Monday, 21 February 2011

Winter Mountaineering in the Cairngorms - Part Two: Jacob's Ladder, Coire an t-Sneachda

It was to be a crux day. Our inaugural winter climb and a thorough examination of our embryonic skillset. Jacob's Ladder in the Coire an t-Sneachda is a tangible Grade I gully requiring, for us, 4 pitches to reach the crest of the plateau. A sheer, attenuated fracture in the sable mountainside buttressed by immense slabs of vengeful rock, besieged by ice and névé, the gradient grows sharply more precipitous, to almost vertical, as the ridgeline approaches. There is a small cornice, this winter, at the top which is a troublesome and decidedly inconvenient last move. The majority of the gully ascent would require front pointing and two axes, as well as strength and determination. Fear was omnipresent. Even the rocks on the approach looked like tombstones. Yes, it was to be a crux day for us mountaineering neophytes.



The approach to Jacob's Ladder, into the cauldron of the Coire itself, is completely unsheltered, dragging wind and rain into its core, nurturing a rimy, icy blanket to be traversed with utmost care. We'd be carrying full climbing equipment, including 50m of rope, as well as our usual day kit and the walk-in would be well over an hour. The plan was, as Steve and Mark were experienced rock climbers (although everything else on the course was as new even to them as it was to us) they would construct their own pitches whilst supervised by Ron. We'd also do the first two pitches ourselves before Ron directed us for the last two. All in all, I'll confess to some nerves the preceding night and little sleep. Even a Grade I gully is a serious undertaking and, for a first climb, this was a genuine assessment of whether we had the nerve and proficiency to continue into the dominion of the mountaineer and alpinist. A fall, with poorly constructed belays, would prove serious, if not fatal. This is not a playground - people die here.



Thankfully, although windy, with some wind-born snow, the weather chose not to throw much else at us. Yet, that was enough. As we approached the base of Jacob's Ladder, the ice was so bad we had to cut steps to get to a rock escarpment where we could eat, add another layer and secure crampons. Already we'd seen one couple leaving the Coire having suffered injury. We cut a block in the snow to do an avalanche test to find windslab a foot thick at least - avalanche risk in the area was high.

We laboriously ascended a steep patch of icy ground, hybrid technique this time to save our muscles, plunging axes in as far as they'd go for support. When we reached the site of our first pitch, I decided to dig a bucket seat and dead rope box. I drove one axe into the icy snow and put my rucksack haul loop on it to prevent it descending the 150m to the kernel of the Coire. With my other axe, I began digging. It was tortuous cutting through the icy snow but eventually I had a comfortable and secure belay. Ron constructed an anchor above me using a sling around a solid rock and I set myself up to belay my partner to the next pitch. There is serenity to settling into a well crafted bucket seat on a steep mountainside, some 1000m up, with an uninstructed view of the world around. Protected from the frigid cold by the arcane genius of Páramo, I revelled in the peace of those moments juxtaposed with the tension of waiting to start my part of the climb. Yet that peace was brutally shattered as I heard, as clear as crystal, a fall above me. Mark, hurtling down the slope, snapped sharply when the runner he had placed, securely as it transpired, halted his fall like a gunshot - Steve, reacting in a heartbeat, took the weight through his own belay and Mark hung around for a moment before composing himself, voicing his thanks to Steve and continuing his ascent. His mistake - an infinitesimal downhill edging of his crampon - was enough to rob him of his footing and send him barrelling earthwards. It was a salutary lesson for all four of us.



Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering


Eventually, I heard the call from my partner and he began taking in the rope until I shouted "that's me" and got myself ready to climb. Tipping back my head and gazing up the gully, my heart started to pound as blood coursed through my veins like a raging torrent. I took in a breath and pulled on my rucksack. Swinging each ice axe into the névé, before moving a crampon-laden boot and driving the front points into the crusty white carapace, I moved at first like a newborn giraffe - ungainly and deeply unsure of my footing. Eventually, my progress became something approaching rhythmic symbiosis and I gained in both speed and confidence. I retrieved the runner en route and moved past my partner's belay and further up the gully. My calves were on fire such was the effort required to drive the crampons in for a secure foothold. This was a long stretch but necessary - it set the stall for the rest of the climb. Frequently, I would be struck by falling ice from climbers above and I took a line to one side. However, I'd have to traverse the gully as our next pitch was across to the other side. When I arrived, the first, there was little in the way of a stable base to rest my aching legs - no serene bucket seat here. As I reached a bouldery outcrop where Ron had set up a sling anchor, I clipped in and tried to cut myself a step with my crampons - not much luck and the angle was too tight to use my axe. I kicked in as hard as I could, repeatedly and determinedly, trying to secure a comfortable foothold. It was a long wait for my partner to reach me at the belay and my muscles grew steadily more tired over the course of what seemed like hours. I tried to ignore the tortured protests of the conflagration in my muscles and instead, through gritted teeth, savoured the view. The wind howled around me, stinging my skin with spindrift, but in reality, it could have been worse. Here I was, half way up my first winter gully and my progression from hillwalker to mountaineer had really begun.


Courtesy of Ron Walker, Talisman Mountaineering


At long last, my partner arrived, followed shortly thereafter by Steve and Mark. It was a crowded anchor and moving off was a complicated procedure involving an unhealthy degree of intimacy and intricate footwork. Nevertheless, move off we did, and this time, Ron led us up the final, far more steeply inclined pitch. My partner and I were roped together and moved as one, by now used to the coalition of ice-axe and crampon placement. The névé grew harder to penetrate and the front points of the crampons began to go in less firmly and it was sheer momentum that kept us from slipping, rather than the rapid, deep kicks we tried to place into the gully wall. By now, muscles we had not been aware of began to scream in agony but we had no choice but to push on. Mercifully, in far shorter a time than I had anticipated, we reached the heavily corniced overhand that marked the end of the gully and the plateau. A tricky but eminently possible few moves and that was it.





As I hauled myself in an ungainly, exhausted fashion across it, I was overcome with elation. I moved swiftly away from the edge, crampons satisfyingly surefooted now, and sat, enervated and emotional, amid some rocks whilst munching on a snickers and guzzling the last of my water. My first Grade I climb and I cannot put into words the feeling of euphoria that cascaded over me. As others crested the plateau from other routes, I gazed, stupefied, and determined that this was one of the very best days.




The views from the 1171m plateau were breathtaking - we could do little but wander round, the wind whistling in our heads, and simply let our eyes dance across the vista, caressing each undulating mountainous apex with unbridled joy and rapture. We chatted happily with others, who had just completed climbs of their own, and felt like we'd really arrived. It was the start of something special - something truly exotic and unfamiliar - and we loved it. I confess to some relief that the walk down past 1141 and along Fiacaill a' Choire Chas was a straightforward, if rather lengthy one, in deep snow, but it passed in an icy whirlwind so smitten was I with the day's events. As we trudged through the deep snow to the Ski Area car park, my legs began to feel the energy sapping effects of my exertions coupled with the repeated sinking into yawning whiteness, but I could not have cared less. As night drew in, I simply smiled.





11 comments:

  1. fantastic read maz, and well done. Definitely cut your teeth now, only way is....up!

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  2. Thank you both. It was a challenging day but one that took me down a path I really look forward to continuing along.

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  3. :) I'm just about to leave for work, but can't wait to immerse myself in it later- looks like you had a great time!

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  4. Agree with the poster above, both parts of this article have been a great read. Halfway through even I was worried for you in terms of making it to the end!

    Some of the photos above look amazing, but I'm sure only convey the half of it. Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.

    What do you have in mind for your second rung on the mountaineering ladder I wonder?

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  5. Nigel: I know you understand exactly what it's all about.

    Godber: Next rung of the ladder is some Grade 2 and 3 scrambling through the auspices of Plas y Brenin in Snowdonia and then the Classic Haute Route in the Alps in August.

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  6. I should point out the scrambling grades are somewhat different from Scottish winter climbing grades!

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  7. Thanks Ron - I've done some Grade 1 (not Grade I) scrambling which does not require ropes. Now I'd like to move on to some Grade 2 and 3 scrambling (which does require ropes). This is not the same as Scottish Winter Climbing Grades which is a totally different grading system, as Ron points out. Scrambling is a separate but related skill which will be of some assistance in the Alps.

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  8. In fact, anyone who is interested can see the Scottish Grades here:

    http://www.mcofs.org.uk/winter-climbing-guide-grades.asp

    and here:

    http://www.mountaindays.net/articles/item/snow_ice_alpine_grades_explained/

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  9. Well done Maz, congratulations, I was breathless just reading about it and grinning ear to ear, brilliant :-)

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  10. I should point out the scrambling grades are somewhat different from Scottish winter climbing grades!

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