An Introduction to Ski Mountaineering

This article was originally published on 16/01/2011 and has been slightly modified below. The original version is available on my Blogspot.

Loch Morlich lies frozen in the valley as I carve down the hillside trying to keep up with Sarah (I soon realise this is impossible); the late afternoon light bathing the snow covered hills and forests in a soft purple blue light. It’s not the Alps but its still been an amazing day, my first experience of ski mountaineering and a ski decent of a Munro. I had picked up the skis the year before with the intention of learning how to ski tour and since then they have mocked me from the corner of my room.

Finally having managed to get myself, some snow, and my skis in the same place at the same time the plan for the day was to walk in to Coire t’Sneachda climb up to the Cairngorm plateau via an easy grade one gully before traversing round on to the summit of Cairn Gorm and skiing down to join the pisted runs which lead back down to the base of the mountain. 


A moonlit Coire t’Sneachda


From the car park our little party of four (Sarah and I with ski’s Laurance and Gareth without) are soon enveloped in a shroud of white mist, which merges into the snowpack as the horizon becomes ill defined and then disappears completely. Parties ahead of us drift in and out of view, apparitions glimpsed for a second then lost to nothingness. The only colour to break into this world of white are the occasional black rocks emerging through the snow, boulders in the distance which become cobbles at your feet in the strange distortion of scale that occurs in heavy mist. We follow a line of footprints which merge into the foreground ahead occasionally stopping to check our baring with the compass. 


Feeling like a proper mountaineer!


Carrying skis for the first time does not prove to be much of a chore, the weight being very similar to carrying a rope and climbing equipment if we were going to do a harder route. My ski books are designed for touring so are actually very comfortable to walk in, weighing little more than my normal winter boots, plus they are plastic keeping my feet nice and snug. After about an hour the cliffs of Sneachda rear up out of the mist a colossal castle of black ramparts and battlements. At the base of the face we get kitted up have a bite to eat and dig a few test pits in the deep snow below our route of choice, Aladdin’s Coulior a wide snow gully that cuts up behind the buttress.

There has been quite a bit of snow the last few days and the avalanche forecast for the gullies is medium to high, the lower section of the gully is quite scoured out by the wind but snow has banked out higher up and I stop about every thirty meters or so to dig a test pit. The fresh snow appears quite well bonded to to hardend lower layers and none of the pits fail along obvious cleavage planes. To be on the safe side we stick to the edge of the gully close to the rocks where the snow should be better bonded anyway. [With 2016 eyes I’m not sure we made a good call here and probably should have stayed out the gully].

Towards the top are some fantastic hored up granite pinnacles which loom over the gully including Aladdin’s Seat which in better weather no doubt offers a fantastic view out down the corrie and beyond to Loch Morlich. 

Emerging onto the plateau we become aware of the wind as I feel the gusts catching the skis which are strapped to my rucksack, trying to twist me sideways. With visibility now down to about twenty meters out come the map and compass to get us up to the summit through this world of white. Whilst walking I notice a subtle change in colour parallel to us and out to our left; the snow changing from matt white to a dull grey. I then realise the grey is not snow but empty space, the cornice at the edge of the plateau which we have manage to get to within about seven meters of it before seeing it. It’s a stark lesson in the importance of understanding where you are and all too easy to see how people fall through cornices in really bad visibility.

At the base of the final summit cone of Cairn Gorm the sun finally begins to break through and burn up the cloud, warm rays dance across the snow highlighting the surrounding peaks under an expanding blue sky. South of us the great trough of Loch Avon remains full of cloud with a beautifully atmospheric  Beinn a’ Mheadhoin with it’s distinctive granite tors rising behind. Its a moment to stop and marvel at these moments of utter visual delight that occur in hills which attract so much contrasting weather. 

The summit weather station is coated in a thick layer of ice and rime like a fantastical fairy tale castle or wedding cake. Laurence and Gareth head off on a baring down towards to top of the funicular as Sarah and I take off our crampons and step into or bindings, I pretty much immediately fall over trying to get into my skis (a gust of wind I tell you). For me the run off the top is a bit of a challenge, the lack of a horizon between snow and cloud makes the terrain very hard to read and the snow itself is very icy and has been sculpted into frozen waves by the wind. 

Carving down on the baring (or rather trying to keep up with Sarah) I suddenly drop out of the cloud and spot the top of the ski lifts in the distance. In the evening light the view out over the valley is terrific with a series of smaller hills stretching north towards Inverness and a frozen Loch Morlich nestled in its cocoon or woodland.  From the summit station it takes less then fifteen minutes to carve our way down the mountain and loose the height it took us three hours of hard work to gain this morning. Ski mountaineering I’m sold.