Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg - 1036m
Saturday 5th December 2009
Weather/Conditions: Cloudy all afternoon, and near whiteout above about 800m, with good snow coverage and mist. Got dark at Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg summit and had a long descent in the dark.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 8.6km / 900m / c. 6h 45m
Accompanying: Michael Coffield, Kevin McKeown
We'd had a few hours sleep in the back his van before waking up feeling a bit fresher. The plan for today was to climb three Munros along the north side of Glen Shiel: Aonach Meadhoin, Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg and Saileag. Saileag didn't materialise, but lack of daylight pretty much determined this and we thought it best to go down as night fell on Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg.
We woke up fairly late, got breakfast and got our things organised. Everything was still wet from the Ciste Dhubh climb, and the camera very much so. Instead I opted to use my small point-and-shoot that hadn't been out for a long time, although before December 2008 I used it regularly. I hadn't used this little camera since January and it turned out to be more trouble than it was worth - the date and time wasn't set, so I couldn't derive summit times like I usually do for walks. I had to speak the times into small movies everywhere I went. It was a big pain in the ass, especially when the quality of the photos turned out to be disappointingly bad. I should have taken the big camera - not a drop of precipitation fell at any point during this walk, and the wind would probably have dried out the big camera anyway.
We set off at 12.20pm - horrendously late for winter Munros, you may think. But we were happy enough doing this. I'd appreciated the extra sleep. Michael, Kevin McK and I walked together for the first section up the glen, then Michael and I would climb Aonach Meadhoin while Kevin McK went straight towards Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg's summit. We'd meet each other on the latter hill and then descend together.
Aonach Meadhoin was essentially one great slog up the southern spur between the two corries of Coire na Cadha and Coire Tholl Bhruach. Steep most of the way, it was a fair slog but once above the snow line things were more interesting. Although the nice views of the South Shiel Ridge had gone once we were in cloud, the winter conditions and blizzard-less whiteouts were great fun to walk in. A wind was blasting across the ridge however and made for harder going conditions. We reached the summit of Aonach Meadhoin without hitch, and found a fairly large summit cairn on a broad summit. No sharp ridges here. There was even some direct sunlight filtering through from the setting sun, giving the sky and ground a golden tint. If I'd brought my good camera then it would have picked the colours out a little better but something's just aren't to be.
Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg: interesting, and 'intense' summit
We continued onwards to the second Munro of the day on a compass bearing which brought us to a spectacularly narrow ridge. I climbed onto it first with Michael behind me. Realising the photo opportunity, I asked him to take a picture on his phone. The quality is debatable, but that's fair enough - my camera wasn't much better and it would have been too much hassle to hand over anyway. The knife edge ridge rises in the background and looks pretty good. It's nice to get photos of these such places, especially when taking photos can be such a challenge or inconvenience.
As we reached the bealach between the two hills, it began to get dark and the light gradually dimmed all the way to to the summit of Dheirg. We caught up with Kevin McKeown and his dog Rupert (who has done far more Munros than myself!) and we continued upwards together.
The summit was the more interesting part of this hill. It sits out on a narrow arête away from the main ridge which requires some careful walking to get to. I'd imagine it would be quite easy in summer, but in the dim light of a winter's evening, it was a different story. I knew there to be a great cairn standing at the end of this ridge, although didn't realise how long the ridge would be.
I got onto it first and began to work my way along. Conditions were far from ideal - the light was absolutely flat and the remaining sunlight dim. There was no way of reading the snow other than stepping and putting faith in good judgement. Moreover, the ridge is bouldery (I've read there's a dry stone wall along it too) and a misplaced foot would be an easy ankle-breaker. Hardly the place to be breaking ankles...
I got myself into a rhythm and made from progress along the ridge, but Michael and Kevin didn't follow. By the time I'd realised, they were almost out of sight. I suppose it was a narrow ridge, so perhaps they didn't want to. ('Intense' is how I described it to myself in my head) But I'm not going to second guess others. I had hesitated when I realised they weren't coming, but by this point I could see the summit cairn clearly. I climbed a couple more scrambly bits and I was there, at the end of a short but spectacularly narrow ridge that I'd have to reverse. There were some big steps along the way too which I'd have to climb down but I figured I'd worry about that on the way back. They didn't look too bad.
I spent a couple of moments at the top, took pictures and video, touched the top of the cairn, then headed back towards Michael and Kevin.
Break at the summit, nightfall, and descent
The ridge was easy on the way back, especially since I'd broken a trail on the way across. The summit itself was being blasted by an easterly wind, though our position near the summit was shaded from this. The air was still and hardly cold at all. Quite comfortable, we stopped for a long time and sat and enjoyed ourselves as night fell on the summit. Getting down would be easy - just follow the footprints back.
I had time to dig myself a small bucket-type snow seat, which made things a bit warmer still. It was great fun, I really enjoyed myself up there. Once everyone was happy to move on, we followed our footprints down. Someone even had the clever idea to film our silly descent on their camera which is full of nonsense, sliding down in the dark on our arses and so on.
Beneath the snowline though, the descent dragged on for a long time. We descended Kevin McK's route of ascent - across the arm of Meall a' Charra - and then down to the glen below. In the dark everything seemed to take a lot longer, but we got down with plenty of hard slogging.
Down by the river and bordering the forests, a path on the west bank took us back to the the car park in Glen Shiel, where after a dragged out descent we arrived at the car park in the dark, with the skies now partially clear and stars out above.
We spent plenty time relaxing after the walk and took our time to pack up. The stars were out too now and that was pretty nice to see. Later on, Michael and I would drive across Scotland to Blair Atholl where he had a caravan. The next day he climbed the two Munros to the east of the Drumochter Pass while I had a quieter day around Blair Atholl with the camera. We headed home on Sunday evening.
Also, for the record, I climbed Aonach Meadhoin and Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg in Kevin McK's three season boots. I couldn't face putting my feet in Michael's Scarpa Mantas again, and three season boots felt like a dream. What about suitability to winter conditions you ask? This wasn't really a problem. I'd been using crampons the entire time we were above the snowline and being flexible 10 pointed Grivel's, they didn't snap. They were just extremely comfortable boots and very water resistant as far as three seasons go - didn't let in a drop of water.
Whether or not it was a good idea to put crampons on these boots, I often forgot about them they didn't bother me the entire time. I was damned lucky that Kevin had a pair and it was fantastic to have a real winter walk without aching feet, like on Ciste Dhubh. Next time I will remember to bring boots.
(0.00) c. 12.20pm Glen Shiel
(2.40) 3.00pm Aonach Meadhoin
(3.10) 3.30pm Saddle between Munros
(3.55) 4.15pm Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg
(4.35) 4.55pm Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg (left)
(6.45) 7.05pm Glen Shiel