My 1st solo munro: Ben Chonzie

I climbed my very first solo munro on Saturday. This may not seem a particularly big achievement but it was a new experience for me to be out in the hills on my own, since almost all my hill walking and Scottish mountain adventuring has been done in Chris’ company.

I picked what I’d heard was a simple and boring munro to try on my own: Ben Chonzie is a lonely munro surrounded by heatherclad hills south of Loch Tay. It also isn’t too far to get there, as I have just started driving and this was just my third proper distance journey on my own in the car.

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The track up from Glen Lednock

The drive up Glen Lednock was lovely, although very slow and windy, and the walk, which starts from an obvious parking spot before the road becomes private access, was much more pleasant than I expected. I imagine that this might be the best time to climb this munro as the heather is in flower so the lower slopes are a mass of purple, which is beautiful. It’s quite a steep climb but also short! I reached the summit in 2 hours, despite sitting in the heather and blaeberry for a while (the blaeberries are also ripe and tasty now).

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Vast swathes of Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris)

Most of the route is on landrover tracks; there is short section of path that could possibly be hidden in poor visibility or snow, then there is a fence to follow to the summit, so route finding was ridiculously easy. The long string of people and dogs also meant it would have been hard to get lost!

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Relaxing in the warm heather

I would definitely recommend this as a good munro for anyone wanting to build up their hill walking confidence, as I was.

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Nice views west from near the summit

Details

Munro summit: Ben Chonzie (931m)

Distance: 12.5km / 7.75 miles

Ascent: 712m

Duration: 4 hours

Braeriach: Testing my limits

We climbed Braeriach in April and I will always remember it!

Braeriach is the third highest mountain in Britain, but also very remote and difficult to reach. It is situated in the Cairngorms, south-east of Aviemore and can be accessed a variety of ways: one is as part of the Cairn Toul – Braeriach traverse, which encompasses those two munros, in addition to The Devil’s Point and Sgor an Locahin Uaine; another is as a circular route from Whitewell. As we have already climbed the other three, we chose the latter route.

The forecast wasn’t too bad although MWIS advised that it might be quite windy (up to 40mph), but we wouldn’t be going over any particularly difficult terrain, so we thought it was worth a try. As a long route it would also be good practice for our TGO Challenge.

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At the Cairgorm Club footbridge in the forest

We parked at Whitewell and set off early through the Rothiemurchus Forest on excellent forest tracks. These Caledonian pine forests are wonderful; they are home to capercaillie, red squirrels and pine martin and definitely worth a visit themselves. We navigated the tracks to the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, then followed the path south-east towards the Lairig-Ghru. We continued gradually climbing upwards through the forest above the Allt Druidh. The forest thinned and we were no longer protected from the wind; Braeriach was hidden in cloud ahead of us.

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The Lairig-Ghru looking ominous ahead

The path eventually drops down to the burn and the path from the Chalamain gap comes in from the left. We crossed the burn and started to climb steeply up the ridge on the west side of the Lairig Ghru, still on a fairly good path. However, we soon hit snow, it was still windy and the visibility deteriorated; we could see down the steep cliffs into the Lairig Ghru but not much else. We pushed on but the wind got stronger and stronger; we decided it was time for a break and lunch in the red cafe (our group shelter). Finding a flat sheltered spot on the steep rocky ridge wasn’t easy, and keeping hold of and getting into the shelter was even less easy!

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At this point I couldn’t raise the camera above my waist….

A group shelter gives tremendous relief from difficult conditions, and this was no exception, except that the material violently battering the back of our heads was a constant reminder of what was waiting outside. We were also sitting in a lot more snow than we had anticipated. We had already come a long way, but we started discussing our options: the strong wind and poor visibility wasn’t a good combination, so did we want to head back or carry on? We decided to continue a little further and see how we felt: we were well-equipped, we had lots of time and we could turn around at any point. So after a short but vigorous battle with the shelter which didn’t want to go back into a rucksack, we headed on up the ridge. The clouds had actually lifted somewhat while we were resting, which gave us more confidence, but as we approached Sron na Lairige, the wind roared down the valley pummeling us relentlessly. We had a further battle to get our waterproof trousers on, which stopped the wind biting our legs, but it was starting to become mentally challenging for me, as well as physically challenging. We began to walk for a few minutes, leaning heavily into the wind, then stop and turn our backs to the wind briefly, while I regained my breath, before continuing in this manner.

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View on the summit of Braeriach

As we got closer to the summit, we changed direction, the ridge narrowed considerably and we moved quite carefully. Suddenly the wind dropped. It was an incredible relief. My hair had been flying about my face, making it difficult to see, so I quickly took my hood and buff off ready to re-tie it in the calm, when a huge gust hit us and knocked us both onto the ground. I was shocked: I had never felt wind like this. Whenever I moved, the wind picked up the snow and shot it in sharp spikes into my face, while my hair whipped my eyes. It was awful, so I crouched on the floor with my eyes closed waiting for it to calm down. It did a little. We moved forward cautiously. Then there were more gusts; we tried to move down north off the ridge slightly but having been driven to the ground again, the wind pushed me across the snow even while I sitting down! This was terrifying, I had never felt so out of control. I rolled onto my side and dug my elbow into the snow to stop myself from sliding, unable to see much due to the snow in my eyes and face. Chris wasn’t struggling so much, possibly because, unlike him, I was wearing my large backpacking rucksack to get get used to it before the Challenge and it was acting like a sail; he came and crouched behind me. We couldn’t stay there, so we crawled forwards: the ridge was broader ahead. By this point I had had enough, I wanted to get down.

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How we’d been feeling a few minutes earlier!

I honestly have no idea how long we were in this wind but it suddenly disappeared again. We walked calmly but warily to the summit, where there was no wind at all and we could take our gloves off and have some food. However, we could hear the wind roaring like a massive waterfall around the corries just over the edge, it was very strange. Once again we discussed the options: earlier in the day, we had decided that we should return by the way we had come, rather than complete the circuit, as we knew the way and could follow our prints if necessary. Now, we looked at the map and decided the fastest way down and out of the wind was to continue east and descend into Gleann Eanaich as planned.

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As we left the summit, the wind hit us again, this time pushing us downhill from behind. It was difficult not to go too fast and to prevent my rucksack from coming round to my front! However, we descended quickly and soon it was just a surreal memory. The slope was steep, and we “skiied” in our boots down some gullies still full of snow. We lost the path and picked our way down the steep hillside to the track clearly visible below us, passing a couple of reindeer on the way. We didn’t even get too wet crossing the bog to get to the track. Then it was simply a trot in calm weather along landrover track all the way back to Whitewell, occasionally looking back and thinking “did that really just happen?!”

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Desending steeply down into Gleann Eanaich

Back at the van, we had tea and hobnobs before driving up to Glenmore Lodge for a delicious dinner to celebrate another successful adventure.

Once home, we checked the reports from the Cairngorm weather station, which had recorded gusts over 80mph at lunchtime and reaching 90mph by mid-afternoon.

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Proof we were actually fine despite a little too much excitement!

I think I tested my limits further than I ever have in the mountains that day. However, I didn’t panic, I didn’t cry, I didn’t freeze: we were fine, I was fine. I’m proud to know we can cope with difficult situations. Chris actually enjoyed himself!

However, when MWIS forecast 40mph winds two weeks ago, I changed our plan from climbing a ridge on Ben Nevis to rock climbing at Dunkeld…..

 

Munro summit: Braeriach (1296m)

Distance: 26km / 16.25 miles

Ascent: 1217m

Duration: 9h 15mins

 

Ring of Steall

The Ring of Steall: it just sounds amazing. It is a classic route and as such is one I heard about soon after entering the world of Scottish mountains and one I have been very keen to do ever since.

Chris had done it before, early in his mountain career but couldn’t remember it well, so with a break in the weather forecast and a free weekend we decided Bruce (our van) was well overdue an outing and that this was the ideal route.

Encompassing four munros in the Mamores, it represents a fairly long day, but we currently have plenty of daylight up here so that wasn’t a problem. Most route descriptions suggest starting this walk from the car park at the very end of the road up Glen Nevis to follow the path to the Steall Falls; however, this means a 3km walk along the road at the end of the day, which we decided we wouldn’t fancy. We therefore parked in the lower carpark (where you emerge from descending the final munro) and walked the road section at the start when it didn’t bother us at all: we were very happy with this decision at the end of the day! It is also possible to walk the route in the opposite direction and we saw many people doing both.

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Chris crossing the Wire Bridge. Dan Bailey in his book “Scotland’s Mountain Ridges describes this flood plain as a “perfect wild camp spot , were it not a sodden sponge beloved of midges”

From the Steall Falls carpark, it is a wonderful start to a walk, and definitely worthy in it’s own right (details of this walk here). The first obstacle of the day is the wire bridge across the Water of Nevis: a single wire for your feet, with two wires for your hands; it is even a challenge to get up onto it when you’re quite small!

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Steall Falls

Once across, you pass a private hut and head towards the falls; there isn’t much of a path and it is very muddy. We paused in admiration at the foot of this spectacular waterfall and then had to cross the water. This could have gone worse: the rocks were very slippery and I’m happy I put my gaiters on, otherwise I would have had rather wet legs.

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An Gearanach, the first munro summit

You then follow a faint path that meanders through the trees and boulders around the base of a steep slope, and brings you back out into the open before starting to climb steeply upwards. The path zigzags back and forth up the unrelenting slope as the views gradually reveal themselves. Eventually, after what feels like a never-ending ascent, you finally reach the summit of the first munro, An Gearanach.

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Brilliant ridge walking

A narrow rocky ridge leads to the another summit, An Garbhanach, and then the second munro, Stob Coire a’ Chairn, which was amazingly busy. The views are spectacular: to our north, on the other side of Glen Nevis, Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud all day, whereas in all other directions layer upon layer of mountains stretched away into distance.

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Looking back at the route we had taken over An Gearanach and An Garbhanach, as we climbed the second munro

We moved east to a second cairn, away from the other walkers and had a bacon sandwich, before tackling the steep descent down to the bealach below Am Bodeach, the third munro of the day. As we descended, we looked ahead and I was slightly appalled by the size and steepness of the slope we had to climb next; when you’ve already climbed two munros, it’s quite a forbidding sight!

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“Really? Do I have to?!” Looking up at Am Bodeach

After a short break out of the wind on the south side of the bealach, we were ready to take on Am Bodach. It doesn’t start off too badly, but got progressively steeper and steeper, until we were almost scrambling up the path, which became loose, stony and rocky.

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It was worth it for the view!

Again the views are tremendous! From the summit, you can see down Loch Leven and away out to the sea and to Loch Eilde Mor to the south-east.

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Chris enjoying his bacon sandwich on top of An Bodach

A broad grassy ridge stretches between Am Bodach and Sgurr an lubhair (a munro-top, despite being higher than the first two munros). The route turns north at this point and some further descent and ascent takes you to Stob Choire a’Mhail.

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Walking over Stob Choire a’Mhail with Stob Ban behind….we want to go up Stob Ban now, it looked amazing.

From here you cross the ‘Devil’s Ridge’, a very narrow mostly grassy ridge that drops away spectacularly on either side. As we left Sgurr an lubhair, the wind picked up, which made the traverse of this ridge especially exciting! The buffeting was making me stagger and I therefore crossed some of the most exposed bits with a sort of half crouched gait, ready to brace myself against the gusts, which must have been quite amusing to watch.

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Looking back at the Devil’s Ridge

A last push then takes you to the top of the final munro, Sgurr a’ Mhaim. We had some final summit snacks, a last look across at the impressive Stob Ban and headed down the northwest shoulder, avoiding the risk of death that comes with going back to Steall Falls.

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Munro number four!

The descent was long, draining and quite tough on the knees; fortunately we had saved the chocolate raisins for exactly this situation! We reached the van at about 6pm, enjoyed a cup of tea and oatie biscuits, and reflected on a brilliant day out.

Details

Distance: 16km / 10 miles

Duration: 9h45min

Munro summits: An Gearanach (982m); Stob Coire a’ Chairn (981m); Am Bodach (1032m); Sgurr a’ Mhaim (1099m)

Ascent: 1676m

Ben Vane

Having been busy for a few weeks, the first Sunday we had free, we headed out. The forecast wasn’t too bad particularly for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, so we decided on Ben Vane: a little munro that was new for us both.

Situated just the east towards the top of Loch Lomond, it ought to have nice view and isn’t too much of a trek from the Central Belt. However we didn’t get to see those views: constant heavy drizzle and low cloud accompanied us the whole way!

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Sustained ascent that gets increasingly rocky towards the top

For a hill that only just makes munro status, it packs a punch. We started from Inveruglas on the banks of Loch Lomond and followed a gently ascending road surrounded by pylons, into the hills. Then you just have to go up, steeply, right the way to the top. There are a few especially steep and rocky sections, where we needed to use our hands,  to keep it interesting though.

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Wet but happy in a cloud at the top

The summit was a large flat area with two cairns so we went to both to be sure, but nearly froze in the process, as the wind was howling across it, so we beat a hasty retreat to a drippy sheltered area just below the summit.

Sadly we didn’t even have hot chocolate to warm us up because I’d decided we didn’t need to carry a hot flask in summer….

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The views must be great when you can see them!

We did enjoy it though, it felt great to out in the hills again and I only got one midge bite.

Munro: Ben Vane (915m)

Distance: 11km

Duration: 4.5 hours

Ascent:  930m

#makewintercount

About a month ago I received an email from the British Mountaineering Council informing me that I had won the #makewintercount competition that they had been running all winter with Lowe Alpine. I was astonished! This grand prize consisted of two nights in a hotel and a day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave for two people. Chris and I were obviously thrilled.

We spent a week or so wondering where we would be going, before finding out that we would be based at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, which looked wonderful. Andy got in touch with us and we gave him our experience and what we hoped to get out of a day with a mountain guide. We then watched the weather forecast extremely closely for the week before the trip, excitedly trying to guess what routes we might be able to do.

We escaped the Glasgow rush hour on Friday evening and made it to Glencoe before Andy, who was driving up from England. From the hotel reception we could see the pool, and to reach our room we walked through the lounge and dining area, which had a lovely atmosphere. Our room was far beyond our expectations: large, with doors opening out onto Loch Leven.

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View over Loch Leven from our bedroom door

Upon meeting us for dinner in the restaurant, Andy also gave us two new Peak Ascent rucksacks, provided by Lowe Alpine as part of the prize. The food was delicious and we spent a very pleasant evening getting to know Andy, discussing our options for the following day and making our plans.

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My first try at making and using coils

We usually have very early starts when going out on the hills, so we had expected we would miss breakfast on Saturday, but Andy assured us there would be plenty of time, which made Chris happy. Having packed our new rucksacks, we set off just after 8.30am to Glean Spean. It was warm, with freezing level above the summits, so there was not going to be much ice. Andy had suggested climbing a little-known ridge in the Creag Meagaidh hills, which he knew well, and where there would be a suitable route whatever the conditions. Here, Chris and I could get ourselves up, with Andy demonstrating new techniques and providing guidance. This suited us perfectly, as although it would have been fun for Andy to lead us up something difficult, we had decided that we wanted to use the day as an opportunity to develop our own skills and gain the confidence to try more technical winter terrain by ourselves. Chris has some winter climbing experience but I have only walked in winter, and although I have been on a couple of introductory winter skills courses, when we are out together, we generally avoid steep ground.

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Andy showing Chris methods for getting us safely over short steeper sections

We had a leisurely start, with Andy showing us some of the gear he uses, before setting off along the forestry tracks on the north side of the A86 east of Tulloch.

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Andy ahead and Chris with the coils as we climbed a snowy slope. Note his shiny new Lowe Alpine Peak Ascent rucksack. It’s a great colour!

After a small river crossing and a sandwich pause, we emerged from the forest and headed west towards the steeper slopes. Visibility wasn’t great, so we made sure to get a few navigation and decision making tips. We headed for the east ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn, trying to choose the least boggy route. Once properly on to the ridge and with less grass between the snow patches, we stopped to put our harnesses and helmets on and get our axes out. As the ridge got steeper, Andy showed us how to move together and to make coils with the rope to give the other person confidence and support against small slips. Chris usually leads whenever we are out in the mountains, whether walking, scrambling or climbing, so having Andy with us, gave me the opportunity to lead a bit and practice some rope skills myself.

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Getting used to moving together

Andy gave us a good range of helpful suggestions for moving on steep, but not overly dangerous, ground without having to stop and climb pitch by pitch, which will be really useful for us in the future. By staying on the ridge we also avoided any risk of avalanches; we could see the debris of these in the coires either side of us.

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Having fun!

Once onto the the flatter ground near the summit, Andy told us how it can be useful to keep the rope on in poor visibility; by keeping a good length of rope between you, the person behind can catch the other if they fall through a cornice! He also demonstrated that it can be advantageous to calculate the bearings and distances you will need to use after topping out in order to keep away from the edges and the cornices, before you start climbing, not when you reach the top.

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Nearly at the summit: protecting ourselves from the risk posed by invisible cornices

We used bearings and timing to navigate from the summit in the cloud, walking one in front of the other, rather than together, to help keep ourselves accurate. Then we headed down the south ridge until the cloud started clearing and we got some lovely views of the mountains to the south.

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Summit selfie!

We made our way back down to the forest as the sun was getting lower, dousing the landscape in a beautiful light, and followed a stream through the forest to the track which took us back to the car.

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Mountains just appearing through the cloud

Happily we made it back to the hotel in time for another very large and delicious dinner. After dinner Chris and I said goodbye to Andy, who would be leaving early on Sunday morning, and had a final drink on the sofas by the fire in the lounge area.

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Descending in the sunshine

In the morning, Andy had indeed left before we were up, but we stayed to test out the pool and the sauna, before consuming an enormous breakfast from the buffet.

It was a brilliant weekend and a fantastic prize. We learnt loads and Andy gave us lots of recommendations for places we should visit and routes we should try. We left full of new confidence and inspiration to get out on even more adventures.

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Post-mountain dinner (photo credit: Andy Cave)

Thank you very very much Andy, Lowe Alpine and the BMC!!!!

Turning back: Beinn Bhuidhe

The weather forecast was pretty bad for last weekend but we are aware that during the TGO Challenge in May, we will have to walk whatever the weather. We therefore decided to try to get out anyway. Not knowing many decent long circular low level walks (please send us suggestions if you know of any!), we decided to try for Beinn  Bhuide, which includes a very long walk-in along a flat track from the head of Loch Fyne. We were hoping that by the time we started ascending, the weather might have cleared up. We also knew there was easy parking for the campervan for both Friday and Saturday night.

It was an extremely dark and wet drive up on Friday night and sounded just as wet when we woke up on Saturday morning. Having finally beaten the struggle to get up, we headed off in all our waterproofs up the track towards the Fyne Ales brewery (Achadunan brewery on the OS maps). It is a long trudge along the bottom of Glen Fyne and many people cycle it. The river was very high and flowing seriously fast, as were all the channels coming off the hillside: it was an impressive sight through the mist.

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The River Fyne looking scary

Eventually, you come to a gate, where a sign asks bikes to be left, and you walk through some hazel woods. We passed a closed up lodge, Inverchorachan, and started to climb, following a path from just the other side of the second gate through the deer fence. The path was quite steep and muddy, but leads up the south side of a gorge, where the stream was raging just on our right. We could see the water tearing off pieces of the bank and throwing up the stones at the edges: it was pretty spectacular.

Before the gorge widened out, there was one particularly tricky but short section, that definitely requires hands on rock. It’s probably not too much trouble in the dry, but is definitely something to think about in the wet if you aren’t confident with that sort of thing.

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The stream above Inverchorachan was very impressive and we were pretty wet.

Beyond this, there was a big waterfall coming down the head of the valley, and the sun actually came out for a few minutes, allowing us to eat a sandwich in the dry and admire the scenery.

Having dried out ever so slightly we set off again, trying to follow the path that was occasionally visible between the snow patches. The sun didn’t last long and the drizzle soon had us putting our hoods and gloves back on. The ground was quite eroded by water and soon became steeper again as we moved up on the left of the large waterfall. The snow was slippery and the ground wasn’t frozen meaning progress was fairly slow.

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Once up onto the next flatter section, the path crossed several streams. The first just required a minor detour, but the next was definitely not possible at the usual crossing point, so we followed it upstream to try to find somewhere safer. The wind had picked up and it started raining heavily,  quickly soaking us again. Having seen the sunshine,  I felt more demoralised than I had before drying out. We struggled along the steep stream bank, passing a fork – meaning we now had two streams to cross rather than one – and eventually found a suitable spot. It was very fast and deep, preventing us being able to place our poles in it for balance, but was easily jumpable.

As we started back down the other side looking for the path and somewhere to cross the next one, we were both starting to think this was not going to be an easy summit. We were now walking away from our destination, which was totally in cloud, and all we could see were a lot of steep hillocks rising into the murk, which in poor visibility was going to be a nightmare to navigate. We managed to cross the next stream but we had lost a fair bit of time and it was now around 1.30pm. We sheltered behind a rocky outcrop, had some food and discussed our options. We were still 1.5km from the summit. There were more streams that might prove impossible to cross. There was a steep section ahead that would be tricky in the horrible melty snow. There wasn’t going to a be a view. We had a long walk out even from where we were, and importantly, if we headed back now we’d be down in time for a beer at the brewery! We had some hot squash and turned around.

 

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It took a while to get down the steep sections but we didn’t encounter any problems. The weather also continued to tease me into taking my waterproofs off before raining again 10 minutes later. The track out along the valley definitely feels long on the walk back but some dancing Highland cows and the biggest herd of deer I’ve ever seen provided some distraction.

And we did indeed make it to the brewery in time for a drink and a venison sausage roll.

 

Details

Distance: 21.5km if you make it to the summit (we walked about 18.5km)

Munro summit: Beinn Bhuidhe  (948m)

Region: Argyll

Time: 7 hours without reaching the summit in unpleasant conditions (7-8 hours usually)

Comments:

Don’t be afraid to turn around if you’re not having fun! Yes, it’s good to get to the top but you are also out there to have a good time! Also, take a bike.

Blowy in the Black Mount: Stob a Choire Odhair & Stob Ghabhar

Recently I had the opportunity to climb two new munros with a friend from work. Stob a Choire Odhair and Stob Ghabhar were the munros of choice and as the forecast was looking good, apart from the wind (but more on that later),  we decided to get a nice early start on Saturday morning.

A short approach from the carpark at Victoria Bridge, near Bridge of Orchy, leads you to the base of the first munro, Stob a Choire Odhair.  A path north, just after a green hut on the main landrover track is the direct way onto the mountain. This good path becomes a relentless plod, especially as the last kilometre and a half is very steep. You are rewarded however, with some terrific views over Rannoch Moor to the north east and Glen Etive to the west. As the wind started to pick up, we huddled down behind the rocks on the summit for some food and a cup of hot squash.

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View of Rannoch Moor

As we descended the west ridge towards Coirein Lochain the wind eased; this was mainly due to a mountain being in the way, and we had an opportunity to really take in our surroundings. We were walking through a corridor, with white hills in all directions, as well as spectacular views of inhospitable land making us feel very small indeed.

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Looking back to Stob a Choire Odhair

As we ascended the north bulge of the Aonach Eagach (not the famous Glencoe ridge) it was hard work due to the very soft snow lying on top of wet turf and scree: uphill swimming I think they call it.

As we hit the top of the Aonach Eagach, that wind, wow! It was ferocious as it pounded us from all angles meaning we took our time crossing the west ridge connecting us to munro number two, Stob Ghabhar. The strong winds meant only a few minutes were bearable on the summit, plus the time for a summit selfie, obviously.

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Elliot on the ridge

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Windy Summit

As we descended the broad west ridge of Stob Ghabhar, the wind continued to accelerate, driving our feet through the snow as we leaned into each strengthening gust. Blocks of snow were lifted high into the air just as the spindrift would spiral around us, temporarily causing a white out.

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View down the west shoulder of Stob Ghabhar

As we dropped down the SW side of the mountain, we were happy to be sheltered from the wind. From there, a bit of bum sliding took us down the slope which would lead us south to the main track, along the river and back to the car, finishing off a very memorable day.

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Looking back at our day

This was a physically demanding day due to the strong winds and snow conditions, but it was also a great one. A big thanks to Elliot for his company and suggesting the route, I hope we can get out again in the future.

Details

Distance: 17km

Time: 8 hours

Accent: 1189

Munro summits: Stob Ghabhar (1090m), Stob a Choire Odhair (945m)

Comments

This is a really nice day out: two munros with a funky ridge to navigate as well. Be prepared to feel every meter of accent though.

Also, in winter conditions you must be well prepared in terms of planning and equipment. My ski goggles were my favourite piece of kit: with the strong winds and spindrift they really were essential. Make sure you have a pair.