Lochnagar is a wonderful cliff and it has so many incredible memories. In winter especially it’s a majestic mountain and comes into its own.
This is from UK climbing. To me they are wonderful words.
“Of all Scotland’s iconic winter mountains, Lochnagar holds perhaps the greatest mystique. Isolated from the honeypot venues of the Northern Corries to the north, and guarded by its long windswept walk-in, the great north-east corrie feels in another age, a brooding pagan god opening its granite jaws to tempt trespass by the brave. Modern gear has done little to tame this beast. Bottomless powder, crusty ice, verglas, smooth slabs, rounded bulges and blind seams offer equally insecure purchase to today’s leashless axes and monopoints as given to the triconis and slaters hammers of early pioneers. Yet perversely, this inhospitality evokes a strong pull upon loyal suitors seeking physical and mental challenge. Their hard fought, and harder won endeavours make Lochnagar a forcing ground for the cutting edge of Scottish winter climbing.”
Yet my many memories involve real wild weather as any weather coming from the East hits the mountain. I have had some real battles with the weather here on Callouts, mountaineering days and climbing.
I climbed here a fair bit especially in winter and loved the place. The long walk in, the hidden cliffs and the Lochan can make it so special. The team at Kinloss and Braemar had a big Rescue here on Eagles ridge many years ago. The team was very friendly with the local keeper what a character he was.
This is a tale of a wee epic in Lochnagar in the early 80’s. I had just moved to RAF Leuchars MRT and was climbing for me pretty well. I knew Lochnagar from my days at Kinloss but also RAF Buchan on the East coast.
At Buchan we had started a mountaineering club and Lochnagar was our nearest big hill. I had ran a wee winter course there. It was an incredible few days. It was full on winter conditions and we had one day a big epic getting some of our lads off Raeburns Gully as an big storm came in. The cornice was huge and we had to drop a top rope down to them. They could not get their ropes off as they were frozen solid. It was a struggle across the summit taking care navigating of the mountain plateau there is no shelter. Then you have the long walk back to the wagon. The wind was bitter, so cold with driving snow all the way home. You had to keep an eye on each other one was not far from exposure. It was a true introduction to climbing on Lochnagar.
About 5 years later my brother came over from Bermuda. He is not a climber but very fit he loves the hills and bothying. We had a few days together but wanted to do a climb.
We were over East anyway and he wanted to climb Lochnagar. I thought I would take him up by a route. We had done winter skills ice axe breaking and crampon work. He went well on the hill.
The options were a walk up the easiest route Black Spout we had my dog Teallach with us. Teallach was used to climbing and maybe if we could Raeburns Gully would be fine. Teallach would wait for us at the bottom of the route, he was well used to it.
In these days there was limited avalanche information. The forecasts were basic as well. Yet the weather was looking good but as we entered the Corrie I saw there were huge cornices about. I checked the conditions we dig a pit in these days there was a lot of slab on top of hard snow . Not good at all.
We had a look at Raeburns Gully but the snow was not great and I could see the huge Cornices it was an easy decision. No go!
We had plenty of time as we set off early the weather was fine. I took a fair bit of gear with me as always.
Michael was still keen to climb so we wandered over to Black spout. The snow was not great so I had done Black Spout Buttress before. We could make the pitches short and the belays were good according to my memory. It should be a safe mixed route.
From The Cairngorm Guide
Black Spout Buttress grade 3 /5 a three star route. It’s 250 metres long but made up of short technical pitches with a bit of scrambling. “I would pitch it all as my brother had done little in winter. The old guide was basic but said it was a safe route in powder conditions.
Pressure – My brother was still very keen and looking back I felt pressured to climb.
We left the dog below the route he was soon sheltered and in his bivy mode. We saw another party walk in the Corrie and poke about and leave.
It all started okay and my brother was enjoying it. We moved well and even though it was his first climb At about 1400 we saw two guys arrive and shouted what route we were on . They decided to follow behind us .
When my brother came up the 2 nd pitch he said the young lads behind were asking lots of Questions. They seemed worried ?
The weather changing – I told him to just concentrate on the climb! It was snowing very heavy now and the final pitches were short but covered in powder that slowed me down. The steps were tricky and I faffed about a bit. In these days it was grade 3 now it has a tech 5 on the route . The snowed up rock made it very tricky !
Run away – We should have abseiled off earlier but we pushed on the snow was building up. I could see the cornice on Black Spout it was huge with the constant spindrift building up.
The boys behind were worried so I told my brother to leave them the belay gear. Just below the top the weather was fierce as I pocked my head on the plateau. We had been fairly sheltered on the route. I belayed out of the wind and got my brother sorted out.
The flawed plan – I would lower him down the gully then follow him. He was down I knew by the tugs in the rope. As I prepared to follow my brother the leader reached my belay. He was worried and I told him to use my ropes to descend the gully. We would wait for them where we left the dog.
I abseiled off the weather was awful even with goggles on. My brother was fine and sheltering below the ropes. The snow was now awful we hugged the gully walls seeking safety.
The avalanche- We descended it was dark now making our way to my dog. He came bounding up to us the snow was in poor condition. I could hear the voices of the others now in the gully they were pulling down the ropes. I heard a crash and then the wall of snow hit us. We were covered in snow and in a huge avalanche. We tumbled down and down, snow was everywhere. Oh no been here before !
When it stopped all was silent it felt like the wind had dropped. I was on the top of the snow not far from the Loch. I had been trying to protect my head all the way down. We were lucky the boulders were covered. My head torch was still with me and my brother was nearby very shaken. I had to get him out, he was partly buried. Teallach was on scene quickly and nearby were the two climbers all were shocked but amazingly alive.
My brother was pretty upset as were the others and I went back up the gully and found two rucksacks and a torch. By the time I got back the two lads said they were to tired exhausted, battered and would wait for a rescue! I told them no help would come that night I had checked them over and our best bet was sure we had to keep moving. They were shivering and spaced out. My brother was very quite I told him we were getting out of this place. I knew he was strong and fit and he agreed. I also said that he was my main worry. If push came to shove we would have to leave them.
There was no chance of Rescue in these days / no mobile phones etc – I explained there was no Rescue we were on our own we could get off safely if we all kept going.
“March or die” I decided not to go back the normal route to the Beleach but head for the track near the bothy Gelder Sheil as the wind was wild. The struggle back was awful, myself and Teallach broke snow most of the way. We stopped in the bothy ate and then had a struggle to move again.
When we hit shelter of the woods it had taken us 4 hours to get there. I was carrying lots of gear two ropes and really exhausted. The snow kept coming at us there was no respite. Morale was low so you have to be blunt and say we will get through this.
And so we did the drive back was helped by a police Land Rover thank you ! The road was closed after we got down.
So ended my 2 nd avalanche in 15 years on the hill. We were so lucky to get out of that with a few battered ribs and bruises.
Many years later I was to lose two pals on a big fall from Parallel B. The Braemar team were magnificent to me and the families. It was a sad time. Sadly my best pal Mark Sinclair (Cheeky) was killed here on Lochnagar along with another good pal Neil Main on Parallel B a winter classic in the winter of 1995. This article is dedicated to them.
The mountains are all about learning !
I thought I was invincible then as many of us do.
We should have turned back my brother had no experience of these conditions. I had my Mountain Rescue head on thinking we are invincible.
I was pushed into a situation and we were so very lucky .
I did many Avalanche courses after that and when the Avalanche service started I used it daily. There is an App that’s a great help.
About the App
As well as providing an intuitive set of guidelines to help the user with their decision making process, features such as: SAIS daily avalanche reports, mountain info blogs, notifications, and tools to help users to determine critical slope angles, the direction a slope faces in relation to published avalanche hazard and your location will be incorporated.
In 2011 the “Be Avalanche Aware” initiative was developed following a collaboration between many agencies and groups from throughout the UK and further afield with the objective of addressing the avalanche situation in Scotland. Organised by the Snow and Avalanche Foundation of Scotland (SAFOS) and managed by the SAIS the BAA initiative was introduced in the winter of 2013 with the production of the BAA leaflet.
The BAA initiative outlines the decision making process and fundamental considerations for assessing avalanche hazard. For the first time, the BAA initiative provided a guideline framework for those going into the winter mountains.