Torridon - My Version
|Date: March 2009
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney
Having been to Glencoe several times over the past few years I welcomed the change of venue when the Torridon trip was mentioned. An easy flight to Inverness and a short car trip definitely appealed more than the overnight ferry and 6 hour drive of previous Scottish trips. Determined to get the most of out this trip I was up and down the 9 flights of the Birmingham office and now owe my Mum a new carpet after traipsing nightly up and down her stairs with a fully laden pack. The main difficulty was negotiating the telephone table at the bottom stair without barking the shins. Rumours that I tried it in crampons and almost skewered the cat are completely untrue...
The days preceding the trip were full of semi-panicked phone calls. "Have you booked the hire car?" "Where are you and Mike staying?" (The youth hostel at Torridon was full) "What gear are you bringing?". A more useful question might have been "What blimming airport are you flying out of?". A late one the previous evening with the lovely Jane saw me tiredly on the bus to Belfast International silently congratulating myself on being 2 hours early for the flight. Thing is the flight left from City and only a fortunate timetabling of the Airporter service got me there with scant minutes to spare. Cue hearty laughter, eye rolling, head shaking and a sheepish red-faced moi slinking into the departure lounge.
We left Inverness in 4 hire cars following Keith who supposedly had satnav but still steered us on the road to Ullapool. Someone in PJ's car didn't quite understand my CB radio parlance and replied to the "Looks like we got ourselves a convoy!" text with "That's a 2 100 rubber duck". Eh???
The Kinlochewe Hotel was a friendly wee place with a largish whisky collection (yay!) and excellent food. Most of our 13 strong party were in the bunkhouse but I had the luxury of a hotel room the 1st night, thus avoiding the whifflers, whistlers and whingers and gaining some good sleep before the 6.30am start. There were horror stories involving Denis' underpants, noisy toileteers, light switchers and other "fisslers" the next morning but we all got packed up and were heading for Liathach by 7.30ish.
The weather reports for Ben Nevis spoke of grade 4 avalanche warnings for northern gullies so we decided to approach from the south side, though when we arrived it looked like the opposite was true for Torridon. Still we continued with plan A and I took off with a spring in my step leading the party till we hit the snow line. At this point "Bionic Legs" Pete took over and kicked steps up through the knee deep soft snow that filled the NW coire. Despite many offers to take the lead Pete stayed in front until we traversed NE and hit our first steep rocky section. There were 2 obvious ways up and Pete led off left while I went right and the party split according to which route they liked most. I'd say my route was slightly harder (though not hard at all). Lesson of the day was "Put your harness on BEFORE your crampons" and as I struggled Mike pushed past and soloed up and then Alan followed him taking the rope. God we were EAGER beavers this first day!
Once through the rocky section it was another tiring deep, deep snow plod to the ridge. A quick snack and we all headed SW along the ridge aiming for the 1055m peak Stob Choire Leith. Mike led, kicking through the slightly corniced snow on the narrow ridge but with the strengthening wind some of the party decided to turn back. It was becoming obvious that we'd never do the whole ridge in the conditions and they felt a return on another day was the safest option. There was much debate as I wanted to carry on to the first peak at least but was heavily overruled until "Munro Monster" Keith offered to continue as well. Suddenly we had 7 takers (Alan, Pete, PJ, Mike, Sandra M, Keith and myself) while Sandra K, Trish, Margaret, Alan T, Bill and Denis descended.
There was a 50m descent followed by a 100m ascent and even Pete's legs were tiring of the snow. Eventually Keith formed us into a train where the leader kicked until tired and then rotated to the back. It was a great system that got us to the peak and congratulations all round. After hot drinks we descended into stinging spindrift and I was glad of the beard and ski goggles to weather the most of it thought the right cheek grew thoroughly numb. We decided to come off the ridge through Pete's ascent route which was tricky enough backwards. By the time Sandra and Keith attempted it the turf had been battered to compost and the snow had no traction either. But with a rope and Pete's assistance they got there and we carried on the long stumble back to the cars.
The others moved to the Torridon Youth Hostel, an excellent modern establishment, leaving me and Mike on our own in the Kinlochewe bunkhouse. I think we've now heard every possible "man-love" joke there is, with much reference to our sharing the Ben Nevis outdoor accommodation. We joined the others for dinner, Mike doing his Donegal rally impression along the single track road of Glen Torridon, while I tried to look nonchalant but inside praying I wouldn't receive an engine-block transplant any time that weekend. I offered to drive when possible from then on.
Next day the party split up after a slightly later 8:30 start. Pete, PJ, Mike, Sandra M, Keith and I headed for Mullach an Rathain while the others went for the long 18km trek round the back of Beinn Eighe, which ended in a bit of a footrace I hear. The day was slightly warmer but noticeably windier (predicted 65mph gusts on the peaks and ridges). We had an excellent stony path most of the way up to the coire at which point we had a choice, W ridge or E gully to the top. To stay out of the wind we chose gully and having reached the snow line were back to kicking steps. The legs were definitely feeling it after the previous days exertions and, despite a burst of speed after Keith handed out wine gums, we were soon in single file behind Pete's kicksteps again. On the ridge I was almost blown over several times and stumbled along learning lesson number 2 of the weekend: "Always pack walking poles". After gaining the peak it was a quick turnaround to descend 100m out of the wind. It was so strong I could lean right into and almost run down the slope.
At this point we were just above a gully I'd picked out earlier as a good "bum-slide" candidate and Mike and I were soon racing down it. There's something childishly fun about descending 1000ft of mountain in this way and the grin was turned up to 11. However there's nothing childish about the size of my behind and I'd already crashed through twice into the underlying stream. It was time to step off and descend the mountain properly. I was way ahead of the others (gravity and fat boy in cahoots) but I knew they'd caught up when Pete and Mike's amazingly accurate snow balls started landing at my feet from 100ft above.
We stopped for tea and were amazed that it was only 12:30! What to do? What to do? "Ah feck it, let's go to the pub!".
And so the afternoon was whiled away in the Kinlochewe Hotel with their excellent whisky and genial host. After Sandra K offered to drive us back Mike and I cadged a lift to the Youth Hostel with Sandra M, 7 of us in the Vectra, me ensconced in the boot with my honey cashew nuts, can of beer and excellent view of the moonlit mountains out the back window. After a dinner where everybody cooked too much and I had about 3 different main courses (somehow avoiding Denis' soup though!) Pete, PJ, Mike and I planned the next day, finally taking a chance that the northern gullies round the back of Beinn Alligin would be in condition.
Margaret and Trish went to Beinn Damph and Alan T and Bill went to Beinn Dearg. Not to dis their exploits (the fact that they can get themselves up and down things without misadventure speaks volumes for them) but I'll let them tell their tales elsewhere if they wish. You can read of Keith & Co.'s excitement in the other report but suffice it to say I'm going to call him Humpty Dumpty from now on, for he did indeed have a great fall. Or was he pushed?
Anyway the 4 of us had a gentle stroll by the river on the easy approach to Beinn Alligin, with me remarking "A much more enjoyable day, don't you think?" as we enjoyed what must have been one of the "bursts of sunshine" described in the weather report. 47 seconds later we were being battered by hail and I was eating my words. It didn't last though and once we reached the NE side of the mountain we were out of the fresh wind and admiring 2 likely looking gullies leading to the Horns of Alligin above us. The original plan had been a grade IV further round on the NW side but we decided it was too much of a tramp and would likely take us back into the wind and weather.
The right gully looked preferable and we set off directly up the boulder field to the snow. Despite a minor hitch on the way up where I nearly asked for a rope we were all soon harnessed up and ready for axe fun in what we judged to be a grade II route. Mike and Pete led initially but we swapped leads appropriately and 4 pitches later found ourselves at the top, having used a variety of axe belays and rock placements as anchors. Wee buns really but completely enjoyable and a welcome change from the Munro bagging of the previous 2 days. We were battered by spindrift at times and occasionally climbed in a near whiteout but it all added to the sense of adventure. As Mike had declared sometime on Friday "Doing this stuff makes you feel like a man!". Unless you're a woman and then I can't comment. Maybe PJ or one of the Sandras can describe it. Somehow "Makes you feel like a woman" doesn't seem appropriate (sounds like a "Waaaooww Bodyform" ad). But I digress...
The top of the gully wasn't the top of the peak as we realised to our dismay. To our left was a large imposing rock wall while all around us were steep drops into a neighbouring gully or back into the valley. Option 1: Reverse climb and abseil our grade II. Option 2: Climb the rock wall. "Gung-ho" Pete was all for option 2 while the rest of us muttered minor swear words. We scrambled up after a bite to eat; it was my turn to lead so I set off after Pete. Watching him struggle on a section above me I decided to try out to the right and was completely unhappy to find no gear placement. Another few moves up and I got in a friend and sling and brought Mike up. Meanwhile Pete had gained the top after a tricky, narrow and very airy traverse left.
PJ was attempting this traverse and was screaming and shouting commands to Pete that alternated between "Slaaaack!!" and "Take iiiiiiin!!" depending on whether the rope was in the right place or not. I'm sure these are the shouts Alan and Bill heard as they headed home on the path below. Looking up from our position I could see moves and holds that in summer conditions and rock shoes would have been about VS and my head was telling my "This is doable". Mike was a voice of reason though "Not in crampons and axes!" and we decided to abandon our stance and attempt Pete's route. PJ left in Pete's gear and we moved to the traverse, unhappy but inspired by the knowledge that Pete had managed it. "This is now officially fecking scary" sez Mike as he attempted the trickiest icy rock section either of us had ever been on. Never a truer word was spoken.
By now PJ had been hauled up and looking at the final 5m "wall of glass" before us we decided to swallow any pride we had and ask Pete to lower a rope. He'd made the not unexpected joke of calling Mountain Rescue as we sat eating lunch earlier and there had been a moment of "Christ not again" as Mike and I looked up at vertical rock in fading light for the 2nd year running!
When it came my turn to climb I almost despaired at getting up, despite the tight rope. The axes were bouncing off rounded rock and totally frustrated I threw them away and started searching for holds with my hands. Eventually I found some nice hand jams that an axe would never have been able to use and made a few moves up, the crampons scraping and skidding away. Faced with another blank section I looked left to a series of blocky sections that only required me to swing 3 feet left. Entrusting Pete I sat in the harness and swung over trying not to think of the 300ft drop below. I nearly fainted when I reached the top and realised Pete was just braced with 2 feet behind a boulder and no protection to be seen. To be honest there was nothing within range that he could have used. Thank God then that in work he lifts whole wheelbarrows of cement above his head and my 14.5 stone was like the rest of us holding a 5 year old child!
By this point we couldn't have cared less about gaining the peak and quickly downclimbed the snowy slopes working circularly round to the SW side of the mountain. We had to cross a couple of gullies and in one the snow was so soft I sank to my waist, nervously looking up at the tons of white stuff above me. The icy pellet layers were perfect avalanche fodder but we all crossed without incident and were soon trekking across the bog below hoping to find a path back to the car. Night fell and rain came in long before we found any path but my trusty Petzl head torch with its car-sized battery helped us avoid falling into the river and we soon spotted Pete's torch at the car park when he made it back first.
Back at the SYHA we were eager to sound off about our long day but Keith top-trumped us with his 6-point dive and subsequent new-routing. The Kinlochewe hotel phoned over to enquire were we still alive when Mike and I hadn't returned by 8pm, which was a nice touch. We scrounged a lovely dinner from Keith and Sandra, a dry t-shirt from Alan and a few beers but eventually returned to the bunkhouse to pack and attempt a sleep uninterrupted by wind whistling through and rattling the internal doors. Fat chance.
12 Mar 2009
What a great report! Can I just add that, not to be totally outdone, our epic was the day after, when we got to the car at the airport and found that I had lost my keys. Probable location summit of Beinn Dearg. Wot a hassssstle! Ã‚Â£20 reward for recovery. Any takers?
19 Mar 2009
Well done Pete! We've checked with Andy Nisbet of the SMC and the gully was a new winter route. Naming to be decided over the weekend.
20 Mar 2009
Well done Pete. You are the Man.
31 Mar 2009
BEINN ALLIGIN, Horns of Alligin: Scorpion 260m V,6. Pete McConnell, Pamela-Jane Monaghan; Anthony Feeney, Mike Hassan. 8th March 2009. On the NE side of the Horns of Alligin below the First Horn there is a distinct A-shape on the mountain flank. Deep South creates the right edge of this while Scorpion goes up the left. The route is Grade II apart from the finish. Ascend a snow gully rightwards to 750m height. Exit the gully onto a shoulder overlooking Deep South Gully, head left and directly up for 30m of mixed climbing to a sheltered alcove. Climb up and slightly left for 15m, then traverse left on thin ledges aiming to round the corner. Finally straight up for the last 10m.