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5th – 9th October: Crossing the Poting Col - a bit of an epic crossing a 5600m col in the Indian Himalaya on our way back from Nanda Devi
30th Sept-1st Oct: Nanda Devi East - The Final Descent - descent of the North-East Ridge after our attempt to make the first ascent
1st-2nd Sept: No Joke on the In Pinn - filming on the In Pinn with comedian Ed Byrne
6th – 12th June: Tour of the Stacks - a week on the sea-cliffs and stacks of the North-West and Hoy
14th February The Great Smear of Grindsfjell - a quality new climb on Norwegian ice
31st January 2015: Reflections on a Rescue - a difficult day with Torridon Mountain Rescue Team on Liathach
5th – 9th October 2015: Crossing the Poting Col:
I have of late lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…
Just three days had passed since our return from Nanda Devi East, and I’d found a soulmate in Hamlet! The first day back at base camp passed in soporific relief when every taste and sensation was a delight. Day two was the hangover day. The body was still racked with fatigue from eight days of effort on the route, but our ultimate failure began to rankle in the conscience. The sun beat down without mercy through the third day. Our cook’s offering of pizza and apple pie produced no more than a temporary revival. How could I face another four days of idleness before our porters arrived for the return journey? In the absence of commitment this valley was beginning to feel like a prison.
Some small spark of motivation was needed. So what about trying a direct return to our roadhead town of Munsiari? Instead of the retracing the 60km valley trail, there might be a high-level alternative. A glacial col linking the Shalang and Poting valleys was the key passage. Our 1:150000 map, vintage of the 1930’s Survey of India, showed gentle contours on the Poting side but there were no records of any exploration.
Simultaneous with this discovery I alighted on another exciting notion. I couldn’t possibly walk forty miles in my high-altitude boots, but reckoned that my Scarpa trekking boots might just suffice for the crossing of this 5500m col. Although the boots were rated B0, meaning that they were unsuitable for use on snow, I reckoned they could take a strap-on pair of walking crampons. I commandeered our Liaison Officer’s crampons, removed the clip bindings and substituted repair wire to provide strap attachments on the heels. Five days of lightweight roaming over unknown mountains - what could be better? The venture was up and running.
Mark looks up the Shalang valley to Nanda Kot
Sunrise over Nanda Kot seen during our ascent to the col
First view of the col with 6050m Dangthal to the right
Mark enters the impresssive glacial terrain on the way up the col
My partner Mark needed no persuasion to join the cause. After all, this is a man whose favourite word is “Defo”! He wanted an extra day at base camp to make a solo exploration of the faces and ridges of Nanda Lapak so I left alone next morning to scout the route. I marched down the Lwan valley and didn’t look back. For ten kilometres of steady descent I felt healthy and free, but then within the space of an hour my 20kg load began to chafe and strain, my right knee became sore and unstable, and all my vigour drained away. The tiny deserted village of Lwan, marked the corner between the Lwan and Shalang valleys. I wearily descended to the Shalang river and crossed the wooden bridge left by the summer inhabitants. A thick matting of juniper, azalea, thorn-bush and tussocks of rye grass clothed the far slopes. I was reduced to a deadened crawl. The fatigue was worrying. Clearly, my enthusiasm had run far beyond my physical capacities.
The plan was to set a camp at the first available levelling where Mark could easily find me, but the lower valley was a V-trench. Side-canyons cut across the shepherds’ trods, necessitating perilous traverses on 60° gravel. The dirty glacier snout was a mile upstream and the lateral moraine ridges soared hundreds of metres above, well beyond the scope of my remaining energies. At the point of despair I found a tiny shelf in the fallen debris from conglomerate cliffs which offered a postage-stamp of level grass on which to pitch the tent. A side-stream lay five minutes beyond. The altitude was 3700m. I plundered more than my share of our five day rations, and, as night fell, dropped straight into an unbroken ten-hour sleep.
I awoke with a serious reassessment of the task ahead. The Shalang valley was twelve kilometres in length and utterly deserted. The height gain to the col was a mouth-watering 1800m. The autumn nights had become barren with frost. We couldn’t simply blunder up there and hope to find our way. A reconnoitre was essential. I left at 7am in frosted shadow and climbed 400 metres up steep ridges to gain the lateral moraines. The transition in landscape at this point was remarkable. The moraine ridges harboured a vast grassy plateau with a network of meandering freshwater streams, all fed by the snows of 5674m Shalang Dhura. The shepherds grazed their flocks here in the summer months and had left mattresses of wool fleece on their camp-sites.
All day I was plagued by hunger. You know you’ve got nutrition problems when you are continuously dreaming of “rice and dhal”. There was an undeniable temptation to give up and descend to Martoli village where I knew I could procure the desired “dhalbhat”, but to get a clear view of the col I needed to get beyond Shalang Dhura and out on to the Shalang Glacier. The valley curved slowly leftwards. Nothing was revealed until I rounded the bend and got up on to the final moraine crest. There was a simple descent out on to the dry glacier at 4550m altitude. After four hours on the go I could finally see the col, which lay on the left side of complex glacier slopes, replete with séracs and crevasses, on the north flank of 6050m Dangthal. I pieced together a likely zig-zag line and returned to camp in reasonable confidence. We were in business, but, oh my goodness, this was big country.
Mark found me at 5pm. He was still a little chastened from hanging off the cornice at the top of the north face of Nanda Lapak. On 7th October we moved our tent and loads up to the top of the moraine at 4450m ready for the assault on the col that night. With addition of a 60 metre rope, small climbing rack and extra food, our loads were close to tipping point. How I rued bringing a change of clothing for Munsiari and a solar panel. Why on earth had I brought two books? I completed Voltaire’s Candide that afternoon. Inspired by its concluding message that “work banishes the three great evils of boredom, vice and poverty”, I wrapped it up and left it as a gift to the shepherds with a suitably patronising message praising their lonely summer vigil high on these prairies. For all I knew the shepherds could spend all their time here smoking weed and letting their sheep run amok! In any event a precious 300gm was thus discarded.
In the dead of the following night we passed my high point and strode on to the dry white ice of the glacier. Our pace was steady and purposeful. I went ahead, which is the only way to keep Mark at bay. After three kilometres of walking and at 4800m a steeper tongue of ice appeared in the pre-dawn murk, signalling the way to the col. Mark moved ahead. So long as I placed my feet flat on the ice my crampons seemed to work. We skipped over a few small crevasses and at 5100m the glacier became snow-covered, so we put on the rope. Behind us dawn rose over the rectilinear South Face of 6861m Nanda Kot. I marvelled to think it was exactly 20 years since I had climbed it with Andy Nisbet, Jonathan Preston and our two clients, Richard Baskerville and Brian Shackleton.
With the added protection of Mark’s gaiters my feet were staying warm. In fact Mark was suffering more than me in his stiff B3 Nepal Cube boots. While he stopped to put on extra trousers, I went ahead. The snow became deep and drifted, and crevasse fields, unseen in the view from below, complicated onward progress. Soon we were traversing the edges of giant chasms and crawling over a series of tenuous snow bridges. In its pristine magnificence the scenery was reminiscent of the Grands Mulets route on Mont Blanc after a fresh fall of snow. The col lay up to our left and was guarded by steeper slopes of harder névé snow.
With Mark in the lead I kicked in my front-points and the crampon instantly fell off.
“One crampon off!” I shouted, and kicked in the other toe.
“Two crampons off!” I screamed and fell on to my axe pick while Mark took a belay.
My footwear improvisations had their limitations.
With much flexing of the ankles I managed to get up the remainder of the slope by flat-footing, and at 10.15am after seven hours on the go we walked on to the crest of the col on a firm crust of sparkling snow. The altitude was 5595m. On all sides the possibilities were exciting. To our south the final snow crest to Dangthal offered a tempting 6000 metre tick. Directly ahead a virgin rock peak of 5631m called Bankatia sported a striated face of alternate black and white rock bands. With a couple of days to spare and a bigger rock rack this would have been a superb challenge. We could have camped where we were and had a most marvellous time, but we had to consider the small matter of descending the Poting Glacier.
Suddenly, this no longer looked so simple. The glacier dropped away in a big step to a lower shelf then disappeared from view. This was nothing like the gentle stroll we had envisaged. The next spot height on our map was 3610m down at the snout. A descent of 2000 metres is not to be taken lightly, but nonetheless we hoped we might be camping down in thicker air on a green and pleasant moraine that evening.
Mark relaxes on the Poting Col - Nanda Kot behind
Bankatia (5631m) - a virgin rock peak above the upper Poting Glacier
On the brink of the main Poting icefall, Mark prepares to lower down
The top-half of the main icefall; little did we know what lay below us; X marks our first foray
The first big step materialised as a major icefall. We descended diagonally to its lower left edge and made two abseils from ice threads to gain an escape corridor. Down on the shelf we scanned our options through the midday haze. The glacier swung outwards to the left under Bankatia and we felt sure that the outer curve would offer some pickings for our onward descent. With purposeful stride we descended another 300 metres out to the leftmost extremity of the ice, multiplying our commitment to whatever lay below.
The brink of the next icefall arrived abruptly. This was no temporary hitch in progress but a gigantic plunge. The glacier simply collapsed from pleasant convexity into a savage melee of séracs. We could see about 400 metres down to a levelling whereupon the ice took off again on a second downward thrust into a bath of boiling cloud. I made an ice screw belay, and Mark lowered down to inspect the corridor on the left side which was our only hope of salvation.
“What’s it like?” I asked, hoping to hear his cheery cry of “Defo!” as usual; but I didn’t even get a “Defo-maybe”. This was a “Defo –not!”. The afternoon cloud blotted any clear view of the terrain on the right side of the glacier. We could see some open screes and jagged grass-covered spurs. A large lake nestled in a hollow in between. If we could get over to that side we might have a chance. There is no worse trial than being forced to retrace downward steps, especially in sloppy snow with a heavy load.
We shouldered our sacks and with grim determination plodded 300 metres back uphill, then traversed across the glacier shelf to a promontory on the far right side. By now we were completely wrapped in mist. We were forced to camp where we stood at 5120m. The night was tense. A single packet of Ainsley Harriott’s Moroccan Medley cous-cous sufficed for dinner, but not even Ainsley could bring us much joy. We each pondered our potential predicament. The col was 500 metres above and behind us. If we went on we could go miles further down and still get stopped. Would we then have the energy and time to climb back over the col and back down the Shalang? Mark probably knew that this would be a particular struggle for me. There was no food left to sustain another night up high. What if the weather turned and we had to get back over in a white-out? Our porters were now on their way back to Munsiari by the sensible route. We would be pushed to catch them up. We had gotten ourselves into a proper adventure.
A stiff breeze flapped at our tent porch through the early hours. My boots were frozen even though I had used them as a pillow. I took them into my bag for an hour to thaw them out. We breakfasted at 4am, heartened to see clear skies, but had to wait until 6am for the dawn before we could leave. The next two hours were critical. The sunrise heralded a vista of 5000m summits ahead of us, laced with mini-glaciers and snow-fields. Our own glacier shelf sloped off into steeper ground, but ended on a rocky spur, an island of hope. I went first on a belay, slapping my feet flat on the bare ice like a modern-day Armand Charlet, the beret-clad French guide of the 1930’s.
We reached the spur on a surge of optimism, removed crampons and headed down on a short rope. The ridge steepened into a vertical buttress. Deep gullies, raked by stone-fall, flanked the crest. The drop to the next rock shelf was at least 200 metres. With a rack consisting of just two cams, six wired nuts and one peg we couldn’t risk abseiling for fear of running out of kit. Instead, we opted to try and down-climb into the gully on our right. I suppose that this was the effective point of no return. We climbed in pitches placing runners all the way. The overall angle was 70°, but a weaving line materialised down shelves of frozen gravel and rock steps. A young eagle arrived on the scene and hovered for five minutes, perhaps anticipating some dead meat, but we were heartened to find the ground easing the further we climbed. Two large rocks flew down one branch of the gully as we arrived. The icicle fringe of the glacier shelf was directly overhead. This was a place to quit at once. We un-roped and bounded down the gully, riding shifting gravels and rolling boulders to the safety of the rock shelf.
Descending the glacier shelf to the point of no return
Down-climbing off the rock spur - key passage on the descent
Above: How green is my valley - 800 metres still to descend; we gave this tempting gully a miss!
Right: the full height and horror of the Poting Glacier icefall is revealed
Sunlit lateral moraines made an alluring frame to the lower valley. Our altimeter put us at 4650m, still 800 metres above their sanctuary. We now traversed rightwards away from the main glacier towards the lake* that we had spotted the previous day. We were briefly tempted by a gully which disappeared into bare slabs and shaded depths, but instead crossed a rock spur in search of something more palatable. Here Mark found a second canyon, broader and easier-angled but twice the height of Sgurr Alasdair’s Great Stone Shoot. Now we were flying! In a single knee-wrecking hour this led us to the brink of vertical moraine walls at the base of the main glacier.
The main icefall swung into view. High above we spotted the level perch from which I had lowered Mark the previous afternoon and gasped at the scale and brutality of the terrain beneath. The icefall was close on 1000 metres in total height, and completely inescapable. I’ve never seen a glacier quite so frightful anywhere in the world. To have embarked on that descent, with or without working crampons, would have been suicidal. So much for 1:150000 maps!
Even now just 100 metres above the flat lower glacier we feared a sting in the tail, but remarkably our canyon cut through the wall of conglomerate and offered a stairway of boulders down to safety. We ploughed through acres of pulverised silt and perched boulders to a ramp in the far moraine. With a couple of skips up the gravel walls I grasped tufts of warm grass and pulled over the crest. Mark sat ten metres away by the edge of a tranquil little lake, surrounded by autumnal shrubbery. In an instant we were home and dry. We kicked off shoes, paddled our feet, and brewed a celebratory coffee.
The Poting valley dropped a further 1200 metres to Bugdiyar on the main Munsiari trekking route. A mere three hours of thrashing through bear-infested forest and we could claim those plates of “rice and dhal”. I had secretly abandoned my second book, Hamlet, in a rock cleft somewhere up in the clouds, dispensing with another 200gms and a whole load of grief. Life was once more vibrant, no longer melancholic. When the archway of adventure opens all we have to do is move.
End of our trials - Mark savours a brew of coffee at the little pond
Don't ever try to cross high passes in this kit! Martin's boots and crampons
* The lake is named Pangti Tal on Google Earth. I think it possible that it was only discovered after the advent of satellite photography and it may never have been visited. It is a gem in the wilderness.
Summary: A traverse of the Shalang-Poting col (5595m) in Kumaon Himalaya by Martin Moran and Mark Thomas, 5th – 9th October 2015. We suspect this may be the first-ever traverse, but would be pleased to hear from anyone who has ventured into these parts. For future reference the traverse should definitely be undertaken in the opposite direction from Poting to Shalang, allowing the route up the south side of the Poting Glacier to be scouted from below. Spring would be the best time when snow-cover will allow faster and safer progress. Full high-altitude mountain kit is recommended! The scenery is magnificent and the Poting Glacier icefall is a spectacle not to be missed before it is claimed by global warming.
30th Sept-1st Oct: Nanda Devi East – the Final Descent:
Nanda Devi East (7434m) from base camp - our attempted ridge is the right hand line
We were camped at 6640m. Directly above, a huge snow meringue marked the high point of our attempt on the unclimbed North-East Ridge. The excitement of tip-toeing along the crest a mile above the Sanctuary glaciers was over. Our discussions on an alternative route up a huge couloir were resolved. Without unanimous and unequivocal confidence in its safety we could not proceed; and so we prepared for descent. The security of our advance base camp lay 1300 metres below. We planned a night descent when the snow and ice would be frozen and the avalanche risk minimised. This imposed upon us 24 hours of rest and wait.
Neither the disappointment of failure on the climb, nor the coming trials and risks of descent disturbed my sleep. I woke long after sunrise, and stretched out in glorious repose as the sun warmed the tent interior. After all, this was our first lie-in for a week and the first day of unbroken settled weather. At 3pm we commenced our packing. The instant the sun disappeared behind the summit we were plunged into an air temperature of -10°C.
A day and a half of sunshine had effected a remarkable transformation of the snow-pack. Half-a-metre of fresh powder had settled and crusted. The imprints of our upward steps were still visible and were now firmly frozen. We left with two hours of daylight to pick our way down the easier upper slopes and into the labyrinth of ice cliffs and fractures that had dogged our upward progress for two days.
We’d been unable to leave any fixed abseil points in place. The morning sun would simply have melted any ice threads away. After crossed a slump zone with ice screw protection we moved together down open slopes, which dipped into a big gully that cut down into the labyrinth. The first ice thread was solid, the second a little mushy. Mark abseiled first, throwing down the ropes and scouting the onward route. Once he was safely lodged at the next abseil point I removed the back-up anchor and followed him down. Our line was diagonal, so we couldn’t simply abseil vertically down the natural fall-line. Mark made an intricate traverse across the gully on the second abseil, and climbed out of the far side through a channel in the ice. We could now move together again, past our third campsite and through the crevassed trough to the brink of the retaining wall of the labyrinth.
Our top camp at 6640m - summit on left ; our high point on the snow meringue directloy above
At the top of the shale step on the lower ridge at 5750m
On the lower snow-ice arete during the 2nd day of our climb
Mark climbing through the labyrinth on our 4th day of ascent
While we plied through the frigid shadowlands the surrounding mountains were displayed, magnificent in the evening light. Their transition from white-hot fusion to red embers took two hours. As twilight enveloped the valleys, the tips of the Kumaon peaks glowed crimson and Nanda Devi threw out a penumbra of shadow which funnelled eastwards to smudge the horizon somewhere over the Tibetan border. The Panchchuli massif, with unhindered westward aspect, held the sunlight for an extension of ten minutes.
We knew that the ice was absent or rotten on the next section. As night gathered, Mark climbed down over the edge to search out the next piece of solid ice. I gave him a body-belay from the security of the hollow. The rope slid steadily through my gloved hands for 20 metres. A lengthy pause indicated the preparation of belay anchors. Then the remaining rope was pulled in. I set off confidently on the assumption that he possessed a snug stance and solid anchorage. As the angle exceeded 50° I encountered a snow stake running belay, salutary of further steepening. Mark’s silhouette appeared 15 metres below. A second runner lay between us, but I was distinctly discomforted to find that this consisted of one of Mark’s axes, driven vertically into the snow, rather than the solid ice screw that I had anticipated.
The angle now exceeded 60°and there were no further protection points between me and Mark’s belay. The exposures beneath us were huge. Were I to slip the belay would take a direct factor two impact.
“What are your belay anchors like?”
“Not great. The ice is soft and the ice screws keeping finding cavities…”
I tried some tentative downward kicks and suddenly felt vaguely sick with apprehension. My own axes wouldn’t hold any sort of slip. Then I remembered that I had one of our snow stakes strapped to my bag. With delicate care I swung my sack off my shoulder, extracted the stake and hammered it into the slope. With this as top-rope protection I completed the climb down to Mark. We were unable to make a reliable ice thread, so had to leave an ice screw and our other stake as abseil anchors. This left us with no further stakes and only three ice screws to complete the descent.
Happily, the abseil took us down to solid ice on the side of a sérac. Our 7pm radio call to base was due.
“We can see your lights,” said Naveen. “Can you see our fire?”
Sure enough, we spotted a flickering glow in the black trough of the Lwan valley 2,000 metres below. Awareness of the support of our base team only emphasised our isolation. Mark produced a packet of “jelly babies” for more immediate succour. Two further abseils took us diagonally under the front face of the sérac and out to the snow promontory at 6200m where we had made our second camp. Now we were back on unconsolidated snow. Convex slopes dipped out of sight towards the top of the ice cliffs, above the big snow-ice arête of the lower ridge.
The best belay that I could devise was a “stomper”, where the belayer runs the rope through a karabiner clipped into the axe-head, stands on top of the axe and makes a shoulder belay. As Mark climbed down into the void the belay seemed madly precarious yet proved strangely effective.
We reached the ice bollard on the brink of the cliff that we had chipped out on our ascent. I went down the ice cliff first, relieving Mark of the duty of manufacturing threads in the ice. My abseil landed squarely on the apex of the slender snow arête. On the first abseil down its crest we threw the ropes down but they slid off down the flanks of the arête to become hopelessly tangled. While Mark waited for me to sort out the mess, he heard ominous groans in the ice cliff above along with minor cracks and tinkles as icicles fractured. The sérac was moving, as it must, with the contractions of the night.
Mark at 6200m on our 3rd day
Martin nearing our high point at 6800m
Starting our descent at 4pm on 30th Sept
Martin arriving at advanced base camp 12 hours later
Meanwhile, I ran to the ends of the ropes and could find no surface ice for the next anchors. I had to dig through the snow crust and excavate six inches of granular snow to find the precious sheen of black ice. The initial probe then had to be enlarged to the size of a television screen to allow two diagonal ice screws insertions to be made. The weight of my sack plagued my every movement, enflaming a strain on the right side of my spine. My upper arms barely held enough strength to scrape, dig and then rotate the ice screws. To cap my misery my ice screw holes failed to meet. Fighting the screaming pain in my triceps I made a second insertion. Lo and behold, the holes now joined! Thankfully, I fed a 5mm cord through the thread and drew it out with my knitting hook. With the cord tied I swung off my sack, hung it off the cord and slumped in exhaustion. We had to repeat this process six times to get down the arête.
Mark took over half-way down. The night was still young. A creamy moon had risen in the east, its pate shaved flat in the second night of its waning phase. The arête ended at our first camp-site at 5850m. Here, the abseil ropes jammed in a channel in the snow. With a huge heave Mark released the constriction. A second dose of “jelly babies” failed to mask the existence of a cache of kit, food, fuel and rubbish that we had stashed here on the way up. Our ethics demanded that we left the route completely clean save for the abseil anchors. Somehow, we squeezed everything into our bloated sacks, and our loads rose to 20kg apiece.
The dreadful exposures of the upper spur were beginning to alleviate but we were far from home and dry. Our fatigue intensified as our practical problems mounted. A 55° riser of 100m height was our next obstacle. Again, we could find no ice for an abseil. I fashioned another ice axe belay and Mark descended 20 metres where he dug out an enormous cavity to gain some usable ice. Now he had a mini-nightmare getting his ice thread holes to meet, and I realised that he too was getting tired.
Two more 60 metre abseils took us to the level section of ridge at the top of a step of congenitally loose and sloping shale. This was our final impasse, and how we dreaded its prospect. The rock was razor-edged, and we had to make a long diagonal manoeuvre to reach the continuation ridge. With weary hands we untangled each 60 metre rope and threw it over the edge of the step. Predictably, each rope unfurled only a few metres before tangling hopelessly on the innumerable flakes and plates of rock below. I went first and had to repeat the sifting process several times just to get 15 metres down to the next stance, a double-peg anchor of proven solidity that we had placed on our way up.
We couldn’t stand in balance on the sloping shale slabs. On every attempt to bridge our feet our crampons skidded, and we inevitably ended swinging into each other. With the clock now past 2am Venus was rising in the east. I set off down the last but most nerve-wracking abseil, a 60 metre diagonal across lethal rock edges. Once again the ropes formed heaps of spaghetti on the shattered ledges. Twenty metres down, with twenty kilos of sack hanging off my back and with my arms embroiled in piles of loose coils, my left crampon fell off. I almost laughed at the madness of the situation.
Finally, with the crampon clipped on my harness I completed my crab-like creep to the sanctuary of a single peg anchor at the base of the step. We were almost free, but after Mark joined me the ropes refused to budge. He tied the ends to his harness and plunged down the slopes below to provide a bodyweight haul. At maximum stretch the ropes released.
The lower ridge, a kilometre in length and 200 metres in height, seemed interminable. The cover of frozen snow that we had enjoyed on our ascent had almost entirely melted, leaving acres of sloping shale. We clattered and scraped our way down to the col and Mark forged ahead for the last 500 metres to advanced base and the haven of our “Bombshelter” tent. I pitched in ten minutes after him, at 3.30am. We had been on the go for 11½ hours. After a cup of warm Tang we crashed out. My sleep was plagued by a dream of a surreal pub crawl, in which I staggered around empty stone-flagged bar-rooms, unable to find a seat, grasping at dancing poles to support myself, and constantly harried by angry barmen who refused me anything to drink. The dream neatly summed up the trials of our descent but we both felt proud that we’d done it.
Later that morning, as we returned to base camp, I realised that at the age of 60 this would probably be my last descent from a really big Himalayan route. Release from endeavour would not be accompanied by the joy of victory. Whatever the hopes invested and the effort expended, life in the mountains is not ordered to any self-gratifying plan. It is enough to have survived to tell the tale.
Sunset penumbra and alpenglow - Chiring We on left, Gurla Mandhata in centre
Alpenglow seen over Panchchuli during our descent
1st-2nd Sept: No Joke on the In Pinn: Though never especially enamoured with the celebrity guiding scene, I was nonetheless intrigued to be called up by the BBC to guide the Irish comedian Ed Byrne up the Inaccessible Pinnacle for the Countryfile programme. Ed is a regular on “Mock the Week” and “Live at the Apollo” and admits to a love of Munro-bagging in his spare time. Working with film teams requires inordinate patience and many layers of clothing should the weather be inclement. I turned up equipped with plenty of both. At least the producers had set aside two days for the project, but the mountain weather forecast was cool, breezy and showery for both. I had to make the call as to which would be best for the Pinnacle and plumped for day two, when showers were predicted as “brief” rather than of the “merging to give…” variety.
We used the first day to get all the general storyline and approach sequences. Ed arrived after a three-week burn-out and many a bender at the Edinburgh Fringe. The tortuous repetition of voiceovers and walking sequences – first on Loch Brittle beach then at Eas Mor waterfall – were something of a trial to him. Showers came and went with invigorating rapidity, leaving rainbows and sun-shafts in their wake. Provided cameraman, James, could keep his lenses dry the results would be stunning. On this theme I suggested that we move up to the lip of Coire Lagan.
For director Gavin and researcher Matt, this was a first step into the brutal scenery of the Cuillin. Their attire of waxed jackets, Norwegian sweaters and desert scarves, betrayed their lack of filming experience in Scottish climes. Nonetheless, they were rewarded with brilliant vistas. Ed’s “walk in to the corrie” sequence was interrupted when accosted by a group of hikers and asked for a selfie.
With filming finished I asked Ed whether he fancied bagging Sgurr Alasdair to fill the afternoon hours. He replied with alacrity that he was up for it. Our departure provoked directorial consternation.
“You’d better bring him back alive”, pleaded Gavin.
The relief at escaping the entourage was palpable. I explained that the Great Stone Shoot was a purgatorial grind. Ed did not demur. We romped up in an hour, but met only a fierce drizzle on the top. With the rocks in slippery mood we roped the final scramble. If Ed’s climbing fitness was impressive his descending ability was close to exceptional by the average standards of my clients. Without aid from trekking poles he bounced back down to the lochan in 25 minutes. There was clearly some skiing experience in his c.v. and he recounted doing a winter stand-up tour of Canadian ski resorts in his formative years.
Comedians clearly have to work very hard to get established. Ed had also done a tour of Highland village halls one autumn to test out a new show, and recalls his discomfort at invading the space of grumpy shinty diehards in the local pubs.
We arrived back at the car close on 7pm. The warden of the Memorial Hut, a delightfully eccentric and well-spoken lady called Ruth, came dashing out to meet us. She had been decorating the interior. We were lured inside to sample her Machu Picchu coffee. Given her resemblance to Tubbs minus the headscarf, this invitation bore worrying parallels to an entry into the “local shop” in the League of Gentlemen series. Ed was quite disarmed, or maybe relieved, when he realised that I was the focus of her enthusiasm rather than him. I struggled to recall our last meeting, but she was convinced of it.
Left: Ed comes face to face with the In Pinn for the first time
Above: Rainbow on Sgurr Dearg coming down from our first day out
With day one completed at expense of 10 hours’ effort, I was assailed by the unwelcome realisation that the main event was still to come. I could only pray that the hopeful MWIS forecast would bear fruit, but come 10.30am we were getting a beating from 40mph winds and lashing rain as we toiled up the terminal buttress of Sgurr Dearg’s West Ridge. The boss of Skye Guides, Mike Lates, was ahead of us with three 70 year old ladies and this knowledge kept our noses to the ascent, but even I was close to realising that filming would be impossible in such conditions. Shortcomings in the party’s apparel were now apparent. Ed and James had neither over-trousers nor gloves.
More sequences were recorded of Ed trudging alone towards the jagged misted tops. I began to wonder when I would come into the story, so I protested to Gavin about my exclusion.
“The plan is for you to meet him at the Pinnacle”, he replied, and outlined the unlikely scenario of a mountain guide emerging from the fog to seize Ed’s hand at the base of the climb.
“Can you tell us when we get to the “reveal”?”, asked Gavin, referring to the notional point at which the In Pinn would break forth from the cloud and into Ed’s view. In current conditions the “reveal” seemed unlikely to happen until we were about 25 metres from the bottom.
To our collective relief the weather improved significantly as we approached the top of Sgurr Dearg. The “reveal” sequence was possible at least 50 metres before our arrival and the scudding clouds allowed occasional flashes of sunlight to provide the atmospherics.
Mike Lates was just completing the abseil with the septuagenarians, and they came over in great excitement to meet Ed, who, at that moment, was genuinely perturbed by the Pinnacle’s wild appearance and somewhat pensive.
“I heard we’ve got a celebrity here today. Now which of my clients would you like to sleep with tonight..?” said Mike. The 70 year olds were most amused at this allusion, Ed perhaps less so.
Cloying mist and chilling winds further dampened spirits. We had lost the rain, but any clearances lasted no more than 30 seconds. The unfurling of my group shelter produced the only crumb of comfort. The directing team were installed within and we waited half an hour while rope-riggers, Alastair and Nick, set up anchor points on the Pinnacle.
Come 3.30pm we were at last ready to commence the climb. As soon as we climbed on to the edge of the East Ridge we were hit by the full force of the north wind, which was funnelled up the cliffs from Cor’uisg. Ed arrived on the first belay with numbed hands and spread-eagled himself across the crest in abject resignation to the elements. I deduced he was genuinely stressed, lent him my gloves, and got him straight into belaying mode to keep some trace of positivity in the enterprise.
The greater ease of the second pitch allowed us all to regain some sense of normality. We escaped the worst of the wind and James was able to get some great footage of Ed clambering sunlit across the final arête against a black backcloth while the rope billowed out from the crest.
“They keep asking me to do a series on the mountains”, said Ed on arrival. “I can tell them where to stuff that f**king idea..”
Nonetheless, I sensed that he was quietly pleased with the achievement as we slid down the abseil. After three hours of summit shivering we were more than desirous to make a quick escape, but Gavin drew me to one side.
“We’ve got a problem,” he explained. “A rucksack has been dropped, and it contains all our film cards, plus Matt’s passport, and I’m afraid it’s the one you lent us. It was going at speed and went out of sight just there…”
I peered down to the brink of the cliffs above Coire Lagan. Gavin’s worst-ever film shoot had reached a new nadir.
“No problem,” I lied. “I’ll have a look. You guys head on down and I’ll radio when I’ve found it.”
An initial inspection revealed nothing, and I was on the point to committing to the vertiginous scree slopes into the corrie when I had the happy thought to check out a niche in the steeper part of the crags above.
“Rucksack found,” I announced on the radio.
There was a great cheer from up top and five seconds later came the reply.
“Rock coming down…”
I looked up and a life-changing rock the size of a football flew out from the crag and missed my head by two feet.
“Did that go anywhere near you?” asked Matt when I rejoined the group. This day had clearly gone on long enough.
After shepherding the team plus two stray German hikers down the west ridge, I staggered down to the road as daylight faded just after 8pm. Ruth had been watching for us at the hut and was straight out to say hello. Her persuasions to share more coffee were easier to rebuff tonight. We were wet and tired, and the team had steak and chips plus the pub music night to anticipate. Ed and I exchanged gifts on parting – a copy of “Munros in Winter” in return for a free ticket at his next show in Inverness. If all comes out well in the wash, millions of Countryfile viewers will get an 8 minute slot to enjoy sometime in January, and, if memories mellow as they usually do, Ed will go on to complete his remaining 200 Munros.
6th – 12th June: Tour of the Stacks: A full-blown storm greeted the arrival of our sea stack groups in Inverness. Blind climber Redmond Szell was with us again, along with his trusty steed Andres Cervantes, a warm-blooded Columbian readily convertible to the austerities of northern Scotland. Their main aim over the next three days was an ascent of the elusive Am Buachaille off the headland south of Sandwood Bay. Dennis Ayre and Alison Fisher were on board for the whole week with onward tickets booked for the Old Man of Hoy after completion of mainland preliminaries. Nick Carter managed to extricate himself from family devotions to guide Red and Andres.
We drove the high road west through gutsy squalls and found sanctuary in the Scottish Mountaineering Club’s hut at Elphin. There was scant temptation to rise early on the morn. Gloom-laden skies swept fine rain against the panes. Only when inactivity threatened to become indolence did we venture towards the headlands of Reiff, the miniature sea-cliff paradise out west of the Inverpolly mountains.
Around midday the air cleared and the clouds lifted retreated to a lofty canopy. Save for a few rogue showers we enjoyed an afternoon of increasing warmth on the Pinnacle Walls sector. In Dennis and Alison I had a retained firefighter and rope access technician to boost the party’s collective skills. At 63 Dennis might be termed an old timer but he champed at the leash until given leading duties and flashed up a V Diff, a Severe and a VS like a rat up a drainpipe.
On adjoining routes Red disported himself in a brand-new flaming orange jacket. Thanks to his ascent of Hoy’s Old Man in 2013 Red was now the epitome of the modern commercial climber. His account of his journey from delinquent student through loss of sight to conquering climber, The Blind Man of Hoy, was hot off the Sandstone Press. He now possessed sufficient impertinence to confront Berghaus as to why they had no para-climbers on their sponsored lists.
Back at the hut we indulged famously on Joy Moran’s supplies of ginger cake, jam slices and banoffie pie with a lasagne and salad thrown in for good measure. With the forecast set for two days of light winds and clear skies we scheduled Am Buachaille for Tuesday, by which time we reckoned the Atlantic swell would abate enough to allow us to swim the channel and climb the stack in the permissible window two hours either side of low tide. This left Monday free, and while Nick took the celebrity team to Sheigra sea cliffs, I headed to The Old Man of Stoer with Dennis and Alison. Alison required fortification with one of Lochinver’s famous pies before we sallied forth.
Dennis crosses the tyrolean traverse to the Old Man of Stoer
A storm-bound Am Buachaille from Sandwood Bay
On arrival at the cliff edge opposite the stack we spied two climbers already on the climb, the leader perched under huge overhangs some way off-route, and his second spread-eagled on a tenuous traverse. Prolonged screams were interspersed with gruff commands. Clearly, a happy couple were at work. We didn’t wish to intrude on their bliss, but with the time well-past midday we needed to get going. A rope was in place across the channel, sparing me the indignities of a swim.
We fixed our own static rope as a back-up and I inspected the horrors of the crux first pitch. The eight-metre traverse was liberally smeared with sea foam, but with the aid of painful hand-jams I got across and preserved my pride. On reaching the platform at the left edge of the stack, our hopes for a sun-warmed ascent were dashed. An insistent breeze blew in from the south-west forcing me to wrap up in three layers plus a windproof. The second pitch was a romp, save for a bulging corner where an arm jam sequence threatened a tear to the shoulder rotator-cuff. Feeling pleasurably confident I took a direct short-cut on the third pitch to avoid the tricky 4c crux. Two giant cams protected a series of balance moves through some gritty rounded strata.
I encountered the crisis couple at the summit belay. The leader had regained the correct line, but instead of doing the decent thing and getting his lady off the stack pronto he had continued the climb.
“You all-right youth,” he said in cocksure Yorkshire and disappeared down the abseil leaving his traumatised partner unsure of how to attach her prusik and abseil device.
“He’s training for his MIA assessment. I’m afraid this is not really my scene,” she said. I reflected that it was as well that this wasn’t his assessment.
With Stoer under the belt we dared to believe that we could outfox the tidal vagaries of Am Buachaille. The weather had other ideas. A fresh sou’wester blew all night and through the morning, and rolled out a pall of cold grey cloud. Throughout the trek in Nick and I guessed that the seas would be troubled. Sure enough, when we breasted the cliff-edge the sea bench around the stack was awash. With a swell of two metres and a tidal range of just three and a half there was no point shivering in the wind for hours in wait for the lowering of the tide. Red would have to return another year to complete his sea stack trilogy. The beach crags north of Sandwood Bay offered an immediate restorative for our disappointment.
As we trekked over the unblemished sands of the bay we spied two other well-wrapped climbing strays, one of cadaverous mien, his older companion a jocular contrast who proudly announced his place of residence as Swindon. The most plausible designation of this odd couple was as a guide and his client. They had hoped to do Am Buachaille as a warm-up for Hoy.
Red and Andres climbing Roseroot at Sandwood beach crag
The East Face of the Old Man of Hoy in morning sunshine
North of the bay Torridonian sandstone is replaced by ancient Lewisian gneiss as the surface rock. The coastal crags were sea-washed and of immaculate hue. We did a couple of agreeable routes – Marram (VDiff) and Roseroot (VS) - with the sands and waves as a backcloth, then bent into the wind for the seven kilometre trek out. Red managed a quick swim to add to the day’s 16km walk and two routes, and arrived back at our van much in need of succour. Soup, noodles and yet more cake fortified us for our respective night journeys. Nick, Red and Andres were bound for Inverness and home, while Alison, Dennis and I drove into the twilight through Durness and along the north coast towards Thurso. At half past midnight we parked up and bedded down across the three bench-seats of the minibus, well-placed to catch the morning ferry to Orkney.
Dennis succumbed to sea-sickness as soon as the boat left Scrabster harbour and the sail past the cliffs of Hoy under glowering skies was devoid of its usual thrill. Dennis was allowed a brief recovery with a bacon and brie snack at Julia’s Café while I summoned a taxi for the six mile drive out to Yesnaby. With six hours to kill before the evening passenger ferry to Hoy there was climbing to be done. Remarkably, there is a sport climbing venue in the flagstone quarry just inland from the battering waves. At first sight it would be all too easy to dismiss these eight metre routes as trivial, but we found ourselves increasingly engaged and taxed as the grades moved up from 5 to 6a+. Alison and Dennis were then subjected to two prusik ascents of the rope in preparation for potential eventualities on the Old Man next day.
The usual weird and wonderful Orcadian characters were encountered on the boat to Hoy. Tickets were issued by a chirpy New Zealander who was miffed when I suggested he might be doing a holiday job.
“I’ve lived here for years mate,” he protested.
Rackwick Hostel is a tiny old schoolhouse, any semblance of charm extinguished by a plethora of Health and Safety impedimenta for its eight paying beds. A dowdy couple, who looked somewhat older than Dennis and I, were in residence and not overly impressed by our indulgence in chocolate cake. They crept in past us at 8pm and emerged from their dorm 11 hours later just as we were tucking into breakfast. Their breakfast supplies appeared to consist of a green-teabag and a spoonful of unsweetened muesli. Dennis effectively soured the atmosphere by casting the used teabag into the rubbish. The poor gent looked most distraught as he scrabbled round the kitchen bench in search of it.
“But I always have a second cup,” he complained.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to fish in the bin for it,” Dennis consoled.
I left for the Old Man with the thought that if my life ever becomes that grim I’ll be off to Zurich to die with dignity.
Dennis flashes through the crux section on Hoy's second pitch
Alison and Dennis on the Old Man's summit
To our delight, the air had mellowed and the winds fallen light. The Old Man’s East Face glowed in sunlight as we made the usual detailed inspection of the route from the mainland cliff-top. For the first time in the week I had the pleasure of overheating as I bridged and jammed my way through the “coffin” crux on the second pitch. Alison and Dennis both quit the coffin half-a-metre too low and committed themselves to tenuous moves on the sandy slopers of the outside wall. Thankfully, neither was forced to put yesterday’s prusik training into practice.
We cleverly weaved a line past a row of eight fulmars on the fourth pitch and Dennis was assigned the sharp-end for the top corner. “Ron Hills” stretched to their limit, he bridged his way to the top with aplomb. We lazed on top in the sun puffin-watching for the best part of half an hour, enjoying our just rewards for five days of effort.
The second abseil took us straight into the arms of the two climbers from Sandwood who were just completing the second pitch. The complications of housing five climbers on a hanging stance were solved by rehanging our abseil ropes on an extended sling and making a quick by-pass. Having survived the excitements of the final free-hanging abseil, we enjoyed a prolonged afterglow lounging at the base. The flailing of Swindon Pete up on the stack was not the only wildlife event on view. A mother duck was taking her five chicks out into the tidal pools where big waves were crashing every couple of minutes. Hungry seals bobbed in the surf beneath the outwash, ready for a quick snack should the ducklings succumb. Several times they narrowly escaped the flow before the errant mother led them back to safe ground.
Back at the hostel we were just relaxing with a post-prandial glass of red wine when four weathered Scotsmen arrived. They had walked the four miles from the ferry and from their scanty gear they produced a variety of phials filled with malt whisky. These buddies were sharing a magical mystery weekend, organised by one of their number who refused to divulge the next day’s itinerary. As evening shadows lengthened we wondered whether they might end up helping in the rescue of Pete and his pal from the Old Man. We were wrong. The leader burst in at 10pm, his gallows complexion now suffused with a victorious glow. This was further enhanced on his production of an unopened bottle of Glenfiddich from his sack. We capitulated to the ongoing celebrations and filled our glasses. Swindon Pete limped in twenty minutes later, convinced that he had fractured a metatarsal bone when he swung off the crux. He explained that the two of them had met up through a “climbing partner wanted” post on the UKClimbing web-site. In just four days together they had pulled off a noteworthy success. While outside the curlew’s calls heralded the gathering of the night, our banter flowed until the whisky ran dry.
14th February The Great Smear of Grindsfjell:
“By my reckoning we’ll have climbed fifty shades of ice by the end of this week.” opined Daniel Davies as we drove through the hairpin tunnels that climb from Aurlandsdalen to the mountain cliff of Grindsfjell.
Much as we lamented Dan’s humour we had indeed covered ice of blue, green, yellow and dirty grey hues in the past four days, including the “super-vertical” headwall of Reppanutenfossen. With a cold fine weather forecast I planned a special mission to cap our week of Norwegian ice. Two huge ice smears had developed on the slabs of Grindsfjell. They emerged from seams in the rock 50 metres below the cliff-top. I had also spied a long thin dribble of ice in a cleft above the left-hand smear. If we could make a link we might claim a notable prize, for the line was almost certainly unclimbed.
Dan’s partner was the droll Dane, Rasmus, who had displayed remarkable aptitude for crabbing up vertical pitches in soft boots and a pair of Grivel G12 walking crampons. Rasmus was not a man in doubt of his ability.
“Now I am climbing steep ice OK; can we do a different style of climb tomorrow?”
“Well, I might just have the type of climb you’re looking for,” I replied, pulling out a small rack of rock hardware in anticipation of some mixed climbing above the smear.
Left: The Great Smear (we are visible on the top section of the route)(photo: Donald King)
Above: Cloud-filled Aurlandsdalen viewed from the route
So at 8am I led my eager ice puppies across the long traverse towards the smear from our parking lot at the entrance to Stondalen tunnel. The ice sheet was unrelenting in its 70 metre sweep, and yet the optimist in me noticed that the angle was a few degrees off-vertical. Fog choked the lower valley while the sunrise flushed the high plateaux.
“If you are ever going to stick your neck out Martin, today’s the day!” I mused.
We clambered over banks of rotten snow festooned with bent birch trees, and roped a final section up an icy ramp to gain the foot of the smear. Although the ice had appeared tenuously thin in distant views, the scale of the place was so big that we were actually able to plant our longest ice screw to secure ourselves at its base. The ice soared skywards.
I got to work quickly knowing that team confidence was fragile at this point. A bulge at 8 metres pushed me on to my arms, but above the angle eased to a steady 80°. I could climb in balance with 80% of my weight on my feet. After 45 metres I made a belay and brought Dan and Rasmus up. The smear continued but after a further 25 metres ran up rightwards to disappear in a sweep of rock overlaps.
Just as hoped, there was a link up left to gain a thin cascade in the upper cleft of the cliff. A tantalising ice column drooled over a rock overhang. Simultaneous with this discovery the sun rose over the plateau. I planted Dan and Ras well to the right of the column and attacked before the sun’s heat became intense. Wrapping my tools round the pillar I bridged up until I could plant the tips of my picks in a thin screen of black ice above the overlap. Standing in fragile balance and with only a few millimetres of tip grip, I tied-off my shortest ice screw less than halfway to the hilt, and, with this moral support, pulled delicately up until I could reach a thicker floe. Much pleased to accomplish such a smart little piece of climbing I belayed at once and brought on the boys. With an occasional tight rope they managed but were rather dismayed to view a tower of cascades stretching above to the skyline.
Above: Leading the 2nd pitch up the ice smear
Right: Tackling the crux section through the overlap
My own brio was dampened by the continuing steepness. A juice-sapping 50 metre pitch gained a glacis under a final cleft where umbrellas of ice sprayed meltwater over my hood. We were close to success but did Rasmus and Dan have the strength to complete the pitch? They seconded simultaneously as I played the ropes through my belay plate. Less than half-way up all movement on Dan’s rope ceased. While Rasmus clambered up to me I shouted hopefully.
Normally, Dan responds with a cheery “Okley Dokley” but instead he declared, “I think I have an issue here.”
I held my patience and waited a little longer. The sun was fast sinking and every minute lost now would be repaid with five minutes in darkness. The end-of-course party beckoned and benightment on Grindsfjell was not a healthy alternative.
“What’s the issue, Dan?” I eventually called.
“The issue is that I have dropped an axe.”
I was determined not to be cheated of our climb by a mere mishap.
“Climb with one and I’ll try to winch you.”
“Okley Dokley,” came the battle-cry from the depths. He was not to be denied.
I clamped my Ropeman metal-prusik on Dan’s rope, ran a long sling through the anchor karabiner and down to my waist. With a series of body-weight hoists and some remarkable wild swings from Dan, the final WI5 section was vanquished and he arrived with his customary effervescence, seemingly unperturbed by his misadventure.
The top pitch was brief and beautiful. I bridged past the umbrellas and pulled left on to dry turf. A horn of rock adorned the top. As the lads seconded I draped two slings for our abseil and celebrated success in the glow of sunset.
The temperature drop was instant. We pulled on belay jackets, stowed spare kit and fixed head-torches. The abseils began with a 60 metre monster slide. The ropes pulled like a dream. The second abseil revealed Dan’s discarded Nomic axe lodged in the only bit of snow on the whole climb. He’s a lucky so-and-so, that boy. A third 60 metre rope-stretcher took us to the base of the smear. The ice threads were working a treat and we did two more abseils down the introductory steps to gain the base of the route. Eschewing the long traverse back to the car we strode gaily down open slopes between the stands of trees, dodged through a boulder-field and gained the road a kilometre down from the parking lot. Beers, dinner and banter were imminent.
Dan took the wheel and waxed lyrical on ballroom dancing on the homeward drive.
“So good for one’s balance and there’s no feeling quite to compare with whirling your partner out of a tight corner with a firm hand on the waist and a quick back-step........
There are clearly thrills far beyond my world of ice.
1st recorded ascent: D.Davies, M.Moran and R.Nielsen V WI5+ 165m ***
Left: Martin leads the long 50 metre cascade towards the top of the route
Above: My partners in crime - Rasmus (l) and Dan (r)
Reflections on a Rescue: Joy heard the 2am call and I dragged myself out of bed. Two climbers were overdue from the grade III gully called George in Coire Dubh Mor on Liathach, a route that I have done on dozens of occasions. Muster time was 6am at the team base in Torridon Youth Hostel. I instantly knew that this was a serious shout. I had been retreated from An Teallach the previous day in conditions both wild and dangerous with huge build-ups of drifted snow. The overnight weather forecast was appalling with a “polar low” due to give blizzards and storm-force winds.
Our immediate assumption was that the climbers had been avalanched at some point. Andrew J was acting as coordinator. He gave us the bare bones of information. The wife of one had raised the alarm when they had failed to arrive at the hostel as planned on Friday evening. She was back at home in Suffolk. The two friends had travelled up on Thursday night for a weekend’s climbing. Helicopter assistance was unlikely for several hours, so a foot search was launched.
Six of us were assigned to walk round the back of the mountain and climb into Coire Dubh Mor to approach the route. Three others, led by Jim S, would go up the south side to check likely descent routes. Throughout our searches the prime concern was to avoid placing ourselves in unnecessary danger. At 6.30am we left the Coire Dubh car park, wrapped up to the hilt. Ryan led for a way until the path disappeared under deep drifts a hundred metres up. Mark and I took over and we staggered blindly in the storm. Ferocious cross-winds knocked us over every minute or so. The task ahead seemed overwhelming. The march to the steeping stones in Coire Dubh, a fifty minute jaunt in dry conditions, took us over two hours, but the dawn gave us better orientation.
Emily and Ronald remained in the lee of a large boulder to provide a radio link round the back of the mountain as necessary. I didn’t envy them as they donned down jackets and hunkered down under a group shelter. All the way through the valley the snow was knee-deep and akin to a wet quicksand, sucking the life out of the legs. However, visibility was improving. The worst of the storm had moved through. I began to believe that we could do something useful. Mark is a fit warrior. He and I took turns to forge a trail while Ryan and Charlie handled the radio communications.
Coire Dubh Mor and Liathach summit - scene of the search
After three hours we reached the corrie. A quick scan for recent avalanche debris revealed nothing. Perhaps they had bivouacked in the route. There is a cave at the crux which could provide some shelter. Cautiously, we probed higher, digging out snow pits to check for active windslab. The further we went the more confident I felt. The fresh snow, though thigh thigh-deep in places, revealed no tendency to fracture. Naturally, there was reluctance at base to give us the green light to climb higher, but we impressed Andrew that we could reasonably scout the gully and then traverse out to the north ridge of Spidean a’Coire Leith.
Charlie and Ryan stayed back to be available to traverse into Coire na Caime if needed there. Moving one at a time Mark and I ploughed between islands of rock. Soon we could see the whole route. It was empty. The mountain now revealed its full profile, blasted clean by the storm with every nook and cranny etched in wind-packed snow. The puzzle of the missing climbers was now as absorbing as it was troubling. Avalanche was no longer the only scenario. A fall on descent was as likely, and in the teeth of a hurricane the climbers would almost definitely have descended from the exit of the route direct into Coire na Caime rather than trying to get over the summit.
Mark and I climbed swiftly up Spidean’s north ridge. At the exit of George we found two tangled ropes and the remains of sandwiches. Our suspicions were confirmed. The two climbers must already have been desperate to have dumped their ropes. We reported the find and suggested an immediate switch of operation to Coire na Caime. With its lochan jewels and ice-scraped terracing this is most the lovely of mountain corries but can turn into a desperate trap in the teeth of a storm, with no path out and no phone signal. Charlie and Ryan began a horizontal traverse round into the corrie. Stornaway Coastguard helicopter was now on scene and would collect more rescuers from Torridon base.
For Mark and I the priority was to check for tracks over the summit. It was important to eliminate that lingering possibility. As we cramponned up the final ridge the NW wind still blew in occasional gusts of 50mph. We found old crampon scrapes around the summit cairn and scouted the “false line” towards Pyramid Buttress where climbers might have strayed and fallen, but there was no conclusive evidence of recent activity. We decided to complete our mission by descending the normal route down the “bum-slides” from the col east of Spidean’s summit. We dug a test snow-pit and again we found no layering. I launched down first. The ride was exhilarating. Within 5 minutes we were 250 metres lower. Nowhere was there any avalanche debris or recent tracks. For us the last hours had been an intriguing and, dare I admit, satisfying piece of mountaineering. Despite the dread narrative that underlay our mission, we were pleased that on this rescue our efforts had made a genuine contribution to a resolution. So often they don’t.
Then we heard a burst of activity on the team radio. One of the two missing climbers had emerged at Coire Dubh car park and Gerry McP had picked him up in the team bus. He was weak and mildly hypothermic but otherwise unharmed. He had left his friend in Coire na Caime where they had bivouacked through the storm. We dared to believe that both had survived. All that was needed was a quick airlift and this story could end in triumph. Our spirits soared.
“Tell him that we have got his ropes,” I blurted out in sheer relief.
Mark and I swooped down the second series of bum-slides and reached the road in 40 minutes.
Gerry picked us up. He had dropped the climber off at the hostel, Charlie and Ryan has spotted a bivouac shelter a few hundred metres away and the helicopter was on its way, but Gerry’s mood was more sombre.
“His friend was conscious when he left him, but he’d stopped shivering during the night. That’s not good.”
Back at the hostel the climber was re-warming, wrapped in a down jacket, his feet in a warm footbath. He was almost euphoric that his ordeal was over and that the rescue team had now taken over the final phase of the recovery. He recounted his epic. His friend was the more experienced climber but they had endured a terrible battering from spindrift in the gully. At one stage his friend took an hour and a half to establish a belay and became too exhausted to lead the final easy pitch to the top. They descended direct to Coire na Caime in darkness and his pal was avalanched on the way down, sustaining minor head injuries. They had bivouacked behind a boulder and he had left to seek a rescue when the wind started to drop at 8am. We could imagine how desperate a night this had been.
The helicopter reported that they were returning with victim and rescuers. With a severely hypothermic patient they would doubtless go straight to Raigmore Hospital. Meanwhile, the first survivor was taken off by the warden to have a shower and change of clothing. Then Gerry took a second radio call from the pilot, and he emerged with solemn face. The outcome was not good. The helicopter paramedic could detect no signs of life.
Our hopes were dashed. There seemed little more that I could do. There were several team members on hand to help deal with the situation and I had nine new course clients arriving in just a few hours. I needed to recover some spirit and strength for an evening of cheery meeting and greeting.
Yet I little imagined what trauma was still to come. The helicopter landed as I drove off. The prognosis was so certain that, instead of heading to hospital, they unloaded the casualty outside the hostel. Almost simultaneously, the wives and parents of the victims arrived at the hostel, unaware of the outcome. Despite strong dissuasion from the team leader and police they had flown up from London and came direct to the scene. Our team doctor Gerry managed the situation with superb professionalism. The stretcher was taken into the warden’s house where Gerry was able to confirm the death. Other members looked after his friend and the families in the hostel, and then Gerry had to give them the dreaded news. Usually, rescuers can maintain a degree of detachment from the personal drama of a fatality but not in this case.
From group management and physical determination, through technical expertise, communications skill and eventually to pastoral care of a bereaved family the Torridon mountain rescue team had done a magnificent job.
I couldn’t help but look at the press reports the next day, and on the Sky news web site a hundred and more comments had been appended to the brief story of a climber killed in an avalanche in Torridon. I should have resisted the temptation but began scrolling. One after another strident criticisms of the climbers flashed across the page. “Bloody idiots – shouldn’t even have gone out in that weather.” “Don’t they realise they put other people’s lives at risk.” “They don’t deserve to be rescued going out in those conditions.” “It’s always the same – English climbers coming up and killing themselves on our mountains…”
The vitriol of the baying mob was occasionally alleviated by an expression or sadness or sympathy, but the overall tenor was that of intolerance. How would the grieving wife, parents and friends of that young man who perished on the mountain feel when they read those posts, as inevitably they would do. How callous, how ignorant, how arrogant? Yes, these guys made serious misjudgements that cost the life of one, yet an essential human freedom is the freedom to make mistakes. Mostly we learn from them, but sometimes we aren’t given that chance. I tussled briefly with a surge of anger and switched off.