A Schoolyard, a Boomerang and a Corbett
29-30 January 2011, Western Highlands
Friday night, and five YMC members rendezvoused at the Crianlarich Youth Hostel after the long drive north. It was the first time I had stayed in Crianlarich itself, and my comment that I had been informed (reliably, or so I thought) that there were “good pubs” in the village prompted much hilarity from those who had stayed there before. A visit to the nearest drinking house for a swift pint followed - suffice to say that I had clearly been misinformed!
On Saturday, two groups headed off with different objectives in mind.
Frank, Matthew, and Andrew chose Ben Sguliard. No-one knows what it means, but as it sounds like "schoolyard" perhaps it's Gaelic for 'learning experience". Anyway being one of the few Munros on the western seaboard which had not been "Franked”, now was the time to put his stamp upon it.
The main lesson was sums. If you have a 937-metre summit which is approached along a ridge with substantial ups and downs, you get to climb 1200 metres by the time you're done. The gnarly ridge is actually three tops over 850 metres, irregular and bouldery. The final part sweeps up to the summit in a graceful curve, flanked by steep rocky drops.
In completely windless conditions, lovely views opened up along Loch Creran and towards Ardgour, Lismore, and Mull. Just south of Beinn a' Bheithir, at the bottom of Glencoe, Ben Sguliard shares the beautiful combination of mountainside and sea loch, and long views into the West. We tried to eyeball Beinn Fionndlaidh, where Frank has an appointment in November.
A gentle mist weaved around the upper parts of the mountain, but after some friendly waves from the local Brocken Spectres, the mist conveniently broke up just where the going becomes a bit complicated. The cold grey blanket returned near the summit, however. "Thirty-one" said Frank.
In the belief that this was a target for Units of Alcohol, the team made its way back over the humps and happily along to the Ballachulish Hotel, pausing only to replace a huge boulder which had fallen over. The evening sun turned the slopes above Onich and Loch Linnhe into a golden glow, as we set to work on our internal glows from satisfaction and uisge beatha.
Mike and I had originally had our eyes on a winter traverse of the Aonach Eagach, but a lack of snow on the ridge had forced a reappraisal of our options. Snow conditions were relatively thin lower down, and on the ridges, so we decided to head up Stob Coire nan Lochan. The corrie is high, and the gullies often hold snow and ice when other areas are bare.
We set off in the dark, sure that lots of people would also be heading to one of the few crags in winter nick, and were first into the corrie. Unfortunately, the mist prevented us from starting climbing straight away as we struggled to identify which buttress was which. After spending some time enjoying a ‘second breakfast’, our wait was rewarded when the murk cleared slightly. Boomerang Gully looked in good condition, so we started up it. It was still very quiet by this stage and hardly any climbers had arrived in the corrie. Maybe everyone had headed to the Ben or the Norries instead?
Boomerang Gully is a straightforward snow climb, with just one steep icy pitch to liven things up and make you feel the want of a rope. Halfway up this pitch I looked down to see a small yellow bit of plastic fall from my crampon and disappear southwards – my anti-balling plate!
The rest of the climb was an easy romp to the top, made slightly more interesting by the need to bang my right crampon with my axe to knock the snow from it every few steps. Luckily, another party came up the gully after us, found it and brought it up for me. I couldn’t re-fit it on the hill as the metal clasp was bent (and no amount of prying with an axe would budge it), but it was much appreciated all the same.
Boomerang Gully culminated in a short ridge which delivered us straight on to the summit with smiles on our faces. ‘First lunch’ was enjoyed, although the views were lost behind the mist. We debated heading back down in to the corrie to do another route, but eventually decided to extend the day by walking over Bidean nam Bian, the slightly higher summit to our south. All the routes on Bidean make for relatively long days, but I think the circuit of those hills via the Lost Valley is one of the nicest days out in the area, particularly in winter.
Throughout the ascent, the mist had been alternately clearing slightly and closing back in – this continued as we walked from Stob Coire nan Lochan over to the summit of Bidean nam Bian where we had ‘second lunch’.
As we descended the east ridge of Bidean nam Bian, however, the skies suddenly cleared, and we were treated to some very special views of the surrounding hills. A steep descent down the snowy headwall of Coire Gabhail and a long walk out through the Lost Valley, past the spectacular erratics which mark the entrance to the valley, completed the day.
Sunday brought clag, drizzle, wind and a dusting of snow higher up. After much impassioned debate on the subject the previous evening (particularly on the part of the two aspirant munroists present) it was eventually decided that Beinn a’ Chuallaich, a Corbett, would be the best choice, on the basis that lower hills would be relatively clag-free. (This may have indicated a certain degree of optimism.) The idea of a short day also appealed to the aching legs which followed the previous day’s exertions.
After a steep ascent up heathery slopes, the ground levelled off as we made our way towards the col between the main summit of Beinn a’ Chuallaich and its subsidiary top, Meall nan Eun. Three or four imposters were passed before we eventually reached the real col, from where it was a short, but blustery, walk up to the main summit.
The views that we had been hoping for weren’t there, and the wind was biting, so we headed onwards quickly. The cloud lifted as we descended, however, eventually opening up enough to allow us to see down to Loch Rannoch and Schiehallion to our south as we ambled back to the cars ready for the drive home.