For over a year I have been working on a project with the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS)and going back through all the incidents that involved Mountain Rescue Teams from 1980 – 2014. It makes sombre reading and I was on many of these avalanches throughout Scotland with the RAF Rescue Teams. The SAIS is now funded by the Scottish Government and has forecasts throughout the winter starting in mid December. There web site has been revamped and is well worth a look before the winter starts in earnest.
IDENTIFYING AVALANCHE HAZARD IN THE HILLS AND MOUNTAINS
THROUGHOUT THE WINTER IS A CHALLENGING PROCESS.
Constantly changing weather factors, from temperature and snowfall to wind speed and direction, can affect the strength and stability of the snowpack. So it’s vital to keep a close watch on conditions during the season – especially throughout any mountain excursions.This guide outlines the decision-making process and the fundamental considerations of assessing avalanche hazards in the winter mountains. With the advice on these pages, together with the corresponding resources overleaf, you should be able to make better judgements on where and when to go.
It was not always like that, when I started serious mountaineering there was little information about avalanches!
Heavy’s first Avalanche – Lancet Edge – “Avalanches do not occur in Scotland only the Alps and the Greater Ranges”This was the final weekend of my last weekend of my Mountain Rescue Trial at RAF Kinloss in Feb 1972! The weekend was based at Ben Alder Lodge a wonderful remote area just of the A9. The team went to different areas every weekend and I had my new Munro s book out, seeing what hills I may be able to climb! The team used the garage and sheds at the Ben Alder Lodge a 5 mile drive up a rough estate track near the A9 near Dalwhinnie. This was an amazing place, stags and hinds were right down to the road, there were hundreds of them. As a very young team member I was spell bound by the area, it was like the eyes could not take in the views and sights. The keeper Mr Oswald was a long-time friend of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and our Team leader George Bruce. We had the use of the estate tracks to those huge remote hills a great privilege and fantastic assistance to great days in the mountains. George took great time to build up relationship with every estate in Scotland as this was invaluable for future call outs and building up the team’s area knowledge to assist us on call outs in the future. This was way before the Freedom of Access we take for granted. All the time I was learning from the way he spoke to people he had a magic touch, which I was to see on many occasions. The team took a couple of barrels of beer out which we had in the garage when we got there and it was amazing as the team members all sang folk songs round a fire that night, I loved it. The garage was where we cooked as well and most of the team were in tents. It was amazingly cold all night and next morning when we got up I could not believe the view; Loch Ericht was frozen solid as was all our water. One of the tasks is that the team members all take times to cook and as a trialist I had to get up and help the cook with breakfast at 0600 and make the traditional bed –tea, round all the team. The numbers out this weekend were again very high nearly 30 people, a busy time for the cook, I was trying to pick up all the skills as if you did a bad cook you were in the river, that was the tradition. Luckily I was very glad as my Mum had brought me up to be able to cook basics including breakfast, soup and basic meals like mince and tatties they gave me great life skills for the future. Thanks Mum!
This was the last weekend of the trial to be a member of the RAF Kinloss Team and I was to go out with George Bruce the Team leader and 2 other team members. George had planned a winter scramble or climb up a magnificent ridge called Lancet Edge near Culra bothy right in the heart of the Alder Estate. It was a wonderful drive across the moor, full of snow and a drive across the icy river Pattock by land rover. There were stags and hinds everywhere, many following the wagon thinking that they may have been getting fed. I thought to myself people would pay a fortune to be in especially in a hard winter and this was one? We passed the Garrons Highland ponies that live out in the open only using the trees for shelter when the weather gets bad. These ponies are the Estate transport for bringing down the stags and Hinds from the hill after a cull. The views of the mountains is incredible, snow everywhere and blue sky, these are huge mountains with the magnificent Ben Alder dwarfing its lofty neighbour’s with its sprawling ridges and huge corries. We stopped at the Culra bothy an open shelter used by climbers and left the wagon there. It is a very basic building with a fire, stone floor, sleeping space and freezing cold. I had spent many a night in bothies like these in Galloway whilst training for the Duke of Edinburgh award but this was a different league.This bothy takes you right to our objective was Lancet Edge which was opposite Ben Alder this was a ridge on the huge 1028 metres Sgur Lurtharn, it looked so Alpine and impressive. A thin icy ridge running up to a snowy plateau to my inexperienced mountaineering mind I wondered how we would get up that ridge. It was an incredible place to be a fin of a ridge plastered with snow in this remote area what a place to be. We had with us a very experienced climber who had worked at Glenmore Lodge as a civilian Instructor who was one of George’s friends Davy Sharp. Davy I found out on the walk up across the moor was just recovering from a serious avalanche accident in the Lake District the previous winter. George was great form in walk in telling stories, talking about the area and setting an enjoyable pace, not the usual rush to the top. He was teaching and laughing all the time and in the hour on the walk in we learned many new skills. I was shown again how to use my axe and crampons on some ice on a small buttress and how to ice axe brake properly on some steep snow, we then set of kicking steps up the slope leading to ridge. As is the normal procedure we all took our place in front kicking in the snow was hard work. As we got higher, the snow became deeper and was lying in places in drifts on top of steep frozen grass. I know now that this is not a good combination. We traversed round some steep buttress and marvelled at the views which opened out as we got higher. Just below the top of the ridge I was just behind George when I heard a crack and then we were tumbling down the hill, I remember going over a crag and falling getting battered and shaken. I came too half buried in the snow about 600 feet below where we were. I was very shaken and George was soon at my side he was completely in control and explained that we had been avalanched and in his usual sense of humour said this was very rare in Scotland and a great honour to be avalanched in such experienced company! What a man he was, his humour was just what we needed and I was to learn so much from this great man, throughout my Mountain Rescue Career and throughout life. We managed to get back to Culra Bothy and then to the wagon by now Dave could hardly walk and was taken to hospital for a check-up. George reckoned that we had fallen over 600 feet some of it over a steep cliff, we were very lucky that no one was killed. I had used up one of my mountaineering lives! When we got back to the Base Camp at Ben Alder we spoke to the keeper George who in his own measured way said “aye I thought the hill was pretty dangerous after the heavy snow and that wind” You were very lucky and offered us a dram. Later I stiffened up and and bruising came out on my back and legs but next day I was back on the hill. I was the only one out of the avalanche who went out next day. As George said when you fall of you have to get back on straight away. I had a wonderful day on Ben Alder climbing it by an amazing ridge the Short Leachas a great winter scramble, what a day. The plateau to the summit was incredible with huge cornices by now the weather had changed and it was difficult navigation to the summit. I marvelled at the team navigating in a full white out, over this complex plateau, with its huge cornices overhanging the cliffs. Near the summit we heard a huge crash as a cornice tumbled down into the corrie. I was really tired on the way off but they dragged me up Beinn Bheoil as well which was complex as the wind was in our faces and the slopes very steep, this was serious mountaineering. Getting back to the land rover I was exhausted but again happy and the river crossing in the wagon was serious as there was a big thaw on. When we arrived back at the Lodge Mr Oswald the keeper said that we were lucky to get the land rover over the river as it could have been there for the whole winter! George had a wee word as we packed up he said, you have passed your trial wee man, you are now a Novice team member. He said that you showed them but do not let it go to your head, it is a long way to go and you are just starting, take no hassle from anyone, stand up for yourself and learn every time you go on the hill. My mountaineering apprenticeship had started .What adventures already? I had so much to learn, I could not wait for the next weekend. It was not to be my only avalanche! Nowadays there is so much more knowledge and training so go and get some information? it may save your life?
I have a good pal Davy Gunn with over 36 years experience of Avalanches he is a fount of knowledge on this subject and runs course on Avalanche Awareness. Davy spent many years like me involved in the sharp end of Rescue and has seen much of the tragedy that occurs when it all goes wrong. I would advise all winter mountaineers , skiers and snowboarders to revamp their knowledge on this subject. We spend hundreds of £ on gear but so little on training? With the huge increase of ski touring, mountaineering and snowboarding many are venturing out into the wild country where it is essential to have knowledge of the snow conditions and dangers. I can see an increase in avalanche accidents in this area and urge those who enjoy these places to take great care and route planning for all those who seek the ultimate snow ride?From Davy Gunn – “In UK shops soon at approx £18 each. Not a substitute for education or companion rescue, but maybe for the first time more mountaineers can be searchable by something other than a pole poked in the snow and so will be be a few rungs back up the survival time curve. Two reflectors one on each side, one leg or boot, one arm or helmet. £36 to survive seems not bad compared to the other option. The new 2015/16 ICAR avy patient checklist and being found as “searchable” might turn the poor survival rate for Scotland mountaineers around.
RECCO® reflectors do not prevent avalanches, nor do they guarantee location or survival of a buried or lost person. Reflectors are also not a substitute for an avalanche rescue beacon. However, when someone needs more help than their friends can provide, RECCO® reflectors do provide another chance.That would be good. There are already 4 services equipped with detectors in Scotland. Yes Mark I think the ski areas and local climbing shops should stock them and one online company has already started sales.
More info – http://crankitupgear.blogspot.co.uk/
From Davy Gunn – Jan 2017 “I have these Recco reflectors that can be swapped between clothing. £20 each or £38 for two. Put one in a map pocket or ski pass pocket and one in back trouser or thigh pocket. Better still have shovel, probe and transceiver. If your a Scottish mountaineer you probably don’t, so if avoiding the white room fails at least with these you can be located. Be searchable”