Saturday, 10 April 2010

24 hours in the Mamores

'Exhausting' is just one word that could be used to describe the past week, and in need of wide open spaces and silence, I packed my bivvy bag and headed for the hills. My objective was the wild eastern end of the Mamores. There's a clutch of Munros down that way I had yet to climb, so I planned a leisurely circuit to knock off three of them: Binnein Beag, Binnein Mor, and Na Gruagaichean.

The weather was muggy and a little cloudy as I walked in towards Binnein Beag, but the views compensated aptly. Binnean Beag proved to be easy, half an hour's run there and back from the col after dumping my bag next to the iceberg-filled lochan. From the summit, I took the opportunity to spy out the immense northern side of Binnein Mor, the highest peak in the Mamores at 1,160m, for the best way up.

I chose the North Face, which is an easy snow climb to the right of the prominent NE Ridge. The snow was well thawed-out by this point, so I timed my ascent to coincide with the cool of the evening, which helped the consistency of the snow. I put on crampons but as it turned out I could have climbed the slope without them, as the snow was firm but yielding underfoot and someone had already been that way in the last few days, providing pre-made footsteps. After the climb I topped out on the NW Ridge and scrambled the remaining 100m to the top.

The summit ridge of Binnein Mor was surprisingly sharp and highly corniced, with drooping seracs, crevasses, and all sorts of horrific fracture-lines. I steered well away from the edge and did not dare to stand on the exact summit, which was a huge serac that appeared poised to plunge down the length of the East Face. As I was soon to discover, this narrow, highly exposed snow ridge was to run for several more miles into the depths of the Mamores.

After enjoying the views from Binnein Mor, I descended the knife-edge Alpine crest to the south summit at Point 1062. Sunset was upon me and I chose to bivouac here. Of the three bivouacs I have so far enjoyed in the Mamores, this one was without doubt the finest: an excellent view, a flat patch of frozen ground free of snow, and a wide twinkling expanse of stars to accompany me to sleep. Other than a cold wind that sometimes disturbed me by sneaking into my hood, I slept very well and awoke ten hours later to the dawn.

Onwards! From my high campsite I continued towards Na Gruagaichean. The entire ridge was sharp and exposed, although happily a hard overnight frost had turned the snow to hard ice. In places the slopes to either side were far too steep to offer purchase and I tip-toed along the very crest in my crampons, hundreds of metres of air to either side. It was an exhilarating, sustained Alpine traverse at around F+ standard (a Scottish winter grade would be meaningless under the circumstances).

As I reached Na Gruagaichean, my final Munro of the trip, the skies started to clear and I was treated to an excellent view. All that was left was to reluctantly descend, happy and restored after twenty four hours of silence, wildness, and not another human being in sight.

A quick note on conditions: People have been asking me lately if it's possible to 'get away without winter gear'. Certain hills are definitely doable without axes and crampons, for example Binnein Beag, but generally speaking the bulk of ground above 900 - 950m is still snow covered and ice axe and crampons should most definitely be carried for all trips above this level, even if they may not be necessary in the heat of the afternoon. The snow is iron-hard early in the mornings at present.

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