After my holidays I had the Friday before Hogmanay free for climbing. Luckily Helen Rennard and Mark Mosgrove were happy for me to join their team. We decided to meet at 7.30 am at the Coire Cas car park in order to walk over to the loch Avon basin. We considered routes on the upper tier of Carn Etchachan but Mark said in a text message that ‘if the Shelterstone looks white it would be rude not to have at least a wee look at Postern...’. Helen and I also had Postern high on our tick lists and when we saw the white enough Shelterstone whilst walking and then bumsliding into the loch Avon basin our decision was made.
On the approach we spotted another team gearing up which turned out to be Iain Small and Susan Jensen.
No need to worry about being stuck behind a slow team then and also good to see two women tackle this big cliff in winter. Helen in our team is possibly the most active and/or accomplished female Scottish winter climber at the moment with a long list of impressive routes up to grade VII. Helen started our route by quickly despatching pitch one. There are some variations here and we climbed the turfy one to the right of Clach Dhian chimney whilst Iain and Susan climbed a snow-ice line to the left of the chimney.
Mark then led the delicate pitch two...
... and I the right slanting crack of pitch 4. On the photo below Susan is just finishing the trickiest section.
Good positions with mostly turfy climbing and hooking. When I arrived at the belay I saw Iain leading the impressive corner above which is marked by a wide crack. By then it had started to snow and it was windy. Mark and I had a look at the summer and winter topos of the Shelterstone in the SMC Cairngorms guide and we thought that the correct line was going left after the deep chimney and then right again to reach the top of the corner. Helen led the squeeze chimney and steep wall to a ledge well but because it was technical it took some time.
Both Mark and I struggled with the chimney due to our size and I had to let the rucksack and camera dangle on my right side to be able to squeeze through. Dusk descended whilst we stood on a small, exposed ledge high on the Shelterstone. The direct way up looked steep and poorly protected and we interpreted the photo topo to go further left and then right over broken ground. When Mark had finished this pitch it was dark and he stood at the bottom of a steep and long corner with a wide and more doable crack out of reach to the right. The corner itself was filled with unconsolidated snow and looked smooth and tough but I spotted flakes and thus gear on the steep left wall and decided to try that. Even if it was impossible to gain the large crack from there at least I could fix some good gear high up and then possibly down climb and attempt some thin or dynamic moves to reach the crack. The left wall was steep and pumpy with often only small features for feet but the gear kept coming and so after many hard moves I eventually managed to reach the corner at a point where the wide crack was close enough to bridge over. Whilst easier, the climbing was still strenuous and the final obstacle was an overhang at the end of the corner. Here I nearly came off as one crampon popped but managed to hold on to one of my axes. I hastily descended for a less pumpy position and got it right during the second attempt. Helen and Mark seconded steadily but as it was technical and pumpy it took a long time for all of us to meet again at the belay. This was well above the tech 6 that we had expected and I was low on sugar. By this time the temperatures had risen to above zero and the snow had given way to drizzle. Luckily there was a bit of a moon and we could see down a steep wall into Pinnacle gully even with the headtorch switched off. Helen led the next pitch which was a traverse to reach an exit to the plateau but she had to belay again as she was running out of rope. We were both very grateful to Mark for volunteering to lead another traverse on now slushy snow slopes above the drop. But when he started swearing, stopped, down climbed and had to belay again our heart sank as we thought that he was held back by a hard wall just below the plateau. Helen moved first on yellow and discovered that Mark was unable to move because the red rope somehow had got stuck whilst he was leading. Mark then easily topped out into the wet and strong wind followed by Helen and myself. It was 11 pm and so we had managed to spend 13 h on the climb despite climbing the bottom half quickly. I had my mapping GPS but the faint moon illuminated Hell’s Lum and the plateau allowing us to navigate by eye in the strong, wet wind. At times we saw and followed footsteps but it seemed a long time until the blue triangle hit the point on the GPS that said 'goat track'. A quick combination of slushy bum and foot sliding saw us on the Corrie floor and then Mark pushed us on against the strong wind to reach the Coire Cas car park at 1 am where we phoned our worried partners. I reached Broughty Ferry at 3.30 am wide awake due to two large cans of Red Bull. Overall we found that Postern is an excellent route which should not be underestimated. The fact that the very capable team of Murray Hamilton, Kevin Spence and Alan Taylor needed both the 5th and 6th of January 1980s suggests that it is epic-prone. The bottom pitches are obvious but at the top ensure to climb the corner with the wide crack in the wall directly rather than trying to traverse too far to the left and then back right as the guidebook topo might suggest at least to us. Maybe we have overlooked something and the corner direct is not too bad but the flakes on the left wall feel quite a bit harder than tech 6 and darkness did not help either. As a consequence we are now members of the exclusive Shelterstone 'long winter night' club whose membership has been steadily growing especially this year.