For the Craggers Scottish winter trip of February 2010 we went to the Loch Morlich youth hostel outside of Aviemore in the Cairngorms National Park, where we have been before but not for at least 3 years, I think. So it was a welcome return to the Cairngorms after a couple of winters in the Lochaber area. As last year we travelled on the sleeper train there and back. The best way to travel – leave London in the evening and wake up in the Highlands.
The whole of Britain was having an exceptionally cold and snowy winter, so the sometimes rather forlorn Cairngorm ski resort was in full swing and walking out on the hill, it was a new experience having to keep an eye out to avoid the snowboarders and skiers zooming towards you.
Our trip was a mix of walking and climbing and we had reasonably good weather (for Scotland in the winter!) for the week. It was brilliant having lots of snow – you could see it metres deep on the bus ride to the ski centre car park.
On the first day (Thursday 4th) after arriving and unpacking, we just had a little walk up the valley to the Ryvothan Bothy and back. The next day we walked up into Coire an Snechda (one of the ‘Northern Coires’ of Cairngorm – bowl shaped valleys with steep back walls famous for their climbing) to see what the snow conditions were like. It was very windy with low visibility so we just did some avalanche tests in the snow and came back.
On the 6th I went for a walk by myself – I didn’t go very far or do anything very ambitious, but it was an interesting different experience being by myself. It was very quiet. I had only myself to rely on for navigation, thus making it good practice I hope, but it also made me more cautious – if you fall over a cliff and you’re by yourself it’s going to be a while before anyone finds you. I walked up to a minor summit, but finding myself in cloud and very low visibility, I backed off and headed back.
On Sunday 7th we went for a big walk from the ski centre up the ridge of Fiacall Coire Cas to the summit of Cairngorm with its fantastically frozen weather station growing giant horizontal icicles and then along around the edge of the coires and back down the ridge. There was very low visibility in cloud up on the top, so we were navigating with map and compass and walking on bearings. At one point I couldn’t see the cliff edge of the coire rim even when I was about a foot away from it. I was walking along using my walking pole to poke into the ground ahead of me to make sure there was some ground, when at one point the pole didn’t hit anything and I realised I was standing on the edge. It would certainly be very easy to walk off the edge in the cloud.
The next day we were back in the northern coires climbing. We climbed ‘The Runnel’, (a grade II winter climb) in Coire an t-Snechda. We came back down the goat track – which in these conditions was a steep snow slope. I was very slow coming down but then charged off when we were back on the flat and led everyone the wrong way out of the Coire, up the side of Fiacall Coire Cas on to very weird slippery frozen ground, that had us all sliding about. This totally scuppered our chances of getting the last bus and it was dark when we finally got to the ski centre car park and managed to hitch a ride back to the hostel.
On the Tuesday we went for a walk from the hostel through the woods and through the Chalmain gap (a dramatic chasm of rock which a main path passes through), which was all full of snow, radically altering its appearance – it wasn’t very deep! We went up Lurcher’s Crag with ice axes and crampons – it had that same weird ice covered in powder snow that we encountered on the side of Fiacall Coire Cas. We turned back at approx 1000m and headed back by the same route because Spanna wasn’t feeling too good.
Climbing again on the 10th and I seconded Red Gully (grade II/III). The III means it has some ice in it – my first real bit of ice climbing – which was great. But I remember thinking as I was climbing it that there’s no way I would ever have led it without a rope above me though! Back down Fiacall Coire Cas.
On our last day we walked up the ridge from the lower ski car park. We walked up on to the summit plateau. We were aiming to find a little valley called Jenny’s Grave to practice some snow skills. We never found it! Despite using bearings and pacings and leap-frogging and the whole gamut of navigational techniques, we wandered around in a disorienting world of white cloud and white snow, never quite sure exactly where we were. Eventually we gave up and dropped out of the cloud by the ski centre and walked back along the ski slopes. It was a weird transition from up on the summit plateau, where you could easily imagine you were in Antarctica – very solitary, isolated feeling and disorientating to the busy ski slopes, with their shops and cafe and car park at the bottom.
It was a pretty good tally for a mere week in the Highlands, where often you can lose half the days to bad weather. I went out and did something every day, and amazingly I didn’t even knacker myself by not having any rest days! Andrew