Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Ben Lui and the NE Face of Bidean

Ben Lui

Isolated and largely out of sight from the main road, Ben Lui is one of those mountains that I have rarely glimpsed. Its reputation has grown on me these past few years, most particarly that of its Central Gully, the mightiest classic snow climb in the Southern Highlands. Given my lack of private transport and the relative remoteness of the peak by local standards, I decided that two leisurely days, and a bivvy bag, would be the best approach.

A late start from Tyndrum. As I walked through the forest, tantalising glimpses of the great mountain flashed through the trees: here a soaring ridge, there a stern white wall, or a high pinnacle glittering blue in the hot afternoon sun. Eager for the famous view, I hurried on towards Cononish.

Into the empty strath after the wood, and at last the mountain was revealed in all its grandeur. A huge free-standing peak, two sharp ridges converging on a finely-wrought summit higher in the sky than I expected, and directly beneath, the vast wall of snow and ice up which the Central Gully weaves its way. The view was as inspiring as I had hoped. Ben Lui is perhaps the ultimate mountain south of the Blackmount.

I took my time on the road, stopping for an hour or two at the river to soak my feet and bask in the increasingly hot sun. After climbing the gentle path beside waterfalls to the upper corrie, I quickly found a divine campsite: a comfortable rock to sit on, a soft hollow of grass to sleep in, and a little burn to fill my bottle from only ten yards beneath the snowline.

The night was undisturbed and I slept deeply for ten hours before waking to a marked change in the weather. The day before had been hot and sunny. Today was clagged in, a uniform sheet of grey sitting over the hills at 950m. The hoped-for overnight refreeze had not occurred under this insulating blanket of cloud.

I started up the Central Gully. The snow was damp and soft, but supported my weight; ice axe sank up to the head in the thawing pack. Not quite the perfect Alpine conditions I had hoped for, but it could have been worse and conditions were safe enough, although I was wary of crevasses. After a long grind up the introductory slopes, I started up the gloomy confines of the gully, which proved to contain slightly better snow.

It's a long route! It took me an hour to reach the muggy and slush-bound summit, which sadly did not reward my efforts with a view. Down the northern encircling ridge, in nasty conditions with hard ice alternating with bare scree and huge, yawning crevasses between boulders.

It was only when I had returned to pick up my bag in the corrie, and begun my descent, that the cloud started to break and blue-sky service was resumed! Nevertheless, climbing Ben Lui over two days was a great way to go about it, and I'm happy that I have at last stood upon the summit after years of thinking about it.

Photos from Ben Lui

The NE Face of Bidean nam Bian

I returned to the Clachaig at about five o'clock on Tuesday evening. The weather was still perfect, and after a wash, a change of socks, a quick meal and a pint of ale, I picked up my bag and headed out yet again. My goal was the Lost Valley.

Walking through the gorge at the start of the valley was refreshing in the cool of the evening, and I passed a couple of mountaineers who reported poor snow conditions. Nevertheless, the sky was perfectly clear as I bedded down for the night on the flat strath where clansmen once hid stolen cattle. The Alpenglow on the mighty peaks at the glen's head burned red long after the sun had set, and as I lay down, the narrow slot of sky above me, hemmed in by mountains, glittered with a thousand stars. The Lost Valley is a unique bivouac experience, quite possibly the best place I have slept that has not been a mountain-top.

At 6 am I awoke to find a stiff frost covering me and my kit. The sky was still clear and the snow was iron-hard. Excited, I hurried to pack and strike camp.

I quickly walked to the head of the Lost Valley and onto the small 'glacier' plateau in between the great mountains: Bidean, the Lost Valley Buttress, Stob Coire Sgreamhach. I decided to strike a line directly up the massive NE Face of Bidean. I have been this way once before, discovering a narrow Grade II couloir; this time I chose an easier but more direct line, a straight course from the bottom of the face directly to the eastern summit.

Conditions underfoot could not have been more perfect. Hard ice, warm and dry rock, baking sun. It was indistinguishable from a day in the Alps, including the necessity for glacier goggles and Factor 50 suncream! The view from the summit of Bidean, when I reached it at 9am, was the most stunning I have ever seen it. Every mountain in Lochaber in sharp relief against a cloudless sky.

I descended Coire nam Beith rapidly and began work at 3 o'clock this afternoon. After three days of adventure in the company of giants, it feels like a mundane and ordinary world down here in the glen!

Photos from Bidean

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