Half Ring of Steall...on a beautiful winter's day

Route: The Ring of Steall, Mamores

Munros: Am Bodach, Sgùrr a' Mhàim

Date walked: 29/12/2014

Time taken: 8 hours

Distance: 12.2km

Ascent: 1500m

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A loud noise rings out. It's 5.55am. Most of the hotel is still sleeping, but for me it's time to move. Time to sort out my rucksack for the hike ahead, as I was too tired to sort it the previous evening. This is my sort of holiday. Breakfast is served from 7am. I'm there, the first, eager to get on and out in the hills for first light. 1 hour later I'm finally in my car and on my way, after eating as much as possible, and sneaking some out for lunch too. It's a 20 minute drive to the foot of Sgurr a' Mhaim...at least it was this morning. Dense freezing fog shrouded Fort William, then perilous ice sheets covered the road through Glen Nevis, a narrow tarmac track which twists and turns all over the place, ensuring I couldn't go any faster than 20mph or risk ending up in a ditch. A thick hoar frost coats every object in the vicinity, clearly having been there for a few days and about to add another one to the list. The car thermometer briefly dips to -4.5c as I enter the glen, but by the time I park up at Achriabhach, it's reading -3c and the fog has cleared.

It's now 8.20am. The first light is starting to illuminate the glen, but the sun hasn't yet risen. Banks of cloud swirl venomously round all the Munro summits, clearly there are strong winds at height, but in the glen all is still and silent.

A short walk along the road, past the impressive Lower Falls waterfall, the walk starts. Across a small stile, a track leads away towards Coire Mhusgain...I hadn't planned it, but this would end up being my descent route at the end of the day.

The plan was to ascend Sgurr a' Mhaim via its steep NW ridge, party at the summit, then descend to the start of the Devil's Ridge, and hopefully, weather permitting, get some stunning wintry photos for the second edition of my book. As I started walking towards Coire Mhusgain, the weather was a bit dubious. I wasn't sure about the cloud at that time swooping over the summit of Sgurr a' Mhaim and prayed it would lift.

Soon I left the main path into the corrie and followed a smaller path climbing up the steep NW ridge. The path was often coated in ice which didn't agree well with my old walking boots, but fortunately I was going up. It's always worse coming down.

A few slips and slides later, and I started to cross the gradual and progressive snow line. At first, there was just a patchy dusting, preserved where the mild winds couldn't get at it. Progressively it turned into a more general covering. Freezing fog still sat in the lower part of Glen Nevis, a mass of grey lapping at the hillsides on either side.

Suddenly, as if by magic, I became aware of an orange glow. The sun was rising. At first, it struck the clouds covering the summits, making them glow a luminescent orange. Then it caught the lower snow-covered slopes of the high mountains, below the cloud base. But something else was also occurring. The irritating low cloud was starting to rise and fragment. This promising weather development spurred me on. I wanted to be at the summit while the sun was still low and the mountains were a distinct orange hue. At least, if the cloud cleared.

Nevis Range cloud.jpg
As the sun rises and casts an attractive orange glow, the low cloud starts to lift off the Nevis Range...

My progress was soon slowed though as I started to hit drifting snow. The fine powder was filling in the groove created by the path, and it was easy to sink up to the knee with little warning. The wind was also really starting to pick up on these upper slopes, a stinging cold westerly which picked up the small ice crystals and drove them into your face. The warm hat and gloves really came into their own and it was time to strap on the crampons for the rest of the route, as my walking boots were losing grip.

While I was busy with that, the cloud lifted completely off the Nevis Range to the north and all of the snow-clad peaks pierced into a bright clear blue sky. The photos never do it justice, but it looked at the time like one of the seven wonders of the world. Only a proper mountaineer can appreciate the splendour and joy it brings.

Nevis Range 1.jpg
The Nevis Range from Sgurr a' Mhaim

With crampons on, progress through the thick drifting snow was quicker but still not easy. The situation was complicated when one of the crampons came loose and embedded itself in the snow.

Finally, the steepest climb was over and a gentler climb up a narrowing ridge led to the summit. I was following two sets of footprints in the snow...maybe walkers out on Sunday, possibly 2 different walkers, maybe the same walker ascending and descending the mountain by the same route. Who knows.

As I topped out near the top of the ridge, I burst into bright sunlight and saw what I was waiting for, the Devil's Ridge. Thin strands of cloud were boiling over the highest point, Stob Coire a' Mhail, and now the wind was really picking up and sending a spray of snow powder off the eastern face of the ridge.

Devil's Ridge.jpg
The Devil's Ridge from Sgurr a' Mhaim

The summit of Sgurr a' Mhaim was only confirmed by being the highest point around. The normally clearly visible massive quartzite cairn at the summit was almost entirely buried beneath the snow and I had already walked over it before I realised where it was. It was 10.30am, the 1050m ascent had taken less than 2 hours, but I knew that without the snow and a slightly dodgey ankle, it could have been a bit quicker.

The view was out of this world. A sea of mountains springing up in all directions, all clad in their winter raiment. Angry clouds still engulfed the summits of Stob Ban and Mullach nan Coirean to the west, but I was above the clouds at the top of the world (well actually I wasn't, but it felt like that). It was time for photos, lots of them. The weak winter sun did little to counteract the extremely high wind chill and after a mere few seconds out of the gloves, the hands would turn to ice and become almost unusable. I started taking photos in short stints, followed by walking around and enjoying the view. The summit is bare and exposed, and with the cairn buried, there was nowhere to shelter from the icy wind.

So, my plan now was to descend about 150m to the start of the Devil's Ridge. The snow was deep but this was easy enough in the beautiful sunshine. It was when I got to the start of the Devil's Ridge that the plan changed, as they tend to do.
I realised at this point that walking the Devil's Ridge in this snow would be a lot easier than I had imagined. I could see a distinct track through the snow, mostly on the western side of the crest, worn deep by walkers before me. The wind was a westerly, it would be blowing me into the ridge, not off it. It was barely 11am, there was plenty of the day left and I could always come back the way I'd come if it was too difficult.

So off I went, descending steeply to a low point on the ridge and what I knew would be the most tricky section. This was the make or break part. If I could do this, I almost certainly could complete the entire thing.

The problem was a few ledges of schist, which in summer involve a short scramble. The winds had mostly cleaned them of snow, except for a thin cover on the more level sections. The crampons could deal with that easily enough but I took a minute or so to identify the right route. Crampons and a solid wall of rock don't mix very well, for you or the crampons. I then saw where the footprints went...to the left along one of the ledges, which led to a bank of snow and a way round the exposed schist. The assumed hardest bit was over in 20 seconds.

The second low point on the ridge was the second place where there could be trouble. The ridge here comprises some exposed upturned slabs. You don't want to get it wrong there or you'll fall for 400m into one of two glens below. In summer, the usual route descends a little on the western side, then climbs back to the crest of the ridge with a little scramble. The multitude of boot prints in the snow implied that the same route applies in winter. It was easy enough except that a crampon came loose...again. Not the best time for that.

Now, the climb to Stob Coire a' Mhail, the highest point on the ridge, is the narrowest section and can't be avoided. The wind was blowing, but at this moment, at a controllable level and this narrow ridge was a pleasure to crampon along. So that was the Devil's Ridge. Well, almost.

The Devil's Ridge to Sgurr a' Mhaim from Stob Coire a' Mhail.jpg
The Devil's Ridge to Sgurr a' Mhaim from Stob Coire a' Mhail

The final section involves descending along the ridge as it widens and merges into the bealach below Sgurr an Iubhair (1001m). It's fairly easy, but just as I left Stob Coire a' Mhail, a bank of cloud suddenly engulfed the ridge from the west. It was a whiteout. Fortunately I could follow the footsteps and soon I was at the bealach...thankfully the cloud didn't come during one of the tricky sections on the ridge.

The plan now was clear - to climb Sgurr an Iubhair, a Munro Top, and then follow the ridge to Am Bodach, the second Munro of the day. Basically, one half of the Ring of Steall, which was good for a short mid-winter day I thought.

It's interesting to mention that I had so far met no-one on the walk. When I was nearing Stob Coire a' Mhail, I looked back and saw a walking group partying on Sgurr a' Mhaim, presumably they had come up behind me, but they never caught me up. That was about to change.

The climb of Sgurr an Iubhair is short but steep. The cloud kept coming and going and I didn't deem it worthwhile for a photo at the top. It wouldn't make the book.

Just as I left the summit, I saw a lone ranger coming towards me. I was about to meet the first walker of the day, as it turned out, a broad Scotsman. In fact, everyone I met that day were Scottish. Being English, it made me feel foreign. Anyway, it turned out he was on his way to the Devil's Ridge to, as he said, "tick it off his list".

Interesting he chose a snowy day to do it, plus the wind was definitely picking up. Anyway, he was keen to know what it was like and I informed him it was definitely ok with crampons if you follow the common line. But he should be cautious about the wind. The wind in these mountains is peculiar...often it is not strongest at the summit cairn but at bealachs...where it can be funnelled up a valley to the top of a ridge. These would become very windy places during the day.

I carried on, descending steeply towards a bealach below Am Bodach, then ascending the long ridge to the summit. During this time, I met three couples walking the Ring of Steall. Hmmm maybe I should have tried that too. The cloud also cleared away and I was back in bright sunshine on Am Bodach. Fantastic. Again, the wind was bitter and photo shoots at the summit were short.

Am Bodach.jpg
The Eastern Mamores from Am Bodach

Selfie on Am Bodach

Looking south from Am Bodach.jpg
Looking south towards Glencoe from Am Bodach

But back to the wind, it was definitely strengthening. Just as predicted on the mountain forecast. Severe gales were expected by evening and it looked like the forecast would be right. I decided straight away to not go any further along the Ring of Steall for this reason. Towards the end, there's a very narrow scrambling ridge around An Garbhanach. Experienced walkers have died there on windy days...that was enough of a turn off for me.

So back I went, on the ridge towards Sgurr an Iubhair. The wind was now getting severe. Massive gusts sent walls of ice crystals shooting through the air, stinging your face. One gust almost knocked me flat on my face in the snow. The weather was on the turn, big time, and getting violent.

It was time to descend. Just as I reached the summit of Sgurr an Iubhair, the cloud rolled in again. Complete white out. The descent to the bealach was easy enough, but finding the route back down to Lochan Coire nam Miseach so I could descend through Coire Mhusgain wasn't. The wind put me 100% off doing the Devil's Ridge again, no matter how much I love it. The descent through Coire Mhusgain is longer, but nowhere near as steep as the NW ridge of Sgurr a' Mhaim, which I'd come up.

I roughly knew where the route down was, I've done it several times in summer, but everything looks different in the snow and it's hard to know precisely where you are in the fog. Fine fibrous ice crystals rapidly grew on my coat and gloves. After a few minutes, I found some boot prints leading down, although these were fast disappearing due to drifting snow in the ferocious wind.

Once off the bealach, the wind quickly eased and eventually the cloud cleared. I found the usual zigzagging path leading down to the loch, although it was partially obliterated by massive snow drifts as deep as my legs. A rest and snack were in order down at the loch.

The weather was now definitely on the change as angry clouds skudded across the sky. Milder and moister air was heading in from the west, from that vast body of water we know as the Atlantic Ocean. Several walking groups were descending off Stob Ban and I met them during the descent into Coire Mhusgain. Again, Scottish.

Coire Mhusgain.jpg
Changing weather during the descent into Coire Mhusgain

After a while I dropped below the snow line and was forced to take off my crampons as they ground into the rocky path. The issue was, my walking boots were old and didn't have the grip they used to, so proved to be useless on the icy path. I deliberately wore these older boots rather than my awesome newer grippy ones because I knew I would be using crampons, and they tend to squeeze your boots a lot and slowly reshape them. I didn't want my new ones wrecked.

A cold icy wind blew me down into the corrie but the skies started to clear once more and the moon appeared. My progress was slower than I had expected, but I knew that if the sunlight failed me, the moon would be there. Provided it didn't cloud up again.

I was almost down when I heard a chattering behind me. A group of 3 had descended off Sgurr a' Mhaim, my ascent route, and were rapidly closing in on me with my defunct walking boots. I never get overtaken when I'm walking alone, never. I quickened my pace, with several small slides that I only just held, but just before the road, they got me. It's ok, I knew if I had had my good boots on, then they wouldn't have. Sporadic bright lights migrating slowly along the glen marked cars on the road and came ever closer.

Back down at the road, I got chatting to one of the guys. He had also been along the Devil's Ridge, though later in the day than me, and confirmed that the wind definitely added "extra excitement". We found out the road was still very icy and he jokingly remarked "it would be a shame if we got this far then slipped over on this road!". It was a good point. The day had been popular with walkers, I’m surprised the road hadn’t been salted.

At 16.40, just as the last of the daylight was fading, I made it back to my car. It turned out my car parking spot had become popular and several other vehicles were next to mine. At least my car was still there, along with the morning's frost.

So, a fantastic day in the hills with the photos I wanted, good fun and a sun tan...though actually maybe that's wind burn. Sadly the weather forecast wasn’t good for the following day...to quote the Scottish guy again at the end of the day "aye today was fantastic...for the rest of the week it's back to the sh*t". At least, I presume he was referring to the weather...

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Comments: 3

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User avatar
Location: Oxford
Occupation: Geologist
Interests: Mountain climbing (obviously!), geology, fossil hunting, gardening, just the outdoors in general!
Activity: Stravaiging
Pub: Roy Bar
Mountain: Carn Mor Dearg
Place: Lochaber
Gear: Sturdy walking boots
Ideal day out: A traverse of 2 or 3 Munros with fine ridges between them, offering easy scrambling amongst magnificent scenery without requiring the use of a rope
Ambition: To climb all the Munros!

Munros: 12
Hewitts: 4
Sub 2000: 1

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