Climbs 303 – Crags 2
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With the leaves turning and the nights drawing in, not to mention the rain, climbers begin to think towards the coming winter season...
One of the first places to see winter conditions is likely to be the heartland of snowed-up rock climbing... the Northern Corries in Scotland's Cairngorm mountains.
Fingers Ridge Grade IV 4, a supremely classic mixed outing in Coire an t-Sneachda, Photo- Loz Monckton, Nov 2008 © Shaw Brown
Situated in Scotland's central Highlands and lying east of the A9 between Perth to the south and Inverness to the north, the Cairngorms are among the greatest and wildest of Britain's mountains. They form an extensive high plateau, deeply cut by ancient glaciers to give steep corries crowned with high quality granite cliffs. Many of these cliffs provide classic summer rock climbs of all standards, but due to their height and often northerly aspect they are possibly best known for providing some of Scotland's most superlative winter adventures.
The Northern Corries, situated close to the popular tourist town of Aviemore and directly adjacent to Cairngorm ski area, provide climbers with a winter climbing adventure wonderland. Along with the "big bad" Ben (Nevis) over in the west, the Northern Corries (or Norries as they are otherwise known) are by far and away the most popular winter climbing destination in the UK. Their honeypot status is hardly surprising, the Northern Corries combine easy access with reliable conditions and routes for everyone. You will find novices on their first routes to seasoned campaigners on grade X's.
Sitting on the northern edge of the Cairngorm plateau looking out over the Strathspey, the Northern Corries, thanks to the Cairgorm ski road, offer a unique combination of easy access and a cliff-base among the highest in the country. Added to this is the huge range of climbing with excellent routes at all grades from easy gullies and mixed routes to classic test-pieces and cutting-edge desperates.
Topping out on Ewen Buttress, Grade III in Coire an Lochain, this area offers many high quality snowed-up rock routes. © Sandy Paterson Mountaineering
The climbing is found on the cliffs at the head of the two corries west of the Coire Cas ski area. The cliffs are all made of Cairngorm granite - a weathered blocky rock with lots of cracks, flakes and features, interspersed by the occasional worryingly blank slab. The first coire, Coire an t-Sneachda is the more open, featuring several large mostly slabby buttresses separated by gullies and areas of broken ground. The Fiacaill Ridge, with it's classic exposed final crest (II) separates Coire an t-Sneachda from its slightly higher and more compact neighbour Coire an Lochain which features four generally steep main buttresses, again separated by gullies.
...easy access with reliable conditions and routes for everyone...
The routes fall broadly into three categories- snow gullies, rocky ribs and technical snowed-up rock buttress routes. The Northern Corries are the heartland of Scotland's famous snowed up rock-climbing, where hoared up rock is climbed by hooking and torquing (twisting) axe picks into cracks.
With the exception of the popular short challenge of Aladdin's Mirror Direct (IV) there is little ice in the corries but when in condition the nearby cliffs of Hell's Lum are one of Scotland's best ice venues.
For the low and mid grade (I-IV/V) climber, Coire an t-Sneachda has the most to offer with lots of excellent easy gullies and mixed routes, and on the steeper buttresses lots of very well protected technical challenges ideal for those seeking to improve. For those seeking harder challenges there are plenty of trickier routes and for anyone with very big arms and a very, very long neck, the second winter ascent of the The Hurting (a terrifying XI 11) awaits!
...huge range of climbing with excellent routes at all grades from easy gullies and mixed routes to classic test-pieces and cutting-edge desperates.
For those seeking challenges in the grade V and above range, Coire an Lochain is definitely worth a visit or three with loads of superb steep routes, again mostly very well protected and some allowing convenient abseil descent. There are also a small number of easier routes which can be a good option for those seeking to avoid queues on busy weekends. It is worth remembering that the base of the cliffs in Lochain are around 100m higher than those in Coire an t-Sneachda which can make all the difference if the freezing level is very near the tops.
Routes are graded for average conditions - some rely on snow build-up to be the given grade and watch out for verglas caused by a sudden freeze after a thaw which can make normally well protected routes very bold - be prepared to change plans if needed.
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