Thursday, 3 May 2012

Cairngorms: Overnight ski mountaineering trip


Coire an t-Sneachda

The fickle nature of Scottish winter conditions has been beautifully illustrated by this season. It got off to a promising start, but a thaw over Christmas took its toll and despite some further snowfall it all ground to a halt at the end of February, the earliest end to a season since lift-served snowsports began 50 years ago. I gave up and went skiing in France at the end of March. When I returned I waxed my skis and put them in the loft. That did the trick. The snows returned in late April, and they kept coming, allowing deep snow cover to build up over the Cairngorms. People always express surprise at April snowstorms, but they are are in fact a normal and reasonably predictable part of our weather, so much so that they have long been known in agricultural circles as 'lambing storms' for their propensity to appear, inconveniently, at the same time as the year's delicate crop of lambs.

What was unusual about this year's lambing storms is that they culminated in a week or near-constant snow over the tops before giving way to a weekend of sunshine. What's more this was not just any weekend, it was a weekend that had been reserved, months in advance, for outdoor sport. I had hoped that it might be spent be camping by a crag, climbing sun-kissed rock by day and drinking round the campfire by night, but this was not to be.

There could only be one choice of activity given the conditions, an overnight ski mountaineering trip taking in the big four tops of the Northern Cairngorms, Cairngorm itself, Ben Macdui, Carn Toul and Braeriach. I had first embarked on this route six years ago, almost to the day, when I'd only been skiing for a year. On that occasion  we decided to truncate our round by overnighting in the Garbh Coire Howff and accessing the Braeriach plateau via Garbh Coire Mor, missing out Carn Toul and Angel's Peak. Part of this decision had been driven by a reluctance to spend the night in the Corrour bothy, at the time notorious for overcrowding, mice and for being located in an area festooned with human excrement. All has changed since then, the bothy is now a cosy wee place, wood-lined with a stove and sleeping platform bunks. In order to address the jobby issue a composting toilet has been installed in a wooden outhouse. 

Pete, Stu and Colin on the steep section at the top of Allt Clach nan Taillear. Avalanche debris to the left.

After a couple of runs on the horrifically crowded piste we struck off from Cairngorm summit at at around 1300 hrs, bound for Ben Macdui. Reliable snow cover makes the jaunt to Macdui and back by far the most popular ski tour in Scotland, but it is most certainly not one of the best. The terrain is too flat, and flat terrain is the least enjoyable for touring on alpine kit. In truth lighter weight nordic gear is a far better choice for this particular tour, obviating the need to repeatedly affix and remove climbing skins. While such lightweight kit is advisable for the skier whose ambition is to bimble on the plateau, it is not the best choice for ski mountaineers seeking what the admittedly rather dated SMC guidebook describes as 'one of the finest and most challenging ski-runs in the Scottish mountains', the descent of the Tailor's burn (properly Allt Clach nan Tailler, the burn of the Tailor's Stone). My previous descent six years ago was a trying and exhausting one, the snow was heavy and the visibility was poor. This year it was revelatory, a pleasant glide on beautiful snow with the sun on our faces. I have been concentrating on improving my skiing this season and it had paid off, I'm now capable of enjoying skiing black with a pack.

Corrour Bothy and the Devil's Point

A light pack is critical for touring, but the activity itself requires so much equipment; shovel, avalanche probe and transceiver, skins and harscheisen, that I was unable to get the starting weight of my pack below 11.25 kg, including all overnight kit, food, camera and half a litre of water. Our packs were lighter back in 2006 because we didn't have any avalanche safety equipment, not that the spring conditions required them. This year, after a week of snow, it would have been rash to leave the safety gear in the car. In truth I am dubious of the benefits of transceivers in Scotland, having heard neither of anyone being saved due to having one nor of anyone perishing through the lack of one. For this trip I left crampons at home, unwilling to carry a kilo of ironmongery that wood almost certainly remain in my bag, reasoning that I could cut steps with an ice axe should I find myself on steep, icy, unskiable ground. I am glad that I didn't have to cut any steps and am now very tempted by lightweight crampons, the best of which are under 300 g. But perversely, investing in lightweight crampons would increase rather than decrease the weight of my pack, for I would actually carry them rather than leaving them at home.

The ice axes did come in handy at Corrour, where we found, to our surprise, a substantial log, over 2 m long and about 15 cm diameter. A previous visitor must have carried it in, hoping to find an axe or saw in the bothy with which to process it into stove sized lengths. We spent a at least an hour and possibly more taking turns at hacking away at the log, covering the surroundings in wood chips as if a group of beavers had picniced outside the bothy. There were three other residents who were, I think, rather bemused by the this prolonged bout of frenzied hacking. They seemed glad enough of the resulting fire though.

I was delighted to get a chance to inspect the famous Corrour toilet, an ingenious contraption that has two seats side by side. I didn't actually use the facilities, a surprising omission that I attribute to too consuming much oatmeal and not enough beer. At first it appears to have been designed with tandem crapping in mind. However on closer inspection it became clear that only one was in use. I recall reading somewhere that the toleys fall into a sack. Only once the sack is full and the hatch battened down to allow the composting process to take hold does the second seat come into play.

The day in prospect from the summit of the Devil's Point
The distant Southern Cairngorms, Carn a'Mhaim, Angel's Peak and Lochan Uaine from near the summit of Braeriach

It was wonderfully exhilarating to start another blue sky day out in the heart of the wilds of the Cairngorms.  I was outside with my porridge waiting for the sun's warmth to sweep down the flanks of the Devil's Point towards the bothy. I was the only member of the party who had any enthusiasm for starting the day with an ascent of the Devil's Point and so I strapped my skis to my pack and set off half an hour ahead of the rest of the party, ascending from the boreal spring into Scotland's island of Arctic tundra, the Cairngorm plateau. From the summit the day's sport was laid out before me; the peaks of Carn Toul, Angel's Peak and Braeriach are well defined and each provides a worthwhile ski run from its summit. The snow level was 700 m, reaching down to the high point of the Lairig Ghru. The transition between deep skiable snow and heather was a sharp one. The relatively high snowline accentuated the contrast between high and low ground, the col connecting Carn a'Mhaim and Macdui was highlighted beautifully. The distant peaks peaks of the northwest stood proud against the foreground of a practically snowless Monadhliath. The northerly Munros, Ben Mor Assynt  and Ben Klibreck,  were clearly visible, a full 80 miles to the North, as was the full length of the Caithness coast. Also clearly highlighted was the path of the Dee, the glen of which separates the northern and southern Cairngorms. 
Content after two runs of fresh tracks down Coire Gorm on the the best snow of the year
Approaching the teetering torture of the Chalamain Gap
There was a price to be paid for the wonderful descents from Sron na Lairig into Coire Gorm (it was so good we skinned up for another run), the walk out. We managed to ski to the lip of the Lairig Ghru but thereafter had to strap our skis to our packs, grit our teeth and dig deep for the descent into the gorge below, then the ascent to the torturous bouldery bed of the Chalamain Gap, a glacial meltwater channel carved in times past by vast volumes of melt water released by the Strathspey Glacier. We teetered our way through on empty legs to a soundtrack of plastic and buckles grating on granite.

Every single step required conscious effort. I constantly fought the urge to take off my pack and lie down on the ground during the toe mashing march below the Northern Coires to the Sugar Bowl car park where my van, comfortable shoes and orange and mango juice awaited. Above us the piste bashers groomed the slopes of the ski area ready for another day's skiing. The prospect was not appealing, it seemed more fitting to end the season with this unsurpassable phoenix of a trip.


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12 Comments:

Blogger Nunen MacAlpine said...

Bonjour Gavin,

it's great to see that in Scotland you enjoy great late winter conditions that are even better than in the French Alps. I really enjoyed watching your pictures and reading your report. Greetings from the Alps.

4 May 2012 at 08:07  
OpenID swanscot said...

Wow. it looks like a wonderful weekend playing (albeit with hard work) on the high tops.

4 May 2012 at 16:48  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Thanks for the comments, it was indeed hard work, but most things that are worth doing are worth doing precisely because they are hard. In this surreal consumer age when so much time and mental energy is devoted to deciding what to buy it is wonderfully refreshing to put in some effort and get away from it all and, in doing so, gaining an experience that cannot be bought in the shops.

4 May 2012 at 21:29  
Anonymous Erik said...

are the skis and boots hand crafted from sitka spruce? even such adventures require consumerism gavvy boy :) awesome trip, on my to do list

4 May 2012 at 23:50  
Blogger Hendrik M said...

Superb adventure, Gavin! Beautiful weather and great photos, makes me almost wish we still would have winter here!

5 May 2012 at 18:58  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Erik - good point about the amount of consumption required to enjoy trips like that. It's ironic that by enjoying our local environment we are helping to degrade other parts of the world. I'm thinking of the sweatshops in which some of our gear is manufactured, the bauxite mines from which our ultra-light crampons originate etc.

Hendrik - winter is still here now! I could have been skiing again today but I'd rather end the season on last weekend's high. With luck we'll be back at it in 6 or 7 months so I want to get some spring / summer activity in instead.

5 May 2012 at 22:23  
Blogger Linda W. said...

Nice photos. Looks like a great trip. I'm a beginning ski mountaineer so always love reading other people's backcountry skiing adventures.

8 May 2012 at 20:00  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

You have discovered the king of sports Linda. I like the layout of your blog, it looks great on a phone screen.

9 May 2012 at 07:10  
Anonymous Graham B said...

Aye up Gav. Nice photos. Give us a shout if you're heading out again in the next week or two. Weather looks set to stay cold through May, with snow again next week (perhaps). A brief high on the forecast for this weekend...

9 May 2012 at 12:02  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

I've probably retired for the season though I was tempted by pics of spring snow in the back coires at nevis range. It'll take good conditions and good weather to tempt me away from biking and running now!

9 May 2012 at 18:00  
Blogger Daniel Hirsch said...

Really this blog is refreshing.It is very helpful information for all.
kindly keep on posting such information in future also
on cairngorms b and b

15 May 2012 at 12:00  
Anonymous Gale Boocks, USA said...

gavin: thanx for excellent photos. I fell in love w/scotlnd in visit in 2010. too old to do ski mtnrg now,so photos & stories were great.I visit cairngorm mtn ski on the web and see you are off to a rousing start this year. merry christmas & good skiing to you and your friends!

17 December 2012 at 02:08  

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