Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich - 852m
Sgurr nan Coireachan - 956m

Tuesday 28th December 2010

Weather/Conditions: Still weather, little wind or snow/rain, but quite cold and cloudy, with breaks.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 9.9km / 950m / 8h 55m
Accompanying: Kev McKeown

Finally, I saw Kev McKeown up his 200th Munro. Again he chose Sgurr nan Coireachan above Glen Finnan, the one that we'd been beaten back from a couple of weeks previously.

A couple of things were wrong last time - too much drink the night before, a late start, a bad knee and oncoming darkness. It would be good to settle a score this time, so we would correct these problems and try again. But again, Sgurr nan Coireachan almost maintained the upper hand, because we nearly didn't reach the top and summited at the cost of the comfort of safety. In the depth of December, it's a wild, wild mountain and did we (or at least I) feel it or what!

On Monday, Kev picked me at the Tiso's at the north end of Glasgow City Centre. We drove back to his place briefly, picked up a couple more items. I bought snacks from the Lidl's, and Kev got fuel for the fire. Kev knows how to camp and bothy in style and we called him the Comfortable Mountaineer. He was the Tubby Mountaineer to Michael ("Mick"), but hasn't lost any weight on the bike with the sheer amount of logs he planned to carry in on the sled.

Once we'd parked at Glen Finnan (unlike last time, we didn't drive up the private road), we pushed the bikes up the road and through the darkness. The stuff on the back of Kev's bike was too heavy to cycle with. Rain spat down in the darkness, in no great quantities but cold in the night air. We continued up Glen Finnan with the promise of Corryhully bothy at the head, where we would spend the night in sleeping bags by the fire.

Corryhully was empty when we finally arrived. We took the left-hand fireplace like last time, set ourselves up and got the fire going. The funny thing about this trip was that I realised I'd forgotten item after item on the drive up: a pot for the stove, cutlery (I bought a Spork from Fort William), a sleeping mat (I bought a newspaper) and a torch (bought one in Fort William...but more on the torch later...)

And so we settled in for a night by the fire, in a bothy that's far to big and draughty to be comfortable in the winter, yet just fine if you wear fleeces, a jacket and get inside the sleeping bag! It was good to have it to ourselves, though.

Ascent to Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich

We were up early in the morning and got on our way just after nine. That would be fine for a single Munro in winter, and definitely an improvement over the last time by a couple of hours.

There was more snow lying than last time, because the West Highlands had unsurprisingly seen a good few dumps while we were away. Like last time, we progressively worked our way up the ridge towards Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich (that name I usually replace with 'the first top' in conversation). And to think we went all the way home, back up again just to arrive on the same ridge to climb the same mountain! Kind of a nice thought.

It was a relaxed day at first. When you're taking it easy on hills, you talk a lot. The conversation turned to Michael at one point but that's all that sticks in my memory. As the hours wore on though, I became aware that although we both felt physically good, it was getting late and we'd have to get a move on if we were to make the summit. My thoughts also moved to how were we going to get over Riabhaich, the Top?

When we came here at the start of December, we took the path around the left hand side of this conical peak. The path was snow-choked and clogged by thawing blocks - hardly the best thing to commit your weight to above a drop. I made it up and down the last time (the up was harder than the down, funnily enough) but now more snow had fallen. Kev thought a direct route up the front of the peak was worth trying. I didn't agree but what the heck, it was a worth a shot and probably had the same fear-factor as trying to climb the side anyhow.

And before I knew it, I was striking up the front of the hillside. It was all good fun, place a foot, foot, axe, foot, foot, axe, etc (I had one axe), but as the incline continued I began to feel the exposure. The snow was not in good condition, it didn't always give a 'bomber' placement and I started to get nervy. Nervousness leads to a tense position which only contributes to make the situation worse. I think that in a dangerous situation fluid, calculated motion goes a long way to moving safely, yet is the very thing which eludes you when you need it most! Boot placements (no crampons) were on kicked-in snow ledges or turf. The placement was always good but not perfect. Beneath the snow, boulders revealed themselves to the metallic twang! of an axe. One strike nearly sent me off balance when the pick rebounded.

To put it straight, I was actually sh***ing myself by this point.

At the top of the climb, the gully (where the most reliable snow was found) veered sharply off to the left. I could follow it around which would necessitate a traversing motion, or I could break through a gap in the cliffs above which would be steeper, but would get me off this dangerous ground. With the bad snow and boulders, an ice axe arrest would be difficult to make and the fall would be in the region of 50-100m, which was enough to give me the willies big-time.

I went straight up the middle of the rocks, pulling up on handholds. I got secure hand and footholds at the wind-blown gap where the snow meets the base of the cliff, a fleeting sensation of security in an otherwise dangerous landscape. But I pulled myself out of it, and hacked my way up the last snowfields, until Kev and I (and Kev's dog Rupert who found the climbing much easier than us) came to terra firma again, so to speak.

Well it wasn't over yet. Still a kilometre from the summit in horizontal distance, we were firmly in the afternoon and it would be dark in two or three hours. I couldn't climb down what I climbed up, but I counted on getting down the hill's left-hand route I'd been up before.

Summit ridge and Success

To bring back the headtorch from earlier that I forgot to take with me, I mentioned I bought one from Fort William, only handheld. If I was to descend something with two hands, could I hold a torch in my teeth if we needed to descend at night? Simply put, no I couldn't. With these thoughts spinning around my mind, the stress reduced a notch when I discovered my headtorch in a corner in my rucksack, a discovery that changed things slightly. I grew a little more comfortable.

But could we descend the mountain by night? Should we descend by night, or should we turn around before it's too late? I for sure didn't know quite how I'd get off in daylight, but in the clarity of day it's nothing to worry about. You can't however piss around in the darkness wondering what to do. Could we handle being turned back on my second attempt at the summit ridge? I thought about the possibility I was over-reacting too because although the stress can be enormous, it's can be difficult to know where to draw the line.

On we went anyway...

We descended the ridge to the saddle and the great overhanging cliff which marked last attempt's turn-around point. In my mind, I just knew how big the peak looked from here, but at least we were both here together to share the experience. Kev had a bothy bag with him, a flask of hot water and dog for heat, so a night out could be survived, if it came to that. It would be 15 miserable, dark hours though, and I wouldn't want to do it I could absolutely help it.

We started up the ridge to the summit, the mist remaining enclosed around us. Having studied the mountain previously, I could imagine our location on the 150m of ascent from saddle to the summit. One set of rocks would have to be scrambled up, followed by another, then another. I was usually ahead of Kev and it made my nervous to be far above him, to look up myself and only see more. I actually felt trapped here, fearful to waste time going for the summit but not knowing how to get down. Would we cut things too fine? Caught under my breath was the words f**k, f**k, f**k, f**k, f**k, f**k... over and over, and a sign of the tension. Sometimes a corner of cloud would open to reveal a smudge of blue sky, but nothing more. And I felt trapped among the blank white of the mountain, waiting for Kev, somehow feeling sorry that I could only tell him there was more to go.

And then atop one rock step, the ground ahead flattened out. And I knew that the mountain was flatter on top, the summit at the far end. And in due time, a columnar trig point appeared through the late-afternoon gloom and I turned to Kev with a thumbs up or similar. It was the summit! I congratulated Kev on the ascent of his 200th Munro, an ascent that I think had tapped on some of his hidden reserves too.

And my God, had he earned it or what! We shook hands on it and congratulated one another, because the climb had been immensely dramatic. Of course, we were only half way home at the summit, but a lot of the tension dissipates the minute you take that first step downward.

Descent to Corryhully

The big question now was, how would we get down?

There was no way in hell I'd descend what we went up, no way. The other alternative was to take the 'left-hand' path down the side of the hill which was probably just as steep and dodgy. And without tracks leading us there it would be very difficult to locate.

Kev and I followed our tracks down to the saddle, where someone came up with an idea - descend west prematurely and traverse the side of Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich. A risky idea, but one that would side-step any exposed, nutty, descent. Additionally, climbing back up Riabhaich from the saddle seemed to be too much effort to bear. Although the OS 1:50000 was a bit vague concerning terrain, our get-out plan seemed very feasible even when an immensely rugged and rough place like Coire Carnaig to the south isn't represented as such. A 1:25000 would have helped wonders.

Not only was it risky because of lack of map detail, it was also risky because we would have to descend fifty metres into Coire Odhar Mor, traverse that coire and cross a saddle into Coire Carnaig. If we got into Coire Carnaig, it would be easy to reach Corryhully bothy and safety. If we got lost in mist around Coire Odhar Mor, we'd be lost among remote Knoydart terrain, possibly quadrupling the distance back to the bothy if all went completely wrong.

At first we had to lose height and walk west into Coire Odhar Mor. This was made harder because the terrain lent itself to walking south with gullies running roughly in this direction. And all of this in the cloud and snow. I hoped to get it right. We then traversed the slopes and hoped to arrive at the head of Coire Carnaig. As we traversed, shapes through the gloom suggested we were in the right place and from a world of danger, we suddenly stepped back into the world of predictability when we emerged from the cloud, Coire Carnaig spread out at our feet. Although rough and cliff-ridden it seemed to offer no problem of passage. The route was in the bag, we would be fine.

At once, all the stress evaporated. We were on the home straight, safe again and now the greatest inconvenience was descending 2000 feet tired, and in wet boots. Trivial, in the scheme of things.

We sent out texts and made phone calls home. We weren't down yet but safe nonetheless. And when we'd stopped taking pictures, filming movies on our cameras, we began the trek back down to Corryhully bothy where instead of leaving that night to drive home which was the original plan, we would of course stay another night and get rested.

Night seemed to fall fast in the coire. We could however follow the river down on the long trek and this almost guaranteed our safety. Nonetheless it was a hard walk with tired bodies and we trudged on through the darkness knowing we weren't done yet.

The last descent to the bothy proved to be the toughest - Glenfinnan Lodge is surrounded by huge knolls and crags and we found ourselves among them, the bothy now close by, but miles away in another sense. We scrambled down grassy ramps beneath enormous cliffs, not quite knowing where we'd found ourselves, until we were spat out of the mountain and back onto the approach path.

The bothy came sooner than we'd expected. It may have been the first part of the day that was easier than hoped for and we were back in the door for another night by the fire, summit achieved, mission accomplished. On top of a goal achieved, I think it had been one of the more powerful days either of us had seen.

Saturday night, Corryhully

Walk out of Glen Finnan and drive home

The next morning, Kev and I cycled down Glen Finnan on the bikes thoughtfully brought up two days ago. It was a superb ride generally on a downhill and brought us back to the car very swiftly.

We got the bikes on the back of the car and headed home, stopping en route at Glen Coe for pictures (numbingly cold high winds were pushing through the glen, but much snow had melted here in the last two days), the Rannoch Moor lochans (see the two panoramic shots images below) the Strathfillan Wigwams (Kev got New Year venison from the store) and the Falls of Falloch. Kev dropped me at my front door.

I think we did something pretty special. It was one Munro, nothing out of the ordinary in that sense, but it was something to remember for sure. A lot of worries high on the mountain went unfulfilled and with spot on navigation, we pulled ourselves straight out of a situation that was about to get sticky. If we hadn't made the summit (which could well have happened!) it would have been a bad trip, worst-of-the-year type material. But with the summit gained, not without a fight, it turned into one of the best trips of the year.

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 9.05am Corryhully bothy
(4.35) 1.40pm Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich
(5.40) 2.45pm Sgurr nan Coireachan
(8.55) 6.00pm Corryhully bothy
Written: 2011-01-30