Climbing in the Dark - Beinn Bhan

While 'The Beast from the East' was creating havoc for much of the country I managed to escape out west for a few days. Specifically to the area around Loch Carron, aptly dubbed 'God's Country' by my Dad many years ago. On the first day I was treated to a bit of an epic.

Dave G had a friend up from England, Pat, and after a successful day on Ben Nevis they were planning on having a look in at the awe-inspiring ramparts of Beinn Bhan. They kindly told me that should I wish to make the journey across the country that I was welcome to join them. I had been on the mountain once before a few years earlier having a go at the A'Chioch traverse but a late start and poor snow conditions had turned me back. The impressive architecture and constant spindrift avalanches had left a lasting impression on me and I was keen to return. Thus, I found myself sleeping beside my car in a layby at the start of the Bealach na Ba road.

Approaching the Corrie

We started off at 6am and headed towards Coire na Poite. Beinn Bhan holds some very impressive corries. Big glaciated bowls bounded by steep terraced walls which in the right conditions, form the largest icefalls in Scotland. The routes these terraces form are much sought after as they don't form all too often and are for the most part, long and serious propositions. Before long we were at the foot of the back wall of the corrie assessing our options. Pretty much everything was in condition and we were the only team in sight. We elected to go for a routed called 'Wall of the Early Morning Light' that takes a meandering line up the back wall. Taking a start further right where we seen an icefall up the initial terraces that we fancied, the route then would traverse left and up another icefall before traversing left again to gain a gully system that would lead us up to the cornice. It looked long but conditions appeared excellent and we felt we were up to whatever it could throw at us.

Approaching the Face

Dave lead the first pitch which was fantastic water ice. I led the next two up to the first terrace. the ice was great and took solid screws. We traversed left for a few rope lengths and made for the next icefall. by the time we reached the base I was losing count of the pitches, perhaps 6 or 7 at this point. I led through along a steep traverse aiming for the centre of the icefall when a chimney appeared. It looked hard although I was sure it would go, it had drawn my interest and placing a screw at the bottom I started on up. Both my suspicions were correct, It was hard but it would go. Hardest Ice I've climbed and not overly well protected placing only one more screw. Despite its verticality there were good axe placements to be found and enough ice and edges for my feet that I was able to keep my weight off my arms for the most part so relatively securely inched my way up. Emerging out the chimney, I was starting to get rope drag due to the traverse so set up a belay.

A team crossing a frozen Lochan on their way to March Hares Gully

Dave and Pat followed up and Dave led through the next icy wall. I then led through a mixed step. Both were short but bold. We were then on the next terrace and believed the main difficulties were behind us although also aware we had a lot of face to climb yet. As the day had passed more teams had come into the corrie. Some of Dave's friends had headed into March Hare's followed by another team, a couple of climbers were making impressively fast progress on 'Silver Tear', turns out this was the guy that had just broken the Cuillin Traverse record less than a week before. It was getting on a bit and it wasn't too long before we again had the corrie to ourselves.

Things were starting to get a bit serious. Nightfall and the darkness it brings were on our heels and would almost certainly engulf us before we reached the top. We were somewhat unsure just how much route we had ahead of us as well as the nature of the ground, there was also the potential of cornice issues. In any case given our position and the nature of the face, Retreat was not an attractive proposition. No, we would climb on up and deal with the problems of night and route which lay before us.

Dave Leading the First Pitch

After another long left traverse Dave rounded a spur and set up a belay at the foot of a steep gully in mixed condition. I led out the full 60m to an uncomfortable belay and both Dave and Pat led through to another belay. By the time I joined up with them it was pitch black and we had resorted to headtorches. No bright moonlight like the previous night to aid us. When I arrived, Dave said to me in a comical and casual way 'You know Graham, me and Pat were just Discussing. This route is an absolute bastard!' It was some much-needed humour in a somewhat serious situation. Now that it was dark there was no point in rushing. We were tired so to avoid making mistakes we took our time and made sure we were not taking unnecessary risks. We were all thankfully reasonably fit and experienced and knew that there was nothing for it but getting on with job in hand. Dave also took this moment to contact his friends who had been in the corrie and tell them that we were fine in case they were worried by our failure to return and called out Mountain Rescue.

We were sure we were only a few pitches from the top but could no longer see much of the route ahead. I led straight up steep ground to a loose snow traverse, I didnt fancy it without gear to so set up a belay in the rock band above. Dave done well to lead it and then a difficult step before he brought us up to him. We now were sure we were in the upper reaches. I headed off on another full 60m with only a couple of runners up Steep Broken Neve to another uncomfortable belay. The final snow slope and cornice was in sight. Dave led through and made short work of the firm cornice then disappeared from sight. Me and Pat then had to spend 10 minutes sorting the ropes before I could finally set off.

The slope and cornice was thankfully solid neve and one by one we emerged from the darkness onto the summit. I couldn’t resist doing my usual and pointed out that the lights we were seeing to the west were probably Portree but strangely no one could care less! I took a bearing to keep us right and we headed down the southwest ridge picking up crampon tracks for much of the way. eventually we walked into the layby at 2330, 17 and a half hours after setting off. 

We later worked out it had taken us a massive 18 pitches and probably around 12 hours on the route. For all three of us it was one of the longest and serious days we'd had in mountains anywhere yet despite the range and variety of difficulties we were presented with we were never out of our depth and were ultimately successful. Not a day we will be forgetting in a while though.


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