Winter Solstice in Coire an t-Sneachda

Its been a while.. quite a while. Since about March I think? and i’m feeling every month of the gap. Not enough time in the gym and not enough by far time on the hill recently is evident in  my tired legs as i trail after my buddy and MyOutdoors roving reviewer Davy Wright on the admittedly pretty easy walk in to Coire an t-Sneachda, one of the Northern corries of the Cairngorm plateau ,  South west of Cairn Gorm summit  and Winter Climbing nirvana for me to be honest .

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Davey in his element

What I love about the Cairngorms is the combination of frankly easy walk ins (especially after a night where we inevitably drink 1 too many single malt and have a less than perfect sleep in the local and very good, hostel) and the sheer number of routes on offer for all winter climbing skill or effort levels (with the appropriate knowledge, equipment  and skills  of course.. this is the Cairngorms and never to be underestimated ).

In  Coire an t-Sneachda alone there are enough routes to keep you going for months never mind a day or 2 so no matter how busy it is or the time of the season SOMETHING will be in and doable.

This in mind, and with a spare day and a very decent weather window Davy and I headed up from Glasgow and arrived at the ski car park at a very civilized 10am , geared up and headed up to the track towards the corrie. A quick 40 mins and we were surveying the faces, Mess of Pottage (already quite busy), Aladdin’s Buttress (much quieter and with some easy gully options and round to Fiacaill buttress, again some parties already on routes, voices and cowbell clanks echoing around the really quite silent face. Almost no wind a lot of blue sky and temps around zero – yet again we had struck lucky!  And on the Winter Solstice – the shortest day – we felt blessed by the mountain gods.

Still very early in the Season and with fluctuating temperatures over the last few weeks we opted for a warm up day on an easy gully and after looking around to see who was on what, and based on what we hadn’t done yet we opted for Crotched Gully (II).  The guidebook gives a very short but accurate description , correctly pointing out some steep final sections and advising of a frequent large cornice to finish (yes it was accurate) . For a II its great fun, and there are pretty few options for protection placement , not a problem for the experienced but just be aware if starting out.

It is solo’d by some but we always like to take it easy and put in protection even where it may seem quite benign, there are some sections with a pretty long run out if not protected. And besides – placing gear and getting the practice is all part of the game for me.

Fjern Aktiv
Keeping things neat on belay, the frozen Lochain below and Loch Morlich down in the valley (Left upper)

We geared up (remembering to put harness on before crampons!), grabbed a quick snack and some water , going through the ritual of preparations we all do and then started to punch up the approach to the first rib of rock at the start of the route to set up our first belay.

Today was also a chance to try out some new gear – in my case the new Aktiv down jacket from a new favourite company of mine – Fjern. You might remember I tested their Orkan waterproof shell in a previous blog and loved it (it still my standard kit as you will see in the pics) so I was keen to see how their other kit fared. Cold belays and a walk off the plateau (always cold and windy) ahea , the Aktiv would get a good run.

The route was a 3 pitcher, fun and steep with a couple of sections where you’d definitely want to be protected all topped off with stunning views across the corries and down to Loch Morlich and Aviemore.

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Taking time just to enjoy the views – Loch Morlich in the distance 

Its these views, when the air is still and all you can hear is faint voices and the clinking of gear , the cold smarting your face that really make my soul sing. The climbing is great and to challenge yourself physically is a necessary part of my strive for contentment but we can sometimes forget to – as Ferris Bueller put it – ” If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” .

Photos (that I take anyway) don’t do the mountains justice and I’ve noticed as I take more photos so my memory weakens, so I really stop and just look as much as I can, trying to imprint my memory as strongly as I can . It doesn’t always work of course but I try.

As we moved between pitches 2 and 3 the wind slowly started to pick up and the lack of sun on the face saw the temperatures start to dip as the sun hung low on this, the shortest day of the year. Get the feet moving.

The Aktiv down jacket out the bag and big enough to sit over  my shell relieving me of the worst of the cold – a bonus being the cuffs while elasticated for a snug fit were flexible enough to slip easily over my gloves  and while the hood isn’t helmet technically compatible in the traditional sends it does fit over my Black Diamond Vector and the articulated cut, including arm gussets means the jacket isn’t  restrictive at all. The back has a drop which means you cold if desired put your harness  over it easily

Fjern Aktiv-5
The Aktiv jacket keeping me warm and toasty on the windy plateau

Finishing the route (Davy leading) meant first moving up the roomy  steepening gully , which then open into a bowl but does require punching up through an out a large cornice, blue tinged and not too soft it wasn’t too hard but took a few bashy steps to get up and out the vertical lip (hips in and lean back !), Up and out onto the rocky, wind scoured icey top and “safe”.

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The exit leading up to the icy cornice
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My happy grin as I bash out to the top
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Views from the plateau

First thing to do , once you get away from the lip is get your insulation layer on – as Andy Kirkpatrick wrote in one of his awesome books – “Heat is finite” so you need to trap it. As soon as you are still get your layers on so Aktiv back out the bag and on your back, the down re-lofting fast (its an 90/10 Feather/Down 700 fill mix). I opted for the size Large knowing I’d want to put over my other layers and it was ideal, I’m a 42″ chest and tall and (relatively) slim but have broad back and shoulders so if you prefer a more sporty cut the medium may suit but for me the large was idea with room to spare and not restriction of movement. It also means I could zip it up easily over all my gear , including helmet – although this does bring the collar up pretty high – no bad thing in winter!  The resulting look reminds me of the Cylons from the original Battlestar Galactica for those old enough to remember it! For a sub £100 down (when on sale) its a STEAL!

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The Aktiv over a helmet , and that brilliant high collar.

Gear all packed away, nice chat to a few folks on the top then a decision – do we take the quick way down the Goat Track and back out the way we came or the longer walk across the plateau and down near the ski station . No brainier really – its a cracking day, its good to be out and I need the exercise so off we head and make it back to Glasgow by 6 to enjoy a well earned dram 😉

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A rare photo of me leading ! 😀 Second to last pitch

 

Stats for the Fjern Aktiv-   available from their key sales partner SportPursuit here

  • 700FP ethically produced Goose Down
  • Premium 90/10 Down/Feather ratio
  • Nylon ripstop outer fabric with DWR (Durable Water Repellent) & down proofing finish
  • Mini-stitch through baffle construction
  • Down-filled hood with extended collar for extra face protection & warmth
  • Internal hood adjusters for a streamlined finish and flexible fit
  • No-lift gusseted underarms
  • YKK front zip & internal insulated zip baffle with soft Tricot chin guard
  • YKK zipped hand pockets – one doubles as a stuff sack
  • Corded zipper pulls are easy to grab, even whilst wearing gloves
  • Stretch elastic bound cuffs & hem for a flexible fit
  • Reflective logo
  • Hanging loop
  • Garment weight (size M) 465gm
  • Down weight in garment – 131gm/size S, 138gm/size M, 145.5gm/size L, 153gm/size XL, 158gm/size XXL
Fjern Aktiv-7
Aktiv back detailing 

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  1. […] at getting out and was lucky to get a great Scottish winter climbing day in the Cairngorms (see Solstice), and then a cracking fun day at the Ice wall in Snow Factor near Glasgow. This was much needed as […]

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