Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor (Mamores)

The clocks have gone forward, Easter has passed, and Perth seems to be entering Springtime, with longer, warmer days, and plants and trees awakening from their inactivity. However, high on the ridges of the Mamore mountains in Lochber, winter is still in control. Temperatures are low, and ice and snow cover the ground down to a remarkably low altitude. Icicles are strung from boulders around the burns, drifted snow is waist deep in places, ice patches perilously are slippery, and the ridges are crowned with cornices.

I have done very little winter walking on the higher mountains. This is largely due to the fact that I mostly walk alone, and have never felt that I understood the conditions well enough to assess the risks for myself.  I have a couple of friends who between them have huge amounts of experience, both in the Scottish Highlands, and in the Alps. When they offered to take me to the hills in Winter and show me the ropes (well, the ice-axes, anyway), I was delighted.

(Many of these photos supplied by my walking companions)

The hills they selected for this adventure are amongst my favourites: The Mamores. I climbed all of these in summer conditions about 16/17 years ago. I was impressed by their massive size, steep sides, beautifully sculpted peaks and breathtaking ridges. The Mamore range lies sandwiched between the row of hills stretching from Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries (to the North), and the line of hills in Glen Coe (to the South). If The Mamores were a single isolated cluster of mountains, like say Snowdonia's peaks, they would be well worth visiting. The fact that they are encircled by such overwhelming mountain architecture on every side means they offer walkers amongst the finest days out in Scotland.

On my previous trips I had always approached these hills from Glen Nevis. This time however we left the car in the village of Kinlochleven. A small car park by the Episcopal Church has a track (signposted for the Grey Mare's Waterfall), which leads up past the (still closed) Mamore Lodge Hotel towards open country. This hotel looks worn and dilapidated which is a great shame as it occupies a stunning high-level location with views down the length of Loch Leven, to the Pap of Glen Coe and on to Beinn a Bheithir. Sadly the hotel gained an unenviable reputation for poor service and facilities, and was condemned to ignominy courtesy of Trip Advisor. Friends who stayed there have told me that the place's notoriety was well earned! If I had money to gamble, I'd love to buy a place like that and see if it could be made into a viable walkers hostel.

Leaving such thoughts behind, we turned right on the track leading up the glen between Am Bodach and Na Gruagaichean. Although snow- covered, the path was visible for most of the way up to the head of the glen, but disappeared a couple of hundred metres below the ridge. Kicking into the snow we climbed the very steep pull to the ridge, joining it at 783m. before turning westwards and climbing the very steep and tricky ridge up towards Na Gruaigchean at 1055m. One steep pitch of about 20m was icy, and this presented a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was safely getting up it, the opportunity was for me to be given my first lesson in the correct handling of the ice-axe I had borrowed for the day.

Cloud had engulfed up during our ascent, but by the time we reached the top of the first Munro of the day, the sun was beginning to burn through the cloud and we were confident that the weather forecasters had been accurate in their predictions and that we were in for a great afternoon. Despite the fact that Easter Monday is a public holiday across Scotland, and the weather looked promising - it was amazing how few people were out in the hills. We didn't meet a soul all morning!

Striding along the snowy ridges between Na Gruagaichean and Binnien Mor via the subsidiary summit, has to be amongst the greatest stretches of hill walking I have ever done. The descents were very slippery and the ascents very hard work, but in terms of sheer beauty, it was almost too much to take in! Another lesson for me on this section was about avoiding cornices, walking downhill of the crest of the ridge, and using the ice axe handle to check that you were  on solid ground, not standing on the overhanging snow. 

The descent from Binnien Mor presented us with our first real problem of the day. Although we had met some people who had come up the route we intended to descend (Sron a Gharbh Mor), in practise the ice-covered rocks and the tricky downward scramble looked just too dangerous - forcing us to descend the more Northerly ridge over Gualainn a Bhinnien Mor. Fearing that we would need to descend all the way to the glen floor, and have to regain hundreds of metres of height, our party leader searched for a safe traverse route across the steeply sloping snowy sides of the Achlais a Bhinnien Mor. His old-fashioned long, wooden-handled ice-axe came into its own here. Walking out onto these slopes, he dug into the snow, pronounced it stable and beckoned us out to make our way round the upper slopes of the corrie to the bealach between Bhinnien Mor and Binnien Baeg.

Binnien Baeg had been considered as a possible extension to the walk, but the diversion off Bhinnien Mor used much of our time - and the weather had begun to deteriorate. A hour or so previously I had been removing layers of thermal clothing, and cursing myself for not bringing an sunscreen, hats and gloves were by this stage required clothing. It also became apparent that one of our number had not just had a fall on the previous descent, but had probably broken his thumb. The painful, discoloured and throbbing digit was clearly rather uncomfortable, and discovering this confirmed our decision to head for home. 

The walk out was long, and involved another ascent, up and over the plateau holding the Coire an Lochain, before following the horribly eroded An Cumhann path all the way back to Kinlochleven and the car.

I have only climbed one Munro in Winter before. To stride across the Mamore ridges while they are glistening white, under a blue sky, in clear sunshine, was exhilarating. I hope I can get out again before it all melts and turns to mud!

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