Dicing with death above the eternal snows

Garbh Choire Mhor, showing snow patches

Scene of the (nearly) eternal snows and of an escapade

The internet is a wonderful thing. And so are guide books.
But between the pair of them they were nearly the death of me.
I’d had a notion to go into the Garbh Choire of Braeriach and see the ‘permanent’ snowpatches at close range – something I’d never done. But the first attempt never got beyond Corrour Bothy (see previous post).
This weekend was my climbing club’s 40th anniversary ceilidh in Nethy Bridge, so I decided to try again, this time from the other side.
I would cycle up Gleann Einich and go up over the plateau and into the Garbh Choire by the Crown Buttress Spur. That would allow me to take some photos of the snow from across the choire as well as close-ups.
Great. Even better when I was informed via twitter that the best way back out of the inner cliffs of the Garbh Choire was by Pinnacle Gully. Not too loose and chossy? I asked. No steep sections?
“Oh no. I did it a couple of years ago. Don’t recall having any trouble.”
Well, of course I wasn’t stupid enough to go on the word of some guy on the internet. I checked the guidebook. And there it was: Pinnacle Gully, Easy in summer. Now ‘Easy’ in climbing guide terms is, well, easy. Central Gully at Creag an Dubh Loch is ‘Easy’ and I once took my non-climbing brother-in-law up there. He gulped when he saw it from below, but climbed it with no bother at all; he may even have kept his hands in his pockets most of the way.
So Pinnacle Gully it would be.
I was up before 6 on Saturday morning – the result of a dodgy chip supper on the way up on Friday night rather than enthusiasm. It meant an early start, but it also meant a slow one, as I had to stop twice on the cycle in to throw up at the side of the track.

Gleann Einich, Cairngorms

Sunlight illuminates the head of Gleann Einich

I dumped the bike at the junction with the Beanaidh Bheag for the return and walked on to start up the Coire Dhondail path, grateful for its origins as a stalkers’ track which meant it took a gradual and easy way up despite the steepness of the hillside, even managing the coire headwall across several rock outcrops without any real exertion.

Angel's Peak and Crown Buttress Spur

Looking across the Garbh Choire to Angel’s Peak. The Crown Buttress Spur is the ridge parallel to the line traced by the foot of the Angel’s Peak cliffs

Then it was a steady pull up to the lip of the Garbh Choire Mor before following it round to the top of the Crown Buttress Spur. Possible a bit of a misnomer this, as it’s well to the east of Crown Buttress, starting just beyond the col before Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine) and leading steeply down to the coire a good bit below the fabled snow patches, which have melted only a handful of times in the last century or more.
From the bottom of the spur it was driven home one more how aptly the Garbh Choire is named – the rough choire. Cutting across several rock ribs at the bottom of the spur I was onto a pathless trudge up boggy stream and boulders.
As I stopped for a first abortive attempt to eat I heard a sharp bark from the cliffs above and eventually saw two deer working their way round the broken ground well above me, their tiny size emphasising the scale of the amphitheatre.
Climbing into the inner coire you are scrambling over large blocks of granite, hearing water running freely below, out of sight. You wonder how deep this scree slope is – and what voids lie within it, for on parts of the slope you can hear water echoing, as if pouring into subterranean cisterns. In the bowl of the coire, surrounded by cliffs, is a slight hollow where all the boulders are coated in a black, slippery moss, which disappears as you start to climb once more to where three small patches of snow remain from last winter’s white drift – and from the winter before and the winter before.
The legend of these snows being ageless has taken a bit of a dunt in recent years. During the 20th century these three snow patches disappeared completely only three times – 1933, 1959 and 1996. But since the Millennium they have melted on four consecutive years from 2003 to 2006. [Since writing this it has been pointed out that the Sphinx patch survived the years 2004 and 2005 – See Eddie Boyle’s comment below.] And, to be honest, once you are there, looking at these three patched of dirty, icy snow (the smallest was down to about 7ft by 10) it’s hard to convince yourself that they are really anything special. I suppose it’s the fact of their existence rather than their actual substance that’s significant.
In any case, I’d come all this way to see them, so I took a few photos for the album.

Michaelmas Fare snow patch, Garbh Choire

The tiny Michaelmas Fare snow patch, with my rucksack giving scale. (The snow patches are named after the climbs above them)

Sphinx snow patch, Garbh Choire

The much bigger Sphinx snow patch. You can see a foreshortened Pinnacle Gully above and to the right – not very inviting!

Pinnacles snow patch, Garbh Choire

The Pinnacles snow patch

That done, I scrabbled up into the foot of Pinnacle Gully, just above the central, Sphinx, snow patch.
It certainly looked harder than Creag an Dubh Loch’s Central Gully: chossy and mossy. And that first look should have made me heed Tom Patey’s words of caution in his classic ‘Cairngorm Commentary’:
“Most gullies are unpleasant. A Cairngorm gully is double so. It is the sort of place you would incarcerate your worst enemy; a dank gloomy prison where moisture seeps from every fissure and ‘all the air a solemn stillness holds – save for the constant drip, drip from many a moss-enshrouded chockstone and the occasional dull thud as another ledge sloughs away in a welter of slime and rubble.”
But no. Some strange part of my mind said that, despite all I knew and all I could see, it would be fine. So up I scrabbled, even though the gravelly earth and loose rocks I stood on slid away beneath my feet.
From lower down I could see that the route slanted diagonally behind Pinnacle Ridge, across the face of the cliff, meaning a gentler gradient than the face itself. But when I looked into the gully it was less encouraging. Some big steps. Mossy, gravelly steps.
Maybe a wee jink to the left, though; out of sight from where I was but looks like it could go. So up I go: 20, 30 feet of loose rocks in a matrix of earthy gravel until the first step. Some hesitation, then a few holds get me up and over without any trouble. Once the angle eases again, though, the bed of the gully is more compact. Some good rocks but everything dirty, moss-covered, lichen-smeared, broken fragments of stone and skittery grit.
A couple of press holds udge me up into another couple of good footholds but now there’s nothing ahead, just thick, lush moss bulging out at me. Over to the right clean rock beckons temptingly. If I can get across there. Reach a foot over to the side and kick as much grit as I can off a rounded hold. A balancing hand above and shift my weight… there I am, up a good foot and a yard to the right. Nothing else for my feet though, and not much for the hands either – although, maybe… a side pull there and lean across, get a boot scuffed into that gravel. Will it take my weight or will I slide? Can’t test it too much without losing my balance, so eventually I decide it will hold long enough to get both hands across to those good holds on the ridge at the side of the gully and I go for it – and I slide and grab in one heartstopping moment to pull myself up onto a foothold then an easy step onto the crest of the ridge.
The next few feet are straightforward: good, positive holds, clean dry rock, but I’m conscious that I’m now on Pinnacle Ridge itself, which is graded Diff. And after 20 feet or so of easy rock I’m up against another impasse. Looking back into the gully I can see where I might – might – manage to work my way back in, but it’s still below a mossy groove which is a lot steeper than it looked from below. Some easy-looking steps on the other side of the gully, but no way of getting to them that I can see. And no way up the ridge either. I can see the holds I’d need to use and, quite frankly, don’t like a single one of them. Different if I was on a rope, if I could wedge some protection in and make the mossy moves with a little security, but a quick glance to the void on the right gives me a sudden image of a short, scraping slide and maybe one bounce before I hit the scree slope a hundred feet below, rag-dolling down the slope who knows how much further, for, soft and limp as a new-made corpse is, it will not stop on first impact on these jagged slopes and there will be further breaking and ripping before it lies where a dispirited rescue team will eventually find it.
It was a brief but incredibly vivid image and I decided that I’d pushed my luck here far enough. The technical difficulty wasn’t out of order, but the loose rocks, the mossy, gritty holds and the gravelly slopes all combined to make an accident not so much a possibility and more a probability.
It left, of course, the problem of getting back down.
The first few feet down the ridge were easy enough but reversing the traverse I made out of the gully was going to be desperate. Stepping up on a moving hold was one thing but stepping down onto it wasn’t so funny, especially when I had much smaller holds to aim for on the other side. So I continued down the ridge until I spied an easier way across.
And it was easier. Just that one hold, an otherwise perfect breeze-block-sized lump of granite that waited until my foot touched it before cracking out of its socket and tumbling, crashing down the gully and scree below, going much further than was strictly required for dramatic effect and making so much noise I was afraid one of the stick figures silhouetted further round the coire edge would think something was wrong. (As if!)
A moment’s pause and I got my foot onto the space where the block had been. It made for a better hold anyway.
As I moved back into the gully bed I did notice what looked like a much better line of ascent on the left, but it was too late: I’d made the decision to retreat and was sticking to it. Indecisiveness isn’t the best attribute to take to a climb.
A couple of undignified bum-shuffles took me down the original step and I was out onto the scree slope again.
No more faffing about, I headed for the spur between Garbh Choire Mhor and Garbh Choire Daidh and exited steeply but easily onto the plateau.
Of course, the plateau is a huge area. Sir Henry Alexander in his classic first edition of the SMC District Guide to the Cairngorms described the Braeriach plateau as somewhat akin to a desert; I’ve never been in a desert but I kind of know what he means. It’s a great, open, undulating area of ground where one part is much the same as the next. Most people hold to the edge, following the coire rim between Braeriach and Cairn Toul, and you can understand that because of the views into and across the coire, but I like to wander ‘inland’, so to speak, treading on parts of the area I have no reason to be in other than that they’re off the beaten track. Even so, I ended up aiming for a definite point: the Wells of Dee, where the River Dee pours from the earth in several crystal clear springs, quite substantial from its very source. This force is puzzling, for there is so little of the mountain above the wells and the flow remains strong even after a dry summer.

Wells of Dee on Braeriach

One of the main Wells of Dee on the Braeriach plateau

Infant Dee on the Braeriach plateau

The infant Dee, taken from its source looking towards Braeriach

From the Wells it would have been a short trip over the edge to drop back down into Gleann Einich and back to the bike and the ceilidh but there was a problem. For all the years – the decades – I’ve been wandering about the Cairngorms, I’ve never been able to rid myself of the notion that this bit is ‘just round the corner’ from that bit, or that this hill is ‘just next to’ that, always forgetting the distances involved. And that’s how I decided, despite the afternoon wearing on, that, since I was up there already, I’d really be as well just nipping up to the top of Braeriach.

Braeriach summit

The summit of Braeriach

And, once sore feet had trod the many boulders between here and there, it might be as well to go down the ridge between Coire an Lochain and Coire Ruadh, just for a change.
Well don’t. Not in summer at least.
Sure, it’s fine treading the narrow way between two coires but, once you get further down the rocks get covered with heather, somehow without gaining much in the way of soil in between, so you’re trying to pick your way down boulders and leg-breaker holes without the benefit of sight. Believe me: it’s slow, frustrating work.
But finally I was down at the junction of the burns where I’d left the bike. All that was left was a bone-rattling return to Coylumbridge and a high-speed drive to Nethy Bridge for a ceilidh dinner I at last felt able for. Made it with almost an hour in hand too.

Gleann Einich and Choire Dhondail

A last look back up Gleann Einich and Choire Dhondail

More on the Garbh Choire snow patches – with a good bibliography – can be found on Eddie Boyle’s blog 

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This entry was posted in Misadventures, Nature, Stravaiging, Topography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Dicing with death above the eternal snows

  1. Eddie Boyle says:

    A great trip and a great report Neil. I’m no climber and only a hesitant scrambler and I personally wouldn’t go anywhere near Pinnacle gully! Good for you that you managed to extricate yourself safely. I was on Ben Macdui on Saturday looking over to the snowpatches in Garbh Choire Mòr, if I’d had binoculars maybe I’d have seen you!

    One minor correction – the Sphinx snowpatch has only melted twice since the year 2000, in 2003 and 2006, in the years inbetween those two years it persisted. It does mean that the snow in that patch is now nearly seven years old.

  2. b9011 says:

    Great read, many thanks for posting!

  3. Brilliant account. Those damp gullies can be disconcerting, can’t they!

    • Cheers, Alex, they certainly can. Have you been up there in nailed boots? I’ve soloed things like North Buttress on the Buachaille, and Afterthought Arete on Stag Rocks, so I’m not exactly new to this, but that gully was more than I wanted to tackle – especially in as remote a place as that.

  4. david says:

    Ahht Neil, Now you have just reminded my why I have always ‘declined’ your offers of a ‘wee scramble or pitch’.
    This should be a reminder to all those less familiar with these hills nor as skilled as yourself.

  5. alan.sloman says:

    That made me feel quite queasy!
    It’s been a few years since I’ve found myself in an awkward spot like that. That brought it all back.
    Thank you *very* much!
    🙂

  6. Brilliantly described Neil, I was right there with you and feeling rather uneasy with the situation!
    Exploring the corries certainly gives another perspective, enjoyed a trip under Braeriach a few years back but took your eventual route out.

    http://paul.sammonds.com/braeriach09.html

  7. I’ve been in a few awkward spots too but nothing as bad as you had there I don’t think. I’m a pretty nervous walker and nearly always chicken out if I’m not sure I could happily re-descend something. I suppose I tend to get stuck in areas I know well where I’m over-confident – like the Lake District. A scary read!
    Carol.

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