Lessons learned – A winter mountain day

by Simon Verspeak

Experience and judgement are the basis of Mountain Training's qualifications. Judgement only comes from experience and 'epics' are are common to many of us at some point in our learning curve. In 2009 whilst preparing for my Winter Mountain Leader assessment I had a day out in Scotland which was probably the single biggest learning day in the mountains I have ever had. In hindsight it is easy to see the mistakes I made, so I have written this as a learning tool for others.

I had dropped down to Glasgow for a night to see some friends. January had been a very snowy month; the forecast was light winds and falling snow up high. My rough plan for the next day was to drive north early in the morning to solo some of the Munros accessible from the Glen Etive road. Waking up, the snow was falling in the city itself! After following the snow plough the length of Loch Lomond I decided a rethink was needed. I thought that ideally I needed to go somewhere with easy road access and a ridge style walk to reduce avalanche risk. The idea that caught my fancy was the Ben Cruachan horseshoe. The thought never entered my head to let anyone know my plans had changed.

Starting out from the road I was trail breaking from the very start. Reaching the dam took a couple of hours, snow was still falling but thankfully there was no wind. The first peak was seemingly endless to reach and the wind had increased. Reaching the first top, I sheltered to eat and drink and consult the map. Feeling fit I decided to continue but put my crampons on. The first section of descent required concentration to dodge patches of wind slab in and around poor visibility. I had it in my head that the ridge after the trig point would be fairly safe to cross; I was deliberately down from the edge about 5m-6m to stay away from any cornices. Plunging my axe into the slope, two lightening cracks appeared either side and the whole slope above collapsed downwards with a whoomp. Looks like the cornices were rather larger than I had expected! Quite shaken, I moved down further.

Ridge walk in the snow
Photo of a walker in Torridon | Karl Midlane

After another hour or so the ridge started to ease and the snow had stopped falling. I was however pretty tired and after six or seven hours on the go it was starting to get dark. The clouds had started to lift and my tired brain had calculated that I could traverse the slope below the final peak and rejoin the ridge much lower down. At some point on this downwards traverse I entered a gully system which I thought I could cross, however once in it I couldn’t get out the far side. Looking down the gully line I could make out the reservoir below and it appeared to be continuous grade I/II ground all the way down so I started down it.

After a couple of hundred metres of down climbing I reached a 5m step comprising a boulder chock stone. After this the slope continued as before without any more steep ground to the reservoir. Cursing myself for not having a short rope in my sac to abseil with, I dug around to find some hook placements to help me step over the edge into the void. Climbing down I quickly psyched out and scrambled back up to the ledge. After some soul searching and with no mobile signal, I calmed my breathing and committed downwards. Thankfully this time I kicked my crampons into an ice streak and bridged out to slowly lower myself under the overhang. With relief I reached easier ground.

Shortly afterwards I reached the edge of the reservoir. As I did the stars came out and I slowly retraced my initial steps back to my car after a 12 hour day. Once I got down I checked the weather forecast and bailed home rather than do another day. The next day there were several avalanche fatalities. All in all lots of learning!

I am sure you can see lots of errors but these three learning points summarise the day for me;
  • Think carefully about your plan – especially avalanche risk.
  • Read the red flags observed on the hill – don’t ignore them. Remember, turning around is not failure.
  • If you are heading off on your own think about asking a friend to be able to notify mountain rescue if you don’t call to say you are down - and make sure you tell them if your plan changes!

Simon is an avid mountaineer and skier. He lives most of the year in North Wales but winters in the Alps and Scotland. In recent years his interest has been towards alpinism and ski mountaineering. He is a member of Llanberis Mountain Rescue team.

He is now a qualified Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and works as a freelance outdoor instructor in several Outdoor Education Centres and runs the small mountaineering business Orange Mountaineering specialising in navigation, scrambling, climbing and Mountain Leader refreshers.

This article was originally published in the March 2014 edition of The Professional Mountaineer, the magazine for members of four associations: Mountain Training Association, Association of Mountaineering Instructors, British Association of International Mountain Leaders and British Association of Mountain Guides.

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