Some early snow and sub-zero temperatures presented an opportunity for some rare pre-Christmas winter mountaineering this year on Arran, so last Wednesday Darryl Urquart-Dixon (of MRT & Balmichael) and I decided we would attempt a winter traverse of A’ Chir Ridge. Having completed the ridge often in warmer clines we knew the route well and fancied our chances in winter. Obviously the gear differs in winter, notably with crampons and axes. I wondered whether Messrs’ Douglas, Campbell, Gibson, Robertson, Fleming and Dr Leith completed the first traverse of A’Chir Ridge on 30th January 1892 in similar conditions - certainly, they had hob-nail boots, woollen socks and tweed, not crampons, multi-layered Gortex and Down jackets!
Without a cloud in the sky we were walking up Glen Rosa enjoying the Sunrise lighting up the summit of Beinn á Chliabhain in silver-white rays, pink fell upon Goat Fell and orange on Cir Mhor. By 9 a.m. we arrived at Coire Buidhe with Cir Mhor’s ‘South Ridge Direct’ lit up above us. We pressed on to join the saddle at 591m where we prepared ourselves for the ridge. Despite the -5°c temperature, perhaps -15 with wind-chill factor, we marvelled at the most breathtaking views across our Western hills and beyond to the Paps. It was a winter wonderland - a carpet of snow from where we stood to as far as we could see, only interrupted by the still icy blue waters of the Sounds of Kilbrannen and Jura. We started to gain height toward the top of the first buttress at about 9.30 a.m. creating the first foot steps in the virgin snow as we went (pic1).
(pic 1/David Lilly ascending 1st buttress North end A’ Chir Ridge)
So far so good, but that soon came to an end. We arrived at the first down climb into the gully that leads to the Mauvais Pas section. In the summer this is an easy scramble but in these conditions we needed to abseil. The first abseil to a horizontal ledge went fine (pic 2). For the second abseil we slung the rope around a conical spike of rock at the far end of the ledge to traverse down the face of the wall below. I remained attached to the rope at the spike belay so Darryl could abseil in safety. I followed, edging my way off the ledge but was unable to guide the rope through a crack, as Darryl had, to keep me close to the face. With the rope running around the outside of the wall I felt myself being pulled away from the face and toward the 100m drop below. At this point the rope started to rise up the spike and with no-one on the belay I was in severe danger had I continued (pic 3), so I climbed up and fixed a new belay, from which I could suspend a Scottish Prop Forward, and made my way down. Any passers-by please note; the 8ft sling and Simond Karabiner on a jammed-rock are mine!
(pic 2/Darryl Urquart-Dixon 1st abseil off buttress 1)
(pic 3/David 2nd abseil off buttress 1)
Nerves in check I readied for the bicycle step chimney, the first part of the ‘Mauvais Pas’ section. Darryl led in his usual voracious fashion, whilst I followed by gentler means only to find again that this ridge in winter shares none of its summer hospitality. Snow and haw-frosted rock aside, I managed to get my right crampon stuck in the chimney and had to lower myself down on one axe to lever it out with the other, then haul myself up until I could get some purchase with my feet. I sat on the 1ft wide ledge looking down the 50m sheer face below thinking how utterly useless I felt. I blethered on about summer sun, vertical hot granite walls, sticky rock shoes and how I was made to go up; not down, sideways and in holes with unforgiving crampons on my feet! Darryl - in his element said; “I don’t do all that fancy dancing about on rock stuff, this is my kind of climbing!” And with that, off he went up the ledge to the next belay under the vertical section (pic 4).
(pic 4/Darryl moving up Mauvais Pas Ledge)
As I arrived at the belay, enjoying the exposure, Darryl asked if I was going to lead my usual bit. Absolutely; it was a perfect almost vertical climb up good rock with a few cracks for solid gear placement to protect me on the way. Clearing the snow out of the seams and flakes with my axe, about half way up I placed a good Cam (pic 5) and then continued up to the top to body belay Darryl behind me. As soon as he arrived, looking at my Cheshire grin, he knew I’d redeemed myself.
(pic 5/David leading the climb from the Ledge to the Mauvais Pas section)
Ahead, we crossed the ‘Mauvais Pas’ (Bad Step) with an abyss either side of the 1ft wide hole, as we approached the chimney leading up the third buttress. We cut our way up the steep 20m chimney, which often wet through summer, was surprisingly void of ice. Instead, unconsolidated fresh snow often gave way under foot and the quartzite rich granite in this section broke repeatedly under the lightest axe placement (pic 6). With little gear placement possible, it became hard work for both of us and at the top we could see our hands trembling with adrenaline from our battle with this unforgiving pitch.
(pic 6/Darryl working hard to lead the Mauvais Chimney pitch onto the 3rd main buttress)
We continued up the ridge toward the summit taking lines as conditions dictated, forgetting our prefixed ideas about the the route from previous summer experiences. Topping out at 745m we considered our options seated in a wind free hole at the summit whilst tucking in to our lunch and some much needed hot brew. At 2.30 p.m. we agreed to call it a day, we were both wearier than expected at this point and needed a further 1&½ hrs to complete the remaining ⅓rd of the ridge plus the down time. We took an exit route Darryl had previously used with Mountain Rescue which leads to an outcropping crag directly East of the summit, from where we looked back at our work on the Ridge (pic 7), and then descended 300m down the northern slope to Corie Buidhe.
(pic 7/A’ Chir Ridge, east facing Mauvais Pas section with line of route, and the top of Glen Iorsa below to the west)
To remind us of how our day started out, we were just down in time to see a different array of colours as the sun set the mountain tops ablaze with crimson. We didn’t feel beaten by the ridge, we felt privileged, perhaps accomplished to have achieved what we did on our first winter attempt. With this experience, no doubt we will be back to complete it another day, hopefully on some harder snow to assist progress. A’ Chir Ridge (Nth-Sth) in winter is possibly a Grade III or IV depending on conditions and a long haul; possibly a 5-6hr traverse with good snow and weather conditions, plus the 4hrs to walk in and out. A high level of endurance is a must and it bears no resemblance with the nature of the route in summer!