Two weeks ago, Glencoe looked like this. Pretty, but disappointing from a winter climbing perspective! Given that flights, car hire, hotel and time away from family were booked, it looked very much like we would have to satisfy ourselves with some technical scrambling (probably in the rain) and aim to get as many metres of climbing in our legs as possible. However, 2 weeks is a long time in Scottish weather…
Glencoe on Saturday looked like this. A week of heavy snowfall and high winds had given the place an altogether different feel. On seeing this, the day before we were due to leave I popped into Karl’s temporary new house (very nice) to drop off some kit and his birthday present – an avalanche probe. I hoped not to be tempting fate and, as fortune favours the prepared, I thought it was a sensible choice, but in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it so casually to Clair…after all, why on earth would we be needing that!?
Come Friday and, with bags carefully packed to ensure I didn’t go over my hold and carry-on baggage weight limit, or get arrested for trying to take an ice axe onto the plane, I drove to East Midlands airport. I survived check-in but the x-ray police pulled me over and informed me that I couldn’t take a climbing rope onto the plane either. I had put it in my hand baggage as it is quite bulky and heavy, but wasn’t (as far as I could tell) sharp, incendiary or in any other way dangerous. G4S begged to differ. Apparently I could tie people up with it and so it was not allowed. Cue one trip back to the check-in desk, twelve more quid to the airline and a snotty letter to follow…
An uneventful, if somewhat bumpy, flight to Glasgow later, and I was that person you always see and think ‘that never happens to me’ – the one whose bag comes out of the carousel first. With a spring in my step I skipped over to the car hire desk, swanned over to Starbucks for mocha and a sticky bun and snuggled onto their sofas, thinking life doesn’t get much better. Until Starbucks closed and kicked me out, I was right. Karl’s rubbish flight was delayed as usual and I passed a bit of time chatting to another guy who was clearly heading for the hills – it turned out he was going to Glencoe too and so I wished him good luck and hoped he wouldn’t hold us up on the hill…
Karl arrived a bit frantic – he needed to send a presentation to his boss, on pain of instant dismissal, and his laptop was refusing to play ball. We needed a wi-fi or other network connection-type thing. We tried the Ramada (no joy), gave the Holiday Inn Express a miss (a wise presumption I reckon) and, having phoned the place we were staying, The KingsHouse at the head of Glencoe and established they had a variety of options, internet-wise, we headed North. The road past Loch Lomond was heavily flooded, while past Crianlarich there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, raising eyebrows and pulse rates. However, aside from completely missing the turn into the car park at the inn, the trip passed without incident. Karl made good progress with his work, until the battery died on his laptop, whereupon the Aussie barman lent him his personal one and victory was (eventually) ours. A pint or two could now be officially enjoyed by which time it was gone midnight and we turned in, to a roasting and twee twin room. The last time Karl and I shared a twin room was his stag do and I’ll say no more about that.
The next morning was kicked off by Sam, the elder of my twin boys, phoning me to say he had slept in his own bed all night – a rare feat! Unfortunately for Kirsty, Louis, the other twin, had been up since 5am. However, it got us going and we dressed and packed bags for a technical day of winter climbing. A massive breakfast, including a sort of fruity sausage, gave us the belly-fire we needed to get out into the car and drive the mile or two down Glencoe to a layby where we would start the day. Stob Dearg, the summit on the North East end of Buchaille Etive Mor lay before us and was covered in snow. Let battle commence…
The very excellent SportScotland Avalanche Information Service had lowered the avalanche risk from 4 (High) to 3 (Considerable) but even so, it was clear that route choice was going to be key. Strong winds and heavy snow, combined with temperatures hovering around freezing, without actually dipping below it consistently, is a bad combination. As the winds had generally been from the South and South-West, anything that looked from North-West through to North-East was going to be a risky place to be, especially if you were on slopes in the danger zone (20o to 45o generally) or if the slope was corniced. Our intended route looked North East, started at around 630m (we were at around 270m) and was guarded by slopes of around 40o. However, they could be avoided by taking a slightly longer way in, from further East and traversing above the potentially dangerous slopes.
A heroic crossing of the river was first on the agenda – a good ten metres wide but shallow and gentle so no repeat of last year’s fiasco, when I am sure Karl greased the rock before I slipped off it. Trudging across broken ground toward the base of the mountain, we saw 2 other groups of two climbers ahead of us, having obviously forgone a massive breakfast and started out earlier. As the ground got steeper, the snow got deeper and it was with some relief we reached the previous groups’ tracks, as this meant we would no longer be trying to break a trail. We put crampons on, took an axe out each and caught up with the two parties we had seen as they geared up at the bottom of D Gully. They both thought they were doing our route of choice, Curved Ridge, and stuck to their story even after I pointed out the start of that route was about 150m higher and 100m to the right. Never mind, good luck boys…
We got harnesses and the gear out, roped up and I started moving off to the right, up a shallow gulley that trended in the general direction we needed to go. The terrain and conditions were pretty hard – a couple of foot of fairly loose snow covered everything, including most of the rock I needed to see to attach belays to, and had a tendency to compress massively when you stood on it. Many times you would step up as high as you could, press down with your leg only to find that your foot ended up exactly where it started. Combined with the constantly digging in around in the snow for gear placements, normally not finding any and so moving on, it was a physically tough couple of pitches. Karl followed up admirably, suffering from hot aches in his hands, probably because I was taking so long to do each pitch. It was already 1pm and we were nowhere near the base of the route.
One extremely long (in terms of time) pitch saw me traversing across the top of a snow field, floundering up a couple of delicate steps, digging my way up a gulley, eventually finding some bomber belays and bringing Karl up, only to realise that had I stepped about 20 feet right, halfway up, I would have been on a veritable motorway – at least 2 parties’ tracks came straight up through the ground I had wanted to avoid and led the way to the route proper. At last! Having been watching RAF helicopters buzzing around the valley, trying to stay warm and cursing my slowness, Karl traversed across, I down-climbed and finally we could start the route. It was after 2pm and at this point I knew we would not be getting up the hill today. However, some really nice pitches lay directly in front of us and, after quick consultation, I set off.
The first pitch was through a narrow gulley that was somewhat sheltered from the worst of the snow by a large overhanging lip of rock, from which extended some amazing icicles – one was about 4 feet long, as think as my arm, clear as water and had melted into the snow below it, like a stalactite reaching the ground. Above this there was a proper rock ridge, complete with belays, good stances and a great view back down the gulley. The next pitch saw the best climbing of the day – lots of positive holds, some good steps, solid gear (including the loneliest looking tree I have ever seen) and had a gulley on either side that made you feel higher than you actually were. We passed another party in the gulley to the left and at a large levelling off of the ridge, I belayed and brought Karl up.
It was at this point that my phone started ringing. My first thought was ‘Wow, I get a signal’, my second was ‘Why is Kirsty phoning me, she knows I won’t be able to answer’ and my third was ‘I bet that’s really annoying all the other climbers around here’. Rather uncharitably I ignored the first call (the phone was wrapped in a several plastic bags in my rucksack lid, I was belaying Karl and, as it had started snowing, I didn’t want it to get wet), started to raise my eyebrows at the second and by the third thought ‘I had better see what this is all about’. Karl arrived and I dug the phone out and saw it was indeed Kirsty, but also my friend Ian and my Mum. Something was most definitely up. I rang Kirsty, who said Ian had phoned her to say he had seen on the news an avalanche in Fort William had killed three climbers and wanted to make sure we were okay. I assured her we were, we were miles from Fort William and in fact we were going to head down soon. Then I sent a text Clare to tell her we were fine so she could let Karl’s mum know and then phoned my Mum, who was more specific – the avalanche had happened in Glencoe. That was when the penny dropped. The helicopters Karl had been watching, presuming them to be training, had been airlifting casualties from somewhere down the valley. It was clearly time to go down.
The two guys we had passed in the gulley 30 minutes before had by this time disappeared, clearly having the same concerns regarding time that we did (it was now gone 3pm), although 2 or 3 groups 50m or so above us showed no signs of turning back. Given they had at least 250m more climbing to go to get to the summit, I worried for them – however, a descent from their position was probably not very easy either. A pair of climbers on a very technical pitch to our left had just abseiled back down it, after the second struggled, and were now also moving down. The afternoon took on a distinctly serious feel. Karl down climbed the gulley on our right and I followed, feeling a little exposed. There was quite a bit of movement in the snow, but once we reached the ground we had already covered (past the icicle), the going became much more substantial and by the time we reached the start of that narrow gulley, it was easy angled enough to stow a lot of the gear and follow the tracks of the earlier groups, staying roped however, and using a technique called moving together. This allowed me to keep a check on Karl and set up a belay if there were any tricky steps, of which there was only one.
Once we were below this step, another pair descending from a route on North Buttress caught up and we swapped stories. They had not heard of the avalanche but as soon as they did, one of them immediately surmised that it must have been in the notorious coire on the North West flank of Stob Dearg, Coire na Tulaich. A popular walk in summer, it is the easiest way up and the obvious way down, but in winter, all the climbing guide books say avoid it if there is any avalanche risk, recommending using the ridge that forms its northern side instead. That had been our intention, had we got to the top, but conditions in the coire were described by this climber as ‘f*cking lethal’ and he seemed to know that if there had been a fatal accident, it was going to be in there. We parted company and, stowing the rope, followed our tracks back off the steep ground, across the bog and river (again, without falling in) and got back to the car at around 5pm.
Back in the Kingshouse car park, the media crews had sniffed a story and were milling around. One reporter nabbed us as we were humping our gear in from the car and wanted our view of conditions. He also clearly wanted to know if we knew what we were doing as he very casually asked ‘what was the weather forecast this morning?’. Cheeky bugger. As if anyone would go up there not knowing what the weather was going to do. Inside, we had a truly rubbish shower (at least I went first and got what little hot water there was), spread our gear all over the drying room and retired to the bar. It was a Burns’ Night Special, so haggis all round, although I sensibly passed on the whiskey and Karl was a wuss with the (very bizarre) pudding, leading to his 3-0 drubbing at pool.
A couple of the pairs we had seen on the hill turned up and we compared notes. The guys we had seen early and who set off up a route they thought to be Curved Ridge but wasn’t, had got 4 pitches up, then come down after one of them had taken a fall and had a bit of a mare in deep loose snow. They were camping in the field behind the inn – rather them than us. The pair that had been in the gulley to our left at our high point also appeared, with the less experienced guy having a large strapping on his arm and holding it in a strange way. Apparently, just after we saw them, they moved across the gully together (i.e. neither of them were belayed to the hill) and a load of snow sloughed them off and down about 30 metres. They both had bumps on their heads and the strapping was holding together quite a large gash across his arm from crampons. It explained why we hadn’t seen them again on the hill. This had happened 30 metres from us and we never knew a thing about it. It was time to go to bed and think about what to do the next day.
The morning papers carried the ‘freak avalanche’ story on the front page, in Scotland and in the nationals. Apparently a climber high up the gulley had triggered it, bringing a lot of snow hundreds of feet down onto a large group, 2 of whom were caught but unharmed and 3 of whom were buried. They dug 1 out straightaway, found another about 20 minutes later and the third about 40 minutes later, with the help of the Glencoe Mountain Rescue team, who had arrived by this time. All three buried climbers were airlifted to Fort William but all died shortly after. Needless to say, it was a sombre mood at breakfast.
Karl and I had a decision to make about what to do. The weather forecast was for strengthening southerly winds, backing to easterly, with snow showers. This put anything technical off the agenda, plus most northerly slopes would be off limits. After looking at a couple of options we decided to walk part of the West Highland way, up a thing called the Devil’s Staircase onto a gentle ridge and a fairly low peak, Stob Mhic Mhartuin. It would at least mean our legs get a work out and we wouldn’t have to carry loads of gear! We checked out and drove very carefully up the drive across freshly fallen snow to drive the couple of miles to Altnafeadh, where a few cars had been left overnight. From here there is a very clear view into the coire where the avalanche had been and as we got our coats on, a few middle aged guys were walking back towards the cars from a cottage on the other side of the river, carrying boxes of gear. They stopped to say hello and ask where we were off to – on hearing we were heading up the Devil’s Staircase, they appeared relieved. These guys were the surviving members of the party that had lost 3 men the day before and were packing their gear up. Sons, fathers, grandfathers, brothers, husbands – somewhere, 3 families were without these individuals, the roles they fulfil, the support they offer and the love they represent. We offer them our sympathy and our thoughts are with those left behind.
The walk up Devil’s Staircase was not as bad as we thought, although Karl soon discovered what breaking trail means. Patches of deep snow meant disappearing up to your arse was common unless you trod with care. About halfway up I showed him how to do a block shear test, a technique for assessing the avalanche potential of a slope. The block slid easily, revealing a very weakly bonded layer about 9 to 12 inches below the surface. On steeper ground, this would have been a major problem, but with the wind pushing us up the hill, we could avoid it easily and at the col, turned west to trudge up to the summit. Large patches of windslab were everywhere, again needing careful route selection and after 30 minutes or so, we were on a very desolate and windy summit. Turning back the way we had come necessitated the use of ski goggles to see where we were going, although with Karl’s being in the car, his efforts were somewhat hampered. Once below the col, the wind dropped and there was even time for a photo before we returned to the car, stripped the worst of the wet gear off and headed south.
A fabulous burger (for me) and a club sandwich (for Mr. Lah-dee-dah) while watching Edinburgh vs. Leinster at the Cameron House Hotel was a suitable tonic for having been stomping around in the snow for most of the weekend. Kirsty and I stayed in the Cameron House for a week after Archie’s funeral, feeling slightly surreal, and it was with some trepidation that I returned. However, the place has had a major internal redesign and I thoroughly enjoyed our brief visit. Back to the airport a few hours early meant another mocha while we repacked our bags (no rope in the hand luggage was the new rule) and when it was time say goodbye to Glasgow, Karl and I separated, having shared a physically tough and thought-provoking weekend.
An early morning train to London the next day offered time for reflection. We had deliberately put ourselves in a situation where the possibility existed that we may not return. I re-ran the decisions I had made over the course of the weekend in my mind, trying to work out if we were masters of our own destiny, or just recipients of better fortune than others. We had been in the mix and got away with it. Some did not. This has always, thus far, been the case and while it is tempting, and certainly comforting, to think it was our hand that steered us through, luck must have been a part of it. However, if I believed that the success of my time in the mountains fell on the toss of a coin, I would never go back. It does not and so I will return, if a little wiser and a little older.