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.