After having arrived at 2100 on the Thursday weary from the road after a reasonably easy (and actually quite short in comparison with the London contingent) 9.5 hour drive we were welcomed by a fine selection of superb curries and table wine, provided by the good Mr, Hughes. A few glasses of wine later and we both turned in as it was a 0500 leave the following morning. We weren’t blessed with the best weather by any stretch this year at Elphin, but if there was a day to attempt an epic it was the Friday. Lunch was prepped, bags were packed and we retired. What felt like half an hour later the alarm went off and we were up, we did the 50 minute drive to the layby near Corrie Halle and jumped out the car both full of vigour and bravado!
We pulled the tags off our new walking poles and treated it like a dress rehearsal for a long Alps day with planning, kit we took and food we ate, the poles became a bit of running joke across the weekend as they were cheap and kept breaking, (which is the most frustrating thing when you have the pleasantries of a wet Scottish winter coming at you at 90mph, but I digress) For the walk in on the path however the poles were a revelation. We slogged up the Shenavall track and broke off a bit early to the right once we caught glimpse of the south east side of Sail Laith’s ridge. Approaching from the east we cut across boggy heather covered terrain and sighed relive when we finally got on the base of the Munro at about 400m.
Taking an abrupt turn north the going did not get any easier as it’s a really horrible bolder field and given the awful conditions there was not enough good snow to pick a line and keep to it. The wind was awesome in its power. We had experienced a bit of it crossing the heather bog to the base of the ridge but once on the ridge it was something else. Having to keep to the windward side on the west due to what was obviously very loaded slope on the east we were in the brunt of it all the way up (the ends of Simon's poles had already started to come off by this point and I thought it was just a faulty pair as mine were fine, it was not until Sunday on Col Bearg when I would realise this smugness was misplaced and mine were just as bad!). When we got to the top (954m) we were still on time to complete the ridge so after some sustenance and tea we soldiered on. Having donned crampons about 50m before hitting Sail Laith summit we were now faced with an awkward walk over partially covered boulders and bad snow conditions. We dropped 40 or so meters and then back up to the second summit at 960m.
On the way up this slope the wind really hammered us with big gusts flinging spindrift and sleet into the air which shot blast the cheeks and exposed flesh, it was just awesome. We couldn’t really see much at the top of the next summit but as we were obviously on the highest point, seconded by reference of the altimeter, we took a fresh bearing and headed off again in the direction of Corrrag Bhuide and the crux of the expedition. The clouds parted for a second and we saw a col below us and a shallow snowy gully up the next peak so took a bearing as we half expected not to see it again until we were on it! We dropped down into a really nice low lying col that had some of the best snow we saw over the whole weekend, the wind chill down here had kept the snow hard and a rocky ledge on the east side of the col just before it dropped off meant some of it was gathering, but not dangerously so, as it was quite flat and wide..
The time was now around 1130 and we said if we got to the top of Corrag Bhuide by mid day that’d give us enough time to tackle the crux/pinnacle section and complete the task in hand. We got to the base of the shallow gully we’d spotted from the adjacent peak and started trudging up it. I had got a second axe out to dagger with but didn’t use it as the gradient was deceivingly shallow and walked up most of it. I got to the top second, here I met Simon who had already taken the next bearing..
Now I’d like to think we’re not the only two that have fallen victim to the next misfortune; interpreting the guide book! “Follow the crest 30m to a terrace (a small path in the summer)” Great, A small path in the summer, indicating its smaller than a normal sized path, thus probably difficult to spot on a summers day!?! What help is that on a winters day, with very limited visibility, and spindrift hitting you in the face at 90mph! It had taken us another hour to get to this point, we’d traversed around the top of a gully and it was obvious the less than average snow conditions were starting to deteriorate further. Due to the objective risks at this point this is where we decided to rope up and set a belay. Simon continued on, dropping down a small section (that might have once been a small path in the summer?!) and up another section (could also have been a small path in the summer!) to try and obtain the ridge proper, which was to our right.
I followed on to have a look and that particular route was not achievable given the conditions so we tracked back down the ‘small summer path’ and set the belay again. After about an hour of looking and trying to get up to the ridge via several routes we did decide to back track because even if we had reached the ridge at this point we were concerned that we’d run out of daylight to finish the rest of the ridge. This was backed up by the deteriorating snow condition. Even in the time we’d been at the base of the pinnacle area the return traverse was getting worse, which was apparent when crossing, snow was now very lose and had retreated quite a way. This was even more obvious by the time we reached the long shallow gully and the wide flat col. The hard snowpack here was now almost gone, exposing the rocks beneath.
Slogging our way back up to the 960m peak we did investigate skirting around the west side to save going up and down again. Upon further inspection to the west was a collection of avalanche prone gullies so we pushed on up to 960m then over to Sail Laith. We were now confident we weren’t going to get caught out by the deteriorating snow any more as it was just the boulder field on the decent of the Sail Liath ridge ahead. We sat down at 954m donned the primaloft and had some lunch. After a brief bite to eat we set off again, Now easily nearing 1500hrs. On the last patch of snow before the decent we saw the tracks of an arctic hare, its tell tail signs of both front paws being side by side and the two rears almost on top of each other. It was snowing, and spindrift was being blown everywhere so they must have been fresh tracks to not yet be covered. Didn’t get to see it though, unfortunately.
The descent and walk to the car was tiresome, the visibility had improved though so we had some great views on the way down Sail Laith’s. When we got back to the car we were wet, exhausted and probably dehydrated but both had beaming smiles on our faces. We stretched out, wrapped up, drank, ate then drove back to the hut, where the right honourably Mr.Hughes had another sumptuous feast waiting for us. We still had an excellent day on the mountain regardless of not achieving the entirety of what we’d set out to do. We also learned a lot; how quickly conditions underfoot can change, the value of making a plan and sticking to it, and most importantly knowing when to turn back! We will return An Teallch!