Thursday, 27 June 2013

Day 55 - Grey Corries to Nevis

25 June

Immense day.

It's crazy how some days the body just ain't feeling great. Others; I just can't stop it. The Grey Corries to Ben Nevis is one of the most amazing high-level routes in Scotland. Each mountain incrementally builds on the last, across the stony crest of the Grey Corries, up the immense east face of Aonach Beag, across Aonach Mor to the pyramid of Carn Mor Dearg and finally around the Arete to Ben Nevis itself.

At first, I didn't actually expect it would be so good. I was up at 4:20am after a few hours of sleep. After a bleary-eyed breakfast, I headed down to Spean Bridge. Early morning drizzle fell, dull and grey. It didn't seem likely I'd get all these mountains today. But conditions were supposed to be good today, so I parked up behind Spean Bridge at the entrance to the Lairig at the eastern end of the Grey Corries, and began walking in at 6:40am.

I was due to meet Neil and Liam on Carn Mor Dearg after lunchtime, thus the day was 'charged' from the outset. I was walking fast, willing myself just to be up high now, rather than walking in through the valleys. It took a while to reach the Lairig bothy (I left a note in the visitors book), where my route turned up into the hills. I was happy to leave the claustrophobic glens for good.

Stob Ban was the first Munro, a tiny and slender prelude to the immense peaks to come. I headed on and on, always moving, barely stopping, keeping a keen eye on the watch, never letting myself stray too far behind schedule. The slog to Stob Choire Claurigh (#2) was shorter than I'd always remembered it. I took five minutes on top, looking west down the great highway toward Nevis, which in my opinion is one of the greatest of all mountain views. Mountain is layered upon mountain, first the slender, shining Grey Corries, rising, swelling, breaking out in crests and aretes over the Aonachs to arrive at the extreme far end, the monster; Ben Nevis, dark and hunch-backed. It's a hell of a sight.

Grey Corries to Nevis, from Stob Choire Claurigh

I set off along the Grey Corries at a pace, all quartzite blocks, right-angled and sharp-edged to make my ankles twist. (I was wearing trainers...) I jogged the downhills, walked the uphills. Within the half-hour I was on Munro #3, Stob Coire an Laoigh. There was so far still to go, but I felt good. My hope was this pace could be maintained and Sgurr Choinnich Mor (#4) was also dispatched very quickly.

Aonach Beag as a mountain humbles me. I've always felt it rose into that other-level of mountain, above and beyond the norm. It's east face is a geological mess, often streaked in old snow with stone carved into crazy form. The underlying strata here has weathered through to reveal classic wiggly metamorphic (so it seems?) structures on a grand scale. There's a magic you feel simply by being in the presence of these mountains.

The overhanging gully ascent route (see here) was still snow-choked, so I traversed underneath Aonach Beag's east face and climbed via. a grassy gully (by Sgurr a' Bhuic). The grass was damp, so I always kept one hand on the grass in case my flat-soled trainers flew out from under my feet.

I made it to the top of the face without any slippery-grass, death-defying antics as I'd feared. A long walk up the south ridge brought me to the summit, where the Mamores suddenly shrunk and I now felt very high up. Aonach Beag is the seventh highest Munro. It holds cornices better than probably any other mountain - even Braeriach can't compete with the big slobbery cornices that line the summit of this mountain. (And at the end of June, no less.) In general, this year the mountains have held their snow far longer into the summer than is normal.

Tiny people on Carn Mor Dearg. From Aonach Beag. Maybe James?

Aonach Mor was a quick out-and-back up the "runway" - you'll know what I mean when you see this mountain. It's flat topped, with east and west faces sheared off to leave a long thin strip of high plateau. I was happy to get it done, for it left the final two, Carn Mor Dearg and Ben Nevis.

Just a rubbish slippery descent to the CMD col and I was back up the East Ridge, on the phone to mum, which took my mind off the weary legs. Hopping along the arete was amazing, from where I could see Liam, but not Neil at the foot of the Nevis cliffs. And they were looking back up at me! Weary legs took me up onto Nevis. All in all, it's a much more amenable ascent than it would look.

Carn Mor Dearg arete
Summit of Ben Nevis - #8!

On top I met James and Zoe, got a picture on top and scooted straight of down the Tourist Track. At the half-way lochan, I met Neil and Liam who'd been around at the North Face doing film and photography. The drizzly rain forecast didn't materialise, and we walked back down to the Visitor Centre car park in Glen Nevis under sunny skies.

Back to James' place, I discovered I'd walked 35km with 3km ascent. I couldn't have envisaged doing this size of day in the past and still feel fresh by the end. I think the so-called easy days always turn out hard, and the days you worry about, and feel anxious over, turn out to be easy: a recurring theme of this trip.

A great day, that won't be forgotten anytime soon. It had that vibe that the Cairngorms had - they were something beyond and above normal Scottish hills. Unique.

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