The relentless headwind during the walk-in to Coire an Lochain on Saturday was wild - as though subjected to a giant Dyson hand drier. We walked with our hoods up and heads down to shelter our eyes from the horizontal snow. A grouse flew past me, flying lateral to the direction it was facing. White-out conditions made navigation ‘challenging’, particularly with the path being buried in snow and any proceeding footprints having been scoured. I had visited the coire more than half a dozen times previously but was struggling to identify any landmarks.
Something felt wrong. The coire I knew to be slightly bowl-shaped with a ridge butting its right-hand side. Instead the ground felt as though it was subtly falling away either side of us as though we were on higher ground. The boulders that littered the coire were also absent and there was no sign of the loch. We had been walking north for too long and my altimeter suggested we were too high. I had my suspicion that we were either too far East or too far West but I was 50/50 as to which one. On a couple of occasions we stopped to consider turning back but then agreed there was no harm to push on a little further and see what presented.
Briefly the cloud lifted to the west to reveal flat ground, beyond which lay lowlands. We realised that we had overshot the coire and were now at Miadan Creag an Leth-choin to the South-West. Then a brief parting to the East revealed Cairn Lochan to confirm our whereabouts. We backtracked a short distance north to the edge to the coire - in Anna’s case via a small semi-frozen pond, which quickly cracked at its surface and engulfed one of her feet up to its ankle.
The slopes into the coire were wind-swept and icy so needed crampons. The cliffs remained hidden by cloud from the loch so closer investigation would be needed. At half height the buttresses came into view and were not surprisingly holding a lot of snow. Climbers to our left were backing off an approach towards Number 1 Buttress due to wind slab but a safe passage towards Number 2 Buttress was possible via a channel of old avalanche debris that was covered in only a thin layer of newly formed wind slab.
Andromeda looks viable. We tried to make a rock belay at the base of the route but soon gave up. Most of the rock was buried and what remain was covered in a three inch layer of ice. We chipped away at the ice but found nothing of use. At least a pair of planted axes felt solid enough so this would have to do. The first pitch looked easy so it was time to cut losses and start climbing.
|Base of the route - Anna trying to smile with a bread role in her mouth|
The climbing was steady with solid axes placements in firm snow. Finding gear was another matter and looked a remote possibility. 15m passed before I found a bulldog placement in frozen turf. At 25m I found a good nut placement with an offset nut placement just above. I was at the point where the route bore right from the Milky Way and so cut my losses and made a belay. Soon after Anna had joined me at the belay we heard a distant boom, which we acknowledged without words to be an avalanche somewhere in the coire.
|Anna on the first pitch|
The second pitch looked white but I hoped that the corner feature would offer up some protection with enough digging. 10m from the belay I uncovered a peg on my right.
10m above the peg… no gear
The corner was banked out with snow. Ice densely plastered any rock that wasn't submerged, leaving its surface featureless and me clueless as to where any cracks may lie. I paused whilst spindrift poured down - the first of many occasions.
20m above the peg… no gear
Cramped corners and indifferent snow conditions were a bad combination. I kicked in deep steps but didn't wholly trust some of my axe placements in the inconstantly consolidated snow. Enough searching around usually revealed something secure but the focus was always on spreading pressure equally between limbs in contact. I bridged my feet where possible to avoid overloading the snow locally and occasionally leant off the right-hand side of the corner to generate a ‘fifth’ point of contact.
I was clueless as to where to look for gear. My distance above the peg forced me to chip away the ice on a couple of occasions but this revealed nothing but blank rock. I felt I was only making the climbing harder by removing the vital layer of ice needed to climb the pitch.
30m above the peg… no gear!
…I would finish at the bottom of the route if I fell now.
I had by now largely given up trying to locate gear placements. The belay looked to be possibly ten metres away and so I needed to focus on the climbing. I made some delicate moves into a right-hand branch, aided by a positive left hook and then facilitated by some ice to my left higher up.
40m above the peg…
40m above the peg…
I cleared a wide crack and planted to two hexes…
…Finally the belay…
…Finally I was able to breathe relief.
A very serious pitch was below me. Easily V 4 in these conditions. Far more serious than any V that I could think of.
A combination of wind and spindrift avalanche meant my footholds were already largely filled in by the time Anna had reached the top of the pitch. Two inches of spindrift snow was balanced on my helmet, which I swept clean. The main difficulties I hoped were below us. Surely the junction with the top Central Crack Route was close at hand followed by the route exit. We heard another boom to our left from high up. Cornices were evidently collapsing but one more pitch I hoped would bring me to the top of the route.
I started up the third pitch by traversing right towards an obvious snow ramp weakness. Another avalanche sounded this time further right. I rounded a corner and was confronted by a massive drooping cornice less than fifteen metres above me, which overhung maybe three metres. It looped back on itself like a giant inverted wave. It looked ready to collapse any minute. I recognised the layout to be the top of
Route and so quickly moved left towards the route
exit. Visibility was down to a matter of metres but hopefully a gap in the
cornice would present. The rope went tight. I tugged at it and tried to climb
on but it was hopeless. The switchback was leading to huge rope drag despite
the absence of runners. I spied some bare rock beneath the cornice and so
climbed up to it. If the cornice collapsed then the safest place to be would be
directly underneath and behind its lip I figured. I planted my red hex in a
horizontal gap, promptly tied in, and pulled the ropes through. ‘ON BELAY’ I
shouted at full volume. I heard Anna’s high pitch acknowledgement in reply.
…Then the cornice above me collapsed …
It momentarily knocked me off my stance but the hex held. I looked up to see two metres of horizontal snow missing from the cornice. The huge cornice avalanche had slid towards Anna’s belay directly beneath me. I shouted her name but there was no response. I waited a few minutes to see if the rope to would slacken in response to her climbing but nothing happened. Gripped with anxiety I tied the lengths of ropes linked to Anna to the hex and then abseiled down the surplus rope. Halfway down the pitch I shouted her name and this time she responded. Relief ran through me to learn that she was unscathed. The wind had muted our shouts to one another. The delay in climbing was due to one of the belay hexes taking ten minutes to remove. A whitened Anna soon joined me at the belay. Her back and rucksack were plastered with avalanche debris but she was fine.
Snow was constantly blowing off the plateau and down the face, which made sighting an exit from the route impossible from our belay. I traversed out leftwards. Quickly the cornice receded above me but with it so did the shelter from the plateau elements. Snow blasted my face and body. I blindly kicked in steps, slowly progressing leftwards, making sure they were deep enough to fully support my weight before moving my axes across. I swept away the fresh build-up of snow directly below the summit in order to find some firmer placements and collapsed a small fragile cornice that was steadily reforming. Then acutely aware of my lack of runners I pulled myself over the top whilst enduring the wrath of the snow that was rapidly plastering my face in the process.
I kicked in a bucket seat of sorts and then sat down but quickly concluded it was too cold for sitting - even with my back to the wind. I stood up and belayed, confident that I could easily take the weight of Anna's little body in the event of a slip. Soon a white figure whose face was quickly riming up appeared over the top. My hexes were similarly covered in dense rime that made them look like giant pompoms. We briefly congratulated one another - with relief as much as anything and then turned our focus to getting off the plateau. Hurriedly we untied our ropes and shoved them into our bags.
Descending down the couloir would be a death trap so we looked to traverse to the ridge on the West side of the coire from where we could descend back into the coire basin. I carried a map and compass but the map was folded up in its original state rather than being open at the relevant section. Rearranging the map in such winds would be impossible and likely the map would shred. I opted to rely purely on bearings… something that would prove to be a huge mistake.
We could just make out the cornice edge in the white-out conditions so it made sense to follow this whilst possible to allow for easier navigation. Soon we lost sight of the edge and so followed a SW bearing. The light was totally flat with the only indication of ground being the occasional exposed icy section, which indicated safe passage towards it. Having followed a SW course for maybe ten minutes it felt the right time to start bearing West with the view to swinging North around the edge of the coire.
The slopes became mildly wind slabbed and totally featureless as we descended. Snow and sky were merged into one. I progressed slowly, deliberately kicking snow ahead of me in order to create some texture to the ground directly ahead of me. I thought I saw a dark object a short distance in front of me and so assumed the ground between was safe.
…Then I was falling…
I hit the ground and then tumbled over something else. I slid down the mountain in a disorientated state. I tried to arrest myself with one of my axes but I was riding an avalanche with the surrounding snow was travelling at the same velocity. I plunged my axe pick deeper into the snow. Gradually I came to a halt. Or had I? Avalanche debris continued to poor down around me and the relative movement between the flowing snow and myself left me confused as to whether I had actually stopped, or otherwise. Somehow I was still clinging to the compass with the same hand that had arrested with my axe. My other axe was tethered on my leash between my feet.
Anna was nowhere to be seen.
I wasn't sure whether she fallen with me.
I wasn't sure whether I had fallen through a cornice or triggered a slab avalanche.
Then with relief I heard her voice above shouting my name from somewhere above. I shouted back but she couldn't hear me. I started to climb back the up the slope but was unsure of which direction to climb or how far she was away. I was worried that we could become separated. Snow continued to poor down the channel of snow that I had presumably fallen down. I looked across to see Number 4 Buttress through the cloud – fortunately a long way to my east.
Then I remembered our radios and spoke a few words to Anna to confirm I was ok. I told her to shout my name continuously so that I could judge her position. I shouted back in reassurance but the wind muted my shouts. Soon she was blowing her whistle, which much more clearly defined her location. I climbed in her direction. It became apparent that I had tumbled about 60m before applying the breaks. Anna’s voice sounded distant, even when only a few metres below her, such was the strength of the wind. She couldn’t even see me through the white-out despite my close proximity below the cornice, which it was now evident that I had fallen through.
I tried to climb a section of cornice left of Anna but quickly realised it was too steep and unconsolidated to be safe from another fall. I spied directly beneath Anna an almost vertical slab – presumably where the cornice had slid with me on board. The slab was lined with hard névé. Carefully I climbed it acutely aware that one mistake would lead to a similar tumble. I was reunited with Anna who had managed to stay surprisingly calm despite thinking that I had possibly fallen down one of the main buttresses.
We skirted further west before bearing to a more northerly direction. This time we had found a safe passage. Now the ground fell away at a gentle rate and became increasingly more scoured, which allowed us to identify the contours of the ground more readily. Every metre of descent felt a step closer to safety. First sight of the loch was the real indicator that we were on route. The rest would be simple from here. All paths lead to the car park.
We arrived back at the car park for 6pm. In hindsight we were on the wrong aspect for the given avalanche conditions. That’s said, it had snowed a lot more than expected in the afternoon, which had escalated the avalanche risk. Better preparation for navigation off the plateau in white-out blizzard conditions would have helped matters. We had the right bearings but I should have been counting my paces to better indicate my position. I had maybe been a little blasé given my general familiarity with lay-out of the Northern Corries.
I hoped the day’s dramas wouldn’t kill Anna’s enthusiasm for winter climbing - given that she was just starting out. On the contrary it seemed to have the opposite affect. The day had been a little too epic but at least Anna had seen the ‘worst’ that Scottish winter has to offer. Everything else should will feel like a walk of Clapham Common.