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.