Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A tale of two visits to Creag Meagaidh

Creag Meagaidh occupies a central position in Scotland both geographically and in terms of mountain sports.  Its cliffs, the view of which unfolds throughout the approach to Coire Ardair like the plot of a good novel, are rivaled in scale only by the likes of Ben Nevis and Ben Lair.  Walking the last few km into the coire is like entering a magical kingdom, like stepping into legend.

The cliffs of Coire Ardair from Lochan a'Choire, April 2006

On my first visit this impression was enhanced by the discovery of a snow dwelling - a tent within a snow wall, - like some kind of wintery Masai boma. We did not engage with the inhabitants, our eyes instead drawn skyward. We'd come to attempt the 1957 Face Route, originally climbed by a team including Chris Bonington and Dougal Haston. The route seemed a sensible choice in the prevailing snow conditions - lots of it and a thought provoking avalanche forecast. The route extends almost to the coire floor, leaving only a short snow slope to negotiate. As we surveyed the face I became uneasy about an apparently unavoidable and heavily loaded snow slope high on the route. My partner, who was more experienced than I, was less concerned. He was confident that we would surmount it somehow and his enthusiasm carried us up to take a soggy, dripping belay at the base of the route. After a bit of exploratory poking we pronounced the route out of condition and the game a bogey. We retreated to the car park with our tails between our legs, lamenting the amount of effort required to participate in our chosen sport.

Sitting in the boot of his estate car was a ski tourer, his tanned face justifiably smug at having successfully executed his day's sporting plans on the ridges while we were groveling our way to failure in the chilly shade of the coire. The wisdom of skiing in preference to climbing under such snow conditions began to dawn on me and the ambition to undertake a ski mountaineering ascent of Creag Meagaidh started to take root in my imagination.

That ambition was realised on Sunday. Rushes of euphoria tingled at my temples as I skinned along the ridge towards the summit plateau under blue skies, a hard-earned natural high that will stay with me forever. Row upon row of snow peaks lay ahead, but my eye was drawn irresistibly to the cliffs of Coire Ardair. I no longer feel the same hunger to test myself on the classic climbs that grace their faces, yet I know that a combination of perfect conditions and a suitably motivated partner could easily see me fall under their spell once again. My pulse quickens at the thought.

View from Carn Liath summit towards Coire Ardair and Coire a'Chriochairean, January 2009. This is the same shot as featured in my previous post, hopefully less grainy this time.

The arctic wastes of the Monadhliath stretched away to my right, a blanket of white broken only by the  vulgar dark green of the conifer plantations that lie to either side of Melgarve bothy and the line of pylons – soon to be super pylons - that march from its doorway over the Corrieyairak Pass towards the Great Glen.

Revisiting a place like Creag Meagaidh provides an opportunity to see clearly the person that I was on my previous visit. The gradual changes that have occurred, almost imperceptibly, over the intervening years are brought into sharp focus by the relative timelessness of the landscape. Such changes are practically invisible from the comfortable vantage point of our day to day routines.Wild places provide the punctuation we need to make sense of our stories. This visit highlighted how my motivations have evolved over the last few years. I wonder what insights my next visit will provide?

Creag Meagaidh has been managed as a National Nature Reserve since it was was purchased by SNH in 1985. I've been mulling over issues of land management, re-wilding and species introduction and will discuss them in next week's post.

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Blogger Chris said...


13 January 2010 at 07:31  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ski touring interests me, how much do you reckon kit buying outlay would be assuming clothing isn't also required?

13 January 2010 at 11:57  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Ski touring is the ultimate winter sport but the gear is very expensive, it'll cost you the best part of a grand to kit yourself out with skis, skins, boots and bindings. Having said that I picked up most of the gear second hand and paid about 300 in total.

There's also the more optional items like transceivers, shovels and avalanche probes but you can skip that for easier tours in stable snow conditions.

Good conditions can be found much more often than you might expect. You don't need complete coverage by any means. Usable tongues of snow often extend well down the hills even when they look pretty bare from a distance.

If you're keen to give it a bash you can hire all the gear from Mountain Spirit in Aviemore.

13 January 2010 at 20:19  
Anonymous Mike mck said...

Hey gav. Tremendous Reading as always. Maybe I'm missing out on something.
this winter thing. Temp here always bloody 29. Boring...still makes the cold beer go down well.

14 January 2010 at 09:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cheers for that Gavin. Second hand would be my only route in then, and not this year either. It's a pity given conditions are so good.

I'll maybe have to settle for a day or two on the slopes on Glenshee this winter... :(

14 January 2010 at 12:56  

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