Thursday, January 17, 2008


In February 1995 my climbing partner, Ian Thorpe and myself set off from the Gelder Sheil bothy in the Cairgorm Mountains of the Scottish highlands.. We were going to climb Tough Brown Traverse (III) on Lochnagar. This was a snow and ice climb traversing across the face of the cliff. As we set off early that morning we didn't know what an epic day we faced, nor the tragic consequences.

As we approached the foot of the cliff the weather had closed in and unfamiliar with the crag we couldn't find the traverse so we decided to complete a mildly easier climb up Parallel Gully A (II/III) which was easily identified. This is a fine and narrow gully with a number of ice pitches between banks of snow, all of sustained steepness and exposure and about 650' in hight We roped up and commenced our ascent. This was exciting stuff and in the deep shelter of the gully it felt challenging yet safe. A few hours later and some hundreds of feet up the climb we heard a loud boom from above. This was the unmistakable sound of a cornice of overhanging snow breaking off from the top of the cliff. Luckily for us only small bits came down the narrow confines of our gully, but it was an anxious moment passed before we relaxed in the knowledge it wasn't coming down our gully.

Above us a climber called to his friend - several more calls followed and then receiving no reply he called to us. In spite of the wind we could hear him quite clearly. He told us his friend had fallen and he was unable to reach him. The collapsing cornice had caused the accident. Could we assist? Ian and myself
hurried to complete the climb to offer our help. However our progress was halted by a rather blank slab of rock. We both tried to climb it but could not. To us it offered no holds. Eventually the lone, unseen climber above told us he was going to go to get help for his friend. We now had little choice but to retreat our route. The time was 4pm and rather late to be down-climbing what we had spent four or more hours climbing up. We had no choice. In the increasingly poor light it was obvious that the weather was getting much, much worse. Huge amounts of powdery snow were now flowing past us in a continual stream as we cautiously made our way down, belaying on the odd in-situ rusty peg and using quick static belays. This was no place or time for fancy belaying as it got increasingly dark. My nerves were on edge as this was going to be a rather long and tricky down-climb in the ever worsening conditions. The amount of snow pouring down our narrow gully was increasing by the minute. Above us on the Cairngorm plateau a severe storm was raging. I was also getting colder. My down body warmer was in my rucksack. Getting it out however, was another matter. The gully was steep enough, that it was all but impossible to place the rucksack in front of me without pushing me off balance - and to compound the problem huge amounts of snow filled the bag every time I attempted to open my bag. Far worse, every time I planted my ice axes in the snow they were instantly lost to sight by fresh snow. As climbing down was impossible without them I could not risk taking the chance of losing them. I would have to stay cold.

Two or three 120' rope lengths later and in complete darkness, we decided our progress was too slow and made the decision that we could probably manage the rest of the descent without using the rope to belay us. Ian below me led and I followed. A few minutes later and I slipped, crampons and axes ripping through the powdery snow. I was in deep trouble but almost immediately I came to an unexpected and abrupt stop. Ian shouted from a few feet below for me not to worry as he'd stopped my fall. I looked down and in the light of my head torch I could see one of my crampons had impaled Ian's safety helmet. Lucky for me that the gully was so narrow my fall was arrested by his helmet. I quickly regained some of my composure and quickly dug my crampons and axes back into the snow. We decided to use the rope again no matter how long our descent would take. A feeling of doom crept into my mind. This wasn't a good feeling.

A rope length later and Ian called from below that he had reached the bottom. Relief flooded my body as I knew we had reached safe but steep ground. My assumption was soon refuted. As I waded around the deep snow at the foot of the gully. It was obvious from the amount of snow both underfoot and coming down the gully that an avalanche was a real possibility. All around us the blizzard raged. Visibility in the dark was reduced to nil. Keeping the rope on we cautiously descended in the blackness down the snow, nerves on edge, praying we'd make the bottom of the steep snow slope before being overwhelmed by avalanching snow. The weather was now so bad we only knew we'd arrived at the bottom of the slope by virtue of the fact that we were no longer wading downhill. Again my sudden relief was turned to anxiety and fear yet again as I now realised that we were standing on the frozen surface of the loch which filled much of the corrie at the foot of the crag. This would not normally bother me in winter but on our crossing the same loch that morning I'd put one foot through the ice quite easily whilst walking along the edge. It had been quite obvious that the loch had not quite frozen solid. And now we were stood somewhere in the middle! Our lights could only illuminate a few feet, and all around was flat. Like many choices we only had one real one, and that was to continue upon our compass bearing, our sole aid to direction. Several nerve shattering minutes later the flat landscape became bumpy underfoot and we knew we were off the lake. Relief flooded my body and I knew we were safe.

Descending below the cloud level the snow turned to rain & we saw the flashing lights of the Mountain Rescue tracked vehicle as it made it's way slowly up the hill. We stopped and exchanged information. This was the mountain rescue team coming to rescue the climber who had fallen earlier. An hour later we were back in the Gelder Sheil bothy. I looked at my watch. It was 9pm We been on the move for 12 hours!.

We were later to learn that due to the extremely bad weather the mountain rescue team were unable to search for the fallen climber until two days later when the wind and storm abated. The climber, a very experienced Scottish mountaineer & climbing instructor was found dead later.

1 comment:

J.D. Scorpio said...

Hello Dave:
I read about your climbing experience and was sorry to hear about the other climber! I hope all your future climbs are safe and successful ones……….. My grandfather was, Archie Eli Perry. He was the town Blacksmith. You have a standing invitation to visit my blog and leave a comment if you choose…. JD