There’s no business like snow business. Jan 16th 2016
The weather in our country is so much more than just a set of climatic conditions: it sets our moods, we schedule our lives by it, it gives us no end of conversational topics and we make life changing judgment calls on it. When you compare our life style to that of others who live their lives in countries where they can plan a day/week/month in advance, because they know what it (the weather) will be like, our lives are crazily erratic, prone to rapid changes of planned schedules, especially if you have an interest in an outdoor pursuit.
Climbers are probably at the top of this list, is it warm/dry/cold/icy/snowy enough, is there too much wind, enough day light etc etc etc to do what we have in mind.
We train, dream, salivate over guidebooks then hope for the weather to fit in with our schedules; disappointment can be way of life but it’s generally greeted with pragmatism and a shrug of the shoulders.
When I set off for Scotland, the birds in Somerset had been tentatively greeting the dawn for a week or so with some hopeful spring-like twittering as the days noticeably lengthened and the sunshine strengthened.
The rooks waited hopefully next to their nests in the trees at the side of the M4 motorway for something unknown, but driven by some instinct to happen. Two wobbly lambs wandered about a field somewhere next to the M6 as I drove north. Spring was here in the south, however the weather in the north was another thing: it was set to be cold and there was snow on the hills with more forecast to come. I had had enough of waiting. I was going to go for it and would do something whatever happened.
The snow started as I joined the M74 south of Glasgow, there was an inch or two at the roadside on the M9, by the time I drove past Dalwhinnie, my windscreen washers had frozen compliments of the -4° temp but my still warm pee bottle contents came to the rescue of a salted up and fairly opaque windscreen.
There was serious snow (hard and frozen) in my chosen lay-by for the night. It was lightly snowing but there were stars winking through the thin cloud. I parked the van with a view over Glen Garry where I could watch the rise and fall of the moon, the coming and going of the clouds and hear the wind in the trees far enough below to not block my view to the rough bounds.
I set off the next morning with a ‘straight up’ mentality on the north ridge of Faogach. It was frozen at 150m, light snow at 300m, a good covering at 500m and by the time I got to the steeper section there were deep drifts with no base. I floundered about in a generally upwards direction thinking that by the time I got to the ridge the wind would have scoured it clear and allow me unhindered progress. I formed this opinion because of the sheer amount of spindrift being deposited on me continually from above.
I was tired when I got to the summit. I looked along the ridge towards Sgurr na Sgine, it was unbelievably covered in deep knife edge drifts along its total length. I floundered, fell and cursed my way along this in a stiff wind, which blasted my face and eyes with driven ice crystals. By the time I got to the summit of Sgurr na Sgine – only 1k and about 200 vertical metres away – I had had enough. However, the van was now a long way away and below. It would have been sensible to go back the way I had come but I just did not fancy another hour in deep snow in the rising wind and spindrift so I opted to drop into the choire between the hill I was on and the Forcan Ridge.
Mistake number 1: when you are in deep snow and you look down a slope from above remember that you cannot see the boulders, as they are all covered in snow. I opted to go down a fairly steep but generally benign looking snowy slope towards the bealach. About 50m down I was in chest deep snow flailing to ensure any kind of forward progress when I dropped suddenly over the edge of a small cliff that I had no idea I was above. It was only about 4 feet, but I crapped myself: an awkward landing and a broken leg up here at this time of the day in these conditions did not bear thinking about.
All of a sudden it started to snow, the wind picked up and it whited out. I could no longer tell what was up, down, sideways, steep or icy; I was in complete sensory deprivation. Staying still was not an option so I kept going, with an ice axe in my hand – which was about as much use as a chocolate ashtray given the conditions.
It cleared just as suddenly, and I could see the bealach and the dry stone wall on the other side of the choire which I knew from a previous ascent of the Forcan Ridge led to the stalkers’ path that eventually terminated at the road in Glen Shiel where the van was parked. I felt a degree of salvation but forward progress through a boulder field covered in deep bottomless drifts was horrendous.
It’s quite strange when you are on your own in a difficult situation with failing strength where you find the energy to continue, but continue I did. Obviously, the only option was to sit down and freeze which was not an option, I could have cried but that would not have helped much either.
All of a sudden (well after 90 minutes of flailing through snow covered boulders tentatiovly testing every foot placement in the bottomless snow just waiting to drop between two stones, fall over and twist an ankle at best or break a leg at worst. I was at the big flat boulder where climbers who are about to do a traverse of the Forcan ridge stop to put on crampons etc. There had been a party there the day before, so there was a trail broken on the rest of the path. Never have I been so happy to see signs of human intervention in the landscape.
Now it was easy-ish…! – I put my head down and followed now reasonably obvious path through the previously broken snow. The light was fading and the weather was worsening: it was snowing heavily now and the wind was gusting and knocking me about, I was still about 500m above the van, I just kept going.
I got to the bealach where I knew the path cut back on itself to head down to the glen floor, and looked with complete disbelief and absolute despair as there was no road on the bottom of the glen where I knew there should be.
How in the name of hell had I gone wrong: I had not checked the map or my compass; I had just been sure of where I was going and kept walking. How many times had I warned groups in my care not to do this very thing! I have done it before, gone around in poor weather and headed in completely the wrong direction, I had done it again, this time it was a serious mistake.
As this wave of despair hit me the wind picked up the spindrift and everything went white, it knocked me over, I couldn’t stand up in it never mind get out my map and try to figure out where I had gone wrong. I knew real panic – this was not a game this was Fkin serious – I could be well stuffed here! I cowered in the maelstrom of wind driven snow and ice and tried not to panic.
Then as quickly as it had come the wind dropped, the spindrift cleared and I saw the headlights of a car making its way along the road where I knew it should be.
An hour and a bit later I was back in the van with a hot orange in my hand and sanity was restored.
It was over a year since I had been out in the highlands in winter but I had forgotten so quickly just how serious it is. The waiting for the right conditions had propelled me into making a rather rash judgment call on my fitness and the conditions I was heading into. I was driven by the weather and my desire to get something done, I have gone out in January before at the first real snowfall of the year and been hammered by steep powder, how had I forgotten how hard it can be, I am older and supposedly smarter.
Obviously not! However, another Munro ticked, another adventure, a good tale to tell and better than a life of ordinariness.
Tomorrow was another day.