a grand day out on blaven

Mon, Feb 13, 2012

It’s been a funny old winter, with practically no snow on the west coast. Just before Christmas everything was plastered and I was getting ready to do the grade I centre gully on Blaven, the original summer ascent route from nineteen canteen but what with crappy conditions and getting ready for Egypt I never got round to it. Seeing the hill every day almost, I could see there was still snow in it but it looked thin and I was up for an easy day without axe and crampons so yesterday I headed round to the old gal and plodded up the path, lightly laden and in a base layer. It was rather mild with a touch of spring in the air.

Blaven and Clach Glas

I discovered yoga almost a year ago and have been doing it a few days a week ever since and it’s done wonders for both weight and fitness, making up for the days I’m not out on the hill so I just kept plodding and plodding, across the two burns, up into the coire and up the narrow groove bypassing the scree, thankfully free of snow and ice. Up, up and up with a brief stop to have a look down Dog Leg Gully where the Clach Glas ridge comes in. Some ice on the rocks but nothing much. Up again and into the snow at 800m. It was here things got interesting. There’s a wonderful little groove on the right that was in perfect condition for a thrash. Iron hard snow but I had no axe or crampons so it was quite hard work kicking steps in the steep neve up to the corner on the main path. The snow was so hard I could only kick ‘slash steps’ in a cm or two and balance up to the rocks but the corner was choked with snow and the rocks that would have led me up were verglassed and I couldn’t get a purchase to haul up past the first fin of rock. So it was a delicate traverse to the left under the wee overhang and a stretch and pull up and round the corner onto the open rocky summit slopes. Superb crunching on perfect snow the sun had softened took me up the last few metres to the top and a wonderful vista of the Cuillin ridge.

Sgurr nan Gillean and the Cuillin ridge from Blaven

I sat for a while in the calm of an Atlantic high, a cloud layer just above the summit stretching to showers on the mainland but up here it was nice and sunny and almost windless. A grand day to be out. The snow round the cairn was patterned in Raven footprints but I didn’t see my old pals. Must have been over on the Red Cuillin perhaps. I watched a chap on the south summit try to negotiate the tricky descent. He found the chimney and I knew from experience the snow in it would be iron hard and he eventually gave up trying to get down it and returned to the south top. It was definitely a day for crampons if you wanted to traverse the summit ridge. I could hear the clang of his axe but like me, he was cramponless. Hence my taking the ‘tourist route’ direct to the summit as I suspected I wouldn’t have made it across from the south top.

The south summit and Rum from the summit of Blaven

I sat back and relaxed in the sun although I did spot a single flake of snow drifting down from a languid sky.

The Cuillin ridge from Blaven

One of these days I’ll do the centre gully in winter. Looks like an easy traverse under the cliffs from the coire, straight to the bottom of the steep part. Once past that it looks like a steep walk to the summit ridge which can be a superb knife edge in winter. On either side it’s ‘next stop the bottom’ with nothing to stop you!

The original ascent route, looking a bit thin

Time to plod down, I made off down the snowy slopes to the rock band but I didn’t fancy swinging round the corner to get under the overhang again as the side wall was iced up and the move up was easier than the move down. Always the case. It would have meant dreeping off scree blocks frozen in place with feet flat against the iced side wall followed by a swing to the right onto my slash steps remembering to keep low and not bang the ‘sac off the overhang and end up off balance and down the slope on my back! So opted for the normal descent route down the wee gully, the one I couldn’t get up due to verglass. It was easier in descent though due to the foot sized ledges which I cleared of snow by banging the pole handle against the iced up crust and slowly worked my way down the gully. The last move was the worst. It involved hanging off a frozen hold on the right and lowering down a fin of cold rock in the middle while aiming my left hand at a verglassed hold down on the left. Too low to be of much use keeping in balance and nothing for the feet until they met sold snow just below the fin. So gripping the fin with both thighs and lowering off my right hand I slapped onto the iced up lower hold.

There is something viscerally satisfying about being totally dependent on nothing but wits and strength to stay fixed to a mountainside. With crampons the ascent and descent would have been a doddle but without, each move is carefully thought out. Every rugosity, indentation, protrusion and ledge are examined minutely for looseness, usability and interest as you spot colourful lichen you would normally have missed. It’s not to be recommended, stravaiging around in these conditions without the right tools but I’ve done this so many times it was second nature really. As I lowered down the fin I felt an old sensation arise. That feeling of uncertain outcome. When the everyday world of tedium and worry vanishes in an instant as your feet dangle in thin air, the snow not coming up to meet them as expected. You go into survival mode. The slope below becomes visible in your mind as you plan your exit strategy for least damage. The hold up on the right was getting too far away to be used and the one on the left too verglassed to hold me and the fin had reached the top of my thighs with my feet still dangling above a steep slope of iron hard snow. The only place to land was directly below on a small flat ledge of the stuff. At that moment every scrape I’d ever been in convened in a noisy mind and their combined experience gave me strength to enter that ‘quiet mind’ mode where you just get on with it. I slid down onto the flat snow ledge.

From then on it was down below the snowline, romping down the scree and rocks, stopping to watch folk on the Clach Glas ridge. It was in summer condition but looking at the gullies on similar facing aspects to the Diff Chimney, the exit route from the ridge onto Blaven, it looked like it could be quite challenging. Not ideal conditions really. Winter boots that take crampons aren’t the best for high end scrambling on bare rock.

Beinn Sgritheal above Torrin

A last bite to eat down at my ‘lunch boulder’ in the coire and I headed back to the car and home after a grand day out.

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