Friday, 22 April 2011

A springtime heatwave and a solo Lochaber Traverse (posted by James)

Half-way through the Lochaber Traverse.

The Lochaber Traverse, 22/04/11

6 years ago, and I'm an unfit teenager starting to get ideas about starting hillwalking "properly". I open a Trail magazine for the first time, and the first thing I see is an article about The Lochaber Traverse.


It caught my imagination there and then - a walk of about 20 miles over 7 of the highest and finest Munros in Scotland, ending up on the summit of Ben Nevis. Starting near Spean Bridge, taking in the Grey Corries, the Aonachs, Carn Mor Dearg and the Ben itself. At the time it was an impossible undertaking for me, or at least one which would have taken about 3 days with wild camping.

Although I've been fit enough for about 2 years to think about doing the Lochaber Traverse as a "one-dayer", yesterday was the first time I've actually got around to attempting it. And what an amazing day I had...

It had been a crazily busy night in the Clachaig on wednesday night, and by the end of the day I'd been rushing around at work for 11 hours. Despite this, I simply couldn't waste the opportunity to get out and try it on my first day off during this rare Highland heatwave! I wanted to start very early in order to avoid the heat of the day for as long as possible, so at 3am I found myself driving towards the start of the Grey Corries ridge, down the track from Spean Bridge.


At first I thought it was going to be one of those days when the MWIS forecast was completely wrong, as I was greeted by rain just as I got to Fort William. Not ideal for the day I had planned…so I slept in my car for an hour to see if the rain would clear. Thankfully it did, so i started to make the long trudge up the flanks of Stob Coire Claurigh, the first Munro of the day.

Old snow patches on The Grey Corries ridge

The Grey Corries ridge is a truly wonderful place, and a brilliant way to start the traverse. It has a rather different feel to it to anywhere else I know in the Highlands, and i'm told it reminds many people of hill ranges in Norway. I've done the Grey Corries traverse twice, and both times I've been enchanted by the semi-Arctic atmosphere that find yourself engrossed in.


Standing on the summit of Stob Coire Claurigh, the scale of the undertaking started to become clear. Ben Nevis had briefly appeared in the distance through the haze, and it looked tiny. I had many, many miles of boulders, rocks, ridges and snow to cross.

So I set to it. Stob Coire an Laoigh seems to pass very quickly as the second Munro of the day, and just I reached this summit I struck gold with the weather. The fog and cloud started to clear, and within the space of half an hour I was left with beautiful blue haze and sunshine. I was moving very quickly across the Grey Corries, and as I headed towards Sgurr Choinich Mor (3rd Munro of the day) I was feeling fit and strong. It's amazing what some sunshine does for the soul! But I was starting to become aware of the heat behind the sun…even at 10am I could feel it starting to pleasantly toast my skin.

Sgurr Choinich Beag next, and surely one of the best summit views in the West Highlands. Looming gigantic ahead is the vast East face of Aonach Beag, still snow-filled, and through the haze looking Alpine in scale. This majestic mountain face and the corrie beneath is one the wildest and most beautiful places I've ever been.
Haze and sunshine on Sgurr Choinich Mor

The summit of Sgurr Choinich Beag can be seen as a turning point in the Traverse, as this is where things become far more difficult. A descent and very steep re-ascent of about 500m is in order, and by no means through easy terrain…the ridge up to Aonach Beag is steep, unforgiving, and quite hazardous in places. And it was here for the first time that I started to feel a little in the way of fatigue.


Moving on to the summit plateau of Aonach Beag, and I could start to feel the back of my neck really starting to get the sun. I was also starting to feel constantly thirsty no matter how much I drank, so I deliberately slowed my pace slightly.

Although i'd been coming across snow patches for the entire length of the Grey Corries, Aonach Beag was the first summit on which I actually had to walk through snow. And as for the remaining cornices…all I can say is that they are gigantic. I find this time of year fascinating as the highest mountains take on some of the characteristics of the Alps, with crevasses appearing in the snowpack and the associated hazards.
Sgurr Choinich Beag

On to the dull and disappointing summit of Aonach Mor, my least favourite of the local mountains. It was here that I started to realise how much effort the last two summits (Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis) would really be…

Trudging snow on Aonach Beag's summit

The descent to the col between the Aonachs and Carn Mor Dearg is truly brutal, on a "path" which seems to have exaggerated gravity - nothing you stand on stays firm, and I couldn't wait to be down and going up-hill again. That having been said once I started the re-ascent up to Carn Mor Dearg I changed my mind…



It's safe to say that I hit something of a wall on the climb up to Carn Mor Dearg, and I experienced something I haven't been used to for the last year or so…getting very out of breath and having to stop fairly regularly. Needless to say it was a relief to reach the summit, and of course to be rewarded by the forever breathtaking view of the North face of Ben Nevis.

The huge face of Aonach Beag

Now I was tired, very tired. I spent a while actually sitting down on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg, which I rarely do, before starting the famous areté over to Ben Nevis. I enjoyed the areté as it is fairly level, and it passes through some of the most impressive scenery outside of Skye.
But the last haul up to Ben Nevis…wow it was hard work. It is fairly difficult terrain anyway, boulders all the way, but my heart was pounding and I simply couldn't catch my breath. I had to stop quite a few times.

Two walkers silhouetted against the North face of Ben Nevis

So it was with huge relief that I finally topped out and earned the final reward - the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest point in the British Isles and the crown to one of the most famous and beautiful mountains in the world. The final reward - Ben Nevis

I found a boulder to sit down on, sent a few texts, and then made the descent down the endless zig-zags into Glen Nevis for several pints of pepsi in the Ben Nevis inn.


A very black Tower Ridge seen from the summit of the Ben

So, a successful solo Lochaber Traverse at last. To look at now from the perspective of someone who has actually done it, I can say I think it does deserve its reputation as a genuine big challenge for hillwalkers. Obviously it is tiny compared to the epic fellrunning adventures such as the Ramsay and Tranter Rounds, but for mere mortals it is a very big day. I can genuinely claim to have very good hill-fitness, and I found the last few miles very tiring. But wow…what an amazing day! Days like this remind me that I live in one of the best of places.


James

p.s A big thank you to my friends Jessica Stewart and Dave Arkley from Glencoe for giving me much appreciated lifts in their cars to make a solo traverse possible. Thanks guys :-)

5 comments:

  1. Well done James. A super post with great pictures. A grand course indeed. Plus the added bonus of no midges.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Brilliant stuff James (I came across this through Hendrik Morkel's week in review). I've been eyeing up the Lochaber Traverse for a while now and your post has definitely further whetted my appetite. It looked like you had a brilliant day for it, despite the energy sapping heat. Some excellent photos and a very informative narrative. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Stephen! What a great day...and as you say with no midges. Roll on the next challenge!

    ReplyDelete
  4. James, many congratulations on your solo traverse, and many thanks for the report and the pictures. I am aiming to do the Traverse with some friends in June next year. I am curious about the start of the route; just how far can you "drive in" and where did you park? Ideally I'd like to get dropped off but if we need to leave a car and collect it later, is there somewhere safe to leave it all day, without aggravating the landowner? I have read references to one or more gates that may - or may not - be locked, but I am not sure where the gates are! Anyway, any local advice you can give me on this would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance, Evan

    ReplyDelete
  5. I set off to walk the Lochaber Traverse on 8 June with my son, my brother and 5 friends. We had fantastic weather as you can see in our walk report at Walkhighlands - http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=33235 A great day out in the high hills, and one I would not have completed without the encouragement of my 17 year old son; it was great to complete this together as father & son.

    In the end we got a taxi in up the track past Corriechoille Lodge to where there is a parking place for several cars (NN 255 788). There was one gate to open and no sign of a lock. The track is a bit rougher beyond Corriechoille Lodge, but not too bad, and James our taxi driver fairly hammered along it in his fully-laden 8-seater taxi.

    Thanks again for your report which helped me a lot in planning our walk.

    ReplyDelete