It was the quietness I remember I was still alive and Big Al was right beside me smiling he said “another life gone” we were right down by the loch. It was over 700 feet that the avalanche had taken us down, I had lost my glasses and head torch but Al,s was still on his helmet. My legs were buried with a slab of snow I was a bit battered and my dog arrived it had heard the noise and arrived with its eyes glinting in the beam of Al’s light. Al soon got the slab off and I stood up all seemed okay. To be honest I was really shaken and could not believe I was alive. I had a spare pair of glasses in my rucksack and a backup torch Teallach had dragged down to us from the start of the climb. Above us were two shapes it was our young companions half buried in snow. Al was up with them as soon as he got me out and I followed him up It is amazing how quickly you switch on at such a time. The boys were also okay, I could not believe it but were like us were a bit battered and shaken; their gear was with them bar their ice axes. They had tried to follow Al in the storm at the top of the gully but come to far to the Cornice and it broke as they were on it and they rode it down, they were so lucky the stayed on top of the snow. We were all so lucky.
(90% OF AVALANCHES ARE TRIGGERED BY THE VICTIMS !!! I was so glad I carried some spare gear in my bag, the torch and the glasses were vital)
The time was moving on and we had a few minutes the boys said they would struggle to walk out and were in shock. I explained that there was no chance of any assistance we had to get out there was a storm coming. We were over 3 hours walk out ahead and the first hour was up hill “it was march or die time” The weather was calm in the Corrie and the wind was gone a moon came out and Big Al was a power of strength and he charged on the Col up the steep slope and came back and carried one of the boys bags. The poor lad was struggling and it took all my powers of persuasion to keep him going. The wind hit us at the Col and we struggled to find a bit of shelter and ate some proper food and had a drink our first for hours. I had taken one of their ropes to help and my bag was pretty heavy by now. We could not hang about it was bitter cold and about 2100, I was worried about the forecast storm we were still a long way from safety.
I had been feeding my sweets that I carry in my jacket pocket to the boys on the way up to the Col and it was a really hard time. There was little time to think we had to keep going. From the Col it was hard going for another hour, Al was in front battering a way through the snow our steps and path we made on the way up was gone. We eventually reached the Estate road full of snow and then the long drag on and on in deep snow.
We reached the safety at last of the trees and had a break, we were exhausted and still in shock but did not stop long and the snow started to fall. That last 30 minutes took an hour Al went ahead dumped his bag and then came back to carry one of theirs. He was incredibly strong and that made a huge difference seeing him running back to us head torch in the darkness, a great morale booster. We reached the car and did not stop long the road was filling up with snow and we needed to get out it was a long drive home. The boys followed us and the last thing we needed was a wild drive out but we made it to Ballater. We left the boys to spend the night in their van and myself and Al headed home after picking up my car at midnight. I managed to phone my girlfriend it was midnight and she was worried and had thought about calling the Mountain Rescue but I had told her to wait until after midnight, I just made it!
( Always have a plan if it all goes wrong on the hills it is a lot easier today with mobile phones etc where a wife, partner will call the emergency services)
It was an awful drive home I felt battered and by now the bruising had come and I was stiff, my ribs were sore and poor Dianne was shocked when she saw me. Al was fine, he sneaked back to camp we could not say anything as he was supposed to have been at hospital for a check up on his leg (that was fixed he said so we kept this tale secret till now)
We were so lucky that day we did so many things wrong: from the late start, not reading the conditions, thinking we were invincible, under estimating the route and many others. We were lucky very fit and strong and got away with it. It was my second big avalanche the first on Beinn Alder in 1972 as a young lad, in these days it was thought that avalanches only happen in the Alps. After this I learned what I could and met Blyth Wright one of the pioneers of the Scottish Avalanche Service. I attended one of the early Courses at Glen More Lodge and learned many new skills. Nowadays the weather and Avalanche reports are so easy to get and so many other ways of gaining information on climbing conditions.
Lochnagar was a place I was to love and had so many great days in later years on its incredible cliffs in summer and winter and battle the elements on many occasions. I introduced many young people to the magic of Lochnagar and took part in many Rescues in this area.
Sadly my great mate Al Mac leod was killed on the North Face of the Matterhorn soling its great North Face after just climbing the North Face of the Eiger. A few years later another two great friends Mark “ Cheeky “ Sinclair and Neil Main were killed on Lochnagar in a winter climbing accident falling from Parallel B a classic climb on the cliff.
This was the only time I took time off from the mountains there was no way I could go out on rescues until my head cleared. It took several years before I climbed on these great cliffs again but I did that is what we do.
I never go back to Lochnagar without my thoughts of Neil and Mark so talented and at the top of their game at the time yet they made a mistake and fell. I also have great memories of Big Al a huge grin running back to help us in that dark night on Lochnagar, so strong so powerful and so full of life.
Looking back over 30 years and so many memories, things have changed and this weekend please uses all the advantages in this modern era that we have and take great care. Look where you are going, be safe use the knowledge that has been hard one. We are not invincible Nature lets us play with her but at times she can be a cruel lover but also like a lover a place of great joy.
As for the two young lads I never heard from them again, I gave them my address and a pair of my gloves? I wonder what has happened to them in the last 30 years.
I am sorry if it sounds a sad end to the story but Lochnagar has so many memories for me. I love the mountains so much and this spell of inactivity due to illness is hard to take. The good news that if all goes well I will have my long awaited operation at the end of the week. I am longing for the hills and to see the winter in all its glory is why we climb, I cannot wait to get out again. I hope you maybe picked up a few tips from this tale.
This blog is dedicated to Big Al MacLeod , Mark “Cheeky” Sinclair and Neil Main – true comrades of the rope and wild places.