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A Hazy Shade of Winter – The (almost) Twelfth Frostbite Report…

When planning a Highland Mountaineering trip, we all hope for snow – buckets of the damn stuff.  It would be nice if the avalanche risk were low, the pack hard and consolidated, and the sun shining.  Now let’s get back to the real world…

I joined the Bassetlaw Hill and Mountain Club on their annual pilgrimage to the Highlands, where a large house in Fassfern, near Fort William had been secured for the week’s trip.  Huge wasn’t the word – it had meandering corridors, games rooms, a lounge the size of a badminton court and cubby holes galore.  Antlers adorned the walls, a grand piano was well played (not by me), and I slept in a  room apparently once used by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Conditions had been excellent on the run up to the trip, but rain and warm winds took the snow to above 1000m.  Still, there were plenty of hills to be wandered.

I began the week with Mark, Dave and Charles, and we walked up to the bothy at Glensulaig.  This beautiful building is sited in a small copse of trees, overlooking the river at An t-Suileag and was a welcome hiding place from the cold winds.  After a short break we ascended Meall Onfhaidh (681m), passing only a small patch of old and wet snow on the way.  It was more like bog trotting than mountaineering.  The views were extensive across Loch Eil, but darkening clouds were approaching from Glen Loy and we picked our way down to down to Leth Allt, and headed home.  Since losing my toes, descending steep slopes has always been difficult, and I thank Helen’s skills in physio and taping to keep my knees going.

Day one was done and a wee dram was taken.

The forecast remained very changeable, but I managed to get into the snow with Steve the next day as we crossed the tops of Beinn a Chaorainn (1052m).  Though the ascent was strewn with tufty grass and bog, the snow began to appear, camouflaging a trio of Ptarmigan.  As we crested the mountain, a thick windslab greeted our boots.  To its eastern edge, the ridge held huge cornices.  I was amazed they were so heavily laden when conditions were warm, but the NE aspect kept them in the shade.  We kept very clear of the edge and wandered home after eight hours on the hill.

Managing my skin grafts has been more challenging of late and I’m under extra medical investigation at the moment.  I’m not sure what the problem could be, but I’m always careful to keep them in tip top condition.  Two days on the hill meant a rest day for them, with a trip to Mallaig on the train.  Rain or shine, people gather at the Glenfinnan Viaduct, just in case the Hogwarts Express happens to be passing by. In fact huge summer crowds have terraced the hillsides under the weight of their footsteps.

After a days rest I was back on the hill with Dean.  He’s practising for his Mountain Leader Award, so a day of Navigation round a valley south of Glenfinnan followed. The weather conditions were testing with a 40+ knot wind whistling around our heads.  There were plenty of decisions to take, regarding route choice and the worsening wind, but we enjoyed a great day out.

Mountain Bothies are, to me, a wonderful place to stay.  The next morning, Dean and I loaded up our bags and headed into the Bothy at Gleann Dubh Lighe.  This delightful stone building was to be our home for the night, but firstly we ascended the hills and crossed the ridge to the north between Stob Coire nan Cearc (887m), over Streap (909m), to Streap Common (898m) and down.  Little wind had been forecast, but it certainly picked up later and we almost took the decision to retreat, but we had time and the skills needed to complete the route, and walk into the Bothy as darkness fell.  The clouds had been high enough to allow extensive views across to Eigg and Rum, The Mamores and far beyond.

The heather and grasses were filled with lizards, bugs, caterpillars and voles.  People might think these hills barren, but the Golden Eagle soaring above us made it very obvious who were the interlopers here.

A roaring fire warmed our aching bodies and we stared into the flames all evening, exchanging conversations and a wee dram, before our sleeping bags called. We headed down the next morning, and spent the last day relaxing. My left knee was inflamed and needed rest.

Typically on the morning we all headed home, the sun came out, and the clouds parted. Only Ben Nevis and the Mamores had any appreciable snow high up, whilst the rest of Glencoe and south looked beautiful in the sun, but was almost barren.

The world is changing. The weather is changing, and it’s a first time for me not to get at least an ice axe and crampons out during a Scottish Winter trip.

Fear not, buckets of snow should be coming my way soon, but thats for a more Polar trip…

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