Sunday, 23 May 2010

Two days in the Cairngorms

A morning in the Northern Corries

With a relatively good forecast East but poorer West, James and I decided to head to the Cairngorms for the day. The plan was to do a climb in Coire an t-Sneachda, after which we would part ways, leaving me to begin a two-day expedition to climb Braeriach ... or at least make another attempt!

The weather was still a little cloudy when we left the ski centre, but not too bad. To our surprise, we discovered that the coire was still largely banked out in snow, with most of the Grade I routes still in condition. Our goal was Pygmy Ridge, a dry rock climb at Moderate standard in these conditions, but we would have to climb a fair bit of snow to get to it!

It was typical summer snow: sugary and firm, easy to kick steps in. We needed an ice axe on the Grade I slope to get to our route, but did not need crampons. The route itself looked well-defined and steep.

I started up a likely-looking chimney, but it turned out to be much too steep, with good holds all out of reach. I came back down; this was the winter line. To the left, an easier slab led back into the chimney, and from here onwards the climbing was simply superb! Good sustained hard Moderate, perhaps approaching Diff in places. I led the whole route, which was brilliantly varied with chimneys, slabs, walls, and finally a superb knife-edged crest that added an Alpine flavour to the climb.

Routes like this, enjoyable for the shear pleasure of climbing easy rock in spectacular places, reinforce my belief that you can climb easy routes and still get everything you want from the mountains.

We descended the Fiacaill Ridge, and once back at the car I re-packed my bag for the trip to Braeriach.

Photos from Sneachda

Braeriach - Day One

The walk to Chalamain Gap is now a familiar one to me, after three failed attempts at Braeriach over the past two winters. In every case, the cause of failure was a blizzard, and I was determined that on my fourth attempt I should succeed in climbing the peak. With a forecast as good as the one issued on Wednesday, blizzards would be the least of my concerns.

James dropped me off on the way back to Aviemore, and I began the long walk to the place where I would spend the night: the Garbh Coire Bothy. I entered the Lairig Ghru, and noticed more and more snow patches down to a low level, some of them huge. As I climbed the long glen, soon enough the river running through it became completely covered over with old snow.

The Pools of Dee, at the highest point of the pass, is a wilderness in the limbo between spring and summer: a world of icebergs, crevasses, old brown snow and blue ice shining beneath clear water. The pack is calving icebergs into the lochans, creating a maze of large crevasses and ridges of ice. This bizarre scene would be more at home on an Arctic ice cap, or an Alpine glacier.

Looking up into the hills, the snow cover is still extensive up high, although thunderous torrents spurt down the newly-bared scree. All around me I can see the violent and energetic side to springtime in the Cairngorms.

Back at the Chalamain Gap, there had been plenty of other walkers. Here, three hours out, there is nobody but me. I descend, following the baby river Dee from its source, and begin the final traverse into Garbh Coire, the great eastern amphitheatre of Braeriach. This stretch alone would be an appreciable walk-in by itself in Glen Coe; here it's just the final stage in a longer journey. And there's no path here!

Finally, beneath the north-eastern spur of the Angel's Peak, is my goal and home for the night. Little more than a heap of stones with a tarpaulin roof, but it's the only shelter for miles. Unfortunately, to get to it I have to cross the river, swollen to a high spate by the snowmelt.

The river is simply impossible to cross near the bothy: fifteen feet across, probably six feet deep and flowing fast enough to wash me away. In the end, I had to follow the river almost a mile upstream before I found a snow bridge that was safe to cross. Even then, as I walked across the ice, I could hear the torrent roaring beneath my feet.

I've now set up camp on the pleasant grassy alp just outside the bothy (the bothy is a bit grim inside, but if a thunderstorm rolls in overnight I will make use if it). The time is just gone 10pm and it is still easily light enough to read and spy out details of the hills in the distance. When I think about where I am, five hours on foot from the nearest road, probably many miles from another human being, I feel privileged to be here. This is a stunning bivvy location: true wildness, no paths or litter, just a lonely howff and a cirque of huge white mountains.

Tomorrow I plan to climb the NE ridge of the Angel's Peak, followed by a crossing of Braeriach.

Day Two

It was a mild and calm night, and I slept well, although a passing rain shower woke me at half past six. By seven I was packed and ready to go. The air was already hot and muggy.

Initially my route lay to the right of the large waterfall coming down from the higher loch. First thing in the morning, before the body has had a chance to get used to walking again, this abrupt ascent is very tough! There is no path at all, just steep boulders and scree until the lochan is suddenly reached. The lochan, nestlings between Cairn Toul and the Angel's Peak, is still frozen over.

My plan was to climb Angel's Peak directly, but the NE ridge looked distinctly unappealing with a potential cornice at the top. However, the ridge coming down from Cairn Toul looked much easier, and would give me the opportunity to climb another Munro. It turned out to be bouldery and loose but not difficult, and deposited me directly on the summit of Cairn Toul, with superb views of the Braeriach amphitheatre. For the first time, I could see the scale of the entire coire, and it is enormous! The Falls of Dee, a huge waterfall running off the plateau, crashed into a massive crevasse in the base of the cliffs and the watercourse didn't reappear from under the snow in nearly a mile. The extent of the remaining snow on the crag is astonishing.

I could see my entire route stretched out before me, all the way around the cliff tops, and it looked bloody long!

The Angel's Peak was an easy ascent from this side and soon enough I had begun the long easy walk round the ridge-top, and onto the Braeriach ice cap. The mountain is still mostly snowbound and although the plateau was easy to walk over for the most part, in places where the slope changed angle crevasses were starting to open up. Therefore care was required to negotiate what must usually be a very easy walk on snow.

The summit of Braeriach, heavily corniced and hidden under a mound of ice, offered an excellent view of the other two Munros I had climbed that day--and it was satisfying to at last stand upon the top! All that remained was the long descent, back over the Chalamain Gap and to the ski centre. Unfortunately the bus from the ski centre to Aviemore never turned up. Another walker took pity on me, and made a considerable detour to drive me to the youth hostel. I am indebted to his kindness; he saved me a miserable night at the ranger station!

The past two days have been very successful. An excellent rock climb; a long walk; three new Munros; and a night spent in a beautiful and wild coire.

Photos from Braeriach


  1. Hi Alex,

    were you on Pygmy Ridge on Sat or Sun? Myself and Lorna did it Sunday , about 1030 ish, then went over to Loch Avon to do Afterthought Arete (properly this time!). Haven't done the photos yet but will get them up monday,



  2. Well done for finally getting it done!

    I need to get a sample of the Cairngorms soon!