>Ski Mountaineering in the Cairngorms – Day Two

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Beinn Mheadhoin (1182m). Distance 15-16km. 1400-1500m ascent. 7-9 hours. Located at the heart of the Cairngorms, this is a remote and, in winter, not easily accessible peak that gives an excellent day on ski.

 

Looking down to the Cairngorm Ski centre.
Although brighter initially it was clear this was not going to be a blue sky day and by the time we were established on the Fiacaill Choire Chais ridge we were enveloped in a thick layer of cloud. We descended cautiously down into Coire Raibeirt, crossing our tracks from the previous day as descended to 950m (GR006026). From this point the gully dropped away sharply down towards Loch Avon – average angle about 27 degrees. As we slowly entered the mouth of the gully the visibility improved enough for us to see ahead, carving tight turns down the twisting gully. Just 20 minutes after leaving Pt1141 we were alone in frozen wilderness of the Loch Avon basin (GR009023).

On Loch Avon – Shelter Stone Crag behind

Not quite brave enough to march straight across the frozen waters of Loch Avon, we skirted across its western fringe, picking our way through the snow-laden hummocks abounding it’s south western shores before beginning our 200 metre climb up towards Loch Ethachan.

Bad weather begins to envelop the Northern Cairngorms
The weather was slowly deteriorating as we headed south, with snow beginning to fall. Luckily the winds remained relatively light and so, as we veered eastwards from the col (GR010009) above Loch Etchachan we took a bearing for the broad shoulder that runs SW from Pt 1163. From the ridge, with no visible horizon and total visibility reduced to 25 metres we were forced to nav on dog-leg bearings across the almost featureless plateau, the gently undulating terrain and occasional rock formation our only guiding hand. By the time we reached the summit (GR024017), conditions had deteriorated further. It was snowing hard and the cold was beginning to bite. We stopped briefly to replace gloves and don hard-shells.

The descent off the summit is a long way from straightforward, as we aimed to drop down into the wide basin that drops off the NE side of the summit, avoiding bands of cliffs to both the East and North. Navving on a bearing whilst on ski proved exceptionally problematic and we relied heavily on our altimeter as we dropped down, losing all sense of spacial awareness in the white-out conditions.

Near ‘White-Out’ conditions removed all sense of slope aspect or direction

Descending slightly further to the east than we had meant to, we skirted with the much steeper and rockier NE ridge, being forced to side slip in places as we lost all sense of slope angle – probably only 20 or 30 metres further to our right than we had intended, but it was unnerving all the same, eventually finding ourselves atop a broad and flattish shoulder high above the Fords of Avon (GR032025).

Steady and defensive skiing was the order of the day as we descended.

We could still see nothing and knowing we were a little further to the SE than planned we skirted the top of the cliff band before being able to descent the steep, but wide and open North facing slopes than fell back towards Loch Avon. Only once we were below the 850m contour line did the visibility improve enough for us to enjoy the descent!

Rich at the eastern end of of a frozen Loch Avon

After a much needed re-fuelling stop, we once again tenatively crossed the frozen fringes of the Loch before climbing up towards the Saddle (GR018033) and, on dog-leg bearings once again, skinned upwards through white conditions towards the high col of Cnap Coire na Spreidhe (GR011046).


Keith on the short climb towards ‘The Saddle’

No let up in poor visibility as we approach Ciste Mhearad

And as we stood alone in a sea of white, the roar of a Piste Basher sounded. It was less than 15 metres away from where we stood; we were totally oblivious to how close we were once again to civilisation other than our knowledge in the map, suggesting we were just a few hundred metres from the Ptarmigan top station. And with that we raced down through the mist, safe in the knowledge we were within the ski area once again.

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About Richard Talbot

An accomplished fell-runner as well as being a keen climber and mountaineer. Since 2005 he has worked for the UK based manufacturer Mountain Equipment and is currently Director of Product. He has worked in the outdoor industry for over 15 years.
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