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.