A Ridge Too Far – A Winter Epic!

Back in February 2011 I learnt a valuable lesson. Phil and I totally underestimated two classic Munros in the Mamores. Relatively inexperienced, we also overestimated our own winter mountain skills. Either one of us could have been carried out by Mountain Rescue, injured or worse still. Dave who accompanied us was far more experienced, he must have wondered how he ended up walking with two complete novices. Thankfully after some near misses we all got off the mountain safe, here’s how events unfolded…

It was our annual winter meet in Glencoe,  on the way up Phil and I bagged Stob Ghabhar in the Blackmount. It wasn’t a great day but as we’d bagged its neighbouring Munro; Stob a’ Choire Odhair in perfect winter conditions the previous year, we couldn’t really complain. Later, we arrived at our accommodation at the Glencoe Cottages, dumped our gear and headed off to the pub to meet the rest of the crowd. Over some libations in the Clachaig and buoyed with an excellent weather forecast Phil, Dave and I agreed to head to the Mamores first thing in the morning.

We left our cottage with some trepidation, we were setting off for Kinlochleven to bag the classic Mamore Munros; Na Gruagaichean & Binnein Mor. Just before leaving, Phil realised his hire car had a flat tyre. We had a big day ahead of us, so rather than waste precious time trying to sort it, Dave suggested we took his car instead.

Kinlochleven is only a short journey from Glencoe and we arrived at the old Mamore Lodge hotel just before 9 o’clock. Nobody was around to collect money, in fact the hotel sadly looked permanently closed. We got ourselves booted up and were away shortly after.

It was a typical day for February, rather chilly and grey, but we were hopeful the excellent forecast would come good for us as the day progressed. It had snowed during the night and the fresh dusting sat nicely on top of the grass, making our initial ascent up annoyingly slippy.

As we climbed, the views behind us began to open up.  Kinlochleven below us with Loch Leven stretching westwards, the Pap of Glencoe prominent. But the higher hills were still shrouded in cloud. We finally hit the snow-line and decided to take a short break. Shortly after we pushed on and we were glad to finally strike the ridge at 800 metres, we plodded on northwards towards Na Gruagaichean’s summit.

Conditions closing in on us.

The weather began to close in, the cloud thickened and some snow showers passed by. Our first obstacle was to pass a cornice. Axes out, we carefully made our way across and towards the summit, when suddenly the weather began to break in our favour. The cloud lifted to reveal some blue sky.

Passing the first obstacle.
Weather breaking

At the summit we stopped for a break, refuelling with something to eat and taking the obligatory summit photos. The break in the weather didn’t last, so it was out with the map and compass and we carried on west to pick up the narrow ridge across to the unnamed 1,062 top. Slipping around on the descent, I announced I was stopping to put crampons on, Phil and Dave agreed and did the same.

It was a quick descent and we reached the ridge to find it topped nicely with a snow arête. It looked quite terrifying. I was a novice winter hillwalker and I hadn’t seen anything like it before. Dave led across, Phil and I gingerly followed behind. The mist swirled around us, occasionally revealing the drop below. I tried not to look down, but I couldn’t help but look, a slip or fall would be fatal. For the first time on the Scottish mountains, I felt out of my comfort zone.

The snow conditions changed and we were now presented with a cornice. We found ourselves on the safer south side of the ridge, Dave still leading,  with myself in the middle and Phil trailing behind. I remember driving in the shaft of my ice axe, moving my right foot and kicking in a step, then committing my left foot. Continuing like this for what felt like ages and beginning to tire.

Phil shouted from behind, ‘I can’t get up’. He’d taken a minor slip but nothing serious, he was clinging to his axe. Dave and I shouted back, kick a step in and get yourself back up, ‘I can’t’ Phil replied. He finally hauled his frame back up and we pushed on towards safer ground finally reaching the unnamed 1,062m top.

We ascended directly north to Binnein Mor, with no drama we reached the summit. We were still stuck in the cloud but we could tell it was an airy, exposed summit. I imagine that the views would have been quite something if the conditions had been better.

We found shelter on the lee-side and had another bite to eat whilst discussing our route off. I took responsibility for the route, but for some reason I got it wrong. I had it in my head that we descended directly east off the summit, it looked doable on the map. But it was difficult to gauge with the snow and mist.  With cold hands Dave put his phone away, but managed to drop his leather phone case, we watched it tumble-down disappearing into the mist. We unanimously agreed there and then we would not be descending the same way as the phone cover!

I got the map out, both Dave and I studied it. For some reason the proper route didn’t register with either of us. We picked a route taking us way off course, but it seemed the safest alternative at the time. Phil agreed with our proposal to continue north descending Binnein Mor’s north spur.

Dave led again, and the initial descent was steep, some rocks slightly barred our descent. Dave skipped passed these no problem. I decided it would be easier to bum slide past the rocks. All of a sudden I found myself sliding down, my axe wasn’t in my hand either. As I gathered pace, I flipped onto my stomach, arms at full stretch. I just managed to grab a hold of the axe and dig it into the snow to arrest my slide. Lucky my slide was only a few feet, but I could feel the pace gather quickly before stopping. My legs were like jelly as I hauled myself up and got myself away from the rocks and over to Dave. He asked if I was okay, I just burst out laughing!

Descending just before my slip. Photo: DaveM

Over the  embarrassment of my slip and girly scream we continued on, the steepness eased off and I relaxed. The mist broke giving us a brief window of some views. We could see down into Glen Nevis and the Ben, itself.

Glen Nevis and some of the Ben.

Binnein Mor had one last sting in its tail for us before reaching safer ground, the ridge tapered and steepened. I hoped it looked worse than it did. We peered over and had one last steep descent to face. A slip here was unthinkable, steep and littered with rocks below. Phil had been suffering from a sore knee and was beginning to struggle.

Dave was quick and efficient in descending, I however didn’t feel comfortable walking down facing out, it was too steep. I turned and faced the rock, using the 3 points of contact technique, I kicked steps whilst using my axe as security. I slowly made my way down. My energy was beginning to sap. It didn’t help that Phil was around 10 metres above me with his sore knee. If he slipped, he was taking me with him!

Phil thankfully shifted away further to the west, leaving me to continue on. I could see Dave had nearly reached safe ground, I didn’t want to get complacent so concentrated on getting myself off safely when I heard a scream.. I couldn’t see anything, I got myself off and approached Dave. Phil had lost his footing and fell down the slope. Dave admitted he thought he was coming off the mountain in a body bag. Thankfully Phil managed to arrest his fall which Dave estimated to be around 50 feet before he stopped himself. Shook up Phil limped over to join us for something to eat. This was becoming a bit of an epic!

Dave and our route off Binnein Mor.
Looking back at our route off.

It was a well earned break for all of us, I hadn’t really eaten that much. The hot tomato soup was a morale booster. I gave some painkillers to Phil for his painful knee. Our alternative route had taken us way off course, we were on the wrong side of the mountain for a start. It was now 3 o’clock, leaving us with around 3 hours to cover several kilometres back to the car.  Time was against us.

It seemed to take an age to get around Binnein Mor. Phil was still struggling with his knee when we saw that we had one last climb to do, it was only around 100 metres but Phil was knackered. He told us to push on, we declined his request. We get off the hill with the same amount of people we started with.

The last ascent to Coire an Lochain.

I reached the lochans and waited for Dave and Phil to catch up. We had another quick break and thankfully from here, it was all downhill.  Out of the snow we could finally take off the crampons, we’d had them on ever since first putting them on descending off Na Gruagaichean.

Other walkers caught up with us, they turned out to be our friends from our gathering. They had also had a bit of an epic on the neighbouring Munros; Sgurr Eilde Mor and Binnein Beag.

As we wandered on down the fading light began offering us some nice conditions for photography. It certainly helped to take our minds off aching legs, even if only for a few moments.

The Aonach Eagach.
Loch Leven

It was a long walk out but eventually we reached the car at 6:20pm, just before head-torches were required.

It wasn’t until we were driving back to Glencoe, I was looking at the map again and finally released my navigation error. On the summit of Binnein Mor we should have retraced our steps south to the 1062m unnamed top, then head south-east towards Sgor Eilde Beag, then eventually get back to the lochans. Instead we took a Ridge Too Far. I’m not sure why I got confused at the summit, perhaps with the excitement before reaching Binnein Mor. I also remember my GPS was playing up that day.

We got back to the cottage, our late finish meant the showers were free on our arrival. Refreshed and washed it was back to the Clachaig for food and beer. I found myself so mentally and physically exhausted that I ended up retiring quite early on. I couldn’t sleep though, the experience of the whole day just went around my head constantly.

Lessons were learned that day, it certainly clipped my wings a bit too. I found out that there was near fatality on Binnein Mor from the previous week, thankfully those involved managed to walk out too. A day I’ll always look back on smiling and reminancing about.

9 thoughts on “A Ridge Too Far – A Winter Epic!

  1. AndrewMallinson

    What an engaging account. I’m glad you got back safe. Particularly like the comment “We get off the hill with the same amount of people we started with”

  2. And I had been thinking that Binnein Mor was a relatively easy, nothing much can go wrong, sort of a hill. Just goes to show…eh? I remember “the choice” at the summit – to me it was a no-brainer – had to be back west as there was not a snowball’s chance in hell I would get FD along the narrow ridge to the east. lol Anyways you can see what should have been your route off here: https://fatdogwalks.wordpress.com/2009/11/10/the-taking-of-tea-scones-and-strawberry-jam/ So Robin…is there a sequel? 😉

      1. Thanks Robin – it was a walk I look back on with some fondness. I think my views that day were probably a wee bit better than yours 😉 . I look forward to what near disaster you admit to next 🙂 .

  3. I have to admit I won’t tackle the western Scottish peaks in winter – only the rounder stuff in the Cairngorms or central Scotland for me in those conditions. I don’t like steep or narrow on snow and ice at all.

  4. Mark

    If you’ve not had a few minor epics like this you’ve never really been out on the Scottish hills in winter. I remember at the time that you guys were a bit tattered that evening. Nicely retold.

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