With such superb weather and dry conditions across the Highlands, it would have been a travesty not to make the most of the opportunity and get into somewhere wild and remote. Andy and I both fancied a wee jaunt into Coire Sputan Dearg, on the SE flank of Ben Macdui, to check out the classics, so we hatched plans for a day in the heart of the Cairngorms.
The approach is no joke – an 8km cycle from the Linn of Dee brought us to the end of the landrover track, just before the Luibeg Bridge, from where a further 5.5km of walking (initially easy, then off-piste and rough) brought us after 3 hours to the foot of the crags. With stunning weather and scenery for company and tinder-dry ground conditions, it was no hardship though. The plan was simple – we would leave bags in the coire and climb Amethyst Pillar (HVS 5b), then descend Glissade Gully, collect the sacks, climb out via Grey Slab (HS 4b) and then walk down around the tops to enjoy the views and (more importantly) the path!
Both of these routes get three stars for quality so expectations and psyche were high! On top of that we seemed to have the place to ourselves, emphasising the remoteness and adventure. I had never been into the coire before and just being out there was reward enough – the climbing an added bonus. True to form, we started Amethyst Pillar slightly off-route, but it seemed to work (albeit boldly) and we tagged an extra 10m of climbing onto a superb pitch of clean, rough granite.
The first pitch alone would be worth three stars anywhere; with quality movement, perfect rock and adequate protection luring you up walls, grooves and corners, before an easy but exposed traverse takes you left to belay. As the approach slopes are fairly steep, the exposure builds quickly and it’s not long before you feel pretty “out there”.
Pitch two is the easiest of the route but the quality does not drop a bit – steep flakes, massive holds and gear everywhere meant we floated quickly up fins of granite to the spacious stance beneath the crux cracks.
The next pitch is a world away from the cruising below and puts up a stiff fight, especially if crack climbing isn’t your thing! After placing good gear as high as possible in the crack, the initial moves out left to a good hold are precarious, with feet on crumbly weathered lumps. It’s possible to place more gear here but it’s strenuous; better to move up and right via a finger crack to the main crack as soon as possible. Now it’s time to sink in the jams and plug in the cams all the way to the final bulge – brilliant stuff!
In a way it’s a bit of shame the crux section is disproportionately hard compared to the rest of the route, but the climbing is so good and so safe that it would be rude to complain! A rope length of moderate ground brought us to the plateau, where we located Glissade Gully (complete with resident snow patch) and sketched down to the sacks for a well-earned lunch and snooze.
After our siesta we scrambled across to the starting corner of Grey Slab; another quality climb but at a more modest grade, befitting of a second route and our depleting energy levels. Andy kicked us off and after negotiating the awkward initial corner he moved into the main slabby corner and linked the short first and second pitches into a brilliant 30m lead.
The crux of this route is the guidebook pitch 2 and constitutes delightful finger-tip lay-backing in the corner crack with smears for the feet on the slab. Maybe it was the heat or the protracted battle to free a stuck nut, but I definitely thought it was hard for the grade!
The remainder of the slabby corner was considerably easier, with a bulgy overlap providing the best entertainment. I was feeling the heat by this point and beginning to fade, so I smashed a bag of Tesco jelly sweets (thanks Andy!) which provided just the boost needed to lead the final (grim and slightly scary) chimney to easier ground.
Overall we thought Grey Slab to be slightly underwhelming and more deserving of two stars than three – the difficulty is a bit inconsistent and the chimney pitch to the top is pretty poor. As a package with Amethyst Pillar, however, it makes for a gem of a day out in one of Scotland’s wilder corners. Thankfully, the walk off the top was very straight forward, but proof that heat-induced neurosis was affecting Andy’s cognitive ability came when he suggested we should “nip over to bag the top of Macdui”. This was shot down extremely quickly.