Blaven – A Strong Case For Stone-Pitching!

9 06 2012

Sun 6 May 2012

After our lovely stay at the Cluanie Inn at the top of Glen Shiel, where I finished off my remaining two Kintail hills, on the Sunday we had to move on to Skye. As we had to do our week’s food shop and drive up to the holiday cottage to dump it in the fridge, that only left us half a day to walk and so I’d planned to tackle Blaven as it is a short route. Now, despite all the superlatives everyone seems to attach to the peak, I had huge reservations about it – I always thought it looked near-vertical, extremely rocky and very unpleasant. Who was right I was wondering as I drove back round on the Elgol road to Loch Slapin to the start of the route? I was soon to find out what an excellent judge of mountains I am – or at least, an excellent judge of what I will think to them!


The various guide books tell you to proceed up into Coire Uaigneich to a ‘delightful grassy alp’. One of my older guidebooks tells that the walk is a pleasant walk on grass. However, if there was any grass on the mountain, apart from a few grassy ledges on the craggier ramparts and one lovely area before the steep climb starts, I must have missed it!

Unfortunately, as the mountain becomes more and more like a huge slagheap (in my opinion, it has already reached that point), people will try to find ways around the huge and impossible scree chutes, thereby wearing more mountain into rubble. That is why my title suggests that Blaven has a strong argument in favour of stone-pitching before someone falls right down it – one person did fall partway down and nearly take the rest of their group with them as we ascended! Despite many purists not liking stone-pitched paths as they are ‘man-made’, once a path has been stone-pitched it forms stable steps which are then used by everyone. This prevents spreading of paths which eventually leads to the whole mountain becoming loose, unpleasant and unsightly.

I have to say at this point that nearly all the photos in this report are courtesy of Richard – this is because, by the time I could see what the route up the mountain was going to be like, my bottom lip was so far out I couldn’t put my camera to my face to take pictures! (most of Richard’s photos are all together at the end of the report as there is a colour clash between my film photos and the bluey tinge imparted by his digital camera). As I progressed up the mountain my mood worsened until I was in a positively bad mood by the summit and had spent the last 300 feet or so consistently moaning and grumbling to my poor long-suffering walking buddy! I ended up rating the peak as my second-worst in Scotland! Of course, I had yet to do the dreaded Cuillin peaks…

So anyway, a description of the walk. We parked the little Polo in the very rough carpark near the start of the path and set off along the track by the river. This track was above a prettily wooded gorge which would, in wetter conditions, have some great waterfalls. However, today the river was just a shadow of its normal self as, for once, the weather seemed to have been much drier in Scotland than in England. This section of the walk was lovely and I would certainly toddle along it again and perhaps bathe in some of the pretty blue pools below the falls. This beautiful section of walk lasts for all of a mile after which the quality of the walk goes downhill as the path goes uphill!

The approach path does yield a fantastic view of Blaven…

After crossing the main river coming down from the peak, the path sets off at a steady angle up loose rubble. It continues in this manner, passing a spectacular rocky gorge beneath a dramatic and beautiful side-peak (which unfortunately is ignored by everyone as it has no ‘status’ and isn’t on a list).

After probably about half a mile or so plodding up this rubbly path, you reach a nice grassy area at the end of a rocky ridge coming down from the mountain. It would be nice to sit here all day and study the afore-mentioned beautiful side peak, especially as a lovely deep blue lochan on its shoulder has now come into view. Unfortunately, you have to leave this pleasant spot – the only one of the whole ascent – and proceed on upwards above the rocky ridge.

At this point I looked up to see what the rest of the route looked like and could see there was some very severe and loose scree on the route – an absolute pet hate of mine – well it is for coming back down anyway.


(sorry about the film fault on this one but I’ve added it for illustration purposes)

I could see descending people spread all over the very steep hillside attempting to avoid the worst of the scree chutes.


(photo by Richard Wood)

There was an absolute horror of a chute coming down between two quite craggy areas interspersed with grassy ledges and people were coming down the craggy areas instead – no-one was attempting the chute. Above that it looked to be grassy but I have to say that, although it looked to be, I never found any grassy sections on the rest of the route. Everyone we could see descending looked to be having huge trouble staying on their feet and all were proceeding carefully.


(photo by Richard Wood)

Pretty soon, we heard a huge commotion – lots of shouting and people shouting ‘Stop!’ This worried me and I looked above to see if anyone was tumbling down the mountain. Although we didn’t see anyone, we were soon after passed by a descending group who confirmed that one of them had indeed fallen a way down the loose mountainside and nearly taken the whole group off the craggy area they were tackling at the time! I was extremely discouraged by this news but we stayed for a while chatting to them while a lady helpfully gave us tips about what the rest of the route was like and how best to tackle it.

We then reached the foot of the awful scree chute and did what everyone else had done – took to the crags first one side and then the other – unfortunately therefore having to cross the chute at the cross-over point. Even Richard wasn’t keen on the crossing as it was almost impossible to stay where you were and not slide down the mountain quicker than down a snake in ‘Snakes and Ladders’!

The second section of scrambly crag was easy enough in ascent but I knew it wouldn’t look nice in descent, especially as it was relatively narrow and had a drop off the bottom of it! Still, we had no choice really as the chute was pretty impossible for either ascent or descent. It gave me a horrible fore-boding about how I would find ‘The Great Stone Chute’ to reach Sgurr Alasdair, the highest of the Cuillin I had yet to do – there is pretty much no choice about using that for both ascent and descent and it is over 1000 feet high!


(photo by Richard Wood)

After the scrambly area we were back onto a scree path but this had more of a zig-zag and so was a little more stable and pleasant than those lower down – I was still hoping for some solidity higher up though. We could see black, rocky ramparts looming above us – I was hoping there was a good route through them.

When we reached them I couldn’t see any routes which would lighten my mood any – in fact, I got even gloomier. As I could see the next section was very steep and scrambly, still quite loose and by now over a very steep drop down the whole mountain, I started grumbling and swearing.

Richard tried to encourage me as he clambered up behind me but I was very grumpy and couldn’t wait to reach the summit. I knew I wasn’t going to like any of the descent. Initially, to start the onward scramble of this section, I headed off round a narrow ledge which even Richard queried until I’d got round the corner and told him it got wider.

Luckily, after the steep scrambling, the angle finally abated and a more pleasant zig-zag scree path continued up the final rise to the summit. The summit view must be the only thing nowadays which is good about this mountain – well the route to the main north summit anyway. I believe the south ridge from Camasunary up to the south summit is superb and fully intend to try it one day. The view from the, fortunately roomy, summit is best to the west where the whole of the Black Cuillin ridge bursts into view across an almost sheer drop of a full 3000 feet which makes you feel like you’re in an aeroplane.

The Red Cuillin are also all spread out to the north-west – Marsco looked shapely and dramatic…

I’m afraid I just see the other Red Cuillin as huge slag-heaps – a bit like the peak we were on. I felt like the Victorians used to where, instead of being hugely impressed by the view of the peaks, I just thought they looked grim, bare and awful!

I had a little toddle towards the scramble to the south summit to see what it looked like. From where I stood it didn’t look bad but there was further descent to the col and that could have been hiding bad bits. It was irrelevant really though as I don’t ever intend to ascend the north peak again! I finally got my camera out and grumpily took 2 or 3 photos and we had a very quick coffee but I was itching to be off back down really.

The descent was equally as bad as I thought and I slithered hesitantly and grouchily back down the screes with Richard in front as ‘cannon-fodder’ for when I slipped and cannoned into him down the hill – luckily I didn’t actually fall down at all. As I got further down and the scree got steeper I did slip a couple of times and let out huge and grumpy squawks, probably unnerving everyone else on the hill. Near the bottom of the hill, poor Richard took a couple of falls and hurt his hands.

The only section of descent where I was really unnerved was towards the foot of the craggy section with the drop off it where we decided we really didn’t want to attempt the crossing of the scree chute. One group of guys had actually climbed down into the chute and tried to descend it but, after the guy in front set off very rapidly down on his back, they climbed back up on the craggier bit with us. As I said above, the craggy section had a drop off it and we decided to carefully descend this bit. It was mainly grassy ledges with, luckily, just enough rocky handholds to lower yourself down but I could see it was pretty dangerous ground really and wasn’t happy.

When we finally reached the pleasant grassy area we had a proper break for five minutes or so in the sun and a quick snack and coffee. The descent from here wasn’t steep and was no looser than a few of the unimproved paths in the Lake District and Snowdonia so I felt I was now in more familiar walking territory and calmed down a bit. I couldn’t wait to get back to the flat part of the walk out by the river in the wooded gorge. I was extremely happy to see my car again at the end – not a walk I’d recommend!

5 miles, 3069 feet of ascent, 4.5 hours… ‘F’ words – one or two slipped out! (actually loads I think)

Here is Richard’s more prolific photographic contribution:


South Peak Col


Clach Glas – Climbers’ Route


Crumbling Peak


Aeroplane View Down Back!

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10 responses

21 04 2013
H Martin

Oh you are a moan! The programme An Idiot Abroad springs to mind…Maybe if you’d actually gone up the proper way you’d have had a positive experience. The way you ascended is not recommended. And to dismiss the Red Cuillin as you have done- ignorant.

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21 04 2013
mountaincoward

I just don’t like steep scree. The route we did was the only one ever suggested in all the guidebooks, on all the forums and was the one everyone else was going up. I’ve no doubt it was once a pleasant route but nowadays, it’s just too loose for me. I find it pretty scary doing such a steep and loose route – that’s why I call myself the ‘mountain coward’! Maybe I should rename my blog ‘an Idiot in the Munros’ 😉

Seriously though, I write this blog about the trials and tribulations a typical mountain coward would experience doing what you probably consider to be easy mountains – most people enjoy reading it and have a little chuckle at my total cowardice and that’s the point of the blog really 🙂

What route would you have recommended? I’m going to be doing the full south ridge proper sometime but don’t think I’d be up to the scramble between the 2 peaks which is why we just chose the normal tourist route to get the main Munro summit.

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10 06 2012
bob

Oh dear. Looks as if the path has eroded dramatically due to numbers Involved as It was still a grassy alp when I sighted it last… Being a relic and a living fossil I find most Munros too busy now compared to how I remember them from years ago.We will eventually have to adopt Lake District measures here on more popular mountains. It has to come. Even pay to park your car at the bottom for some I fear, like Glencoe And Ben Lomond.
The full traverse of the Bla Bheinn- Clach Glas Ridge is one of the best ridge scrambles in Scotland though and as hard as anything on the main Cuillin ridge. It’s probably that what gets it such good reviews in books and magazines.

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10 06 2012
mountaincoward

Hi Bob,
Yeah, I appreciate actually that a lot of the rave reviews of the hill are climbers/scramblers who do the Clach Glas traverse instead of the ‘tourist route’. It was very busy the day we went up and is obviously a popular mountain. Anyway, I’ll definitely do the true south ridge up to the South summit another time – I’m sure that will give me a much more favourable view of the mountain.

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10 06 2012
Paul Shorrock

Oh dear, Carol – a bit of a rough day 😦 Thanks due to Richard and yourself for some great images though:-)

My first trip to Blaven was with two rock climbing mates – there was a climb that one of them wanted to do that was in a book called ‘Extreme Rock’ (a collection of classic, hard rock climbs) and he was ticking off the routes, a bit like a munro-ist.

My other mate and I weren’t up to leading the route, but volunteered to make up the numbers. After a great walk up the coire we arrived at the crag with the climb, and the ‘hard man’ of the group said, “Ok, where does the route go?” One of us said, “Dunno, you’ve got the guide book”.

It turned out that none of us had the guidebook! We had a pleasant walk back (I can confirm that those pools are great for a dip) appart from the ‘hard man’ who went into a terminal sulk, didn’t speak all the way down, then jumped in his car and drove home to Lancashire 😀

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10 06 2012
mountaincoward

LOL – I’m afraid I can sulk too!

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10 06 2012
fedupofuserids

The colour saturations would have looked odd together but as you leave credit for the pics if they are not yours I’m sure it wouldn’t have detracted from your post. Digital cameras seem to tend to blue – I’ve had the odd photo of blue snow or royal blue grey sky from my digital compact.

Despite the route change Gamlin End isn’t such a nightmare to climb, Dale Head used to be a pain and that isn’t too bad. Sail now has HUGE zig-zags and some bits on Scar Crags have been ‘fixed’. I agree the picthing on Seat is spot on. Helm Crag currently has dumpy bags full of stones apparently to fix some of the perfectly ok ‘repaired’ bits! Thirlmere’s Dobgill is now £7 for over 5 hrs and the little triangle under Raven Crag now has a meter. I’m local to the lakes and know where to dump the car for free and I’m usually early enough to find a space. An inconvenience to locals but an added expense to holiday makers which surely must put them off from returning? I’ve been told that the revenue from the National Trust car parks has fallen since they installed meters and done away with the donation boxes ! Whether this is true or not – I don’t know !
Sorry for the long off-topic rant Carol 🙂 How’s your injuries has your arm started to set ?

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10 06 2012
mountaincoward

I can well understand the rant about parking – I think it’s getting very out of hand in the Lakes nowadays. I don’t mind at all paying £2-3 to park but £6-7 is unjustifiable! It also leads to people perhaps parking where they oughtn’t, especially more late-arriving folks. It also means that people leaving the carpark as someone arrives often results in unexpired tickets being sold on for a couple of quid – I’ve done that myself before now. If tickets were cheaper, people wouldn’t bother.

My arm, in its third week in pot, has finally decided to simmer down a bit, let me get a bit of sleep, and finally stop swelling up. Not before time!

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9 06 2012
fedupofuserids

I’m not a great fan of stone pitching, I think its spread onto paths that do not need ‘repaired’ is more politically driven to justify car parking charges. Despite this I have to admit when done right it does make walking easier & safer – Gamlin End in Buttermere is probably a fine example.

Nice report and its interesting to compare the film & digital camera shots on the same day.

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9 06 2012
mountaincoward

You can see how the two sets of photos wouldn’t have mixed well in the report though can’t you!

I was really surprised at the route taken for the Gamlin End stone pitching – straight up the steepest bit. I was walking up there while they were pitching it and they were quite annoyed I took everyone’s normal route at the time – diagonally up the grassy shoulder and then back at an easy angle of climb across the scree. There used to be a great zig-zag up the end in the scree.

I think the stone-pitching on the end of Seat was better.

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