Am Basteir: an Executed Circular Compleation

Munros: Am Basteir, Bruach na Frithe

Date walked: 14/05/2019

Time taken: 7.45 hours

Distance: 16.7km

Ascent: 1140m

Symmetry, circularity, fate?

Once I knew this journey was going to be concluded, there could only be one place to finish.

The title’s a spoiler for the overall gist of what follows, but a sub-title could be a little more enigmatic.

It’s all downhill from here

The pictures and captions provide the walk report while the text muses on the longer journey. Miss out whichever you want, but I make no apology for a longer than usual report.

Today’s journey started where it had begun over forty years ago. In the distance, pinnacles, teeth and the iconic jagged skyline looked down on Sligachan just as they had done in 1973. Then, to a seventeen year-old, the Cuillin was an alien world of unpronounceable names, reached only by ferry, at the end of an interminable drive north from Yorkshire, squeezed in the back of a long wheel-based Land Rover Defender. It was our teacher’s pride and joy and the transport of choice for his expeditions.

As the 1970s progressed, inspired by that teacher, joined by a similarly enthused school friend and then enabled by two university mountaineering clubs, I started climbing Scottish hills. Munros were an unknown concept.

While the prospect ahead looks punishing, threatening even, the start is benign. The path past Alltdearg House and alongside the Allt Dearg Mor makes for easy walking. Height is gained gradually and you can stride out or simply stroll towards the Bealach a Mhaim without exerting too much energy: save that for later. Given the conditions and the weather, it was a pleasant surprise to have the path to myself, but I did leave the campsite at 7.00am.

This was to be a solitary Compleation. Mostly, I walk alone and over 80% of my Munros have been climbed that way. Not that I shun company. But today I wanted to stop and ponder when I felt the need, to dredge up recollections, or spend time when the situation deserved the attention, however long that might take. As usual, if I met anyone, I’d be pleased to share the moment, the experience, our plans and expectations. Inevitably we’d make connections, and that’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years.

A cairn marks the point where the path to Glen Brittle continues on its way. Bearing left towards the ridge, the gradient increases slightly but still it’s not taxing. Even Fionn Choire ahead looks amiable, it’s jaws don’t open, they just appear to tamely yawn.

Decisions, decisions. Once in Fionn Choire either burn off energy by heading directly to the north ridge or maintain a steady pace up the gradual incline ahead. Conserving energy won the day: carry on to Bealach nan Lice. The final push might be strenuous but a scratch of pale grey to the left showed where more solid ground might be found up the scree.

Leaving the land of green I entered the Cuillin world of grey. I kept left until immediately below Sgurr a Fionn Choire, then traversed right towards the final slope of Bruach na Frithe.

In the realm of knife-edges, plunging slabs and overhanging buttresses, the eventual approach to the trig point on Bruach na Frithe is surprisingly out of character with its surroundings ...

... especially when you’ve been greeted by the jaw-dropping skyline when breasting the bealach.

The trig point on Bruach na Frithe was reached in a little over three hours from Sligachan. Corbett miles put in during the spring had paid off, as had the choice to continue up the easier-angled route. The ridge might have held a higher entertainment value, but at this stage in the day I was more concerned with avoiding fatigue. I wanted to enjoy what lay ahead rather than endure it as energy levels flagged.

For a long time my records remained unclear as to whether Sgurr Alasdair, Bruach na Frithe or Sgurr nan Gillean had been my first Munro until an album retrieved from a box unopened since moving seven years ago provided the answer: Bruach na Frithe. Fortunately all three have since been repeated so it wasn’t critical. It was clear I had to finish on Skye. Where better than between the Peak of the Young Men that had inspired every morning on that trip in 1973, and Bruach na Frithe, where I’d started my Munro round.

Finishing on Am Basteir, after repeating Bruach na Frithe, my very first, would make it the perfect circular walk.

The rounded hump of the Red Cuillin’s Glamaig in the distance with Am Basteir and Sgurr nan Gillean to the west. Foreground rocks compare with those in a grainy faded photograph taken in 1973 and provided conclusive proof that I was revisiting my very first Munro.

The skyline is the same, as is the shape of the foreground rocks - the view from Bruach na Frithe back in 1973 - it's strange how that orange-brown hue permeates everything from that era

As I left Bruach na Frithe I had company for the first time, other than a raven that had swirled and swooped suspiciously while I snaffled a salt-laden pork pie and a handful of peanuts. Having spent only a brief time on the top the group soon overtook me as we headed for the next objective together: Am Basteir.
The overhanging cliffs of Am Basteir and the Tooth towered above us and the bowl of Coire a Basteir dropped away below. I experienced stark recollections from over forty years ago in the very same place and, given the sheer scale and intimidation the situation generates, I now knew why.

I’ve been a lucky walker and climber.

Over all these years, mountain related injuries have only amounted to: driving the pick of an ice-axe through a finger when executing an arrest in the Alps; tearing ligaments in my ankle while walking back to the car in the dark after a shambolic evening’s climbing on Stanage Edge; a jarred back and bruised heels when protection failed to hold a fall on Millstone Edge; and most embarrassingly, dislocating a finger when descending the final hundred feet or so of Glamaig. I’d just phoned my wife to say I was down safely and would see her shortly.

There are very few times when I’ve been turned back or defeated by the conditions or the gravity of the challenge. Yes, we’ve all had those “can’t be a***d” moments when thrashing through endless powder to touch yet another cairn in the clag but, by and large, persistence has paid off. In fact, I discovered that I benefitted from a view on over 90% of my Munros. Maybe I’m really a fair-weather-walker: an indulgence the retired can enjoy.

But what lay ahead was my nemesis.

The blade of Am Basteir seen from the top of adjacent Sgurr nan Gillean last July

Am Basteir had already thwarted me three times. Back in 1975 that school friend and I had thrashed around blindly in the mist struggling to find our way: we simply didn’t realise how far down we had to go before re-ascending to the Bealach a Bhasteir. We retreated, intact. In 2008 I managed to get to the bealach, this time on my own. However, as heavy rain began to fall, I retreated again when confronted by the infamous notch. “Not on my own,” I concluded. Then last year, on a day I’d hoped to Compleat, I didn’t even leave the lay-by. Horizontal driving rain and gale-force wind announced the end of last year’s stunning summer. With commitments looming in the weeks and months to come, the door was firmly slammed shut. I’d opted out of doing it the day before as climbing The Executioner on Friday 13th didn’t have an auspicious ring to it.

By now the rattle of dislodged stones, the clink of carabiners, and the shouts of climbing partners and guides echoed from slab to wall to crag. Sgurr nan Gillean was starting to bristle with silhouetted figures arriving at the summit. Colourful specks marked those starting the descent into the chimneys and grooves. I’d overtaken the other party as their guide supervised the donning of helmets and harnesses so was pleased to arrive at the foot of Am Basteir’s empty east ridge. My ambition to get to the top alone could be achieved. One thing remained ...

... the redoubtable “Bad Step.” I’d stood there over ten years ago as mists swirled and rain began to fall. On my own, I opted for caution and knew I’d be back. Since then I’ve read reports telling of fears, anxieties and crises of confidence. The use of ropes, abseils and guides have been urged. The intricacies of the by-pass path have been described. So far I’ve never found it. My forty six year odyssey could hinge on the fifteen or twenty feet below. A half-rope had added weight to my bag just in case. But, knowing where the footholds lurked below the undercut, I faced the rock and found the down-climb surprisingly straightforward. A rock climb graded severe? I don’t think so.
I was nearly there.

At 12.05pm, on Tuesday 14 May 2019, I compleated my Munros, looking down into Coire a Bhasteir, the shadowy depths of the Bhasteir Gorge and out to Sligachan on the coast.
I enjoyed the moment, quietly. There was no sense of euphoria, no buttoned-up urge to whoop with delight or punch the air. I just sat there, grateful that the breeze had suddenly dropped and that there was need to seek shelter

Recently, I went back through my annotated guidebooks, photographs and records to recreate a chronology of those early escapades. Six trips to Skye dominate the list between 1973 and 1980 and other hills climbed during that period suggest they were merely snatched on the way there or back. By the time my Munro count reached double figures I’d reached the top of a handful on the Cuillin Ridge (including the Inn Pinn at least twice), done The Ben twice (both via the Carn Mor Dearg arête), and traversed Aonach Eagach. Cairn Gorm had been squeezed in one Easter, after a tortuous hitchhike north.

Youthful enthusiasm or naïveté? Or, was it a case of what you don’t know won’t worry you? That’s the top, let’s get there. Whatever, if we’d known the status of these mountain stars at the time, we could have just called it a day, assuming it could only be downhill from there. Hindsight, eh?

After fifteen minutes or so I was joined by the group I’d left behind just below the bealach. Vikki, Dave, Ronnie, and their guide Dave were able to share my celebration, take the obligatory photograph - on my last with my first in the background - and mark the moment with a dram: Talisker of course, one of my favourites and what else would I have brought when I knew the distillery would be in sight .
Then, they left, leaving me alone to ponder for another half an hour or more.

There have been milestones a-plenty, most recorded in my Walkhighlands reports since I first joined the site in 2009.

In May 2012 we moved to Scotland and a couple of weekends later I “popped out for a walk” one Sunday, and came back after doing the six Munros to the east of Glen Shee. A couple of weeks later I then enjoyed the first dad and daughter trip up a Munro on the Ben Cruachan horseshoe.

I achieved fifty on the Mamores in 2010; one hundred on Creag Pitridh in 2012; halfway in July 2013 on Ben Macdui (well I’ve done this many – I’d better finish them); two hundred on the round of five from Lochnagar in 2015; two hundred and fifty in the Fannaichs; finally down to single figures after spending a memorable night out on Seana Braigh.

And what about the best and worst? Well the former is like being asked which is your favourite child, so I won’t even go there but, alongside Skye, Torridon, Knoydart and the Fisherfields take some beating. It’s easier to highlight the handful to which I won’t be aching to plan a return trip: Tolmount and Tom Buidhe; Carn na Caim and A Bhuidheanach above Drumochter; Carn Bhac above Glen Ey; Carn Sgulain in the Monadh Liath – only seven – surely indicative of the overall charm and attraction of the highest of our Scottish hills.

As ever in these situations, I could have stayed longer. Descending back into the corrie, I’d already decided not to head back upwards to Sgurr a Bhasteir: I’ve got to leave things to do and justify a return in the future after all.
Below the summit crags I stopped to share another dram of Talisker with a pair of guys nearing the end of their two-day traverse of the ridge. Reassuring them about the time it would take to ascend Am Basteir, we went our separate ways and I began the scree slither down.

Back in the land of green, there was time for yet another rest. The increasing decrepitude of my knees now share the excuse with photography for making more frequent stops on the way down rather than the way up. The Slig beckoned. Take your time. Share a word with those whose feet are plunged deep into crystal pools and whose faces display an unapologetic sense of relief.
“If I did that I’d never get back up,” I commented, not admitting that it was exactly what I wanted to do. Instead, I sauntered past waterfalls, pools, the plank bridge leading to Sgurr nan Gillean, and wended my way back to Sligachan, my tent, a shower, and celebratory meal.

Then I get to the luvvy bit; thanks, acknowledgements and recognition for some of the people who have been involved.

Top of the list is Ichabod, that inspiring teacher, with a squash ball sewn into the sleeve of his gown – a perfect weapon to strike recalcitrant and unsuspecting schoolboys on the back of the head as he stood guarding his classroom door.

Then there’s Steve, the school friend from the same road with whom I attended primary school, grammar school and Ichabod’s expeditions. One day he asked something along the lines of “if I get a rope, do you fancy doing something more vertical?” I recall my mother being in the room at the time, silently worrying if we knew what we might be doing. I immediately said “yes,” and the rest, as they say, is history – including subsequent trips to the Alps.

Our free university education in the 1970s played its part: weekly trips with mountaineering clubs were subsidised by the Student Union and enabled the purchase of discounted gear. “You could have got a 2i if you hadn’t climbed as much in second year,” commented my tutor on the award of my meagre 2ii.

Helen and Paul Webster need congratulating for the resource that is Walkhighlands, and the forum that has enabled so many of us to record and structure our progress on the hills. And those with whom I’ve been able to share information and ideas online and at meets – especially on this particular trip to Martin – Fife Flyer – for his detailed photographs of Am Basteir’s Bad Step. I knew where the footholds were.

All those anonymous folks I’ve met, shared a while walking together, chatted with, and who have made each day memorable in some way or another.

And last, but not least, immense thanks to my tolerant and understanding other-half. “Does your wife climb too?” I’m often asked. “Oh no,” I reply. But she knows more about hills than she ever wanted to know, she carries a thinly veiled but understandable anxiety when I head off, especially to Skye, and her sympathy when I return and unfold myself stiffly from the car normally extends to reminding me that it’s my own fault.

And it’s still there in the morning. “Will you be back?” it asks. “Not will,” I reply. “When?”

The SMC ask you about future plans when submitting Compleation information. I reported that Corbetts would now have to compete with a large garden, the repayment of family brownie points and the increasing decrepitude of my knees. But I’ll be back.

Now, where next?

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old danensian

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Location: Ayrshire
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