Marhofn 196.11 - May 2009

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Dreams and disasters

Audrey Litterick

I seemed to strike it lucky with weather in 2008 and it's been difficult to pick highlights from really good mountaineering, walking and kayaking trips. I still have not finished the Munro Tops (or Murdos) and haven't done that many new hills, but I have decided that I'm not really bothered. My resolve to do new hills often seems to wane when faced with the choice between doing them or re-visiting favourites. However, I did reach 800, accompanied by a bottle of champagne and four good friends, on Slat Bheinn in perfect weather in April.

Work-related bags continued, with fun trips to Billinge Hill, Great Mell Fell and Longridge Fell in England, and very fine trips to Lewis, South Harris, Shetland and Raasay. Happy memories of sitting on the summit of Beinn na h-Iolaire at the north end of Raasay, watching the sun set slowly in the west, my wee tent nearby, a can of cider in hand after a pleasant day's work on the island - how lucky can one get? Partner Andy and I dragged aspiring Hall member Tony Kinghorn with us (to help him re-discover his youth), on some fine scrambles and easy rock climbs on the Cuillin, Torridon and Sutherland peaks. Highlights of the year included:

Lochnagar: At long last, deep, crisp and even snow cover, blue skies and still, ice-cold weather - perfect conditions for a long-coveted ski-mountaineering ascent of Lochnagar. Startlingly clear views from the summit; snowy mountains for miles around and good-quality snow almost all the way down. Magical! We looked forward to weeks of good ski-touring conditions; pity that it quickly turned warm and rainy.

Sgurr na Lapaich (12B): This is a magnificent peak at the best of times, but on our visit it was in full winter conditions on a bitterly cold, blustery March day, and very challenging. There was a great deal of brick-hard neve on its steep ridges, a fair bit of iced rock and some rather unstable wind-slab to be avoided at all costs. This was winter hillwalking at its best - demanding and slightly scary at times, with plenty of decisions to be made, but we were amply rewarded with spectacular views from the top and a successful descent of the east ridge.

Ben Armine and Creag Mhor (16D): I took the train to Kinbrace then cycled to the middle of nowhere - Loch Choire estate, east of Ben Klibreck. The sky was blue, sunshine was warm and there was not a breath of wind. The only sounds were the cries of lapwing, curlew and skylark in the wide-open skies. At 6pm I put up the tent to the north of Creag Mhor on a warm green patch of daisy-covered turf by a clear gurgling burn, intending to tackle the hills the next day, but the evening was just too beautiful so I set off. I arrived at the summit of Ben Armine at 10pm, having already been up Creag Mhor, just as the skies were beginning to turn pale gold in the west. I just sat there and watched the sun go down, in that truly wild landscape, in complete quietness, wondering how far away the nearest human being was... stuff that dreams are made of.

Skye: I was blessed with good weather for two really fine visits. The first was a Ferranti Mountaineering Club trip to the JMCS hut at Loch Coruisk, from where four of us tackled a chunk of the main Cuillin ridge from the col west of Sgurr na Banachdich round to the last top of Sgurr a'Mhadaidh. The second was from Glen Brittle, where a similar team ventured up Sgurr Sgumain, over Sgurr Alasdair, Sgurr Mhic Choinnich and along to the In Pinn and Sgurr Dearg. The rock was dry and warm, the breeze was light and we fairly skipped along in the sunshine. The rope was rarely out of the rucksack.

Maol Chean-dearg (13B). It seems that I can't succeed in getting through a year without having to endure what feels like a near-death experience. Perhaps it's the company I keep, or maybe I'm to blame. The guidebook suggested that the route of this supposedly easy scramble was 'off the bottom of the scale'; not even moderate in rock-climbing terms, but we took a couple of slings anyway. I've since been warned that the guys who wrote our guidebook are 'pretty hard'. However, blissfully unaware of this, we set off for 'North Flank'.

It didn't help that it was very still, VERY midge-infested, and raining by the time we set hands and feet on the rather-too-smooth, vegetated rock, but nothing prepared us for the extremely loose nature of the ridge. There weren't many handholds anyway, but many of those we chose came off in our hands. By the final section, which was wet, steep, slimy and very exposed (definitely not the place to make a mistake), I ran out of handholds, didn't much like the footholds either, and was desperately wishing that I was two inches taller. Thankfully, Andy (along with Tony, who had wisely sought a foul, steep, loose, scree-ridden gully to our left) had secured a firm anchor for a sling, which I used as a comforting handhold as I heaved and grunted my way up the last, desperate few feet to the top of the ridge. I'd go back again, but only if the rock, grass and moss were hard frozen. And next time, the rope will be in the rucksack.

Buachaille Etive Mor: A stunning end to 2008. On 31 December, three of us panted and peched up the corrie from Lagangarbh in dense, calm, low cloud, and struggled with extensive swathes of hard water ice and verglassed rocks in the upper corrie. We passed several parties coming down who had not gone for the top, since the ice was making things so difficult and there was nothing to see, but we persevered and then very suddenly, at the col, burst out into blue, sunny skies and a shifting, fluffy cloud sea all around. Only the tops of the higher Munros were visible, along with brocken spectres, glories and, at the summit, two completely incredulous, grinning young climbers from south of the border who had barely climbed a Munro before and never seen anything remotely like it. The five of us stood together, sharing the silence, the sun and the unforgettable prize for perseverance on what had felt like a dull and forgettable day. Then we shook hands, celebrating the near end of 2008 as we readied ourselves to welcome in the new year, and descended slowly into the freezing darkness of the misty corrie.

Perseverance rewarded (photo: Tony Kinghorn)

Perseverance rewarded (photo: Tony Kinghorn)

However, the celebrations were to be delayed. Just after I took off my crampons (because we'd run out of neve), when descending a steep and rocky section, I slipped on an unseen patch of water ice and bounced and tumbled down a few metres, landing in a pile of boulders. I was lucky not to break any bones, but I did dislocate my knee. I managed to hobble down the required 600 metres with considerable assistance from Tony and Andy, who had to put up with regular volleys of curses and the fact that we arrived at our accommodation several hours after the 'bar' had opened. My spectacular bruises are now fading, and displaced bits of knee have been replaced and rested. Thought provoking though, since I was being extremely careful at the time and have not learned anything that might prevent a similar thing happening in future. I often walk alone (though rarely in serious winter conditions) and it made me think what might have happened had I not had my trusty companions with me. The accident happened in the precise spot where three people lost their lives a few weeks later. Even more thought provoking.

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