Aviemore, Cairngorms, coire an t sneachda, Denis Hoste, fingers ridge, fluted buttress direct, Friedemann Koch, haston line, hidden chimney direct, mixed climbing, Mixte, original summer route, Scotland, the lamp, Winter Climbing
A couple of weeks ago me (Denis Hoste) and Friedemann Koch went on a trip to the north of the UK, for some mixed winter climbing. To keep the costs low, we would travel with my van (and ferry) which would also be our accommodation for those 8 days. Conditions during the month of January were so-so, with lots of new and fresh snow, so all that the rocks needed to get in good nick were some thaws and then some refreezes. The classic ‘good conditions’-cycle of thaws and refreezes, you know. The end of January saw a lot of those thaws, but unfortunately, not a lot of refreezes. In fact, temperatures were just a little too high which caused for rainfall instead of snowfall which poured all the snow away. Then the waiting game began for a new batch of snow, and again high hopes of a good thaw and refreeze.
We arrived just with that new batch of snow, the last couple of days of January. Both of us have only limited experience in Scottish mixte; I’d climbed in the Cairngorms the year before for 3 climbs in 2 days (read here) and Friedemann was a virgin, at least when it came to Scottish mountains. I proposed to start with a classic line; one that everyone kept on telling we should do because it’s so nice, but one that’s actually not really challenging enough as we were looking to do some higher grades once we get the hang of it (however, at this point we underestimated the weather as you’ll find out).
After having driven a long day from Dover to arrive at the Aviemore Ski Resort parking lot at the base of Cairngorms National Park at night, we got a short night worth of sleep and jumped out of the van at the earliest morning sun rays. We approached towards the classic Finger Ridge (IV, 4). Unfortunately we were after a British guide and an Argentinian climber (this was during the BMC winter meet) who climbed rather slow and in short pitches, but we didn’t got bothered by this as we just enjoyed the views, the climb, and the chats at the anchors with the other party. The climb wasn’t iced up and the turf wasn’t frozen (so we made sure not to ruin it) but everything was covered in lots of powder making good axe or monopoint placements sometimes tricky but fun to find. Overall a fun climb, mostly climbed during a powdery snowfall, but also some severe wind once we were at the actual Fingers (because of that wind we didn’t take the camera out) and we enjoyed a beautiful top-out in very un-Cairngormly conditions: high visibility, no wind and a nice sunny sky with no clouds! Because of the slower party ahead of us, we unfortunately didn’t have enough time left for a second climb that day.
After that first day, the both of us wanted to go for something a little more challenging the next day and decided to go for a V, 5 on Sneachda’s Mess of Pottage. Having arrived there however, the place was crowded with climbing parties because it was both the weekend and the BMC winter meet. So we changed plans and did the direct start of Hidden Chimney (IV, 5) and finished up the regular Hidden Chimney after that direct start, a climb for which we also had to wait for a slow party in front of us which made us cold and grumpy from all the standing still and waiting, but nothing a hot tea, some good fish & chips and some local ale’s couldn’t fix in the evening. The first pitch was pretty dry, but I was lucky I got the lead as it turned out to be the most challenging pitch of the climb. You get up this slabby corner (or diedre as we Belgians would say) with some balancy moves but all in all not too hard. After that, het climbing get’s easier as you come into a wide gully crossing your climb from right to left and once you cross this gully you exit it by another steeper gully with a chimney finish which I guess gives the climb its name.
The next day, all Scottish weather forecasts predicted severe storms and issued warning for anyone going into the hills, with average winds up to 90mph and gusts topping a 100mph. Needless to say, we were aching to go out, but were wise to stay in.
The fourth day of the trip, I wanted to go for a more challenging climb then Hidden Chimney direct but unfortunately weather forecast were still predicting 70mph winds, way too windy for climbing. But two men in a van sounds dull (and it is) so we went out to try and climb anyway. With a few layers of clothing extra and every bit of skin covered we went out and did the approach in a time we can’t be too proud off. It’s crazy how much wind can do, in the Alps we’re not used to having these kind of winds. What the wind also does, however, is cause a wind chill factor through convection which also freezes all the water and makes the climbs more iced up. Unfortunately, the ice wasn’t frozen enough as right before finishing the approach and starting our climb, while crossing a river Friedemann went trough the ice and into the river. The river’s not too much deeper than knee-deep, but when he went through the ice he also lost his balance and both his legs and his upper body were wet. Parts of his clothes soaked. Because of the cold, the climbing now a no-go. We retreated and went to the pub. Because of the pub, day not wasted. Still happy we tried though. We got out and a day out isn’t wasted!
After those two awful days of no climbing, a less windy day was coming. I wanted to make it just a little more challenging and climb a technical 6 the next day, but Friedemann (not having led a technical 5 before) thought that would be a bit too soon. Unexpectedly, we both got what we wanted: we chose to climb the Original Summer Route (IV, 5), but because I didn’t study the guidebook that well the night before I ended up leading the first pitch (which is also the crux, or so I’ve heard) of The Lamp, V, 6. While climbing it, I remember thinking it felt spicy for a technical 5, but I thought it was just because it was so dry. Turns out it was a pretty dry tech 6, I guess I should’ve realised. That first pitch was a beauty: you start up a steep technical slab with very little edges or cracks to place the axes or crampons (or pro for that matter) into, after which you come to a small roof after which the climb gives you lots of hooking options for the axes and crack or slots to place pro. After that (beauty of a) first pitch, The Original Summer Route and The Lamp cross each other at a place you usually build your anchor so we continued up in what we initially planned on doing and Friedemann led his first technical 5.
After that, we relocated. Since we decided we also wanted to climb in Fort William and Glen Coe before the trip, we used this rest day to relocate. However, the sixth day was again very windy. No climbing could be done. Again, 90mph average winds and 100mph gusts were predicted. The Glen Coe forecast was even talking about Storm Henry. I never really got to meet Henry, but I guess once they start naming storms they’re pretty serious. The Chamonix meteo usually doesn’t do that. Also, a little anecdote for people who have difficulty understanding how strong these winds are: every night, we would sleep in our van, and our van would rock because of the winds, waking you out of your sleep. Friedemann once asked me during the night if I wasn’t afraid of my van tipping over because of a severe gust. I laughed it away saying my van weighs two tonnes and that a little wind won’t harm it. Well, the day we arrived at Glen Coe, the valley was closed and we (or other climbers) weren’t allowed to enter, because the winds had tipped over a truck. Since we couldn’t get into Glen Coe, and Fort William’s Ben Nevis (or what we could see of it) looked very black and had higher winds then the more Eastern located Aviemore, we ultimately decided to go back to the Cairngorms which were a lot whiter.
After a night feeling a little less secure in our rocking van, we again went out to climb in the Cairngorms. With winds still averaging 65mph, like the day Friedemann went through the river, we knew we wouldn’t be able to climb hard but were still burned on going out and climbing something (easier), as long as we didn’t waste another day in the mountains. And thus we climbed the Haston Line (III, 4), which was a very wet, cold and miserable day, but still a fun day out. Type 2 fun, you know. I was just glad to be climbing. Needless to say, we didn’t get the camera out the entire climb.
And for our last day, luckily, we had some good weather. Lots of snowfall, but the winds wouldn’t exceed 20mph. And thus we decided to go for Fluted Buttress direct, a nice long technical 5. And it turned out to be the best climb of the trip and a great day out! After a very easy first pitch, you follow a small goulotte like line for about a 100 meters on the steeper part of the buttress after which you come to the ridge itself which you follow for another 2 or 3 pitched. We enjoyed the climbing and did long pitches, doing the goulotte in just 2.
In conclusion, like last year, I still like Scottish climbing. I would’ve loved to climb in Fort William or Glen Coe, but sometimes you have to adapt to conditions and during our stay they were just better in the Cairngorms. But we’ll be back! Scottish mountains may be small, but they’re pretty tough!