Avalanche on Lochnagar – I learnt about climbing from that!

Riding the white Roller coaster on Lochnagar

I am still waiting for an operation so the hills that I love are still a no go for me. I am lucky that on my doorstep I have the incredible Moray Coast and help me with my “cabin fever”.  Yesterday I got blasted by the cold wind and managed a short walk and scramble on my local cliffs. To have frozen hands again on the cold sandstone and struggle up was great for the mind and the numb face with the wind was a reminder of hill days past.

This wild weather has taken me back to other periods where I had “cabin fever” after a spell of bad weather or work commitments.  It was even worse when as a very keen climber a few days of inactivity due to weather and the thought of yet another weekend spent on call-outs would drive me mad. In addition at this time I was then sent down to the far South to do a military Course as part of my promotion in the early 80’s. In all I had not been on the mountains for three weeks and I needed to feed my obsession for the hills. (They call it feeding the rat)

(How many of us feel this way? The must go and do something no matter what)

It had snowed heavily and the hills and travel had been very difficult, I was very keen to climb and as this was in the early 80’s, this was way before the Scottish Avalanche Information Service started its project in 1988.  I had a great friend at RAF Kinloss Al Mac Leod who was an incredible powerful young climber and was also mad very keen to climb so we arranged to meet at Ballater and climb on Lochnagar. Al was recovering from a broken leg earlier in the summer but had climbed so many classic routes that winter he had recovered well. The road was wild from Leuchars and as bad for Al from Kinloss, this took additional time and even though we both left early we were late when we arrived at Ballater. We took Al’s car up the windy road 15 kilometres to Glen Muick. It was a wild drive and there was only one car in the car park when we arrived.  I had phoned Mr Robertson the local keeper he said that the road was just manageable with care but Lochnagar had some amount of snow and to be careful pop in on the way home. I had stayed with Mr Robertson on a winter traverse of Scotland in terrible weather he knew me well that I would go and have a look.   It was now about 0930 a bit late for January for me but we were fit, strong and at that time we thought we were cocky/ invincible and would adjust our climb to the conditions and daylight.

Lochnagar West Buttress - photo SMC Scottish Winter Climbs.

Lochnagar West Buttress – photo SMC Scottish Winter Climbs.

(The drive delayed us due to bad roads and we set of late for a climb on Lochnagar to finish in daylight. We also were at the invincible faze of our mountaineering careers. We had local advice from Mr Robertson the keeper a man who did know these mountains yet we never hardly took his words into account)

The snow was deep even at the car park but Al was still extremely keen, he like me had been stuck in for a spell with the bad weather and we would go for a look! Al told me he was supposed to be at hospital that day for an appointment on his broken leg ( he broke this on a fall rock climbing at Tremadoc in North Wales) He was typical Al very fit and he set some pace up to the col to Meikle pap in very deep snow in  places, he just charged on.

(There was deep snow on the road and in the walk in?  What is happening on the hills?)

Lochnagar Teallach at the Col on a good day.

Lochnagar Teallach at the Col on a good day.

My dog Teallach was with us Al’s running companion and he would come charging back to see I was okay; he loved the snow and was like Al so strong. The great cliffs of Lochnagar were covered in mist it was pretty windy and the snow was well scoured at the col, there were plenty of spindrift devils about. The Loch was frozen and there was plenty of avalanche debris about. We had a short break and then pushed on crampons on in the hard snow (neve). I was very wary of climbing as there


would be massive cornices and Al fancied Black Spout Buttress on the West Buttress  an easy for him grade 3 and apart from the steep ascent to the climb it would be well protected from the possible looming cornices.  In these days there was little information on the conditions of the cliffs and few if any would have been in the corrie for a few days.  We dropped into the Corrie and it was so peaceful a different world, we were soon at the start of the climb. It is a special place to be and today it was misty dark foreboding Lochnagar wild but still beautiful.

(At that time there was no update on local conditions on the hills at this time and very basic weather information and no Avalanche forecast. Looking back we did so many things wrong, we were late, under estimated the climb and the conditions)

Big Al the Highlander!

Big Al the Highlander!

The climb Black Spout Buttress was a climb I had done in the summer and enjoyed I remember it being a short piece of fun climbing how things can change covered in snow. I had done about 15 routes in Lochnagar and thought I knew the mountain well especially in winter I was very confident in my knowledge of this great hill.

(Over familiarity can be dangerous at times and we must always take into account weather conditions and other factors. The weather said that a storm may come in later in the evening we never took this into account as the forecast in the early 80’s were basic)

We had noticed two figures following us and as I started up the first pitch they arrived at our belay and asked what the route was. They had planned to the impressive climb the Classic Reaburns Gully but could not find it? They were very young and keen from down South and had spent the night in their van and had followed Al’s trail up the hill. Al was in good form and there was no problem, he led the first pitch and I talked to the lads. They were pretty inexperienced and were worried about the weather and getting off the climb,.We left the dog at the belay with the boys he had dug a ledge and was ensconced for hopefully a few hours while we climbed, he was used to it.  I left my bag attached to him by along sling, in case he knocked it off the ledge. We climbed with one rucksack between us and I most of my spare gear including head torch on me.

(Having the dog with us cut down our options of descent)

Al was soon up the first tricky pitch with me following behind and charging ahead he did not hang about and one of the lads arrived at my belay saying that the route was a bit interesting for a grade 3.  The weather picked up pretty dramatically, it was snowing heavy and all the holds were covered, it took time to clear and find protection in case of a fall. The route was a lot longer than I remembered and as always Al was taking the hardest line. Time was flying by and at the crux the boys asked for us to leave the gear in for them and our belays, could we wait for them at the top of the route? We climbed the last pitch in the gloom by torch-light it was 1700 and pitch dark, it would be a late night. There was no problem, we felt the lads had also asked the way off and I said we would descend by the Black Spout Gully as long as I could see how big the Cornice was.  We reached the top in the dark in what was an incredible wind about 70 mph and full on white out. We were in a real “white room “I had seen the cornice in a break in the weather it was huge and overlapping but to the left it looked easier. We waited for the boys to finish as they were very worried about the weather and did not fancy the plateau in such weather. We would have struggled as the wind got worse when we left the shelter of the ridge.  I explained to them in the terrible follow us down as soon as they could and keep to the left.  Al would stay till they caught him at the Cornice to show them the line off the hill. In the conditions it was very hard to ensure they understood the dangers of the Cornice, we could hardly speak and the winds were crashing. I had my dog to collect so it was down the gully we would go.  We would stay roped us as I made my way to the far edge of the cliff and Al would lower me into the gloom and I would cut through the cornice. Al would follow after I tugged the rope three times.    I was pretty worried but found a way down despite the spindrift and soon cut a big hole in the Cornice. I was soon down below out of the wind in another world, it was wonderful, I could see again and the wind that had frozen my face was gone after a dropping over the cornice and to the side of the gully.   I was about 50 feet below the Cornice; it was pitch black and big Al took his time he said he waited till the boys were with him above and he left them. He told them to give us 5 minutes and come down. He said it was very wild now on the top then he began laughing as he always did.  We untied but dragged the ropes separately (worth doing in avalanche conditions) and started moving down the gully.

We were about 100 feet down when we heard a crash and the Cornice came tumbling down the blast was like a gunshot and off we went down the gully riding a serpent of snow, getting battered all the way down.

It was like being in a washing machine and my body was getting battered all the way down, down ,down we went, it seemed endless.

I tried to keep my feet up as much as possible and stay on top we went a long way.

Then it all went quiet and as black as hell.

More to follow tomorrow if enough people want?

90 avalanche

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 36 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 4 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Avalanche info, Enviroment, Equipment, Friends, Gear, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Scottish winter climbing., Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

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