Pot of Gold (V,6), Coire an t'Sneachda

We had taken a rest day on Monday due to the 80mph forecast and because Anna was feeling unwell. She had been suffering from a bad cold that had refused to go away for a week and a half. Luckily on Tuesday morning, against the odds, she was feeling well enough to climb, although the shorter walk-in to Coire an t'Sneachda again needed to be the sensible plan.

With the strong southerly winds appearing (in Aviemore at least) to have picked up in the afternoon of Monday we were a little concerned that the current avalanche report would be out of date by the time we entered the coire with windslab increasing. Particularly given the amount of fresh snow that had fallen whilst we were in the Northern Coires on Sunday.

The provisional plan had been Original Summer Route on Aladdin's Buttress but we didn't like the look of the descent down Aladdin's Couloir, which looked potentially loaded (but probably actually ok after seeing the later avalanche report), as did the coire rim above the route. Instead we opted for Mess of Pottage again with the expectation of an easy approach and exit. I had felt fairly steady on the two IVs that we had climbed at the weekend and so was keen to step up a grade to try Pot of Gold. Oddly I've never climbed a grade V in Sneachda despite having climbed over twenty elsewhere.

A buried Coire an t'Sneachda

Anna led the first pitch, which is shared with the Message, through an interesting blocky section to where Pot of Gold exits right.

Anna leading the first pitch

The traverse at the start of the second pitch was banked out, so I cautiously shuffled my feet rightwards. A few metres further an obvious crack led upwards. The hooks were good in crack but a few metres higher the angle eased back and cliff became massively banked out with snow. Endless sweeping ensued with little apparent change in volume of unconsolidated snow in front of me. Sweeping the snow with my axes to find high placements would leave me covered snow, burying my feet in the process along with any foot ledges that I had previously cleared. And so I would again need to clear the same ledges for a second time. This was the general pattern of events, with lots of time dedicated to brushing snow to find hooks, foot ledges, and gear placements. Often I wasn't totally sure what I was pulling on but if it withstood a couple of tugs then it was probably ok. Far more snow than our two previous days out it should be said.

The start of the second pitch had felt a little more serious. Maybe exacerbated by the tough conditions that were causing me to doubt myself a little, what with not having climbed at this grade for a few years. I had found some good nut placements towards the end of the traverse and in the base of the crack but they were susceptible to being lifted in the event of a fall, which would add extra slack to the system. With my right hand half rope already following a tight arc shape from the change in direction popping off accidentally was something to avoid. A short distance up at the crack the route bore left slightly and allowed me to start clipping my left rope with some minor relief. To put things in perspective though there was more than enough gear throughout the pitch. 

I found the second pitch hard and sustained with so much snow and was relieved to reach the belay, although was a little worried what the third pitch would have in store, given this was the crux.

Me on the second pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Anna, who had little mixed climbing experience prior to this trip with just a few days drytooling, had done remarkably well on our two previous outings but popped off the second pitch midway up. I could see the disappointment in her face. She'd made the mistake of stacking one pick on top of the other only for the lower one to pop off. One of those things you quickly learn not to do again, except with totally bomber hooks.

Anna near the top of the second pitch

The third pitch started where the second had left off with sustained, well protected climbing. Having mounted a difficult step leading rightwards a short distance above the belay I was forced to reverse the moves due to the taut lanyard preventing progress. I had made the schoolboy error of clipping a quickdraw to a rope over the top of my axe lanyards but had failed to notice because of insane amount of snow down the front of me. Second attempt I dug a little deeper and found some massive hooks between some blocks to make the moves a little easier.

The crux parallel cracks through the bulge were tough work due to the amount of snow on the slabby ground directly above. Around four times I needed to pull up over the bulge and then sweep snow on a bent arm, each time reversing the moves back down to the good ledge below. Reassuringly I found the strength and composure to repeatedly go up and down. Eventually I found what felt like some good hooks and pulled through on them with relative ease.

The remainder of the pitch didn't let up but I felt I had broken the back of the route after the crux. Plenty of gear throughout the pitch again. In fact it's a good job the second and third pitches were short because I was out of runners by the belay on both occasions.

Me at the crux on the third pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

I was grateful that the final pitch up the snowy chimney was a much easier affair given what had gone before. I placed about three runners in order to hastily get to the top of the route but it all felt quite steady in comparison. By the time we were both at the top it was 5 pm, so another late finish. 

Starting the final pitch
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

Visibility was pretty poor on the plateau but good enough to see the edge of the cliffs to our left. Plus there were footprints to follow, which soon became a highway of footprints leading down towards the ski pistes and eventually to the car park. With a good base of snow the descent was easy.

It was good to get Pot of Gold climbed as it's been vaguely on my radar for a few years now. The route as a whole had felt close to my limit in the conditions that we found. Despite my absence from Scottish mixed it was reassuring to know I probably had another grade in me had the snow conditions better.

That's the Northern Coires chapter of our trip concluded. Not much to keep us here now that it's buried. Next destination is <tbc>.

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