Short days in the shortest of days – The odd climb before the crowds return after Christmas.

Coire Sputan Dearg

Short days on the shortest day! Coire Sputan Dearg Mac Dui – Grey mans crag. The Ben, Lochnagar and other great places.

The shortest day is now behind us and I was reminded of trying to get in early winter climbs in the past before technology took over and told you what was in condition to climb . These early years were wild days and we still used local knowledge and a quick call to Glenmore Lodge would give an idea of what was happening in the hill! If the “gods at the Lodge” would give away the knowledge?

The world of winter climbing was a smaller place and many knew each other, we were very careful of what we did and said as there was always plenty of new climbs available. I remember getting dragged into Coire Sputan Dearg in the Cairngorms for an early route on the shortest day in the late 70’s . The great granite cIiffs with the magically named Grey Man’s Crag was always one I wanted to visit. I was a lot fitter and we were at the cliff by first light about 0800 after a 0600 start from the Cairngorm car park. This was one of my first wild days and being a very average climber it was an interesting place to be. It is a great place to climb and has a remote feel to it. Over the years I have climbed here on several occasions since and never seen a soul. This is a wild high Cairngorm Corrie but not a serious as some of the big cliffs and a place I got to know well in my early days at RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and with the RAF Buchan Mountaineering Club.

Dropping into this Corrie as daylight was breaking in winter is a great feeling but photos were rarely taken as it was the routes we were after and little else mattered. It’s was remote in the days but like the high crags on Braeraich or Ben Nevis would hold ice high up.

I enjoyed this Corrie in the summer as well it has the 4 star crystal ridge is a great climb and one I did several times and grew to love proposition and in the old climbing guides graded Crystal ridge a grade 3 . When I first did it in winter with two novices from the Buchan Club it was a wild day and opened my eyes to my ambitions and limited ability in winter. Though only short 120 meters (about 350 feet )it was a very hard route for me and my new mates.

We were fit and strong and got away with it and I remember the final snow arête and the full winter blizzard at the top. The long walk out back across the plateau was hard work and I was so glad to get back to our transport.

One of my companions decided winter mountaineering was not for him half way from home on the plateau but with a bit of persuasion we got home. I could not get the frozen rope off at the end it was solid and had the awful coil of rope like a steel hawser all the way across the plateau. I had to pulls lot out of my reserves but had just done two big walks across Scotland and had lots in reserve.

This has only happened on a few occasions and shows what the weather can do. It was definitely a “march or die moment” one of many and I learned from that for future winters. Pushing it on the Cairngorm plateau was a thing I was to have to get used to over the years.

This Corrie has lots of good climbs and is a great place to be and many of the young RAF Kinloss/ Leuchars climbers cut their teeth in this place.I loved the wildness getting back up to the summit of MacDui to check my bearing then into the void of the great whiteness.

Many will still have their memories of the long walk in and the even longer walk out all done in the dark. The feeling when you get after such a day of getting a route in early winter is incredible and a few of the young tigers learned from this impressive place. I spent a few worrying hours as Team Leader in the car park when their adventure went on a bit longer than we expected but it was great to get a broken message saying the were off the route and heading home. I knew their day not over by a long way and in the dark and wild weather the Cairngorm plateau is not a place to learn to navigate. On the good side It kept the Team out of the pub as no one could go till everyone was safely off the hill a great idea!

There were many other great days and memories of a very quiet Ben Nevis, Lochangar, Creag an Dubh Loch and the far North West before the crowds and the internet. Lots of routes climbed in that Christmas period three days walking into Lochnagar day after day would sort you out.

It worked for us as it was what the team needed at the time. We all learned and add in a Call out after a long day it became the making of many.

It was great to see the troops develop over the years and Two that became Everest sumiteers and as young troops had a wee wander in to this Corrie Sputan Dearg and had the full winter experience when “young bairns” Character building days!

So began a quest for pre Christmas routes. Over the years I climbed in the Cairngorms – Red Gully, The Runnel,The Mirror Direct. The Northern Corries were not so busy then. Lurchers became a venue for ice before the big snows. Of course when based at Newtonmore Oui Oui Creag Dubh always a favourite before the pub.

Wales late 70,s – South Gully Devils Kitchen

Descent Gully on the Milestone a fun Christmas morning.


Raeburns Gully

West Gully

Dubh Loch – South Eastern gully

Ben Nevis – Gardh Gully

Tower Ridge tricky early season no matter how many times you have climbed it.

North Gully

Green / Comb Gully

A short day -just above the ski area Aonach Mor

Great coming to an empty CIC hut after dragging some of the young loons away from the parties for a few nights. Rushing back for Christmas dinner on a quite Ben Nevis.

Glencoe – Twisting Gully, Curved Ridge North Buttress always a great day out.

Ben Lui – Central Gully

Etive -The Couloir

Sneaky ice

Secret icefalls always worth a look in an early freeze often with success. The only person we would meet was the late Andy Nisbet he was always about miss that man.

Nothing hard but great memories with so many troops.

The Ben

Add in a few great hill days without the crowds ( most folk are at home ) what a time of year. The Ben a favourite in a kilt . Grand days with classic companions all before you met so many chasing sunsets and twitter etc. Things move on and many more will have adventures. The North West and Skye have so much to offer oh to be young and chasing the routes. I will have a thought over Christmas dinner of these incredible memories as I sit in the warmth of the house.

Have fun, these despite the crazy world are grand days for your adventures .

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Articles, Enviroment, Equipment, Friends, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, People, Recomended books and Guides, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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