After a fantastic, if slightly overindulgent Christmas, it was time to burn off the Christmas pudding! Armed with one of my lovely presents for inspiration: The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland (by Guy Robertson and Adrian Crofton), Katy and I headed up to the Cairngorms on Boxing day and were blessed with some great conditions. We stayed at the Newtonmore Hostel, which is a great, friendly little place. We planned to go climbing in the Northern Corries if conditions were good. Dry-tooling at Dunkeld was the backup plan if they weren’t! We hit the jackpot. It was persistently cold for three days and we were lucky enough to be there on Monday (29th December) which was calm and clear.
The Great Mountain Crags of Scotland (Robertson & Crofton 2014)
With the snow line down to around 600 metres, there were plenty of skiers out enjoying the conditions as well as climbers and walkers. We visited the Northern Corries and had a trip into Coire an Lochain as well as Corie an t-Sneachda. Both corries were in good condition, with plenty of snow in the gullies, rime ice on the buttresses and well-frozen turf. There wasn’t a great deal of water ice around, although the reliable Aladdin’s Mirror Direct was in condition and saw ascents by a few teams.
Katy walking into Corie an t-Sneachda on Monday (29th December)
Climbing in the Cairngorms is quite different in style to many other areas and is well known for its quality mixed climbing. There are also crags such as Hells Lum which offer ice climbing when the conditions are right. Being a high plateau and well inland, the conditions here can be more reliable when more westerly counterparts are out of condition. The crags we visited are relatively accessible with approach times between 1 – 1.5 hours. As a result, they can be very busy! However, there are several bigger and more remote cliffs within the National Park for those looking for routes off the beaten track with a bigger and more remote feel. There are also numerous bothies and shelters for those planning multi-day trips.
The other significant and almost permanent feature of the Cairngorms is wind! The high plateau forces air up and over, and with little to slow it down it can see very high wind speeds. Over 100 mph is not uncommon! Cairn Gorm summit is home to the highest wind speed recorded in the UK. On the 20 March 1986 it measured 173 mph. This can make travel almost impossible and also means that the snow is continuously being moved around by the wind. Large cornices can form on corrie rims, as well as huge accumulations of snow (windslab) often forming in sheltered areas. These accumulations can pose significant avalanche risk and must be carefully assessed to avoid getting caught. It is, however, a unique and superbly challenging environment in which to test oneself.
Wind transporting snow on Cairngorm plateau.
On our first day, we went into Coire an Lochain with a view to climbing the classic Savage Slit (V,6). We set off early and took our time on the approach. Setting off from the Corie Cas car park, we walked into the gloom. Although the corrie is quite large, it is around 3.5 km away and requires some navigation to get there. Walking in a southerly direction, climbers sometimes head a bit too far West and find themselves in Lurchers gully, or like a team, we bumped into when we got there.. on the plateau!
This was the first winter climb of the season for both of us, and it’s fair to say we were both a bit clunky! We abseiled off and headed back down to a warm fire in the hostel with Katy mildly hypothermic! The Second day we went into Corie an t-Sneachda. When we got there we went up to the start of the classic Fingers Ridge (IV, 5) which had a team setting out on it. After some deliberation and not wanting to get too cold again, we went up Red Gully which is a pleasant grade II/III to the right. We eventually made our way back down the Goat track and had a bite to eat next to the stretcher box. The crag was mobbed, and never a big fan of queues we bid our retreat.
We went back into Corie an t-Sneachda one last time on Monday morning and managed to get on Fingers Ridge, and were followed by a couple of teams which made for good craic! We took our time walking off the top and down Fiacaill a Choire Chais, savouring the breathtaking views. Sadly it was time to go, and we both left in anticipation of the next trip which hopefully won’t be too far away!