Friday, 22 January 2010

Breaking trail in the southern Cairngorms

Left at half 6 this morning and having a few plans in my bag due to my friends who were taking me were going snowboarding, and the destination depended on conditions of roads and ski centres but the most likely destination was Glenshee.

We knew the snow had been pretty heavy up there so on leaving we had the traffic reports on constantly while we headed up. By the time we reached Perth news came through that the snowgates on the Cairnwell Pass were closed due to the heavy snowfall, but also that it was expected to open after ploughing so we soldiered on up with an optimistic mind.

On reaching the snowgates there was only about 20 cars in front in the queue and reports were that it was going to open still. At about 10am the gates opened and were heading up the pass with gusto. The volume of ploughed snow at the side of the road was unbelivable.

My plan was to start at the Devils Elbow and head up Creag Leacach, but it had not been plouged and the traffic was a steady moving line so my friends could not stop to let me out so had to continue to the Ski Centre.

As I was now at the Ski Centre I had to modify my plan, firstly due to the current location I was at, and secondly it was now 10:30am and I was long past my projected 9am start.

The most direct route looked to head straight up the spur Meall Odhar up past the pistes. As I climbed the snow was getting deeper and the going was getting tougher. I had stripped off to t shirt by now and everyone going up the ski lifts were staring at me like I was off my head. The pistes were closed running to the top of Meall Odhar and the snow was very bad here. It seems there has been a problem with the T Bar going up here so it is not gettog used so I need to use my own leg power.

As I reached the summit of Meall Odhar it was very quiet and little breaks of sun were coming through.

Walking along under the shadow of the higher ground I could get glimpses up to the ridge between Glas Maol and Creag Leacach. The cornice running its length was absolutely stunning but also pretty scary looking.

As I got closer I could see a lot of avalanche debris on the slope so I took a wide berth of that.

I headed back north to find the ridge up to Glas Maol and started to head up. At this point I seen a couple of people at the top on skiis, who then proceeded to ski down the ridge and stopped by me. It turns out these nice gentlemen were from the SAIS and were out doing what they do best by keeping everyone else informed of the conditions of the area. They were slightly concerned that I might have been following someones elses tracks as they had just triggered a large avalanche in the coire between Meall Odhar and Glas Maol by cutting a cornice at the top. Obviously on seeing the amount of debris and knowing I was on suspect slopes I started to feel my pants browing a little. The full way up the slope I had been zig zagging to miss a lot of windslab that I did not like the sound of. Very deep and hollow whoomphing sounds. Scary.

Coming up the ridge has me feeling safer. The snow slope to the top was unspoiled and beautiful and the feeling of going somewhere noone has been before was high.

The clouds were clearing again and a lovely view of the lowlands opened up with a blanket of cloud.

The plateau at the top was just a frozen arctic tundra. The cairn was barely visible under the volume of snow. I had some lunch and a well deserved cup of tea. I just enjoyed the views.

The time now was 1:15 and I knew I had to be back down to the Ski Centre for about 4pm and my time had been quickly erroded by the late start, and also breaking trail through the tough virgin snow conditions. I had to calculate some pacing and knew I could go to either Cairn of Claise or Creag Leacach but not both. Creag Leacach was the furthest away and not connected to anything else so I decided it was best to come off this way.

Time to leave the Glas Maol summit plateau behind and the only trace I was even there was my single prints across the snow.

The SMC book showed a large stone wall with metal posts going to Creag Leacach, but any sign of the wall itself was long gone, and the only sign of the fence posts were these alien ice formations. I would not like to be up here in an arctic blizzard.

Heading off into Creag Leacach with the sun ahead of me, and the view with the lowlands covered in cloud was brilliant. At this point I was starting to hit the wall and I could clearly feel my glycogen levels getting very low due to the tough moving across the deep snow and I was getting very tired. A caffine loaded energy gel, drink of water and I was off again towards the summit.

The final slope up to the summit was pretty stoney and the snow was very icey and scoured and easy going.

The summit itself was a blanket with some nice looking cornices. Have to keep to schedule so no time to hang about. Some photos and onwards.

Leaving the summit behind me.

Coming down the slope to the spur Meall Gorm was pretty scary again. Lots of windslab so again I zig zagged between different minor slopes keeping the route of my decent safe. Mixture of slab and scoured between different contours. The "in the pants" feeling was pretty strong, but this kept me safe in my movements the full way.

Once I got to the bealach between Creag Leacach and Meall Gorm I knew the ordinary route off was the N slope, but I also knew from my SAIS information and from the rest of the day that this was the lee slope and heavily loaded
and high avalanche risk so I decided to come off at the SW. This would of course take me further away from the ski centre but safety first.

The slope was as expected heaviily scoured with a few shelted gullies but pretty much easy going. On coming off I set off a chain of small furry animals running everywhere. Arctic Hares. First time ever seeing them, and I was amazed by the sheer number of them out playing, and also the size of them. What do they eat to get so big in this environment? I admit I spend half an hour watching them and taking photos knowing I was making good on my time estimates.

The summit of Creag Leacach and the bealach was long behind me. I stopped again for a few moments to enjoy the sun coming down over the Cairnwell Pass below.

The wind scoured SW slopes are a Arctic Hare playground still.

I can see the Devil's Elbow and know I still need to cover a bit of ground so pick up speed again.

Down at the bottom I find the local watering hole for the animals.

A little debris on the NW slopes of Meall Gorm.

I got to the Devil's Elbow by about quarter to four so was happy with my progress, but my friends were not there and I had no signal on my phone. Luckily a couple who were taking photos offered me a lift up to the Ski Centre.

A beautiful sunset to finish the day off.

Little under 6 hours and pretty tired now. I have felt fresher after 12 hour days. Breaking trail through virgin snow, and through a variety of different snow conditions is really tough work. Worth it though. Resting today and then back out again tomorrow.

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