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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

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