a good call

Sat, Jan 24, 2009

Today was forecast to be the better of the weekend days, so I left the house at 8am and was walking up beside the burn from the Eas nan Arm bridge near the 1715 battleground at the top of Glen Shiel by about 9. I sat in the car for a bit, listening to the radio, while heavy rain showers passed over, then headed up beside the trees on waterlogged and boggy ground. At the top of the trees, there’s a hole in the fence that lets you reach the main forest exit onto the open hillside and it was here that I realised I’d left the camera in the car! Not that there was much to see, with constant blizzards sweeping in from the west and reducing viz to about 30m.

I was out for a romp, not really bothering where I ended up, though with a rough idea of reaching the summit of Sgurr a’Chuilinn (755m) and making for Creag nan Damh (918m) but I was primarily out to refine my pacing count, work with the GPS and dig snow pits! Just as well, as it turned out. I left the good path just beyond the trees and plodded up the NE ridge of Sgurr a’Chuilinn into very very deep snow, waist deep in places. It had snowed all night and the day before and it was unconsolidated although it was too wet to blow around in the blizzards that came and went. The ridge itself is a delight. Narrow and rocky, a few feet wide in places though not exposed although there’s a bad step not marked on the map where the line of metal fence posts goes straight up an almost vertical crag, presumably less than 15m as it didn’t show on the 25K map. It was interesting getting round the side on slabby rock overlayed with deep wet snow. It was here that I was glad I’d changed my initial plan of going up the N ridge of Ben Attow. The bad step on that ridge would have been almost impossible to get down in these conditions. Not to mention the question of whether it would be humanly possible to actually reach it in such deep snow on northerly aspects.

It was then I caught sight of the summit slopes of Sgurr a’Chuilinn and immediately thought, “those will go”, meaning avalanche! It was that clear to me. Steep north facing slopes, laden with heavy wet snow and lots of new snow constantly being deposited by passing storms. I amused myself by working with the GPS to test it across 100m legs, hopping from re-entrant to spur to knoll, recording how many paces it took each time, which was interesting in the deep snow and gusting wind.

Eventually, however, I came up against the summit slopes and by this time I was knee to chest deep in the stuff and was zig-zagging around to bypass steep laden slopes. The wide gully that takes you up the face onto the summit plateau was chock full of debris. Large blocks and balls of snow that had come down and it looked far too dodgy to go up. So I traversed to the left and hit a steep area, where I stopped for a while, digging avalanche pits with the axe. On each one, the block slid with little encouragement. A 3 inch layer lying on top of a very soft layer about an inch deep. I could stick my hand into the weak layer and raddle it out, leaving the surface layer suspended in mid air. Not a good sign!

I moved up the slope a bit, keeping to the less steep aspects and dug another pit, this time with the walking pole, the snow was so soft. Again, the block slid easily, although this time, there was another weak layer lower down, allowing two layers of snow to slide. By the time I reached 600m, there were three layers of snow sliding out of the pit with very little pressure applied. I looked up, saw the slope steepen appreciably and approach a convexity, which is an area of stress in the snowpack and a likely spot for an avalanche to start and thought, “right, I’m off!”. By this time I was out of the benign runout of the bottom of the gully and was above some fairly gnarly ground, which would not be nice to be swept down. Time for a sharp exit. It was a hard decision to make, with only 175m to the top and real winter weather doing the rounds. It was a great day to be out, as navigation wasn’t too difficult on the narrow ridge and it felt like a real winter excursion but the billowing spindrift coming down from the summit area, combined with the wet snow coming in blasts and adding more weight to the snowpack, I thought I’d made a good call. Might have got away with it, might not. Will never know but I’ve been avalanched before and the slope I was on was starting to look too much like the one that got me on Liathach.

There’s a crag marked on the 25K map at 450m but it was completely banked out and I sat in its shelter with the fence posts almost completely buried and had some lunch, revelling in the blowing snow and black clouds scudding up the glen. Big wet flakes. Real winter weather. Invigorating and exciting to be out! I did some more pacing and GPS testing on the way down the ridge, taking a wider line to the left down the bad step, down a small gully and cut back to the right along a slippy shelf, then back down to the path.

I followed the path down through the trees this time to see where it came out but this turned out to be a mistake. It’s a quagmire and I eventually lost it and ended up pushing through the brash and branches to reach the gap in the fence at the main road. Try not to go too far to the right higher up as it leads onto some exceedingly dodgy ground. Very steep, slippy and a nasty drop. Better still, where the path reaches the fence, go through the gap, then hang a hard right, follow it down to the junction of fences and crawl through the hole. You can then wander down to the main road at the bridge. Much easier.

Well, was it a good call? I thought to myself back at the car. Prolly. I got home to hear that three walkers had been avalanched on Buachaille Etive Mor, on the north facing Coire na Tulaich. It’s a notorious avalanche blackspot in heavy snow and it seems they were caught out. Conflicting reports abound. BBC website says they were rescued but are in a serious condition. Radio 4 says they died. Hope they make it.

UPDATE 17:42 BBC website updated to confirm three out of nine walkers avalanched on the Buachaille died in Belford Hospital, Fort William. Can’t express how sad this makes me feel. Looks like stresses in the convexity at the top of the slope caused the slide.