snow and brocken on blaven

Sun, Nov 29, 2009

North East winds in late November, freezing level around 650m. That could only mean one thing on the west coast. Clear air and snow! So I dragged my stuff together late on Friday night ready for the off early Saturday to catch the morning light on the path up to what’s probably my most favourite mountain, Blaven. I wasn’t disappointed by the soft light and the muted colours on the way up the path but I couldn’t see any sign of snow lurking in the mists shrouding the summit but I had my fingers crossed for some of the white waiting to be discovered.

Morning light on Blaven and Clach Glas

The burn was still a wee bit higher than usual, what with all the rain we’ve been getting and the path up into the coire looked more eroded than it usually does but I was soon up in the upper coire, wondering which route to take. I normally head for the bealach and up the rockier east ridge but I could now see white stuff higher up and unsure of the conditions and not having anything pointy with which to clear holds in the summit chimney, I plumped for the tourist route up the first of the two east ridges. I hadn’t been up that way in ages so it would make a nice change. I did find another path though. Where the main path disappears up into the scree gully, which is not a nice route of ascent, I noticed another path heading up to the right and what a cracker it was. It takes you right onto the edge of the face then turns sharp left up a superb little scrambly groove which would make a really nice route in winter. Not long, only about 25m but narrow, rocky and with wonderful views. Not sure about it as a descent route though as a slip would see you skoosh down the groove, demolish the wee cairn at the bend and shoot out over the east face! All very Eiger Sanction but not good for one’s health I would say!

Beinn na Caillich from Blaven

I’d forgotten just how interesting the tourist route is. Whereas the other east ridge is steeper and rockier with more scrambling opportunities, this east ridge has the rock architecture du jour. It’s just so fantastic, especially today when the early morning vapours were still clearing the gullies. The groove parallels a much deeper gully and when you pop out the top you meander up the path to meet an even bigger gully of Lord of the Rings proportions. You can imagine all sorts of grizzly little critters swarming up the blocks and scree from the steamy depths of the mountain, enclosed by sheer dripping walls of black gabbro. Some people take their dogs for a walk. I like to let my imagination off the leash.

Loch Slapin from Blaven

Each turn of the path heralds another dizzying chasm of contorted rock and vertical black cliffs with Clach Glas peering at you across the coire and at around 800m the snow started. Just some thin ice and frost at 750m then the real white stuff, iron hard and lumps of ice on the holds in the wee scrambly section just below the summit. There’s a cracking little groove I normally go up which is off to the right as you enter the rock scoop below the summit. It’s a small grade II type winter route. doesn’t last long but it holds your interest all the way, squeezing past a chockstone and bridging on the icy walls of the groove but today I had no axe or crampons so stuck to the snowy path. clearing the holds of ice and balancing on snowed up rocks. Wonderful!

Ravens on the summit of Blaven

Then the summit and my two old friends, the ravens! Honking and making that sound like stones being thrown in a shallow pool, while they turned upside down in the air and played with each other. If ever a creature was truly free, these old friends were. They disappeared but I found them on a knife edge ridge above incredible drops, scratching their beaks on the icy rock. Then I turned to the south and saw that most elusive of phenomena. the inversion.

Cloud sea looking south from Blaven

A sheet of cloud was heading from NE to SW, just brushing the edge of the mountain, the Five Sisters, Ladhair Bheinn and Beinn Sgritheall rolling in the white fluffy banks. Over on the Cuillin Ridge, Sgurr nan Gillean was playing Himalayan giant as the cloud boiled round Pinnacle Ridge.

Sgurr nan Gillean

The contrast of the lower ochre slopes with the white summits was just out of this world. A feature of the mountains of these crowded little islands that overseas climbers always remark on. The Alps may be bigger and harder but the variety of light and scenery here is unmatched.

The Cuillin from Blaven

Just as I was thinking what a wonderful day it was, the triptych was completed by that even more rare phenomenon. With the sun high in the sky the conveyor belt of cloud brushed a little closer and curled round to the north face. I could think of only one thing. Sun in front, cloud below and behind. BROCKEN! I ran to the edge and waited and slowly it appeared. Faint at first. Morphing and shimmering as the bank of cloud trailed past but then emerging from the depths in a bright multicoloured halo balanced on the apex of the mountain’s shadow. The Brocken had come.

Brocken Spectre on Blaven

Brocken Spectre on Blaven

What a day. The forecast had been for low cloud and winds gusting to 50mph. Instead, it was bright sun, ravens playing in the light breeze above the clouds and a brocken spectre. It’s days like these that make you glad to be alive. Glad you got out of bed in the dark, forced some porridge down you and got out the door. I was the only person on the hill. The car park was empty but my day had been crowded with little events that tumbled from a perfectly blue sky. A new route in familiar terrain, old ragged friends, the intense heat of the sun above a cloud sea and to top it all off a visit from the mountain wraith. Why would anyone want to be anywhere else on such a day? Wonderful!

Looking out over a sea of cloud on Blaven

You can see all the pics here.