a winter storm on blaven

Sun, Apr 6, 2008

At last, a day on the hill and with the forecast for gusting 60mph and blizzards, it was going to be interesting to say the least. So I decided to head up Blaven via the south summit. I know the route well and was hoping I could experience some wild winter weather without having to worry too much about the navigation. We’ve been having some very unseasonal weather lately, with lots of snow on the hills and strong winds. Normally winter is over by now on the west coast but an Arctic blast has just hit us, with gale force northerlies and huge dumps of snow on the tops.

I drove round the head of Loch Slapin and parked in the car park, empty apart from one chap who was heading up the hill and whom I didn’t see after that. It wasn’t desperately cold and I bimbled up the path in a base layer, shrugging off the odd hail shower as the pea sized balls just bounced off me without melting and the sun quickly came out between these short showers.

Blaven from the path

With the wind at my back and shielded by the rucksack I managed to walk in a base layer all the way up the bealach below the south summit. I knew it would be windy as I could hear the roaring of gusts from lower down. From the bealach it’s about 30-40mins to the top and I normally make for here and shelter behind the flat rock slightly uphill, so that’s where I made for. The wind was gusting but not enough to knock me about and I didn’t have any cause for concern. I was going to have a nibble and a drink and then make my way up to the top and have a gander at the chimney and ridge over to the main summit.

No sooner had I sat down behind the rock and pulled off the ‘sac but it seemed as though a bomb had gone off. A gust of wind nearly took my head off and the world on either side of the rock instantly disappeared as if I was looking into a white horizontal waterfall. The power of the weather was suddenly immense and the wind took on that low growling sound that makes the hairs on the back of my head stand up as you get a feeling of the raw power and destructive force. There was a low, base, growling noise that rose and rose to a crescendo and from the acoustics, I could hear it build up from the other side of the bealach and slowly make its way over to where I was cowering. I could literally make out the shape of the bealach from the noise the wind was making across its surface

By this time I wasn’t sheltering, I was almost lying behind the flat rock as the wind screamed on either side and the temperature dropped like a stone. I was still in my base layer, the weather having appeared from nowhere and I struggled to open the rucksac without it blowing away and get the Rab and Goretex on, then the gloves. Then the goggles. I could not have done anything without the goggles as it was now horizontal billiard balls flying through the air.

Me on the bealach below the south summit

The storm must have come in over the summit ridge and been hidden from view and I was very lucky it hit as I reached the rock. It would have been a different story if I’d been caught on the steep scree, snow and rotten ice that leads up to the bealach.

By the time I was geared up and ready to move, the storm had abated and I had a look around. The forecast was for worsening weather and as I watched, towering Cumulus Congestus clouds billowed over the east ridge and headed my way. The ridge up to the south summit was heavily iced and violent vortices of hail and spindrift were scouring across it. I knew the ridge between the summits would be tricky in these conditions, not to mention the chimney, up which a 60mph snow laden gale would be howling. It was time to leave.

It was a good call. On the way down into the coire, I met a party of 5, obviously tourists from America. They had trail shoes and two of them didn’t have rucksacs. As I emerged out of the maelstrom clad in gogles and face mask, I stopped and advised them not to continue. They went up anyway and I hung around at the top of the coire, in deteriorating weather, to see what they would do at the bealach. Luckily they headed down after seeing what it was like up there and I beat a hasty retreat too.

It was fantastic to just stand in the coire though, experiencing the power of the weather, as tendrils of sprindrift snaked across the undulating snow. There was cross loading in the burns, forming pure white banks and any loose snow was wound up and blown all over the place, towering vortices zig-zagging around the coire. It was a stunning sight.

I really had to be going though as the weather was getting really bad and it was getting difficult to stay upright in the blasts and now and then visibility was zero. The whiteouts didn’t last long but they were impressive in their power.

It was a good call indeed as the snow became heavier and heavier on the way down and I kept the goggles on all the way to the car, which was caked in wet soft snow with a howling blizzard down at sea level and the road back through Torrin was rather interesting. I passed a group camping behind the bridge at the head of Loch Slapin, only there was no shelter from the wild blast and their tents were being pounded by the blizzards. It was like something out of the Arctic. Not your typical Skye weather. More akin to the violent snow laden hurricanes of the Cairngorms. It was well worth the sortie into the storm though. A truly amazing day that I won’t forget in a hurry

You can see all the pics here.

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