Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Why I love working on Ben Nevis

As a summer ML I have a  lot of varied work. However, taking clients up Ben Nevis has been a recurring theme over the last couple of years, particularly working for Macs Adventure. I always get asked how many times I have climbed Britain's highest mountain, and I honestly don't know the answer.  Not because I have lost count, but because I have never begun to count.
 "The Ben",  as climbers like to refer to it, has many faces.  There is the magnificent North Face, accessible from the Allt a Mhuilinn path, which is the domain of roped climbers both in winter and summer. There is the Carn Mor Dearg Arete, a hanging curtain of rock that frames the Allt a Mhuilinn approach and is a huge day out for experienced hill walkers and winter mountaineers.
However, most people first climb it via what used to be known as the Tourist Route.  In recent years the name has changed (I think the latest version is "The Ben Path"), but the experience is the same- a broad and often crowded motorway that climbs relentlessly from glen to summit. Experienced Scottish hill walkers love to deride this route.  It's a slog.  It's boring.  It's very very busy.
In winter, even this path is a serious undertaking, with the average year round summit temperature below freezing, the upper plateau is almost always encased in snow, ice and mist. In summer there are still hazards a plenty on this route, with cliffs and gullies to the north and south of the path, snow filled couloirs and cornices lasting until late June, and the temperature at the top usually a good 10 degrees colder than in the glen below. Nevertheless, if you climbed it on a typical Saturday in the summer holidays, it would feel more like Blackpool Pier than a remote Scottish Munro (complete with wind, rain and fog).  The wildlife has long fled in terror, the path is littered with bannana skins (and worse), and most of the people you meet have never climbed a mountain before.
So why do I enjoy working there so much?
The people that walk up Ben Nevis with me are a mixed bunch. Many have set themselves a personal challenge. Some approach the climb with little experience and a great deal of trepidation. Others already enjoy hill walking but like the banter of walking with a group. For a large proportion, it is likely that this is their first visit to Scotland. We advise everyone that although the safety and logistics will all be taken care of for them, a certain amount of physical preparation is essential.  If they have never climbed a mountain in Scotland before, nothing will prepare them for how cold it will feel at the top. For most, the walk is well within their capabilities, very rarely is someone so unprepared that they won't get to the top.  The descent is also exhausting, and it often takes just as long to get down as to go up.  The knees take a battering, the rocky steps are relentless. It is very common for apparently fit and healthy people to exclaim that they never imagined how hard and physically challenging the day would be.  What is remarkable, and wonderful, is that for these same people, they also could not imagine being able to push themselves so hard, and achieving so much- the climb exceeds their expectations in more ways than one.  I always get an immense amount of job satisfaction from helping someone to test what they thought were their physical limits, and discover that they can go so much further.  I imagine (I may be wrong), that when they return back to their real worlds, they continue to explore the boundaries of what is possible. In a way this inspires me to push myself harder too.

Here are my top 5 tips for a summer ascent of Ben Nevis via the Ben Path for the novice hill walker:

1. As well as waterproofs etc, take a hat and gloves, even in July.  Its nobbling on top most days.
2. Apple cores,orange peel and banana skins take years to rot on cold mountainsides and even when they do they damage special soils. Take them home.
3. There may be snow on the top, don't walk on the snow lined cliff edge and across the tops of gullies.  You may be walking on thin air. People have died doing this.
4. If it is not a busy day, you may need a map and compass to navigate off the top.  Do you know how to do this?
5. Trekking poles will help your knees on the way down.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

South Souwester Slabs

Final post in what for me has been a blogging marathon! Time to get out there and do some stuff....
I cut my Sutherland trip short because Wally was at home on Arran sitting under a high pressure system without a climbing partner.  The opportunity was too good to miss (weather good enough to climb doesn't often coincide with both of us being available these days...).

The day dawned a lot darker and damper than we'd hoped and we decided to head for Cir Mhor, a favourite stamping ground with reliable rock and less seepage than other Arran crags. The picture above shows the south ridge, whose direct line is one of the island's classics. The other classic route here is Souwester Slabs, a V Diff that we have done a few times.  This time we decided to join up the dots by heading up South Souwester- a more direct line, that starts to the right of Souwester Slabs, crosses it, follows cracks to the left, before joining it under a massive roof and following the same line to the top.  This route gets Severe.

Wally led most of the route, and the first pitch was the crux. Near the top of the pitch a small roof requires either confident jamming or delicate laybacking to bypass. Wally opted for the jams and thugged his way up impressively.  I followed and with some "tension" from the top rope managed the delicate layback option.
The second pitch was a beaut. Fantastic cracks and gorgeous granite slabs. Photo below!

I led off the second stance- primarily because this involves an awkward step down and across and this seemed to be the best way to protect me.  I'm not a confident leader, but with hindsight I could have led all the way up to the roof and perhaps there would be some justification for claiming alternate leads.  Alas I chickened out and belayed on the lower slab and Wally led the rest of the route. Ambition for 2011 season- get back in to leading properly. This will require a bit more motivation and focus on my part.  I'm inherently lazy and my partner is a solid and reliable leader. Lucky me!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Sutherland Adventure Part 3: All roads lead to Quinag

When I began this adventure, I had originally planned to follow the rough route of Cameron McNeish's Sutherland Trail, traveling on foot and carrying all my gear. This plan was quickly ditched at Tongue when my bus failed to arrive, for an easier and lazier one that began in Lochinver, and gently working my way north by car.  Driving south from Tongue to my start point of Lochinver took me through some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.  New to the country, I hadn't a clue what I was looking at, but one view made me screech to a halt in admiration.  My picture above doesn't do it justice, And I could only cram two of the three summits into my viewfinder, but it is the only one I have from the northern perspective.

Later on the trip, I was to see this mini mountain range from more angles, and each time it would intrigue me further. It seemed to change its nature depending on where I was. The view on the left is from the hills behind Suileag Bothy, and the mountain forms a long undulating ridge on the skyline. 

From Inchnadamph, Quinag (meaning milk pail) towers over Loch Assynt (right), and the horn like peak of Spidean Coinich makes the mountain seem a different shape again.

But it is from close up that this mountain really gets interesting.  And even though I had never heard of it before I came to Sutherland, it turned out to be one of the best days out I have ever had.

I began my approach from a carpark at the top of the hill between Loch Assynt and Kylesku. From here it was an easy walk up the shoulder of Spidean Coineach (Mossy Peak, 764m). This is the first of three summits, and many minor tops, that form the mini mountain range of Quinag.  As I climbed,  the bog soon gave way to gorgeous slabs of  Torridonian Sandstone and little blue lochans.

From the summit of Spidean Coineach there were stunning views south to Suilven. I disturbed a ring ouzel from the rocks near the summit, which was an exciting first for me- in all my years of walking the hills I have never seen one of these special upland birds.

From this first summit, it was a rollercoaster ride along a series of humps, bumps and switchbacks along the main spine of the ridge to reach my second objective of the day, Sail Ghorm (Blue Heel, 776m) which lay at the other end of the ridge.

Looking back along the ridge Spidean Coinich was showing its dramatic side!

Looking back along the ridge from Sail Ghorm towards Spidean Coineach:

The ridge itself is shaped like a giant capital E, with the two smaller summits along the spine of the letter, but the main summit of Sail Garbh (Rough Heel 808m) forming a great whaleback along the central ridge and jutting out between two dramatic corries. The picture below shows the Corrie between Sail Garbh and Spidean Coinich.

After reaching the summit of Sail Ghorm, I returned back along the ridge to the centre of the "E", to go to the final summit, Sail Garbh. I have just noticed that Suilven is in the background to this picture taken from the summit... That mountain gets everywhere!

From here it was possibe to retrace my steps a short way and then descend in to the corrie below Spidean Coineach and walk out on a good stalkers path to the carpark.

Before I got to the car however, I stopped to relax by the lochan below the bealach for a while.  It was a warm day and I was soon fast asleep on the flat top of a rough sandstone boulder. I woke up to find that the wind had dropped and the midges feasting.  I'm still paying for this decadence in midge bites!
This pretty much rounds up what was a fantastic trip.  I had never been to Sutherland before, but I'm sure that this the start of a long love affair with a landscape that is full of wonders.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Sutherland Adventure Part 2: Karst Country

I arrived in Inchnadamph in late afternoon after a long hot walk out from Suilven back to Lochinver. I had booked myself in to Inchnadamph Lodge and was looking forward to a proper bed for the first time in a couple of nights. I was also very excited to have arrived at the location of the famous Bone Caves, where not only have 4500 year old human burials been found, but also the remains of a polar bear, radiocarbon dated to almost 19,000 years ago when Scotland was in the grip of the last ice age. The caves have yielded a remarkable array of fossil bones spanning the last 45,000 years.  Other mammals found at the site include reindeer, arctic fox, and lemmings, painting a picture of a landscape much colder than today.

I quickly ate my supper, and headed straight back out again, hoping to reach the bone caves before dark. The area around Inchnadamph is unusual as is primarily made up of limestone- a type of landscape geologists call "karst".  Numerous long, complex cave systems and underground watercourses have wound their way under the mountains and as I walked up Allt nan Uamh Glen I saw the first of many wonders that this landscape would reveal. Before me, where the path would go, a river rose up fully formed from the ground.  There was no visible exit for the water, and although the geological reasons for this are well understood- it appears like a miracle. 

Above the path, a tiny trickle washes down the rocks, below it, a rushing river!
 The bone caves are further up the glen on the right as you walk up hill. 

A circular walk around the Glen leads up and past the caves.
The next morning I took a track behind the cottage in Inchnadamph that climbs the Gleann Dubh up to Conival (987m). At the head of the glen, a boggy path turns left up to the bealach between Conival and Beinn an Fhurain.  It was a still and overcast day, and the midges were ferociously hungry, so it didn't take me long to reach the bealach- I didn't stop for long!

Gleann Dubh (The black Glen).
Even on the ridge there was little respite from the biting beasties, but there were some fantastic views to be had, and I quickly made my way along the frost shattered scree slopes to the summit of Conival.  From here is was a short hop and a skip along the ridge to Ben More Assynt, at 998m, my second Munro of the day.

Looking Northeast towards Beinn an Fhurain.
Frost shattered rock on the summit of Conival
Looking towards Ben More Assynt from Conival. 
The return to sea level was more or less by the same route, but at the exit from Gleann Dubh I took a short detour to visit the Tralligil Caves. These caves form the entrance to a vast cave system, and here I was able to witness the river plunging in to the ground, emerging- who knows where?!

The lowest cave- with the river rushing in to it. 

700m upstream, there are more caves, and water can be heard and sometimes seen rushing through them.
It is possible to safely enter one of the caves.  The mountain framed is Quinag.
After exploring the caves I returned to the lodge. I was incredibly tired and midge bitten, but happy from another brilliant day.  I was also excited about my plans for the following day, when I was going to climb a mountain called Quinag, which I had never heard of before I came to Sutherland.  The shapely form of Quinag was visible from Suilven, Conival and Ben More Assynt, and was so strikingly beautiful I had to go and see it close up.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Sutherland Adventure Part 1: The Pillar

I'm just back from 4 days incredible walking in Sutherland, plus an ace day climbing on Arran yesterday, so have a lot of blogging to catch up on.  I'm going to have to post this in bite sized bits as there seems to be so much that I have crammed in to the last few days. 
My original Sutherland plan, had been to roughly follow the route of the Sutherland Trail, first laid out by Cameron McNeish. My plan was scuppered early on whilst waiting for a bus at Tongue, where I had left my car, to take me to my start point Lochinver.  The bus never came. 
Plan B wasn't bad though.  I drove to Lochinver through some of the most gorgeous country I have ever seen.  Left my car in the village, and planned a 2 day walk in and around Suilven. Suilven means "The Pillar", in a mixture of Gaelic and Norse, and stands some 723 vertical metres above the sea, just like a great pillar of Torridonian Sandstone.  

The approach to Suilven (right) from Lochinver.
The weather was absolutely magnificent, and the 6 km walk to Suileag Bothy was filled with wonderful views, buzzing insects and flowers. 

Golden Ringed Dragonfly

I pitched my tent near to Suileag Bothy on the advice of estate owners, The Assynt Foundation, after contacting them to find out about stalking in the area.

Fantastic views of Suilven out of my bedroom window!

That evening I went for a wander around the surrounding moorland. I watched a blackthroated diver on a nearby lochan, and was wowed by the sheer amount of wildlife in the area, including lizards, toads, pipits, buzzards and lots of invertebrates. And everywhere there were spiders! (I guess they do well on the midges?)

The next morning dawned bright and fine.  There was a little cap of cloud on the summit of Suilven, which soon burned off. The light was wonderful, and spent a long time walking up the glen very slowly to the start of the climb, sidetracked constantly by flowers, insects and interesting things to look at.
Ling heather in full bloom in the morning light. 

Remains of a scots pine, eroding out of the peat in which it has been preserved for hundreds or even thousands of years.
 My route took me up the steep gully that leads to Bealach Mor. The path is eroded in places, and I had to pick my way to find the best route up (and down again). 

View down the gully from near the top of Bealach Mor.
I was soon on the ridge, with incredible views south across Inverpollaidh

Looking east along the ridge. 

The ridge itself is narrow and interesting.  There is some complicated scrambling to be had for a full traverse.  On this day I was cautious, and just went to the main summit Caisteal Liath, at the western end of the ridge.  This means I have an excuse to come back with Wally for a full traverse- perhaps winter?!

On the top!

After climbing Caisteal Liath, I returned by the same path, and headed back to my tent. I packed up, and instead of following my originally intended route on foot to Inchnadamph, went back to the car, to drive along the shores of Loch Assynt and arrive at Inchnadamph later that evening.
More to follow....