For our week 6 trip, we had a small group of 5 – me, Alasdair, Vincent, Lydia and Phil. Given the compact group I wanted to do something a bit more ambitious than usual. My plan was for us to stay in a hostel on the Friday night, and the following morning hike to an extremely isolated bothy hut in the centre of the Cairngorms, climbing a classic grade I/II ridge on the way. On the Sunday we would then hike back the way we’d came, climbing a different route on the way. All in all, quite an adventure.

Come Friday and we were blessed with a promising forecast for the weekend – very little wind on both days, with mostly very good visibility up high. Also very cold, but this is less of a problem than visibility when you’re on an isolated and expansive mountain plateau. We arrived late on the Friday to our hostel. A fitful night for Alasdair and I followed, thanks to Vincent’s incredible snoring abilities.

Saturday morning was clear and very cold. We had very big bags, having to carry (alongside all the normal day trip necessities) a sleeping bag, sleeping matt, coal for the bothy fire and food for two days. It was a slog through fresh powder to our first objective: Fiacaill Ridge, a classic grade I/II winter climb and also (conveniently) the quickest way to the plateau and by extension our bothy. The climb was short lived but enjoyable – winter scrambling with some exposure and great views. We reached the plateau still early in the day. The plateau itself was clear and atmospheric – not what I was expecting given it’s reputation for having horrendous visibility.

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The Cairngorm plateau

 

We made short work of the journey down to Loch Avon, which was frozen solid. The next part of the journey was more of a slog. A lot of uphill post-holing until we were adjacent with Loch Etchachan. This is area is practically smack bang in the centre of the Cairngorms, and is one of the most isolated parts of the UK. Another 45 minutes and we were within view of the bothy. Unfortunately, the favourable weather and conditions had attracted more guests (some ski tourers), which we could see approaching from the opposite direction. The bothy is very small, and so we anticipated a cramped (albeit more cozy..) night.

 

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The last part of the long approach to the Hutchinson Memorial bothy

 

We arrived fairly early in the day – about lunchtime. The bothy is overlooked by a a large face/winter climbing crag. Alasdair and I couldn’t resist the urge to make use of the good conditions and try a climb. We eyed up a 3 to 4 pitch grade IV, which looked in decent nick. The approach made slightly purgatorial with the deep powder. We were tied together but weren’t really in “climbing mode”, just scrambling until we found the first pitch and belay. This first pitch and belay, however, never did come, and we found ourselves high up on some sketchy grade IV ground with nothing to protect us in the event of a fall. Typical of us as a duo really – fuckin stupid and lost in our own little world.

 

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Creag a’choire Etchachan – the winter climbing crag that overlooks the bothy

 

Down-climbing wasn’t really an option, so I implored Alasdair to find some half decent pro and construct an anchor. He managed one or two sketchy nuts. I set off on my lead. The climbing was extremely tenuous, with very little usable ice, frozen turf or firm snow. The rock was a compact and rounded type of granite that simultaneously offered virtually no protection, and also no hooks for axes or places for feet. 40 minutes (& the most terrifying lead of my life) later I constructed a shoddy anchor out of a single nut and my axes stuck in some tenuous frozen turf. I shouted down to Alasdair to start climbing, adding that it would be really nice if he didn’t fall. Some time later he reached me at the belay. He lead next, up an aesthetic corner which was choked with some usable ice. It looked more friendly than what had come before, but still sketchy. He made quick work of the pitch, which I then followed. It offered some fairly enjoyable climbing, especially compared to what had come previous. I lead the last pitch which was straightforward enough, and topped out to a glorious sunset with views all across the Cairngorms. A nice ending to a terrifying climb.

 

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Shitting myself right about now (photo cred: Vincent)

 

Thankful to still be alive, we descended back to the hut, spotting some bold skiiers descending a steep gully to the left of us en route. The bothy was packed for the night, but also social. It was also very warm – almost too warm with the combination of body heat and a stove. The following morning was clear and crisp. We began to retrace our steps from the previous day. We arrived at Loch Avon and were greeted by glorious blue skies and sunshine. The weather was stunning, but the snow was better for skis than feet, so walking still made rather exhausting work. Alasdair, Vincent and I splits from Lydia and Phil at this point – they intended to do a grade II gully, finishing up at the summit of Cairngorm itself. The other three of us had something else in mind: Hell’s Lum, a classic grade III ice climb that deposited us nicely on the same section of plateau that had followed Fiacaill Ridge. The climb itself was a joy with the exception of some sketchy steep powder. It was bitterly cold when out of the sun, but we topped out into sunshine with views stretching for mile in all directions, capping off a fantastic two days in the Cairngorms.

 

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The approach to Hell’s Lum – the gully in between the ice falls on the left and the buttress on the right (photo cred: Vincent)
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