The perfect winter’s day?

Hills: Stob a’Choire Odhair
Date: 30 January 2010
Weather: Glorious sunshine, cold and windy on the top.
Who: Me, Stuart and two mates
Honourable mention: Monsieur Grivel and his marvellous inventions

I think this really was the perfect winter hill day. And it was my first attempt at a winter walk. One of those days that you remember for a long, long time.

Firstly, I’d like to apologise for the amount of photos, and ask people not to adjust their computer screen – the sky really was that colour. I don’t think we’ve ever had a day on the hills that produced quite this many good shots – or this much blue sky! This is probably because (a) we’d never been on the hills before when there had been significant snowfall, and (b) we often aren’t that blessed with the weather, to say the least.

I think it’s fair to say that our preparation for this walk was probably not the best. I hadn’t done any serious walking since the previous September, except for a couple of flat walks, and hadn’t done anywhere near enough in the gym and boy did I feel it!

Until the day before the walk, we also hadn’t got crampons, although we did have winter boots that we had both bought in the sales. The crampon problem was rectified by a mad dash to Cotswold Outdoor on Friday lunchtime to pick up two pairs of Grivels; the lack of fitness problem was then exacerbated by a delayed flight, which meant that we didn’t get to Stuart’s parents in Irvine till after midnight, and by the time we had sorted our kit, adjusted the new crampons to actually fit our boots (as I didn’t really want to have to do that on the hill) and so forth it was 2am. Eek! We left Irvine at about 7.15 on Saturday morning and made it to Victoria Bridge car park about two hours later to meet our mates (who had been in Glencoe the previous night), and by the time we had all faffed with kit, filled up hydration bladders, found the sandwiches, checked we all had all our gear actually with us, and worked out how to strap an ice axe to a rucksack without hitting yourself over the head with it in the process (hint: it’s best not to be wearing the rucksack at the time), it was almost 10am by the time we set off.

That said, it made a nice change to be starting the walk in glorious sunshine. 😀 I think it’s fair to say that the forecast had been a bit intimidating with MWIS suggesting anything between 20-70% cloud free Munros but possible blizzards and whiteout – yikes! 😯 😯 As it turned out it was a glorious day and there wasn’t even a hint of a snow flurry, probably just as well really.

The first part of the walk in was nice and gentle, along a landrover track with the views already opening out. Turned right at the green hut, and started a long but at least fairly gentle pull up towards the south-west spur of Stob a’Choire Odhair, our ascent route to the top. Conditions underfoot at this stage were OK, there was ice on the paths but it was avoidable and at that point no spiky stuff on the boots was required. Had a good natter as we went and I think none of us could quite believe our luck with what a good day it was – it was cold, but at that point there was no wind and for at least some of the ascent I was far too warm.

At the bottom of the south-west spur, there is a significant stream crossing. Ralph Storer’s ‘Ultimate Guide to the Munros vol. 2’ says that this could be awkward to cross when in spate. Well, he should have added awkward to cross in winter too. The stream was part frozen and fairly deep in places and we all stopped and pondered how we were going to get across it. One of the guys went for a leap across onto a sloping snow covered slab, followed by the other, and they scrabbled their way across. I didn’t like the look of this at all, and after some very hard thinking Stuart and I put on the microspikes and managed to link up some bits of thick ice with some of the less deep parts of the water. Fortunately this worked, and we turned off up the steep spur. I think this stream would potentially be uncrossable after heavy rain or snowmelt, at least not without getting rather wet!

Stream hazard dealt with, the real grunt work began. One of the reasons we’d chosen this hill is because we’d been assured by several people we know that it was straightforward.

Hmm well, maybe during the summer it is a piece of cake, and I suspect it probably is. However, it wasn’t all that straightforward today, at least not in parts. The first bit of the ascent is (well, it felt) very steep indeed, although after a while it levelled off into zigzags which was a huge relief…until they disappeared under a snow slope about 150m or so from the top. Gah! Great views though as we climbed. 😀

At about this point we noticed several things. One, the lads were obviously faster (and undoubtedly fitter) than us. 😦 Secondly, it became obvious that getting 4 hours sleep the night before a winter ascent is not exactly ideal. Thirdly, neither is not breaking in your new four season boots until the day of the walk! My new Mantas fortunately seemed to be fine after the first half a mile or so, though they felt very heavy. Stuart however was having more problems with his, and we needed to stop to try and sort out the lacing etc as they were quite painful. Having managed to re-lace them a bit differently, which seemed to help, we resumed our slow plod upwards. Fortunately, the lads had taken a bit of a break to allow us to catch up a bit, and the fact they had got ahead at least meant that someone that wasn’t me had had to break the trail! :

At this point the zigzags had disappeared under the snow and it was really time to get out the ice axe. However my poles had frozen in position and it wasn’t possible to stow them safely on my pack at the length they were at, or at least I didn’t think it was, so I ploughed on – another lesson learned for next time, get the axe out earlier. The snow was quite soft at this point and it very much felt like hard work – I resorted to keeping looking at the altimeter on my GPS so I could reassure myself we were actually making progress. 😯 By this point it had become obvious that any attempt at Stob Ghabhar was a non-starter, not just because time was marching on but because it was obvious it would be a serious undertaking – the climb up to the Aonach Eagach looked brutally steep, and the ridge itself looked as though it was a narrow snow arête – no ta! Finally we closed in on the summit to find the others taking a bite to eat and taking in what I have to say were probably the best views we have ever had from a summit.

The exhaustion and aggravation of the ascent were forgotten (at least temporarily!) as we took in the panorama all round. Our first Munro of the year, and for me and Stuart our first proper winter ascent. 😀 😀

We’d discussed on the way up that rather than come down the same way we’d drop down the west ridge to the bealach with Stob Gabhar, then follow the Allt Toaig back down, which after reaching the top definitely looked the easier option. The snow on the west ridge was much harder than on the ascent – in terms of firmer, not more difficult, in fact once we had all put on our crampons it was much easier as it took our weight and there were only occasional soft bits. This bit was great fun 😀 and the views as we headed down were fantastic. It was the first time any of us had worn crampons and we were absolutely delighted to have them – although microspikes had done us on the way up they wouldn’t have been quite enough on the way back down. I completely forgot about feeling knackered and just enjoyed the descent and the views.

Trying to find the right way back down from the bealach was a bit interesting – nothing too technical but although we could see the lower reaches of the path back down the Allt Toaig, it was completely hidden by snow towards the bealach. We basically made our own route back down towards the stream, eventually picking up the right path. There was quite a lot of frozen bog and streams to cross, and after taking off our crampons inevitably there were more of them! Had to stop a couple of times as the crampons (and once they’d come off, the microspikes) were starting to ball up, but once we found the path the way back was straightforward. There’d obviously been some snowmelt over the day but the stream crossing seemed a lot less problematic in reverse for some reason, and the Steallaire waterfall – which had been totally silent on the way up so presumably frozen – was actually making a nois

We were all pretty tired as we wandered back down the path, but there was one last treat in store in the form of a few stags ambling around near the stream. Sadly most of the photos didn’t come out right but this one obligingly posed in front of the view back to where we had been.

It then just remained to toddle (though in my case it was more of a stagger.. ) back along the track to the car park…

….and to the Clachaig where the inevitable, and copious, post walk drinks were waiting! Merlot sadly, as the Clachaig doesn’t do Malbec!

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4 thoughts on “The perfect winter’s day?

  1. That’s almost the same walk and conditions we had on that hill. Superb photos. It’s a great one for a first winter Scottish walk. We did it the other way around but I wish we’d gone your way and gone up the zig-zags instead of down.
    Carol.

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  2. You lucky devils. A few miles north around Loch Leven there was solid cloud all day at around 900-1,000m. How come you got all the blue sky?

    Looked like a good day, and entertainingly told. The approach to the Aonoch Eagach is indeed not a good way to get your first crampon practice. And whilst the “arête” is not really, it does tend to get a nasty little frozen cornice.

    Another hard won tick. How many do you have now?

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