Ample Snow on Our Vorlich

23 12 2011

Sat 17 December 2011

Quite a long report which completely demonstrates my total ineptitude at winter mountaineering! By the way, I’ve thought up a very succinct title for this post as, in five words, it contains: my route, the two hills I climbed and the weather I had! 😉

In a last ditch attempt to get at least another Munro done before the year-end (and hopefully more), I drove up to Lochearnhead after finishing nightshift on the Friday (I had a little sleep first of course). It was all pretty last minute, the decision being made completely on the weather forecast which was for settled but very cold weather over the weekend – there was already plenty of snow in the Highlands by now.

I had no accommodation booked and just turned up in the village and tried various B&Bs to no avail as they’d all shut up shop for the winter! That meant it would have to be the Lochearnhead Hotel then – not cheap at £55 per night for solo travellers but I found that, if I stayed 3 nights, the third night was free. Sounded good to me.

I was hoping to get Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin done over the two days, planning to only do one per day as winter walking is so much slower and more strenuous. As I lay in bed trying to sleep on the Friday night, doubts started to creep in. I was nervous as I hadn’t done any winter-mountaineering for quite some time but had mugged up on all the ice-axe braking procedures online at work on the Thursday night. I also realised I hadn’t done any mountains for at least 6 weeks – an inordinate length of time for me. This was mainly due to the flu-type virus I’d not long got over and partly due to the almost constant hurricane-strength winds over the last month.

I’d set two alarms on my watch – one for 0710 and the other for 0745 – only one went off… the early one. Of course, I settled straight back off to sleep to await the second one which never transpired. Luckily I woke suddenly at 0755 and leapt out of bed scurrying around getting ready – I made it to breakfast at ten past where I ate far more than I would have liked (I hate eating in a morning) as I knew I was in for a hard day.

By 0900 I’d defrozen the car and was driving tentatively down the south Lochearn road which doesn’t get gritted and had thick patches of ice in places. Luckily I only had just over a mile to go down the road as I’d decided on the NW ridge via Glen Ample. I parked up by the mausoleum and slithered around getting kitted up – at this point I didn’t put on my ‘microspikes’ to walk up the glen but just set off carefully – I noted it was 0910.

I was immediately confronted by the gates to the glen which were bolted firmly shut. I struggled with the bolt valiantly – it fought back. Suddenly, it shot back hard and smashed my hand into the gate’s metalwork – ouch! I looked at my hand and saw it had quite a hole in it and was starting to pour blood everywhere – what a great start – surely a bad omen… I gave the cut my customary lick (spit is supposed to be antiseptic I believe) and let it get on with dripping. I noticed it was getting on my clothes a bit but never mind. I also could see blood all over my map case.

Ignoring my hand’s problems I turned my attention to the icy path for the mile or so up the glen. After I’d walked for around five minutes, I realised I’d left my ice axe in the car! Oh dear – I really was out of practice and bumbling! 😦 I sighed and turned back towards the gate, noticing the farmer just setting off up the glen in his landrover. I was a bit peeved as I thought that, if I’d been going in the right direction, he may have given me a lift – he probably wouldn’t have though…

I got my ice axe and set off again – I now noted it was 0925… I made reasonable progress up the glen until I reached the river bridge – this was a sheet of solid, thick ice. There were no sides to the bridge and I was in no mood for a swim so decided now was the time to don microspikes. Across the bridge safely and the route now turned off the farm’s landrover track and headed along the riverside until it had passed the farm. It then headed off uphill towards the thick forest. The route so far had been beautifully signposted so there was no delay for the usual lowland navigation, which was good.

The path up through the forest was a bit irritating as it was either overgrown or made for midgets (which I’m definitely not). I had to bend double for most of the way up the hill to the top of the forest – I find it hard to puff my way uphill bent double. Also the trees kept pinging water down my jacket.

As I exited the forest I was pleased to join another landrover track which headed off round the corner up towards the corrie. This path was extremely icy and I was glad of my spikes.

Glen Ample from Ascent (above) Looking Back Down Track (below)

As I rounded the corner I saw I herd of deer in the near-distance – they’d been heading towards the river but changed their minds when they spotted me and headed off up the slopes again. I got a photo but they were too far away really – it was nice to see them though.


The deer (probably invisible at this size) are just crossing the path on the near horizon

The track was such good going once I hit the snowline (at about 1000 feet) that I had ample time to study possible routes up Stuc a’ Chroin for, hopefully, the next day. It really didn’t look as monstrous as I imagined – in fact, it looked pretty easy. I could also see what looked (and later proved) to be the top of Ben Vorlich – it looked really easy and gentle (and later proved much harder than it looked).


Stuc a’ Chroin


Ben Vorlich

By now the snow was getting pretty deep and soon the line of the path disappeared. I could see the col before the rise to the summit though and it was not far above me up a very gentle slope. The snow had started that irritating habit of letting me break through the crust every few steps – it was probably about 10 inches deep – quite enough to be tiring.

I stopped for a quick rest, looked behind me and exclaimed in delight. The southern end of Stobinian and the Crianlarich peaks were in dazzling sunshine behind me, looking pristine in their smooth, thick white coats. Either side of them was a profusion of other pristine white peaks gleaming away. I took a couple of photos and then plodded on upwards.

Unfortunately, although I could see them, the camera couldn’t really so I’ve had to tinker hard with the second shot to try to get a contrast between white peaks and white sky!

I soon reached the col and headed optimistically for the first steep climb, hoping that the snow had either frozen hard on it or was a thin layer. I was disappointed to find it was still deep and I was still breaking through most of the time. The slope had gone quite rocky now but the angle was still fine for microspikes. I did wonder whether I should be swapping to crampons but decided I could probably get up the hill with just the spikes – I soon found that was another bad decision of mine.

At the top of that steep section, there was a final very steep section. It looked to have plenty of snow cover and the snow looked soft (but turned out to be hard-frozen) and had a ramp up with few rocks so I continued in my spikes. About half-way up I realised it was no place to be without proper crampons and reluctantly decided I’d have to find somewhere to stop and fit them. I carved out a little bucket-seat behind a large rock with my ice axe and sat astride the rock. I was worried as I put things down on the snow that they’d just disappear down the slope but everything luckily stayed put while I unclipped my crampons from my bag.

Unfortunately, I was by now exposed to the fierce windchill of the northwest wind which was hitting the final slope. Someone later said it was around -10degC of windchill – it certainly felt like it. I have Raynauds anyway which means my hands very rapidly get cold and, when they do, I get very sick. By the time I’d done one crampon up I realised my hands were in trouble – by the time I’d strapped the other on my fingers had curled into a claw and I could hardly use my hands at all. I started to feel very sick and knew I had to get my gloves on. I should also at this point have been donning my other clothing – my windproof jacket and my headgear – but I was too cold and knew I had to get moving.

I hurried on up the slope, now gripping firmly in my crampons. The upward movement warmed me slightly but I realised I really had to get more clothes on which would necessitate stopping again and having to remove my gloves. I decided I’d just put headgear on and then go as fast as I could for the final few hundred feet for the summit. I removed my gloves and struggled to untie my ‘buff’ from my jacket – that took longer than I’d hoped and my hands started to seize up again.

I finally released the buff and dragged it anyhow onto my head and hurried to put my gloves back on – I couldn’t get them onto my fingers but just pulled the hand part over my fist. After one glove, the other dropped onto the snow and started to blow away over the edge. I knew I couldn’t lose my glove so hurled myself towards the edge after it and dropped onto one knee onto my glove. Another bad mistake – the snow was powdery now on top of either very hard ground or ice and so I bashed my knee pretty hard and felt even sicker. I realised it was no time for feeling sorry for my bashed knee and hurried to my feet and continued rushing towards the summit. By now I was starting to black out – when my hands get cold enough I basically pass out and then throw up! I realised I couldn’t faint here as the ridge was by now pretty narrow and the drop pretty large so willed myself upwards – also there were people at the summit watching so it would have been hugely embarrassing!

Luckily I soon reached the summit where, to my relief, I was suddenly out of the cruel wind and in lovely warm sunshine. I gratefully sat down in the sun and got my flask of hot coffee out and put my windproof coat on at last – just a tad late… I wasn’t too sick to notice the beautiful views but my hands were too dead to put away my microspikes which I’d hurriedly looped onto my wrists after changing out of them – I asked a nice couple to please clip them onto my pack for me. Unfortunately, I was way too cold to take any photos at the summit which was sad as the ridges going down the back to the Allt Dubh Choirein either side of the corrie looked really lovely.

I realised I was starving and dived into my rations to get out my shortcake biscuits. As I went to open the packet though, I realised I couldn’t eat them – I just didn’t want anything sweet (a first for me I think, especially on a hill). Unfortunately, all the rations in my bag were either chocolate or biscuits and I couldn’t face any of them – not good when I was already very tired and had been so cold.

I was bemused by the fact that some of the other walkers arriving at the summit had come up the much fiercer north ridge… and they were just in boots! No crampons or ice axes. I’d seen people struggling near the top of the ridge on my way up and wondered whether they were in crampons. They were wondering how they would fare going back down their ridge… so was I!

After a few minutes I set off back down my ridge followed by two guys and a dog. I took a couple of photos just leaving the summit but was too tired by now to concentrate properly on photography.

I got to the steep bit of the nose I’d come up and decided I wasn’t all that keen on going back down it and decided to head off SW towards the Bealach an Dubh Choirein – a gentler slope on deep, soft snow – a definite preference of mine for descending.

I was hoping to soon contour back round to my original ascent route just below the steep nose and thought I’d seen a snow shelf heading that way – I was wrong. There was no shelf – just very steep ground with a pretty thin layer of snow atop hard ice – hmmm. I wished I’d just gone back down the way I came up. I needed to contour back round without losing any more height as I wanted to do Ben Our which was the other side of the col I’d ascended to initially. In several places on my contour round the nose I was on very worryingly steep and hard ground with my crampons at a very tilted angle – I just hoped the spikes would hold. I warily eyed the very long slide down to the corrie and cursed myself for going off route.

Happily I made it to the softer snow on the col just behind the two gentlemen with their dog. Shortly afterwards, I again showed my winter-mountaineering ineptitude and didn’t take my crampons off in time, keeping them on to descend the next steep bit which had very many rocks covered in a thin layer of soft snow. When you hit that kind of thing in crampons, you tend to just tip off it. Instead of stopping to remove them, I continued to pick my way down but kept looking at the two guys making much better progress than me – they were just strolling down chatting. Two other guys came steaming up past me in the opposite direction going well.

Crossing the very snowy col was quite bad for breaking crust on deepish snow and none of us made very good progress. Although it wasn’t a steep slope up to the intermediate peak it was arduous going. Halfway across the col I decided I was breaking through more because I still hadn’t removed my crampons so decided it was time to do so. I caught the two guys and the dog up on the intermediate summit – the dog was barking at me but I realised it was just worried so crouched down and tried to get it to come and say hello. It was a lovely brown and white spaniel. It really didn’t like the look of me and hid behind his owner’s legs until the guys brought him over and we made friends. I had a chat with the guys and then I plodded off for Ben Our across another dip.


Looking back to Vorlich, Looking Monstrous from Intermediate Peak

By the time I reached the summit of Ben Our and crouched beneath the summit crags for another warming drink, I realised I was by now pretty exhausted. I debated about the best way back. I could either go the way the guys were going and descend to Ardvorlich and then stroll the couple of miles back along the road. The slope looked very easy and it wasn’t far to the road so I was tempted. Another option was to descend the NW slope of the hill straight to my car. The other choice was to go back the way I’d come, over the intermediate hill, and descend to my original track and retrace my steps through Glen Ample.


Ben Vorlich From Ben Our (light going a bit now)

In the end, I tentatively set off down the NW slope. It was very hard frozen snow and, after I’d descended some way, looked like it was going to get very steep indeed. I don’t really like steep descents on hard-frozen snow I’m afraid, even with spikes, so chickened out and had to stomp wearily back up again. As I plodded back over the intermediate summit I got more and more exhausted and the descent back to the track seemed to take forever, especially as I was breaking through the crust nearly all the time now and the snow was deeper.

I was relieved to hit the track again – and surprised to see quad bike tracks coming up to that point from the farm – not sure why. The descent back down the track now seemed very tiring indeed but the forest section was easier in descent and then I thankfully reached the flat glen once more. I wasn’t too tired to notice what a pretty little glen it is but I was by now way too tired to take photos and, it being 1530, the light had gone anyway. I didn’t bother to remove my microspikes for the walk out of the glen and managed to stagger to my car by 1550 – just before dark – pretty good timing really. When I removed my map from the mapcase I found that the blood wasn’t on the case – it was all over the map. Fortunately you can still read everything through it!

Unfortunately, I had completely lost my appetite by evening and ate very little – I was just too exhausted. I was also too tired to chat with the very friendly locals and had to excuse myself to go and slump mindlessly in front of the TV in the lounge (I never normally watch TV!) They understood though as they’d been asking me where I’d been and could see I was all-in – I even looked pale, drawn and exhausted. I was shocked when I caught sight of myself in the mirror at bedtime. I realised there would be no Stuc a’ Chroin the next day 😦

Luckily on the Sunday, I didn’t completely waste my day (well I had to stay on for my free night 😉 ) as I had an icy tour down the Balquhidder Glen, then round to the Trossachs.


Loch Voil from Balquhidder Village


Across Loch Doine (couldn’t get the car any further down the glen for the ice)

Trossachs – Loch Achray and Ben Venue

I then went on a recce to Callander to find where the road went up to Braeleny farm to access the hills from the back via the Allt Dubh Choirein. I’d seen a superb round on the map taking in Stuc a’ Chroin and the Corbett peak of Beinn Each. I found the right road by chance (it wasn’t on my map) and parked at the Bracklinn Falls carpark and walked the few miles up to the farm. It was in a lovely spot and I enjoyed my walk. It was like a different world up there – very secluded, very sunny and with the gentle snowy slopes of the backs of the peaks gleaming in the sun. I was almost tempted to give them a go but, of course, it was too late in the day…

Stats: 10.5 miles, 3458 feet of ascent, 6 hours 40


Stuc a’ Chroin from the back – will make a nice round with Beinn Each from here

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13 responses

7 01 2014
A Round of Stuc a’ Chroin & Beinn Each | The Adventures of a Mountain Coward

[…] the follow-up of Stuc a’ Chroin from Braeleny Farm, Callander the next spring […]

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19 01 2012
Peg Nix

I really enjoy looking at on this web site, it contains good content. “And all the winds go sighing, For sweet things dying.” by Christina Georgina Rossetti.

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28 12 2011
goth_angel

That sounds like a bit of a minor epic. As you know this was a bit of a bogey hill for us until we finally did it in November and I would agree it is more difficult than it looks. I would certainly not have fancied the last bit of the North ridge in snow and chickened out of going back down it coming down pretty much the way you did (contouring a lot easier without the snow, though)

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29 12 2011
mountaincoward

I bore in mind your comments you put on Scottish Hills just before I set off about the North Ridge probably being ‘interesting in snow’ and, by the time I arrived at Lochearnhead, had decided to scrap that route and do the Glen Ample one – so thanks for that 🙂 I’ll probably have a go at the north ridge next time I do it but in summer. It’s a hill I’d definitely do again though.

As for the walk being an epic, the bumbling was of epic proportions but I think that, if I were more practiced at winter walking, things would have been fine. Good job I didn’t tackle something much harder!

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26 12 2011
colin

“I think, rather than not go out on my own Colin (it’s rare I can get anyone to come with me anyway),”

Awe you poor thing hahaha. I also walk on my own most of the time. Keep safe and a very Merry xmas to you and Richard. 🙂

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27 12 2011
mountaincoward

Well I wasn’t really complaining or wanting sympathy – just explaining that I can’t really give up winter walking just ‘cos no-one else will come out. In some ways, walking on my own is better as I can ‘top-collect’ to my heart’s content and also go at my own speed. I can also do my usual of never stopping much for a break until after I’ve bagged my hill – that irritates a lot of fellow walkers if they’re out with me.

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25 12 2011
mountaincoward

Thanks for all your comments/concerns – good idea about the shock cord for the gloves Alan. Reminds me of how kids used to have their gloves with a cord running down both sleeves (and across the back of their coat) and the gloves attached to it. I think I may have just the place to attach my gloves on a cord – I have those loops inside the sleeves of my jacket where you can attach an inner fleece if you’re that way inclined. So, before I go out again, I’ll rig something up to attach my gloves to my sleeve ends – then I don’t lose them again.

I think, rather than not go out on my own Colin (it’s rare I can get anyone to come with me anyway), I just have to make sure I’m more organised and don’t get cold again. I was just really bumbling that day! With it being a Saturday, there were a lot of folks on the hill so I wasn’t that alone really…
Carol.

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24 12 2011
seekraz

See, you are rather brave, afterall! Glad you made it back safely and were able to tell your tales. Happy Christmas to you. 🙂

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24 12 2011
Colin

That sounds scary Carol. On reflection maybe you shouldn’t walk on your own in the winter? So many things can go wrong. I hate to think what might have happened had you blacked out. I was up the cairngorms last week and when I took one of my gloves off the strong winds whipped it away immediately. I was on skis so could not run after it. Luckily Stuart ran after it and retrieved it before it disappeared into the corrie hahaha. Alans Shock cord idea seems fine to me 🙂

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24 12 2011
Alan Bellis

Well the good news was that at least you bagged another and got back safely…and just about in one piece!
I’ve been pondering that problem of losing gloves, and only 2 days ago finally came up with the answer….
Get about 15 inches of shock-cord, tie a small loop at one end and attach a small clip or something to it to attach to the gloves (my thick over gloves have a few loops etc for this) then do a larger loop at the other end big enough to go over your hand and around your wrist. This works great so that when you remove your glove you can let it dangle from your wrist.
Good eh?

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24 12 2011
mountaincoward

Thanks Simon & Paul. I should have been totally better from the virus I had but I’d definitely got very unfit! Doesn’t seem to take long at my age unfortunately 😦
Carol.

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23 12 2011
fedup

Looks like a fairly long walk-in & recovering from the flu made it a hard day but you still reached the summit & took some fab pics.

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23 12 2011
Paul Shorrock

Sounds like you had a tough day there, Carol! Another peak ticked off though, which is a result – well done!

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