The Scottish for fun

Trip report 3rd March 2008

Andy and I set off at 7.00pm on Wednesday evening for the usual overnighter, hummed and hawed our way up the A1 and decided on starting on one of the buttress routes on Aonach Mor West face since it would be low avalanche risk.

By 5am we’d made it to the Gondola car park in the clag and with regular rain showers coming down the original motivation levels for a pre-dawn start had weakened to the point that we decided that an hour’s kip would be in order. Six o’clock was even claggier and since the first Gondola was only two hours away we agreed there was hardly any benefit in walking up. By 7.30 though, the sun was up and the excuses had run out and we were gearing up in the car park with a handful of keen skiers and climbers.

At £1 per minute the cable car isn’t the cheapest option but the value is certainly excellent compared with 500m of laden uphill walking and soon there was nothing for it but to shoulder the packs and hit the hillside. An hour or so later we were at the head of the Allt Daim looking up at the cliffs of Aonach Mor and comparing them with the rather hopeless topo. Thankfully there was some local help and we eventually decided that a featureless buttress matched the description of Western Rib (** III) and made the final 150m slog to the base of the route. We geared up at the top of a gentle snow slope after kicking a small ledge – but not until Andy had practised his ice axe arrest after stepping back off our little ledge to eye up the route.

Andy soloing at the start of Western Rib
Andy soloing at the start of Western Rib
(click on any image to view in Flickr)

The start looked fine I thought, so while Andy geared up I decided on a quick ‘look see’ and started off up the blunt rib – naturally I immediately got committed and a few exciting minutes were had scrabbling up disintegrating turf before safer ground was reached. Since both the ropes were down with Andy there was little to be done but to call down ‘The start’s fine’ and rely on Andy’s sense of self-preservation.

Rather chastened, ropes were tied in and the rest of the route went moving together. Three to four hours of steady work and several ‘I-think-we’ve-done-the-hard-bit-now’s later we popped out, with some relief, right by the summit cairn as the effects of the previous night were beginning to catch up with us. Thankfully the navigation off the top is straightforward, basically head due North until you hit the ski tows, but still we ended up 150m off course after we saw another team topping out on one of the other buttresses – a brief chat, ‘Hi guys. What have you done?’ ‘Hi, Stirling Bridge… so long’ and they were off at what appeared to be a sprint. ‘I think that was Neil Gresham’ says Andy and sure enough he later discovered it was indeed – they’d obviously been having an easy day on a VI, 7.

The forecast for Friday was utterly dire and after Wednesday night’s drive we needed no other excuses for a lie-in and a late start at Fraoch lodge. A leisurely breakfast staring out at the lowering clouds and rain led to the obvious choice of spying out the attractions of Aviemore. We even had the ideal excuse for a visit to the gear shops as Andy had managed to drop his belay device the day before. So the morning was spent very pleasantly touring the gear shops and the Cairngorm Mountain Sports Cafe, lightening our wallets somewhat.

Andy, the boss man at Fraoch lodge, had suggested that we might like a day’s rock climbing and had suggested that we pick up the NE outcrop guide and head off to the East coast and a crag called Cummingston; ‘it’s in the rain shadow – it’ll be dry’, he says. A quick look in the guide and it’s clear that the easiest thing at the crag is a lone VS and then a glance at the driving rain outside the tea shop window and the decision was made. Aviemore indoor wall it was

Saturday was forecast to start dreich and windy then clear up during the day so another lazy start was on the cards; but as soon as we woke at eight with the sun gleaming from a blue sky we realised we should crack on. After a quick breakfast we were on our way to the Cairngorm car park where normal Scottish service was soon resumed as snow showers hit us from an overcast sky – ah well, the forecast was still for an improvement. After Thursday’s success on grade III the plan was to push the boat out with a IV, 4 in Coire Lochain called Andromeda, a classic of the crag. By the time we reached the Coire though several other teams were ahead of us heading for the area of our route and, to the left, the obvious slot of The Vent, a grade II and the scene of a recent IMC team’s minor epic involving a cornice collapse.

By the time we reached the bottom of the route it was clear that the late start had cost us the route but possibly saved our pride as we saw a team ahead puffing, panting and swearing their way up Andromeda, the leader taking well over an hour on the 1st pitch in the end. Luckily though Milky Way, a starred Grade III, was free, and soon Andy was galloping off up the snowy gully that was the start of the route. At the top of the snow the rope slowed somewhat as gear was placed and the crux contemplated. A confident pull, a knee up and Andy was over and the rope was moving steadily again. As Andy led onwards I spent my time excavating a larger and larger ledge as a way of keeping warm in the face of the ever-present spindrift that was unusually blowing up the crag in the North Wind.

Andy on the crux of Milky Way
Andy on the crux of Milky Way

As soon as the rope went tight I was glad to be on my way and soon reached the pair of dodgy ice screws protecting the crux and emulated Andy’s technique to surmount the short corner. Then it was a set of rocky ledges covered in powdery snow that provided insecure axe and crampon placements that led to the belay – with just 2 bits of gear in 55m, a damn good lead!

A very icy Andy greeted me at the belay and no time was lost in swapping the gear and a quick 20m solo up the final gully led to the top and relief for Andy from the perpetual spindrift.

Amazingly, the weather forecast was nearly spot on and the walk back over the plateau was clear and we had good views of the nearby peaks of Braeriach, the Lochnagar peaks and the impressive-looking Shelter Stone crag which may be a venue for later trips.

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