blasted on blaven

Wed, Aug 17, 2011

Saturday morning dawned pretty wild, with horizontal rain, gale force winds and a terrible forecast. I also had that feeling of an impending cold you get at the back of your nose but I put that down to the vaccinations for a foreign trip. Two heps and a rabies all at the same time and the nurse had told me to take it easy for the next week. Not even mowing the grass and I might feel a bit feverish due to having four jabs in four limbs at the same time. Makes you glad you live in the UK! Anyway, with the slates rattling I took myself off to the smallest room taking my copy of Undiscovered Scotland with me. I was reading the account of the first ascent of Twisting Gully when a paragraph struck me:

“The concentration of all the nervous and bodily powers to one end had unified the personality and thrown the cold out”

Before I knew it I was leaving the car, wrapped up to the nines in a new jacket (more anon) and plodding up the Blaven path into the teeth of a storm with no real plan. I had a vague inkling of going up An Stac, that wonderful viewpoint, where, if the south face of Blaven was the seating for an orchestra, the conductor would be well placed on its summit but I hit the clag at 200m. I’d also passed 30 walkers who were heading up for a final munro party and was thankfully alone in the murk. I’d had to detour up Coire a’Chaise to get across the swollen burn and then another soaking crossing the Allt na Dunaiche before heading up into the upper coire, bound for the lunch boulder where I could either turn off for An Stac or plod on to the bealach.

Visibility in the coire was 5m but I knew where to head once the path petered out and surely enough the huge bulk of the boulder loomed out of the mist, completely out of proportion to its size until I was right next to it. It was like that giant obelisk that Asterix’s pal Obelix used to humph around. It was here I passed the outriders of the munro party by detouring onto steep grass to bypass the purgatorial screes on the headwall. I’d decided to head for Blaven instead. A gale force southerly whipped across the 600m bealach as I nipped behind my personal rock that I always stop at and adjusted bits ‘n bobs before facing the final slopes.

Normally I head straight up to the south summit, taking in as much scrambling as possible but today was wild. The rocks were soaking and I could barely see my hand on the end of my outstretched arm. So I followed the twisting scree path that winds through the crags and cliffs and buttresses and crosses gullies and chasms running with water. The higher I climbed the worse the storm became until at one point I hunkered down in a narrow, near vertical gully while great blasts threw me around, pushing me against the black dripping wall behind me. Ghostly tendrils screamed across the buttress, torn to shreds on the rough gabbro and I was deafened by the spatter of torrential rain on my hood. Occasionaly I’d grab hold of the front of the hood and look up to see where to go, as the path threaded an airy route through what seemed to be pinnacles and spires of infinite height and unimaginable roughness. Despite the lubrication from an Atlantic frontal system, the gabbro ripped my hands as I manoeuvred my way up the side of another gully, while the wind tried to pluck me from the wall and send me to where the ravens play. It’s such a fantastic country to walk in. All it takes is a kink in the line that separates the two air masses that flow to the north of us and a spinning depression is sent our way, whipping up the Atlantic ocean and sending winds that topple boulders scouring over the summits. As I huddled underneath a dripping overhang I thought to myself, “This is what life’s meant to be. This is being alive!”

As I reached the south summit the air took on the brightening that heralds the approach to all summits but it also coincided with the passing of the front and the wind died down and the rain stopped. It was too wet and cold to linger though, so with a nod to the familiar cairn, I headed down the face a bit to reach the top of the chimney and then scrambled to the centre gully across the hanging chockstone, running with cold water that had probably only that morning been milling around somewhere off Rockall. Another very loose scramble up the side of the wall and I popped out on the knife edge grass ridge that links the two summits, thankful the wind had lost its fierceness. I noted with relief that I’d made the summit before the 30-40 munroists who were down in the murk somewhere so I munched a couple of rolls and waited to see if my pals the ravens would appear. It was too wild even for them. Not having a plan, I’d stuffed my book of Chinese mountain poetry into my sac, intending to find a sheltered spot for lunch and dissolve into that wonderful ethereal world of T’ao Ch’ien, Wang Wei and Li Po but I dissolved into a different world entirely. A world of displaced ocean and scudding black clouds. A world I was ecstatic to be in and the little tome stayed safely tucked up in its waterproof bag.

After half an hour and starting to shiver, I assembled the poles and clacked my way off into the murk down the SE ridge, more by memory than map and compass and met up with the path which I followed down to the coire. No sooner than I had reached the flat grassy floor, another front came in and I was blasted back down the path to the Allt na Dunaiche although I waited and braced myself whenever I heard another blast coming down from the black and dripping heights. I whooped with joy as it hit me side on and great curtains of cold gray rain whipped past me, dragging themselves across the broken precipices of Clach Glas. I wondered what it would be like up on the ridge and secretly wanted to go up and find out. I was alive and loving every minute of the storm.

By the time I got back, I was in that red and glowing state that heavy rain and high winds bequeaths to you in passing. I felt new and alive. It was great to wander at will on a mountain I knew so well that I could navigate without map or compass in the worst of weather. Finding my way didn’t come into my head once. I was free to engage with the storm and just be alive. What a fantastic day to be out.

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