I decided to extend the annual new-year Cairngorm Club Lochnagar trip, by heading out on Friday night to Gelder Shiel bothy that lies near to the mountain, and getting in another day on the mountain before meeting up with the club’s party on sunday.
Two others and myself bussed it out to Crathie, disembarked into a drizzle and paced out to the bothy for the night.
Heading out before daybreak, we followed the track up to Creag Liath then up Coire Glas to gain the saddle between it and Meall Coire na Saobhaidhe (myall-cor-na-sivvie) the strong wind blustering with the odd bit of rain and sleet.
The 2 others had been keen to climb a snow gully in the corrie of Lochnagar, which all lie facing east or north east, the lee direction to the previous nights 70mph wind. Despite the benign avalanche forecast, I was sceptical and considered it unwise with a high chance of unstable wind-slab and large cornices forming overnight beyond the report, particularly with there being a spell above zero with rain to load snow more heavily. They reluctantly agreed and our secondary plan was to ascend Lochnagar either up the NE ridge (done before back in May 2021) or NW ridge.
With the overnight wind we thought it best to choose the NW side which although steep should have been less prone to windslab. None of us had been up this way before.
The hope that the NW side would be stripped of deep snow was soon dispelled and we took turns breaking trail in zig-zags, it’s surprising how much more energy it takes on the front plunging into the snow compared with following.
As soon as the steep climb began to level off, we felt the full fury of the wind, and the terrain underfoot turned rocky with a glaze of ice, and we teetered and staggered the last few metres to the top.
We carefully unfurled a bothy bag to regroup and decide what to do next and get a bit to eat. It whipped and cracked frantically around us, and my fingers were numbing and barely working to eat. I’d hoped to head over to Coire Bhoidheach to check it’s snow condition, but any motivation to do anything other than take the most direct route down, had been blown asunder by the screaming cold of the pinnacle. We packed the shelter and headed out into the white void.
The 2 chaps I was with are intent on ‘winter mountain leader’ qualifications, so did a great job of taking compass bearings and using a stopwatch to time legs and find features in quite difficult terrain to navigate. Eventually colour and shape crept in as we approached the Glas Allt, and then we trudged off-path (the path holding more snow and hiding drains) towards the bridge.
The bouldery path beyond the falls was thankfully not icey today, and typically after a day of cloud and low visibility, the sun broke through as we approached the end
We found the bothy empty, and after some faffing got the stove going. We were joined by 2 parties later on – primarily there for a bothy night, but they settled eventually to allow us early starters to get some shut eye.
Up before sunrise we quietly got organised and headed out along the loch track (it’s been getting some refinement by laying of finer gravel and rolling) taking a detour past the cluster of buildings at Allt na Giubhsaich which include a bothy controlled by the university, and an old deer hanging larder. We had a coffee and waited for the arrival of The Cairngorm Club coach party.
The club had a few different groups ascending towards Conachcraig, some travelling fast with an ambition to go to the top, some not so much because the forecast was for brutal wind, and I tagged on with the slower ones: my expectations tempered by yesterday’s experience.
As we made our way up to the Meikle Pap col, the swirling wind battered us and summit-optimism quickly evaporated as we staggered.
We met some very capable looking climbers coming down who had given up, they noted an unusual turbulence even within the corrie. A discussion with another 2 had them tag along with us to explore the corrie – we’d all decided that an attempt higher would be unsuccessful.
We should have headed ‘down then around’ rather than ‘around and down’, as the boulder field was steep and awkward. A few of our group making slow progress decided against going further as they’d not make it around in the time available.
Our whittled group stopped at the mountain rescue post, and our norwegian colleague broke out some aquavit, an aromatic vodka concoction, with a hip flask of whisky also doing a round. 3 of the club with ideas of going up the black spout were dots below the towering crags as they made their way closer.
As we made our way around the lochan I’d noticed that pretty much every gully had avalanche debris at it’s outflow. In the case of the black spout the run-out debris was over 100m below. Although it all looked to be of a shallow depth, this kind of slide would still knock you over and send you tumbling. The lesson is that just because an avalanche report at a moment in time seems safe, you still need to pay attention to ongoing conditions in the evening after it (e.g. the southern cairngorms report is typically uploaded early evening).
We’d made our way past the various ice-clad rocks to the lochside, which was cracking into big slabs of ice
As we reached the end of the lochan, I recalled being told of a howff in amongst the boulders nearby. Most of the nearby blocks didn’t seem large enough so it took a bit of clambering, hopping over holes and falling through snow, to reach some whopper boulders higher up.
The stacked rocks were the clue – they hide a tiny gap and inside a rough cavity with enough space for a couple folk to sleep or maybe 4 to have a seat. Hard to say with snow drifting inside whether the floor is flat or not, but we agreed that with the wind whistling past outside that there was a useful amount of shelter here.
Around the back of the howff, a suspect package, heavy and wrapped in plastic sheet and tape, was found and removed for investigation: it would turn out to be a package of old decayed batteries, maybe a howff lighting system but I also remembered seeing buoys on the lochan a few years back, and considered whether this was a remnant of scientific instrumentation that had perhaps been found on the shore and deposited here. The satisfaction of removing a source of heavy-metal toxicity from the wilds was tempered by the reality that for miles around, millions of lead shot lie within the heather.
We got a shout from another explorer about 100m away who had found another space, he was convinced this was the real howff as having been described as uphill from the middle tail-lochan, which it was, but the other one seemed superior to me.
Exploration concluded, we returned loch side to find a way across between the chain of smaller lochans. I only just escaped a dunk on a leap over a slippery gap between boulders, but was rewarded with this fine view – I do like a ‘lochans and crags’ vista!
We need to be back at the coach for 4 so rather than heading back up to the Meikle Pap col with some ascent involved, we headed around the outside of it: possibly not a great decision, the terrain was a real struggle: the patches of snow were either a few inches, or thigh deep and with a crust that randomly supported weight. This alternated with deep heather and bog. We were glad to eventually rejoin the path.
We boarded the coach which whisked us to Aboyne for a meal and a beer. A strenuous weekend, not great weather but always worthwhile experiencing the winter mountains.