Scottish Winter isn’t just challenging for its frequent brutality but for the way it plays with us. It’s a bit like being in an bad relationship, it promises, threatens, sometimes delivers, frequently punishes you. But you love it regardless for the amazing moments and experiences.
There have been good opportunities for great days recently. Despite, in fact perhaps because, the conditions being marginal, thin and yet also really cold high up and in the shady parts of the hills. Short bursts of heavy snow then scoured by gale winds and extreme rain.
Nathan jumped on direct train York to Aviemore one Friday afternoon, only cost him £31 one way and I collected him from the station having driven across from the West Coast. The station is almost next door to the SYHA where we stayed. For those planning on the coming Winter weekend note that it is a good hostel, provides towels and bedding, has a well equipped kitchen, comfortable lounge and a large drying room. Importantly showers are hot and high pressure. Oh and the wi fi is good as well.
The forecast was reasonable, and suitable to take a look at the Northern Corries. Really cold overnight above 600m, some strong gusting winds but from the West/South West and not much precipitation or snow over the next couple of days. Also , as you would expect, the SAIS forecast was all green.
Saturday we were up early and walking into Sneachda from Coir Cas car park as a weak grey dawn came up. It’s a while since I have been and it’s the only time that I have walked in when the ground has been brown, snowless, iceless, past the few skiers assembling to slide downhill on small patches of manufactured piste. The ground stayed barren all the way to the base of the cliff.
It looked nothing like the usual pictures but a few strong patches of snow and even ice glistened against the wet rock. We headed for the centre, avoiding another early party heading for Jacobs ladder and started up, what turned out to be, Alladin’s Couloir. The snow was firm, the short ice pitch wet but also solid.
But we were slow, its been a while, a bit fingers and thumbs all-round and it was Nathan’s first attack at a hill with two axes so we weren’t swinging leads. Soloing was an option but caution was the tactic as despite a few Snowy and Icy Munros this was our first Winter climbing trip of the season. We both needed the practice. We took too much kit, and took too long, but it was still a great route and we wandered off back across the top hours later, tired and fired up for fish and chips and a beer or two.
Sunday, refreshed, and having spent a good hour the night before having a word with ourselves about organization and kit, we were back on the corrie early. With warnings of severe winds we weren’t surprised to be alone and planning on the long journey home we thought Jacobs ladder would do just nicely. We still took ropes, but as we scrambled to the base and geared up the impacted snow and ease of movement led us to leave the rope coiled. The God of the mountains were also kind to me as half way up I noticed that a bolt holding my axe head on one of my axes was missing. Only the weight stopping it from flapping around like a broken finger. It happens, but I should have checked my axes the evening before and possibly at the base of the climb. As I was faffing by gently one-axing my way forward, a shiny thing winked at me from the snow, probably a part of someone’s crampon. It fit nicely and whilst not T rated certainly made me happier and secured the axe head.
40 minutes top to bottom. Stepped out, it was still steep, but the weather was kind and we topped out in unpredicted sunshine.
Content we headed off for to seek breakfast and then head to York.
The following weekend I was back home and linked up with Will and Mimms to climb in Aonach Mor. It was a call between there or the Ben and we opted for the East face of Aonach to avoid the usual crowds on still yet thin options to climb. Aonach’s attractions being that it is nearly the height of the Ben, so should be cold, and, most importantly, there is a lift at least half way up the hill. A major storm was predicted, with 120 mile winds, but it wasn’t due to arrive until much later that evening.
Despite a cold snap down to 600m of -7 degrees the previous night the walk up to the top of the mor wasn’t as firm as we had hoped. Trudging up to the top ski lift hut, before the descent down Easy Gully it did improve and we stopped there to add layers, crampons gear up and drink tea. There was a larger party in front of us and we chatted to them, all agreeing that the safest option over the lip of the gully would be a snow bollard abseil. The cornice looked solid but in some places there were un-nerving cracks. So we waited and lost time letting them descend first. Reassuringly the bollard held and we all used it, checking the rope and the snow each time…pull on red. The 50m ropes left us a bit short but down climbing the rest was easy on quite firm snow, although tiring.
We padded across the East face looking for a route. The other team trying various ones as well. Sadly the cold seemed to not have been low enough or deep enough and one by one each team opted to retreat and we all ended up exiting the face via the same route, Forgotten twin. The snow was marginal and more kept falling as the weather altered earlier than predicted. The thin route did offer up a short ice pitch but the increasing winds and falling snow from climbers above and the deteriorating weather meant that we stayed roped up all the way.
It took a while and by the time I broke through the exit cornice the winds made me use the axes to crawl to the large posts near the ski lanes. Once up we literally fought our way down the hill and to the mountain bike track to the ski lift and car park. Often holding on to each other. Back home, a short drive North, to whiskey, sausage and mash and a hot shower while the winds tore at the walls of the house. It was, frankly a fantastic Winter adventure. Why have the kit if you don’t use it.
Guide book SMC Scottish Winter Climbs. Beta from WinterClimbingForecasts.co.uk, UKC and Dan. Maps BMC Cairngorms and Glencoe. Weather Norwegian Weather Service App, Met Office, Meteoblu, MWIS and SAIS