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Stormy Cairngorms

Date: 4th - 8th Feb 2013
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney
PJ had her usual week in Aviemore with the Mountain Rescue team and we decided I'd come over the following weekend for a few days. The Touran had been acting up lately but I pushed my luck and took her along for maybe one last Scottish trip. Ivan decided to tag along for the ferry / car ride and we picked up his mate Kuba at Glasgow airport on the way. You'll remember him as the gloveless beast who kept telling us "We go UP!" during that deeply snowy Corbett in 2010 (Geal-charn Mor). He was a little under the weather this time around so we were hoping that'd slow him up.

We rented a cracking little cottage on the outskirts of Aviemore that was a cut above your usual hostel / chalet and only 1 mile from the centre, a short walk for a bunch of intrepid mountaineers, and only £17 pppn! We'd barely got in the door when Kuba produced 2 bottles of Fernet, a wicked brown challenging concoction that thereafter had to be drunk to toast a successful (or even unsuccessful) day out. "It is medicine!", Ivan and Kuba both tried to tell us. "More like mouthwash", declared PJ. We did a round of the local hostelries and then headed home where we tried to teach Kuba the meaning of the phrase "Man Up!", as in "So what if you've got the sniffles? Man up!" It became his favourite phrase of the weekend.

Alpen for breakfast instead of 2lb of bacon fried to within an inch of it's life? Man Up!
Wearing pink mountaineering boots into the Cairngorms (Kuba). Man Up!
Legs feeling stiff after a battering on the hills? Man Up!
Seeking hot water for your shower instead of braving the cold? Man Up!
Grimacing as you swallow another dose of Fernet? Man Up!

So Saturday was a relatively good day and there were hordes of skiers flocking to the Cairngorm lower carpark. We took one look at the queues for the buses to the top carpark and decided to walk, a decision that tested the legs a fair bit, one not having carried a fully loaded rucksack recently. PJ and I decided to head to Coire an Lochan to avoid the crowds that were bound to be heading to Sneachta, while Ivan and Kuba headed to the latter. The MRT had used snowshoes during the week to cope with the heavy snow and we borrowed a pair each to try them out, a great decision in the end because the track to Lochan was lost in the drifts and we had to revert to PJ's fan-dangly ViewRanger app on the iPhone to ensure we were still on track.

At the bottom of Lochan there were a couple of wildlife photographers trying to spot ptarmigans in the fog. We hurried past them and got my first look at the 4 buttresses. For a while we thought we were on our own in there and we started to worry that we'd misread the avalanche warnings but the weather cleared a bit and we soon spotted about a dozen climbers scattered around. We headed for Y Gully but it was a long way up on very steep snow just to reach the bottom of the climb. Half way up we skirted around a particularly bulging slab with a crack underneath it, very nervous by now and mindful of the 4 deaths that recently occurred in Glencoe. We were very happy to reach the rock and get a half decent friend into a crack we spent ages digging out.

With PJ's stance backed up with an ice axe hammered into the hard snow, I set off up the grade II right branch. It was heavily banked up and pretty firm on the left side, the right side was a bit more sugary but I progressed by ensuring that I had a least 2 solid points before attempting to move up. I stopped a few times to try and dig out some cracks to place some gear but they eluded me and I ended up climbing the 60m without protection. The top had a 3 foot cornice but I traversed under it to the right side where it was only about a foot deep and battered and mantled my way through. On top I buried the axes a fair way back from the edge and brought PJ up, watching the climber on the route opposite us batter his way through a cornice.

By now it was 4pm and as we started navigating our way back to point 1142 and the Fiacaill Coire Cas the climber opposite asked us the quickest way back down to Lochan! They'd left their rucksacks at the bottom of the route and would be either abseiling back down their route or stumbling down the ridge in the dark to climb back up to the rucksacks. "Good luck to them" we thought. Kuba and Ivan had completed The Runnel (II **) and rang to say they'd wait in the pub at the ski centre but an hour and a half later we were still shoeing our way out down the piste and they'd been kicked out. They ended up getting a lift to Aviemore while PJ and I continued the long dark trudge back to the car park. Back home we went to the Italian place for dinner and bumped into Eric and Lesie Pirie, who invited us to dinner on the Sunday night.

Sunday was forecast for 40mph winds and whiteout but Aviemore was quite pleasant as we left the cottage. Not so at the middle car park again where the blustery conditions rocked the car. We opted for the bus this time as, not surprisingly, the queues were non existent. We were aiming for Sneachta this time, our Czech friends planning on Invernookie (III 4 **) while we were thinking of Fiacall Couiloir (II / III*). However we passed more people turning around than going forward as we battled against the wind, hoping that in the coire things would be calmer. Things were getting worse though and by the time we reached the coire visibility was down to 10m at times, though I did manage to spot 4 ptarmigans huddled behind a rock, necks stretched into the racing wind and eyes half closed. In rare breaks in the fog we spotted several parties ascend to the bottom of a climb and then descend. Then PJ spotted the RAF mountain rescue team and went over to chat, recognising them by their red coats having done an exercise with them on Fairhead recently. "We've made our decision", they told us, "we're heading back". So that help make our minds up too and we turned tail. Halfway back to the ski centre Ivan and Kuba loomed out of the mist behind us, having also made up their minds to forego the climbing.

So Sunday afternoon was spent in the pub with the second half of PJ's Mountain Rescue team watching the Ireland / England rugby match. Later that evening we drove up to Eric's, but we'd barely got in the door when Eric was called out: a party of 6 missing on Cairngorm. We passed the evening with Leslie and their daughter Elizabeth (Squizz), talking art and climbing. Squizz is going to paint An Teallach for us as a wedding gift from Eric and Leslie.

Next day was similar weather and Ivan had been struck down by whatever had been ailing Kuba, so that left the 3 of us to take to the hills behind Glenmore Lodge, Creagan Gorm and Meall a' Bhuachaille. Like the previous day it was calm lower down but once we got past Ryvoan bothy and started the climb the wind picked up and was soon pushing us around the hill. Looking over to Cairngorm revealed bulky white clouds and roaring spin drift up top, while we had blue skies just a few miles away. On the final length of the path Kuba pulled out a bothy and started using it as a kite to pull himself up the hill, giggling in that high pitched way of his that is so at odds with his size and bulk. On the col between the 2 hills we watched a fell runner make his way up dressed only in shorts and tshirt. What a hardy soul.

In the woods below we met a man walking his lively young dogs who told us that someone from a party of Leeds university students had died on Cairngorm. Back in Aviemore we went to return the borrowed snow shoes and got the full story from the MRT who'd been called out by Eric the night before and who'd found his frozen body at the bottom of Jacob's Ladder. The group of 7 had apparently lost 1 member, who later turned up in the ski centre and raised the alarm. The leader had gone to look for him and fallen through a cornice, leaving the other 5 with neither map nor skills to navigate off the mountain. In the end they sort of went the right way turning NE instead of N, missed the ski area and blundered off towards Carn Tarsuinn, walking all night and half the next day. They were later told that the decision to keep moving had kept them alive. I think we made the right decision stay off the top the day before.

That night we met up with Ivan and Kuba in the Winking Owl and showed them the difference between their foul Czech brew and a good single malt. So the heads were a bit foggy on the early morning drive back to the ferry. More bad news on the radio: 2 of the RAF team had been killed in an avalanche in Chalamain Gap, along with a student from Glenmore Lodge. It was a very sombre end to a mixed weekend, though we ourselves had some fun and plenty of laughs. Still the old saying "The mountains will always be there next year, just make sure that you are too" never rang truer.

27 Feb 2013

Good report, up to your usual standard Ant.

28 Feb 2013

Great report Anthony, as informative and entertaining as ever.

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