And Time to Back Off

Forecast is not great -- high winds, increasing in the course of the day, temperature likely above zero regardless of altitude, and precipitation arriving by an early afternoon. The sort of a day when it's not worth carrying a tripod, or driving too far, yet at the same time not bad enough to just stay at home all weekend and brood (as I know I would).

So here I am at Inverlochlarig; before first light, in the hope of beating the worst of the weather. In the recent years this has become my preferred way into the 'Crianlarich' hills. I like tackling these seven Munros in a single continuous run -- just about the only enjoyable route I have been able to come up with near me that has climbing to distance ratio comparable to some of the bigger rounds. But that would be in the summer, and on a cracker of a day.

Today the plan is less ambitious: head up Beinn Tulaichean, and then, depending on conditions and time, onto Cruach Ardrain, and perhaps Stob Garbh, one way or another returning via Inverlochlarig Glen. I have not been up Beinn Tulaichean from this side for some two decades, and my memories from the last time are rather vague, so this outing has a degree of (welcome) novelty.

In the view of the SE wind I decide to give the usual walkers' path a miss, and instead head up the western flank of the hill, in the shelter of the SW spur. This turns out to be a good choice, with only light wind. I eventually join the main ridgeline somewhere at around the 600m contour line. Here my pocket anemometer registers just over 40mph (I carry one having realised I tend to overestimate wind speeds and hence underestimate forecasts). And spindrift. Time for some extra layers and the goggles.

Visibility is dropping rapidly with height, and by the time I reach the flatter area around the 750m contour line, it's down to ten yards. The compass comes out, from here on I am moving on a bearing as visibility continues to drop further. The terrain is quite complex here, lot of large boulders, with big gaps between them, now covered -- but not necessarily filled -- with snow. I narrowly avoid falling into a large hole that appears out of nowhere right in front of me just before the gradient steepens again.

There are two sets of fairly recent footprints here -- mine was the first car in the car park, so I am guessing from yesterday. I follow them cautiously, while keeping an eye on the needle, one can't be too careful; I loose them somewhere along the way.

I have reached a point where the ground starts descending again. I know I am near the summit now, but in the view of the complex terrain I need to get an accurate location fix. An altimeter would have been useful in these conditions, but I forgot to reset it earlier (a rare, and annoying, omission). I get the phone out; I prefer the map and compass, it sharpens the mind, but I am not a Luddite. I am 120m from the summit cairn, just a bit off the little col below it.

I get a bearing, reach the col. The light is so flat now that even in the goggles it is impossible to adequately judge the gradient under my feet. There is a step down, but I can't tell how big. I get on my knees, only with my face this close to the ground I can see it's not too steep, and it shouldn't be more than a couple of feet down. I descend gingerly.

On the other side the ground starts rising steeply -- the final 30m of ascent to the summit cairn. As I start climbing up I catch a sight of what I think at first to be a small cornice above; in fact it's the fault line from an avalanche -- I am taken aback, the ground under my feet does not feel like avalanche debris, but for a short while I can see the fault clearly enough, including the poorly bonded layers within it. I realise that what I thought was an old line of obscured footprints couple of meters to left of me is a track made by some more recent debris coming from above.

I retreat back over the dip in the col to a safe place to assess the situation. The limited visibility is debilitating: though I am sure I am not more than twenty yards from it, the fault line is just a fuzzy shadow, if that, and I have no idea what the ground above it is like. The part of the slope I was on is unlikely to avalanche again, but on what I have seen so far, it is not unlikely that if I load the ground above the fault line it could release; I can't take the risk.

I don't mind not reaching the summit, but I hate giving up. I study the map. It seems it might be possible to contour hundred or so meters to the east and gain the summit from there. I take a bearing and start pacing the 100m, and voila, here are the two sets of footprints I saw earlier, heading the same way. But after only 50m or so they disappear under what this time is unmistakably avalanche debris, the whole eastern aspect of the summit is covered by it, as far down as I can see, while above me the same fault line continues beyond the limit of visibility.

I decide to pace the entire 100m. From here I can see that the avalanche is delimited by a rocky rib, but it seems too steep to climb it. I retrace my steps back to my safe spot. It's only now I notice that, inexplicably, there is almost no wind at this altitude. I must be in the lee of the Stob Binnein ridge, which also explains the heavy snow deposits on the ground above me.

On a windy day like today, one must not waste an opportunity like this. The flask comes out, I eat my piece; I am quite content now. Then a back bearing -- while I should be able to follow my footprints back the way I came, you never know.

I descend the usual tourist route, mostly following the two pairs of footprints I saw earlier. I can see the pair were conscious of the avalanche risk, taking a sensible line; indeed, a bit lower down they dug a snow pit on their way up.

I reach the snow line, with views of Loch Doine and Loch Voil. Time to take some pictures, and shed some layers; I am overheating. The jacket goes in the bag ... and the rain starts almost immediately. But who cares? I am glad of yet another good day in the hills.