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Classic Scottish Ice Climbing on Hells Lum in the Cairngorms National Park

The Chancer, classic Scottish ice climbing.

A beautiful cold and clear day, blue skies and good ice climbing.

We had last minute thoughts about going to Creag Meagaidh. The climbing reports mentioned good ice but on consideration, this meant that these routes would be busy and whilst we were early, we were not early enough for Meagaidh which takes about an hour and a half to drive to from Aviemore . Later we heard that climbers had started out from the car park at five in the morning to be ahead of the crowds.

The area around Hellís Lum was where we were heading. Ron had two hard ice routes in mind Ė Cascade on Stag Rocks and Chancer beside Hellís Lum itself. We walked through the ski area, up the Coire Cas ridge and onto the plateau. The skiing looked like it was going to be really poor as rocks and grit littered the runs. Coire an Sneachda was very rocky and black, Coire an Lochain looked more wintry then in the distance, Braeriach and Ben MacDui appeared to be blanketed in snow. We could see for miles. I was surprised it was so quiet. Maybe it was just that we were early but I had expected to see the usual lines of climbers walking into Sneachda. There were two climbers on Aladdin's Couloir but other than that, we saw no-one until we reached Hellís Lum

The snow was firm and easy to walk on and it took us about two hours to get down to Stag Rocks. There was some ice there but it had suffered from being in the full glare of the sun as the crag faces south. Part of the icicle collapsed as Ron was looking at it and the other part was very thin. One to go back to another day, another winter.

But all was not lost. Coming down alongside Hellís Lum Crag, we could see that there was plenty of ice on The Escalator and Ron was confident that this meant Chancer would be there. This is an icicle on the rocks to the left of Hellís Lum itself. A short route but very steep, graded V, 6. It starts up the  first part of Hellís Lum then takes a steep wall to the left. The belayer gets to sit in a big icicle-fringed cave. Ron started up carefully, finding out what the ice was like and muttering something about taking easier routes. On one side the ice was mush but it was good on the other. The ice screws were ok-ish! I found the wall delicate as some axe placements were good but others, not quite so reliable. As the ice was in the sun, it was soft and I could place the front points of my crampons against the ice, shift my weight and feel them sink in. There was a tricky bit at the top where the ice was poor but above that was the belay where Ron  was tied onto two ice pillars and an ice thread.

Chancer and Hell's Lum

The first part of the steep ice started down a bit from where we were belayed. Ron downclimbed and traversed to the left. Down below we had been guessing at how steep the ice was and reached the general opinion that it was steep but not as steep as it looked. Wrong! Ron moved onto the ice announcing that it was very steep. A bit of an understatement if you ask me. I think it was vertical personally. There is a little cave at the left a few metres up which gave Ron a chance to place an ice screw and to get a sling around a small pillar of ice. From this, a move to the right led to the main pillar. I found this move hard as I could get my right axe into the ice but could find nothing good for my left one. I ended up getting my right axe and crampon onto the pillar, my left hand gripped round a small icicle then I was able to kick in my left foot then left axe. I donít know how Ron did but it must have felt scary! I was glad of the rope above me.

The main pillar of ice was so strenuous it called on good use of techniques Ė monkey hangs, locking off arms and resting on axes. I couldnít see Ron as he climbed but heard the shouts of relief as he reached somewhere he could stand in balance. When I reached the same point, I had the most incredible attack of the hot aches as my cold hands came back to life. Having them so consistently above my head meant that they had gone numb and I hadnít even noticed. It was fun after that on much easier snow slopes though there was a tricky bit where we had to move to the right to get round a rock. The ice there was wet and disintegrated with each blow of the axe but above that it was good snow ice with no problematic cornice to battle with.

The Escalator

The wind had picked up as we climbed the route but we were in the sun on the plateau and felt its warmth as we climbed back down to the sacks. We walked on below Hellís Lum to the foot of Escalator, the ice we had seen on the way in. This was a better way to get back to the plateau than plodding up the snow and the ice was lovely. The first pitch was pretty much banked out with snow, the second pitch gave excellent ice then a long snowy slope to the top.

The sun was setting behind us, the sky had a pink tinge and the full moon promised to give enough light for our return across the plateau.


looking over the Feith Buidhe area above Loch Avon

 Route information

Both climbs are on Hell's Lum Crag above Loch Avon in the Cairngorms, Scotland.

Chancer is Grade V,6. 90 metres

The Escalator is Grade II/III, 150 metres

See also Talisman Activities climbing courses here and mountaineering courses here

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Copyright Fiona Chappell 2003-2012 (updated Wednesday, 10. October 2012)