Monday, August 23, 2010

Geal Charn (Drumochter)

Brian on Summit Cairn
Brian on Geal Charn summit

One from the archives to test the water out...

Munro #28

(BTW, all the photos in this report are from my Flickr account. To view them in larger sizes, either click on them or go here to view the entire set)

Up until this year, nearly all my hill days had been undertaken outside of winter. After a couple of short exploratory snow days - Bennachie and Cairn Gorm, I decided that it was time to try something slightly more adventurous. The plan was to head up Geal Charn from Balsporran Cottages and then round onto A'Mharconaich and back down the NE ridge to the car.

Me and Cruicky set off from Alford, and after a hairy drive over a snow-blown Lecht and a rainy trip down the A9, we parked up at Balsporran Cottage. A quick coffee in the car while waiting for a shower to pass and we were off.

A'Mharconaich & Geal-charn

The start of the walk was very boggy and slippy. The stream was in full flow but we got across without incident and the weather threatened to improve as we hit the snow line:

The Drumochter Pass


All was going well, kicking steps in the slope as we gained height. Then we hit the shoulder. Snow turned to ice, the wind picked up and suddenly we were enveloped in a blinding, scouring wave of snow and ice which was ripping over the top of the hill. Annoyingly, we could see that the spindrift was only a few feet higher than us. Progress slowed even more on the verglassed surface.

Finally, after 1 hour and 40 minutes, a cairn emerging from the howling blizzard and we ducked down behind it. To double check in the poor visibility I whipped out my GPS, and after an agonisingly long time waiting for it to start up, saw that we were not on the summit. One quick bearing taken and we found the summit cairn. Brian took some quick summit snap. We both stood still for exactly the time required for the shots - to the 10th of a second and we were moving again:

Graham on Summit Cairn

Brian on Summit Cairn

A joint decision was made to retreat. We both felt that the descent off the back of Geal charn was too risky and neither of us wanted to descend the NE ridge of A'Mharconaich.

Brian took a bearing and we were off. The rocks were ultra slippery. Every step was a sideways skid and the wind had really picked up. Standing still was an impossibility. Stop walking and we were slowly pushed across the ice. The GPS was once again used to double check our position and direction. It's amazing how you can convince yourself that the direction you are walking doesn't feel right and combined with the ice and wind you can end up walking off on a wrong bearing.

Back on the shoulder, things started to deteriorate further, and the blue sky above kept taunting us:


The slope started to steepen as we dropped out of the spindrift and I got my D50 out to grab a panorama:

Badenoch Panorama

Now we had a new problem. The snow which seemed straight forward to kick steps in on the way up had now hardened considerable. It was Russian Roulette trying to dig our heels in on the way down. Every two out of three steps dug in OK but the 3rd would be the one that our boots would hit ice and we were away down the slope at a fair speed. Quite a panicky feeling when things start to spiral out of your control.

Other people were now ascending past us and their attire of crampons, goggles and ice axes really hit home to me that I was on this hill not fully prepared. Deep snow on a calm day on Bennachie and a short jaunt up Cairn Gorm had not prepared me for this type of experience. Dear santa, for Christmas, I would like an ice axe, crampons and some winter hills training.

An hour and 20 minutes after leaving the summit, we were back at the car. I had been outside of my comfort zone and not fully appreciative of what the condition could be like. A short day but an experience that will linger for a long time..


Plumbago said...

Hello stranger. Back on the blog - excellent!

It sounds like you had quite a hairy time with this one. It's interesting to read about your hike, since I'd completely miss any the hair-raising moments from just viewing the photos.

Anyway, I hope that you're able to find the time to blog up all of your remaining munros!

chimpaction said...

Cheers. I'm going to make a concerted effort to try and make this work this time. I've got a backlog of material to put up (and typos to correct I've just noticed)