Aonach Beag - 1234m
Saturday 28th February 2009
Weather/Conditions: Cloud all around with some rain and snow. Whiteout at the summits with some brief moments of blue sky and tops of cloud at Aonach Beag, but otherwise fairly wet and windy.
Distance/Ascent/Time:10km / 1000m / 4h 20m
Accompanying: U.A.M. (Dave, James, Colin)
That evening we headed out to the pub and it came as a surprise that I couldn't enter many places without ID. Fort William pubs were strict in comparison to places in Braemar or Aviemore, though the police presence was rather large and atmosphere wasn't as settled. Still, we found certain places to drink and returned to the bunkhouse around 1am. A glass of red wine followed in the communal area and I was asleep just after 2am.
The morning brought more low cloud though it wasn't looking too bad. Wind and rain was almost non existent now, but heavy rain was forecasted for later on in the day and an early start was in order. We headed down to Morrison's for breakfast before driving the short distance to the Aonach Mor car park. From here the gondola headed up from about 150m to over 600m. Whether the walker should use this to gain some height seems to have been to be a minorly controversial issue but it gets you high quick. I usually don't mind slogging a little and gaining height that way but the decision had been made. In the end I found the gondola to be quite an experience in itself - before this I'd never knowingly been in one.
We arrived at the "mountain restaurant" where the conditions were more favourable than I'd anticipated. I put on waterproofs however as rain and winds were expected higher up and I didn't want to be messing around up there trying to put things on. We began walking and cut across to the ski tows where we followed snowfields upwards. The weather wasn't terribly inspiring and neither was the hill, but I was feeling good about my physical condition. Things were slow to start with but as we gained altitude, things picked up and I got into a rhythm. Then the slope flattened out and we crested the plateau as we headed into cloud. James and I began walking ahead and often I stopped to photograph the plateau. Beyond the ski tows, the mountain felt inspiring and we walked through the near-whiteout, aiming roughly towards the summit. Many of the images turned out flat and white (as one would expect, I suppose) but the photographs didn't begin to capture the feeling of being there.
For many years I've been a fan of the band Genesis and their lyrics to the song One For the Vine resonated through my head. They felt fitting: "They travelled cross the plateau of ice, up to its edge. Then they crossed a mountain range and saw the final plain." When I say fitting, I mean it not only in a literal sense but in that I have deep rooted associations between the Genesis album Wind & Wuthering and the Glen Coe mountains in particular. My guess is that one of the first times I saw the area, Wind and Wuthering was playing in the car, so walking along the plateau of Aonach Mor, although not quite Glen Coe, held a deeper significance, however subtle.
The ground rose gently until James and I came upon a cairn. It wasn't a substantially sized cairn and it was several minutes before we began to have our doubts about it, sensing that perhaps we were not standing on the true summit. Upon checking the map, a top at the NE side of the plateau may have fooled us and so we carried onwards. The ground dropped at first and then rose once more, culminating in a large cairn which was most definitely the summit of Aonach Mor. (12.10pm)
At the top, I ate some food (although it wasn't particularly good) and phoned home. Colin and Dave hadn't come yet, and we reckoned that they'd maybe make the same mistake as us and follow us onto the summit. After a while we went back towards the subsidiary top, met them mid-way and headed back over to the real summit where the four of us took a break.
From the south a guy arrived at the summit, the only walker we'd see all day. He'd come from Glen Nevis alone and as he arrived we continued on our way to Aonach Beag. A path headed downhill to the bealach between Mor and Beag and from there the NW ridge of Aonach Beag came into view. I had increasingly been feeling 'away out there', and this wild looking ridge curved up to the left and into the mists. Apprehension was building so I took out my axe for in the past it's had the effect of leaving me secure and feeling safe on steep ground. When I arrived at the ridge there was a small patch of steeply angled snow to cross followed by a brief scramble over loose ground. Normally this terrain wouldn't bother me whatsoever, but on this occasion something really came over me. I don't know what had changed but suddenly I felt very far out there. I was only asking myself to do a couple of easy moves but I couldn't stop looking down and thinking of the consequences of not making it. I knew I wasn't thinking right and consciously repeated "You're in control, you're in control..." over and over until I was past the difficulties. I don't know what came over me, but I find these mind games that the mountains provoke intriguing. It's my intention to work on this slight problem and perhaps take a bit of control of myself. Sometimes I find it easy to pull off an exposed line of ascent, other times my head seems to be away on the verge of panic. My abilities could do with a little work...
Beyond the crags, the terrain gradually levelled out we continued over ice sheets up in the direction of the summit. Everything was thawing however and crampons were not needed, I could punch my feet straight through. I'd bought some Grivel G10's a couple of weeks previously, though they hadn't been needed. Some slogging brought us up to the summit, where hints of blue sky began appearing. Being at the top end of the clouds, the sun filtered through and the place glowed with muted light. It was one of these "moments" that occur without warning it was other-worldly.
The summit didn't present itself too easily. Unsurprisingly, the east face was heavily corniced and we saw glimpses of this through the ever-moving mist. This was the first time I'd ever had to consider cornicing and when rocks stopped poking through the top of the snow (signalling solid ground, of course), I stopped there. I stayed in my own comfort zone but playing it carefully and within my own judgement, found myself standing upon the highest visible rocks and it seemed to be the summit of Aonach Beag. After the weekend and when I got home, I discovered that Aonach Beag has a substantially sized cairn although where we stood, there was nothing. Just rocks on the ground and a build up of snow to the east side that no one dare venture out to. We matched the GPS up with the map, checked the height we were currently at and it would have seemed that we were on the summit. Apart from cornices, there was no higher ground left to stand upon. A study of the GPS and map suggested we were on top. A cairn was nowhere to be seen but we were on top and with this knowledge we set off down.
Returning over Aonach Mor
We passed the guy we'd met on Aonach Mor once again, though only brief words were exchanged. Descending towards the Mor-Beag saddle, the descent was plain easy. Why I'd worried and why I'd needed to keep myself focused beforehand I hadn't a clue, because we were back at the saddle in no time and there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Beyond the saddle, we made our way back to the car over Aonach Mor and so we reascended. It was a slog but I got a nice phone call from friend Tom, who I chatted to for a while.
We arrived back at Aonach Mor's summit and headed back down the other side with the intention of catching the gondola. We came out of the mist and at 950m, someone must have fallen perhaps, but we realised that the snow fields of Aonach Mor could be 'glissaded'. I regressed to little-boy mode and sat on my arse before careening down the snow fields. I kept feet wide, using my heels to control speed and direction, but to fly down the slopes on my bum was exhilarating and definitely a pleasant way to end the day. We must have made it down to 800m before we ran out of snow and from there it was an easy walk to the restaurant. A hot chocolate awaited (a fabulous one at that) before we caught the gondola down to the car.
That evening it was equally as hard to get into the pubs as on Friday night, though I don't think we tried so many places. It'll be easier in the future to bring along valid ID and have no problems, but on this evening I didn't spend so much time out and got to bed fairly early anyway. Another 2am bedtime would do me no favours. Sunday morning brought more low cloud though it was time to go home and Dave and I took the A82 down the road following breakfast in Morrison's. I met up with mum at the BP garage in Milton (beside the Erskine Bridge) and arrived home soon afterwards.
It was only on Sunday evening that the feeling of achievement seeped in and I felt very positive about the weekend I'd had. Even with bad weather, two 1200m+ Munros were climbed. Possibilities for the next time? The Glen Nevis approach looks interesting and perhaps a clear day is in order. From what I can tell, the views from these two mountains are stunning: across Ben Nevis, the Grey Corries and over to the Mamores, etc... A thanks goes to Dave, James and Colin for having me along, these hills certainly felt a grade beyond my usual hillwalks.