steeps day, Aonach Mor

steeps day, Aonach Mor

The forecast was good, and it was one of those days…  Lots of snow, and finally the weather broke, giving Aonach Mor three days in a row of the kind that open doors, expand possibilities and really let you see the mountain at its best.  Unfortunately, those days fell on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but with a couple of long days (i.e. leaving the office after 11pm), self employment can be a beautiful thing.

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And so it was that we stood in the sunshine, looking down on the most remarkable of scenes: a snowy Highland wilderness, stretching for as far as the eye could see, with the only clouds being distant and below us.  Monster cornices hung over a number of the classic lines, most of which I has seen for the first time only the Sunday before, that time alone, in the howling wind and under a foreboding sky.
easy rider - Summit Gully

Having dropped Easy Gully quickly on arrival, for our second lap we headed across the plateau to the lines known as Summit Gully and Y Gully, having the pleasure from our vantage point of watching Dave Anderson carve his immaculate turns on the softening snow in a scene which could have been straight from TGR’s website.  Ken Adam & myself dropped into Y Gully, finding some little spots for extra air on the way in, and pointing a fairly straight line to the bottom.  I don’t think I’ve ever been as fast on a pair of skis as I was at that moment – and I was thankful to be on Whitedot Ragnaroks, which appear to have no maximum speed.  Even at maximum warp, they felt as stable and predictable as an Accountant on Wednesday morning…

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Next, we headed over to Yanks Gully, which had looked impossible to me on Sunday – corniced entrance, super-steep, narrowing somewhat by the bottom, and properly intimidating in form and character.  Today, a mixture of good, experienced and encouraging company, and good, encouraging weather and snow, meant it was just the obvious choice – just a touch steeper than Easy.  We dropped onto Alaskan-style spines, flutes of snow stuck to the steep face, uniquely stable yet soft and forgiving like powder – I don’t think I’ve ever had such easy, forgiving and flattering steep skiing…

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After a wee jaunt down the classic line, Chancers, I hooked up with a cousin, another local self-employed professional, who hadn’t skied for 12 years, but who was up for a first experience of the “Backs” – he did well, and kept his head under pressure while skiing close to his personal limits, but ended up with a wee tumble and a slide of about eighty metres off the bottom of Backtrack, the classic entry-level line over the other side.  But when I got to him, he was grinning from ear to ear, completely unhurt, and once we’d gathered his gear together, we skied round the front, happy to have tried, even if not met with immediate success.

Inspired by his efforts, I met with Dave once again, and the question was: what next?  We’d skied some really fun lines, gone fast, gone steep, and conditions had been remarkable so far, both in the shade and in the sun…  I had a rope, harness and ice-axe, which had thus-far proved entirely superfluous, but then at some point it just seemed the logical next step just to have a look into Forgotten Twin…

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I should first explain that whilst the weather is unpredictable, the winds almost relentless, the freezing level inconsistent and a lot of the uplift archaic, the Highlands have one huge advantage as a steep-skiing destination: the maritime air is moist, so the snow which falls is often wet and sticky, meaning we get riming and build-up of snow in very steep surfaces throughout the season, and yet the average temperatures are cold enough for this wet snow to freeze and to stick around for much longer than it does on all but the higher slopes in spring in the Alps.  This means that some of the things which are skiable, and indeed get skied on a fairly regular basis, are far steeper than what most of the Alps offer, at least until the late season out there (May/June), when the snow warms up and the high-mountains in the likes of Chamonix, Andermatt & Zermatt get plastered with sticky, stable and consistent lines of snow…

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… so it’s hard to give an impression of Forgotten Twin to anyone who hasn’t skied the steeps in Scotland.  The top is like the entrance to Jacob’s Ladder in a lean season, or a healthy December, though a good bit wider and without the sharky-spine poking out just below; the middle is like the narrower part of Tower Gully, not because of any objective difficulties, but because of the subjective mind-game of knowing you must not fall; and the bottom, which is the crux-pitch from a climber’s point of view, is like a two-stage step-down, too uneven to bridge and too icy, at least on the day I made my attempt, to hold an edge.

 

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From the top, we thought I’d reach the crux alright, and that a fall from there would be acceptable, but that pointing it off the bottom might also work.  In the worst case, I had my ice-axe and a rope within easy reach, clipped to the outside of my bag, so options were many and various…

 

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… in the event, I just didn’t fancy pointing it – largely because way below me, the avalanche debris from the weeks earlier was chunky and hard, and even the vague possibility of me losing control there somewhere and ending up tumbling fast into the debris was not at all within the bounds of an acceptable downside.  But also, having seen how soft the snow was out of the gully, and having watched my cousin fall, I figured I could keep my skis below me and scrape as far as to put me outwith the danger-zone, and the remaining embarrassment of a fall and possibility of a tumble was preferable to injury or breaking the sound-barrier…

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And so it was.  The line has only been skied twice, by anyone ever (both times by Inverness local-boy Gavin MacKay), so perhaps it was ambitious to turn up and have a crack – but then opportunities can be few in Scotland, and sometimes when it’s on, you make calls which aren’t the right ones.  Forgotten Twin was not in skiable condition that day – and it almost never is.

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We finished the day with Rush, the last of the straight-forward lines on the West Face for me, having skied Bold Rush and Grotto Rush in the preceding two months.  A joy to ski, and nice to have a warm-down after FT, gliding effortlessly down gently softened spring snow, in glorious sunshine and with a bunch of other guys who were similarly loving it.  A great way to end a great and memorable day, and even the walk-out, which is fairly painful for lazy freeskiers, was somehow a pleasure in such good and enthusiastic company.

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