Monday, 25 February 2013

Avalanche Indicator on the Buachaille

The forecast for sunny sky and little wind, was partly true. There was no wind but there was considerable cloud cover just above the mountain tops. The still freezing temperatures gave me confidence that the snow on the head wall would still be consolidated and hard frozen. I crossed the River Coupall by the bridge and admired the view towards the Lairig Gartain.

The view into the Glencoe valley wasn't bad either. The Aonach Eagach looked particularly inviting ..perhaps another day's outing once the snow goes ? It is many years since I last traversed its narrow ridge.

When I reached the snow line in Coire na Tulaich, I turned to take this photo and noticed another lone climber not to far behind me. He was young, fit and travelling fast.

Rather that try to keep ahead of him, I decided it was a good time to rest a little and let him past. We exchanged pleasantries while we both put on our crampons. Then he was off. I smiled quietly to myself as he drew ahead.

We were approaching the steep head wall which is a notorious avalanche spot. I had checked the forecast before deciding on this route and was reasonably confident that the snow was in good condition... but with my years of experience in snow climbing ... I have found the best avalanche indicator is to watch someone else climb the steep stuff first. Yup.. I guess Im a selfish old bugger when it comes to my own safety. I watched as the young climber started out on the slippery slopes.

He seemed to hesitate about a quarter of the way up and I wondered if he was now wishing he had let me go first ? Then he struck out for the top. He managed without any further problems. I was now very confident that the snow was in condition.

I started my way up the snow bound head wall and I didn't hesitate at the quarter way mark. The snow was solid. It took the front points of my crampons easily but was hard enough to resist my boot breaking its surface. I enjoyed climbing the slope and forgot about the long distant memories of blood and hair in Crowberry Gully. I stopped and looked back as the slope eased near the top.

Looking back down the steep slope..I realized that a slip could easily had me speeding down the hard slippery surface for quite some distance before the rock walls at the bottom would abruptly stopped my fall.

I then remembered a young climber who fell 1000 ft down Crowberry Gully, tumbling head over heels on the steep abrasive snow and ice until he came to an abrupt stop, six feet from where I was standing.

I remembered the blood from his head wounds turning the white snow red, around my feet as I tried to stem the flow with my spare shirt. I remembered how utterly alone and helpless I felt as I tried to comfort him while my young brother ran down the mountain to raise the alarm.

As I waited with him while his life drained away into the snow, I heard faint cries for help.. far up in the gully.. one of the hardest winter gully climbs on the Buachaille. Yet this young man was wearing trainers and there was no sign of climbing equipment ?

I shook those sad and bloody images from my mind and was very glad that I had made it to the top of this head wall without incident.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Long Forgotten Memories of the Buachaille

As I started my climb to the top of the Buachaille, I recalled memories of the first time that I climbed it ... well over thirty years ago.

I was in the company of my father who sadly passed away a couple of years back. My elder brother Douglas who has great difficulty walking with damaged knees. My youger brother Alick who suffers from lymes disease and finds walking very difficult. My youngest brother Alistair who emigrated to Australia and also has health problems. I thanked my own god that I am still lucky enough to to climb mountains.

The Buachaille on my first trip to the top. My brother Alick is on the path at the start of the walk.

My father leads the way up the Coire, followed closely by Douglas

Douglas having lunch at the top of the Buachaille was too cold to stop for a second lunch

Looking over the Rannoch Moor from the top. The view has not changed one bit in all those years.

I thought of you all as I made my way up the Coire towards the headwall. I also thought back to the day when a total stranger died slowly and painfully in my arms at the foot of Crowberry Gully. We are all better off than that poor guy, regardless of our own problems.

The accident happened very near this spot. However this photo was on another trip when I was with Douglas and his friend Alistair. It was my first attempt to climb curved ridge. We decided to turn back because of the amount of verglass ice on the ridge.

Its interesting to note the size of the rucksacks we carried in those days. We filled them with heavy objects and sometimes even rocks. We believed that carrying them made us fitter. Modern hill walkers now want the lightest of gear as they believe walking makes them fit. Perhaps its just my imagination..but most modern walkers look fatter rather than fitter ?

On Friday, I wore the same crampons and carried the same ice axe as I did on my first trip. However Im a lot older and fatter than those days, so there were no rocks in my rucksack this time. I felt that carrying 14 stones of my own blubber was going to keep me fit enough :-D

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Iconic Buachaille Etive Mor

Buachaille Etive Mor at the entrance to Glencoe is Scotland's best known and most photographed mountain. Its easy to see why. Its steep rocky pyramid shape seen from the east attracts the eye like no other mountain. It rises abruptly from the Rannoch Moor to its highest point Stob Dearg of 3345 feet. Like everyone else who passes this mountain with a camera, I have taken many photos from all the well known view points.

In all kinds of weather

But unlike most photographers, who admire the mountain from a distance, I like to think I know it a little better than most.
I first climbed to its summit cairn by the tourist route over thirty years ago. I went with my father and three brothers. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, I am the only one left from that outing, who can still get to the top, or at least, I think I can ?

The winter is getting on and I had not worn crampons or carried my ice axe at all this year. I have walked a lot of lower hills but not encountered any snow worth mentioning. However ,the cold high pressure area over Scotland this week made me want to seek out some snow before its gone for another year. On Friday, I dusted off my winter gear and headed for Glencoe. The Buachaille looked as magnificent as ever.

Although there was not much snow left on its south eastern flanks, I knew there would still be a lot in Coire Na Tulaich. I was not to be disappointed..the tourist route to the top was still plastered with plenty snow and ice.

I scanned the head wall at the top of the tourist route with my binoculars to see if there was any other people heading to the top but I saw no one. The head wall is a notorious avalanche spot and many people have been killed over the years, when the steep snow slopes leading to the bealach, collapse under their weight. However I knew the temperatures were still well below freezing point and no new snow had fallen for a few days. I was more than willing to take the challenge and try to reach the summit cairn.

I was looking for snow and knew I would get my fill of it on the Buachaille. I had witnessed death on this mountain before. As I scanned the slopes, I recalled the sight of blood and hair on the steep icy slopes of Crowberry Gully. That memory changed the way I looked at this mountain for many years. This was my first time on snow on the Buachaille since that incident almost 30 years ago ....