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SMC Cairngorm Guide Book
Title: The Cairngorms
The long awaited new guide to the Cairngorms has arrived in the shops just in time for the coming winter season. The Cairngorms is the UK's most extensive mountain range stretching wide across north-east Scotland, a high arctic plateau cut by deep corries exposing superb granite cliffs, home to some of the very best summer and winter climbing in the country.
The guide is in the now familiar SMC largish format, adorned with an excellent shot of the classic fingers ridge in Coire an t-Sneachda, and not in wintry guise for a change. At nearly five hundred pages it is the heftiest of the new Scottish guides so far, replacing in a single volume the old Cairngorms 1 and Cairgorms 2 guides. This will hopefully raise the profile of some of the less frequented southern Cairngorm areas and persuade climbers to explore beyond the popular destinations in the north, though the new guide will certainly be a lot more of a struggle to stuff in a pocket that its predecessors.
Inside, the traditional geology, history and notes sections (more on these later), give way to the crag descriptions starting from the north and working southwards across the range. Full colour throughout allows the use of very good photo topos and diagrams- even relatively minor crags now have topos, interspersed with a huge number of generally excellent photos. These photos include not only the well established super-classics such as the Needle (E1) and Savage Slit (V 6), but also lots of less well known routes of all grades- which combined with the liberal (and by and large deserved) application of stars to routes should again encourage exploration. Excellent colour area maps (a great improvement on the old sketch versions when one has packed the wrong map!), and thorough approach and route descriptions leave only lack of leg power as an excuse for not getting further afield.
Cairngorm plateau from above Aladdin's Buttress
© Mark Salter
In terms of the routes, the sheer number of additions is incredible. Taking the destined to be forever hugely popular northern corries as an example, Coire an t-Sneachda now boasts well over a hundred routes (up from eightyish in the old guide), and Coire an Lochain next door has gone from sixtyish to ninety odd. The selected Scottish winter climbs guide by comparison contains well under a third of these. While many of the new lines are at the harder end of the grade scale, there are also a lot of worthwhile mid-grade additions- alternatives from joining queues on the days when you'd be forgiven for thinking central London had relocated. New routes are not confined just to the popular areas- many of the most remote crags in the country have been steadily developed by committed activists over the years and their hard work is now detailed for others to enjoy. The guidebook team have done an impressive job of making the guide as up to date as possible – anyone wishing to repeat/admire from a safe distance the UK's most recent super-hard trad route will find Dave McLeods 'to Hell and Back' on p.142. No doubt, the new guide will spur a spate of further new routing now the gaps are plain to see!
Grades-wise, the classics are all well established at the grade, so little movement there. The sandbags have by and large been sorted out, though the anoraks will inevitably find something to discuss in the pub- winter grading (and the grading of granite slabs), has never and will never be an exact science...
Going back briefly to the other sections, the Geology, History and Notes sections are well written and organised, if a little terse- pages were clearly at a premium, and the first ascent details contain fewer anecdotes for whiling away long belay sessions than for instance the Glen Coe or Ben Nevis guides.
Pygmy Ridge September
© Andy Nisbet, Sep 2007
The one genuine oddity I've come across so far is the case of the classic winter route 'White Magic' in Coire an t-Sneachda- immortalised in the TV series 'The Edge'. This route has been relegated to being the 'variation original line' on the winter ascent of 'The Magic Crack'- see p.49. 'White Magic' as a name does not appear in the description or index of climbs. Winter ascents of classic summer lines are a contentious issue (see below), but given its fame as a route it should have been included properly.
So what, if anything, is missing? My personal concern is the lack of a description of Scottish winter ethics. That routes should be climbed exclusively when well frozen is only briefly mentioned in the environment notes, the general ground-up and onsight ethic is not mentioned and no explicit explanation is made of the somewhat confusing to visitors snowed-up rock ethic. Some of the photo topos mark winter lines up snow-free rock- perfect for showing the line but misleading in the absence of an ethics section, and some of the route photos showing fairly lean conditions could be similarly misinterpreted.
Winter ethics are a contentious issue- the guide does direct readers to hunt out the MCofS guidelines on the subject www.mountaineering-scotland.org.uk/pitch-in/winterpractice.html but I feel that these should have been included in the guide. Away from winter, the only glaring omission is the lack of mention of the chief objective hazard in Scottish summer climbing... midges!
Also, while the guide details the Scottish avalanche information service www.sais.gov.uk, and online weather forecasts including Geoff Monks excellent www.mwis.org.uk, no mention is made of the now considerable web-based conditions resources to help with hunting down increasingly fickle winter conditions. While these are subject to change- being instructors blogs etc. some mention of the availability of online resources would have been useful to visitors.
All in all, these criticisms are very minor compared to the overwhelming superb quality of the guide- a brilliant effort by all those involved. At twenty-three pounds, it is at the upper end of UK guidebook prices, but not prohibitively so, and the quality and quantity of information more than justifies this expense. The Cairngorms is home to some of the best climbing in the world, from superb easy ridges to some of hardest trad rock and winter routes to be found. This new guide will inspire regulars and visitors alike and is well worth the investment. Bring on the winter!
And if you have trouble with Gaelic Pronunciation
From this recent Premier Post: click link
Tha Comunn na Gàidhlig toilichte stiùireadh fhoillseachadh air ainmean-àite a' Chùirn Ghuirm. Tha sinn air faidhlichean-fuaim a chur air an làrach-lìn choimhearsnachd www.speygaelic.org far an cluinnear ainmean cumanta do shreapadairean. Gabh spòrs!
Comunn na Gàidhlig are pleased to be able to offer a soundfile guide to the place-names of the Northern Cairngorms. Through the community Gaelic website www.speygaelic.org we have uploaded soundfiles of some place-names that climbers may use frequently. We hope that climbers will find this resource useful.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Viv Scott: