winter guiding in the cuillin garbh bheinn north ridge

Mon, Mar 24, 2008

I had an old friend staying for the Easter weekend, up for a Corbett bagging session and with the forecast predicting heavy snow and gale force winds it was an ideal opportunity to get some Winter ML logbook experience. We intended to go up Garbh Bheinn, starting at the head of Loch Ainort at the wonderfully named Eas nam Bruadaran (waterfall of dreams), which flows out of Coire nam Bruadaran (corrie of dreams). I don’t know how this area got its name but it’s a a rather large bog and the walk up the corrie to Marsco can be hard going in wet weather. However, our route was up Druim Eadar da Choire (the ridge between two corries) and up the north ridge of Garbh Bheinn (rough hill). I’d been up this way in summer and knew that the 489m top was a beautiful spot to linger and soak up the views of the Cuillin ridge and it was a nice grassy Alp, in contrast to the upper part of the north ridge which was bare rock and scree.

Loch Ainort from Druim eadar da choire

The lower part of the ridge was very boggy as usual but it dried out further up and by the time we got to the Alp at 489m it was blowing a gale and rather cold. We got shelter on the south slope of the hill though and it was nice and warm in the sun, watching huge masses of grey storm clouds march down the Minch, narrowly missing us, being in the shadow of more northerly mainland mountains. Eventually the wind swung from the north east to the north and we were treated to Himalayan type scenery as the Cuillin ridge was engulfed in black storm clouds, emerging as from a blacksmith’s forge, newly hewed from the raw rock. It was a truly inspiring sight. On the clouds marched and Marsco was next to disappear in white vapours, which were torn and rent by the wind until it resembled a jagged Alpine giant. Very impressive weather indeed.

Marsco from the north ridge of Garbh Bheinn

There’s a bit of a descent from the 489m top and then the north ridge begins in earnest, rough scree leading up to jagged rock bands with a covering of loose powder snow and hail and sheets of ice sheathing the north face, up which a gully line ran. Probably about grade I, I thought and made a mental note to return for a go. I was given my instructions from Graeme though - find the easiest line up the ridge, avoiding the ice and if we needed the rope then so be it. It turned out to be fine though, with the occasional wintry blast of hail and snow, with some light spindrift thrown in. I suggested we traverse across the lower part of the north face and give the gully a go but Graeme was having none of it! There was a faint path up the side of the ridge, which we followed, with the Cuillin bubbling in a cauldron of mists behind us and a wild wind whipping across our route and bashing us around. However, by the time we reached the level section near the summit, the wind had died down and the summits were slowly appearing from their storm caps. Just as well, as the final narrow section was next.

Final part of the north ridge to Garbh Bheinn summit

I uncoiled the rope and left a bit dangling out of the top of the rucksack, ready for confidence roping in case it was needed, then we agreed that as the weather was improving, Graeme would sit and have a bite to eat while I nipped across and had a look at the route. It was quite exposed in places but it turned out to be fine apart from a section at the start and another at the end. The one at the start involved a nasty step down on powder covered ledges but I could then cut steps down and round a small tower and back up to the ridge, then easy snaking through the rocks, across a couple of knife edge sections, one of rock, the other of snow, both with a fair bit of exposure and no place for a slip and the final nippy bit was another downclimb and step across an open gully top and I cut some steps up to the summit block. I then headed back to Graeme and led him along the route I’d chosen. We had axes but they wouldn’t have been much use as it was all loose powder apart from a few sections of hard packed snow, where the going was easier as I could cut steps. Compared to the lower section of ridge, it was touching grade I. Great for the logbook!

As we wandered about the small summit, taking pictures and blethering, black clouds started rolling in over Sgurr nan Gillean and we picked our way back along the exposed ridge, keen to get lower down before the storm hit, which it did as we got down to the bealach below the 489m top and we were blasted with fierce winds and heavy snow, although the temperature had risen somewhat and it was great to just revel in the conditions. The route we had just done is a starting point for a fantastic airy traverse, all the way from Garbh Bheinn, down the jagged, short ridge to Sgurr nan Each, then along the Clach Glas ridge and on up to Blaven. It’s one of the best mountaineering days to be had in the UK and not as serious as the main Cuillin ridge. A real cracker of an outing.

So that was my first real winter lead, albeit not with a stranger but with an old friend but it made me think about what was needed to go for assessment and it was great to be told “find the easiest way up” and do all the route finding and navigation. Very satisfying indeed.

A lot of people aren’t very confident about going out in winter and I once met a chap on the path from Sligachan to Glen Brittle. I was heading up Bruach na Frithe but he said it wasn’t for him, the high tops in winter. I wanted to say, “of course they are - they’re stupendous!” and in the hands of a competent leader, winter days out in the mountains are some of the best days to be had, ever. The route we took up Garbh Bheinn is an easy walk in summer but in winter, the narrow section to the summit becomes mountaineering but it’s still attainable by anyone who’s willing to trust a good leader, a leader who can explain what is happening, why the weather is doing what it’s doing, why the snow is the way it is and how to manage the perceived risk of winter mountaineering. I never tire of taking new folk into the mountains in summer, watching their reaction to their first brocken spectre or cloud inversion but in winter, walking up a corniced ridge with the wind blowing the spindrift in a graceful arc over your head, while you walk sheltered underneath it, is a different world that a lot of summer walkers never experience. It’s not for everyone but I think most people would be surprised at just how enjoyable wild winter weather can be.

As I write this, there’s about 5cm of snow on the ground and it’s blowing an absolute blizzard and I’m hoping the snow will hang around until next weekend at least, when I’ll be heading back up into that late winter wonderland we’ve been gifted this year. I might even put an advert on the uk climbing site for anyone who wants a day out on the easier winter walks in the Cuillin. No charge as it’s all pre-assessment logbook work.

You can see all the pics from the route here.