich. Still to post my TR (I'm 8 reports behind!), so just a glimpse now... I was surprised that the storm never came, the dark cloud just drifted away slowly...

Cheers, BP
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby dogplodder » Tue Jun 12, 2018 10:08 am

Great report. :D

If it's any consolation we spilt the ridge exactly where you did without any thunder to persuade us. Just wanted to take our time and enjoy the ridge on two occasions. The same day you did this walk we had the boat booked for the Mullardoch 4 but after much searching of weather sites decided to pull the plug, partly because one of the group was on her first Munro and I didn't want her first experience to be a scary one. We would probably have been fine but after being caught on Carn a' Mhaim in thunder and lighting decided not to risk it! :shock:
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby kmai1961 » Tue Jun 12, 2018 5:08 pm

Thanks, everyone, for your comments, support, and stories.

Petr, good to meet you as well -- it's always nice to be able to put a face to a Walkhighlander who I'm quite familiar with by user name. I'm glad you managed to get down before all the drama!

Dunfie, your description of what you saw looking back from further along the ridge ("two parallel lightning sticks …") is making my heart palpitate all over again, thinking back on it.

It was certainly a day / experience I won't soon forget.
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby cmarcol » Tue Jun 12, 2018 8:48 pm

Karen even in those circumstances you still apologised for the expletives you were about to utter :lol: enjoyed reading this but my heart rate was up a bit again. My Garmin never recovered. Reckon the static has destroyed it.

The rucksack thing is the official advice and guidance and it will act as an insulator but as far as I can tell it’s getting down low that counts. I asked a friend on return (physics PhD) about the rucksacks and he said probably not. Air itself is an insulator so the result of a direct strike likely wouldn’t change but the chances of being hit directly are reduced massively by not being the highest thing around. The lightning we saw strike around us hit prominences on the higher ground so getting low is vital. I’ll always follow the advice but seriously hope I never have to again.

Most of the ladies are taller than me anyway so I wasn’t really worried..... Nope. It’s still too fresh to even joke about it! :shock:
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Re: Enlightning times on the SGSR

Postby malky_c » Thu Jun 14, 2018 8:02 am

Well I can safely say that's an experience that I'm more than happy not to have! Glad you all managed to get away unscathed. The only time I've been in anything remotely approaching this situation was on the summit of Am Basteir. There was no rain or thunder, but it was one of those really close, clammy days with big anvil clouds and our hair started standing on end. We scarpered downwards pretty quickly!

I suppose I would have headed out in the forecast as well - in fact I did, and it's only because the storms were a complete localised lottery that we didn't get caught in any, or even see/hear anything.

Nothing wrong with splitting the ridge up into sections - there's much more to it than the summits, particularly on some of the nice spurs that drop off into Glen Shiel and the head of Loch Cluanie.
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