1 mph In Glen Shiel
by yokehead » Wed Feb 16, 2011 2:40 pm
Munros included on this walk: Aonach Air Chrith, Maol chinn-dearg
Date walked: 14/02/2011
Time taken: 7 hours
Distance: 11.7 km
Ascent: 1025mRegister or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
Today the weather forecast was iffy once more, but then it's been so unreliable for Glen Shiel in any case, so I planned on settling some unfinished business with Aonach air Chrith since I'd now climbed the Munros on either side of it. That way I could use again the great stalker's path up to the ridge leading to Maol Chinn-dearg to ease the way.
As I set off up the path for the 3rd time I could just see my 1st target of the large boulder at around 700m, where the slope starts to get steeper following the flatter part of the ridge (this milestone makes a convenient stop). As usual though (except for the wonderful conditions on Feb 10) cloud was covering the tops. I made good time up the zig zagging path, which was increasingly snow-covered as I ascended, and topped the shoulder. Visibility wasn't too bad but the light was very flat and gave the first taste of conditions to come. The path was no longer visible so I just headed straight up, but the snow depth was very variable and I ended up making a sort of drunken weave as I kept trying to find the least depth. There simply wasn't any visual reference to judge the terrain in the all prevailing whiteness. Despite this, the target boulder was now just ahead and I found I'd reached it in an hour and 20 minutes, I was real pleased with this progress but would soon find things to be a lot different.
A quick stop here to munch on some trail mix, where I got a misty view of the ridge to the east that I was making for.
With the snow being so soft there wasn't the need for crampons yet so I plodded on, using the poles to help push forward. Beyond the boulder there's a bit of a rise, a flatter section then another convenient boulder to use as a stopping place to get the crampons on before the next steeper section up to a small rocky knoll. Just next to this large boulder there's a smaller one at just the right height and angle to use as a footrest for kitting up with the crampons, saves bending down so far! Looking ahead it was amazing to see the change in snow cover over the past few days as these 3 photos show.
I started up toward the rocks, the snow very deep here driven by the wind across the gentle arete and with quite a large cornice on the left. It now started to snow as I zoomed in on the rocks ahead.
But I did get another brief glimpse of my ridge route as the sun tried to break through.
For the next 30 minutes or so I plugged on up the ridge, visibility right down now. I was just aware of the ridge opening out as I got above the narrower part but again struggled with finding the easiest snow for walking. So I adopted the drunken weave again a bit, with variable success, but reached the cairn of Maol Chinn-dearg almost bang on. No chance of any photos though, just nothing remotely worthwhile. Moving on from the cairn I made a slight navigation error. The summit was just off the edge of the folded map and I plotted a bearing of 120 degrees from the bit of the ridge I could see. It felt wrong immediately so after about 20 metres I had a proper look at the map and got the real bearing of 150 degrees, the ridge loops round a bit before heading more to the east. Memo: take key time-saving bearings before setting out! I headed south for a short way to rocks that were just visible and got back onto the true route. Starting downhill I cleared the snow off a boulder as a marker for where to continue straight up if I came back this way.
Conditions were now full whiteout in terms of judging what was underfoot unless there were rocks showing, however I could see the rocky ridge edge and cornice either side so was in no danger of making a fast descent into a corrie! Fortunately it was like this all the way, never was I unsure of exactly where the edges were. What it did mean however is that I kept near to the ridge edge on the left, making use of the visual reference of all the rocky sections. If the path bypasses any of these, I wasn't aware of it! Besides, I like the rocky parts! After just over half a km there's a rise to 913m, this appears as a nice-looking prominent point as you're heading up the ridge from the north. Going over it I was pleased to find it was fairly narrow.
Sorry the following photos are of an indistinct ridge in the clag, skip if too boring!
The ridge was absolutely great, totally absorbing playing with the little rocky problems as I came upon them, and there were plenty of them to keep up interest. I was able to do a bit of mild scrambling, get the axe behind rocks or into frozen turf, plough up deep snow in tiny rocky gullies. Planning the route I'd take at each rock outcrop was part of the enjoyment. The rocks were plastered in snow, all loose, no remnants of the neve we'd experienced in the sun on the 10th. Sometimes I'd see the top of a rise ahead and nothing else but white beyond and all around, only when I got right at the top could I see what was coming next. Care was needed where I'd find downward sloping rocks beneath the snow. One step up, 2 back down in places. Equally amazing and fascinating was the snow in the short stretches between rocky parts. I'd look down to see white white white. Move my foot forward, put it down to the surface - none there, the ground was another 30cm lower! Or move the leg forward, into a 30cm high drift! I'd experienced whiteout before but nothing like this. The snow depth varied between 15 and 30cm with pockets of 50cm, all soft powder and no consolidation. In places it was tough going.
I'd been checking the time, having estimated maybe an hour between the Munros. I'd also read of the narrow bit near the summit and hadn't reached it yet. Another check of the map and compass and I was heading directly east, I reckoned I was near the point where the ridge curves around to the northeast and the summit. On, and I was correct, a marginal clearance to see the curving ridge and I was into the narrow section. This is superb, one bit drops down into a little dip, the narrowest part is around 2m wide. Here the snow had fallen evenly giving a little dome in the middle and no cornice, it was a case of poking the ice axe in ahead to test for each step to come, and moving slowly. I think these photos, taken when coming back, show it but I confess it's all a bit of a blur now which bit was which - just like the photos!
Once past this I was soon at the cairn, visibility now at its very lowest.
I looked at my watch. One and a half hours between the Munros! 2.2 km distance so only about 1mph in old money (ignoring the 200m of ascent)! Checking afterwards I'd taken about twice the time of that using Naismith's rule. In hindsight that's understandable, still, just goes to show how much conditions need to be taken into account. It was only 2pm so I had plenty of time.
In planning I'd been flexible and considered options about the descent route. Ideally I'd have liked to have gone down the north ridge using a couple of possibilities that I'd scoped out from below, that would be the faster way out and a change of ground. But a combination of now almost nil visibility and perhaps a high chance of avalanche danger on the steeper slopes of this ridge ruled it out. Back the way then! I'd not had a chance to eat yet and conditions here, snowing again and wind increasing, weren't inviting for a stop so it was a quick turnaround. At least I'd have my route-finding steps to follow and there wasn't as much ascent to do, I reckoned an hour would see me back to Maol Chinn-dearg.
I was wrong. Yes it was easier following my tracks ( and amazing in how much they'd been near-covered in places in such a short time). I was quickly over the narrow section and down my little gully.
It started to blow harder and I almost got a view down into the glen to the south. Wind and driving snow from the left flank pushed me on.
Now though I started to tire. The ups and downs seemed to be endless. I'd go uphill thinking nearly there, to find it was down again with more uphill to follow. I didn't believe my watch. Just looking out for the boulder I'd cleared of snow to tell me almost there. Stops became frequent, I'd lean forward onto my axe for a rest. Breathing was fine, it was just fatigue around the lower back and hips. Maybe it's like this at 25000 ft? Sometimes it felt desperate blundering through the whiteout snow. Imagining I'm on a Himalayan expedition. Keep going Carruthers! Where's those fixed ropes? Need the Sherpa to have a tent ready for some shelter with tea on the primus. Stiff upper lip old chap! The rocky bits were fine and still enjoyed but, in between these, oh boy!
But plodding does get you there, eventually. I was aware that it was the 913m point as I went over it and not far beyond was the cleared boulder I'd been looking out for. A few more stops, battling now to make camp 4; instead the cairn of Maol Chinn-dearg came into view just to my left and reality returned. I trudged up to it, I've now climbed this Munro 3 times in 5 days! The watch said one and a half hours again, time has lost meaning. So 3 hours for the out and back. 9-11 hours is the time given on WH for the whole South Kintail ridge!
At least I had an easy route now, and all downhill. I checked the compass for the way out of this inhospitable place and plodded off in the deep snow. Gradually I came out of the clag and could see the steeper narrower section below, this is well known ground now after having done 3 ascents and 2 descents before this one. At the first of the large boulders I stopped to take the crampons off and have some well-overdue food. Sandwiches were bliss, never enjoyed them more. Not so windy here either but the snow increased for a while. The Cluanie Curtain certainly living up to its name.
The food gave me wings though and showed that, no matter the conditions, I can't afford to not eat. Trail mix alone isn't enough, I need something more to burn - lesson learned once again, sometimes the only way. I fairly bombed down, taking a last photo of the eerie lighting through the snow on the way.
It was a day that left me shattered though as aches during the night were to prove. Nevertheless, a brilliant experience, and most of it even enjoyed at the time!
by David.Ferguson » Wed Feb 16, 2011 4:12 pm
Brave doing that on your own in those conditions,still amazes me the difference in conditions from valley floor
by Bruadair » Wed Feb 16, 2011 5:41 pm
Ditto to David's comments...........hats off to you and well done, superb effort accompanied with decent pic's.
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by Alastair S » Wed Feb 16, 2011 5:57 pm
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