The last snow in Scotland

The author climbing a gully in the Cairngorms

In trouble again… (Photo by Alistair Todd)

You’d think, having just passed the age of 60, I’d have a bit more sense. But no, here I was in the dripping jaws of a Cairngorm gully, boots scraping on grit, slithering on moss, chilled fingers testing protruding rocks to see which were actually attached to the disintegrating gully-bed. I was directly below Susan, whose footholds were at best precarious, but whose hands were wholly occupied in holding a boulder the size of a small baby, which had just become detached from the mountain. I made a couple of hurried steps and lunges upwards, trying to get close enough to take the boulder safely from her hands – otherwise there was little doubt it was going to send me flying, for the gully was narrow – but Iain and Alistair had been coming down from above at the same time and fielded and secured the offending rock. Saved.

This wasn’t sensible. No helmets, no ropes, and a 500-foot gully filled with boulders and choss, bound together by little more than dripping moss. Yet we were all laughing. It was, after all, a great day out.

It started through the week, when I mentioned plans to head up to the Garbh Choire between Braeriach and Cairn Toul, to see if the increasingly famous Sphinx snowpatch had finally melted. Its demise had been predicted for almost a month and my previous attempts to get in there and see for myself had all been stymied by one circumstance or another. But now the trip was on and when I mentioned it on social media Iain Cameron, chionophile and acknowledged expert on Scotland’s long-lying snow patches, said he was planning to visit the site too and suggested meeting there. Given that I was coming from the south and he from the north, and that we were heading for one of the remotest spots in the Cairngorms, I though his suggested time of 1.30pm rather precise, even with the added qualifier of “-ish”, but in the event, after walking through almost constant rain since I’d left Corrour Bothy, I heard voices as I was crossing the scree into the bowl of the upper corrie and looked up to see three figures starting to descend into the outer edge of the corrie. It could only be Iain and co. Both of us right on time.

Figures climbing to the head of Garbh Choire Mor, Braeriach, in the Cairngorms

Iain, Al and Susan approach

The situation of the Sphinx snowpatch in a hollow at the foot of the cliffs meant I wouldn’t see if it was still there or not until I was right up there, and the steep scree apron leading up to the cliffs provided a graphic reminder of this corrie’s name – Garbh Choire Mor, the big rough corrie. This scree is still being formed: so many of its component boulders all sharp edges, some large blocks still virgin pink. As I neared the level of the snow patch sites the boulder scree gave way to mainly smaller blocks in a matrix of grit and moss, making for more unstable footing. One displaced block went down a long way, setting off further rocks as it bounced and slid. The tumbling boulder underlined the instability of this remote corrie and the sense of how it is still, infinitesimally, biting into the vastness of plateau behind it. I have seldom wandered in the innermost recesses of this massive supercorrie gouged out between Braeriach and Cairntoul, but each time I have been struck by a sense of remoteness felt in few other places in the UK. I remember yet my first visit there, one late spring day. The cloud was low, just above the floor of the inner corrie. I’d climbed up the boulderfield to get there, listening to cavernous echoes of subterranean streams, to finally stand in that snowy bowl , its sides curving upwards into the grey invisibility of dense cloud. There was no wind and I stood in a world of blank silence only broken every minute or two by the crack and echo of rocks released from their frosty grip high in the cliffs. It was a place where, standing alone, nameless fear nagged at the back of my mind.

The cliffs of Garbh Choire Mor, Braeriach

Approaching the snowpatch sites. Those cliffs above are about 400 feet high.

Today the rain was easing slightly and the cloud was lightening but, even as the three figures approached, their voices already audible, the corrie retained its feeling of remoteness. It is a remarkable place.

Feelings of awe gave way to laughter though, as I reached the hollow of the Sphinx. After all the forecasts of doom, after all my efforts to get up and see bare scree where for 11 years there had been snow… there were two plates of ice. The largest little more than a metre square, but still there, still hanging on. What could you do but laugh?

Remnants of snow patches in Garbh Choire Mor, Cairngorms

Two stubborn sheets of ice, rock hard but steadily dripping into the scree. This ‘snow’ fell in 2006

When Iain arrived, introductions were made. With him were Susan Houston and Alistair Todd, who I’d never met but with whom I shared a number of friends. We discussed the survival of the ‘snow’, which, at 11 years old, was ice that felt as hard as the rocks on which it lay. Iain reckoned it would have melted by this time the next day. I, based on absolutely no experience of this at all, reckoned its density would help it last for at least a couple of days. But it was chilly up there and, for a few minutes even snowed quite heavily (though it didn’t lie) so none of us felt inclined to hang about to see.

Neil Reid with remnants of Sphinx snow patch in Garbh Choire Mor

Me with the remnants of Sphinx. I may never see it so small again in my lifetime

So I never did see the Garbh Choire Mor completely snowless, but no visit to this spot is without reward: it’s just wonderful to experience being there. At 3700 ft you’re standing higher than most Munros but with raw granite rearing hundreds of feet upwards behind you. You look outwards, high above the bowl of a sheer-sided corrie that almost surrounds you, opening towards views of yet more rocky corries and cliffs and, far off, across the trench of the Lairig Ghru, the steep, rugged flank of Ben McDui, its summit dome this day whitened with fresh-fallen snow.

Iain Cameron with the remnants of the Garbh Choire snow, 30th September 2017

Iain with his ‘babies’

Neil Reid, Iain Cameron and Alistair Todd at the Garbh Choire snow patch, Braeriach

The three wise monkeys discuss the prospects of the snow (Photo by Susan Houston)

It seemed perfectly right when Iain produced a miniature of Glen Fiddich to toast this last remnant of 11 winters. But I should have been more alert when, after the bottle had gone round the other three, Iain passed it to me and said “Just finish it.” It was still half full. I took a sip and held it out. “No just finish it.” So I finished it. It was Glen Fiddich after all. But I should have known: this wasn’t a toast, this was a stiffener.

“I thought we’d go out by Pinnacle Gully,” he said. “I thought you might like to come with us and lay the ghost to rest.” An unfortunate turn of phrase: long-term readers of this blog may remember me writing about a previous tussle with this gully. Well it’s time to name names. Iain Cameron was the one who recommended Pinnacle Gully as a route out from the Garbh Choire and it was his advice I thought I was following when I had my close encounter with the grim reaper.

Since then he had clarified his description and it appeared I had taken a wrong turning – or rather failed to spot a twist in the gully and gone up the dead end which just about ended me. So today I was being offered the chance to go up the right route. The comedian Ed Byrne had been taken up there and lived. Iain had been up there with others twice recently. And of the present company, although Alistair was a climber, Susan was not. Nor, he assured us, was Iain. So how could I say no? It’s a man thing. Doesn’t matter how much your brain is screaming no, you find yourself saying “Yeah, sure” like it was nothing.

So we went. All four of us. Even after Iain warned us that we would have to climb close together because of the danger from loose rocks. Not a helmet between us of course, nor a rope.

When I last had a run-in with this gully I quoted Tom Patey, who wrote: “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.” Well Tom had it absolutely spot on.

Climbers in Pinnacle Gully, Garbh Choire Mor, Cairngorms

Iain and Susan head off up the gully. This was about as stable as it got.

The first 20-30 feet were as I had gone before, up chossy, loose rubble and mossy grit. But where I had gone straight up, veering to the right for stable(ish) rock, Iain now led us up to the left. The rock here was sound, but running wet and mostly covered with thick moss. Some ledges made good footholds, with only the occasional wide step needed, but there weren’t a lot of good positive handholds – and although my fingers quickly numbed and lost much of their grip, I couldn’t understand how Iain was climbing this with thick mitts on. I wondered briefly if they were velcro’ed to stick to all that moss.

Still, it was only about 30 or 40 feet or so, with Iain knowing the way from previous visits. Then the gully turned into the main line again and we were assured the going was now easier. Hmm. Easier in a technical sense, but still fully living up to Mr Patey’s criteria. The gully now, it appeared, was a steepening scree chute punctuated by a series of chockstones and the odd bit of bedrock, which was sometimes sound (but mossy), sometimes disintegrating (but still mossy). Worryingly, as each chockstone appeared, with its own technical idiosyncrasies, Iain would confess that he didn’t quite remember this little difficulty. Strange really, as some of them certainly impressed themselves on my memory – and Iain was the one who claimed not to be a climber! The other non-climber in the party was Susan, but though she claimed not to be a climber, she was a mountaineer through and through: “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” she would say, and then she would do it with no fuss – perhaps only because she didn’t know enough to know how precarious it all was, but no fuss all the same, even when she went to pull up and ended up holding that rock the size of a small baby. That was when Alistair or Iain relieved her of her unwelcome load just in time to save me trying to reach up between the legs of a woman I’d known for scarcely an hour. It underlined, though, how inappropriate and ungentlemanly behaviour was the least of the dangers facing our group. It was all very well keeping close to reduce the danger of rockfall, but one slip by any one of us could take all of us out, and at that moment I think we were all close enough to fit in a phone box.

Alistair Todd in Pinnacle Gully, Garbh Choire Mor

Alistair high up in the gully

Ach, but it was never less than engaging. Perhaps worried that we were getting bored at one point, Alistair dislodged a large block which bounced crunchingly down the gully, all the way to the bottom and taking some other loose lumps as company. How we laughed.

Actually it was getting enjoyable, despite the seemingly endless series of chockstones which Iain claimed to be surprised at. We were having a laugh between the episodes of trauma and enjoying the sensational views which came with the increasing height and improving weather. We weren’t seeing much of it in our gully, but the sun was now out and we had a brilliant vista looking along the line of cliffs all highlighted in light and shade. It was, in its own way, a great place to be.

Finally, with me by some accident in front, we came on what turned out to be the final chockstone – and it was a beezer. About four metres high and slightly overhanging, it wasn’t looking very friendly. I managed to get my feet high enough under the stone to get a hand up beside it and into a crack. With that security (and trying to ignore the gap in the moss which indicated a recently departed chockstone under the one on which my life was now dependent) I was able to embark on that mixture of chimneying and wriggling known to climbers as a thrutch, with scraping, bum-sliding and skiting of boots off moss and mud, all to keep me up high enough to start delving the fingers of my other hand into the moss and grit at the side of the chockstone to excavate a usable handhold. When I first learned to climb my mentor dinned into me that I must never use a knee – it lacked good style and wasn’t secure – but this move was made with knees, elbows and full-body friction in a slug-crawl that finally allowed me to stand up on the moving scree above the chockstone – and within sight of the gully exit. We were up!

Susan Houston and Iain Cameron at the top of Pinnacles Gully

Iain and Susan emerging after overcoming the final chockstone. Susan’s smile is entirely understandable.

There was, it’s true, a certain amount of manic relief in our celebrations. Alistair and I, having agreed that the final chockstone was at least ‘Diff’ in standard (not to mention being loose, wet and mossy), decided that once was enough for this particular Cairngorm delight.

And delight was the prevailing emotion as we looked around us. The contrast from narrow, enclosed gully to 360 degree views on the edge of the plateau, especially with the added sunshine, was breathtaking, and we stood taking it all in for several minutes before having an eye to the clock and parting for our respective returns, Iain and co to the north and me back to Corrour.

From Braeriach to Angel's Peak and Cairn Toul

From confinement to infinity – the contrast was breathtaking

Beinn Bhrotain from Braeriach

Seldom have I made such a photogenic exit. Beinn Bhrotain makes an awesome backdrop. (Photo by Iain Cameron)

I followed the corrie rim round to Angel’s Peak, enjoying all the way the vast vistas across the massive hollow between the mountains, and picking out in disbelief the formidable-looking gully we’d just climbed.

The cliffs of Garbh Choire Mor in the Cairngorms, with Pinnacle Gully in the centre

Pinnacle Gully is the twisting line rising from the highest point of the scree in the centre of the photo

By the time I reached the start of the climb up to Cairn Toul sense (and old age) began to prevail, and I decided to save an hour by missing out the summit and contouring round to go straight for the descent. It was a glorious afternoon to be there, solitary amongst the vastness, but there was no denying I was tired. And I appreciated the scale of that vastness all the more as I walked and walked, the top of Coire Odhar seeming to get no nearer for ages. These are huge hills, and a human is very small crawling into their wrinkles and over their surfaces. But even as I limped the last few downward yards to fire and food at Corrour, I knew that I was lucky to be there amidst the vastness and the wonder. And I’d seen Scotland’s last snow and its first, all in one day.

Looking across the slopes of Cairn Toul

Waves in the landscape. A place of deepest beauty

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15 Responses to The last snow in Scotland

  1. Martin Rye says:

    This is a splendid tale. The gully climb seems to me verging on risks I would never take. The summit photos are fantastic, and seeing them makes me long for the Cairngorms again. Appreciate you sharing this Neil.

  2. Kenny Ferguson says:

    Another great story Neil. Sounds like an average day in the Cairngorms. Haha

  3. David Johnstone says:

    Great story Neil

  4. That gully sounds horrific – just the kind of place I would never venture with all that moss and loose rock – I’d be terrified! I wouldn’t have coped with the cold hands either – I have Reynauds!

  5. Keith G says:

    A good read, again. Thanks. I wonder if all these easy gullies in the ‘gorms have become harder now because nobody goes up them anymore. I can sort of envisage a golden era in the last century when they were more frequented and all the loose stuff was pulled off, (ooh er, a pun) by generations of tweed and wool clad loons.
    I went up Geusachan Gully (ungraded in my 1985 Cairngorms Guide) last year on The Devil’s Point and was similarly unsettled by what looked easy enough from below. One of many Cairngorm buttock clenching misadventures which ended happily over the years.

    • No, I think these gullies were always loose and always will be until the mountain comes down around them – or through them. Certainly Tom Patey’s opinions date from the 50s or early 60s. I think what has changed is people’s attitudes to what constitutes acceptable risk.

  6. David says:

    Hi Neil – Yet another fab day out, and what you excel at in your writings is bringing that experience to your readers with the descriptive writing along with the cracking photos. I felt I was there clambering up the gully and watching out for those loose boulders! I’ve been following the tale of the diminishing Sphinx snowpatch with interest as many have – and I really hope it never gets this small again.
    Regards
    David

  7. piper says:

    nice photos Neil .

  8. See Outside says:

    Fantastic tale! I almost felt present in that slippery gully thanks to your fantastic writing.

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