Decisions, Decisions: Ring of Steall & Bidean nam Bian

A fantastic weekend just gone, summiting another 5 munros along with Wendy Young at Christian Aid as part of her 70 Munros Challenge. Saturday saw a group of 13 of us crossing the wire bridge at Steall on the circuit of the Ring of Steall; a fantastic, if long, day out in the Mamores which incorporates 4 munros and a couple of airy ridges. Given the recent falls of snow, I’d insisted that everyone haul a full winter load of ice axe crampons and big boots – in the event, we didn’t step on snow the entire day, which I’m sure endeared me to the group as they hauled their heavy bags round being passed by various people in skipping along in summer boots!

We had a well-deserved rest on Sunday, then headed south on Monday to tackle Bidean nam Bian and Stob Coire Sgreamhach or, as it became known during the day ‘Ben Screamy’. In the event, an early morning inspection of the planned descent route into Hidden Valley with the other two MLs in the group led us to an early decision to drop the second munro, as there’s a considerable amount of wet snow lying on the eroded chossy descent slope off the bealach at NN150 537. I was keen to make that call at the outset of the day, rather than arrive at the same bealach tired and with the car in site several hours later, and having to resist the temptation to “just chance it”. A few hours later, as we neared the summit of Bidean nam Bian, we could see another group further round the ridge clearly having the weigh the same option at the top of the descent, and taking a lot longer to make their minds up than we had. There was a palpable sense of relief when we eventually saw them head off towards Beinn Fhada and a long, but safer, route home.

A little further on in our own journey and we were faced with another ‘decision point’; a short, but unavoidable, crest of snow blocking our path up the final steep slopes of Bidean nam Bian. Just ahead of us, a couple of axe-less walkers had arrived and were considering their options. It was a nasty wee sting in the tail; on one side of the snowy crest lay a deep imposing gully heading down into Coire nam Beith, while on the other, a steep snow slope lay above a series of rocky outcrops and on into more snow. I got our group to grab a break while I took my ice axe and made my way along the slope, stamping out a trench there and back along the route I wanted people to take. Once I’d returned, I gave everyone a quick reminder about self-belaying with their axe and set up the group with the more experienced and confident folks at the front, and kept anyone who was a bit worried about the exposure close to myself at the back of the group. Before setting off, I had a quick chat with the other axe-less couple who were still hesitating, explaining what we were about to do, and pointing out that if any of the steps broke away in the soft snow, they would be risking a long slide without the means to stop themselves. Thankfully, they were already coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth the risk, and I took a moment to affirm their decision making before setting off across the snow with the group.

I’m always a bit wary of becoming the stereotypical beardy old fart when out on the hill, but walking in sight of Coire nam Beith and Church Door Buttress earlier in the day had led us to reflect on the grim events there in the winter of 2013, when four young hillwalkers lost their lives in a massive avalanche and,  in that context, perhaps it’s excusable to be encouraging another young couple to err on the side of caution and come back to the summit another day. I can’t claim to be a party to the ‘behind the scenes’ deliberations that have gone on since 2013, but there’s certainly been some significant developments in ‘safe travel’ theory and practice since that time. The heart of it lies in good decision making, and there’s an excellent leaflet available from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service or the Mountaineering Council of Scotland which explains the process in some detail. I’d encourage anyone reading this blog to familiarise themselves with it, and get into the habit of following the process whenever you go out; there’s still significant amounts of snow on the higher hills at present, and once it’s gone, it’s no bad thing to practice the skills of ‘reading the terrain’ while your out in the warm days of summer, getting to know what different slope angles feel like, and learning to spot terrain traps above and below on your planned journey.  If you fancy getting out in winter, but want to widen your margin for error while you learn the ropes, why not sign up to a winter skills course at the start of next season, or hire yourself a Winter ML, or MIC, to make some journeys with and learn as you go.