Ciste Dhubh – Quick! Run Away!

12 03 2011

Walked June 2010…
Stats: 10 miles, 3300 feet of ascent, 5 hours, me and Richard… Very late start (1300-ish) due to having to wait for my windscreen fixing!

Our last walking day in Glen Shiel was the day I was having my windscreen replaced. I got a call from the fitter at 0830 saying he’d arrive around 1030 – he was bang on time! However, the windscreen took an hour to fit and he then tried to shut the bonnet but couldn’t get it to stay down. Basically the safety catch mechanism had rusted through! Now at this point the guy could have just left but, very decently of him, he stayed and did a temporary fix so we could get home next day without the bonnet flying up and beheading us both! By now it was 1140 – we’d already loaded the car with our walking stuff and were just about to jump in when he informed us that we had to wait until 1230 for the windscreen glue to set so we couldn’t go anywhere until then! Oh well… it was still fairly sunny so we just sat on the nice bench in front of the holiday let and sunbathed…

As we sat, the skies started to darken and the cloud began to descend… By 1230, it was pretty clagged in. We had already decided that, due to the shortness of walking time left, we’d go and tackle one of my bête-noirs, Ciste Dhubh! Ugh!

We drove off up the glen to the Cluanie Inn and parked up in the layby just past the hotel. Luckily the cloud base was quite a bit higher up at the top of the glen. I reluctantly put my boots on and we set off, starting up the nice, short and easy climb up Am Bathach. I really liked this hill… it was a very quick ascent and a lovely undulating ridge. The book had said ‘narrow’ which had worried me but it was just right – superb views both sides too. The ridge started off with a strong crosswind but that abated – possibly due to becoming sheltered by Aonach Mheadhoin & co. Bearing in mind it was to be a very narrow ridge along Ciste Dhubh, I was really relieved about that!

Am Bathach

There was a very steep grassy descent from Am Bathach to the fairly featureless and extensive col. I was pleased this was out of the cloud as it would have been very awkward to find the path up Ciste Dhubh if not. There were sketchy sections of path across the bealach which we managed to join together until we finally saw where the path went up our Munro objective. The path up the first part of that looked horribly steep and I was surprised to see it went up above the only crags on the slope. I couldn’t see why it didn’t just go up the plain grassy slopes either side. Anyway, we soon reached it and I found that the craggy section had a nice flat platform above it which broke up the steepness of the ascent nicely so I was happy… The lower section of path up to the crags was fine but very boggy indeed…

A great zig-zag path went up to the top of the steep slope and it seemed we were soon up where it levelled off and headed for the narrow bits. The book had said that the right hand side of Ciste Dhubh was craggy (which I knew from seeing it from the road) and that the left hand side was ‘incredibly steep’ – not words I wanted to see in the Munro book, which normally keeps such superlatives out of its descriptions!

The first narrow peak reared up in front of us. I was wondering whether we went up it and along the top or whether the path sneaked along the back. I soon found that, after ascending about half way up it, the path did indeed sneak off along the back. But of course, this was a traverse above the ‘incredibly steep’ grassy drop… I was not comfortable! The path seemed to go on forever – I shuffled along in the front, trying not to get dizzy and fall off it, trip over anything or any other such disaster. I repeatedly warned Richard to ‘be careful, don’t slip’ etc. (I’m surprised he doesn’t take to wearing an i-Pod or similar to block me out!)

We eventually reached the end of this section where I was pleased to see that the continuation along the ridge was nice and wide. However, I could see the summit rearing ahead – and that did look narrow! I started to really doubt my ability to make the summit but decided to wait until I got there and saw it properly. My basic plan was to somehow reach the summit and then beggar off straight on down the ridge which went NE to the pass through to Glen Affric.

The pleasant ridge went on comfortably for quite a while but then suddenly we came to a short descent – the other side of which was a horrible looking, narrow, rocky arête! I just stopped dead and said to Richard, “I can’t do this”. He said I had to keep going and give it a go as we’d come so far… he also pointed out that there was a path just down below the crest (I hadn’t seen that in my panic). I looked and it looked fairish so I hesitantly continued. However, the final climb to the summit looked really narrow and nasty now…

We were soon at the end of the path traversing below the arête and at the final climb to the summit – it looked truly terrifying to me. The main thoughts circulating repeatedly in my head were the words I’d been PM’d on my ex-forum from a lady who’d read my Glen Shiel reports from 2008 and had just commented; “It will be interesting to see what you make of Ciste Dhubh”. I started with my ‘terrible noises’ again (of the Glen Dessary Sgurr nan Coireachean descent fame)… I knew my face was contorted into a dreadful expression and hoped Richard wouldn’t see it – but he could certainly hear me… He kept urging me from behind to ‘keep going’ which I did. I was aware that the left hand side of the mountain was more or less vertical now – all the way down to the glen around 3000 feet below – I was more scared of this side than the crags to my right!

I just kept my feet moving as carefully as I could and eventually reached the summit cairn. Richard was right behind me. After a quick glance at my intended continuation down the far side of the peak and a quick rejection of it, I just said to him; “I’m not stopping, I’m going straight back down”. I asked him to go in front and we set off back down the fearsome narrow ridge. It was slightly loose and I have to admit to sometimes crouching down and grabbing the ground at the sides. We continued along the path under the arête which was slightly worse in descent but reached the grassy col without mishap. I managed to put my face back how it should be before Richard saw it and died of fright.

At this point, I looked again down the grassy slope on the craggy side (now our left) and decided that was my escape route. I said I was going that way and set off down the extremely steep grass. I’d said Richard could go whichever way he liked but he dutifully followed me. This was probably much steeper than anything I’ve previously tackled but it was short and that was all that mattered.

We were soon in the corrie and I was fleeing down the grassy slopes to the valley, upsetting two sets of deer in the process. Richard hates those kind of descents on pathless, wet, tussocky grass and it was by now clouding right in and raining, but he didn’t say anything.

Soon after we were on the valley floor of the pass which goes to Glen Affric. I was suddenly overtaken with jubilation at reaching the valley and proceeded to drive Richard completely mad for the next 3 or so boggy miles out of the glen! I sang the Hallelujah Chorus, a mad Welsh song with lots of ‘Fal-la-la-la-las’ in various keys, I patted him on the back, I skipped, I danced and laughed hysterically and told him we’d ‘escaped’. I was just so happy that I never had to go up there again! He is pretty used to my behaviour so just plodded on stoically. I did ask him at one point which one of me he preferred – the mad celebrating one currently manifesting itself, the very quiet one brooding over potential problems looming ahead on a peak, or the one making the terrible noises – admittedly, he did choose the mad celebrating one.

I did offer to buy him a drink in the Cluanie Inn but he generously bought them instead. I was so happy to be back at my car, despite the, by now, torrential rain and terrible midges.

Postscript: wrote this quite a while back and of course have now read several more reports and looked at others’ pics of this and now feel I probably was having a very bad day, had built it up too much in my mind, and should probably go and give it another go! Not sure Richard would come with me though…




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