Fancy a frozen maze of gullies, chimneys and turf? Try out the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4) and experience a real Scottish mixed ice climbing adventure on a challenging buttress
I had the unique chance to visit the Scottish highlands in February 2017 with a group of friends from my local climbing gym to experience and endure the real deal of winter adventure – Scottish mixed climbing! I had my hopes high for a serious undertaking, which was indeed fulfilled. We visited a place called Coire an t-Sneachda a couple of hundred kilometers northwest of Edinburgh in the beauty of the Cairngorms national park. Getting there was pretty easy wasn’t it for the immense amount of black ice on the road and darkness of the winter night as we had arrived with a late flight to Edinburgh International Airport.
The local town of Aviemore was our destination of the trip and the go-to place if you do not fancy sleeping in a tent in storm winds near the glacier cirque that forms Coire an t-Sneachda. Actually that was our intention, sleeping at the crag, but after setting up camp and sleeping for about 12 minutes that night we gave up that idea, packed down our tents in the morning and checked in at the local hostel in Aviemore the day after. Good choice! A storm had taken form that blew so hard that the walls of our tent literally kept banging against our heads and consequently gave us a claustrophobic, suffocating first night!
The main event of the trip was the attempt on the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4). A serious endeavor for a newcomer to Scottish Mixed climbing as I. Even though the grade seems pretty manageable even for a newbie like me, taking the windy weather conditions into account, this was indeed a challenge. The route is a multi-pitch mixed ice climb that can be divided into four overall sections; a scramble and frosty snow slope, a steep mixed section, followed by a sequence of chimneys and narrow gullies, and a finale of tough scramble on boulders and rubble before topping out on next to the classical ‘Fingers Ridge’ forming two iconic pillars pointing towards the heavens.
The route is graded IV, 4, following the Scottish grading system. The Roman number is the overall grade, while Arabic number is the technical grade of the crux section.
Scrambling the boulder field of ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4)
Finding the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4) is the first challenge. You hike up the snow slopes of Coire an t-Sneachda cirque towards ‘Fingers Ridge’ until you reach see the face of a huge exposed wall and two distinct gullies running on each side. The face is maybe 50 meters from the snow slope to your left. The gully to the left is the ‘Wavelength’ (II, 4) and to the right you will find the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4).
The first section consists of two pitches, an about 50 meter scramble through a boulder field and a snow slope up into the gully system that makes the second section of the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4). The first pitch ends quite naturally, when you encounter a ledge and rock wall in front of you. Here you can set up a belay stations for the second pitch.
The second pitch goes up a snow slope for about 30 meters with absolutely no places to set protection – I managed to place maybe four nuts. I climbed left of a low rock wall with only a few good cracks. This was definitely a run out! Not a difficult technical exercise, but mentally very tough. Ending the pitch was a hard deal in itself. I found a really big ledge to the right just before the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4) turns into a steep rock wall nearly vertical in appearance, where I set up my belay station. It felt like I had to cleanse the wall completely from snow, ice and frozen turf to find suitable cracks to build an anchor from. It felt like hours, but I finally found some places, where I could set a two Black Diamond Stoppers and a Black Diamond Hexentric. The latter is a must-have on a climb like this as there are so many places when you get further op, where hexes are ideal protection.
Steep mixed climbing
You can really feel the grade IV taking form at the second section, where the wall goes vertical for 10-15 meters at the third pitch. This is the hardest, most exposed and mentally challenging piece of ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4). There are few spots to place protection and the steepness of the wall makes it an enduring climb. Paal, my climbing partner of the trip, and I discussed shortly whether this was the right way, but eventually decided to give it a try. Paal, who is literally raised in the “fjelds” of Norway had serious winter climbing experience, and me being the lesser experienced half of our party, decided that he would lead the pitch. Paal and I had just met a few days before departing for Scotland, but the energy and chemistry seemed right to partner up for the trip.
Through the gully system
When the steepness of the buttress decreased a gully system opened up. Whether we actually had to enter the gullies or stay outside was not easy to see – and the sparse description in the guidebook didn’t give any answer either. The winds had calm down, but the storm had blew so much snow into the air that we could hardly see a few meters a head. I retrieved the anchor I had set up and followed his lead as the second.
The fourth pitch continued through the gully system and navigating was painfully hard. I led this pitch and found it very amusing as it became quite technical. The gully was very narrow and several times I found myself standing in awkward positions to gain stability and find good positions while placing protection. This part of the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4) was like climbing a maze. There were so many diversions and other gullies that it is hard to keep track of the route – several times it was tough to figure out whether to climb left or right, but I stuck to climbing inside the widest part of the gully. Anyway this adds to the sport of the route and just makes it more challenging. Great fun! However as a general direction, you should follow the gully in a pretty straight line. Actually the route takes a pretty strong right turn and then a left towards the third section. The sharp turn comes about 15 meters after the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4) meets the ‘Wavelength’ (II, 4). Coire an t-Sneachda is a pretty popular crag, so you might be lucky that you will meet other teams at this cross section – we did, and we used the other teams as navigation points. And it seemed like they did the same! I found a pretty good spot to belay from inside a chimney, so Paal could led the final section.
Scramble the final boulder field
The finale is a scramble through boulders with a few short passages of climbing on the remainder of the buttress. The protection from the wind in the gullies ends quite brutally and the route becomes much more exposed. This adds to the challenge, but the remainder of the route is not technical. You have an excellent view of the ‘Fingers Ridge’ from here and looking back you can see back down to where it all began.
Final thoughts on the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4)
The route is a great experience with lots of challenge – especially in the gully system, where you easily can loose track.
If you have visited Coire an t-Sneachda and repeated the ‘Fluted Buttress Direct’ (IV, 4) please let me know by leaving a comment below. I am very exciting about whether Paal and I actually followed the right line or we intersected too much with another route.