| Scottish Winter Mountaineering on Coire an t-Sneachda
I’ve been interested in climbing steeper and colder routes for a while, and what better place to learn than the wind-swept, ice-blasted crags of northern Scotland? With a few days off in early January I booked a one-day outing with a Scottish guide, but the weather forecast was, as they say in Britain, quite grim. Sustained 50-60 mph winds with gusts to 85 mph, considerable rain, snow and fog adding to the fun, with temps hovering just below freezing in the mountains. It was rough enough that the rail lines were actually closed for the day north of Edinburgh, so I talked with the guide and postponed the trip one day. After rebooking the hostel accommodations and rescheduling the train tickets (fortunately the computer systems malfunctioned and allowed me to make the changes for free) I headed by train the 6 hours north to Aviemore, in the Cairngorm range of the eastern Highlands.
When I arrived in Aviemore I still had about half a mile to walk to the youth hostel, and it was alternating between heavy mist and medium rain, with the ground just beginning to freeze. I had high hopes that a cold night would solidify the ice and snow in the mountains and lead to good conditions for the next day.
The next morning I met my guide, and after sorting out the gear for the day and donning waterproofs and harnesses we were off. We parked in a car park for the local ski area, shouldered our packs and began the easy 1 hour walk to the base of Coire an t’Sneachda, a large horseshoe cirque formed by glaciers long ago. The area is mostly north facing, with numerous snow-filled couloirs and jumbles of solid, ice-glazed rock.
To climber’s right is a relatively easy snow slope to the col, which would be our descent route. I was really pretty surprised to see how the ice was stuck to the rocks, like someone had spray-painted the whole cliff with about an inch of ice. There was nearly no bare rock anywhere, and very little thicker than a few inches.
The first route up was called the Goat Track Gulley, and it started off with some fairly moderate snow climbing, getting steeper as we approached the rocks. We changed from simul-climbing with the ice tools in self-belay to finally using them in high-dagger position as we entered a small kitchen-sized area for the first belayed pitch. Little did I know that this was actually one of the harder pitches we’d face that day.
My guide set up a belay anchor and then led up the pitch. After circling around some boulders the easiest way up is in a corner dihedral, with the right side being quite smooth without many holds, but the middle of the crack was thick with good, solid blue ice.
It was easy to kick my left foot into the ice and the crampons held well, but to find a good placement for my right foot took some scratching on the rock until finally they could find a good hold. Likewise, the left axe chopped into the ice pretty well, but I had to hook little ice bulges or try to jam the pick of the ax into a crack to find a place for the right side.
After about 10 feet of vertical climbing there is a good ledge, and I was able to pull myself up onto it.
Three more rope lengths of fairly straightforward ice and rock mixed climbing led to the summit of the ridge, which was covered with basketball-sized rocks and was quite windy.
At one point the wind pushed me really hard and I staggered, but caught a crampon tip on a rock and fell quite heavily on my left hip. But nothing too bad, and we shortened the rope and headed down the ridge to the col for the steep and snowy descent to the valley. We traversed back to the steeper cliffs, and debated whether to attempt another route. The weather was worsening, with the forecast for high winds, fog, and rain in the mid-afternoon. But conditions on the hill were still pretty good, so we traversed over to a steeper, narrower couloir called the Runnel.
This one involved considerably more steep snow climbing to get to the difficulties, and after 3 rope lengths on the snow we were both breathing hard and sweating a bit.
Although I did have the benefit of using his bootpacked steps. As we ascended I was able to watch another group on our left tacking a route with significantly more difficulties than the Runnel. Watching those guys scratch their way up the slab was impressive.
At the next belay pitch I realized that the slightly warming temperature was starting to melt the ice off the rocks, and I was getting a lot of water dripping on me. The loosened ice began to be blown loose by the gale-force winds above, and I noticed a pattern. I’d hear what sounded like a jet engine roaring overhead, then about 4 seconds later the wind would reach me in the gully. All manner of small ice bits and blowing snow would create a short blizzard around me, but then would die down. But just when it seemed safe to pull my face out of my neckflap and look back up, the larger chunks of ice and snow would come careering down, sometimes whizzing by with impressive velocity. The couloirs we were in was also so narrow, not more than 4-5 feet wide, that anything knocked loose by anyone above us (my guide as well as two other climbers) would be funneled down directly onto my stance.
At one point a fairly large chunk came down and smacked me on the head, knocking the goggles off my helmet. As I was readjusting them, the wind picked up, snatched them from my hands, and I saw them go freefalling and tumbling down the slope for quite a while before they turned a corner and disappeared. Bummer. Now it was more difficult to keep my eye out for the large chunks to try to dodge them. Now whenever the wind would howl above, I’d quickly lean into the wall or behind a rock and try to make my helmet cover as much of me as possible. Several more chunks hit me on the helmet and shoulders, but none bigger than a baseball.
Heading up the narrowest, steepest section of the route was quite difficult. The warming also had the effect of making the ice not cohere to the rock as well, and at times it would simply flake off under the ax. Depending on the spot I would have to scrape the ice off the rock with my pick, and then try to find a spot I could grasp with my hands in order to move up. The gully constricted in a tight V, which made foot placements difficult. While managing to get up without falling, I managed to jab myself in the thigh with a crampon, but it didn’t poke through my trousers.
After two more pitches we finally reached the summit cornice and the easy snow climbing, which was a relief after being trapped in the melting ice and rock for the last 90 minutes. The walk along the ridge to the col was windier than before, if possible, and we both were nearly knocked off our feet multiple times. The hour walk back to the carpark was a tedious affair, with very strong winds and rain directly head-on, and fast approaching darkness. The lower elevations had melted quite thoroughly and were now freezing into quite solid water ice, which was exceedingly slippery, especially when we had to hop over the numerous drainage culverts. By the time we reached the car park it was pitch black. We probably should have pulled out our headlamps, but they were buried in the packs and we were both soaked from the rain and wind and just wanted to get back to the car.
After dividing up the gear we headed back to the hostel, where I had upgraded myself from the cramped bunkroom to a single room. Well worth the extra 8 pounds. I had a quick snack, as we had not eaten all day, showered, then walked the 5 minutes to the Royal Tandoori, which has a fantastic Tikka Chicken Masala, in case anyone is interested. Apparently that particular dish is one of the most popular served in all of the UK, and I love it. I had it both nights I was in Aviemore and I’d do it again.
I didn’t really know what to expect from Scottish winter climbing, but it didn’t disappoint. Wet, windy, foggy, and cold as good as you can expect, and I certainly got a full dose of that, but the climbing was good, the people friendly, and apart from the bruises and lost goggles, it was a great day in the hills.
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