On March 11th ultra distance meister John Fleetwood had an 'alpine' day out on Liathach, Beinn Alligin, Beinn Dearg and Beinn Eighe, clocking up 27 miles and 14,500 feet of ascent over 17 hours, including some sketchy-sounding shenanigans in a gully in running shoes (don't try this at home). Looks like he had great conditions for it. John is clearly no slouch; if you want to feel even more inadequate then check out his blog, from which we've republished this article.
After a winter of continuous gales, at last a high pressure window seemed to be merging, so having reserved the time, I drove the long miles to Torridon in anticipation of sun and snow. I was disappointed to see that much of the heavy snow had disappeared, especially on Southern slopes, but the forecast wasn't wrong. My planned night of relaxation at Kinlochewe bunkhouse didn't turn out to be quite as restful as I'd hoped, with just me and four snoring builders in residence. I was glad to get up at 5:30am after a very poor night.
The wind was gusting strongly as I left the car at 6:15 am, but a vivid red sky lit up the hillside as I clambered up the path to the Liathach's eastern top. I felt groggy and the rucksack seemed heavy, laden with cameras, kit and food for the day. The lenticular clouds were testament to the breezy conditions but the snow was hard and I looked to be in for a good bracing day. I had the Alpine crest of the sandstone fortress to myself and I was in no rush [it's all relative John, Ed.]. I did the out-and-back to the Eastern top, donning crampons for the graceful snowy crest that lay ahead. I didn't feel like rushing and stopped frequently to savour the privilege of being in such a place, alone and blessed by blue skies. The crest over Spidean a Coire Leith was a true Alpine crest followed by a relatively snow-less passage over Am Fasarinen, where frustrating mist began to blow in and out, obscuring the view and requiring some patience to capture photos of the claw-like cornices drooping over the depths below. I got as close as I dared to the crack line, peering out through holes and back at the enticingly beautiful but deadly line of cornices. The Northern Pinnacles looked particularly alluring with an untrodden mantle of curvaceous snow, but not for me today. I jogged off to the West, arriving at the Coire Mhic Nobuil car park at 11:25 am.
"I had the Alpine crest of the sandstone fortress to myself and I was in no rush"
I ate an early lunch in the shelter of the trees before resuming my journey up Beinn Alligin's Tom na Gruagaich. By the time I made the summit, the clouds had lifted and I saw the first people of the day. They turned back at the summit where an icy stretch required spikes, but within 50 metres, they were rendered redundant. The snow had been stripped on these seaward mountains, leaving just patches on the ridge. I met a couple of Frenchmen near the 'gash' and from then on saw just one other person - the hills were mine for the day.
Sgurr Mhor came and went and the sun resumed its ascendancy, banishing the clouds for another day. I kept to the path off the Horns until I'd descended the steeper part, then headed off across the moor to the impending bulk of Beinn Dearg. Fortified by a slab of Christmas cake, I laboured up the unrelenting slopes. This is a brute of a hill, with no easy means of ascent. I was glad of a sandwich behind the summit rocks, before scrambling down the broken ridge.
Someone had clearly abseiled the short step having left a loop of cord which I retrieved and pocketed. With a glorious view of the Northern corries of Liathach, the descent was a joy and in the rich light of later afternoon, even the heathery moor failed to spoil a deep sense of well-being. The sun beat down as I reached the set-stone path leading to Coire Mhic Fhearchair, drawing out the pink of the sandstone. I even managed a jog once on the path, but that was soon ended by the steep scree leading up to Morrisons Gully.
"For the next 300m I huffed and puffed up the ice, my lightweight axe failing to penetrate without an energetic thrust. My legs and feet were screaming, I was all in, but I had to keep going"
I was still a little wary of potential avalanche and collapsing cornice risk, but the Gully seemed not to be overhung by a curtain of death, so I ate my last sandwich, put my crampons on and headed upwards.
Within a few minutes alarming fragments of ice started to whizz by - probably just a few bits off the side walls. Another 50m up and the ice bullets became a bit more worrying, especially without a helmet, but I didn't fancy retreating all the way down. I kept to the side and things quietened down which was just as well because the front-pointing was placing great demands on my feet and calves. On my fellrunning shoes, the crampons just bent upwards as the angle steepened, placing a huge strain on my slipping feet. There was nothing to ease the growing torture with nowhere to rest and just one axe for security. I came across a bucket seat that a previous party had cut but that only gave temporary relief. For the next 300m of vertical ascent I huffed and puffed up the ice, my lightweight axe failing to penetrate without an energetic thrust. My legs and feet were screaming, I was all in, but I had to keep going. Nightfall was now impending and the headwall was undeniably gloomy. Grade I it might be, but 300m of calf and foot burning kicking and hearty thwacking with a featherweight axe was reducing me to a quivering jelly. At the headwall, I traversed out to the right on ice but to my delight there was no cornice. The beaming moon greeted me as I gratefully emerged from the confines of the gully. It was 7pm.
I think that I was so relieved to escape from the gully that I continued to amble slowly along in the moonlight, legs still floppy sticks of jelly. I was also dehydrated having consumed little more than 750ml of liquid all day, but I was now enjoying the day again, scrambling up the snow covered rocks to Coinneach Mor. I didn't see the point of heading over to Ruadh Stac Mor. It's a dull trog in the dark and there was little merit in an unnecessary out-and-back. I therefore set course for the long ridge toward Kinlochewe. The snow had by now mostly refrozen and a three quarter moon negated the need for a torch. There is little finer than a snowy crest under moonlight and with no schedule to meet I just went at a (slow) pace that my tormented legs could deal with.
The pinnacles of the Black Carls were magnificent. The sharp drop off the first pinnacle looked intimidating in the dark, but despite being more testing than anything on Liathach, was straightforward. In the moonlight it was truly Alpine and an exhilarating finale to the traverse. At 11:15pm I arrived back at the bunkhouse to be greeted by a cacophony of snoring builders. Back to the real world!
- The Assynt Traverse 16 Jul, 2018
- REVIEW: Trail & Fell Running in the Lake District Guidebook 9 Jun, 2017
- Winter Broxap Round - 29 Munros in 61 Hours 13 Mar, 2013