Hard going on Conival with inadequate gear

Winter day on Conival in the North-West Highlands, proving the point that micro-spikes aren't up to the job in winter on Scotland's mountains !

Having kept an eye on the forecasts, I was looking for some decent mountains to do a bit of running on. Based in the Cairngorms for the week, the high mountains here were embalmed in a thick covering of snow and ice. Further north-west conditions I guessed would be much more favourable to fell-shoes and after a quick squiz on the available webcams and weather I got my kit together and drove north.

Ben More Assynt and Conival were the Munros favoured for today, around an hour and a half's drive away. Heading north, Ben Wyvis had a fair covering of snow as did Cona Mheall, Beinn Dearg and An Teallach, but changing direction at Ullapool and now looking north, little snow was to be seen. In fact, Stac Pollaidh and Suilven were completely snow-free with just a dusting on some of the slightly higher peaks like Cul Mor and Canisp. Descending down to Elphin, Conival and Ben More Assynt are the mountains in full view - and they were covered in snow - no problem, I had my ice-axe and micro-spikes !

At the car-park at Inchnadamph, I parked, my Land Rover was the only vehicle there. It was a glorious day, blue skies, sun beaming down - I had forgotten my sunglasses and sunscreen ! Off we (me and my dog Charlie) jogged, up the good track, past the house (saying hello) and onto the path meandering up Gleann Dubh. As the path changes direction at around 300m, we hit our first patches of snow - nice and soft, nothing to be concerned about. Higher up, more snow and getting firmer. Nearing the col, my Inov8 Mudclaw fellshoes with their aggressive gripping soles began to lose grip, so on with the micro-spikes and out with the ice-axe. Charlie's in-built crampons helped her claw her way uphill. Onto the col at around 750m, the views opened up - simply stunning with Ben Klibreck and Ben Hope laid out before us to the north and east.

Progress up Conival's north-west ridge was interesting to say the least. The ground had a layer of neve, ontop of which was hard-pack windslab, ontop of which rime-ice that had grown facing into the easterly wind. My micro-spikes weren't managing to get a good grip - they disturbed the rime-ice but couldn't really puncture the hard snow and ice underneath. The ice-axe was getting well used ! The quartzite pavement nearing the summit was completely buried by ice and snow, making what was a very familiar mountain to me feel slightly un-nerving (I'd been up here 17 times before).

On the summit, the views were amazing and a fine consolation to the Beinn Dorain white out a few days eartlier. Lots of photos taken, then decision-time - Ben More Assynt or return ? The ridge between Conival and Ben More Assynt twisted its way directly infront of me. The snow and windslab had been blown up creating cornices and crests in an inconsistent form. I knew I wasn't kitted out for this, but it still took quite a firm talking to myself to convince me. If I had crampons, this blog entry would be very different, but I only had micro-spikes and a slip, which given the loose rime-ice, would be most likely and have serious consequences. I about-turned.

It's hard making a decision to curtail a day on the mountains, but once it's done, the pressure is lifted and you can relax. Well, when about turning, I thought I could relax - but descending the ridge was quite tricky, some of the way required facing into the hillside using ice-axe for purchase. It wasn't until reaching the col that I relaxed. Some of the descent from here was a delight, bounding down soft snow and back into Gleann Dubh.


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