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25th Feb: Sitting Ducks - a near-miss on Norwegian ice
17th - 21st March: Strength through Misery - Scotland's last winter burst
25th February: Sitting Ducks – a near-miss on Norwegian ice
Leading the steep WI5 pitch on Sitting Ducks Climb (photos: Pete Buswell)
Despite a combined age of 130 I sensed that Dennis and Pete were the types who liked an adventure. I had spotted a big lick of green ice up in a bowl at 1200m in the upper reaches of Stondalen. The icefall looked vertical for at least 60 metres and was perched 300 metres above the access road, presenting a serious approach walk by Norwegian standards. We could reasonably guess it was unclimbed and the boys were immediately enthused. After three days with temperatures at -10degC or lower a steady deterioration was forecast for our day with gales and snowfall due by early afternoon. We went for a 7am departure from Aurland on the reckoning that we could be up and off the route before anything nasty happened.
Den and Pete are Staffordshire lads and thus inclined to address each other by the endearment “duck”. I had believed this familiarity was only appropriate to members of the opposite sex, but clearly this rule had long been abandoned in the Potteries.
“You all right, duck.” “Do you want to go first, duck.” “I’m not happy here, duck.”
I had been subjected to a barrage of ducks all week.
We parked by the Stondalen hydro-plant and broke a deepening trail diagonally up 40deg approach slopes to gain a ramp under a cliff band. Leaving our ski poles here, I tied on to our two ropes and ran the rope 40 metres up the ramp to a belay point in an icy niche. The technical difficulty barely warranted a rope, but it felt right to take precautions as the exposure increased. A leaden sky was now issuing desultory waves of fine snow. We moved together for a further 80 metres with an ice screw as a running anchor until a steeper tongue of ice demanded proper pitched climbing. The tongue led into a miniature amphitheatre under the main fall. True to impressions the fall was largely vertical and formed of glassy smooth ice, without any niches or ledges.
We could now feel the wind gusts as the snowfall intensified. The bad weather was arriving early. An ominous atmosphere, resonant with so many stormy days back in Scotland, took command. I racked the gear, put Den on belay and Pete on camera duty and hastened to the task. I romped the first 20 metres placing only two ice screws. At this stage the climbing was utterly brilliant and I felt in total control. Then the angle rose from a pleasant 80 degrees into a vertical groove of sheer bullet-proof ice.
Clinging tight to the axe handles my fingers began to lose circulation, bringing the insidious pain of wounded nerve-ends. Fighting the fire, I bridged up the groove, shaking out after each upward lurch and wishing I’d bothered to attach safety lanyards to my axes. At such a juncture it isn’t at all helpful to think of the consequences of a fall, but adding in rope stretch I was reckoning on a plunge of at least 10 metres should I relinquish my grip. This was no place to break a leg, so I battled the stress and placed an ice screw. My spectacles were now completely caked in snow. I swiped them off and suffed them down my jacket, restoring vision, albeit blurred.
The crisis passed as the angle eased back off vertical and a tingling flush of blood returned to my fingers. I made my belay up left on an ice pulpit about 15 metres below the top, then realised that either Den or Pete could have quite a swing if they came off. They climbed about five metres apart, their figures shrouded by spindrift. Grunts, expletives and several “ducks” were exchanged between the pair. Den slipped once at the exit from the crux, Pete got up the crux but managed to fall off completely at the point of maximum swing potential five metres below the stance. He clattered under a fringe of icicles and became entwined with a six foot stalactite in a perilous dance macabre. The icicle snapped and Pete was left hanging. “Did you see that?”, he exclaimed. There were no more friendly “ducks”, but at least his expletives rhymed.
Preparing the first abseil in full-bore spindrift
Martin leading the entry pitch as the snowfall commences
From this position I feared he might need a hoist but the episode seemed to have an energising effect. He clawed his way back to the line, reached the stance and adopted a commanding role as I contrived a massive rope tangle when transferring the lapped coils. For 15 minutes we worked feverishly to unhitch several knots. At times we could barely see each other in the enveloping spindrift gusts. The storm had arrived early and precious hours had passed. Fresh snow drifts were building on every ledge.
I hurried up right to the top of the fall and made a solid ice thread where a single 60 metre abseil just touched down at the bottom. Half a foot of fresh snow added to the knee-deep drifts that we had encountered on the approach pitches, and this new snow had a strangely cohesive texture despite its softness. There was a big temptation to unrope and plough down the lower ramp as quickly as possible to quit the storm. Intuition suggested that we should keep abseiling all the way back to the sticks, and on the final abseil I triggered a surface slide of snow several inches thick.
Having regained the ski sticks and standing in the shelter of an overhang I felt sufficiently secure to take off my rucksack and start packing while Den and Pete abseiled down to me. “Thank goodness, we are off”, I thought. Almost immediately the sky darkened and a fierce blast of wind hit me, knocking me back on the abseil ropes. The gale was followed by a ten second pummelling of snow. We’d been hit by an airborne avalanche. When the air cleared I looked down and my rucksack had disappeared, blown straight off the cliff. I was glad I hadn’t detached myself from the rope or I might have gone with it.
Den and Pete arrived in states of great excitement. They too had been hit by the avalanche. Now, I was in a double panic. My sack contained much of value, but to search for it I’d have to scour the approach slopes, now loaded with snow. I reckoned that we’d be safe from any further airborne blasts for half-an-hour or so. We coiled the ropes and I scouted a route off the slopes. A rib of ground with small trees provided the safest descent. I guided Den and Pete over, then went back to the slopes beneath the climb. I was convinced that my sack would be buried in debris from the avalanche, so I poked about in the surface drift, which promptly avalanched to a depth of six inches, almost taking me down-slope with it. I twisted out of the slide, losing a ski pole in the process.
What a dilemma! Either I abandon a rucksack containing a thousand pounds’ worth of kit or must risk getting avalanched. Attachment to possessions overrode the urge for self-preservation. I recommenced my probing. The decision wasn’t quite as irrational as it seems! From security of a rock island I met short cautious forays in all directions. Nothing happened. I went out further and began digging around in the snow. Nothing happened. I then commenced sweep searches back and forwards. After twenty minutes it dawned on me that there was actually no avalanche debris on the slopes. The snow was smooth and had none of the lumpiness of an avalanche talus.
The only hope was that the sack had been blown much further down the mountain. I rejoined Den and Pete halfway down to the base, and we scoured every dark lump of rock or grass, until at the very foot of the slope I spied the sack.
With the bag recovered and with the avalanche risk quitted, a sense of euphoria took hold of our party. We left the mountain to its maelstrom and hurried back to the car, where Pete realised he’d lost one of his axes. Back up the tracks we tramped, and on a second search he found his tool. At last we could take flight and head back to Aurland for beer and pizzas.
The boys seemed thrilled by the whole experience. I was less sanguine. After a winter light on snow and free of objective risk, we’d been lured into a trap. At least we’d escaped intact, but the outcome might have been different but for some fine judgements. For me the experience was as sobering as it was inspiring. There was no problem naming the route. “Sitting Ducks Climb” now sits proudly on the pantheon of Stondalen’s finest ice lines!
Route description: Aurland; Upper Stondalen: Dauersnosi
Sitting Ducks Climb 200m III, WI5 *
Up right from the craggy nose of Dauersnosi a steep icefall forms in a recess, prominently in view from the hydro-plant. Beware of avalanches after fresh snow. Park above the hydro plant before the road twists up and through a tunnel into Rausmusdalen. Walk up a boulder-filled hollow, then climb diagonally up right for 150m to a ramp under a rock band. Easy snow-slopes with short steps lead up left for 120m. Climb a steep tongue of ice (WI4) or make a detour round to the left to gain a bowl beneath the main fall. Climb the fall in one big 55m pitch (WI5) up left and a shorter pitch (15m, WI4) back right to the top. Abseil from here (1 x 60m gains the top of the bowl and 3 x 60m lead back down the ramp).
A longer but easier angled line of ice ramps to the right of the icefall offers a second route option here.
17th – 21st March: Strength through Misery – Scotland’s last winter burst
The winter of 2017 passed with barely a whimper. We had enjoyed long spells of dry weather, snowfalls were light and short-lived and climbing opportunities were largely restricted to higher level ridge and buttress climbs. Then, as March arrived, when most clients believed the snows would altogether disappear and our courses were barely half-filled, true Winter returned. So often this happens. These lambing snows combine with longer days and more generous sunlight to give splendid mountaineering conditions.
If asked who are my best clients, I choose those who are decisive in action, book early, stick with their plans, arrive in a mood of positivity and take what the weather gives without complaint. Dave and Sue Pugh and Carl Hess had been regulars since 2012. Dave and Sue completed the Munros in a three-year campaign after I’d guided Sue up the In Pinn. Dave had climbed the Matterhorn with me last summer in a round trip from a camp at Schwarzsee thereby avoiding extortionate Hornli Hut charges – not bad at 67 years of age. Carl and Dave had recently completed our technical winter climber course. For Yorkshire-folk this bunch were notable in their largesse towards an ageing mountain guide, either that or they’ve got some good pension policies!
They arrived in mid-March for four days with a new recruit to their group, Lynne, a retired physiotherapist. Dave and Sue are great organisers and have assembled an informal club of walking enthusiasts in North Yorkshire, some of whom are allowed to progress to the Scottish hills after passing initiations in the Lakes and Dales. One of their fringe members, a cynical soul, described the spirit of the cabal as “Strength through Misery”.
The first day of their visit was a 1:1 guiding trip with Sue to utilise a Christmas guiding gift voucher. She had taken a serious tumble on Blaven the previous year, resulting in a helicopter rescue. Someone – I think it was Dave – had the bright idea that a day out with me would be the perfect antidote to the shock of the fall. We had provisionally earmarked Ledge Route on Ben Nevis as a suitable mountaineering challenge. I gave Sue the weather prediction – steady snowfall for most of the day – and noted the long journey-time from Lochcarron – fully expecting a change of plan, but no; I got an instant response. “Ben Nevis, please!”
The weather materialised exactly as forecast. More people were coming down from Ben Nevis than were going up. We trudged up to the base of the route, as large snow-flakes drifted down in increasing volume, and dodged a soft snow-slough at the base of No 5 Gully. With the new snow already a foot in depth and mindful of a recent avalanche epic in Norway, I felt distinctly unhappy. I was glad to quit the gully and get on to the relative security of Ledge Route. The climb proceeded in misted silence, save for the odd muffled shout from a party across on the Douglas Boulder.
At the summit of Carn Dearg the temperature rose five degrees in as many minutes. The snow turned to rain, and I made the questionable decision to descend the north ridge of the mountain as opposed to a circuitous route via the Tourist Path and half-way lochan. Sue was subjected to a harrowing hour – soft wet slab over hard neve snow, followed by endless steep screes covered with inches of damp snow. By the time we reached the Allt a’Mhulinn we were sufficiently drenched to laugh at the added ignominy of a thigh-deep river crossing. To my relief Sue seemed immensely satisfied at this beast of a day.
Joy after Misery - our glorious hour on the Cluanie Ridge - Carl and Lynne
Sue on the upper arete of Ledge Route, Ben Nevis
Back in Torridon the snow still lay thick to low levels. Joined by Dave, Carl and Lynne we headed up to Beinn Eighe the next morning. We found one patch of old neve snow under the fresh coating near to the top of Spidean Coire nan Clach, so could do some avalanche hazard evaluation and ice axe arrest before heading out east towards the Black Carls pinnacles. The weather steadily cleared to give an afternoon of bracing splendour. The Carls were in true Alpine condition and I gave Dave and Carl the opportunity to lead the girls across on their own independent rope while I supervised operations. Cast into the spotlight the fellas were initially reluctant to take control, but with some hectoring from their guide, they eventually realised their responsibilities. It is a delight when a newcomer to Scottish winter mountaineering gets an inspiring day to begin. Lynne clearly loved the whole affair right through to the exit march through the Allt a’Chuirn pinewoods.
Sunday morning brought none of the joys of the Black Carls. Steady penetrating rain marshalled our approach plod towards Sgurr an Lochain in Glen Shiel. We sploshed and squelched up endless slopes of grass and slime. At the shoulder Sue and Dave succumbed to the temptations of lunch at the Cluanie Inn and left us to our woes. Cold rain soaked my gloves and chilled my hands. I had one pair of dry mittens in my bag to sustain my spirit through gully, summit and descent. To preserve that crumb of comfort I walked bare-handed all the way to the base of Flying Gully on the north face. A dirty avalanche slide from the mouth deterred any probing in that direction and we continued to a shorter grade II gully higher on the face. My exposed fingers burnt and glowed but somehow kept their circulation, and then we felt a drying in the air. The front had passed and the wind was swinging to a more palatable nor’wester. On went the mitts, and I clambered over a little cornice to meet a cheek-scrubbing blast of hail on the summit.
Then, the clouds parted and shafts of warm sunlight lit up the mossy swards and lingering snow-fields. We walked back over a second Munro, Sgurr a’Doire Leathain, the wind behind and snow firm and the world in glorious unison. Perhaps this was “elation through misery” and I was almost disappointed that the day ended so soon. We were back on the road at 3.30pm.
Traversing the Black Carls of Beinn Eighe - Dave, Lynne, Sue and Carl
A final day with the Yorkshire foursome took us back to Torridon and Liathach. Squalls with winds in excess of 60mph were predicted by the Mountain Weather Information Service. One could never accuse the perpetrator of this forecast of excessive optimism. We opted to shelter in Way Up Gully in Coire Dubh Mor. The snow was solid and once more Dave and Carl were given rope-minding duties. Squalls there were, but with nothing like the frequency or severity predicted. From the gully exit we continued to the summit of the peak and returned along the eastern ridge.
While the Yorkshire team could now relax I was only four days though a six-day stint. At 8am next morning I met my new client, Neil, in Strathcarron. Winter wasn’t giving up just yet. Blizzards to low levels were on the card and for once the mountain forecast didn’t exaggerate. At 64 years old Neil is close to completion of a remarkable and entirely pointless campaign to climb every peak in Britain with a couple of contours of supremacy over their surrounds – Dawsons I believe they are called. There are 2400 of these excrescences and Neil has done 2000 to date.
Now he wanted to recapture some of the thrills of past winter climbs. Grade III Scottish climbs on a wild day are a different kettle of fish to hill-top wandering. The Right-End Buttress on Fuar Tholl seemed the only local choice with a semblance of security. Throughout our laboured approach powder snow slides drifted down the mountain’s South-East Cliff – one every minute. These playful veils harboured a growing avalanche threat. I began to feel uneasy but knew my buttress well enough to believe we could get up and out safely. Neil did well to surmount the tenuous lower pitches. Compact slabby rock deceives and then repels any frontal attack. You have to wander and probe to find the climbable weakness in each little sandstone tier. Neil struggled to find purchase in the deeper snows of the upper pitches. Vigorous thrusts of the axes and core strength were required to overcome the prevailing mush.
Windslab snow coated the final 40 metres. I was glad of my prior knowledge of each good belay anchor and topped out at the only point in the corrie rim that was free of fresh cornice. Five hours had passed since we roped up. Already the time was past 4pm. The summit offered scant salvation. A 40mph wind greeted my arrival. I placed an ice axe belay and hunkered down in the snow, my hood drawn tight against my pinched cheeks and eyes clamped shut against the whirling blasts of spindrift. Neil seemed to take an eternity to get up the final pinch. My bum was ice-cold by the time he emerged from the depths. With little ado we shivered and shuffled over to the south-east ridge descent
Hopes of a fireside night were fast dwindling. Neil stuttered and stumbled, his thigh muscles spent. On one fall he broke both his trekking poles. At this pace I couldn’t get myself warmed up. Despite the urge to charge ahead I needed to encourage my companion. For Neil the day was clearly a watershed experience, a realisation of one’s declining powers while the mountain remains fearsomely strong. Though just five miles from my home we were enveloped in a world where survival is the sole imperative. That thought gave some inspiration as we slithered down the final slopes to the pines and rhododendron thickets above Achnashellach. We reached the railway line ten minutes before the evening train was due to pass. Thank goodness I remembered the timetable.
The pause allowed us to reflect. Battered and weakened we cancelled our plans to climb the next day. We might have reflected on the day’s enterprise as a misjudgement, yet we do need to meet our limits from time to time. The motto “Strength through Misery” will get you a long way in the mountains but it won’t work for ever!