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Sunday, 27 February 2011

Vulcan, Braeriach

Sandy, Helen, Brian and I were keen to climb in another remote Cairngorm corrie, Garbh Choire Mor on Braeriach. With midweek temperatures of up to 15 degrees in Moray we decided for Braeriach as it was high and as the ice should have survided the thaw. Also the predicted frost on Saturday night should have stabilised the climbs and the cornices above. So we met at the Linn of Dee car park and first cycled and then walked to reach Corrour bothy at roughly 20 h.

Inside was half of the Edinburgh University Mountaineering club but they had brought two tents so that other mountaineers could find some space in the bothy. Thanks! We had a good bothy night with pasta, beer, Aberlour, tea and skimmed milk. Here are Helen, Brian and Sandy.

I experienced the warmest bothy night of my life since I was next to the fire. It was like noon on the beach at St. Tropez. But the oven cooled gradually and I managed to catch one or two hours of sleep. We got up at 6 h and started walking just before 7 h. It was snowing wet snow but not too heavily.

We started the long slog through boggy ground following the Dee towards its source to arrive at Garbh Choire bothy, a spartanic place that sleeps 2-3 mountaineers. Brian unfortunately had low blood sugar and felt dizzy and Sandy struggled after a bad cold so they both decided to bail as it still was a long way into the corrie.

In the corrie we first had a look at Cherokee chimney and Little big chimney (first ascents by C. Cartwright and S.M. Richardson) on the left wall of great gully inspired by a photo in the Cairngorms guide. However, these are more mixed early season climbs and now there was poorly bonded ice, some windslab above and a rather big cornice. So we decided against climbing these routes and decended great gully in search of a climb in better condition to the right. Tiara looked great but again it was poorly bonded ice on slabs. So we settled for Vulcan V,4***, a V-corner with good snow ice first climbed by J. Bower, J. Ingram and K. Turnbull in 1975. Vulcan was John Bower's swan song as he gave up climbing after this. Here is Helen leading crux pitch one...
... and here she is a bit higher up ...

... with the monster Braeriach cornices above. I led pitch two and the good snow ice turned in places into not fully frozen neve. The best neve led to the right onto a sharp arete and I placed the deadman now 10 m above a dodgy ice screw. Light shone through a hole below the cornice suggesting that the cornice formed a bridge. In order not to load the cornice too much I decided to hack a wee niche into the cornice where I could place my knee. This was made difficult by the strong wind which was blowing spindrift up the climb. My face got ice blasted and when the niche was finished I got two half decent placements and very gently placed my knee inside the niche and pulled myself up. Helen quickly climbed the second pitch to appear on the wide, arctic Cairngorm plateau in the strong wind. A decent route but not too sure about the three stars as it is only two pitches and an estimated 70 m. After the climb we shortened the rope a bit by coiling it and walked South to find a descent. Great gully was blocked by large conices so we walked towards Angel's peak. At times the clouds lifted and bits of blue appeared. Here the view back to Garbh Choire Mor.

We walked parallel to the rim of the corrie which was blocked by huge cornices until we found a break at the start of the ascent to Angel's peak.
A good descent mostly by bum slide. At the bottom there was, like elsewhere in the corries, debris from wet avalanches that must have occured during the midweek thaw.
A long slog back to the Corrour where we had tomato soup and tea and then more walking and a bit of cycling to the Linn of Dee.
Braeriach is a good place to visit because of its isolation and because of that the day is more than just the climb. However, ensure that the route you plan to climb is in good condition and that you can see a way through the often gigantic cornices. So early season or late season, after a refreeze when all the cornices have collapsed, is probably best. Bring a versatile rack even if you only may use very little at the end. Choose the wrong route even 2-3 grades below your top grade in the wrong condition and you'll regret it very quickly as Neil Adams and Andy Inglis found out. To quote Andy's UKC entry for Phoenix Edge word by word it was a 'Mega sketch-fest in clearly poor unconsolidated snow conditions up the line of most consolidation, not least resistance. Backed off pitch 2 after 15m, Neil dispatched to top including horrendously insecure final slabby 20m on mostly soft snow above (required) snow bollard runner.Nightmare. Oh, and its quite remote. VI,6 minimum on the day. '
Reference: Strange, Greg. The Cairngorms. 100 years of mountaineering. Cordee, Leicester 2010

Monday, 14 February 2011

Cumming Crofton VI,6****

Garbh Choire gets the highest values in Scotland for the product of remoteness times quality of climbing especially in winter. A suitable strategy, a ‘can do’ team, a decent level of aerobic fitness, climbing ability and general mountaineering skills are all required especially for attempting any of the bigger routes. Winter climbing highlights are the first winter ascents of Mitre Ridge V,6 by W.D. Brooker and T.W. Patey in 1953 (albeit with ‘combined tactics’; J. Anderson and A. Nisbet did the first direct, free ascent in 1979), the FWA of Cumming-Crofton VI,6 by R. Renshaw and G. Strange in 1977, the Cardinal VIII,8 by R.Webb and S.M. Richardson in 1995 and of Slochd Wall IX,8 by P. Benson and G. Robertson in 2008. If you do any of these routes expect to lie on the couch the next day with a big grin or your face or, in the case of the last two routes, expect to sit behind the computer googling for ‘post traumatic stress disorder'.

On Friday the 11.2.2011 Robbie Miller, Andrew Melvin and I met after work at 20.15 h at the car park at Keiloch. We cycled on snowy and icy tracks...

...and then walked to stay in the secret Howff somewhere hidden in these hills. We spent a cold night made worse by the lack of whisky. Robbie was worst off in his 2 season sleeping bag (the wrong two seasons) and whilst Andy and I were warm, we did not sleep much. We got up at 6 h, had some food and started walking just before 7 h. Our chances looked slim because roughly 10-20 cm of snow that had fallen overnight and it was still snowing.

We decided to press on and to only change our plan if we encountered and could not avoid serious avalanche conditions (the SAIS forecast for North and North-West facing slopes was less than optimal).

We reached the Sneck and gingerly descended as we felt that this was the most dangerous bit. However, there was little windslab and the descent into the Corrie was much better and subjectively safer than expected.

At 10 h we reached the bottom of Mitre ridge and whilst we geared up some blue appeared in the sky. A beautiful pre-spring light.

The mighty West wall was whitened by powder snow and I started the first pitch swimming up some steep powder as seen on the first...

, second...

and third picture...

all taken by Andrew. The crux of this pitch is a large hanging flake. I used two large cams to protect this move, got decent axe placements in snow ice in the crack to the left of the flake and after a few thrutchy moves I reached the belay.

Robbie led pitch two. First an easy angled but delicate and tricky move to the right followed by wide bridging and a move into the main corner line. After that several more tech 5/6 moves to finish on a good ledge. A great lead by Robbie and his hardest pitch so far.

Here is Andrew waiting on the pitch one belay...

... and here is Robbie executing the hardest move of his pitch.

Andrew took the last hard pitch which continued up the corner to its end followed by an ‘au cheval’ belay on the crest of Mitre ridge between the two towers.

Here is Robbie following the third pitch.

The options after that are to finish by the very exposed Bell’s variation V,7 or by climbing on little patches of snow ice and tufts of turf to the left of the second tower which we did. I put one runner on the whole pitch but the climbing was just easy enough to justify not scratching around for ages to try to excavate another marginal runner.

Here is Andrew belaying 'au cheval'...

... and here I am trying to step onto a granite block.

Some delicate but not too difficult climbing...

... up to the belay. Here is Robbie belaying.

The belay is right on top of the West wall which is very steep at this point. We finished over a series of easy but exposed mini towers and an awkward down-climb followed by exposed but easy enough climbing to the end of the route at roughly 17 h.

Here is Robbie finishing the pitch with the large exposure of the West wall behind him.

In the strong, icy southerly wind we quickly coiled our ropes, collected our gear and went over the summit of Cnap a’ Chleirich to follow the rib to join the path where it leads to the Sneck. From the ridge we saw the civilisation-free wide space to the South and the long way to the Fairy Glen, where where our bikes were.
It got dark around 18 h and we walked through the snow in the dark lightened up by our headtorches. The brain was too tired to think and so we followed without words our footprints and the footprints of another, lonely walker which were the only footprints leading back to the Fairy glen. Back at the Howff we shared some pocket-rocked-cooked pasta, Andy’s cheese & pickle sandwich and Robbie’s jam & peanut butter sandwich and some of Robbies vanilla cookies.

Soon after we reached our bikes I discovered that my rear tyre was flat. Worse, the rubber had detached from the valve and we had no spare tyre and only Andrew had bought some repair kit. Against all odds we managed to glue the thing together again which prevented me from pushing my bike for 8 km with a heavy rucksack. The pressure held and despite a few wild slides on icy patches we managed to avoid going over our handlebars and reached the Beinn a Bhuird car park at 21 h.

Cumming Crofton is the essence of Scottish winter climbing and one of the best routes we have done so far: team work, solitude, commitment, a strong line and high quality climbing are all attributes that describe our day.