Monday, 3 December 2007

Winter's Cusp

Crunch, crunch, splash. "Bollocks". Crunch, "bollocks" splash.

I'll never understand the minutiae of snow pack and consolidation. Why is it that given a one metre square you can jump up and down on one bit and hardly make a dent and on another you go in up to your arse?

The last few hundred metres of the walk-in in Coire an t'Schneahda on Saturday seemed to go on forever, as my feet seemed to keep finding the soft snow in between the patches of decent neve. Not to worry, we made it to the crag anyway. It was only Jones' second winter route, and my first one of the new season (I don't think Fiacaill Ridge really counts as a route), so we had decided to climb Hidden Chimney on the Mess of Pottage. I was a little concerned about the blackness of the crags, and the amount of bare turf and running water in Jacobs Ladder as we geared up, but thought I might as well have a poke up the first pitch to see how it looked. The first pitch is the first 45m of The Slant, a grade I, so bailing would be fine if the crag wasn't playing ethical ball. I had hoped to do the IV 5 direct start but that was pretty much bare of anything wintery, so that was that.

Patches of cloud were whisked over head at high speed on the stiff breezes that circled and eddied in the coire, and a pale blue wintery sky looked down as Jones snuggled down to her first stint at the belay. I felt pretty excited as I hooked and torqued on anything and everything, uneccasarily swapping axes and revelling in leashless freedom and promptly dissapeared round the corner onto the open ramp of The Slant. There was actually much more snow than I had thought, and much (but by no means all) of the turf was frozen. 45m and three runners allowed me to reach the bottom of Hidden Chimney, a wide, stepped gully-come-chimney. Jones made short work of it all and was soon looking cool and comfy ready for belay duty number two.

Pitch two was a pleasant re-introduction to this bizarre mixed climbing lark, with bomber gear all the way up and some nice tricky little steps. I felt that in it's current condition (no ice and no real snow build-up) it was fairly tricky III, as the wee step before the chock-stone was fairly steep and relied on sexy wee hooks in the sidewalls (what was it I said in a previous post about winter climbers being weired perverts?).

Jones nearing the tricky end of pitch 2

Again, Jones excelled herself and met me at the chock-stone in short time. I was impressed. Maybe she's a gnarly alpinist in the making. Infact, her inner thermostat seems to work in reverse, so maybe she is a natural in the hills. When its boiling hot indoors she's sat shivering with 5 layers, a beanie and 3 pairs of socks on, but when its snowing and she's sat on the belay for half an hour she's positively toasty. Bizarre.

I got her to lead about 3 metres up from my belay on the chockstone to a wee bay behind it so I wouldn't kick her as I made the last steep moves above. A bit of wriggling, a cam, a bomber hook and a swing across the chimney saw me exiting from the chimney onto the final slope up to the plateau. Jones got some funky high-step maneuvres in on this bit as the snow really started to fall. Before we knew it we were stowing the ropes as the wind tried to relieve us of them and scuttling back down Fiaciall a' Coire Cas.

High-stepping into the blizzard: Jones exiting the chimney

"Run away": Leaving the wind-scoured plateau

A spot of recuperation in Aviemore's Cafe Mambo was just the ticket and before long we were safely ensconced back in Banff Crescent, enjoying tea and tiffin, well, beer and sausage-cottage pie (which is actually pretty good). The drying room heater was doing over-time and we had that smug, self-satisfied glow that only comes after a days rewarded efforts. It's pretty sweet to have got out into the winter snows twice already, and December has only just begun. This Highlands lark isn't all rain and long, dark nights.

Sunday was spent doing not a whole lot. Jones and I ventured down the Glen as it was clear and dry and I fancied a go on Midnight In A Perfect World. Little did I realise that the combination of the last few week's moisture and the lack of sun in the Glen at this time of year had conspired to ensure everything was wet and slimey, so we just drank tea and admired the view, which isn't too bad. It might mean my pact will have to be aborted, unless we get some sustained high pressure before I head South for christmas. Drat.

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