It’s been an unsettled season so far, but Wednesday January 5 offered a possible opportunity to escape the recent gales and storms. The weather was clearing from the west, so at first glance, the Central Cairngorms was not a logical choice, but Forrest Templeton and I had a plan.
On the south flank of Sgurr an Lochan Uaine there is an attractive south facing ridge framed by two snow gullies. It is a prominent feature, and visible for a long time when walking up Glen Derry, but there are no records of an ascent in either summer or winter.
One reason for its neglect, in winter at least, is that it faces south and starts quite low at 800m. This means that to find it in condition it needs to be climbed in mid-winter to avoid any sun and directly after a heavy snow fall. So, last Wednesday was a logical day to attempt the route – with any luck it would have been draped in snow by the northerly blizzards the day before and the overcast forecast guaranteed no sun.
The approach is long – nearly 14km – but we thought we would be able to cycle as far as Derry Lodge. Unfortunately, our calculations did not account for deep drifts on the track, and we spent an hour in survival cycling mode, ploughing through intermittent soft deep snow to reach the Lodge. Continuing on foot was little easier and it took us nearly five hours to reach the foot of the route.
The ridge was beautifully white, but it was defended by deep drifts topped by windslab. We made progress by a curious ‘swimming’ motion that distributed our weight as we moved between the safety of buried heather clumps. The big effort was worth it because once on the ridge the climbing was excellent on beautifully featured granite. The first half was sustained Grade II with lots of interesting weaving around corners and behind pinnacles.
When we reached a distinctive notch behind a prominent tooth, the way was barred by a steep wall split by an awkward undercut chimney. Forrest took the lead, and I was soon following through up another pitch of mixed to where the difficulties eased. From here it was easy scrambling to the top of the 200m-long feature.
Ominous looking windslab meant that it was not safe to descend the flanking gullies so our way back home was over the top of Derry Cairngorm (we avoided the summit cone) and down the long south ridge back to Derry Lodge. The terrain was initially windblown but as we moved into the lee of the mountain the drifts piled high and we battled our way down to the Lodge in the evening gloom. There was more survival biking in the way out, and I went over over my handlebars in a snow bank but no harm was done. We were both exhausted when we arrived back at the car – it had been a tough day.
A few days later, and rather tongue in cheek, Forrest suggested that with all the cycling, walking and ‘swimming’ we call the route Iron Man Ridge. The route may only have been III,4 but it had given us a memorable outing deep in the Cairngorms. Needless to say, we had seen nobody else all day.