Thursday, 20 January 2011

Mist and magic on Ben Lui




There are some mountains in the Highlands that stand above all the others--sometimes literally, in the case of Ben Nevis, but more often in an aesthetic sense. These are peaks with character, reputation, history; they are noble in shape and furnished with splendid climbs. Their summits, when reached, are places of revelation and beauty. Ben Lui is one of these mountains.

I first climbed it in April 2010, taking a leisurely two days to climb the mountain via the famous Central Gully, including a bivouac in the coire. Unfortunately on that occasion hill fog meant I did not get to enjoy the view from the summit, and the soggy Central Gully didn't quite live up to expectations.

With an excellent forecast and a day spare, James and I decided to make another visit.

The walk in from Dalrigh is long but easy, over a flat farm road. A hard frost overnight had sharpened up the air and cleared the sky; the full moon still blazed down on the hills, painting the snowfields white and the frosty valley bottoms grey. Almost from the very start, we could see our mountain looming, miles in the distance ... at first just suggestions of a mighty form, and then as the pre-dawn light strengthened the mountain was fully revealed. It has a graceful yet sturdy shape, pointed and grand as all true mountains should be. The developing view on the walk-in really adds something to the ascent of Ben Lui, allowing anticipation to build.

James got his full photographic gear out to capture the Alpenglow as it spread over the upper snows, setting fire to the mountain's summit. What an incredible sight it is to watch the early light of dawn wash over the mountain you intend to climb.



Up into the coire beneath the East Face. We had thought about climbing the Central Gully, but a glance at the avalanche debris at the bottom and the cornice at the top suggested this would not be sensible. Besides, the grand jagged ridge to our left looked like a better way to the top, in the sun and with views to enjoy. We started making out way up the couloir to join the ridge.



Underneath a layer of powder snow, the ice was iron-hard and I cut many steps up this initial couloir, enjoying the bite of my boot-nails on neve. James, equipped with crampons, whizzed up to the ridge and started taking photos. When I joined him we continued.



A temperature inversion was beginning to develop, we noticed, and the higher we climbed the better it became. The ridge narrowed, providing some snowy scrambling; at a steep tower we took a wrong turn and I spent some time delicately cutting steps on hard water ice in a chimney, before deciding I didn't have the bottle to climb it without a rope! An easy line on steep snow traversed around this tower, and back in the sun again we continued without further obstacle to the summit.



The summit! Today the top of Ben Lui was a place of breathtaking beauty. Clouds rippled and boiled in every glen, thousands of feet beneath us; the bright sun reflected on the glittering peaks of a hundred mountains in every direction. We attempted to feebly compare it with climbs conducted in the Alps, but the truth is that those precious minutes on the summit of Ben Lui were something quite apart from any other mountain experience of my life.






The effort of the ascent, knowing I had climbed the arete in the same manner that the early men of the SMC did in 1891, felt sweet when rewarded with such beauty. Words cannot quite serve to describe the scene, so I shall allow the photographs to speak for themselves.



Our descent was regretfully made down the other ridge of Lui's armchair form. I had to cut many steps on scoured ice, but in general there was plenty of nice soft snow to sink our heels into. As we descended, and finally began the long walk back to Dalrigh, we constantly glanced back to gain another glimpse of our mountain ... no longer shining with bright morning light, but sleepy and subdued in the bitter evening cold. By the time we reached the car we were tired from our big day out, but happy.

Photo album for today

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