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Above the clouds at Na Gruagaichean

When I was checking the long term weather forecast the week before Edinburgh Mountaineering Club meet at West Highland Lodge in Kinlochleven (17th – 18 January 2015), there was some hope for good weekend if – and only if – the wind were to drop to a reasonable level.

Thankfully I carried most of my toys to Claire’s place on Thursday so I avoided most of faffing on Friday. When it came to time to leave, i had to run from work to Claire’s where Ian and Claire were already waiting. Typical Friday ‘yeah-I-try-to-leave-early situation’. The weather in Edinburgh was pretty good when we left but we hit horrendous weather before Glencoe. I swapped to the driver’s seat after we had tea in Callander. It was my first time driving in Scotland when the roads were covered in snow. It’s an interesting experience when you don’t have winter tyres. Even though the traffic was slow, the trip felt fast since there was non-stop blabbering going on.

The plan

On Saturday Claire and I joined forces with Ian, Clare and Ged. We planned to do both Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor. Claire had done both of the peaks but I hadn’t done either of them. We started walking directly from the hut on Saturday morning. First we had to climb through woodland zig-zagging on larger trails and later on stalker’s paths. Ian up kept a fast pace and found himself walking on MTB tracks several times – it seems that it’s hard to resist the call of the blood. The morning was warm and still on the lower levels. I was sweating a lot and thought that I hadn’t recovered fully from the flu that I had earlier on that week. Thankfully I started to feel better as we gained elevation.

Catching up with other group - Na Gruagaichean on left
Catching up with other group – our first targeted, Sgurr Eilde Mor, is visible in the distance.

We caught up with a large group of EMC members that had started their walk earlier than us, after an hour or so. At this point we reached moorland and left all the trees behind. Now the snow was mainly knee deep but there were places where it reached hip deep. Snow made our approach much slower than we had estimated but all the views were stunning. The moorland was gloved in sunlight when it managed to avoid all the clouds and when it didn’t, it coloured the clouds in different shades of grey (yeah, bad one but had try). We also saw many of the surrounding peaks through the clouds. We could see Na Gruagaichean on our left almost the whole approach and it whilst it wasn’t in the cloud it was shining in the sun.

Approaching in stunning snow and light
Approaching in stunning snow and light

The-river-of-death and Sgurr Eilde Mor

After we crossed ‘the-river-of-Death’ around eleven, we came to the bottom of our climb. None fell in to the river but there were some funny situations when people were struggling in deep snow around it. Hopefully Ged got a taste of his own medicine. Our first target was to climb to Sgurr Eilde Mor, which stands at a respectable 1010 meters. Usually people use the stalker’s path but now there was so much snow that it didn’t make sense for us. We just decided to tackle it straight on. The climb was very steep and tricky. At times the snow was deep and others very rocky. I took breaks often and turned around to admire the stunning views behind me.

Stunning views to South
Stunning views to the South from Sgurr Eilde Mor path

Decision to skip Binnein Mor

We arrived at the top around noon and set off toward the next top. The way was very slippery because of rocks and ice. All the rocks have  very thin layer of ice around them but not enough to provide a good surface for crampons. We decided to check our route when we arrive to the top that separates the ridge lines to Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor since our progress was much slower than we had expected. It took around half an hour to reach the next top and wind started to pick up. We calculated that if we were to continue to  Binnein Mor, it would take at least 30 minutes there and another back. After a short discussion we agreed to continue towards Na Gruagaichean to avoid risking having to descend in the dark.

Ridge to Na Gruagaichean
Ridge to the Na Gruagaichean

After lunch we started to move towards the top of Na Gruagaichean following a narrow ridge to the south east. We knew that there was a risk of avalanches so we tried to stay as high as we could. The wind was still picking up and we started to get into spin drifts but it wasn’t too bad. The ridge was easy to walk along but we had to be very careful not to make any silly mistakes. Just before the last climb to the top, we passed group of 3 mountaineers going in the opposite direction. They still aimed to top Binnein Mor but at least they had our track to follow back to civilisation.

Claire moving sure footed at the ridge
It’s good to be sure footed at the ridge.

The top and descend

We arrived to the top at 2 pm and we would have about 2.5 hours’ light left. From the top we turned north west and started to descend a short but very steep section. Everyone managed to get down without a problem and next we had to do couple tricky moves to get ourselves to the next top. From here we started to descend   first following the ridge to the bealach and once the terrain got easier, we headed directly to the valley.

Claire admiring the views before we started to head back down
Claire admiring the views before we started to head back down

When we headed back down to Uilt An Ruich Brich, I was hardly surprised when both C’s pulled out their sledges – the small ones with a handle – and set off. What followed next would need video to describe it in full detail. If I have to put the view to one word it would be ‘silliness’. The way down was easy to walk too but sledges were definitely faster.

Finally we joined the road that passes Mamore Lodge. We followed it until we got to the junction where the West Highland Way crosses it and followed it back to Kinlochleven. A good day ended with us getting fish and chips as a tea because we had problems with the electricity in the hut that prevented us making a hot meal.

Another stunning day in the Highlands. I guess it’s true that if it’s not hell on the mountains, it’s heaven. That reminds me that we had an epic on day after but that’s another story.