Thursday, 23 February 2012

A peek through the Window

On a weekend meet of the Mountaineering Club of Bury (MOB), we were forecast to have two very different days of weather.  Saturday would be extremely windy with frequent snow showers, while Sunday would be much quieter.

We were staying in Roybridge, a good central point for Lochaber to the west and the Cairngorms to the east.  I've been a member of the MOB for over 20 years having joined when I lived in the north of England.  Though no longer living in the area I've remained a member and it was good to catch up with old friends and to meet some new folk.

Plans for climbing on Ben Nevis were firmly off the agenda given the forecast for really difficult conditions on Saturday.  The consensus opinion was for a walk on Creag Meagaidh, a plateau mountain with a terrific corrie.  We split into a couple of groups and headed off; the weather was already looking menacing from the approach path.

Creag Meagaidh is a National Nature Reserve with a superb variety of habitats.  On the approach, the path passes through some fine birch wood above the hummocky remains of the glacier which carved out the mountain's main feature, Coire Ardair.

Rounding a corner we walked into an arctic blast of wind.  The headwall of Coire Ardair with the very prominent Post Face  dominates the view ahead, with banners of snow being torn off the summit plateau in the strong wind..  This is a winter climbing venue for the conoisseur; very variable routes on steep rock, ice and that Scottish speciality, frozen turf.  Tom Patey put many new routes up on the Post Face, his "Crab Crawl" which crosses the face horizontally is still a test piece.

One of the MOB groups headed for "Easy Gully", a Grade 1 snow climb to the left of the face in this picture.  Karen, Dave, Jordan and I opted for the climb to "The Window" (the notch on the right of this picture), a narrow cleft splitting the plateau and a key feature when getting off the mountain.  Our plan was to gain the Window, then if conditions were suitable to turn east (downwind) and take in a ridge on the return to Aberarder. 

The steep snow slope gave a good climb into increasingly ferocious conditions with an icy wind and pouring spindrift.  We split into two pairs, with Jordan and I reaching the Window a little ahead of Karen and Dave.

Conditions in the Window were truly wild.  The northwesterly wind was being funnelled through the gap and it was difficult to stand in the blast.  Spindrift whirled in a furious groundstorm rendering visibility almost nil.  Even battened down we could feel the chill of the wind; we could operate here but it was a battle.  Communication became difficult in the stronger gusts and we decided that for today this would be a suitable turning point.  Navigating a ridge in this wind would have been difficult.  Karen was the lightest in the team and was finding it hard to stay upright.  It was decided - we would go down.

As we prepared to descend, we by chance met our other team who had completed Easy Gully (which wasn't at all "easy" in the conditions) and had made their way along the summit plateau to the Window.  They confirmed that conditions above were terrible.

A ittle below the Window we stopped to prepare for the descent.  We were all frozen up; crampon and rucksack straps were solid.

But at least here we could stand up!

We hadn't climbed to a summit, but my goodness we'd had a good day; proper winter mountaineering day in challenging conditions on a big hill.  We were well satisfied and enjoyed the wind being at our backs on the walk out.  Ahead over Loch Laggan a dramatic procession of cloudscapes raced across the sky.


  1. Test piece an understatement - it's an epic!
    Also the only place I've seen a real avalanche in Scotland - missed me thankfully, but walked over the debris two days later - blocks like houses - incredible.

  2. Hi Will, I've tried a couple of times to pick out the line of Crab Crawl, but I keep seeing bits which just look impossible! We had a full-on winter day as you can see; the group who climbed Easy Gully described it as very committing in the top section in a torrent of snow coming down off the summit.
    The gully leading to the Window was great - in fact in the conditions was probably a Grade 1 in itself.

    Kind regards