It has been an interesting start to April.
A tough cycle in ski boots up Gleann Einich at the beginning of the month yielded little success, with low cloud and worrying cornices at the summit of Braeriach laying waste to our best laid plans. Changing tactics to have no particular plans whatsoever, the next day saw us head for the opposite side of the Lairig Ghru. Following a morning of thick clag, a 4-5 hour window of bright skies and sunshine permitted spontaneous and memorable fair weather descents of Diagonal Gully (I) and Castlegates Gully (I*) in the Loch Avon Basin, and Point Five Gully in Coire an t-Sneachda.
The day after, ski journalist Jimmy Petterson (author of the book “Skiing Around the World“) and Klaus Arpia touched down in Scotland for an arranged trip to our slopes. Craig Cameron and I headed to Nevis Range to meet the two. The hill was in fact too windy to permit opening for the general public, but the lifts were switched on for our group to head up, and Chris the hill manager took us by piste basher from the top of the Quad Chair to the summit hut. Suzy from ski patrol and two lifties (Fergus and Callum) followed us over the Chancer cornice into Coire Dubh in order to get the Braveheart Chairlift running, where we enjoyed 5 or 6 soggy laps. Despite the appalling weather conditions again laying waste to our best laid plans, Jimmy and Klaus left with an overriding sense of warmth, commenting that the hospitality of the staff really shone through (as well as the ‘sisu’ [Finnish word] of the Scottish people!). Big thank you to Heather at/and Nevis Range for making things happen, and hopefully conditions improved for their return visit a number of days later.
I met up with Jimmy and Klaus again a couple of days later, and fortunately on this occasion the weather conditions were more favourable. That evening a group of us stayed over in Aviemore for the inaugural Scottish Backcountry Film Festival at the Old Bridge Inn where great craic, great beer, and a great atmosphere created a memorable evening. I was just pleased to have the opportunity to show my film ‘Wake‘ to a packed room full of like minded folk (so packed, in fact, that there were people out in the street watching through the windows!), but to later be voted ‘best film’ by the audience was a huge bonus.
Jimmy and Klaus headed west to Glencoe the following day, while I opted to stay in the Cairngorms. The drive up the ski road revealed enticing views towards Braeriach, still holding substantial snows in its corries. Our group went no further than a couple of grade I gullies in Coire an t-Sneachda of Cairn Gorm that day, but my thoughts were already moving on elsewhere. For the past couple of years I have often pondered the possibility of a two day ski tour in to the western Cairngorms, basing ourselves in one of the corries and skiing attractive lines in the locality. For one reason or another this has never quite come to pass, and the extent of my exploration in there had so far been limited by the hours of daylight. The prospect of another strenuous day trip in return for 5 minutes of steep skiing did not immediately appeal, even if can be completely worthwhile.
I had been on the blower to Craig (who I must thank for sharing the photographic responsibilities with me!!) about the weekend ski prospects, and the decision to go for a spontaneous overnight ski pilgrimage was a decision that neither one of us seemed to specifically make, but instead seemed to be the discussion’s natural conclusion. Joined by Dave Anderson and Andrew Napier, our plans were loose – with no plans laid, none can go awry! With no particular destination, the promise of a good forecast and the flexibility of an overnight camp, we set out in the direction of Braeriach from the Coire Cas carpark at 7am on with the simple aim of finding snow and having fun.
Our route took us over the meadows at the top of Lurcher’s Gully, and skirting round the steep upper slopes of the Lairig Ghru towards the top of the Allt na Crìche (the March Burn). We were by now in cloud, though with the sun visible high above the layer was perhaps 100ft thick at best. Rather than descend by the March Burn, we carried on to Coire Mòr, which we hoped would provide us a more direct approach up into An Coire Ruadh of Braeriach. The snow down the line of Allt na Choire Mhòir was good, though petered out perhaps 200m from base of the Lairig Ghru. We waded the Allt na Lairig Ghru, itself slightly swollen by snow melt.
The re-ascent up the other side and into An Coire Ruadh was steep and pathless. A zig-zagging stalkers path was constructed here by the Duke of Fife in the 1890s, though a lack of use saw the lower section disappear as early as the 1920s. The uppermost section of the Duke’s Path towards the bealach between Am Bràigh Riabhach and Sròn na Lairige can still be seen in the summertime, though was today still buried by substantial snowfields.
For now we ascended up green slopes (lots of green slopes), but across there was promise of steep snow descents in the far distance (always the distance).
A combination of skinning and boot-packing saw us gain the bealach and Braeriach’s summit plateau. The mists were coming and going as we skirted round the rim of Coire Bhrochain, providing fleeting glimpses towards the gullies far below.
From the summit of Braeriach we continued to the top of West Gully (I*), approximately 200m west of the summit and indenting the plateau as a wide bowl. Usually heavily fortified by cornices, today was no different, though today we could see that the cornice was suspended over a hollow void and with fracture lines visible. The decision was made to cut through it, and I was carrying a short lightweight rope and some basic abseil tat for this purpose. Doubling a sling for use as a harness I could happily lower myself off a snow bollard strengthened by ice axes. Tying a ski binding to my wrist, it was an easy operation to then set about the cornice with the tail of a ski while securely anchored to the hill:
Dropping in to West Gully (I*), Craig measured the top section with a clinometer as being 56°, and this is sustained for quite some time. To relate this gradient to the pistes at Cairn Gorm, Coire Cas (beginner/intermediate) measures in at 13°, the White Lady (advanced) at 21° and the West Wall (expert) at 30°.
The gully itself is a fantastic one, wide and steep, running directly down to the coire floor. Having previously been here in April 2009 with Donald Slater, West Gully (I*) was already one of my more memorable ski descents. The weather conditions today provided a different atmosphere, but was no less memorable:
From the gully we had already spotted our camp site down by the sausage shaped piece of land below. Near it, a small spring and partially snow covered lochain could provide us with a more than adequate water supply.
The skies cleared as we struck camp among the boulders on the elevated piece of land. With gear draped on a nearby boulder to dry out we settled down to cook dinner (350ml of boiling water into a sack of dehydrated spaghetti bolognese. Strangely awesome.)
The skies cleared as we ate, and it was an easy decision to head up for an after-dinner descent, this time on East Gully. In the above photograph, West Gully (I*) can be seen on the left hand side. East Gully (I) is the narrow gully towards the centre-right of the photograph. The half-hidden Central Buttress Gully (I**) (can see the exposed ramp that marks the lower gully) lies between the two.
The cloud closed in again as we topped out of East Gully (I), so we were in for another misty descent.
The wind picked up slightly as we settled down for the night. It was chilly but not uncomfortable – a minimalist approach with a view to taking as little equipment as we could get away with in order to save space and weight saw us quite deliberately bring a tent flysheet but no tent, which we set up on the snow and staked out with skis and ice axes. Wearing layers and in sleeping bags, the nights sleep was disturbed but not unreasonable.
Morning broke with clear skies, giving us hope for the day ahead. It was an inspiring place to open your eyes, and I looked to the cliffs above as the sun slowly reached them.
With the snow setting up firm overnight, we could afford to have a lazy start, waiting for the sun to do its magic on the snow in the gullies.
The gullies were catching the first of the day’s sunshine and we were raring to go (just might not look it in the above photograph)!! We spent our time filling up with copious quantities of caffeine and porridge, and as we relaxed we watched a pair of Golden Eagles soar overhead for some time before disappearing out of sight.
The porridge eating seemed an appropriate activity, for the name ‘Coire Bhrochain’ translates as Coire of Porridge. The story goes that a number of cows accidentally met their end by falling over the cliff edge in the cloud, and the resultant mess was said to have resembled porridge!! In the 1920s Seton Gordon and a friend discovered what they thought were the bones of two deer, but a jaw bone sent for identification to Edinburgh was later determined as belonging to a cow. The location of the discovery was one which two cows would not have been able to walk to, appearing to confirm the story behind the name. Seton Gordon put forward another possible explanation of the name, writing in 1925 that the cloud often gathered in Coire Bhrochain when the surrounding corries and the summit of Braeriach are clear, with the swirling of the mist in the coire resembling a steaming pot of porridge.
Eating porridge and drinking coffee in contemplative silence I think we were all taken by the location and the occasion, sensing that we were in the midst of something which would live long in the memory. The contemplation could not last long – the sun was doing its work, and soon we were re-shouldering our packs and setting off for the re-ascent of East Gully (I) in the direction of Central Buttress Gully (I**). The re-ascent covered about 350 vertical metres each time, which felt even longer under the hot sun.
Our ski tracks on this line from the day previous had already vanished under the hot sun:
Central Buttress Gully (I**) is one that has been completely off my radar. You would barely know that the gully was there unless you happened to walk to the edge of the cliff at a particular point and look over. Starting at the Braeriach Pinnacle some 160m east of the summit, the gully descends in three stages. Deeply enclosed by a slightly overhanging arete of rock forming the West Wall Route on its southern side, the upper stage is an amphitheatre set in a perfect location. A dog-leg turns into the middle section of the gully: a chimney which runs down towards the top of a cliff, adding exposure. A second dog-leg at the bottom of the chimney and the top of the cliff sees a swing towards the lower ramp. Here the gully is completely exposed on its south side, running diagonally along the top of the same cliff tier, coming back in towards the bottom of East Gully (I). A terrible funnel for wind-slab in the winter months, a band of smooth slabs on the middle section also mean that the line can’t be left too late in the year either. Today, though, we were fortunate in that conditions were just right. Honestly, this gully has everything and is probably the nicest line I have had the fortune of skiing. Fantastic.
Following this descent, Craig and I opted to make the re-ascent of East Gully straight away to take a couple more photographs of the entry to Central Buttress Gully (I**) – some of which are shown above. Having packed up the camp, on our re-ascent we took photographs looking towards Andrew and Dave making a descent on the east-facing side of the coire.
From the summit plateau of Braeriach, the view towards Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine is one that is impossible to tire of. It provides a fitting backdrop to the Braeriach Pinnacle at the top of Central Buttress Gully (I**).
Having skied the gully entrance another couple of times for photographic purposes, we sat in the sunshine at the rendezvous waiting for Andrew and Dave to re-appear. It was with some reluctance that we left Coire Bhrochain and Braeriach behind, but the distance back to the cars provided adequate motivation.
Contouring on ski round towards the north from An Coire Ruadh, we were able to link patches down to Lochan Dubh na Làirige (Pools of Dee) at the summit of the Lairig Ghru. From here, the March Burn was complete all but for a short break near its top. Duly noted, this would be a preferable – and considerably quicker – approach to Braeriach at some point in the future.
Under a hot sun and with seriously balmy temperatures, boxers were to prove to be more than enough clothing, with little desire of wearing ski trousers on the bootpack up the March Burn.
Pausing to dip our feet in the lochain at the top of the March Burn, it wasn’t long before setting out across the plateau. We linked patches from mid-way along the Feith Buidhe, skinning round upper Coire Domhain to the top of Point Five Gully. Our original intention had been to head over to Jacob’s Ladder (I) to end the trip, but with Stob Coire an t-Sneachda completely snowless we felt little inspiration for the extra hike. Instead, we dropped into Point Five, and found it to be in good snow condition.
Making our way through the boulderfield and back down towards the Coire Cas carpark we fell into silence for one of the few times of the trip, all apparently content with our thoughts and the rhythmic march back towards our cars.
The two days had re-affirmed in my head what I’ve often thought, that you can seldom plan to have a good experience in our hills – they just happen. The days that live longest in the memory are the spontaneous ones, acting on the spur of the moment and requiring little forethought. More often than not, taking a regimented approach will see your plans go awry and will see you leave disappointed.
My thoughts wandered back to my thoughts of the morning in Coire Bhrochain, sitting by the stove while waiting for water to boil for the coffee. I couldn’t help but reflect on the words to a Bob Dylan song, sung in 1976 but still resonate today:
One more cup of coffee for the road,
One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go
To the valley below.
Sitting high in Coire Bhrochain that morning I pondered whether or not it was to be my last day skiing of winter 2010/11, and whether I felt ready to head down towards the valley and towards summertime just yet. My first cup of coffee finished and not ready to leave just yet, I switched the stove back on, and prepared to make one more.9.03.11
The past weekend might have seen a return of spring, but not for long, with the forecasts already suggesting the promise of further snowfalls to come for our hills. As I write, snow has already returned to the pavements and rooftops of Edinburgh.
It has been a strange season – good snow, but very unpredictable overhead weather at the weekends. Still, the brief good-weather interlude offered by the weekend allowed gully season to kick off with a vengeance. Judging by some of the people I spoke to and reports I have heard come in, there were plenty out making the most of it.
The guys checking out Easy Gully (I):
Doug putting in turns on the ramp at the top of Easy Gully (photo by Craig):
Jamie skiing beneath a couple of ice climbers at the icefall on Easy Gully (photo by Craig):
Craig in Easy Gully:
Geoff looking towards the lochain from low down in Easy Gully (photo by Craig):
Doug in Raeburn’s Gully (I) – a large avalanche runnel meant we could only ski the lower half:
Sunday’s weather was better for us, so we headed for the Stag Rock area of CairnGorm – the sun softening the snow up to provide good spring turns under a hot sun. Advantage was the south-facing aspect – the clear skies overnight rendered all other aspects bullet hard.
Gav putting in some solid turns at the top of Y-Shaped Gully (I):
Dave negotiating the narrows in the left-branch of Y-Shaped Gully:
Jamie coming to a halt on the run-out slopes:
The long and steep boot-pack back up:
Gav putting in a swift slash at the top of Diagonal Gully (I):
Hugo in Diagonal Gully:
Jamie heading for the run-out slopes above Loch Avon:
Dave leaving Diagonal Gully behind, and heading for the beach!
A whole lot of fun. With all the thaw/freeze cycles that have been ongoing throughout the season we could be in for a good spring – and it hasn’t even got started yet.5.12.10
An 11 minute assortment of memories which were once present moments, filmed in Scotland in 2009-10.
The film was inspired in part by a conversation overheard between two strangers at Hillend in Edinburgh. When one was asked about winter in Scotland, the retort was a laugh, with “nah; Alps mate”. This film is my way of saying “you’re wrong”.
So why ‘Wake’? The name was chosen because of the dual meaning of the word, and how sometimes you have to take time to take stock and reflect on what’s behind you in order to look ahead. It’s about knowing who you are from the moment you wake to the moment you go to bed; and sometimes all that’s required is for you to open your eyes.
Apart from anything else, we as a whole are unquestionably having more fun than the stranger at Hillend.20.11.10
I was having too much fun on CairnGorm today to bother taking any photos of conditions. Instead, to help inspire and motivate all you Scottish skiers for winter 2010/11 here’s a quick edit of footage I took last season of Hugo skiing over a sheep. Enjoy!6.06.10
Now in the eighth calendar month of lift-served skiing, this weekend has seen the curtain finally fall on winter 2009/10.
Sensing the end, and with last Wednesday’s forecast looking promising for the days ahead, I made the spontaneous decision to hike in to Coire an t-Sneachda the following evening. I’d been on the blower to Hugo in Edinburgh about the weekend ski prospects, and he didn’t need much persuasion when it came to asking whether or not he’d be interested in the pre-weekend 2 day pilgrimage.
Leaving the Cas carpark late in the day on Thursday, we reached the inner-coire floor at 7pm where set up ‘Base Camp’ at the uppermost end of the Valley of Turds and Teabags. Anybody that has seen the array of melting snowholes dotted along the side of the protalus rampart in late spring or early summer will understand the name, for it describes the annual legacy of the coire’s winter inhabitants.
Now at the edge of the snow and looking up at the impressive amphitheater of Coire an t-Sneachda (coire of the snow), the snow-clad gully lines more than justify the coire’s name. Now in summertime, they still provide some 200m vertical descent from the coire rim down to the coire floor.
Above us stood the narrow chimney of Jacob’s Ladder. The Book of Genesis describes Jacob’s Ladder as a ladder to heaven, and so this grade 1 gully is appropriate as a climbing term. Years ago when I first looked down the gully line from a skiing perspective I baulked at the size of the cornice and almost pat my shants. A drop of several vertical metres is considered normal, ensuring that in a normal year no skiers other than the freeskiing.co.uk crowd would dare to venture in. Last year I made my first descent of this line, lowered over the edge by some friendly ice climbers who had just finished their cramponed ascent. This year, the unusual build-up of snow has resulted in the entry being as ‘easy’ as it is ever likely to be – a steep ramp as opposed to its usual beefy cornice. Little can compare to the feeling of skiing through the lowermost narrow confines of the gully at speed into the wide open bowl beneath, and so for the skier I would suggest that the ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ metaphor is more fitting if the ladder is turned upside down. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
The hike from Base Camp to Windy Col always looks like it will take longer than it actually does, and the 170m vertical difference took us all of 25 minutes.
On the coire rim, the setting sun was beginning to cast long shadows across the Strath far below. In Coire an t-Sneachda, Point-Five Gully and Aladdin’s Couloir had long since been abandoned to shade
Hugo at the top of Jacob’s Ladder, looking down towards the coire floor and ‘Base Camp’:
The North-West facing Jacob’s Ladder was now fully lit up by the setting sun, and the Cairngorm granite now glowed a warm red – providing more than enough justification for this mountain range’s traditional name: Am Monadh Ruadh (the red hills).
I should mention at this point that I had opted to wear the kilt for this overnight trip, reasoning that it is one of the most practical pieces of mountain clothing out there. Warm, but not lacking in ventilation.
And so in:
The snow was perfect spring snow – fast, but grippy – with the steep gradient allowing any water to percolate away, preventing the snow from ever becoming too sticky.
Heading through the narrows, towards the open bowl beneath:
Hugo making fast turns back to camp:
Looking back after our first descent of Jacob’s Ladder inspired us enough to make another descent before dinner:
On the menu tonight was numerous packs of Super Noodles supplemented by pre-cooked Cumberland Sausages from the local butcher. Strangely tasty when washed down with cold beer/cider, freshly dug from our makeshift larder.
As the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky, it bled its last into the vast blue memory. The sunset was one of the most vibrant I can remember seeing in a long time. Empowered by a tripod and ‘self-timer’ mode we succeeded in spoiling an otherwise nice sunset picture!
We might look like idiots, but we were two very happy idiots. The picture probably epitomises the entire trip – a haphazardly planned outing that went above and beyond expectations. Somehow my best days on the hill have always been the spontaneous ones, and in this case it was no different. A late walk into Coire an t-Sneachda followed by two descents of Jacob’s Ladder before bedtime? Magic.
Soon the last of the daylight had slipped away, and darkness fell over us.
We had opted against packing a tent, reasoning that neither of us particularly wanted to carry it in, and in any case the overnight forecast was a good one. If all went pear-shaped, the car was only a 40min walk away! In the event, the forecast held true, and the stars above Jacob’s Ladder were the last thing that I saw before I closed my eyes.
Dawn broke shortly before 4am, with the upper section of Aladdin’s Couloir catching the early morning sunshine. I lapsed back into unconsciousness, waking again around 9am – this time to an overcast sky.
A slow start saw us reach the top of Aladdin’s Couloir around lunchtime, just as the blue sky was starting to break through again.
There were several patches of ice on the top pitch of Aladdin’s Couloir as we headed towards the fork at Aladdin’s Seat, which required care.
Nevertheless, the snow in the couloir proper was good. Perfect spring snow again, though the snow was peppered with rocks from the crags above – released when winter lost its grip on this land. It was plain sailing down to the coire floor, with the snow around the icefall narrowing but not presenting any difficulty:
Sat at ‘Base Camp’ and looking back at Aladdin’s Couloir while having lunch, the skies showed signs of completely clearing:
Back off to Jacob’s Ladder:
The kilt putting in a turn high on Jacob’s Ladder:
The kilt’s descent of Jacob’s, this time with aid of ‘burst’ mode and a tripod:
Return to Base Camp and the coire floor:
By this time my knee was starting to play up on the ascents, and feeling content with our lot we decided to call it a day. Only one thing was left to do – dip in one of the lochains to cool down before the walk out. I thought that with the lochains being shallower than Loch Morlich, the water would probably be warmer up here. Error. The fact that snow was still present at the side should have been a warning, for the cold rush was debilitating, and it was an immense relief to return to dry land!
And so ended the overnight ski-jam, a definite season highlight and the perfect way to see out an epic winter.
The following day (Saturday 5th June) we headed back to CairnGorm, this time for some lift-served skiing in what was to prove their final weekend of operations for winter 2009/10.
It has been a season that has seen prolonged good conditions spanning 8 months, and I have racked up 60 ski days along the way. Hiking out of Coire an t-Sneachda on Friday I knew that this weekend would see the curtain fall on lift-served snowsports, but for once it doesn’t feel premature. Feeling quite content, I walked back towards civilisation, and towards summertime.26.05.10
After some of the days we’ve been enjoying this month, you’d be forgiven for thinking that summer has finally arrived in Scotland.
But leaving all that aside for a moment, something that is perhaps easier to miss is the fact that the ski lifts are still spinning on CairnGorm at the weekends, with 450m vertical ski descent still on offer as of last weekend.
Cooler weather this week should preserve cover for the bank holiday next weekend. CairnGorm is now one of less than 30 ski resorts in the world to still be open for business, and did somebody mention lift-served skiing in June?! – a man on the hill suggested that it might just be the case…
The plan was simple. The battle lines for Saturday were drawn in my head on Friday during a drive from Inverness to Edinburgh and then back again (roadworks making it 7.5 hours on the road), and essentially involved travelling in a straight line from the summit of CairnGorm to the summit of Ben Macdui taking in several gully descents along the way. OK so some of the gullies fell a little bit to either the side of the line, but I’ve never been able to draw straight lines anyway!
I was amazed when Geoff and Craig agreed to accompany me on this ludicrous mission, and even more amazed when we formulated a plan for Sunday that would make the weekend even more amazing… if we could pull it off.
Part 1: The Cairngorms Installment
We begin at the Coire Cas carpark at 7:30am, put the skins on our skis and head off in the vague direction of the 1141m cairn at the top of the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais. Following the line of the ski tows, our peace was disturbed when we were the unfortunate observers of another early riser depositing the previous nights dinner in an exposed patch of heather at the bottom of a ski tow a total distance of 500m from the [open] carpark toilets. I am a great believer in and advocate of the whole process of defecating in the great outdoors, but this particular stool was not too far from where the lift operator would be positioning his own stool (of an entirely different variety) to sit on later on in the day.
But I digress.
At point 1141 we moved towards the top of Stag Rocks which tower above Loch Avon. A stunning viewpoint, it affords excellent views towards the Carn Etchachan, Shelterstone and Hells Lum Crags. Even if you aren’t planning on any climbing or skiing in this area, it would be well worth a detour on any Northern Corries traverse.
It was also at the top of Stag Rocks that we had a view towards two gullies that we would have a look at later in the day. Castlegates Gully splitting the Carn Etchachan and Shelterstone Crags (but hidden out of view by the Shelterstone Crag in this picture), and Pinnacle Gully, which is in full view with its pinnacle sitting in the centre of the gully near the top.
The Stag Rocks are home to ‘Diagonal Gully’ – a grade 1 climb that runs diagonally down towards the head of Loch Avon. Very prominent when seen from the other side of the loch, it has been in the back of my mind since I first became interested in skiing.
The first look down the gully confirmed that it would be a goer, and chucking a snowball down confirmed that the snow was good (we had worried it might be too crispy).
And so in:
Geoff heading for Loch Avon [still frozen, but wouldn’t risk it!]:
It was at Loch Avon that we made a mistake. We skied to the shore, expecting to be able to plod along the stepping stones. We should have crossed the river far higher, where there was still a snow bridge, because snow melt has left the river swollen and the stepping stones were well underwater! Contemplating our options, we opted to just tighten the ski boots and run for the opposite bank.
This proved to be a good plan.. for Geoff. He was wearing downhill ski boots, whereas Craig and I had touring boots. It would turn out that touring boots are considerably less watertight than downhill boots. To make things worse, my final step before the bank left me knee deep!
Still, fortunately the liners didn’t let much – if any – water through, though my toes definitely felt a tad moist. Oh well, nevermind. We were now on the correct side of the river, and skinned up to the low col between Carn Etchachan and Stacan Dubha towards Loch Etchachan. The ascent afforded excellent views back to Diagonal Gully (the obvious line facing the camera):
..and let us look into Castlegates Gully (it can only be seen from this angle), which we wanted to have a look at. Carn Etchachan is on the left hand side:
This route up was chosen deliberately because we weren’t sure about the (easier) ascent route up the line of Garbh Uisge Beag between Shelterstone Crag and Hells Lum. There are some slabs in there, and we could see some tension cracks opening up. Recent news of a full depth avalanche on Glas Maol did not inspire us to take the shorter option.
It was at this point that we decided against heading on to Ben Macdui, and decided instead to use the extra time to ski both of the gullies on this side of Loch Avon, instead of just one.
From the top of Carn Etchachan we dropped down to the top of Castlegates Gully.
It was in considerably better condition than when I skied it last winter, helped by not having to downclimb over loose rock this time round! It is a stunning gully that splits the two crags, and descends steeply down to the head of Loch Avon. An inspiring line in an inspiring location. The snow was in very good condition – being slightly shaded helped as it wasn’t too soft:
Geoff watching Craig put in the last turns in Castlegates Gully proper.
At the foot of Castlegates Gully we traversed under the Shelterstone Crag to the foot of Pinnacle Gully, strapped our skis to our packs and took out the ice axes, and bootpacked our way up Pinnacle Gully:
The next photo demonstrates why Pinnacle Gully is called Pinnacle Gully, with a very prominent finger of rock stretching towards the sky:
And so we found ourselves back at the shore of Loch Avon for the third time that day, and we commenced our final ascent out of the basin, aiming for Coire Domhain.
It was on these slopes that we were buzzed by a helicopter, which spent quite a while checking us out. It hovered for some considerable time around several locations, and seemed to be looking for somebody or something. I hope it was just a training exercise, because it eventually disappeared empty handed.
At the top of Coire Domhain we headed for the rim of Coire an t-Sneachda and descended Aladdin’s Couloir to finish the day. Today it had evidently been descended many times as the entrance was scraped. We took a high and exposed traversing line over untouched snow to avoid the scraped patches:
Geoff at ‘Aladdin’s Seat’ (the finger of rock by the col). Aladdin’s Couloir drops off to the right, Aladdin’s Mirror off to the left. I don’t know what it is about Aladdin being into cool-wires and mirrors, is he not more of a carpet and lamp man?
Geoff heading down Aladdin’s Couloir – our fourth gully descent of the day, and a fantastic way to cap off another superb day in the Cairngorms.
Aladdin’s Couloir is in the centre of the photo:
The total trip took 9 hours, and around 1500m of vertical ascent. The snow conditions made it tough going, as where it was softer we were unable to skin and had to hike instead.
Nevertheless, after a quick drink in the Cas Bar at the Coire Cas carpark we went our seperate ways. Geoff heading off for a ‘hot date’ in Aberdeen, though he wasn’t sure if he would have time to shower or even if he would be able to stay awake and make conversation with the girl! I haven’t asked how it went..
I headed north to Inverness, while Craig headed for a B&B in Fort William – the location of Part 2.
Part 2: The West Highland Installment
Craig and I were joined by Mike, and we had thought about taking the 8am climbers gondola but realised that we would then have to skin up from the top gondola station. If we waited 1 hour, until 9am, we could take all the ski lifts to the summit. Time wise we would arrive at the top at the same time either way, so we favoured the option that would involve least effort – particularly after the big day on Saturday
From the summit we had our first view of the main bowl of Carn Mor Dearg. Our line today was from mid-way along the ridge, coming down between where Craig and I are standing.
Our descent off Aonach Mor followed the two steep gullies we used last year, and are visible in the background on the right hand side of the following picture:
Mike approaching the summit:
Myself scoping out lines mid-way along the main bowl:
Thankfully there wasn’t a cornice to deal with this year, so I headed in with minimal faff:
It is an amazing face – probably the best open face descent in Scotland. Truly world-class. The following is a shot to show my line:
Craig putting in a swift slash
Finding the quick route down the hill:
Heading for the lower bowl:
More smiles than a toothpaste advert:
More smiley faces, and a ribbon of snow along the river bank enabled us to ski some distance out into the valley:
The above location is where we stopped for lunch, but more importantly for the obligatory whisky stop. It also gave us time to reflect on the weekend. There was something amazingly calming and relaxing about hearing the cold clear water rushing past. We were the only people there, and we sat in sunshine in the heather trying to take it all in.
I should add that today’s river crossing was considerably more successful than yesterday’s!!
A short hike up a steep slope of rough ground, and we found ourselves at the ‘viewpoint’ – at the end of a path which leads back to the ski area. We enjoyed a final view towards CMD, though our descent was now out of sight:
We were amazed to find ourselves back in time for a last uplift on the ski lifts. A further plan then dawned on us, to really round off the day and the weekend as a whole. A short walk above the top of the Summit Button tow, sits another grade 1 gully – called ‘Easy Gully’ – which we have all been down several times before, and we couldn’t resist going along to have a look:
The first look over the cornice of Easy Gully is always a bit of a sphincter test:
Saddled up and a few minutes later:
Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos of the other two coming in, as my camera battery was sitting in the charger at home!
We enjoyed a final ski down the open slopes of Coire an Lochain beneath Easy Gully, and wound our way round to the remotest lift in Scotland – the Braveheart Chairlift. The lift had closed 5 minutes prior, but the liftie was only too happy to let us on. Certainly saved us a considerable walk, anyway!
From the top of the Braveheart Chairlfit we made our way back to the top Gondola station and to the bar. The weekend had gone above and beyond our expectations, and we had the smiles and horrific odour to prove it.
We went our separate ways at the carpark, but on the way home I found my thoughts straying to the next adventure. With plenty of life left in this winter yet, who knows where we might find ourselves next?
I had a funny feeling that the thoughts of my companions would be along similar lines.12.04.10
The full ‘Save the Ciste‘ website is on-line, and I would encourage all of you to visit it and sign the E-Petition to lend your voice to the calls for chairlift reinstatement.
Several articles have appeared in the media, such as local newspaper The Strathspey and Badenoch Herald, which can be read here, here, and here, and in the Scotsman here. Mention of the campaign has also appeared on BBC Reporting Scotland (which can be seen here) and BBC Alba (which can be seen here).
Over 1000 people have signed the e-petition, and numbers continue to increase.