Snowtime in the Cairngorms

2013-11-10 13.24.13

When I sent an email round my mates on Friday asking if anyone fancied some ski touring in the near future, I hadn’t quite expected a reply at lunchtime which read “tomorrow in the Cairngorms?”.
As it happens, Cat was booked into a DofE leaders conference in the Aviemore Centre, so it didn’t take much thought to realise that a touring day on Saturday would fit nicely. I grabbed together a selection of kit, packed it into the car and rustled up a tasty chicken stir fry for Friday night’s tea; I’m nothing if not multi-talented!
An early start on Saturday saw us make Aviemore in time for breakfast at Active Pursuit – they do a monster ‘doorstep’ breakfast butty, which both of us struggled to finish, but which set me up nicely for the day ahead. After dropping Cat for her day inside a hotel, I met up with my mate Niall and we made our way up to the Day Lodge at Cairngorm. Despite the car park being reasonably full, the mountain itself was empty as we skinned our way up the access track to the Ptarmigan Restaurant.
After a quick tea break, we made our way up to the top of Cairngorm. The snow conditions at at the top weren’t brilliant, with a lot of rocks showing through the snow, and the cloud had dropped back down onto the summit as well. Helpfully, one of my dogs had decided to wander off a bit, so we were left with little option but to head back down the way we’d come and search for her. I found her ambling up towards the summit, and with a full compliment of mutts once more, I joined Niall back at the Ptarmigan for the run back down to the car – a fairly short day out, but great to get a day’s skiing this early in the season.
After picking up Cat and having a beer with Niall, we wandered over to Glenmore Lodge for some grub and found ourselves in the midst of the MCofS student’s safety weekend; they seemed to be having a good time on Saturday night at least. We had a fairly early night, with the intention of being up and out at the crack of dawn on Sunday – that plan didn’t quite work out, and we ended up having a wander round some of Aviemore’s gear shops until about 11am, when we finally got out on the hill again. Given the time, we decided to keep it simple, and opted for the circuit out to Fiacall Coire an Lochain and back along the rim of the Northern Corries and back down to the day lodge. As we made our way out towards Coire an Lochain, one of the yellow SAR helicopters flew over our heads heading for the Northern Corries, and reappeared soon afterwards heading back north. Sadly, we heard later in the day that there had been a fatal accident on Fingers Ridge in Coire an t-Sneachda; a grim reminder that even a beautiful day in the hills is not without its risks.
We could see cloud forming around the summits off to the east, but the weather on the western side of the Cairngorms was stunning; bright blue skies and glorious sunshine reflecting off the crisp snow cover meant we had to stop a couple of times to top up the Factor 50 as we toiled upwards through the crusty snow, and I found myself pining for my touring skis which were lying back in the car. After being passed by several skiers gliding over the snow we were sinking calf deep into, I think Cat was beginning to understand the attraction of ‘skinning up’ as we ploughed on towards Cairn Lochan.
We made good time round the top of Coire an t-Sneachda towards point 1141 and, as we made our way back down towards the car, we were treated to the stunning sight of the moon rising over the snow covered peaks behind us while the upper slopes were still bathed in the last of the day’s sunshine. As we drove along the side of Loch Morlich, the moon hung in the darkening skies over the Northern Corries while off to the west was the most glorious sunset and, despite being very hungry and keen to grab some food in Aviemore, we could help but stop at the loch side and share the view with the collection of Mallard ducks that hang about the car park mugging unwary tourists for their sandwiches. Sadly, the weather forecast for the coming week means that conditions will be a bit more grim in the near future, but it’s been great to make the most of the sunshine while it’s lasted.

Ben Chonzie

The reports of snow falling on the hills had been coming in thick and fast for the last week or so, along with some mouthwatering pictures of  snow lying on the tops around the Cairngorm ski centre and the like. As a result, I was pretty keen to get my boots on the white stuff as soon as possible. Cat was still suffering a bit with the after-effects of a bug she’d picked up the previous weekend, so we decided not to attempt anything too strenuous in case she ran out of steam before we got back to the car.  The weather forecast for the weekend was a bit sketchy, but the MWIS prediction for the SE Highlands looked most promising, and a quick scan of the map suggested that Ben Chonzie might be a good candidate for a day out – it’s a pretty short, easy angled walk from the Comrie side, and it’s a hill that benefits from a covering of snow to tart up an otherwise fairly bland dome of a summit.

As it turned out, the early morning weather was a lot more encouraging than we’d expected, with blue skies and the first frost of the year covering the cars outside the house. The cupboards at home were a bit bare of hill food, so we made a quick detour into the Co-op in Crieff for some suitable grub, then parked up at Invergeldie and got ourselves sorted out. There was a fairly chilly northerly wind blowing down the glen, which encouraged us to get going and generate a bit of warmth.

2013-11-03 11.17.20The route up to Ben Chonzie from this side follows a fairly substantial landrover track up the hill; not the most adventurous of ascents, but a very pleasant walk in the sunshine, with the snow topped peaks to the north and west gradually coming into view as we gained height. I’ll confess that the sight of snow on the hills triggers the 12 year old within me, and we spent most of the walk up chattering about plans for the coming winter season. Poking our heads out onto the plateau brought us back into the wind, and we made for a sheltered spot where we could grab a bite to eat and stick on some extra layers before we made our way up the final slope and along the broad summit ridge to the top. The wind was fairly fierce on top which Cat was struggling a bit with given she wasn’t feeling that strong anyway. Being a gentlemanly sort, I gave her my arm and we had a romantic stroll along to the top with me acting as a wind break for her; one of the many advantages of having a chunky husband!

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The wind was brutally cold at the summit, so we nipped into the stone shelter that’s been built there long enough to take a shockingly bad ‘selfie’, then about turned and made our way back down, dropping off the ridge a little to lessen the impact of the wind on us. It was around 2pm when we made it back to the top of the track, and out of the wind it was considerably warmer now. We made our way back down to the car, passing a number of folk on their way up, including a couple of mountain bikers who might have been in for a shock when they made it to the top in their shorts! Cat was beginning to feel pretty drained when we got back to the car, which confirmed the wisdom of choosing an easy day, but she perked up quite quickly when I suggested a night in front of the fire with a takeaway.

Ben Chonzie certainly isn’t one of Scotland’s more glamorous mountains, but served with a covering of snow, a decent curry and some red wine, it’s still worth a punt as an “easy day for a lady with the lurgie”.

Nice and Spicy!

13-03-30 Ben Dorain 8 - Version 2

My last blog post was partly a reflection on the nature of ‘commitment creep’; that strange psychological phenomenon whereby a firm resolve to stay well within “Neil’s fluffy circle of comfort”, which initially appears to be shared by your companions, somehow erodes away as the day goes on and usually results in a least one brief moment of sphincter-clenching fear. Given my previous outing involved an exploration of the outer limits of “Neil’s fluffy circle of comfort” on a grade II climb, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the suggestion we head up a grade IV a few days later would have triggered an immediate lockdown of the commitment levels. Sadly, a hard-earned ability to say “no” in other areas of life doesn’t seem to have translated over to my renewed enthusiasm for the great outdoors, so I duly found myself plodding uphill towards the cliffs of Beinn Dorain en route to tackle ‘Kickstart’, a grade IV climb which was not only a grade up from anything I’d tackled before, but also had the distinction of attracting a ‘tech grade’ of 4, meaning that the hardest section of the climb; the ‘crux’, was worthy of special mention!

13-03-30 Ben Dorain 4

This time round, I was out as part of a team from Falkirk Community Trust again, so the responsibility for heading up first lay with John, who heads up the Trust’s ‘High Tops’ team. The third member of our climbing team was another Neil, making things nice and straightforward in terms of communication.  Before making a final decision about Kickstart, we had a look at a couple of alternatives, but nothing else was in particularly good condition, and  we duly made our way over to the starting point for our climb. John led off up the first section, and pretty soon we heard the familiar sounds of thumping and banging from above indicated that he had arrived at a suitable site for the next belay point. A few years ago, I remember chatting with an orthopaedic surgeon who suggested that the physical nature of his speciality meant he probably had more in common with a joiner than some of his colleagues who were involved with keyhole surgery and the like. The reason I mention this is that I’m pretty sure orthopaedic surgeons would feel right at home winter climbing; where summer climbing involves delicate and precise placements of gear in thin slots and cracks, Scottish winter climbing dispenses with many of the more discrete forms of protection in favour of a wicked-looking selection of spikes, hollow metal screws, pitons and so on that are hammered into turf, ground into ice and battered into cracks and fissures in the rock. If you imagine carrying out joinery work with hand tools only, while freezing cold and balancing on precarious footholds on the metal spikes on your boots, then you have a reasonable snapshot of the appeal of winter climbing. If you want the full experience, then get someone to stand above you with buckets of snow and empty one onto you periodically.

After a few minutes the banging and clattering above our heads ceased, and a faint cry of ‘safe‘ was followed by a tug on the rope to indicate that we were good to go. The first section of the route was fairly straightforward climbing, with lots of good frozen snowy turf, but any sense that this was ‘in the bag’ was obliterated moments later when we arrived at the little ledge on which John was perched. There wasn’t room for me, so I had to wait downslope while John got ready to head up the next section. Looking above us, a narrow runnel with dribs and drabs of snow and turf gradually narrowed until it became a wide crack on an otherwise blank wall. The slightly hollow feeling in my stomach bloomed as I watched John scratch and scrabble his way up the blank wall until he could get his axes into some solid turf at the top and haul his way up and over onto easier ground again. As I was last to head up, it fell to me to collect the various bits of protection John had set up along the way.  As I perched myself on the lower section of the blank wall and retrieved some kit from the deep crack beside me, I tried to manage the mental multi-tasking involved in simultaneously controlling the desire to panic and focusing on the good technique which would make the job in hand considerably easier. I fought down the impulse to scrabble about with my feet, instead looking around for places to put them and the rock which had looked featureless from below began to yield up little irregularities which would serve as footholds. My right boot wedged into the crack, my left crampon points hooked onto a little ledge, an ice axe slammed reassuringly into frozen snow and turf and, after tentatively weighting the axe to test the security it offered, I pushed/pulled up and got a knee above the blank step, rocked my weight onto the knee, axe 2 hammered into hard snow slightly further on and I was up courtesy of a fairly inelegant belly flop. In reality, John had me on a tight rope all the way through the process, so the objective danger was fairly minimal this time round, but that didn’t stop me feeling my adrenaline surge as the sense of danger receded.

Neil being sent up the chimney

Neil being sent up the chimney

I resisted the urge to rush up the section of easy ground that led to the next belay point, concentrating on proper technique and letting my heart rate subside and my breathing return to normal. The was probably just as well, as directly above this belay point was another problem which offered the previous one a serious challenge as ‘crux’ of the route. A vertical chimney in the rock face about 2 feet wide and around 6 feet deep led to a ceiling which sealed the crack at the top. The crack itself had lots of little ledges and steps and it was the sort of problem with a summer climber in sticky rock shoes could breeze up with ease. The problem was that we were wearing heavy boots and crampons, and Glasgow Climbing Centre has a problem which looks just like this, which I’ve tried to climb several times, and failed on each occasion. John made his way up first, followed by Neil, and then it was my turn. It was fairly straightforward getting to the ‘ceiling’, where a deep fissure in the rock offered a reassuring place to jam my fist into. Climbers often talk about the ‘headgames’ involved in making upward progress, and the next movement was the ‘headgame’ here, requiring me to leave the security of the walls of the chimney and come out far enough to allow me to get up and over the edge of the ceiling. I tried a couple of times, and each time the sense that I was about to lose my balance drove me back into the safety of the chimney. I had a look around at the options for hands and feet, and manage to alter my position so that I could reach a reasonably reassuring handhold above me on the top of the ceiling. I swung out again and this time felt balanced enough to let my hand leave the crack on the ceiling and reposition itself on another hold on the outside wall. I’d holstered my axes in my harness for safe keeping at the bottom of the chimney, and now had to delicately retrieve one, hook it round my neck and adjust my grip to the bottom of the shaft, then drive the pick into the turf on the top of the ceiling. With the axe offering a solid handhold, I could now walk my feet up the cracks and ledges on the outside of the chimney and reach easier ground again. We were now near the top of the route and a bulging rock that neccessitated a slightly awkward shimmy round it was the only impediment to the gently sloping ground above the crag.

We made our way over the rocky upper slopes until the crag below us merged into a gently angled snow slope that offered a quick route back down to the floor of the corrie. On the way back to the minibus, we chatted about the day’s proceedings, and John suggested that the route might merit an increase in it’s technical grading from 4 to 5. Either way, it represented a considerable step up in challenge from anything else I’ve done this year, and I found myself wondering about the significance of this for my own progress as a climber. Back in December, I’d set out with the aim of completing a few grade I and II climbs, and maybe be back leading a grade I by the end of the season. I’ve far exceeded those initial expectations, leading or solo-ing grade II/III ground, and now seconding a grade IV with a technical grade of 4 or 5.  While I felt justifiably satisfied with that achievement, I couldn’t help wondering if the Peter Principle had some application here; that at some point, I was going to find myself the David Brent of winter climbing, trapped, perhaps literally, in a situation that cruelly exposed my incompetence for all to see as the star segment on Highland Emergency or, even worse, as ammunition for another of  Dorothy-Grace Elder’s incoherent rantings. Thankfully, before I succumbed to an episode of angst-ridden introspection worthy of a Twilight heroine, I remembered that the actual reason I’d gotten back into this was because I wanted to have some fun; thoughts about grades and so on had provided the vague framework for an attempt to calibrate where I might get maximum enjoyment from the inevitable episodes of suffering that typify Scottish winter climbing. In the 1990s Alex Lowe was widely regarded as the finest climber of his generation but, when he was asked about it in an interview, famously responded that “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!”. In that light, concerns about grades achieved become secondary to the question “how big was my grin at the top?”. I’ve noticed one of my climbing buddies; Michael Thomson, favours the term ‘spicy’ to indicate when things on a route are getting a little stretching – it was uttered on several occasions on Sron na Creise the other week, and it occurred to me that it might serve as the basis for an alternative grading system for routes, based on their ‘spicyness’, with grade I becoming a “Korma” and the top end being “the Widower”; a curry so hot it’s claimed some people have been left “sweating, crying, shaking and vomiting”.  I love a good curry, but I’ve never had any desire to be emotionally scarred by the experience of eating one, so I’m content to be a solid ‘Rogan Josh’ punter, savouring the flavours and textures but without the need to refrigerate a toilet roll for the morning after – it might make a good story for your mates, but who really wants to be reduced to tears by a session in the toilet?

In the meantime, I have a range of guidebooks to start writing, based around the Lowe/Thomson scale of spicy fun – look out for the chilli rating coming to a bookstore near you.

A Load of Cobblers…

“I know what you’re thinking; did you hit it 4 times or 5? To tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I kinda lost track myself, but given you’re on the crux move of the route, your only runner is this half inserted warthog, and your belayer’s attached to a pair of axes buried in cruddy soft snow, you have to ask yourself “do you feel lucky punk – well do ya?

Still managing a grin!

Still managing a grin!

In truth, the little rock step half way up Great Gully on the Cobbler isn’t that complex a problem to resolve; better mountaineers than me would probably barely register it as they romped on past. Sadly, I am not a better mountaineer,  it wasn’t banked out, and the consequences of a screw up on my part for the other people on the rope didn’t really bear thinking about. At the other end of the scale from ‘better mountaineer’, I guess non-climbers might wonder exactly what the attraction is in standing perched on 4 little points of steel, calves beginning to feel the strain, with the gusting wind blowing armfuls of snow around and into your clothing. Contrary to what the Dorothy-Grace Elders of this world think, I don’t have a death wish – if I had, I wouldn’t have been having the internal conversation that was currently taking place. A couple of deep breaths, then I test the security of my crampon points – they feel secure, so I use them to push up a little higher, and that gets me within range of a decent handhold; one foot comes up onto a sloping rock that nonetheless offers enough friction to keep my crampon in place, and suddenly we’re moving; almost flowing, but we don’t want to be getting ahead of ourselves here. Hints and tips from better climbers, stored away in the mind over the years, come flooding back and I reach high with one axe, over the shelf and hook a decent little crack, which allows my other foot to come up, the second axe can now reach lovely frozen reassuring turfy snow, and suddenly I’m standing on the top of the shelf, body buzzing with the adrenaline rush that comes in the wake of receding nerves. A few metres up easy snow, and I arrive at a fracture in the rock which gulps down a meaty big hex, I clip the rope, and now I can relax and enjoy myself again as I make my way up to a big beautiful spike of a rock which offers a suitable spot from which to protect Katie and Alex as they make their way over the rock step and up to join me.

I keep the rope tight as they take their turn negotiating the rock step, and then Katie leads up the last section and brings Alex and myself out onto the summit of the Cobbler.  Great Gully is listed in the guide book as a Grade II, but we’re all agreed that in it’s current condition, it’s definitely “stiff for the grade”; one of those wonderfully euphemistic terms that gets bandied about in our pastime that hints at all sorts of tense moments, clenched buttocks and butterflies in the stomach.  It’s a wonderful example of what a proper scientific study (which this is not) might term “commitment creep”; at the outset of the day, we’d had the usual chat on the way up the hill about our expectations for the day, during which the three of us had clearly stated our commitment to not sticking our necks out for the sake of adding a couple of grade II gullies to our logbooks, given it’s not the sort of climbing that’s going to have Mick Fowler worrying about his chances of collecting the Piolet d’Or later in the year.

First on our list in the morning had been Chockstone Gully, a grade II climb notable for the quirky finish which requires you to burrow out through the snow under a massive chockstone which sits at the top of the climb. At this late stage in the season, most of the hard work had already been done, but it still required me to slide off my rucksack and push it ahead of me before I could deploy the technical climbing technique of graceless ‘thrutching’ to squirm my way up and out and belay Katie and Alex up and out of the hole. Dusting ourselves off and sorting out our kit, we were able to take stock of our situation; the sun had come out while we’d been in the gully, and we had emerged to a glorious view as the sun played over the snow plastered summits of the Cobbler.

Up ahead of us, the second part of our outing beckoned; Great Gully is a slightly harder proposition, especially in the current lean conditions as the start to the route involves negotiating another chockstone, although this one involved some proper rock climbing, rather than squirming about in the snow.  Above this, an easy angled snow slope led to the rocky step, although the soft, slabby nature of the snow meant care was still required. I worked up to the base of the step, then spend a fruitless 10 minutes digging about in the snow looking for cracks in the rock which might offer a solid placement. Sadly, nothing was forthcoming, which meant we were going to have to work with a reinforced buried axe, which given the current snow conditions, wasn’t the most reassuring option. Above us, the tricky rock step loomed, and as I found myself perched on my crampon points a few minutes later, this morning’s commitment to non-committed climbing seemed to have evaporated somewhere along the way. Never mind that across the mountains of Scotland better climbers than me were cruising harder problems effortlessly; this was my problem, my chance at my own internal ‘Piolet d’Or’ on a crux that would be laughably easy for others, a chance for an exploration into the internal workings of Neil Pratt: Punter Climber. Somehow, there is the awareness that, at this precise point, you exist in a quantum state; two possible Neils go on from this point; the one who steps back down and retreats, or the Neil who makes it to the top. Only one can exist; whatever happens, one Neil dies at this point – no way of knowing which would be the better husband, brother, friend…

“so, the question you have to ask yourself is; do you feel lucky punk? Well, do ya?”