2008/02/09--13 Record of mountaineering in Cairngorms (by Masa)

[Japanese / English]


Neil, Masa
2008/02/09--2008/02/13 (4 nights)
Styles: O(s) = Onsite, F = Flash, (A) = (a little Advice), G = Ground-up, Hp = Head-Point, AL = Alternative Lead, MT = Move together, Y(o) = Yo-Yo (or dogged)
Wild camping near Coire an t'Sneachda
  • 2008/02/09 Cloudy
  • 2008/02/10 Cloudy/foggy
  • 2008/02/11 Clear
  • 2008/02/12 Clear
  • 2008/02/13 Clear


Looking back at it, I have never been to Scotland in February — the month where the condition is more likely to be in than any other, although I kept meaning to. This time I have finally made it with a climbing partner, Neil. He has kept talking about his intention for winter climbing/walking world for the past year or so, and he has finally made it this season. Good! Obviously he is a novice, so we should start from training, which I welcome, too.

The snow/ice condition in Scotland early in this season was pretty good — I heard that the condition was in even in late November, and that the people in ski resorts in Scotland were absolutely delighted. However while I were checking the condition and the weather in the past week, it did not look encouraging. The webcam in a Cairn Gorm ski slope showed black grounds, meaning the amount of snow must be quite limited.

As for the accommodation, we were planning to do wild camping, probably somewhere down Coire an t'Sneachda, as Graeme and I did last December. However, only for the first day, we were planning to do bivvying probably in the parking space in the base of the ski resort, because I did not think it would be a sensible idea to make Neil carry a heavy load on snow, probably near or after the sunset (because of long travel, I expected to arrive there quite late), before he does any training of walking on snow with an iceaxe.

At the final check of the weather forecast the day before the departure, it looked manageable — not cold but not windy. Hopefully we can do something over there. Let's see.

09 Feb

Setting off at 4 in the morning, where roads were clear, we arrived at the parking of the Cairn Gorm ski-resort quite early, at 14:20. There is almost no snow arround there. In that case, we can go and camp at the place where I planned, and so did we. We found, even at the camp site we chose, there was almost no snow, apart from the eastern side of the crest to the west from the site and somewhere over the stream, which we went across to get away from the path.

10 Feb

Getting up at 6, we first set off to the slope on the side of the crest we saw yesterday, which is very close to our camping site, to do some basic winter training for 2 hours: check of the quality of snow, cutting steps, walking with/without crampons up/down/diagonally/horizontally, use of an iceaxe, self-arrest in various situations, and use of avalanche beacon and Sonde probe.

Then fetching rucksacks, we headed towards Cairn Gorm main summit via Goat track in Coire an t'Sneachda. It is a steep-ish track and so would be a good onsite practice for Neil. In addition, it will be used for descent after climbing from tomorrow, so I wanted to check the condition of the slope as well — Goat track is famous for being avalanche-prone in the `right' condition.

Arriving at the slope, we saw some groups down in the slope, The top can not be seen due to fog. The snow is soft-ish but seems to be all right at least on the surface. After ascending the slope along eastern boulders, I carried out the hand (sheer) test, digging out a little snow pillar. I could not move it at all, so the snow must be bonded pretty well. However, Neil managed to slide the upper half of the pillar! You strong man! Anyhow he had to use the whole body weight, so there should be no problem in terms of avalanche risk in this slope. Relieved with this fact, we carried on walking up to the top of Goat track.

Now the visibility is very poor, 20 or 30 metres, on the ridge. As is forecast, we must be in a low cloud. There is no snow apart from some patches on the ridge — it is not winter walking any more, sadly. We then first visited the summit of Cairn Lochain, then headed towards Cairn Gorm main summit, walking along the ridge.

During a descent from Cairn Lochain in a thick fog, we found some traces and followed it for a few minutes until we concluded this is definitely a wrong path. So we made aiming off to the ridge first, which we eventually made, then I started serious navigation from this point this time.

Except for one moment when the cloud was cleared out on our way to the summit, the way was shrouded with a thick fog, including the summit itself. Indeed when I finally reached the summit cairn, I didn't notice the weather station tower 20m away until Neil pointed it out. The visibility was that bad. In that sense, although the condition was not winterly, this was a good practice opportunity of navigation! I remember that the last time I came here with Graeme a year ago, the weather was exactly like this. Maybe Cairn Gorm summit and I don't go well together?

We went back to our campsite via the shortest route, cutting across the heatheed terrain.

11 Feb

First day for climbing. The weather forecast says the temperature will rise in the next couple of days. That means today will be likely to be the best day for winter, particularly ice, climbing during our stay. We have chosen Spiral Gully (II) with its variation of direct finish at the top (III) in Coire an t'Sneachda/Fluted Buttress. It starts from steep snow slope (worth I?), probably following some icy bits (II), ending with (progressively difficult) mixed climbing (III), so I expect it will offer us a variety of aspects in winter climbing, taking one of the longest lines in this Coire! And, being different from yesterday, it is clear today. Nice one.

We saw a party before us in the corrie, so we probably are the second earliest party today. While I geared up, I lost my thermometre and a gear box(!), annoyingly. Fortunately(?) the gear box contained sort of less frequently used gear of an ice hook, worthog and pegs, so I had no problem to carry on. Indeed I can climb even lighter now, as well as my wallet in near future will be.

First pitch. Steep snow with some icy bits. No problem for either of us.

Second pitch. Snow was significantly hardened since yesterday. There were traces of previous (yesterday or before) parties established very well, and as a result it was almost like a staircase! Then I thought I passed the two gully-like part described in the guidebook, so traversed to the right in a mixed terrain. I placed a runner in the traverse and aimed further to carry on to the belay ledge 5m ahead up after the traverse, when I heard a call 2 metres left, Masa. You are joking, Neil...

Fortunately I managed to find some anchors here to make the belaying system. If I had known the rope length left, I would have placed more runners during the traverse, but I didn't, which meant it would be a bit scary for Neil to second in traverse. But apparently he had no trouble. Well done.

We can now see the vertical chimney-like feature above, which will be the final direct finish with mixed climbing. After the next short-ish pitch, we will arrive at the foot of that crux pitch.

In fact, I found out later on (in the following day) this was the beginning of our miscourse. I actually haven't yet passed the gully-like part described in the guidebook, and so I should have followed the snowy terrain farther up, before starting traversing. And as a result, the chimney we were aiming at is a part of the grade IV chimney (Fluted Buttress Direct) without realising it. I will come back to this point later.

The third pitch, with some mixed but easy snow and rock climbing, for 25m or so. It is quite warm today. So I changed into more technical (though cold) gloves at the belaying ledge for the preparation for the next crux pitch.

And the fourth pitch. First I got established in the crux chimney properly. If ice had been formed well, it would be a nice pitch. However in today's condition with pretty much no ice, it is more like a dry-tooling. It was not always straightforward, but was never deseparate, and so I could take a steady approach. There was no shortage of gear placement, either. One of my ice axes stayed in the hammer holster in most of the time during this pitch. I found it to be very useful!

Partly because I laced up with runners, which was beginning to cause the shortage of the gear, and partly because the rope drag became considerable due to rubbing with the rock face in the chimney, I pitched just after 30m. Judging from the rope length, the top should be very close by now, however the route seems to go farther.

The fifth pitch. I continued this dry tooling. The rocks are a bit loose presumably due to high temperature. Scary. But some turfs still remain frozen. Encouraging. There was a steep and hard snow slope for 10m during this pitch, where I was delighted to use both axes. This is winter climbing! — just.

50m on, but I still could not see the top clearly. It is at least 10m or more likely 15m ahead, if the top I can see from the ledge is the true top. But if the silhouette of something farther ahead which I had spotted from somewhere below is to believe (as the top), the true top may be farther ahead. So I pitched at the ledge.

Neil looked tired by now, and to make the matter worse, he was a bit annoyed that he had banged his teeth with an ice axe, when it accidentally popped out. Oh, sorry for that. That is a risk in winter climbing...

Now, something must be going wrong. We have come here for well well over 150m, as we had had already five pitches, three of which were for over 50m long, whereas the guidebook says the lengh of the original route, which is even longer than our direct finish one, is mere 150m. Nevertheless, we believe the top should be reasonably close. The cliff height itself is mere 150m ish. And the route ahead looks and should be well climbable. So I carried on.

The sixth pitch. After the first 15m of dry-tooling, yeah, I found the route was still going on. But eventually I spotted the top to my joy, and reached it without problem except for a considerable rope drag, as the terrain changed the gradient to more horizontal, after 50m long pitch.

Neil followed and reached the top finally at 17:20, the sunset time! Congratulations! We must be hard-core climbers to do such a dawn-to-dusk climbing! Indeed it was much longer both in duration and route length than we had thought, and sustained. Neil looked knackered, understandably. I have to say it has turned out to be pretty hard as the first winter climbing experience...

Now I come back to the point of our miscourse. Apparently we ended up doing a mixed line of Fluted Buttress Direct (IV 5) and then Wavelength (III 4), after starting in the original Spiral Gully (II), instead of its direct finish (III). The route description of Fluted Buttress Direct says about the pitch we climbed in, it may be considerably harder in the lean condition, which was today's case... So that means I climbed my first IV without realising it... I am really glad I did not have any trouble, and was not stucked or scared anywhere during the route... Ironically if I had known the grade, I might have.

An unresolved problem yet is the route length. Although we miscoursed, it still must be shorter than the original Spiral Gully, as the original route involves a more zig-zag than the route we took, where the finishing points of both the routes were the same, and its length in the guidebook is mere 150m. Counting up the rope lengths we used, the line we climbed must be roughly 260m. We did not do any zigzag — after the first traverse we just climbed up the prominent vertical chimney quite straightforwardly, therefore the estimated rope length should be roughly correct. As a result, I am still perplexed.

I used the rope length as one of measures to identify the point of starting traverse. Looking back at it, it was the main cause of the miscourse. Possibly we started the route below the supposed starting point? 30m below? Maybe. But 100m below? No way. Consequently, if I met the same situation (in a different route, of course) again, I might make the same miscourse...

Anyhow I did well, very fortunately, and we did enjoy the day safely (apart from Neil's minor injury). That is what matters!

12 Feb

The sky is absolutely clear again today, after a clear night. And it is warm again. Today we are going to do the route Y-Gully Right Branch (II; 70m) in the next coire, Coire an Lochain.

After a long and hard day of yesterday, we wanted a shorter route. Besides the (SMC definitive) guidebook says It can hold a lot of ice in lean conditions, which it would be today. So I can hopefully introduce Neil a joy of ice climbing, as yesteday's ice was very poor, short, escapable and more like hard snow. Another reason was it is located in the different corrie from the usual and nearest Coire an t'Sneachda, which hopefully gives Neil a bit varied view on winter climbing. Indeed as we are going to do a short route the final day tomorrow in Coire an t'Sneachda, today is the last chance to go to Coire an Lochain.

A problem in Coire an Lochain is that the approaching slope below its Great Slab is rather steep (worth grade I) and famous to be avalanche prone. Indeed on our way there I spotted debris and trace of both loose-snow and slab avalanches. Beautiful examples. However in today's condition, where the SAIS category is 1 (lowest risk), after a good deal of quiet days, I judged the risk would be minimum and confirmed it on site, while we are still equipped with avalanche beacons.

The approaching slope was also tiring, being steep and long-ish. But Neil is doing pretty well, not needing any help of rope. He is quickly acquiring the winter skill!

We started pitching somewhere in the foot of No.3 Buttress. A pure snow pitch, with good staircases established by previous parties. I spotted a good crack at the foot of the Y-Gully at the end of this pitch, but unfortunately the rope length was not enough by just a couple of metres, so I managed to make a belay stance 5 metres below it. Although I judged the anchors were not 100 per cent perfect to belay the leader from, if I place the first runner at the crack I had spotted, it should be fine.

The second pitch (of ours). Now the true pitch of this route starts. Immediately after the crack on the right, it looks well iced up. Joy of ice climbing! Challenge to our carf muscles!

It is a proper ice pitch. Staircases were still there — sort of. But how useful are they in a steep angled ice for climbing? So it was a good fun. The ice quality was not great, though. I put four screws during this pitch and as the first runner for the next pitch, none of which I could trust. (Can you trust a tied-off ice-screw buried for only 10cm after screwing a hollow-feeling ice?) However, there were reasonably abundant rock gear in both the side walls. In particular a middle-sized nut I placed in the rock sticking right in the middle of the gully was a bomber and I was pleased with it.

The guidebook says this is normally done without pitch (despite its length of 70m!). I wouldn't risk it and so pitched in the middle of a steep snow slope. Yes, I now understand that pitching during this climbing is not so easy, but it has to be done. I placed a dodgy ice screw as the first runner for the next pitch, and three rock gear in both sides of a 30cm-wide rock in the left-hand side wall. I dynamically equalised them and was about to shout Climb when you are ready, moving towards the snow ledge I made for belaying, holding a rock under the central rock between the cracks — it moved!

Oh, my goodness... If the central rock ever pops out, then the whole system (but the ice-screw?) will inevitably collapse. Can I risk it? No... Even though I could assume I won't fall in leading the next pitch, Neil may, while seconding this pitch, as this pitch will be reasonably hard as his first proper ice pitch. I doubt how secure and stable the tiny snow ledge I am standing for belay is, too, considering Neil's much heavier weight than me.

So I shouted down Wait a minute, Neil, I am rearranging the anchors and deseparately searched for another more reliable anchor. Snow gear is possible, but as the theory tells, that is the last choice. Fortunately I found a rock gear above. Now I used it as the main belay, backing up with the three well equalised rock gear with a dynamic cord, as well as the dodgy ice screw (for the next pitch), which as a whole I am happy with. So, this is the reason why it took so long time on the ledge, Neil. Sorry for your shivering long wait!

Neil later mentioned this pitch was fantastic. He seemed to enjoyed it thoroughly! I am very glad to hear that! Apprently it was quite hard for him, too, so I think although he didn't fall, my making an extra effort to improve the anchors was the right decision, even though it took a long time (anyhow we had plenty of time that day!).

Now finally off I go for the final pitch to tackle with the cornice. I originally planned to bury the snow stake and another ice screw farther up before I tackle with the steepest bit. However a swift party came after me, without pitching. Although he chose the different exit, I felt a sort of need to hurry, and so didn't place any gear, (apart from the first dodgy ice screw 2m above the belay), which I regretted while I was tackling with the soft cornice...

Anyhow I finally managed to top out. And so did Neil to under the clear sky with almost no wind. It was again a beautiful day, where we could view mountains as far as near Fort William, and was a good climbing!

13 Feb

It is the day to leave, nevertheless we are determined to squeeze another route before we leave. So we set off to an easy gully, Aladdin's Couloir (I) in Coire an t'Sneachda an hour before the sunrise.

We started moving together with a 30m thin rope, following solid steps by the previous parties. This should be the easiest way up, so whatever it looks I chose the easiest way up. It slants to the right, whereas the route should go straight up according to the route description — there were two straight-up gullies seen on our way, but both of them looked far too hard, the latter of which looked worth grade IV or possibly harder in the best condition and must be considerably harder in today's lean condition.

So we just followed the "staircase" without trouble. At one stage it was a bit icy, but it was easy enough for me to solo up with a single ice axe, and I waist-belayed Neil for 15m just in case. Then again we carried on the staircase climbing and topped out this 200m route in just 30 min, viewing the beautiful runrise. What a speed!

In fact soon later I realised the route we had climbed was Aladdin's Mirror (I), that ironically I aimed at, but failed in finding the start, a year ago. It is another easiest way up, so once we were in, we couldn't miss it. Looking back at it, I am afraid I may have spotted Aladdin's Couloir wrongly first of all even from the ground (perhaps misjudged from Jacob's Ladder)... Anyhow Aladdin's Mirror is a kind of a twin brother of Aladdin's Couloir, so in a way we did what we had wanted to do. No problem!?

The descent to the camp site is via Goat Track as usual. Two days ago, Neil did not look very comfortable in this steep descent, so I used the dog-lead technique (to be fair, at that time it was beginning to get dark, which did not help), and it took a considerable time. Today his steps look well confident and smooth. Remarkable progress in just a few days! It was my great pleasure and I felt previleged to be accompanied with him, watching such a rapid progress.

As such, while I worried a bit about conditions before we had come, this trip actually turned out to be a very fruitful, exciting and nice one. I trust Neil felt the same. Cheers, Cairngorms!

Finally I would like to thank Amanda and Bex for supplying the weather forecast information. It was very useful.

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