Friday, January 18, 2008


February 1997 found Ian and myself again climbing in the Cairngorms. This time based in the northern corries.

We were in Corrie an-t-Sneachda in very strong winds & snow, the wind gusting enough that we were having difficulty standing, temperatures hovered just below freezing. . Our chosen route was occupied, and so was our second choice. Getting kitted up in these conditions was not going to be pleasant so we opted to do the Faicaill Ridge which we could do un-roped and with little problem.

This we did and soon arrived on the summit plateau. A fierce blizzard reduced visibility to just a few feet and it was almost impossible to stand. It was time to call it a day and find our way off, which was a long wide gully used by many as a relatively safe descent route. We skirted above the cliffs in poor visibility and making good use of the compass we got to the col that I knew marked the start of descent.

Ian asked whether we should put crampons on. I dismissed the idea as I'd done this route numerous times over the years without problems. And it was too bloody cold to stop! A decision I would soon regret. I suggested to Ian that the best option was for him to go over the edge first and I'd belay him with our rope around an ice axe planted in the hard snow and backed up by me standing on it to prevent it coming adrift if he fell. I knew the top of slope was also the steepest. He soon disappeared out of sight, digging his heels into the hard snow for grip, ice axe at the ready in his hand. A few minutes later Ian called to me and said he'd cut himself a nice stance out of the hard snow and was belaying me using a similar belay to mine. I quickly followed him anxious to get out of the summit blizzard. My heels dug deep into the hard snow as the slope got quickly steeper. I could see Ian some 70ft below me and sheltered under a small rocky outcrop.

I slipped. I instantly tried to self arrest using my axe. The pick ploughed through the hard snow as I picked up speed and I desperately tried to put all my weight on it. Then I hit something - No text book chance for using my ice axe now, as I was now summersalting and cartwheeling down the slope. I had no chance to panic and knew that eventually I'd feel the rope tighten as Ian held my fall. As expected I suddenly felt the rope tighten round my waist as the rope tightened on Ian's belay, then everything went slack again and I continued my cartwheeling descent down the steep snow slope praying I'd not hit any of the outcrops of rock or ice. Eventually I managed to stabilise myself and quickly managed to self arrest. With great relief I realised I was not injured. I looked up to see what had happened. Ian was falling too!! spinning down the slope in similar manner and heading towards the rocks that puncture the snow. The rope was tangled round my body & legs, there was no time to rig any belay. I rammed my axe deep into the snow and put all my weight on it where I lay. In an instant the rope tightened around my legs as Ian shot past and took up the slack on the rope. All the weight pulled at my legs and body. I held on, my fists clenched tightly around the head of my axe praying I'd not be pulled any further. Then all went still. I'd held him. Relief!

Looking down the slope I could see him laid in the snow. There was no movement - I feared the worst. As we were almost at the bottom and the slope had eased off somewhat, there was little danger now of a further fall. I ran down to him. With great relief Ian said he was OK apart from a knee but had lost his axe and could I look for it. This I did whilst Ian quickly coiled the tangled rope up and recovered from our fast descent of several hundred feet. A few hundred feet up the slope and not far from where Ian was belaying me I saw a small bit of blue climbing tape just under the snow. At the end of out of sight was Ian's ice axe.

Running back to Ian we soon discovered that the reason for my headlong fall down the slope and Ian's uncharacteristic failure to hold me had resulted from the fact that during my initial fall I'd hit him at speed and knocked him off his perch leaving my rope wrapped around the head of his axe planted in the hard snow. Clearly it was not going to hold me without his assistance and thus it proved!!

We now needed to make our way out of the corrie and to our vehicle which was parked a couple of kilometers away in Coirrie-cas car park. However poor Ian was clearly in severe pain and could not walk unaided. There was no one else to help and there was little point in staying where we were. The blizzard continued around us and blown snow was hitting us face-on shotblasting us as Ian supported himself as much as he was able, on my shoulder. We slowly made our way across the frozen ground to safety. It took us two hours to reach our vehicle.

The following morning it was obvious that Ian would not be doing any further climbing so we took ourselves to the accident unit in Aviemore. The news was not good and he was advised to go home and seek further hospital treatment. The next day I helped him onto the train and waved him good-bye.

(I discovered later that he had torn a ligament in his knee and spent several weeks strapped up before recovering the full use of his leg.)

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