Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Alpine Day in the Hills

When I first moved to Arran I wondered if I would ever find life on a small island limiting.  There are only so many hills, routes and summits to climb, and after a while you keep returning to the same places. Yesterday, Wally and I spent the afternoon on Stacach Ridge- an exposed little scramble between the two summits of Goatfell, and proved that no matter how many times you climb something, there is always something different to enjoy, especially in winter.  We were treated to one of the most memorable and magnificent days out on the hill that we have ever had. If the following blog post seems a little over enthusiastic- this is because its very hard to describe just how brilliant the best days in the mountains can be. There are not enough superlatives!

We had the usual slow start, but this time intentionally. A round of the two peaks is not a long route and do-able in a short day.  We dropped the car at Cladach, picked up the bus round to Corrie, and set off up the steep ascent through High Corrie, past the waterworks, and up through woodland and open hill to Coire Lan.

Looking up in to Coire Lan.  Goatfell Summit visible on the left

The Coire was filled with snow, and we decided to strike up steep slopes to the left of North Goatfell. The conditions underfoot were a mixed bag- with firm wind scoured snow, and pockets of windslab that cracked and broke away alarmingly.  Anyone who says that avalanches don't happen on Arran is a plonker (putting it politely)- they do, I have seen the results. We picked our route carefully, and noted that in places, the snow conditions went from great to very poor quite quickly.

"Shooting Cracks" that fire out of footprints are a sure sign that the snow is not to be trusted. 

We arrived at a bealach between North Goatfell and the knobbly ridge of Stacach. Already breathless from the climb, we both gasped at the panorama visible from the ridge.  Peak after jagged peak was encased in crisp and sparkling snow. The bright sun picked out every gully, rock stack and summit in perfect shining clarity. The air was so clear that the snowy tops of the Paps of Jura, Ben More on Mull, the Arrochar Alps and even the Galloway hills seemed close enough to touch.  It was possible to make out headlands and bays along the coastline of Northern Ireland. Standing in silence, we could hear the roar of the Rosa Burn far below.

 Looking towards a snowy Achir, Beinn a Chliabhain, and beyond, Beinn Tarsuinn. 

Achir on the left, Cir Mhor is on the centre right, and just to the right of this on the far horizon, are the Paps of Jura.

Turning left at the ridge, we set out along the series of rough granite tors that make the ridge of Stacach. In summer, this is a fun but very exposed grade 1 scramble.  For the nervous, there is a path that traverses on the east flank, under the buttresses.  In winter, this narrow path is often buried under unstable snow, and safe passage cannot be found easily.  The scramble over the top can vary from lighthearted fun, to serious climbing, depending on the conditions underfoot, therefore it may be a good idea to carry a 30m rope, a couple of slings and some nuts. On this day the snow was reasonably firm, but the ledges and cracks were hidden under a blanket of white stuff that made going slow and cautious. The crux of the ridge is a vertical tor which can either be ascended by an airy series of ledges on the west (often called The Giant's Steps), with serious consequences if you slip, or a very awkward chimney on the crest.  In summer, I prefer the delicate balancing ledges, but in winter, the fight up the chimney seems safer! The descent from this tor also follows another series of blocky ledges, which in winter can be tricky.

Wally tackling the blocky chimney. 

Looking back towards the descent from the most difficult section of the ridge. 

As always, the concentrated delights of the ridge were over far too quickly.  We dawdled on the final bealach before the summit of Goatfell.  The late afternoon light was turning an astonishing technicolour in the north eastern sky. To the west, encroaching clouds warned of a storm to come.

 Looking North towards Bute, the Cumbraes and eventually up the Clyde to Glasgow. The peaks on the far horizon are the Arrochar Alps and the Trossachs.

Climbing the final slopes of Goatfell.

On the highest point, we lingered even longer.  The view from the summit of Goatfell is absolutely breathtaking and worth the climb whatever path you choose. Finally, we dragged ourselves away, and began the descent down to the waiting car in Brodick.  The path down towards Brodick Castle is relatively straightforward, although in heavy snow conditions care is required  near the top where steep accumulations of windslab can be found. In the last of the light we saw  and heard a number of red grouse, silhouetted against the snow, giving out their low chuckling call.  Brilliant!

 A frosty Goatfell Summit.


newhey said...

Looks like a cracking day. I havent had a clear day in winter yet on Arran. I do always enjoy a bivvy in the summer on top of Cir Mhor or A Chir. Keep up the blog, it is great for me to assess the conditions for a quick day trip from Manchester!

Lucy Wallace said...

Thanks for the positive feedback. I'll do my best! Might be heading for the mainland next week...