Two Sides of Scottish Winter Climbing

The first “Big Chill” of the year prompted a WhatsApp call-to-action from Stan: “Anyone keen to head North this weekend?” Closer study of MWIS revealed that it was actually quite a Little Chill (freezing level 700m-900m at best) but that it would most likely be mightily Chilly with winds of 30-50mph and 20mm of precipitation each day… However, by then I’d been caught up with Stan’s infectious enthusiasm and encouraged by his infinitely greater experience in the winter realm: “We’ll get something done”.

The alarm went off at 5am at Craigallan (The Rucksack Club Hut in Ballachulish) and we got ready for the trog up to Stob Corrie Nan Lochan, only to find torrential rain as we stuck our heads out of the door. The rain radar suggested this would slacken off by 8ish, so we put the kettle back on again. Joe, Andy and George had arrived in the middle of the night and were heading for the Douglas Boulder on The Ben (which had been our Plan B) so we decided to keep them company.

Not very promising on the Allt a’ Mhuilinn
Slushy snow as we approach the CIC hut
A handy gearing-up spot out of the wind

We set off to climb Left Hand Chimney on the Douglas Boulder V 6. It soon became apparent that the plentiful snow was just sitting on the rock, obscuring any holds and gear, and helpfully insulating any moisture underneath from turning into ice (and so providing something to poke an axe into). Not ideal! We persevered for 3 pitches and about 100m – here’s Stan following the easy ramp of pitch 2:

… and leading pitch 3.

This brought us to the foot of the eponymous chimney where some situ gear offered an opportunity to exercise some good mountaineering judgement in the face of dripping rock. A 60m rap…

… had us down on terra firma, where we bumped into the rest of the team who’d made a similar decision on South-West Ridge.

Whilst we might not have actually completed a route, we didn’t spot anyone else climbing the whole day – it says something that on such a cruddy Saturday, 100% of climbers on The Ben were from The Rucksack Club (although I’m not sure quite what it says!)

Back to the hut, with plenty of time for brews in front of the fire and checking numerous forecasts. MWIS was forecasting more of the same in the Western Highlands and Cairngorms for Sunday, but the Met Office was much more optimistic about conditions out East. We rolled the dice and decided to take a flyer on a dash to the ‘Gorm – figuring that a couple of hours drive would at least be partly compensated for by the shorter walk into Stob Coire an t-Sneachda.

An even earlier alarm had us heading over the A9, wary of black ice under clearing skies. The scene at the Cairngorm Mountain Railway carpark was in complete contrast to the day before on the North Face carpark, as cars full of climbers, walkers and skiers piled in to make the most of a stellar day. It was looking like the Met Office had called it right!

By the time we got to t-Sneachda at just after 9 there were already half a dozen teams starting up routes, and probably a couple of dozen more would follow. We geared up …

… and headed up for the classic Original Summer Route IV 6.

Whilst the weather was absolutely immaculate, the snow conditions could have been a bit more helpful – really not much in the way of snow or ice adhering to the rock, and we were obviously the first team on the route in a while. A snow shovel might have come in handy. Stan quested up unperturbed and established a firm stance from which to give me a nice snug rope up the initial sketchy corner flake. The second pitch is a much easier snowy ramp, though plenty challenging enough for me to lead.

The stance at the top of pitch 2 gave a great view over to the Mess of Pottage, which was absolutely rammed – Hidden Chimney alone must have had a dozen people on it:

Here’s Stan tackling the “blocky ground” at the start of pitch 3, which is followed by an airy traverse left to a position overlooking Aladdin’s Couloir, followed by a couple of really technical corners. A fine lead!

That just left me with a snowy romp towards the summit until a junction with Aladdin’s Couloir which provides an easy and speedy way down (not as speedy as the two lads who skiid it just ahead of us!)

You can just about make out the line of the route in the photo below

And here’s a zoomed-in shot of the two young women who followed us up the route (moving at speed but appreciative of Stan’s snow-ploughing efforts)

As we were packing up around 3pm there were still a number of teams less than half way up the crag, and we were left to hope they’d got fresh batteries in their head torches! There are a couple of pairs on The Genie, plus others on far skyline (Pygmy Ridge?) in the shot of Alladin’s Buttress below.

Moon rising over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

What a fabulous day, and a great payback for an early start and a lot of driving. You could hardly get two more contrasting days of Scottish Winter Climbing – a reminder that it pays to be flexible when you’re Chasing the Ephemeral, and confirmation of the wisdom: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know!”

One response to “Two Sides of Scottish Winter Climbing

  1. Pingback: Widdop Bouldering | RockAroundTheWorld·

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