The Clean Sweep
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The Clean Sweep - classic Scottish rock climbing

After three months away in the Alps where we had been climbing on lovely, sunny, granite slabs, we were back in Scotland and hoping we would get the chance of climbing at least one more rock route at home. Already, it is October and there has been a dusting of snow on Cairngorm so maybe it is time to put away the rock boots and dig out the winter boots, axes and crampons in anticipation of some early winter climbing. But first, a forecast for a sunny, dry day has us packing up the rucksacks for a trip over to Hell’s Lum Crag in the Cairngorms. Hell’s Lum is south facing so gets the sun and we hope that it will be dry enough to climb one of the classic routes, The Clean Sweep.

The day turns out to be very sunny but there is a strong wind as we walk up the Fiacaill a Coire Cas to the big cairn at point 1141. Then down towards Windy Col where we expect the wind to pick up but it is unusually calm! Onwards to Coire Domhain and down along the stream towards the Loch Avon Basin. This whole area has such sense of remoteness and with the steep crags surrounding the loch, it must be one of the most beautiful areas of Scotland and certainly one of the most scenic places to be climbing. Before reaching the  Loch, we turn away from the stream to the bottom of the crag hoping that it is dry enough for us to play on. 

The start of the route is described as following “a green whaleback buttress” and it is only in the new SMC Scottish Rock Climbs guidebook that it is clear where the  actually goes. Ron had always climbed the slabs to the left to reach the belay stance below the obvious corner above that is pitch 3. I start up the slabs to the left of the whaleback buttress then move into the groove as it says in the guidebook. Then a nice little foothold out on the edge of the buttress for my right foot helps me upwards so I can bridge my left foot on to the far side of the corner. So nicely balanced, my next challenge is to find somewhere to place some gear to protect the next move. A crack to the right seems promising but it is tiny and filled with earth. A crack higher up looks hopeful but it is a good few moves above me and the dampness of the rock lower down has not exactly filled me with enough confidence to go for it! An interesting, wobbly move gets me back down to the corner and this time, I go up the slabs to the left.

The slabs are certainly easier and a flaky undercut hold higher up gets me back to the corner then up to what is probably the wettest belay stance I have ever had the pleasure of paddling on to! When Ron arrives, he manages to keep his rock boots dry by perching on the top of the pillar. Little does he know though, just how wet the pitch above is!

The second pitch is the most damp probably because it is less steep than the pitches above and a bit more lichenous. Ron finds he has to carefully work a way up on the steeper, more positive holds rather than using the easier angled but damp slabs. Normally when it’s dry, the moves would feel fairly easy and secure but in the damp, the pitch becomes rather thought-provoking! I follow up to join him on a dry belay ledge below a most fantastic looking corner.

There is a little blocky pillar to heave up on to begin with then up the crack which offers so many places for gear, Ron has warned me not use all my gear in the lower section but to remember to keep some for the upper part of the route above the corner. There are also a couple of rusty pegs but with so many other places to put nuts and friends, the pegs can be ignored.

The first part of the corner is good then it became a bit trickier. Deep in the crack are good holds and with my foot smearing against the slab on the left, I get into a position where I feet in balance and can stand quite comfortably. More smearing with my feet and with my hands still deep into the crack and it all felt like it was starting to fall into place. The climbing becomes a bit more straightforward after that with a pull up over a little overlap which Ron told me was the crux. Rubbish…it has good holds and it all feels very positive as I pull onto the top if it. The climbing continues for a good long way after that getting easier but still it keeps me thinking. I only just have enough gear and even have to use the karabiner from my nut key on the last runner!

Ron climbs up to join me and prepares to head up the fourth and last proper pitch. The rock changes here and the holds become rough and rounded in contrast to the slabs below as these were rocks that were not smoothed by the glaciers so many thousands of years ago. It is still quite steep but gives good, balancey climbing all the way up to a flake belay on a sloping ledge just short of fifty metres. We have one little pitch above this to the broken rocks and blocks of the plateau.

After collecting our bags from the bottom of the crag, we have a pleasant walk back across the plateau. The wind has dropped and the sun is just disappearing as we drop down the ridge back towards the car park. A sharp light appears as a rescue helicopter buzzes into the coire alongside us and hovers over the Finger’s Ridge area then whirrs upwards to land just minutes later in the car park. The helicopter takes off and shortly after, we see the lights of car leaving the car park too. We can only guess that folk had got stuck on a route as darkness descended and had called in to be rescued.

We carry on down the hill towards the growing glow of light that is Aviemore by night!

Route info:

Hell's Lum Crag, Cairngorm

VS,4c, 160 metres

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