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Beyond the Snowgate

Date: February 2010
Submitted by: Michael Hassan

Aviemore and the Cairngorms were the chosen venue for this years CCC winter meet and having never been there before myself, expectations and ambitions were high, but fingers were being crossed for the good climbing conditions we all longed for.


On the drive up though, our spirits were dampened, as we slowed to a crawl on the snowed up road to Aviemore. It became immediately obvious upon reaching there and seeing the vast amount of snow, that there would no chance of climbing the next day or maybe for the whole trip.


Day 1 - The Corbett
With climbing out of the question, it was decided that we would tackle a Corbett that was nearby – Geal-charn Mor 824m. So we geared up and started down the road to the junction at the A9. We were quite a sight - a multi-coloured train of mountaineers tramping along switching from side to side to avoid the traffic. At one point a police car even stopped and asked us where the feck we were headed. The initial track to start up Geal-charn Mor was pleasant going and we spotted deer and pheasant on the way, but after a while we had to wade in at least knee deep snow. It was tough going. The path eventually petered out and with complete white-out and it being very windy, it was left to the navigators to find a way to the top. This proved to be tricky at times due to the conditions and we alternated between map and GPS, or did they complement each other? After taking turns at step cutting, and having a few stops and starts to correct bearings we finally got to the top, all the time trudging through the deep snow and questioning if we should just turn back. It was very cold at the summit and a quick turn around was in order. The blizzard like conditions had covered most of our tracks, so more navigation eventually got us back to the familiar landmark of the bridge and the path back to the road. George had moved quite a bit ahead on the walk down, but we were still surprised to find no sight of him on the final leg home up the road to Aviemore. He later admitted to cadging a sneaky lift and was quickly chastised! It was PJ’s birthday and Anthony had brought champagne that was duly popped and shared. That evening we spent a few hours in the Cairngorm Hotel for some music and revelry after getting dinner to the point of being served – and then abandoning it. There was a bit of effort required to get everyone to mosey back to the hostel as Keith and Anthony started up cries of “4 more beers!” and Sandra K was totally engrossed by the tightly costumed men’s bobsleigh on the TV. After leaving the bar a spontaneous, yet somehow inevitable snowball fight broke out, where I managed to hold my own against the might of Keith and Anthony.


Day 2 - The Winter Wonderland
A few horror stories had circulated about the conditions in and around the Coires - including a 7 hour super plod through waist deep snow to cover the couple of miles back from the climbing areas. So the axes stayed put and the ski centre was still closed. Some opted for another walk with snow shoes while the rest decided to give cross-country skiing a try. We got the skis hired and started on a track, already fairly compacted by walkers. We were all on our backsides at one stage or another, including one point where I managed to go head first into the snow and couldn’t move in any direction. This amused Anthony greatly and he howled with laugher and pointed at me in delight. The cross-country skis are difficult to get the hang of, but it was made more so by having only an 18 inch wide track to move through. The skis often hit the sides of the track and down we went. It was such a picturesque journey through the forest though – postcard perfect. We retired to the Cairngorm Hotel again for beers. Later that night, somewhat inspired by the winter Olympics, we did some sleighing down the hostel driveway, eventually settling on the skeleton method as the preferred choice, skinning knuckles on the way, as well as perfecting the new sport of Diving Snow Angels – jumping from a rail, face first into the deep soft snow. PJ’s screams of “I’m only a girl!” didn’t deter the rest of us from forcing her to have a go. Marty almost joined us in his underwear having retired to the common room unable to sleep.


Day 3 - The Plough
The shop where we hired the cross-country skis the previous day had run out by the time we got there so we made the decision to head to Aonach Mor for some downhill skiing, as it was open. The drive there is truly wonderful and we passed signs for Glenbogle, of Monarch of the Glen fame and caught sight of Ben Nevis’ north face. Eventually we found ourselves “on the slopes” with the beginners receiving instruction on firstly how to actually attach skis to your feet. Well, I’ll tell you, I was slipping and sliding and falling all over the place and despaired at ever controlling these planks on my feet. We spent some time on the starter slope, amid shouts of pizza, chips, plough, PLOUGH! and it did have a crèche feel about it with the “adults” looking after us newbies. But eventually we got it enough to tackle the button lift to a short green slope. We played around on this until we got going straight sussed. The adults had gone to higher ground, and Chris and I decided to get the next lift up. There was a traverse section on this slope that had quite a shallow downhill gradient and I was able to build up some speed and figure out how to turn. Niall had also gained some confidence and decided a “throw caution to the wind approach” was the way forward. His jacket colour stood out dramatically and he was a beautiful yellow blur for most of the day. I was amazed at how quickly we were able to gain control on the skis and thought the whole experience was great. That evening the whole group ate out at a local Italian eatery, where we availed of the buffet menu. Bonny eventually arrived by this stage, having been stranded in Edinburgh with no trains running and the roads closed. We ended the night strangely engrossed by the Curling on TV.


Day 4 - Beyond the Snowgate
The last days of our trips are usually quiet affairs. Often preceded by late nights, they offer a lie in, a leisurely breakfast and some shopping on the way to the airport. But on this occasion, with our flights not until late in the evening, we just couldn't resist the temptation to catch a few more hours on the slopes at the ski centre, which was to be open for the day. So some early mobilisation saw us grab the skis and hit road at about 8.30. But about half way up the road we hit a traffic jam. The slopes were closed and would be assessed and possibly opened at 10.00. What to do? Sit in the queue and wait? Or admit defeat and try something else. Anthony was on an earlier flight, so we needed to be off the slopes at around 1.30. But after some coffee and discussion in Aviemore, we went for it. We were determined to get some skiing done. Back on the road, no traffic jam this time, we finally reached The Snowgate. It had almost gained mythical status during the trip and we mused on what magical things lay beyond this barrier. We wondered if we would ever enter that world. But then it was upon us and so through we went. They weren’t lying about the conditions. At least a metre and a half of snow was piled at the sides of the road on the way up. But we were there, we’d made it. Finally we were on the slopes after negotiating shuffling queues and t-bars. We (the beginners) were all able to make more progress and I was close to getting the parallel manoeuvring technique. Gentle slopes were fine but on steeper stuff panic set in and the skis often ended up in a ten to two type arrangement. But oh, did I enjoy it! Time was against now though and after a quick trip back to the hostel to gather our belongings we hit the road to the airport. Near the airport, we saw the rather flimsy looking fence surrounding it and wondered how secure it really was. Anthony assured us though that it was patrolled by guards with mp3’s. We wondered what they listened to.


So, not an ice axe swung in anger, no shiny new ice screws blunted on rock, but still the craic, as it always is, was mighty and it felt oddly surreal sitting in work the next day with a very weary head thinking “I was skiing yesterday, I was skiing - yesterday”.


P.S. The Colmcille Skiing Club (Est. 2010) is now accepting applications…

04 Mar 2010

At last the bard of the bogside has a challenger, Great report. Mike

09 Mar 2010
Bogside Bard

I'll never forget the pain and panic when I stupidly went to swap gloves on the Corbett summit in a stiff icy wind. I never knew hands could freeze into claws so quickly! Brilliant trip but a real pity about the lack of climbing. Guess the ice axes stay put till the Alps.

Photo of Route
17 into blizzard will go - Oh what fun we had!