Last weekend I climbed Yukon Jack in Coire an T-Sneachda with Adrian. It was a nice climb to start the winter climbing season. But this weekend, we wanted to get away from the crowds and head somewhere different. The weather looked better in the East, so we thought Lochnagar might be a good alternative. Adrian had never climbed there before in winter, and there are a couple of climbs there that have been on my wish list for ages. We decided we would try Shadow Buttress A, as it was a good long route, and would provide us with lots of climbing to repay the efforts of the walk in!
Sunday dawned, it was beautiful and clear, and we were rewarded with a lovely sunrise as we crunched our way across perfect neve on the walk in. The only thing that detracted from the sense of impending winter climbing perfection, was that it was slightly more breezy than forecast.
The cliffs of Lochnagar remain hidden until you are really close, but as we arrived at the col with Meikle Pap we we greeted with a stunning view of the coire, a panoramic vista of all the buttresses and gullies. I’ve always thought that there is something really imposing about the cliffs of Lochnagar. Today was no different, as we looked across to the line of Shadow Buttress A, I could feel a slight lump of fear in my throat, as I thought to myself, “we are heading up that!” By now the wind was pretty strong, so we couldn’t stop to admire the view for long.
When we arrived at the first aid box, we could see that there was a party of 3 on the route, but they were already on the second pitch, so we thought that was plenty of time for them to get ahead. It was at this point that I realised I’d lost my helmet, whilst putting my crampons on. A couple of other climbers reported my white helmet as last seen flying over the col, and skidding out of sight and a long way down the neve. I decided that as we were climbing a mixed route and it was cold enough for everything to be frozen in place, that it would be ok, and I would manage without it.
So we set off up the route. There was a tricky step on a steep section of the first pitch, where the snow was soft and kept collapsing underneath us, but other than that we made good progress up the snow ramp and arrived at the crux, where we caught up with the team of 3 climbers ahead still doing battle with a desperate looking overhanging block. We evenually got chilly waiting and with short daylight hours and a lot of climbing still to go, we decided we would have to try the chimney off to the right, which the guidebook describes as ‘strenuous’!
Adrian offered to give it a go, and made some awkward looking moves to lower himself into the gully at the base. He made good progress up the chimney, but I could see that it was both strenuous and technical. At about half height he was front pointing into a tiny horizontal crack with both feet. Thankfully it was quite well protected which was reassuring, but it didn’t make me feel any more confident about my chances of being able to second it! My first attempt at back and footing up the chimney resulted in my slithering back down into the soft snow at the base of the route. But fortunately I had more luck on my second attempt.
Phew crux over, it’s was all grade III from here on, so now we could relax. I lead off, and found it slightly more challenging than I was expecting with crusty snow and powder covering everything. But I was making progress, and I found an insitu peg for protection.
The gully above looked steep, so I went for some blocky looking corners further right thinking they would be easier to protect. The mantleshelf onto the first sloping block had been very tricky, but I was sure there would be gear above. So I carefully balanced myself on the sloping ledge and started digging. But the more I dug, the more alarmed I became at the precariousness of my situation. I was 8 metres above the peg and couldn’t find any gear, stood on a steep slab of rock, coated in nothing more than a layer of powder, and I didn’t have very good axes placements either, I was just hanging on by something tiny that my axes had snagged on the block above. I tried desperately to find some gear, whilst I hung on tenuously. But it was no good. At this point I hadn’t moved for quite a while so Adrian shouted up, “What’s happening?”, “I’m stuck I shouted back!!!”
My arms were getting tired, and I thought desperately through all the options to get me out of my predicament. There was no choice but to continue. So with all the composure I could muster, I probed around with my axes, looking for a placement, there was nothing good. But I managed to find some more positions, where the tips of my axes held, so I gingerly worked my feet up the slab, until my body was far enough over the next block, that I could attempt a sort of bellyflop onto it. I hardly dared breath as I wriggled the last few inches to safety. I was now on a small but comfortable ledge, so I started digging for gear again, and RESULT- I found it, a perfect bomber hex placement to belay from!
Time was getting on but at least we could see that we weren’t far from being able to rejoin the steep gully that the other team had climbed, and they had shouted over that it was ok. I was still very relieved to hand over the lead to Adrian. We headed on up the route, and it soon got dark. We stopped to put on our head torches, but Adrian couldn’t find his. I gave him mine so he could lead the next pitch and sat in the dark, glad I could still see the glow of the other teams head torches not too far away. Apparently Adrian was enjoying climbing in the dark, but I was a bit apprehensive about it, especially without a head torch, but it turned out not to be so bad with the moonlight enabling me to see better than expected.
I took over the lead for what we hoped would be the final pitch, it was an incredible feeling to round the corner and see an easy snow slope lead up to what I was sure was the plateau. Even better we were back on lovely reassuring crunchy neve again, so I ran up the last pitch in what felt like no time at all.
There was quite a string of climbers head torches on the plateau and return to the car park, all with tales of similar forays on their routes in the unconsolidated powder coated cliffs.
As we had hoped our route turned out to offer a very good ratio of time spent on the climb to time walking to the crag!!!