Mountain top by memory


Has winter come to us early this year? Everybody seems to think so; certainly we have had a fair sized bucket of snow or two here in the east of Scotland.

Yet the snow has been falling in the hills for some time already; for a number of weeks now I have been able to look toward the higher Angus Braes and see the ‘big yins’ already Christmas cake white. And so it was off to Fort William to reacquaint myself with some old favourites.

On my living room wall I have a big calendar photograph of a beautifully snow gripped Sgurr a’ Mhaim; the ‘princess’ of The Mamores, (Binnein Mor, reigns as ‘queen’), is depicted in her wedding gown. At 1099 metres and head and shoulders above her nearest neighbours, she would be the week’s first ascent.

Ironically the usual short trip along Glen Nevis’ little dead end road, from where at points along the way one usually gets tantalising glimpses of Sgurr na Mhaim, proved to be the precursor of a day spent in cloying low cloud. Even as we stepped from the car the glen felt dank and gloomy.

Claustrophobic was the feeling as we entered the Nevis Gorge. Noisy it was too, but that’s the norm. At many points along the gorge huge boulders all but straddle the Water of Nevis. Yet such is the volume of water that squeezes through this roofless tunnel I’ve never been here and not witnessed those waters thundering through, regardless of all obstacles on the way.

The path through the trees goes, for the most part, high above the river; here and there very rough and only inches away from precipitous slopes, and with the added hazard of old iced puddles, we went carefully.

The hidden mountain sanctuary that at last greets the walker, a wonderful meadow with the stunning Falls of Steall, for a backdrop, has by some been given the name of Shangri La; but today a gloomier place on earth would be difficult to envision.

Our first task was to cross the three stranded wire ‘bridge’. At least today, unlike on other occasions that I’ve used it, those strands were free of ice. The river, here much wider and its waters gold and placid, is crossed easily by the Indiana Jones type bridge; Blundell would have skipped across it!

Across the water stands the climber’s hut of Steall. Behind the little howff rise steep wooded slopes laced with minor crags and such like detour necessitating obstacles. Normally my chosen route of descent, this was the first time I’d gone up the way from here.

No sign of snow so far! But we didn’t have long to wait or all that far to climb. As we burst from the cover of the final straggling trees, Sgurr a’ Mhaim, its higher reaches already lost in fog, had sent a white vanguard down to meet us.

We soon found ourselves standing at the entrance of Coire nam Cramh, where choices must be made. More to the point, we were now at the foot of our mountain’s northeast ridge, this ridge presenting us with a straightforward enough plod all the way to the summit. By crossing the corrie entrance we could take on the east ridge, with its so called ‘bad step’.

Said ‘bad step’ is merely a sharp, exposed gap along the way; no more than a long stride in dry and wind free conditions. It would call for a good deal more care if iced or partially obscured by snow. Our choice was easily made!

It didn’t take us long to reach the snow line on the northeast ridge. Slushy at first it soon firmed up and deepened; but it wasn’t long before we were in knee deep powder snow, horrid stuff to be ploughing through and tiresome.

And just as quickly we were in the cloud!

I enjoy the ‘crump crump crumping’ of good snow beneath my boots as I toil my way upwards. But there was no crump crump crumping today. Instead there was an eeriness about the morning’s toil.

No wind ruffled our waterproof coats. With not even the sound of a mountain burn to break the aural monotony, not a raven on the air, even the scant whisper of our passing boots, a mere swishing murmur, made our passing, invisible as we were in our envelope of mist, ghostly.

Such slow going seemed to stretch out time forever. All we could safely do was carry on up the way; and on and on, it seemed. We were in a white out. At times in such conditions, you peer across at your companion to see him floating, as it were, in a giant bowl of milk. So it was today; what a grey-white gloomy world we walked in those few hours up on Sgurr a’ Mhaim.

Then at last we reached the hill’s big summit cairn, a snow white pyramid we could have by-passed if we hadn’t stayed alert.

This mountaintop can be a superb photo friendly eyrie; but not today. For once we had to rely on our collected memories. We knew, for instance, that to our north and just across the glen, Ben Nevis was brooding, huge, sullen today and secretive. The glorious peaks of the Mamores’ Ring of Steall: Stob Ban, An Garbhanach, An Gearanach and Am Bodach, lay all about us in the east. That wonderful knife edge arête, The Devil’s Ridge, with its own ‘bad step’, lay virtually beneath our feet. All of this and much more besides, we saw only in the eyes of our minds, summer green and warm, as on a visit a short two years ago.

A huddled cup of tea and cakes soon had us ready, and quite honestly, eager for the way back down. It would have been a simple matter to have simply followed our own upward trail back down again. No fun in that though. Instead we set the compass a little north and west and headed for the northwest ridge.

During sunny summer months you can drive up Glen Nevis, particularly with the rising sun, and see Sgurr a’ Mhaim’s summit looking as white as snow. That’s because there’s so much quartz up there. Today, of course, we saw none of that. We knew from past excursions that, once through that quartzy rouble field, we would encounter a good path, a path that normally guides the walker easily down into the lower reaches of Choire a’ Mhusgain.

And of course we saw nothing of said path for a good long while. Instead we were treated to a good long while of careful treading on often treacherous soft snow on steep ground. Today we were glad of our axes, not so much for protection in case of slippage, as for walking sticks!

At last we dropped below the skyline. There, still a ways below us, the corrie, brown and gloomy, half-heartedly beckoned us down. We were quite happy to leave the snow behind us, though once on the corrie’s own wet and muddy path, we were equally glad of the previous few night’s hardening frosts.

We finally reached the tarmac a few hundred yards east of Achriabhach, leaving us a two mile walk, on welcome terra firma, back to our waiting car.