On January 19th 2013 an avalanche swept four people to their deaths in Glencoe. It was an event that shocked a great many people. Me included. I was on the mountain on that day. A year later I returned to Scotland to do a Winter Skills course. Trudging the long walk-in to the corrie and back, I began to reflect and piece together my response to what happened 12 months earlier and to work out why I, someone completely unconnected to the people involved in the avalanche, had felt so shocked and struck by what had happened. It’s taken me until now, 2017, to reflect on it fully.
People have always said that winter climbing is a retrospective pleasure or ‘type 2 fun’ and for me, that rings true. The only request I made before my first proper winter climb, on that day in January 2013, was this: ‘I know what you’re like, people, and I want to walk down in the light, I really don’t want to descend in the dark’. It seemed that as soon as I’d uttered these words the members of my party silently and covertly rubbed their hands together in earnest to hatch a plan to keep me out as long as possible. What a climb it turned out to be.
A late start
When setting out from our hut in the dark at 7am, which is late, in winter climbing terms, the treasures of the mountain were disguised in a mist, which fluttered through all the crevices. The folds of rock hid clues of the events that would unfurl before us as we ascended to foot of North West gully on Stob Corrie Nam Beith in Glencoe. Leaving the car park before 8, after a flurry of sock changing and bag adjustments, our crew of 6 spent nearly 2 hours ‘walking-in’, trudging with trepidation and excitement to the bottom of our climbing route. When you’ve finished the ‘walk-in’, it’s necessary to don the appropriate garments and accoutrements to allow the climbing to commence. Also known as faffing. At this point our three pairs split into two groups, allowing the most experienced pair the chance to stretch themselves on a more challenging route, whilst we four took a short romp to a lofty perch.
We balanced precariously to administer crampons to our heavy boots. With gloves full to the brim of snow, blown in from every conceivable angle, I tried to shake out as much as I could before we started the climb.
The climb proceeded, with some roping up and some gamboling over fairly easy terrain, which felt like fun. Fairly soon though, things turned and it seemed like something wasn’t right.
A search & rescue helicopter flew in, close, hovering and then moving off to the left of where we climbed. The day’s events became a blur of climbing, waiting, freezing half to death on the belay and feeling scared. When the search and rescue helicopter came around again later, and then again, the panic set in and I couldn’t help but think that there was no way we were going to get off the mountain safely.
The days are short in Scottish winter and as the weather closed in, so did the darkness, having given us only 5 hours of proper light. As the darkness crawled in, an eerie trail of lights appeared in the next corrie, moving slowly in a mesmerising funeral march. We climbed and climbed. No-one said much, but as we rose up, slowed to a snail’s pace due to my inexperience, a trill from the hood of my rucksack rang out. My phone. It stopped. And then again rang out. And again. Each ring the same as the last, becoming more and more urgent in their call, knocking away my concentration.
Each ring accentuated my fear and panic. Something serious must have happened. The funeral march of lights in the corrie and the continued helicopter presence for so much of the day cemented that thought, which was followed quickly by the realisation that this nightmare was one from which I could not escape alone. I was completely reliant on the three climbers.
More than two hours later my partners helped me up over the brow of a shallow slope, to the top of the route, giving me just enough time to listen to the distraught voice of my mother, pleading with me, desperate to know that we were safe and not buried in a cold grave.
Fourteen hours after we set off, our group arrived back to the car park after a descent through snow-laden gullies. A journey from darkness back to darkness.
The Sobering Reality
Four people, two men and two women, died in the corrie next door to where we were climbing that day. Tens of mountain rescue volunteers and police dogs spent hours helping with the rescue. What happened that day provided me with a sobering reminder of how precious my life is, how important trust is to what we do as climbers and mostly, that’s it’s important to learn. The person at the mercy of the elements on that day could have just as easily been me, a vastly less experienced mountaineer than those who perished.
What I learnt
Aside from a commitment to know navigation, avalanche assessment and general mountain awareness better, these are the things I’m taking with me on future winter climbs:
- Be prepared for a long day
- Don’t expect to be able to eat anything out of my pack
- Drinking isn’t easy when my water is iced up in a rucksack
- Choose the right partner and trust them
- I have to carry everything – all the way up and all the way down
- Swot up on my route, so I don’t have to rely on others
- Take the right gloves. And a spare
- Water is heavy!
- A mini mars bar or celebration in my pocket will be heaven on a cold belay
- Wear my helmet
- Don’t whinge. At all. It’s annoying
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