‘BELOW’ shattered the silence
I remember sitting in a bucket seat, a pitch below the cornice belaying my friend up and looking out across the Balmoral Estate from Lochnagar in awe at the beauty of the mountains before me. Deep in the bowels of our storage lock up I have a photo that I took a few mins before of exactly that. We had climbed 4/5 rope lengths and were on some fairly steep terrain enjoying ourselves.
‘BELOW’ shattered the silence, I made myself as small as I could and kept the rope tight, fully expecting a piece of ice / neve or kit to be whizzing down towards us. There was a unexplainable sound, it went white, then dark, the rope went super tight and I was pulled head first out of the bucket seat into space. Bizarrely I remember quite clearly not feeling scared, but complete calm, I knew straight away that I was in an avalanche. It was so violently quick, but I can recollect every millisecond. I was fully buried racing down at Mach 10. I came out of the pack at some point and whilst the whole slope was accelerating underneath me I shot across the surface at a frightening speed. I saw my 2nd below and tried to grab him as I hurtled past him, thinking we’d be safer together. I got smothered, I was completely buried again and it seemed we were just getting faster and faster. It was only now that I realised that I was about to be smashed in to the rock field at the bottom of the Corrie and “that it was going to hurt”. I remember how calm I felt, I remember thinking that as soon as it stops ……’you have to fight to free a part of you’.
There was a unexplainable sound, it went white, then dark, the rope went super tight and I was pulled head first out of the bucket seat into space.
And then it stopped, the whole slope just became solid in an instant. Somehow at that moment it released me and I dug myself out. I looked round, I could see my 2nd below me, partially buried, not moving. We had been climbing in 2 groups of 3, there was no one else around.
The rest of the day and long into the night was just epic. Someone had seen us come out of the avalanche and had called 999 immediately and then made his way to us. I started to head back up to check to see anyone was visible and then our 3rd person just stumbled out mumbling about losing his axe, it had been with him for generations, he had climbed the Eiger with it and where was it? I’m pretty sure I was my usual polite self! His thumb was at a strange angle though…
My 2nd was pretty broken and we dragged him a considerable distance to what we thought was a safe area. We had no knowledge of the other team, mobiles weren’t too common then.
The debris field was massive, there were no indicators of the others anywhere in it and although we were 4, 2 of us were fairly broken, it was limiting to what we could do.
Its frightening in these types of situations how you lose all measure of time, but the 2nd team with us had actually avoided being swept away and had legged it around from the top to us. Both teams had thought the others were caught, but by some miracle we had all got away with. The emotion of seeing the others running to us (apparently at least 90 mins after the event) was over whelming, never have I hugged another bloke and cried like that.
I remember the MRT wading through deep snow, arriving with sweat pouring down them and asking if we were all accounted for, in their exhausted state they were absolutely shocked to find us all alive.
‘We thought it was going to be a recovery operation….’ The sledgehammer hit home. Until then it was still mates having a laugh, it’s a good coping strategy and works well, the best of our black humour gets us through everything, but reality has to appear to ruin it. I have vague memories of a walk, some type of tracked vehicle journey across the awkward ground, a landrover drive through the Balmoral Estate and a lot of ‘press’ at the Police Station taking photos.
Someone said I had a rip in my jacket on my back with loads of what looked like dried blood. I do remember at that point about to fold, how could it get any worse…I’d had a rope around me, belaying and when it tightened had melted all my layers down to the skin and melted a good bit of that too! The ‘blood’ was a red thermal top….we found my skin and layers of clothing melted on the rope later!
We got ‘interviewed’ by the Police / MRT and when I explained that I had an axe attached to me from the belay and that it had followed me down the whole way, he just put his pen down and explained to me matter of factly that the last person that had happened to, the axe had gone straight through his face. He said I was lucky.
Someone said I had a rip in my jacket on my back with loads of what looked like dried blood. I do remember at that point about to fold, how could it get any worse…
The adrenaline had kept me going but over the next few days I realised the extent of my injuries. Physically I had got away with it, most ligaments in my knees and ankles were wrecked from the forces involved, the crush injury around my fat belly took months to get over and the general feeling of being squashed by a 600lb Gorilla took ages to get through. Mentally my head was 'fucked' though.
I went back the following year, the same folks, same place, an important day for us all. We headed up something else, by the top I was a mess, simple spindrift shutting me down, there’s a noise it makes similar to a avalanche, it’s indescribable, but it represents something to me. It has taken me years to get back onto that type of terrain.
Did we make a mistake? I was the youngest and least experienced, there were folk there, who held the highest mountaineering qualifications, who had climbed the Eiger and so on. Having been part of a MRT for nearly 10 years I know how this works and I will always appreciate the off-duty policeman (part of the Braemar MRT) who on that night told us we had done nothing wrong. They had actually been out training that day and noticed a change in the forecasted wind direction which they reckon caused a sudden build up on the scarp wall and unfortunately we were the trigger. I suppose we’ll never know, but even to this day his words are some comfort.
I love the winter environment, it’s exhilarating, it’s challenging and if you like the mountains then it’s the best time of the year to be in them. I’m cautious in winter, it’s a fragile environment and I always base my decisions on information, facts, knowledge, experience and intuition.
It was estimated by the MRT team that we had been avalanched over 200m and I guess as a result we made the National Press -yep I’ve been in the Daily Mail, pretty sure Viv hasn’t been in that one yet...(thankfully she sighs!)
It stopped my winter climbing career, whilst I’ve learnt over the years to cope with that type of terrain personally, the idea of being responsible for somebody else as a MIC (Mountain Instructor Certificate) in the future is not something that I believe I could be comfortable with.
I love the winter environment, it’s exhilarating, it’s challenging and if you like the mountains then it’s the best time of the year to be in them. I’m cautious in winter, it’s a fragile environment and I always base my decisions on information, facts, knowledge, experience and intuition. The science around this subject is rapidly growing and aids us hugely. I genuinely think that nearly 18 years ago, that day saved my life. I was pretty cavalier in the mountains, ‘it will never happen to me’, I’m indestructible type of attitude, well I got that shit kicked out of me that day!
It always used to amuse me when you read a winter ‘skills’ book or you listen to an ‘expert’ on the winter in the mountains. ‘If you get caught in an avalanche, use a swimming motion to keep on top or gain the edge....’
What a load of old tosh! When thousands of tonnes of snow and ice decide to take you on a ride of your life, then trust me....it’s going to do whatever it wants to you!