Monday, 4 February 2008

Major Navigation

24th January 2008

I had decided to go “over the back” in the Cairngorms with Jamie Bankhead to climb Route Major on Carn Etchachan. I’m very wary of going over here in winter as getting back safely involves some hardcore navigation if a Cairngorm hooly sets in. The forecast was for generally good visibility but poor in the occasional shower. We could handle that.

The first challenge was to actually get to the car park. A shower had dumped about 4 inches of snow on the road and although my car managed the technical crux (sugar bowl corner) it ran out of steam on the red point crux of the final hump into the car park. I abandoned it by the side of the road and we made it up in Jamie’s heavier car.

It was still showery as we got out of the car (full scale blizzard) and walked into Coire an t’Sneachda. We climbed up the goat track and into Coire Domhain where we reasoned that the shower should go off to leave us with a brilliant blue sky day. After dropping down into the Loch A’an basin we hid out of the shower under the Shelterstone to get geared up for the climb. Finding the climb in the gloom was OK as it starts up an obvious ramp which appeared briefly through a gap in the shower.

Jamie approaching the climb with Loch A’an behind

We made steady progress on the climb, I cursed my rucksack on the chimney pitch and very nearly dropped my leashless tool, managing the crux moves with the clipper bolt in my teeth. (I’ve got a set of lanyards now !) There is a lot of easier climbing on the route but time has to be spent finding the correct line, which was fun in all the spindrift.

One of the easier “Routefinding” pitches

We topped out around dark and it became apparent that the shower was not going off and that we were faced with the hardcore navigation that I always try to avoid. Having been in this situation before I know just how quickly you can get disorientated and end up having an epic.

To give us some confidence that our navigation was correct I enlisted the help of Uncle Sam and several billion pounds worth of satellite in medium earth orbit. In the end we went with the GPS and were checking things were OK on the map & compass. This is the first time I have used a GPS in anger and I have to say I was very impressed – trying to pace out distance while breaking trail in 100mph + winds just does not work. I was really shocked at how long it took us to walk 1KM in these conditions and if I had been “pacing” would have doglegged far too early.

After several dog legs and about 3KM of walking (and some crawling) to get out round various crags the moment of truth came when we arrived back at the top of the Goat Track. The decent back down was interesting as in zero visibility you are never quite sure if you are in the right place or if you are heading off down a grade VII climb. Thankfully the top of the goat track was wind scoured although a fair bit of slab was building up lower down. After dropping down a bit we were more confident we had pulled it off – Uncle Sam told me the rescue box was 300meters away and what little rock architecture we could see seemed to fit.

Once we were down into Coire an t’Sneachda our spirits lifted somewhat and it was a case of getting the head down and keeping on walking. I broke through two snow bridges and went waist deep in the stream on the way out. Fortunately I knew we were fairly close to the car by this point so wasn’t too upset. The winds were still really strong here but I’d been out in conditions like this before so was fully expecting the two of us to be thrown about like rag dolls. We contoured round and eventually picked up one of the ski runs. I had expected a gentle stroll down the piste chatting to Jamie about the weather, instead we had to break trail, down hill in chest deep snow. I’m 6’2 and Jamie is 6’4 so you can imagine how deep it was. The slope was too shallow to bum slide so we resorted to rolling sideways over the drifts and arrived and the bottom of the piste abit dizzy but having used less energy that walking.

Jamie’s car had to be dug out and once we had got it going we had to ram several snowdrifts that were forming as huge sleeping policemen on the way down the ski road (Helmets still on for safety!). One was just too big and the car managed to get beached on the top of it. Some more digging got us out of that one and down to my car which also had to be dug out. We nearly cried when we saw the snowgates shut with us on the inside, they wern't locked though... We made it down to Tescos carpark fully geared up by 10pm, just in time to see the chippy pull it’s shutters down !

At least someone was enjoying the weather

Notes :
1 – This doesn’t count as an epic as we always knew where we were and were down before 12 !
2 – Disclaimer - Don’t go wandering around on the Cairngorm plateau with just a GPS, if it packs up you still need to know where you are on the map and compass.
3 – In retrospect I would have turned back before setting off up the climb but had been getting fed up of failed days and was too keen to get up something.
4 – We could have navigated off with a map and compass but it would have taken much longer. The windspeeds were around 100mph when we were coming off, later they were over 150mph so was quite grateful for the speed of the GPS.

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