For the fourth year in a row now I joined my university’s mountaineering club on its annual winter climbing trip to the Cairngorms. It’s my favourite climbing trip of the year. Scotland has a lot to offer in terms of adventurous winter climbing in often pretty extreme weather conditions. Our crag of choice, Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms, is as close as you can get to a roadside winter climbing crag in Scotland, with only about an hour of walk-in.
After a long drive up from London we spent the first evening fitting crampons, sorting out gear and looking at guide books. As always, the members of the club new to winter climbing were put on a winter skills course for the first two days, giving the more experienced members the chance to get back into the swing of things before taking the newbies out for the rest of the week.
The weather was pretty miserable on the first day and unfortunately the strong winds and the poor visibility prompted most of the group to turn back to the cafe in the car park without getting any routes in. Ben and I plodded on to the base of our chosen route (Fingers Ridge), but visibility was so bad that we completely missed the route and ended up on the top of the Goat Track in the back of Coire an t-Sneachda (it’s basically a horseshoe of cliffs with an easy ramp up in the back). We dropped back down and decided to solo up a route called Red Gully (II) instead. The wind kept changing direction and was alternating between blowing snow down the gully and up the gully. There was a lot of spindrift too, and as I put my head down again to avoid getting a load of snow in my face I couldn’t help but contemplate the odd situation I was in. The weather was miserable, the wind was constantly blowing snow and ice in our faces and I was staring at the white wall of snow only inches from my face as I was waiting for the spindrift avalanche to pass, and yet I was having a great time. I also love the fact that we can be out there and feel completely comfortable in this kind of environment. I really don’t know what it is but winter climbing in particular makes me feel really comfortable and confident (on most days).
After topping out we quickly dropped back down into the corrie as the wind was pretty extreme up on the plateau. Back in the cafe we drew jealous looks from the others as we were the only ones who got to climb anything that day.
On day two we headed straight to the bottom of Fingers Ridge (IV 5 with the final headwall). This route had been on our wishlist for a while, and we finally got to climb it. It was my turn to lead on pitch 2, but unfortunately I went the wrong way for a couple of meters. Another look at the guide book cleared the confusion and after an exciting downclimb I was back on track. The route was under a lot of powder and I couldn’t quite find enough gear to feel completely comfortable. I was relieved when I reached easier ground towards the end of my pitch. Ben led the 3rd pitch, which was a pretty bold lead up some fairly thin ice, before reaching a comfortable belay just below the final ridge up to the fingers. At the belay, Ben and I briefly discussed the difference between leading and seconding. You really have to kind of flick between the two modes of climbing. On second you’re a lot quicker to commit your weight to an axe or front point placement. On lead it has to be 100%.
It was my turn to lead the final pitch, and by now I was in the right head space and really enjoyed every single meter of the climb. The route follows up an obvious, fun to climb ridge to the two fingers. After stepping through the fingers it took a couple of tricky moves to get around the second finger before reaching a small col. I placed a sling to protect the final headwall, which is the crux of the route (tech grade 5).
Since Fingers Ridge went so well, we decided to step it up a notch for the third day. We walked in to the bottom of The Message (IV 6) in pretty extreme weather conditions. The wind was so strong at times that walking into the wind required a lot of strength and in gusts breathing was difficult. Climbing conditions looked decent though so we decided to go for an attempt anyway. I led the 1st pitch, but was overtaken by a guide taking up two people on second just before the belay. They came up a more direct start of the route and now cut in front of us. I decided to build a belay one ledge earlier. Ben then set off to lead the second pitch, but was held up by the party ahead of us. The two seconds struggled up the next section, which looked pretty sketchy and difficult to protect from where I was standing. I found the 1st pitch quite spicy in the present conditions. Everything was covered in a lot of powder and required a lot of cleaning to find decent placements for both gear and axes. The next pitch looked worse. By the time Ben was able to continue the 2nd pitch, we were pretty cold and at times visibility dropped to less than 10 metres. Luckily Ben had placed a bomber sling before committing to a sketchy move, as his pick placement popped. After bouncing off a rock, Ben came flying down the wall below and was caught by the ropes just as he hit the snowy ledge below. Fortunately Ben was unscathed, but it was time for us to go home. We abseiled off the sling that held Ben’s fall and started walking back to the car park. The wind had picked up and at some point we had to ice axe arrest on the flat. Every gust of wind sent us running down the hill, as resisting the push seemed impossible.
One of the other teams in the group had a bit of an epic that day. By the time we managed to get in touch with them it was getting dark (limited phone reception in the corrie). They had topped out of their route but the wind on the plateau was too strong so they decided to abseil back down into the corrie. It is worth noting that the weather conditions were very extreme and worse than forecast (average wind speed recorded that night (Cairngorm weather records) was 72mph with gusts significantly stronger, visibility down to a couple of metres). In the dark, abseiling took a long time, especially since one of their headtorches broke. From the bottom of the route, it would be a long and difficult walk back to the car park through a boulder field under snow and ice in the dark. By the time the team reached the corrie floor, both were soaked through and freezing. They continued fighting the weather out of the boulder field in very difficult conditions for navigation. Increasing levels of cold and encroaching hypothermia made their decision to shelter and await help from mountain rescue. The fact that they carried a 2-man bothy shelter probably saved the day. The two were praised by the mountain rescue leader for their sensible mountaineering decisions and their choice of equipment in the appalling weather conditions. We were all pretty relieved when they made it back to the house well past midnight, shaken but ok and in one piece.
The weather wasn’t forecast to be much better the next day and we decided to treat ourselves to a well deserved rest day. As is always the case on these kind of trips we spent a lot of time studying guide books. We concluded the day with an awesome roast dinner and our traditional 0£ spending limit late Secret Santa.
Our penultimate day of climbing turned out to be perfect. Blue skies, no wind, good climbing conditions, awesome route choice. We walked up Aladdin’s Couloir to see whether Aladdin’s Mirror Direct was in (a grade IV 4 ice pitch), but decided the ice was too thin to protect. So we continued up Aladdin’s Couloir to the base of our route for today, which gave Ethan, one of the newbies, the chance to lead an easy pitch.
It was my go to lead the 1st pitch of Pygmy Ridge (IV 5), and I felt great. The weather was awesome and I felt confident on the very sustained 1st pitch of the route. After the technical crux of the route low down, I worked my way up some 35 metres to the first belay. The route required a lot of cleaning and my shoulder muscles got pretty tired from waving around the ice axes above my head. Gear was quite sparse but just enough to keep me comfortable enough to maintain my strong head that day.
Very pleased with that lead. I felt like we’re on our way now to learn the winter wizardry required to climb snowy routes in winter. Ben and Ethan seconded up to the first belay, from where Ben went on to lead the last two pitches.
The second pitch continued up the steep ridge for a bit before turning onto a level ridge climb. The last pitch was very steep again and had some pretty hard and committing moves lover down, a strong lead by Ben. Ethan turned out to be a strong second in his first winter season. Back on the bus, everybody was buzzing after an absolutely amazing day out in the mountains.
Saturday came and it was our last day of climbing. Ben and I were a bit unlucky with our route choices as our first choice and two backup routes were busy already by the time we got there. We decided to go up Fiacaill Couloir (II/III) instead, which turned out to be surprisingly tricky in the conditions. Not quite satisfied with the day’s climbing, we descended via Fiacaill Ridge, which was quite tricky in places on the way down. At the end of the day it was probably good the way it turned out, as I don’t think either of us were in the headspace for another difficult lead that day.
We celebrated a successful winter tour in Aviemore’s only night club, The Vault. Sunday left us with the long drive back home. By the time we got to London everybody was pretty shattered from a long week of climbing and a very long day on the minibus. What a week!