Sgorr Dhearg (Beinn a' Bheithir) - 1024m
Sunday 27th December 2009
Weather/Conditions: Cloud obscuring the tops at the bottom, until it cleared on Sgorr Dhonuill's summit ridge. Terrible snow, unconsolidated powder - it's been so cold and calm for so long it hasn't consolidated whatsoever. Saw the most amazing sunset, then walked beneath moonlight on Sgorr Dhearg.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 13.8km / 1200m / 10h 35m
Up Gleann a' Chaolais
But I'm so glad I did. To begin with, the weather was a disappointment, and having parked beyond South Ballachulish, Michael and I followed the tracks up Gleann a' Chaolais. I knew the route well having been here just a few weeks previously and we progressed to the head of the glen, turned off the forestry tracks and onto a path leading to Coire Dearg, the small bowl high on Sgorr Dhonuill. Snow lay down to sea level, so although the forests looked beautiful in the thick powder, it made for difficult climbing. And higher up, the easiest route onto the ridge was via. a steep scree gully.
There had been breaks of sunshine here and there but it was a cloudy day and we were soon in the mist. The going was tough, even with trail already broken by previous boots. I went first with Michael following into the gully. It wasn't an ideal situation. It shouldn't avalanche (though the avalanche forecast hadn't looked to hot) but the snow was sugary all the way to the scree beneath, and this scree was frozen hard. I tested plunging my axe into the ground, and there was no purchase. If we fell, there would be no stopping. We'd take one step up and the same step back. We'd slip, slide and fall all over the place because the snow simply disintegrated.
Struggling in the Coire Dearg gully
I'd gained just ten feet on Michael, who in a similar struggle stopped in his tracks. He wasn't getting up either and didn't like the size of the drop below us. It was looking hopeless. We faced a descent with only mist the and a struggle to have rewarded us.
I felt like I couldn't accept that. Should that be all that summarised our day? This cloud hadn't been the weather forecast, it had looked good but since there had been breaks of sunlight, I knew that this could all clear. But what was there to go than go down? In a last-ditch effort, I went up.
I hammered my way up and nothing less because that was the only practical means of ascent. It was an absolute struggle. I felt a bit better knowing that at the top of the gully couldn't be far away, and I tried hard to keep going. It was exhausting physically and difficult in the mind - the way to climb was to let the powder fall away in front of you then try and climb on top of it all, slip a bit further then try and climb again, gaining any possible purchase. I reached the top, exhilarated but knowing that it had been such hard work, on difficult ground too.
When Michael arrived, we headed onwards to the summit of Sgorr Dhonuill. On the way up, all we'd struggled for in the gully had paid off. The clouds cleared and we had the most fantastic sunset with vistas across Loch Linnhe, the Western Highlands and the Nevis Range. When we arrived on the summit, views opened out to the east; I made sure to take an extremely detailed panorama since I had never seen views like it before. It was special to be up at 1000m with snow-clad mountains glowing in the last light of the sun.
We spent half an hour on Sgorr Dhonuill, but when the sun had almost set we continued to Sgorr Dhearg, the highest peak of the Beinn a' Bheithir range. The ridge from Sgorr Dhonuill's summit, as I discovered the first time I came here, was extremely narrow. I couldn't wait to get onto it so after some anticipation, I led the way down the ridge, completely consumed by the task at hand. I really had to focus but enjoyed myself. The ridge was only a foot or two wide and the cliff girt drops fell a couple thousand feet on either side, steep or vertical much of the way. This section wasn't sustained and we part walked, part bum-slid the rest of the way down to the bealach between the two hills. The last of the sunlight was shining but now the moon was rising and it would take over as being our source of light.
The ridge to Sgorr Dhearg is just a great slog, but it was wonderful to walk as the sun died and moonlight took over. The plan would be to descend back to the bealach where Michael would collect the rucksack he'd dropped off then head north to the forests of the glen. But for now, we were heading upwards with the pinpoint of light on Michaels rucksack below, a singly point of light on an otherwise dark hillside. He'd strapped a headtorch to the outside - it would help locate the rucksack later but also for some reason, I found it quite comforting to be able to see.
I arrived at Sgorr Dhearg's summit first where the wind blew a little stronger. I wanted to take pictures of the moonlit mountains, but there were two problems: it was cold and I had no tripod. For the long exposures, I used my ice axe to provide some sort of stable platform. It rarely worked and the only images I got looking towards Fort William, Ben Nevis and Glen Coe turned out blurred. The trig point that no longer stands on top of this hill would have helped a lot.
We didn't spend so long on Sgorr Dhearg's summit as we had on Sgorr Dhonuill's and made quick progress to the bealach below. We didn't rush much though, took our time and soaked up the atmosphere. The sight of moonlit winter mountains are well worth sticking about for however cold. From the bealach we descended towards the forests and followed a firebreak to the forestry tracks. It was perfectly possible to see by moonlight until we were under the trees, but then we need head torches. I used one for a while, but turned it off and used the glow of Michaels in front.
Then we emerged at the forestry tracks and took a slightly contorted route back - for the most part the same as the route we'd taken on the ascent. I was shattered as was Michael, and my feet and legs felt worn out. Of course though, we got back to the van, but not without much discomfort.
Feeling fairly worn out, we headed south to Appin where Ben Sgulaird lay, next days goal, and found a place in Port Appin right beside the harbour at the end of the road that served us drinks. It wasn't the nicest of evenings, but this is for reasons that I will leave out here. But I was in a foul mood, and it was to do with what happened between coming off the mountain and arriving in Appin. Just before going into the bar, I walked onto the beach but felt absolutely empty. This feeling had come on so suddenly. The temperate was down to around -10˚C, the loch was in front and the mountains opposite were snow covered and in moonlight. I didn't care though, I felt suddenly low as anything and wanted to be anywhere but there. This cold night in Port Appin was pretty depressing and I acknowledged that and tried cheering myself up. It didn't work and the bar didn't help things, but it was nice to get a drink.
The only relief was to lay down in the back of the van with a sleeping bag and drift off. With temperatures far below freezing it would be a cold night. It was warm in the van when I fell asleep but that wasn't to last and even with two fleeces, a jacket (with fleece inbuilt) all inside a sleeping bag, I still wasn't warm. It was a long, cold night although the terrible mood lifted with sleep.
The cold woke me 10-20 times during the night, and I often drifted in a semi-conscious state, unable to sleep properly. It didn't help that my sleeping bag was not much over £10 from Asda and it was a great relief when 8am rolled around. With the return of day, we could continue with the next plan, Beinn Sgulaird.
Sgorr Dhonuill 360°
Sgorr Dhonuill 90˚ East - Nevis Range, Mamores and Glen Coe
Sgorr Dhonuill 90˚ South - Glen Etive, Cruachan Range and Appin
Sgorr Dhonuill 90˚ West - Loch Linnhe, Mull, Morvern and Ardgour
Sgorr Dhonuill 90˚ North - Ardgour, Knoydart, Affric and Loch Lochay
(0.00) 10.20am Gleann a' Chaolais car park
(4.50) 3.10pm Sgorr Dhonuill
(5.20) 3.40pm Sgorr Dhonuill (left)
(6.55) 5.15pm Sgorr Dhearg
(10.35) 8.55pm Gleann a' Chaolais car park