Important things learned on a winter’s walk of Beinn Narnain
My Munro (and Corbett) bagging friend Rob and I had planned a hike for Sunday. We did eventually reach the summit of a Munro but not without a lot of decision-making behind the scenes. I thought it would make an interesting blog to reveal how we started with a plan for a Corbett on Loch Tay, only to end up bagging Beinn Narnain in the Arrochar Alps.
It’s good to be flexible
Earlier in the week, the weather looked promising for an ascent of Creagan na Beinne, south-east of Loch Tay. Rob says he is not bagging Corbetts after compleating a Munros round but I am pretty sure he is. 😉
I was happy to hike any mountain and I let him choose where he wanted to go.
But the day before the hike we looked at the forecast again and the weather was going to be very cold and windy. As it turned out, on the day there was a new dump of snow as well.
So we made a decision to head to the west side of the country where the forecast looked a bit better.
When it comes to mountain walking, especially in Scotland, it’s a good idea to be flexible with plans rather than pushing on regardless and ending up not reaching a summit or, worse still, in danger.
It might not be calm at the top
At the car part where most people start a hike into the Arrochar Alps the weather seemed surprisingly mild and calm. We both remarked on how fine it was and we set off wearing far less layers than we normally would for a winter’s hike.
Thankfully, we were smart enough to stow these spare layers in our rucksacks.
As we climbed the steep and winding track to the higher glen of the Arrochar Alps we became even warmer – and we each shed another layer. We wondered if the weather forecast for winds at higher altitude were completely wrong.
Strolling along the glen, it remained strangely calm and by then Rob had taken off his gloves off and I was down to my liner gloves. (This only happens to me in summer usually!)
Yet we met people walking in the opposite direction who told us they had turned back due to very strong winds. One man warned us to remember that walking back down the glen with a headwind would be a lot harder than walking up. Between us (and out of ear shot) we questioned if his assessment of the conditions would be the same as ours. After all, we all deal with the cold and wind in different ways.
But then we suddenly understood. As we reached the furthest point of the high glen, before turning up on to the slopes of The Cobbler or Beinn Narnain or striding out towards another Munro, Beinn Ime, we were blasted by the coldest and meanest wind that I have felt for a long time.
The glen had turned into a wind funnel and several strong blasts knocked me to my feet.
Then, as I pulled on my crampons, I only just caught my rucksack lying next to me as it was pushed along the the icy snow by another strong gust of wind.
But worse was to happen. Although I had been very carful to keep hold of my down gloves as I fitted my crampons, a tiny lapse of attention saw one of them lifted up by the wind. I could only watch I horror as it flew at high speed over the snow and into the far distance. I tried to look for it but I doubt it will ever be seen again.
This left me very alarmed because I suffer with Raynaud’s and without a down glove I would be highly likely to suffer frostbite. By this point my fingers has already turned white.
Thank goodness that Rob had packed extra gloves. I normally have a spare pair of warm gloves with me but I had packed in haste and forgotten to add them to my rucksack. (Another lesson learned.)
I asked Rob if he thought it might be safer to return back to the car like so many other people in the Alps that day.
The lesson here is that the weather can be very different at altitude compared to the start of a walk.
Take time to assess the current situation
We looked at where the wind was coming from. We discussed what would be the best plan. Rob was clear that if I wanted to head back to the car that was fine with him. We would stick together.
However, I was keen to see if there was a route upwards. We considered a route up the side of the Corbett, The Cobbler. But this was a steep ascent and fairly open to the strong winds.
We watched as a group of clearly inexperienced people attempted to climb this slope of the Cobbler. They were wearing crampons and carrying ice axes but they were struggling to make even the smallest of headways.
Walking across to Beinn Ime would have been just about okay on the way out but the return walk, the same way, would have been torture with a strong head wind.
Then we realised that the western access slope of Beinn Narnain would be largely sheltered from the worst of the winds. We decided, between us, that we would start this ascent and see how it went.
I confess I was less than enthusiastic because it was very cold and windy and my hands were still chilled but I always prefer to try to make an ascent. I knew that the effort of the up would boost my circulation, too, which would be good for my hands.
As soon as we started up the slope we realised we made a good decision because the wind largely dropped off.
Assess the situation as you go
While the wind had lessened, the slope was covered in snow and ice. We discussed the conditions at almost every 50m of ascent, chatting about avalanche risk, snowdrifts, ice and direction. At times the clouds swirled around us to make route finding difficult so we made sure we stayed within sight of each other.
We walked and stopped, chatted about the route choice and then walked on again. It was very much a collaborative assessment of the route and I was grateful that Rob was as keen as I was to discuss the situation.
We made it clear to each other, too, that if one of us felt uncomfortable at any point we would stop and return.
Take spare kit
As I mentioned above we needed spare kit. The wind at higher altitude was very cold and we required extra clothing layers, as well as ski goggles and a wind-proof cover for our faces.
Warm gloves were essential and I was thankful for fleece base layers and waterproof over trousers. I will never again leave the house without an extra pair of warm gloves.
Winter kit – plus adequate skills
Most people know about the need for crampons and ice axes. We also carried snow shoes, walking poles and mini spikes for our walking boots. Mini spikes are useful when there is a thin layer of ice on the ground, whereas crampons are best for thick ice and snow.
Snowshoes works well in deep, fluffy style snow.
But there is no point in having all this kit if you have no idea how to use it. Rob and I watched as a group of three people tried to ascend a snowy slope on The Cobbler. They lacked the skills needed to stay safe and more than once, one of the group slipped dangerously downhill.
The way to learn about winter kit and skills is to go out with a more experienced friend or to book a winters skills course.
Of course, accidents do happen in the winter mountains. Earlier this winter my friend Yvonne slipped on icy rocks on the path up to the Arrochar Alps and broke her wrist. At the weekend a woman was stretchered off The Cobbler with a suspected broken ankle.
However, if you attempt to climb a winter mountain without good knowledge of how to use your winter kit – for example, how to walk in crampons and how to arrest a fall with your ice axe – you are asking for trouble. It was really worrying to watch the trio on The Cobbler on Sunday.
The rewards of a summit
Rob and I had told ourselves it didn’t matter if we made it to a summit or not. We simply wanted to get out and enjoy the winter mountains. However, it is always very uplifting to safely overcome the obstacles to reach a mountain top – and we were delighted to finally make it to the top of Beinn Narnain.
It is important to learn how to cope in different situations and to test yourself. We both felt we had learned valuable lessons on this winter’s outing.
We also enjoyed some amazing views every time the clouds lifted – and, at the summit, Rob pulled off the best Man Leg pose I have seen to date!
It’s worth listening to others
We descended Narnain the same way as we had ascended – and then headed back along the glen. We recalled how surprised we were to see people battling a headwind and still wearing full face cover, including goggles, as we had made the hike up the glen earlier that day.
It was the same for us! For a long while we kept on our goggles on and full face cover. The tailwind on the outward walk had fooled us into thinking these other people were being over cautious and sensitive.
In fact, the head wind was extremely cold and strong and I reminded myself that it is always worth listening to other walkers as you go about the mountains.
- Many thanks to Rob for the photos in this blog. My phone did not cope well in the cold and decided to not take photos.