In the mid 80’s at the “invincible stage” in my mountaineering our annual winter course was held over 2 weeks in the Cairngorms and Lochaber. This was when young team members from the 6 RAF teams came for a winter mountaineering experience. It was a one to one pupil instructor and a hard course weather driven with snow holing and lots of winter climbing.
The pupils were graded by the amount of climbing they did and what winter mountain days they got in. In addition there was usually at least one call out per course. The troops got one day off, most needed it.
That winter it had been a long one already I had climbed a lot and thought I knew the Cairngorms like the “back of my hand” in my experience few do and many learn the hard way about these wild mountains by not treating them with respect.
The Northern Corries especially Coire an t-Sneachda) are ideal for winter climbing only a short walk from the car park at 2000 feet even with a big winter bag. Yet once you climb a route you can be on one of the most hostile places in the Uk the Cairngorm plateau. The central of the three Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm provides one of the most reliable and easily accessed winter climbing venues in Scotland. Its high altitude and northerly aspect allow its rocky mixed routes to come into condition easily. The relatively short approach from the Cairngorm ski centre, combined with plenty of good climbs in the low to mid grades, mean it is often busy, particularly early in the season. There is also a fair amount of worthwhile rock climbing in summer, including the classic Magic Crack.
My pupil on that last day was needing one more route to get assessed. So off we went I was climbing okay ( for me) so we picked the Alladins Mirror Direct a mid graded route with a steep ice start. I had done it often and thought we could get up it before the weather broke. In these days the forecasts were not as good as today but a big storm was coming on later in the day.
Guide book – The Mirror Direct grade 4 – The only obvious blue ice in the couloir. A short ice wall leads to an in situ belay. The upper reaches of the normal route offer some superb scenery.
Very suitable for learners.
Can vary hugely in difficulty and length depending on the current conditions.
Lesson 1 – take a good look at the conditions forecast.
We set off my partner was slow tired after a hard course. The snow was very deep on the way in and we had my dog Teallach route finding as the path was snow covered.
Lesson 2 – think how is your partner feeling tiredness etc ?
An early sign ?
We took it easy meeting a few climbers walking out saying it was not a great day and we’re aborting. We geared up and the climbs were empty and all the steps were snow covered there had been heavy snow overnight.
Lesson 3 – Recent heavy snow a warning sign.
Teallach my dog knew the routine he would dig a hole and wait for us to climb. We decided that I would take my bag with spare gear leaving his bag with the dog. He would have his head torch in my bag plus some spare kit.
We started climbing we were below the ice pitch which snow serpents were coming down. A wee wind was picking up and snow was moving about . There was no one else about I could hear a few of our parties saying they were going for a walk on my radio.
Lesson 4 / leaving bags was not a good idea or was the big change in conditions.
It took a bit of time to get up that first pitch it’s steep but short grade 3/4 all ice. The snow was that heavy I took my specs off and had my goggles on. I got to the belay fixed pegs buried by snow and brought the young lad up.He struggled but got up. I thought let’s abseil off but he wanted to get the route finished to get some leading in. It’s easy ground but can be serious and is about 400 feet to the top.
Lesson 5 – Decision making – we should have abseiled off but I decided to keep going!
He took a long time to climb the easy ground got a few runners in but I could not hear if he was belayed safely or not. After a while I set of and got up to him he was still faffing over a belay. I sorted it and then took the lead. Though easy this can be complex ground.
I moved as fast as I could the snow was deep in places and avalanche prone but kept to the rocks and I kept the pitches short. The weather got worse and I could see he was struggling but in mind the safest way was to keep going.
Lesson 6 – pushed into decisions ?
Eventually I made the plateau it was wild By now a Gale. There was no one was about and I got a message from the troops asking where we were? I gave them an update of about 2 hours ! We ate some food I packed the rope and the gear whilst my partner took a bearing to get us off the hill. I was busy and did not check it (big mistake) but we just wanted off that hill.
Lesson 7 – always check bearings ! We wandered in the white out for about 20 minutes there was no visibility I felt something was wrong. I had given him my Map and asked for it back. He took it out of his pocket and off it went into the void. No map now in a storm this was very serious.
Lesson 8 – Always carry 2 Maps !
This was getting so serious it was full on white out so I got the rope out and took a rough bearing using my area knowledge back to hopefully to the cliffs . After 30 minutes I reached the cliffs I knew roughly where I was. So we headed into the void along the ridge I got the odd landmark by going near the edge found the mushroom stone and worked my way along the Corrie. It was looking back exhausting always ensuring that my partner was attached to me by a short rope.
I knew the way back was down by the Mess of Pottage but in the white out I could not be sure. The weather was full on my companion suffering running on empty. It was dark now but I noticed that my partner had dropped his torch on the way off. So it was all on my head torch light. I found what I thought was the descent into the Corrie. Warily I dropped over the Cornice and we were safe climbed up and brought him down. It was out of the wind at last and how better I felt but the snow was so deep.
We descended the Corrie was full of snow very deep and very avalanche prone. It was late now about 8 pm, pitch dark but I could see a little light in the Corrie what a relief . My partner was in his last legs we so lucky. What I thought was a simple day turned into an epic and a catalogue of simple errors. The light in the Corrie was my mate Don Shanks who was worried about us. We got down to him. He had walked back in to the Corrie what a star.
I was so pleased to see him and left him with my partner and went up to collect the dog.
It was hard pull up to the route only then did I realise how tired I was. I then found him the start of the route out of the snow came Teallach attached to my partners bag. He had been up there for about 8 hours waiting for us to come back. It was then a trudge home with Don’s long legs making a path home. We were so glad to get in that wagon back to Grantown. The warmth of the wagon I realised we were still wearing our harnesses. Don drove us back whilst I talked non stop and my companion slept .
It was then the walk of shame back at Base having to tell the tale to all. Huge lessons learned another day of learning and could have been much more serious. I learnt about winter mountaineering from that ? How exhausted was I that day and how lucky ?
Have you any stories to share ?
Comments as always welcome !