Beinn a Bhuird & Ben Avoncamping, hike

The Cairngorm Club traditionally do an annual traverse (in September) from Linn O’Dee to Cairn Gorm (or vice versa) and I’d always wanted to do this in winter conditions: a small group assembled, we headed out on Friday eve from Keiloch for an overnight in the howff to get started early next day, however the forecast for Sunday was dire, and I had misgivings that the parties pace would be sufficient to get to Aviemore in time to allow homeward transport Sunday night.

I kept my headtorch off for most of the night walk, the full moon illuminating the track and sparkling off the burn; for the fords and then higher up I began to encounter snow and ice, and switched it on briefly.

Twinkly skies
Sparkly stream

At the howff we discussed options: as I was working Monday morning and had to be back, I thought we could head out towards the traverse route past Beinn a Bhuird, and if a target time hadn’t been met then I’d turn back and leave them to it. The 3 of us settled down (could at a squeeze fit 4 perhaps 5 in here lying down). I should have paid a bit more attention to some damp spots on the howff floor: condensation was running along the corrugated roof, then dripping off protrusions: one of these led to a damp spot on my sleeping bag discovered in the morning; I could have slung my goretex over the bag.

The morning saw cracking conditions and we headed off north of the howff (this would prove later to land us with a surprise) as the sun began to climb

Early morning view of Lochnagar
Near the howff is another old structure
Snow drifts in the hollows
Weaving through snow patches
Sun up and tickling the tops

We attempted crossing upstream of the main ford location; I’d taken water shoes ( a thin sole and some netting fabric) foreseeing multiple potential crossings and was glad to not risk wet boots early on, although the water was bitterly cold.

Away to cross at the ‘island’
Some high banks of snow beside the stream
Bog not quite frozen

We could see snow-free terrain on the east side of Carn Fiaclach so headed there rather than follow the path which we though would be banked out with snow. The east side has some interesting diagonal peri-glacial ‘terraces’, they don’t quite point in the direction of travel but useful to zig-zag

A’ Chioch
Up Carn Fiaclach ‘ridge’

The first major snowfield was rock-hard neve and the crampons had to go on and the axe out, with a bouldery run-out hazard

Morning clouds beginning to burn off distant peaks
Small tor, big tor (in the distance Ben Avon)

We’d not made good enough time on the ascent and between us had agreed to not do the traverse, but take in Ben Avon and loop back to the start. We headed around the corrie of Beinn a Bhuird, keeping well back from the edge with massive cornicing.

Corries of Beinn a Bhuird
On the plateau a very crisp panorama to the north and west
Cornices of Coire nan Clach
Beinn a Bhuird flat plateau heading for the north top
Zoom west, Derry Cairngorm to the fore and mountains of Lairig Ghru behind
Barns of Bynack and Bynack More behind
Ben Avon coming back into view

The north top isn’t very exciting, just a few boulders

Ice fronds from the northern winds
Heading on to Cnap a Chleirich
Looking back at A’ Chioch
Cnap a Chleirich
Some impressive rime on the rocks
Snow channels and swirls
A brief interlude into a cloud
Heading to the sneck

As we headed towards The Sneck, and with the previous bullet-hard neve in mind, I suggested we avoid the short but steep descent and deviate south east to a less steep humped ridge, but the others were keen to go down here.

Within a few paces heading down, it was clear this was dodgy as hell, and I turned inwards to face the slope and started front-pointing down. The neve was sufficiently hard that I regretted my lightweight axe and strap-on alu-alloy crampons (I’d taken lightweight kit for comfort and less load, as there’d been no intention of getting ‘technical’). The lightweight metal occasionally skittered off the hard-ice, and after a while I had to take short breaks as my legs and arm were beginning to tire. Looking down, there was still a fair way to go and I had to traverse around various rock-slabs glistening with verglas ice, and continued to proceed carefully.

Neve descent, photo lower down once the gradient reduced and I was back standing up on ‘terra-firma’

I’m pretty sure I’d have been much quicker taking the longer but walkable route down, and way safer. I sometimes get talked into stuff by folk who are looking for drama/excitement, and I should stick with my guns really. A bit of practice on the axe and some useful limitations found (equipment, but also my hand’s ice-axe grip endurance). This would have been a good scenario for a french-style ‘piolet ramasse‘ descent, but not something I’ve practiced and was going to deploy on consequential ground.

Some rocky slab bits that I’d avoided
Looking down The Sneck glen
The Sneck. Ascent to Ben Avon much easier
Looking back at the descent. Would have been better further left away from the rocky bits

Heading up on to Ben Avon, the grass tinkled and crunched, encased in ice

Frozen grass
Easy crossing to Ben Avon
Grass frond with ice shell
Verglas surfaces
Looking to Lochnagar past a rock clump
Ben Avon top

A brief stop today, we were running out of daylight. The pace we’d made so far proved there’d have been no chance of traversing to Aviemore, so it had been the right call to loop back.

Sunset approaching as we head down ‘Glen Sneck’

The Sneck glen can hold a lot of snow and so it proved: the upper burn completely hidden then appearing sporadically under huge whirls of snow

The burn almost entirely hidden
Peeping out below a huge drift

The snow was hard as evening approached, and allowed us to walk down the bottom without much hazard of falling through.

Walking the burn down

Lower down the burn burst through, but at the next two crossings fortunately they were bridged by snow

Snow bridge below the waterfall
“You go first”

The trail was banked out and although the fall-line gradient quite shallow, the hardness meant the crampons had to go back on at times.

Earlier I’d mentioned how if we’d headed up the trail in daylight we’d have seen a hazard: reaching the top of the Slugain, unexpectedly huge banks meant caution was needed as the banked-out path teetered above a large drop to the pool, and then at a stream we had to climb down a high vertical bank: another equipment limitation had been shown – although our torches were quite bright, they were all flood beams and didn’t have enough ‘throw’ to scan far ahead and ‘route and hazard find’ to a useful distance.

Slugain trail unexpectedly snow-banked
More snow banks

We weighed up another night in the howff: Sunday was going to see high-wind, with nothing much else to be gained tomorrow we decided to bear another few miles and slogged down to Keiloch to get back to Aberdeen that night. A long day out, but 2 cracking mountains in great conditions.

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