Sunday, 16 January 2011

Cairn Gorm Climb and Ski

Loch Morlich lies frozen in the valley as I carve down the hillside trying to keep up with Sarah (I soon realise this is impossible); the late afternoon light bathing the snow covered hills and forests in a purple blue light. It's been a good day, my first experience of ski mountaineering and a ski decent of a Munro. I had picked up the skis the year before with the intention of learning how to ski tour and they have mocked me from the corner of my room all summer. The plan for the day was to walk in to Coire t'Sneachda climb up to the plateau via an easy grade one gully then traverse round and up on to the summit of Cairn Gorm before skiing down to join the pisted runs which lead back down to the base of the mountain.



From the car park our little party of four are soon enveloped in a shroud of white mist, the horizon becomes ill defined and then disappears completely. Parties ahead of us drift in and out of view, apparitions glimpsed for a second then lost to nothingness. The only colour to break into this world of white and grey are the occasional black rocks emerging through the snow, boulders in the distance which become cobbles at your feet in the strange distortion of scale that occurs in heavy mist. We follow a line of footprints which merge into the foreground ahead occasionally stopping to check our baring with the compass.


Carrying skis for the first time does not prove to be much of a chore, the weight being very similar to carrying a rope and climbing equipment if we were going to do a harder route. My ski books are designed for touring and are actually very comfortable to walk in, weighing only a little more than my normal winter boots, plus they are plastic keeping my feet nice and snug. After about an hour the cliffs of Sneachda rear up out of the mist and we get kitted up, have a bite to eat and dig a few test pits in the lower slopes of the face. Route choice is Aladdin's Coulior a wide snow gully that cuts up behind the buttress.


There has been quite a bit of snow the last few days and the avalanche forecast for the gullies is medium to high, the lower section of the gully is quite scoured out by the wind but snow has banked out higher up and I stop about every thirty meters or so to dig a test pit. The fresh snow appears quite well bonded to to hardend lower layers and none of the pits fail along obvious cleavage planes. To be on the safe side we stick to the edge of the gully close to the rocks where the snow should be better bonded anyway. Towards the top of the gully are some fantastic hored up granite pinnacles including Aladdin's Seat which offers a fantastic view out down the corrie and beyond to Loch Morlich. Meall a' Buchaille which would be a huge hill in England looks tiny from our vantage point such is the scale of these Cairngorm monsters.


The plateau is windy today I can feel the gusts catching the skis which are strapped to my rucksack, trying to twist me sideways. Visibility is down to about twenty meters so out come the map and compass to get us up to the summit. At one point I notice a subtle change in colour parallel to us and out left; matt white to a dull grey, it's the cornice at the edge of the plateau. We have manage to get to within about seven meters of it without seeing it, and it's all to easy to see how people fall through cornices in really bad visibility. At the base of the final summit cone the sun burns through the cloud giving a beautifully atmospheric view of to Beinn a' Mheadhoin with it's distinctive granite tors.


The summit weather station is coated in ice and rime like a fantastical fairy tale castle or wedding cake. Laurence and Gareth head off on a baring down towards to top of the funicular as Sarah and I take off our crampons and step into or bindings, I pretty much immediately fall over trying to get into my skis (a gust of wind I tell you). The run off the top is a bit of a challenge, the lack of a horizon between snow and cloud makes the terrain very hard to read and the snow itself is very icy and has been sculpted into frozen waves by the wind.


Carving down on the baring we suddenly drop out of the cloud and spot the top of the ski lifts sat in front of a terrific view out over the valley and the smaller hills stretching north towards Inverness. We stop at the summit station for a late lunch and meet up with Nick and Abi who have spent the day skiing and with Bernie and Josie who at 20 months has climbed her first Munro today (with a little help from mum and dad). From the summit station it takes less then fifteen minutes to carve our way down the mountain and loose the height it took us three hours of hard work to gain this morning.


Ski mountaineering; I'm sold!

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