Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Raeburn's Gully, Lochnagar

 A beautiful day on the classic Raeburn's Gully (II***), Lochnagar

A few years ago Alex and I had a memorable mid-May ascent of Number 2 Gully on Ben Nevis. It felt strange to be walking up towards a winter route whilst being followed up the path by the scent of flowers and fresh summer grass. The first midgies were making themselves known and the rock-climbing season was well underway in the glens.

It was one of my first gully routes and I think I'll always remember the feeling of coming up underneath the cornice, still massive despite it being the summer.  How easily would we be able to by-pass it? Conditions were perfect from a few cold nights and the gully was full of iron hard neve, but we topped out into warm sunshine with views of heat-haze shimmering over Lochaber.

I found my thoughts drifting to that day a few times yesterday morning. High pressure has arrived but so have warmer temperatures, and it felt every bit like a Spring dawn as I walked up towards Lochnagar. The first rays of sunshine felt like a warmth breath on my face, and Alpenglow spread over the legendary North-East corrie.

The superb North-East Corrie.

Central Buttress round to the Parallel Gullies.

But to my satisfaction the view that greeted me was a far more wintery one than I'd feared, the lochan still frozen solid and the cliffs still overwhelmingly snow-bound. I entered the corrie with an open mind, but hopeful the classic Raeburn's Gully would be in condition. It was one of the only 3 star grade II gullies left in Scotland that I'd never climbed.

A very fore-shortened view of the gully. The top half of the route is almost all out of view.

The easy lower slopes.

You are left guessing until the moment you are stood at the base of the route as it is hidden for the whole approach. It looked good. And based on the conditions over the last few weeks I was fairly confident the cornice wouldn't extend all the way round the top of the gully.

The route was banked out on steep snow apart from a single ice pitch. Although the snow was still freezing it wasn't the best consolidated, and I wasn't sure if I'd find hollow cruddy ice on the crux. A large snow mushroom/umbrella overhung the right hand side of the pitch so I knew I'd have to climb carefully avoid it.

The ice pitch, steeper than it looks. A nice snow-mushroom to avoid too.

Thankfully the ice pitch was in great condition with sticky ice and first-time placements. The snow mushroom forced me out on a bit of a tilt and overall the pitch felt more like low end grade III. It brought a grin to my face.

The gully above is a magnificent place hemmed in by amazing snow and rock architecture. And above a huge cornice overhung the route, a snowy monster waiting to drop once the thaw has Lochnagar in its grip. I could see that I'd be able to avoid it by a steep climb up left to exit the gully, but it was still an intimidating moment. I thought of that summer day on the Ben years ago and my first encounter with a cornice. I've soloed dozens of grade II gullies since then, but they can still be lonely places to be.

Afternoon sun hits the cornices above Raeburn's Gully. Glad I climbed the route early in the morning.

Stuic Buttress

Cornices above the Black Spout. The Left Branch is climbable just now, the right branch is heavily corniced.

The Cairngorms seem to have resisted the affects of the inversion a bit better than the West. Hopefully cold temperatures will arrive again soon.


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