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Sgor na h'Ulaidh, the Peak of the Treasure

Submitted by keithlester on 2004-12-05

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27 December 2000 Sgor na h’Ulaidh

After a disappointing trip last month, I waited for some frosty weather before returning to Glen Leac na Muidhe. This time I decided to make an attempt on Sgor na h’Ulaidh, the peak of the treasure. The morning started fine, with a little high thin cloud, but still and very cold. There was no snow to be seen, although the ground was white with the frost. Boggy ground was hard as iron and water seeps had frozen to a treacherous slippery surface. I used the track to gain access to the glen. This took me with little effort to the start of the worn path in less than an hour. After a kilometer or so, the end of the glen came in sight. There was a dramatic coire head-wall, forming the col between the apparently impregnable Sgor na h’Ulaidh and the more approachable Stob an Fhuarain. I thought my choices were limited to making an approach to my target from the right or the left. I decided to put off deciding until we reached the coire.

The closer we came, the more possibilities became apparent. I spotted a couple of likely routes, a zig-zag up some frozen scree into the saddle between the twin summits of this shapely hill, or a stepped gully, with a smear of ice, leading directly to the right-most summit. I chose the gully and headed toward it up a cone-shaped talus covered in short frozen turf. I paused at the top of this to prepare for the ice ahead, crampons, axes and my faithful companion, Smokey, on a shortened tether,

Ice climbing looks easy in a video, but the real thing is a different prospect. The temperature was so low that the ice was very hard and brittle. It was also quite thin, sometimes less than an inch. To get a decent axe placement was tricky, hit too soft and the axe bounced, hit too hard and the ice exploded into tiny fragments. Crampon placement had to be done with a positive stamp, but some of the horizontal ice was even thinner and I slipped on a couple of occasions. Once, I lost both feet and one axe at the same time. The remaining axe placement was a very thin safety margin. I was a bit scared. Leading Smokey made it harder, as she also could not get any grip at all, so we turned out of the gully on the right and began a frightening retreat on very steep frozen turf and rock.

As the gully became wider on the descent, we were forced to traverse ever farther left, on tiny broken ledges, eventually reaching the top of the wall. Looking about us we saw that there was a steep turf route leading up along the right edge of the gully. Now climbing up is much easier than climbing down, so “Plan A” was abandoned for a new plan. We climbed the line of turf for some distance until we reached a rock barrier. This had to be passed by going further right, which put us into new difficulties. We traversed a 4 inch narrow ledge with several hundred feet of drop, but a generous one foot wide ledge of frozen snow at eye level. Hand-holds were initially provided by a good stick of the axes in this snow, but after a couple of paces, it was easier to use the little gap formed at the back of the ledge by previous melting. Soon it was possible to climb onto the wider shelf, but Smokey had to be unceremoniously dragged over the lip.

This done, we were able to scramble another 100ft until we faced a steep climb in a short open chimney. Smokey stepped left onto a sloping ledge, leaving me with the problem of retrieving her into the chimney. As I reached out I saw that she had found a route onto the summit snow-field. I stepped out gingerly, using a generous side-pull hold as a steady and was soon cramponning French-style up the reassuringly hard crisp snow.

This was true adventure climbing, on a hill we had never seen before, with no idea if there was even a route. I don't mind having to change a plan, especially when the climb turns out to be a gem. I think the hill has earned its name, we certainly found our treasure.

We crossed to the second of the twin summits, after looking down a fearsome chasm, which was the gully we had attempted earlier. A short descent took us onto a bealach, Smokey descending twenty or thirty feet faster than she had planned. She stepped onto a frozen weep and slid down a large slab before finding some snow her paws would stick in. She trod more warily after that experience. We continued onto Stob an Fhuarain (translation unsure) then took the wrong ridge. Meaning to return by way of Fionn Ghleann, I should have descended east, then north. I actually went north, then west, ending up in the same glen we had laboriously trodden in the morning. A compass bearing pointed unemotionally to the truth, pity I never checked the bearing before I started down.

Having made the mistake, I was not in the mood for regaining height already lost, so we carried on down to the river and took the water-side path out. By this time, the snow had begun to fall, getting thicker as we made progress down the glen. Frozen bogs are easy to avoid when you can see them, but, covered with a layer of fresh snow they become a serious hazard. I took several tumbles, finally landing heavily on my rucsac when both feet went out from beneath me at once. Too lazy to put my crampons back on, so close to the finish, that's when we are often at the highest risk of injury due to carelessness.

We met strangers at the end of the farm track. A lady was out gathering ice for her G&T’s, and giving her two small children some exercise in the snow. How could I relate my day's experience to her when she asked? "A nice day out on the hill" It seemed a bit thin and pointless, but was all she wanted to hear.

The snow was to continue for much of the night, making our journey home slower than usual. Considering the quality of the climb we got on Sgor na h’Ulaidh, the day was a success.

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