We strolled down the snow slope, crampons biting easily in the neve. Clouds rolled through the bright sky, giving quick glimpses of the Shelterstone and Carn Etchachan. I stared, tracing their enormous height from coire floor to summit, lost for scale. I held the map and compass in front of me but they seemed pointless in the good visibility.
The clouds cleared briefly and I stopped, finally acknowledging the full size of these mountains. Chris and I stood in silence as we soaked up the cliffs, lines running for hundreds of metres. It felt like we didn’t belong in this giant’s lair, two specks of dust. However, since the weather remained calm we kept walking and got stuck in.
From the base I climbed a full 80 metres before setting a belay, trying to eat as much ground before resorting to pitching. I felt the sooner we escaped the lair, the safer we’d be, but eventually the ground became more serious. The lower crux passed without incident; I clipped pegs and pushed on, numb hands preventing me from hanging around. The pitches flowed well, seeking lines of weakness between buttresses of rock.
The upper crux avoided an obvious, steep chimney-crack and I was confused as to where to go. ‘Why avoid this brilliant-looking feature?’ I wondered. Tentatively, I followed the guidebook description out left and slipped up wide, baggy cracks. The text didn’t seem to fit the climbing. I became convinced that I was off-route, and even when I was standing on the belay ledge - having climbed the entire upper crux pitch - all I could see was an ocean of granite slabs.
For once, I listened to the demons in my head and returned to the belay. A careful analysis of the guidebook revealed I was a complete tool: it did go that way after all! Back along the flake-traverse, past the loose flake, through the baggy crack, up the chossy chimney-crack and onto the belay… ‘Safe!’
The final corner was covered in powder snow, but I could see the square-cut lip that marks the mountain’s summit and I didn’t care how hard the climbing might be. My headtorch limited the exposure, anyway. I racked up with determination and attacked… or at least, attacked as much as you can when you’re winter climbing on a scary corner-slab.
I hollered into the wind as I pulled over the top of the cliff, glad to be free from the citadel. The fun wasn’t over: we were now on the infamous Cairngorm plateau in pretty ‘ming’ conditions. It’s notorious for getting lost on, as I can personally testify. I pulled up the ropes and Chris began climbing.
I held the map and compass in my outstretched hand, clamped tight between thumb and fingers. The harsh beam of my headtorch illuminated the snow by my feet, the limit of my world. Spindrift constantly blew from left to right, reducing visibility to less than five metres. I stumbled forwards, gusts of wind buffeting me sideways as I squinted into the night. Truth be told, the darkness and isolation scared me a bit.
It was a white world of chaos, our calm day transformed into an angry storm.
I counted out loud, pacing the last 100 metres. 45… 46… 47… My eyes flicked between the red compass needle and the white void in front. Chris’s head torch bobbed a few metres behind, shoulders hunched against the wind. 51… 52… 53…His eyebrows were covered in ice, slings and quickdraws frozen rigid.
We had to find the top of the Goat Track in order to drop into the Coire. It was only an hour to the car from there. Paranoia kept me on edge as my crampons crunched through the snow. I didn’t want to get lost on the Cairngorm plateau again… My previous experiences in snow holes involved lots of suffering.
68… 69… 70! I stopped walking and dropped my arm with relief. The wind calmed for a second and I panned my head torch left and right, a lighthouse looking for the rocks. The beam found a feature I recognised: ten metres away the ground began to drop steeply, the mythical Goat Track gully. We had made it.