I had discussed the possibility of getting a winter route in during the coming weekend with my regular climbing partner Alistair. The previous weekend, he'd soloed the Central Buttress of Lochnagar (II). This was the first taste either of us had had of Lochnagar 'mixed' climbing and we were both eager for more action. However, I returned from a trip offshore to find Aberdeen unseasonably mild and the cloud base barely above the top of Marischal College! I virtually gave up hope of getting out and resigned myself to another Sunday morning at the indoor wall. It appeared it would be at least another five days before I would reap any benefit from my meticulous preparations earlier that week - these extended even to trimming excess strap length from my crampons. Retrospectively - this was not such a good idea. More later! However, after checking the weather forecast for the next 24 hours, it seemed a trip could be on the cards and so the rucksack was packed and arrangements were made.
The question was - would there be any snow left after a week of rain? Conditions had been thin the previous weekend, it could be a lot worse now. True to the forecast - Sunday 8th March 1998 dawned exceptionally bright, and by quarter to eight in the morning, I was collecting Alistair from his house in Banchory. We were both excited to note that not only was it well below freezing, but there was also a lot of snow inland.
Unfortunately, by quarter past eight we had already encountered our first problem of the day. A car, whose driver was unwilling to continue along the Glen Muick road in view of the wintery conditions, had been unable to reverse his descent down a small hillock. After ten minutes of strenuous effort the three of us had succeeded in turning the other car towards Ballater and clearing the way for our own car to reach the car park at Loch Muick. On arrival at the car park, we encountered our second problem - we were clearly the first to arrive that morning and the car was only parked after fifteen minutes' excavation with the adzes of our ice axes.
By quarter to nine we were on our way to the north east coire of Lochnagar. There was a foot or so of freshly fallen snow underfoot and the weather was superb - not a single cloud nor a breath of wind was in evidence anywhere. The silence was absolute. My only regret was not having my camera with me - carrying fifty metres of 10mm rope plus winter climbing gear? There was not even room in my rucksack for my helmet let alone a camera. I began to wonder too whether sun block might have been a good idea. In 1995, on Glouraich/Spidean Mialach above Loch Quoich, and in 1996 on Carn A'Mhaim I had been quite badly sunburned in similar conditions and a repeat performance appeared to be in store.
Alistair led the way at his usual breakneck speed, though even he was soon slowed by snow in surprisingly deep quantities on the slopes below the rim of the NE coire. In places it was more than a metre deep. It took is until eleven o'clock to crest the rim and the suddenly, there it was.
Is there a more magnificent mountain arena in Scotland? Throughout its length the cliff was plastered white with snow. Central Buttress - Alistair's solo route of the previous weekend - looked forbidding. From the rim of the coire, its angle appears almost vertical, although in fact it is probably no more than 60° and a Moderate rock climb in summer. At this stage we still had no particular route in mind and after a brief halt for lunch, we continued down into the coire. The snow soon became waist deep as we waded towards the first aid point. This was my first winter visit into the Coire, and as Alistair pointed out the classic routes, the names of Lochnagar pioneers – Patey and Brooker, Marshall, Tiso and the rest came to mind. At once it was clear why they, and many others, had been drawn here.
Given the conditions - bottomless unconsolidated snow - a gully ascent was clearly not advisable. Also as the snow had slowed our progress to 'painfully slow' and with the time already at half twelve a short route was now desirable. On our way across the coire, we had noticed a buttress in the Citadel area which looked promising from below and we resolved to climb back across to its base, and there to rope up. This proved to be easier said than done. Alistair led across the snow slopes using a technique perhaps best described as something between breast stroke and treading water. Worse still, the 'flat' area below the buttress proved to be anything but. On our arrival it became clear that the easy looking buttress (later discovered to be a IV) was far more serious than we had thought. We were faced now with the choice of continuing up the gully to the right of the buttress, or reversing down the slopes and swimming out. The second prospect did not receive more than a moments consideration, so up it was. Gully or not.
We still had to gear up at this stage. Not an easy thing to do on a 50° slope of unconsolidated powder. Looking up it was clear that in the lower stages at least, possibilities for protection were minimal. Based on this, we decided there was little benefit in roping up at this stage. Crampons too would be of doubtful benefit, so we continued straight up with Alistair in the lead as usual. The slope steepened, perhaps to 60°, and the snow thinned to reveal frozen turf. My recently purchased drop-pick ice hammer was proving exceptionally useful but it soon became clear that without two of these implements, I didn't have the skills to get up the slope without crampons. But how were crampons to be put on? The only practical possibility in this situation was to fit each other's. After a few awkward moves we had arrived at a configuration where I had access to Alistair's rucksack and then his feet - there was little problem in fitting his step-in models. We then changed places (again, easier said than done in the circumstances) and Alistair attempted to fit my strap-on models. To my dismay it now became clear that in my organisational zeal the previous week (when I had trimmed the straps to remove any excess), I had forgotten that gaiters can easily fill with snow in these sort of conditions. They now had to be removed and emptied before being replaced! After performing this new contortion, the buckles were tightened with numb fingers - just. 1cm shorter would have meant precarious retreat.
With crampons fitted, progress was considerably easier and other than the danger from divots of frozen turf falling in sometimes alarming quantities from above, there was little of concern throughout the remainder of the climb. We reached the summit plateau without incident (except Alistair's recently purchased ice pick was bent through 20° and appeared beyond repair)
Having consulted the guide-book it became clear that we had just completed an ascent of Forsaken Gully (II). We agreed that it deserved its name. The strange thing was that the hill was almost completely empty. Where was everyone? We returned to Loch Muick in still-perfect weather via the normal walking route - the end of a memorable day and my first non-guided winter climb. There were valuable lessons to be learned from the experience.
- An early start is essential - much earlier than that required for a day spent hillwalking.
- A greater degree of physical fitness is required than for hillwalking.
- It is important to arrive at the bottom of the route in a good physical condition and feeling psychologically fresh.
And finally, it is never, ever too early to gear up!