How To Get Off: Navigating in the Northern Corriesby Dan Goodwin and Jack Geldard Jan/2010
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In this article Dan Goodwin of Mountain Plan and Jack Geldard take us through some of the better descents out of Coire an t Sneachda in the Cairngorms. Coire an t Sneachda and Coire an Lochain make up what are known as 'The Northern Corries' and are two of the most popular winter crags in the UK.
NOTE: These descents require a degree of competence in winter conditions and are not an 'easy' way down, but are the most common choice of descent for competent climbers.
Click this topo to make it 'popout' to a larger size:
With ease of access and less intimidating feel in comparison to many other winter climbing areas, the Northern Corries of Cairngorm are often underestimated. Getting to the top of the classic Fingers Ridge to arrive on the Plateau in the teeth of a Scottish winter storm can throw up some serious decisions if you are to get to the Mountain Café in time for a coffee and slab of cake before closing. Whilst on your knees rummaging for goggles and trying to squeeze the ice encrusted rack and ropes back in the pack the most important decision will be 'which is my best way down?'.
This article aims to highlight the different descents and some pro's and con's. It will be assumed that you have a map and compass with you and that most importantly you know how to use them. When all around you is a whiteout you need to be able to get out that map and compass and use them with confidence, it's far better to get to the car via Fiacaill a' Choire Chais (spot height 1141) than via the Loch Avon basin. The rescue teams are kept pretty busy with that mistake so get the map and compass out early on and avoid a night out.
1: Goat Track (Number 3 in the topo)
The Goat track ( NH992 028) starts at the low point in the Col at the head of Coire Domhain and comes down steeply at first over the rim and headwall into Coire an t-Sneachda passing the lower rocks of the Fluted Buttress area before trending across to the lowest point in the Coire where you will find the silver MRT box and often a few people stood around looking at the guidebook chewing on frozen Mars bars.
This is the summer path which during the summer is little more than a steep path weaving through some rocky bluffs but during the winter months with a good build up of snow and ice can become much steeper. It is unfortunately the scene of many slips and slides during the season. Care needs to be taken coming over the lip as it can be very steep with an unpleasant run out into boulders and scree in the coire floor. It does ease significantly as the height decreases though and offers a good way down when wanting to regain the crags for another route, or to avoid walking round the plateau during high winds.
A variation on the Goat Track could be to use what's referred to as 'Point 5 Gully' (Number 4 in the topo) This is a gully which may offer some shelter from high winds it can be steep at the head and may form a cornice (often on the right looking down) as you descend the angle drops significantly and peters out towards the bottom.
2: Fiacaill a' Choire Chais, Spot height 1141
Fiacaill a' Choire Chais (The tooth of Coire Cas) is the spur that splits Coire Cas and Coire an t-Sneachda and is marked with the spot height 1141mts (NH990 039). At the summit of Fiacaill a' Choire Chais is a large cairn built over a boulder which has provided a welcome sight for those navigating off the plateau in adverse conditions. Recently someone knocked it down but thankfully this was put back in place soon after and will hopefully remain there. From top of a climb in Coire an t-Sneachda you need to follow the rim of the coire east then north east to find the summit of Fiacaill a' Choire Chais then descend the spur into Coire Cas and out through the ski area.
When following the spur down its best to keep well left (looking down) of the edge that over looks Coire Cas as it can form a large cornice which would give way to a bumpy ride through the craglets and blocky ground to the coire floor. Care should also be taken particularly when the ski area is open not to be walking down the middle of the pistes and keep you eyes and ears open for skiers. One of the common mistakes when making this descent is to end up on the back of Cairngorm or to descend Coire Raibeirt towards the Loch Avon basin.
Precise navigation is required to locate the Cairn, one thing that will help with the detours round Cairngorm is to get the map out early perhaps at the top of your climb when you know exactly where you are. Another option in high winds is to head for the east wall of Coire Cas and descend into the Coire that way but be wary of avalanche conditions as with a strong wind flow across the plateau any loose snow can be blown into the coire creating the dreaded wind slab. A good indicator may be a cornice forming on the coire rim.
This can be a useful way back into Coire an t-Sneachda and the climbs on the Mess of Pottage. Follow the rim of the coire to the Mess of Pottage at the col on its west side at (NH998 035) about 500 metres south of spot height 1141m. Follow the crag line alongside the Mess of Pottage trending down under the crags which will bring you to the foot of the climbs and Jacobs Ladder the grade 1 gully that bounds the right side of the Mess of Pottage. Be wary with regard to avalanche conditions as the apron below the Mess of Pottage can hold lots of wind slab.
Another direct option for regaining Coire an t-Sneachda could be to head down Aladdin's Coulior (Number 2 in the topo). This is a grade 1 gully that runs alongside Aladdin's Buttress on the other the crags give way to a large area of steep broken ground known as the Forty Thieves area. Down climb into the gully and where it narrows near the bottom giving a short steeper section and often a small ice pitch you can break out right (looking down) along an easier ramp towards the Mess of Pottage.
4: Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda (Number 5 in the topo)
Less used and much steeper than Fiacaill a' Choire Chais, this ridge splits Coire an t-Sneachda and a small shallow coire before Coire an Lochain. In ascent this ridge can be fun if you keep to the crest which gives some nice grade 2 ground in the upper part but can be avoided by keeping well right (looking up) of the crest. From most points on the coire rim you will have to ascend to the start of it (NH 989 029). From here it drops steeply down. Keeping left (looking down) of the crest will avoid any climbing but care needs to be taken on the steeper upper section. There will be a steeper section that may require facing in and a few awkward steps to gain the notch (NH 988 031). From here you can continue along the ridge with no difficulties to its end, or from the notch drop into Coire an t-Sneachda. At the notch head down between broken ground to gain the large snow slopes that run to the coire floor, you want a good covering as the lower you get the larger the boulders get and without a good covering you will end up in endless holes!
5: Twin Burns
Looking to Coire an Lochain this is the best descent back into the coire or to gain the main path from the Ski area car Park to Coire an Lochain. From the coire rim head west following it round and down to a large Col situated above the 'twin burns' these lie below the col leading back into Coire an Lochain and may be banked out, when you can descend the slope head North East until you reach the lochain in the base of the coire.
The Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook also mentions using the Couloir as a descent back into the coire. Extreme care should be taken here as the top section will feel very steep and exposed and it will have a huge run out potential to the coire floor. A strong confident approach is needed and a steady head.
Other options are to head east and following the coire rim and use any of the options listed above with the easiest being out to 1141 and down Fiacaill a' Choire Chais to the car park and from there a short drive to the café.
I think it's worth pointing out an increasingly popular tactic I have noticed when people are coming down the Goat track, as it is very dangerous. I have seen lots of teams moving together using what has been dubbed 'Scottish death roping'. It involves moving together with a whole length of rope between the pair of climbers.
This practice is highly dangerous and should be strongly discouraged.
I have seen people coming down the goat track and in other areas such as coming down number 4 gully on Ben Nevis and seen the consequences of this going wrong - with two climbers falling with effectively a 50 metre cheese-wire clearing others off their feet as they go. Avoid this tactic, if you come across steep sections of ground, often found on the headwalls, then try to find a snow anchor or spike and make a short abseil over the difficulties.
As I finish this it seems routes were just done in the Corries - so hopefully it's kick off!