From the classic Mountain Scrambles in Scotland by Andrew Dempster.
“The narrow rocky ridge gains its star from the grand position it occupies in wild and remote country, rather than the quality of the actual scrambling. With a good snow covering in winter it takes on an Alpine feel”.
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. This trial had been 3 full weekends one at Kintail, the Cairngorms and now Beinn Alder the team George was already my hero, he was a small “Billy Connelly/ Bill Shankly” man with a great sense of kindness,humour and a strong leader. He was acknowledged throughout Mountain Rescue at that time as a great leader, who had a talent that he could speak to anyone. Most of the Estates knew him especially the Keepers and gillies all over Scotland. He had just been part of the Cairngorm Disaster where 5 young / lives and an instructor died. George and the RAF Kinloss team did their bit along with the other teams but little was known about their input. He over the years to come was a great influence to me and taught me so much.
That weekend we had driven from Kinloss in the Moray-coast after work. The old A9 was plastered with snow there were no gates on the road then. I remember it was bitter cold about – 10 we travelled in back of the open 4 tonner in our sleeping bags. The drive up the Estate road was interesting it was after 9pm when we arrived in the freezing garages.
Note – there had been high winds, very low temperatures and heavy snow most of the previous day! We were staying at the Estate garages at Beinn Alder Lodge. We were very lucky to have a great relationship with the Estate and the keeper George Oswald a true gentleman of the hills. Next morning after a cold night I slept in all my clothes in my sleeping bag it was still bitter cold the Loch was frozen over everything was white.
To a young 18 year old I cannot explain what this looked like to me what an experience and to see Beinn Alder covered in snow and opposite our objective Lancet Edge.
There were stags and hinds everywhere, many following the wagon thinking that they may have been getting fed. They were having a hard winter. I thought to myself people would pay a fortune to be in this place especially in a hard winter and this was one?
We passed the “Garrons “ the 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 then 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. It’s now closed due to Asbestos (2019)
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 Sgor Iurtharn, it looked so Alpine and impressive. It a thin fin an 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 on great form he was talking,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 long slope leading to ridge. As is the normal procedure we all took our place in front kicking in the snow was hard work.
The snow became deeper in small drifts.
As we got higher, the snow became deeper and was lying in places in drifts on top of steep frozen grass and heather. The steps were breaking off and tumbling down the steep ground. Nowadays 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.
I heard a loud crack: Then we were off.
We tumbled down the mountain I remember hitting a buttress and then I was in a what looking back was a tumble dryer of snow, it got everywhere. Then it stopped there was silence. I came too, half buried in the snow about 600 feet below where we were. Lucky for us the weather was excellent I saw the blue skies and the sun but I felt awful. I felt so cold and was shocked. All around me was debris and my rucksack nearby.
I could not get out of the snow my legs were buried in hard packed snow.
I was very shaken and George was soon at my side he was completely in control and explained that we had been avalanched. The rest of the party were nearby Davy was part buried and very shaken. We tried to use the radio but there was no reception we were on our own. I do not know how long things took I just did what I was told. Davy was soon out of the snow but was not feeling great. We gathered our gear and headed off the hill very slowly. George in his usual sense of humour said that Avalanches was very rare in Scotland and a great honour to be avalanched in such experienced company!
We managed to get back to Culra Bothy and then to the wagon by now Dave could hardly walk and I am sure he 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!
Next day I was back on the hill my back was sore and I struggled round Beinn Alder and Beinn Bhoil. It was a hard day and as we crossed the plateau a Cornice broke away. None of the rest of the hill party went on the hill.
On Monday after the weekend I struggled at work I could hardly lift and ended up in Elgin Hospital-getting an X-ray. The doctor reckoned that I had swallowed some snow in the avalanche and he said this may cause problems in later years. I have since that day had a bad cough especially in the cold and wet that I am sure is due to my Avalanche. I was so lucky looking back. Old age does not make it easier.
Nowadays we have the Scottish Avalanche information Forecast. (SAIS) and great weather reports in 1972 there was little information. After a few years later I tried to find out about Avalanches and spoke to Blyth Wright and Eric Langmuir attending very early Avalanche Courses at Glenmore Lodge.
Yet when we arrived back and told George Oswald the head keeper about our epic. He said “ I could have told you with the weather, the wind,cold temperatures and heavy snow I would have advised you to keep away from that area”.
Area knowledge such an important skill.
Since that incident all these years ago Avalanche Awareness and Rescue is far more advanced much has been learned. I have worked with several folk including the late Blyth Wright and recently the Mountain Guide Mark Diggins who now run it on various projects on Avalanche Awareness. It is amazing how things have moved on since my early days and how a few were against its formation.
Its all there now for future generations to be far more aware than we were. Please follow the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) with daily forecasts from 6 areas. Even better go on an Avalanche Awareness Course it will be money well spent.