With the leaves turning and the nights drawing in, not to mention the rain, climbers begin to think towards the coming winter season...
One of the first places to see winter conditions is likely to be the heartland of snowed-up rock climbing... the Northern Corries in Scotland's Cairngorm mountains.
Situated in Scotland's central Highlands and lying east of the A9 between Perth to the south and Inverness to the north, the Cairngorms are among the greatest and wildest of Britain's mountains. They form an extensive high plateau, deeply cut by ancient glaciers to give steep corries crowned with high quality granite cliffs. Many of these cliffs provide classic summer rock climbs of all standards, but due to their height and often northerly aspect they are possibly best known for providing some of Scotland's most superlative winter adventures.
The Northern Corries, situated close to the popular tourist town of Aviemore and directly adjacent to Cairngorm ski area, provide climbers with a winter climbing adventure wonderland. Along with the "big bad" Ben (Nevis) over in the west, the Northern Corries (or Norries as they are otherwise known) are by far and away the most popular winter climbing destination in the UK. Their honeypot status is hardly surprising, the Northern Corries combine easy access with reliable conditions and routes for everyone. You will find novices on their first routes to seasoned campaigners on grade X's.
Sitting on the northern edge of the Cairngorm plateau looking out over the Strathspey, the Northern Corries, thanks to the Cairgorm ski road, offer a unique combination of easy access and a cliff-base among the highest in the country. Added to this is the huge range of climbing with excellent routes at all grades from easy gullies and mixed routes to classic test-pieces and cutting-edge desperates.
The climbing is found on the cliffs at the head of the two corries west of the Coire Cas ski area. The cliffs are all made of Cairngorm granite - a weathered blocky rock with lots of cracks, flakes and features, interspersed by the occasional worryingly blank slab. The first coire, Coire an t-Sneachda is the more open, featuring several large mostly slabby buttresses separated by gullies and areas of broken ground. The Fiacaill Ridge, with it's classic exposed final crest (II) separates Coire an t-Sneachda from its slightly higher and more compact neighbour Coire an Lochain which features four generally steep main buttresses, again separated by gullies.
The routes fall broadly into three categories- snow gullies, rocky ribs and technical snowed-up rock buttress routes. The Northern Corries are the heartland of Scotland's famous snowed up rock-climbing, where hoared up rock is climbed by hooking and torquing (twisting) axe picks into cracks.
With the exception of the popular short challenge of Aladdin's Mirror Direct (IV) there is little ice in the corries but when in condition the nearby cliffs of Hell's Lum are one of Scotland's best ice venues.
For the low and mid grade (I-IV/V) climber, Coire an t-Sneachda has the most to offer with lots of excellent easy gullies and mixed routes, and on the steeper buttresses lots of very well protected technical challenges ideal for those seeking to improve. For those seeking harder challenges there are plenty of trickier routes and for anyone with very big arms and a very, very long neck, the second winter ascent of the The Hurting (a terrifying XI 11) awaits!
For those seeking challenges in the grade V and above range, Coire an Lochain is definitely worth a visit or three with loads of superb steep routes, again mostly very well protected and some allowing convenient abseil descent. There are also a small number of easier routes which can be a good option for those seeking to avoid queues on busy weekends. It is worth remembering that the base of the cliffs in Lochain are around 100m higher than those in Coire an t-Sneachda which can make all the difference if the freezing level is very near the tops.
Routes are graded for average conditions - some rely on snow build-up to be the given grade and watch out for verglas caused by a sudden freeze after a thaw which can make normally well protected routes very bold - be prepared to change plans if needed.
When to Go
The old 'how long is a piece of string question' which is impossible to answer. Snowed up rock and ridge routes are usually in condition from around mid-December onwards (though there's often a good week in November), with the gullies usually having formed by January. As always with Scotland, the best plan is be flexible, keeping an eye on the weather, avalanche and conditions reports (see below) but if you have to fix a date, then sometime in February through to early-March is probably best.
As with all UK winter climbing, the weather dictates what (if any) climbing is possible. The Northern Corries have one of the longest possible seasons of any Scottish winter venues with ascents recorded anytime from September to May. Steep snowed up rock routes, especially those in the slightly higher Coire an Lochain are usually first to come into condition, requiring only a dusting of snow. Gullies on the other hand need heavier snowfall and a few freeze thaw cycles to build up, but once formed are much more thaw resistant than mixed routes, which can strip in a matter of minutes if the temperature rises.
What counts as 'acceptable' conditions for winter routes, especially snowed up rock is a subject of almost endless debate. Without question, any turf used should be well frozen, while on the issue of whiteness, suffice to say that much of the challenge of snowed up rock is in finding and clearing the hooks and torques hidden in the hoar frost so climbing snow-free rock is cheating the challenge.
In spite of the easy access, the Cairngorms can prove to be one of the toughest environments to climb in. The biggest enemy is the wind, as the high open nature of the terrain gives very little shelter - even in the Coire Cas car park the wind can often make moving around difficult. Remember that walking in with the wind to your back is a lot easier than battling against it on the way out especially after a long day. The featureless terrain makes navigation in poor visibility tricky so make sure you're properly equipped - even supposedly experienced climbers (the author included!) have got lost in the Cairngorms in poor weather.
Additionally, beware of avalanches - particularly on the slopes of Coire an Lochain, and early in the season or during a thaw watch out for rockfall as there are unstable blocks on many of the cliffs.
How to Get There
The cliffs of Coire an Lochain and Coire an t-Sneachda are both approached from the busy tourist town of Aviemore.
The easiest approach is via car on the A9 to Aviemore then on the ski road. There are a number of local bus operators so this is an option, as is the train (Aviemore has its own station).
From the South:
From Perth and the south, follow the A9 northwards (direction Inverness and Aviemore) to turn off right onto the A95 which leads into the south side of Aviemore itself.
From the North:
From Inverness and the north, follow the A9 southwards (direction Perth and Aviemore) to turn off left onto the A95 and enter Aviemore on its north side.
Once in Aviemore follow the ski road (signed) along the edge of Loch Morlich to the ski car park at Cairngorm Mountain. Parking here is free. Both the ski road and car park are operated by the Cairngorm Mountain Ski company, who thankfully allow free access to this parking for non-skiers so please behave considerately.
One factor for early birds to be aware of, is that following heavy snowfall the Coire Cas road is often closed and sometimes not ploughed until mid-morning during the week.
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As expected for a resort town, Aviemore has plenty of accommodation from camp-grounds in the Rothiemurchus forest to B&B's and luxury hotels. The Visit Aviemore site is a good place to start looking. Not being a great fan of camping in winter I find bunkhouses offer the best budget option, allowing the extra comfort of kit-drying facilities.
Wild camping in the corries is possible but given the unsheltered aspect and proximity of the road-head, is not really worth the trouble. If you do plan to stay overnight in the mountains please remember to follow the wild-camping guidelines.
Gear and Supplies
For supplies and passing time off the hill Aviemore has plenty of food and gear shops, restaurants, bars and cafes situated on the main road through town.
A single rope is often simpler for the easy gullies and mixed ridges, but for most routes of III and above double ropes will prove helpful, and dry-treated ones will be less heavy to lug out at the end of the day and dry quicker in the valley. Rack-wise, most protection in the Northern Corries is in the generally well-featured rock, so plenty of nuts and hexes is the order of the day. Some routes feature wide cracks so a few big pieces of kit can be useful, while on the harder routes cams can be very helpful- just make sure the cracks aren't icy.
Generally, pegs are either in-situ (back them up with other gear) or not needed on most Northern Corries routes - many of the harder climbs are established summer lines where the use of pegs is to be avoided. With the exception of a few routes, ice-screws and turf hooks are generally not needed. Andy Kirkpatrick's article on winter gear is a good place to start. Rockfax's Winter Climbing + is also a useful reference for those who are new to winter climbing.
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Numerous guidebooks contain information on the routes and climbing in the northern Cairngorms but probably the two most useful and up to date are the 2007 SMC Cairngorms guide and the 2008 SMC Scottish Winter Climbs. Both feature excellent descriptions and photo topos, with the considerably less hefty Scottish Winter Climbs guide probably the best starting point for the winter visitor.
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For some, the best thing about the Northern Corries is that they keep the crowds away from the rest of the northern Cairngorms. Just a short walk southwards over the plateau lies the Loch Avon basin, home to some of Scotland's biggest cliffs and most stunning scenery. The south-facing cliffs of Hell's Lum are a mecca for ice-climbers while the great chimneys and faces of Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone are home to many superb long adventurous winter routes. See the guidebooks for further details.
As well as winter climbing, the Cairngorms in winter can sometimes offer excellent skiing - both on piste and off. Equipment can be hired at Cairngorm Mountain or back in Aviemore. If the crags are buried in fresh snow or thawing, the skiing can often rescue an otherwise disappointing day. As befits a tourist destination there are myriad other entertainments on offer in Strathspey, from dog-sledding to tours of the famous Speyside distilleries.
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