Anatomy of an ‘Epic’
On Thursday 23rd of February I made the long journey north to Fort William. Arriving at a chalet that a friend and his family had rented for a break in Glen Nevis at about 10:20pm.
“What are we doing tomorrow then Steve?” I asked.
“Golden Oldy on Aonach Mor I reckon. I’ve done it before. Great route.” replied Steve.
“Sounds good to me”.
We had a beer and looked at the guidebook, discussed the kit we’d need and what time we were getting up.
“The first gondola up the mountain is at 8am. If we’re up for 6:30 that should give us plenty of time” With that, we went to bed.
Friday dawned calm and partly clear, the snow-covered mountains clearly visible and we drove to the Nevis Range car park. We arrived in plenty of time for the first Gondola with only a few other mountaineers for company. At the top station, we turned right and walked towards the approach for the Western face of the mountain. After a short while we parted company with Thomas, Steve’s son who was out for a walk over to Aonach Beag. We descended into the valley between Aonach Mor and Carn Dearg Meadhonach the ground was deep with powdery snow which had fallen the day before. We trod carefully in the footsteps of the other mountaineers in front of us, who in turn were following the footsteps of people the day before. This must have saved us a lot of energy as when we parted company we were soon thigh deep in powder.
The final approach to the bottom of Golden Oldy was hard work; energy sapping snow, post-holing every few steps. We stopped on the lower reaches to put on crampons, harnesses, helmets and retrieve ice axes from our packs.
Setting off up to the climb we separated from the other climbers. They had said they were going to do Golden Oldy too so we were a little surprised. Whether they had changed their minds or just taken the wrong route we didn’t know. What we did know is that they were heading up Gendarme Ridge.
After a short while of solo climbing we stopped in a corner to get the rope out and pitch up. Looking left I saw the other climbers abseiling back off their route. When we’d got ourselves sorted we were off again, climbing up onto the boulders that make up the route. The climbing was slow and difficult. Hindered by soft snow covering the route and crumbling away underfoot everything took too much time.
Steve led a few pitches, I led a pitch, Steve took over again. By now the wind was picking up and some of the more exposed sections felt a lot more challenging. Looking off either side of the ridge it would have been a long drop that I didn’t want to experience.
Eventually we got to the final snow slope. We put away the rope and finished the route. By now it was about 5pm. We knew we’d missed the last gondola back down the mountain but thought we were but a couple of hours from the car.
Climbing onto the summit plateau we were immediately battered by strong winds. Whiteout conditions. We stowed the axes, got out walking poles and checked the map. “North. If we head north we should encounter the ski runs and from there the top gondola station”. We set off following the compass, but careful not to get too close to the western edge. I knew the summit plateau kept a fairly consistent gradient for a Km or two in the direction we wanted to go. After a while, maybe fifteen minutes, I called Steve to stop because the ground seemed to fall away more steeply than I had expected. We stopped and I took the map from my pocket. The wind tore the map from my hand and it sailed from view. “Noooo!” We backed away from the unexpected slope a little way. Steve was about six metres from me and moving south. I shouted to him but he couldn’t hear me over the wind. I turned and followed him.
A few moments later I was falling.
I thought I had just slipped into a little dent in the ground but I kept falling. For what seemed like an age I fell, spinning and rolling. I couldn’t stop. Every time I thought I was slowing down I’d hit a bump and fall further. I bashed my head on a rock. The helmet made a sickening bang. I was glad to be wearing it. A voice in my head said, ever so calmly, “Well. This is it then”. I thought that was me done for, that I was about to die.
There was no panic, just resignation to the fact that there was nothing I could do.
Eventually I stopped. Surprised to be alive I felt my arms, legs and chest. Everything seemed to be in the right place. I wasn’t in great pain. I felt my face. It was wet. Was it blood? Was I smashed up? I tasted the liquid, it was just water. I realised I had lost my Leki pole in the fall. I began to laugh and shouted into the storm “I’ve found Coire an Lochan!” Steve heard my laughter and began to approach me. He was much higher than me and descending to meet me. I didn’t know at the time that he had fallen too. He slipped about 30m. I had gone about 100m down towards the lochan. We both had our axes out now and began to climb out of the Coire.
After a short while climbing, a crack opened in the snow above us. It looked just like someone had unzipped the snow. Slowly at first and then all of a sudden quickly a windslab avalanche came crashing over me. I hung onto my axe and managed to stick to the slope. After a few deep breaths I carried on. Another unzip. Another avalanche. I couldn’t hang on this time and went crashing back down the slope. Not too far, but scary, nevertheless. One more try. Almost to the top this time. Unzip. Crash. We were sent tumbling down the slope. Snow rolling over us. We came to a rest and Steve had been caught by my crampon spikes as we fell together. He was in pain but we didn’t think badly injured.
Climbing out was no longer an option. We tried to traverse below the crags to continue our journey north and off the mountain.
The snow was too deep, too loose. It was dark now and we were soaking wet. Our only option was to get to safe ground and get in the bothy bag that I was carrying. We walked down the slopes, their angle getting easier. Soon we were at the edge of the lochan. Hard to see as it was frozen and covered in fresh snow. We found a large boulder that we thought might offer some protection from the howling wind. We threw our packs down and got out the bothy bag and climbed in.
Steve’s take on the accident:
5.38pm Jay turns north and he’s gone.
Just like that – one second he’s there the next gone. I don’t have a clue where, perhaps he headed down a gentle slope, maybe he walked further back, perhaps he’s just fallen over a cliff and is dead or horribly injured. What do you do when your partner has just fallen over a cliff? Leave him! I had to have a look, so I did.
I’m falling – time has stood still. I’m dead. Simple as that. I’m free falling trying to plunge my pathetic walking pole in to ice. There’s no fear; why should there be? I’m dead and there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve let everyone down with some stupid, stupid useless hobby. All my family, all my friends. I hit snow and roll once, then I stop. I’m alive. I stand up.
Visibility still pretty poor, I could still be a few feet from a massive cliff face. What about Jay – did he fall? If he did he must be dead. Maybe he didn’t fall! Perhaps he’s still up there, the spindrift just hid him for a moment. I’m totally alone. Jay’s lying dead down the mountain, I can’t find him and I don’t know where I am. It’s nearly dark but there’s hardly any wind, I’m on the lee slope. I move down a few feet and the mist is clearing. I can see huge dark cliffs to one side but it’s a gully. Yes, we managed to fall down a gully – two miles of 300 foot cliffs and we chose to fall down a gully. Maybe Jay is down there. I start shouting. Nothing. Then incredibly I see him and he’s laughing. He’s 200 feet below me and he’s laughing. He’s laughing because he’s alive, he’s not even injured.
We hadn’t managed to stop for lunch on the climb and by now we were starving. It was about 8pm by this point. We ate our lunch and drank the flask of now lukewarm coffee. We discussed our options. Given the weather and our own conditions the best course of action was to sit tight in the bothy bag and wait until morning. We knew Steve’s wife and son would be missing us and would have most likely raised the alarm with mountain rescue so we needed to get the message out that we were safe.
I called 999 and was put through to the Police in Fort William. We explained who we were, what had happened, gave our location and told them that our plan was to sit tight. “Do you have food? Are your clothes wet? Have you spent a night out like this before? Are you experienced mountaineers?” We answered the duty sergeant’s questions and she remained sceptical that we would survive. My phone was not connected on my own network and was classed as roaming so I couldn’t receive any calls. We were asked to call back in ten minutes after she had spoken to the Lochaber Mountain Rescue team. It was by now almost 10pm. I called back the Police station. She informed us that the team were not coming unless our condition got worse. The weather was too dangerous to send a team up the mountain unless we were in immediate danger. There was a plan to send a ski-patrol avalanche assessor to find us at about 7am and help us off the mountain.
We were set. A cold night in a small waterproof shelter in a storm. Steve was freezing cold so he took the spare down jacket. This warmed him briefly but it was soon soaked through. We sat huddled together to share what warmth we had. Every hour we’d award ourselves with a boiled sweet. (Chocolate limes have never been so delicious). I checked my watch, 10:30. After a while 10:32. Then 10:34. Sometimes I zoned out, I don’t think I slept but every now and again I’d find thirty minutes had passed. They were happy times. The night was punctuated by agonising leg cramps that we’d need to try to stretch out whilst remaining in the shelter. For me this proved impossible so every hour or so I’d leave the shelter to stretch and look around. All through the night Steve shivered away next to me. I occupied myself with looking at the time and squeezing water out of the fleece liners of my mittens. I have no idea how they could hold so much water but at least they stayed warm.
Eventually the sun rose and we could finally see our location. We were about 5 metres from the edge of the lochan. Our shelter was possibly on top of a rapidly thawing stream. Overnight it had rained heavily and a lot of the snow had melted away.
Seven AM came and went. Eight AM the same. No sign of anyone about. I was beginning to feel uncomfortably cold now, I was beginning to shiver -something I had mainly avoided through the night. We agreed that if by 9:30 help hadn’t arrived we would call 999 and let them know we were moving off to try to get ourselves out.
9:30 came and went so we made the call and got going. Terrain that had been frozen the night before was now knee to thigh-deep slush. My boots filled with freezing water within five minutes of leaving the spot where we’d sheltered. My foot got trapped in so much freezing slush I had to hack it out with my ice axe. We struggled through the slush to reach a higher, drier more rocky area where the going was easier. Moving north east around the Lochan we headed out of the coire to an area that Steve was familiar with from previous trips. “I know that ridge. That’s an easy enough route to the summit” said Steve. “I’m not going up that **** ridge in this **** wind!” I replied. “Let’s head up this slow slope under the ski lift instead”. We followed the ‘Braveheart’ ski-lift to its top and then further up towards a small col. At the head of the slope there was a steeper, rockier section. In normal circumstances, we’d probably have had a go at scrambling up and out.
These were not normal circumstances.
I said to Steve that we needed to pitch it as we were tired, cold, wet and his leg was hurting where he was spiked. Steve is a far better climber than I am and would usually lead. Due to his condition, it was agreed that I would lead the pitch. I set off with the intention of using as much protection as I could possibly fit on the route.
Every spike I passed I put a sling on. I found cracks for nuts that I would normally not have noticed. I really didn’t want to fall off. Some sections I climbed the snow, other times the rock. The route was a bit windy but I just wanted to get to the top.
The final section was a steep bulge of snow followed by a ramp then topped with a small cornice. I had one axe and wasn’t wearing my crampons. I’d get the best placement I could manage with my axe and then kicked steps. Most steps were double kicked to get any feeling of security. I topped out with the snow crumbling under my feet. We’d thought that I might just have to belay from the ground a long way back but luckily, I found a perfect rock to put a sling over and brought Steve up.
Back on the summit we were back in the wind. We got the rope away as quickly as we could and walked towards the ski area on easy ground. When we were in sight of the top gondola station my phone burst into life. A message from an unknown number said “Hi, I work for Nevis Range and Lochaber MRT. Give me a call when you get this”. I called back straightaway. “Hi, where are you?”
“We’re in sight of the gondola station, on the ski runs”
“I see you. Come into the station for a cuppa and to warm up when you arrive”
A short while of walking and glissading later we staggered into the gondola station. We were met and taken to the medical room where we were given tea and blankets. We explained what had happened and reported the avalanches to the SAIS avalanche assessor. More tea and a bowl of soup was brought to us. It was the most delicious soup ever tasted. Couldn’t tell you what flavour it was but it was hot and fantastic.
After Steve’s leg injury had been cleaned and dressed and we’d warmed up sufficiently that we weren’t worrying them we took the gondola down to the car park. Altogether it had taken thirty hours to get back to the car.
Reflections on how it went so wrong.
• We knew the weather for the day of the climb was forecast to be OK but turning bad late in the evening. We knew fresh snow had fallen the day before.
On reflection, these were not good conditions to be out mountaineering in. A walk, preferably on snow shoes would have been more fun and safer.
• When we got to the summit I made an assumption as to whereabouts on the western flank we were. This is what I based by ‘walk north’ strategy on (Though we did realise afterwards that the SMC guidebook says walk north to get off the summit too).
The problem with walking north from this point is that the summit is so narrow with a cross wind (which we had) and in poor visibility (which we had) a small error takes you to the cliffs of Coire an Lochan.
Had we been 10 metres to our left we’d have gone over cliffs and unlikely to have survived the fall.
• No spare map
A backup map is something I often carry. I also have ViewRanger but not for this particular mountain.
In hindsight, a properly thought out plan for what to do on the summit should have been prepared – including a clearer idea of where on the ridge we finished the climb.
Things we got right.
• I always carry the bothy bag and down jacket in my pack in winter. I have never before needed them.
• We informed the Police of our status and sought the opinion of Lochaber MRT
• We didn’t panic, we made a plan to sit out the night and did so keeping the Police informed as we went and when we left in the morning.
• The kit I was wearing performed really well; long-sleeved baselayer, Montane prism jacket, waterproof shell. Montane terra stretch trousers with long-johns underneath. In the bivi I added waterproof trousers.
• Two pairs of gloves and one pair of mittens were carried and they all got used!
Through the whole experience Steve and I remained positive and continued to work as a team.
We were told when we spoke to the Police on our return to the chalet that there had been a break in communications and that on the morning the Nevis Range ski patrol didn’t know we were there. When I phoned to say we were moving out they were minutes from launching a rescue team to come and find us.
I wanted to write this post partly to clear it out of my head; for a few days since it happened I kept replaying it and imagining ‘what-if’ scenarios.
Another aim I had was that if anyone reads it, sees what mistakes we made they can avoid them and avoid a cold night in a bothy bag!