Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms – Ice Crew, Sunshine Gully and K9
14th – 17th December 2017
Following the unseasonably cold and snowy conditions of late November and early December, I had been keen to organise a final Scottish winter trip before the Christmas holidays beckoned. Initially it was supposed to be 3 days in the Cairngorms with Alasdair, Pete, Charlotte and I. However, a change of plan was required when it transpired that both Pete and Charlotte were unable to come. This left Alasdair and I – still very keen – but 5 seater rental costs split between 2 were a bit too much. By chance I stumbled across a climber in Leeds on the UKC (ukclimbing.co.uk) forums keen to make full use of the good conditions up North. He had a car, and following some Email and WhatsApp back and forth, we had our ‘lift’ (and 3rd partner).
I paid close attention to the conditions in the week or so preceding our departure. The previous year Charlotte, Will, Pete and I had done a similar trip, that time to Glencoe, for 3 days in December 2016. Conditions then were very lean, with virtually no snow, although it was still great. This year things couldn’t be more different, with half a metre of the stuff falling in the days preceding our trip and thick ice forming at most levels. I follow a few mountaineering guides on Facebook as they are an excellent source of ‘conditions reports’, and provide information as to what routes are “in”. One of these such conditions reports caught my eye; a guide and his client had climbed Quartzvein Scoop (Scottish Grade IV), one of Scotland’s classic ice climbs. The crag/mountain, Beinn Udlaidh, was supposedly in superb condition for this time of year – I was sold. Beinn Udlaidh is situated near Loch Lomond, on the way to Glencoe and Fort William. My new plan was to stop off on the way to the Cairngorms, and I booked Airbnb’s accordingly.
Alasdair and I caught a train to Leeds and met Luke in the carpark on Thursday evening. The drive was benign until the last hour or so – upon reaching the Highlands we were greeted by subzero temps and blizzards. Thankfully, we arrived unscathed and in reasonable time to our Airbnb in Loch Lomond later that night. After some doubts about whether the crag was even accessible due to the excessive snow, we arrived at the ‘carpark’ early the following morning. The weather was near perfect – few clouds; no wind; very cold. A short and pleasant approach through a Scandinavian-esque forest (all looking very festive with a blanket of white) left us at the base of Beinn Udlaidh.
The crag was covered in fat ice, but was also very busy. Quartzvein Scoop had several teams of climbers queuing up for it. We opted for a different, less classic (but unoccupied) climb just to the left of it – the aptly named Ice Crew (Scottish Grade III). I lead the first pitch – interesting mixed and pure ice climbing, with one tricky step – to a belay below the imposing crux pitch. We could see teams adjacent to us climbing Quartzvein Scoop, which looked equally impressive. I brought the other two up to the belay, and Alasdair set off up the crux. He navigated some impressive ice curtains, pillars and umbrellas before reaching a technical corner and topping out to a gorgeous blue sky. Luke and I followed: I felt the climbing tricky for a grade III, particularly the crux corner! The view at the top was fantastic.
Due to the short nature of climbs on this crag – 2 or 3 pitches at most – we were left with plenty of time to spare. Descent back to the base was quick and easy. We eyed up Sunshine Gully (III), another ‘classic’ which, whilst busy earlier, seemed at that point to be free from climbers. A simple but enjoyable ascent followed, and we topped out to a setting sun.
Back at the car, and we drove for a few hours along some somewhat irritating small roads to reach Aviemore in the east and our Airbnb for the night. The following morning we decided we wanted to climb somewhere a bit more secluded after our experience with traffic on routes at Beinn Udlaidh. Lurcher’s crag, which boasted an array of long ice climbs, seemed to fit the bill: reasonable approach, but deep in the Cairngorm’s where crowds are less of an issue. We decided to pick a climb upon arrival depending on conditions.
‘Reasonable approach’ – a lie. Deep powder made progress tiring and obscured holes, gaps and boulder fields. The whole experience was somewhat purgatorial. I must’ve fallen over a dozen times – rather spectacularly on one occasion when I somersaulted 10 metres down a steep slope. Upon finally arriving at the crag’s base, we were greeted with a number of icy looking options. To us, a route called ‘K9’ (Scottish Grade IV) looked the most inviting, and we set off to climb.
Again, I took the first pitch, which was an uninteresting powder slog punctuated by one tricky mixed step. Alasdair’s pitch, the second, was far more interesting, with ice corners and bulges leading to a well placed belay below the final pitch. Luke took this one, which was similarly exciting. We topped out at sunset in a very isolated setting. It was at this point we realised that we only had one head-torch between the three of us, and that the descent was likely to be just as unpleasant (and long) as the approach. Climbing at this point in December, when the sun sets so early (about 3:30pm), is a tricky affair, and you have to pay close attention to the time as nightfall can catch you off guard. Thankfully, we arrived back at the carpark a few hours later, tired and with rather a large appetite. Steaks and sandwiches back at the Airbnb, then early bed.
The forecast for Sunday was looking rather dismal: I was happy to have an early drive back following the excellent climbing of the previous two days. The other two were a bit more optimistic, however, and still hungry for more. We drove to Cairngorm mountain carpark that morning and they set off for Coire an T-Sneachda leaving me in the car to doze. They arrived back 2 hours later having encountered some pretty dire weather and conditions. Luke drove us back to Leeds, and Alasdair and I arrived back in York satisfied with our successful early season Scottish excursion. It seems as though we caught the last of the excellent conditions, too, with a deep thaw setting in for the Festive period.