Saturday 5th December 2009
Weather/Conditions: At the top: darkness, deep snow, cornicing, sharp ridges and often whiteout or heavy snow. Some of the most extreme conditions to date making for a tough mental challenge too.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 11.1km / 850m / 6h 50m
Accompanying: Michael Coffield
We started the walk from the Cluanie Inn and headed up An Caorann Beag, the glen leading north to Ciste Dhubh. We used head torches, although with a full moon filtering through the cloud, we could mostly see without. We climbed to the top of the glen then onto the flat area of Bealach a' Choinich, where at the opposite end lay Ciste Dhubh.
Here, views opened to the Munro A' Chralaig to the east, which although I at first mistook it to be the enormous Munros of Glen Affric to the north, it looked equally huge. The moonlit snow-streaked corries were very atmospheric in the middle of the night and they just sat there, glowing in the darkness, feeling timeless, looking like they'd sat there for a long time, undisturbed. I felt we'd almost entered 'their time' so vast and silent they were.
I took out the tripod for a couple of long-exposure pictures, and got a couple of shot of the dark hills. We then headed on upwards to Ciste Dhubh, up some steep slopes and then onto the snow covered ground higher up. We'd arrived at the part I was anticipating the most - the snow covered, sharp arête of Ciste Dhubh.
We reached the snowline and ridge at about the same time. It had been fairly calm up to this point, but the wind picked up at the crest and blew with some force. I knew the ridge ahead would be sharp and steep sided, and already knew it was going to be a challenge.
Three tops lie along Ciste Dhubh's ridge, the distant and more northerly being the mountains true summit. At heights of 877m, 929m and 979m, they rise in succession. I made the 877m top my first mental goal, and we headed upwards over the snow covered ridge. The ice axes came out soon, and Michael brought the crampons out fairly soon too. I really should have, but waited until later to do so. Ploughing through the snow on the way to the first top, the weather closed in and we were soon in a whiteout. Visibility in the light of the head torches was often nil, but these occasions passed and we could continue upwards without hitch. Things were just beginning to feel rather extreme.
The whiteouts hadn't concerned me too much, but then the ridges steepened on either side. The trail was unbroken before us, which made progress a bit more hazardous. What struck me more than anything was the sheer sharpness of this ridge. On my left, snow slops descended into nothingness, to the right, cornices lined crag ridden drops. It seemed like a long way to go in either direction, and falling at any point was not an option.
But as we went further and further along this ridge, sometimes using hands to climb down sections, I couldn't deny the oncoming sense of unease. I had to concentrate to keep my head together. I was more worried that we'd be climbing ourselves into a trap than anything: once at the summit ridge, would there be an easy way off if the shit hit the fan and we needed to make a sudden retreat to lower altitudes? I reckoned not.
I eventually put on crampons while sitting on a ledge carved from the snow in an all-to-precarious position. I should have done it earlier, but it couldn't wait longer. I'd need all the purchase on the ground I could get. So we continued onwards, myself starting to wonder why on earth I put myself up here, Michael looking less bothered but perhaps not expressing fear. Meanwhile, I began to wonder where on earth this 877m top was. We'd been going a long time, but I'd stopped paying attention to goals when all my thoughts would need to go into keeping two feet on the ridge.
Eager to know our position now, Michael got the GPS out, and read a six figure grid reference which I translated to the map. To my delight, we were near the 929m top - we were right beside the summit!
My spirits went through the roof. In that instant, the tension in my stomach dissipated. Soon after, we descended from the 929m top a small saddle, then were faced with the final slopes. But the summit was just there. And once we were there, we could make our return. I was a lot happier knowing now what was ahead, and we climbed the final slopes. Rocks stuck out from the snow, and this seemed to constitute a mostly-buried cairn. I tried excavating some of the snow from around it to see if I could make better judgment, although that was too great a pain to go to. I wasn't 100% sure that this was the summit. I considered walking onwards for a moment to see if the ground rose again, but "f**k that" was my next thought. I wasn't going onwards for any other reason than if we hadn't actually got there. I studied the map carefully - there could be no false summits. Michael read out another six figure grid reference, I checked it against the map and sure enough, this was it. The summit of Ciste Dhubh at 3.40am in the middle of winter. Whoa.
I also got the camera out, and we took some shots of each other. The driving wet snow made my rucksack and everything in it soaked, so the camera was wet in no time too. I was almost temped to not take pictures, but figured that you need pictures from the summit, whether it's for nothing else than to figure out when you got there. If I didn't bother taking the camera out, I'd kick myself later for having no pictures out of what I'd see as laziness.
Mentally, the descent was a lot easier to deal with then the ascent. With the trail now broken and knowing what lay ahead I quite enjoyed it. I could feel the atmosphere of the night now that the uncertainty was over. No more were the whiteouts and the tension that sat with me for the time spent starting along the ridge. I found that being able to look back on my own reaction to such conditions, I had a new found appreciation of climbers that are doing so much greater things on harder mountains in greater ranges. Physically, the work was easy but keeping myself composed on those sharp ridges in the middle of the night was it's own challenge.
Back where we joined the ridge, the crampons came off and we began the long walk back to the Cluanie Inn. In Michaels Scarpa Mantas, walking had never felt so difficult. On soft ground in the long grasses, it didn't feel so bad to be walking with them but they still made my feet scream. I never knew feet could feel so bad, and it reminded me of my early hillwalking days as an eleven year old when dad would give me a paid of twenty-year-old, stiff leather boots for summer walking.
We seemed to spend an eternity walking back to the Cluanie Inn, but when I left the long grasses and picked up the track back, the feet situation got a whole worse. I couldn't be bothered walking in the long grasses again, but the hard impacts on the gravel made my feet weep. It was becoming unbearable when we reached the Cluanie Inn, by this point I was hobbling along behind Michael.
Once our soaking wet gear was off, we headed down the glen for five minutes before finding a place to park for the night. We got to sleep around 6am, and we'd only have a few hours sleep before we'd be up again for more hills. The main walk on Saturday would be with Kevin McKeown who was already parked in Glen Shiel.
All in all though, I see this climb of Ciste Dhubh in a positive light - owing to it's extremity more than anything else. The pain of the long glen and unforgiving boots were quickly forgotten and I've found that when I think of it, I only recall the hours spent on that high ridge in the darkness, straddling the knife edge, keeping away from cornices, and feeling fear changing to joy when I realised we were close to summiting. I also remember the occasional whiteouts and the calm, in-control state I felt in their presence, unfazed by present events, but feeling the knot in my stomach tighten at the thought of the situation we could be getting ourselves into. These are natural fears, I suppose.
But these are all things I remember in a positive way. As is always the case in the mountains, I am compelled to return to them and have a go again. Hopefully with better boots.
(0.00) 11.25pm Cluanie Inn
(4.15) 3.40am Ciste Dhubh
(6.50) 6.15am Cluanie Inn