The new normal

Wednesday July 29th 2020

Beinn a’Beithir

Munros since diagnosis #188 and #189

13:30 – Sgorr Dhonuill (M137), 3284ft, 1001m

15:15 – Sgorr Dhearg (M107), 3360ft, 1024m

Even before I had started writing my last blog, Martyn phoned to remind me that after several months of strict lockdown, he and Col the dog would like very much now to get up a Munro or two. He added that the weather in Glen Coe was expected to improve during the course of Wednesday, when he would be free. I said I felt well recovered from my trip to Beinn Dearg the previous week, so would think about it seriously and get in touch, suggesting the peaks above Ballachulish as a possibility. After no more than a minute or so thinking about it, I sent him a message saying I looked forward to the opportunity to keep my legs moving. It seemed like a good idea to build up a bit of mountain fitness and to reacquaint myself with the heights of Glen Coe. Time too to work on the new normal, or perhaps take advantage of this brief hiatus before further lockdowns are announced. Either way, no better way to prepare than making regular no-nonsense journeys north to climb unbagged summits. We agreed to meet at the usual place.


The mountains of Lochaber, Glen Coe and Etive are steep-sided and often pointy, with many airy ridges, cliffs and crags. Paths up them start not much above sea level, they are precipitous and rough, both stony and boggy. Martyn, Col the dog and I have climbed several of the mountains round here; Bidean nam Bian, the Aonach Eagach, (Col stayed at home for this) Buchaille Etive Beag and Glas Bheinn Mhor. It feels a bit like home territory, so adding Beinn a’Beithir to the list was a natural progression.


There was much discussion about the best route to take. Several possibilities are described in guidebooks and at websites, starting either from Ballachulish village with a direct ascent of either northeast shoulder, or through the forest from South Ballachulish to one of several bealachs along the ridge. After my experience on Ben Narnain last autumn, I did not fancy any sudden direct ascent, so lobbied for the latter.


Despite one or two slow moving vehicles on the road north, our plan succeeded to leave the forestry carpark before ten. We followed the good track gradually uphill into the bowl of Gleann a’ Chaolais in the direction of a massive spur pushing through the skyline of trees. Handy signposts kept us right and offered a choice of which peak to climb first on the circuit. We continued along the track towards Sgorr Dhonuill, still enjoying this gradual ascent and knowing that up ahead there would be much steepness.

IMG_6055This very pleasant walk-in over easy ground got the legs moving again nicely. After a coupe of miles, the track curves round to cross the river and contour back round the other side of the glen. Here the mountain path begins to wend its way through the upper forest, the start of a slow increase in gradient and gradual deterioration of the path. From below it looked as if the final section would be up an almost vertical chute of red gravel. The highest levels of the ridge around the forest were still shrouded in passing cloud.

F78F3ED3-2882-4FF5-AF89-02C613B0FB12The path was actually very good, built according to stalkers’ criteria, with steps and culverts finding a sensible route through old trees along the burn to Coire Dearg, which levels out briefly into a grassy bowl a little beyond the tree line, and after which the real climbing begins. It was a slow mucky plod over slithering grass, loose rock and red gravel. There was a fine drizzle. Near the top the red gravel was less precipitous than appeared, but not much.


Eventually, we emerged into a completely different landscape, round outcrops and dry grassy slopes pocked by larger crags and scree. We sat for first lunch as the clouds began to disperse with a view down Loch Lhinnie to Kerrera, Lismore and Mull.


The ascent of Sgorr Donuill was easy, along a shallow watercourse almost to the summit, with a final cap of boulders and scree, on the other side of which was a gaping chasm into nothingness. On the way, the last clouds flew past and no longer troubled the summits. Despite marvellous views in all directions, I could only concentrate on people climbing up from the bealach to the east along the edge of a gaping chasm into nothingness and promptly had the vertigo wobbles.


So I sat down with my back against the cairn facing the other direction. Col the dog continued to run back and forth in search of dropped bits of sandwich, interesting odours and small rodents, oblivious to the air beneath. Which did not help my wobbliness. For a moment it was a bit busy at the summit. I sat looking towards the south west, trying not to allow vertigo to overwhelm me.


So began the descent to the bealach and the path to Sgorr Dhearg. Initially it was a careful clamber down piles of large boulders through which assorted paths and routes had been scraped by boots and crampons. To the left was a gaping chasm into nothingness. On the way down we met people on the way up, one or two of whom were clearly experiencing similar wobbles to me. When the path levelled out a bit along a ridge to a little spur, I looked back to see a young couple making their way along a thin margin of grass at the very edge of the gaping chasm, and quickly looked away. They are visible in the photograph below.

IMG_6069 (1)

Martyn insists on taking my photograph while I stand as close as possible to edges. I trust he has my best interests at heart and today it helped the vertigo a little, but I could not look back at the young couple above the gaping chasm. He told me they had made it safely to the top. Col the dog continued to rummage about the ground, oblivious to the heights. The way ahead was now clear though and involved no clambering over rocks or traversing airy ridges. And yet the wobbly vertigo feeling persisted.


At the bealach we had second lunch before the ascent of Sgorr Dhearg, which turned out to be a gentle plod up a zigzag path through grass, gravel and scree. At the summit, despite there being no cliffs, nor precipitous edges, the feeling of vertigo returned as I looked towards the continuation of the ridge to the subsidiary peak Sgorr Bhan and along the paths down to Ballachulish, with the Aonach Eagach and Bidien Nam Bian behind and Schiehallion in the far distance.


We sat awhile as I figured out these wobbles. It must be an effect of lockdown, of not having experienced so much air beneath me for such a long time. Vertigo is entirely imaginary. Air does not suck you down. Finding a safe foothold adjacent to a gaping chasm is no different from finding a safe foothold on level ground. The same principles and techniques are involved. Fear arises only in imagined stumblings over remembered or planned landscapes, and is dispersed in the actual care taken at every step to avoid stumbling in this one. Focusing at every moment on this moment and nothing else. Experience teaches that over stable, level ground it is possible to sit back into the flow of a body’s trajectory and to take in the views, down into glens and over ridges of mountains to the sea or towards further ridges of mountains, while legs work according to their own mechanics. Experience teaches also that even over the most stable ground it is necessary always to keep an eye on the path ahead, so that every step is known in advance.


The descent began by returning along the zigzag path to the last bealach and then dropping into the forest on the east side of Gleann a’ Chaolais. Initially it was nowhere near as steep as the ascent on the other side of Sgorr Dhonuill. It was however rather boggy, and as soon as the path reached the limits of the forest, which had been clear-felled some years ago, it became rather more demanding as it ascended again, traversing north above the line of an old fence before picking a route through bleached tree detritus and sterile ground. When eventually, living trees returned we were offered a glimpse of what the previous section of path once looked like. A rich mature forest with a reasonably healthy underbrush which one day will no doubt go the way of the upper section. The views back up the valley were positively Alpine.


Hereafter the descending path became more and more lush and the air warmer. It crossed over forestry tracks once or twice and zigzagged a bit before coming back to the track to the carpark. We arrived at the car before six, taking the time for the circuit to less than eight hours. Not bad for a couple of more mature blokes. We are already planning new journeys into ranges I have yet to visit and to which Martyn is keen to return. If this is to be the new normal, then bring it on!


Many thanks as always to Martyn for excellent company and scary photos.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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