Saturday, 4 February 2017

Hidden Chimney Direct (IV,5), Coire an t'Sneachda

I've missed Scottish winter climbing. I've missed the weathered cracks, corners and chimneys and rimed rock. For me there is nowhere better to climb in winter than Scotland

...when the conditions are right.

I've even missed the freezing belays, spindrift, upland gales and other general unpleasantness. They're all things that contribute to Scottish winter feeling a full-on experience and ultimately a more rewarding one.

Few climbers visit Scotland from Norway. Many would say I am travelling in the wrong direction. At least if Scotland looks diabolical then I can cut my losses and not get on the flight. A win-win scenario, and with flights fairly cheap it's a worthwhile gamble.

There was little sign of winter ahead of our trip. In fact it only arrived the day before we did. But it definitely arrived. Temperatures on Cairngorm's summit had been around 5 degrees on Thursday, then below freezing and dry in the coires on Friday. It was now Saturday and snow was expected. When and how much was a little unclear, as was the expected state of the coires upon our arrival. Would the turf refreeze before the snow arrived (probably not) and would the cliffs still be black or now white enough for fair game? Worst case scenario we would walk in and walk straight back out.

At 7am we had not started our continental breakfast at the Edinburgh Airport Travelodge. Once on the road the snow on the hills lining along the A9 to the south between Perth and Aviemore suggested the snow had a head start. By the time we were at the Cairngorm Mountain car park it was 11am and it was clear that winter was back.

A headwind blizzard was blowing strongly during the walk-in to Coire an t'Sneachda, meaning it was heads down and hoods up for parts of the way. Occasionally looking up to correct our line. Fortunately visibility was good enough to spy wintery looking conditions on all the buttresses.

Anna walking into a headwind on the approach
Our plan A was Hidden Chimney Direct, as we would have the option to abseil from the top of the first (main) pitch if running short of time. Plus the Mess of Pottage had the shortest routes and shortest approach, so it was a no-brainer. We knew the area would be busy and so our biggest priority was to avoid any queues and get a clean run with our limited time. At least turned up late it is easier to see where the bottlenecks might be. Fortunately the only other team on the route were a good pitch ahead of us, so no worries there. Plus hopefully there would now be a little less snow to clear.

Mess of Pottage
After a three year hiatus from Scotland I was straight back into it. Just a couple metres above Anna's belay some firm pulls on well hooked axes were needed to gain some awkward high foot ledges. Maybe the crux moves, or at least that's how it felt. That or maybe there were a few cobwebs to clear away. The remainder of the pitch was a more slabby angle with good foot ledges and lots of positive hooks in the cracks in the steep left hand wall. Plenty of good gear as well. Little evidence of the previous party remained, with lots of continuous sweeping needed to uncover the banked-out foot ledges. I had forgotten how slow climbing can be on these sorts of routes. After what seemed a good while of inching my way up the route I looked down to see my belayer a mere 15m away. 

Me on the first pitch
The pitch was snowed-up rock for the large part. Just some unfrozen turf on the easier ground below where the route kinked left, although there was no need to pull on it given the leaning gradient. The SMC guide described some thin moves at the top of the pitch in the absence of ice but the moves felt pretty easy thanks to a bomber hook between some rocks that also acted as a stein pull. An excellent pitch.

Anna at the top of the first pitch
It was 3pm by the time we were both at the top of the pitch. There was the option to abseil from the large block, as many choose to do, but it felt as though we needed to continue up the regular line of Hidden Chimney to properly complete the route. Anna led the easy ground leftwards, that is shared with The Slant, to beneath the final gully/chimney from which the route takes its name.

Anna on the second pitch traverse
Despite the modest grade III rating the final pitch was a surprisingly tough proposition. Partly due to the winds, which had switched to a northeasterly direction, leading to a strong updraft of snow in the gully. Regularly I struggled to look down at my feet without my eyes watering from the volume of snow being blown upwards. In fact I could feel my eyebrows starting to rime up. The winds were particularly strong at a large bulging chock stone at the top of the pitch, which lacked neve, ice or frozen turf above it in order to pull through on. Instead I needed to climb a couple of metres to the right and then traverse towards the block from where I could bridge it more easily. I waited what seemed like minutes for the winds to drop enough for me to look at my feet in order to pull through on the final moves. At least no cornice to contend with. By the time we were both at the top it was 5pm. Last into the coire, last out of the coire.

Top of the route at dusk
Visibility was pretty good on the plateau so we opted to follow the coire rim northwards rather than dip back into the coire. We might have saved a little time initially but the exposure to the strong cross winds and scoured rocky ground probably made the descent harder overall. Anna must have slipped over about ten times. Eventually we quit the high ground and dipped back into the mouth of the coire. A clear sky and bright moon at least meant navigation was easy. No need for a head torch, which I had accidentally buried under the ropes and hardware at the bottom of my rucksack. Not many cars in the car park upon our return but given our late start it felt a bonus to have got a route climbed. Plus it had been a good opportunity to suss out conditions for the following day. Good to be back in Scotland.

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