Old Friends, High Winds and Clotted Cream – The Fourth Frostbite Report…

Telemark-tour

I had been watching the weather and avalanche forecast for weeks before I headed north to the Cairngorms with my friend Ian.  The web was full of reports of horrific looking conditions, with deep snow and driving winds battering the highlands.  Thankfully the journey north was swift and ridden with only with tea and pies, but the first night was a bit disjointed…

The day before our journey north, the SYHA at Aviemore had called me announcing that the place was flooded..!  Now I’d seen Somerset underwater, but not Scotland. Had the Spey burst its banks..?  Thankfully no, it was just a shower room leaking, causing some water damage. We were put up in a hotel for the evening where the six nations match between England and Scotland filled the bar. Beer flowed in great quantities, as did the English score, but I escaped unscathed before a fight cleared the bar and closed the evening.

The winds were high on that first day and I managed to ski uphill with great speed.  I’d missed my usual Telemark trip to the alps earlier in the year, and it showed.  My ankles felt weak and a persistent sore in the skin grafts on my right heel stung with pain.  Still it was good to be out to feel the freezing cairngorm wind tear into my lungs…

The famous Northern Corries were the next target and I approached them in breezy, but clear(ish) conditions. Nothing new about that then.  What was new were the huge, and I men huge cornices that were overhanging many of the routes.  When I say huge, I mean 10 ft out, with the trident gulleys buried, Aladdin’s mirror direct buried and the goat track untouched. There must have been 20ft of snow on the face.  It looked as if someone had come down with a thousand tons of clotted cream and dumped it on the hill.

When you’ve carried your gear for two hours in the freezing cold, it hurts to turn around and head out, but there was little else to do.  A few were bracing themselves for the Fiacaill Ridge, and a bold pair were a scaling Aladdin’s buttress, but otherwise the coire was empty.  This was a day to assess risk and retreat.  Back at the cairngorm ranger base, Ben Smith, a student from the University of Dundee was carrying out a survey about avalanche assessment and risk perception.  We happily took part and hope to see the results soon.  It seemed a fitting way to end that mountain day…

The wind continued to blow and even thought the visibility improved, conditions on the hill were desperate.  Huge plumes of spindrift were thrown into the air and clouds raced by at great speed.  If you had taken a still photograph it would have looked beautiful, but the cold air made my nose ache, and I wasn’t keen to lose it again.  Ian and I spent a day lower down, looking at cornices and digging a snow hole.  I filmed the dig and hope to use it in education soon.  People have a perception that snow is fluffy white stuff, but digging the snow hole out brought powder, sugar and wet snow in distinct layers.

The poor weather continued, with conditions closing the cairngorm road due to high winds, blizzards and numerous car accidents.  Dozens of guides, climbers and skiers waited in vain at the snow gates, hoping for a change to get up high, but we turned for home and spent the day wandering the forests near the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten.  The wind howled through the trees, but thankfully it stayed dry.  The road was closed all day and the coming conditions sounded even worse.  I noticed a red weather warning on the BBC that evening. I can’t remember the last time a red had been issued, but all the country was suffering.

On the final day, Ian and I set off early to ski tour into Coire an t-Sneachda.  The forecast was for a good morning, but with conditions deteriorating during the afternoon.  Here the speed advantage of skis come into their own as you can move quickly over the snow, and head home at great speed if you needed to.  I was testing skis for use in the coming ICEMAN Polar race in Greenland and hope that I have finally found the balance between weight and durability.  You may be able to appreciate that after losing my toes, skiing has become an interesting pastime.  Pisted snow is one thing, but touring across a mountain range is something else..!  Big thanks to Rob at Mountain Spirit for all his help.

And so another trip was done. I never managed a single climb, but bumped into Malc Auchie, who I had last met on Ama Dablam in 2009, my guide friend Rob Wymer, and made a few new friends on the way.  Bad weather or not, the mountains are truly a wonderful place to be…

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