Friday, 14 April 2017

Farewell to a Friend

A mucker from my youth Ewen Grant who lived at lower Carnoch passed away in New Zealand yesterday. Ewen and I fished and "borrowed" a few Salmon for beer and parties as youths (when they were plentiful) along with fellow friend and compatriot Ian Clark. I think it fair to say we were all a bit wild.

We also had a few mountain adventures and a misadventures. When we were sixteen along with two others we were rescued from a gully on the N. Face of Aonach Dubh  by Hamish, Walter and Wull in winter conditions late at night when the rope ran out with me hanging off the end. Given the conditions we were lucky to get away with hypothermia and frost nip. I never wore jeans climbing again, even if Levi jeans were the most stylish. A good bollocking from Sandy Whellans the local police Sergeant was well deserved for our general stupidity, and made a change from him forcibly removing us for under age drinking at Clachaig every Saturday night or being chased in a relatives "borrowed" car to meet up with girls.

Ewen emigrated when only nineteen and made a good life in New Zealand having married a local lass and made a family there. His older brother John is a well known local mountaineer and sailor and thoughts are with him and Ewens family at a difficult time. I daresay Ian Clark like myself will raise a glass tonight and think of Ewen and his beaming wry smile and reflect on the many parties, girls, alcohol, police chases and general mayhem of the time. Rest in peace old friend.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Glencoe's Low Level Cragging

Stunning Spring weather so I took a run up Glencoe to visit some of the roadside crags. "The Bendy" has many routes. I did routes at either end and one in the middle with Gary Latter back in the 1980's and Gary and Stork did some other ones. The Bendy is a great Spring and Summer morning venue and has a tremendous big swimming pool below it. Midge hell at night though. Sad to see the old Rannoch Club Doss debris after the fire. As a rescuer we were there a few times taking club members out who had broken legs on the wooden ladder climbing down into the gorge to get to the hut. Often on return from Clachaig.

Below this is the really good little "Dry Gorge Crag" an excellent evening crag which catches the sun and has easier less bold routes than the Bendy. Up the dry gorge is "The Squirrels Crack" and opposite a nice but short crack route that I did with Mark Tennant which about HVS 5a/b. Further up is the bold blank crag that Garry Latter did a few routes on.  I think these routes are in the new outcrops guide and some are certainly in Garys selected climbs guide Scottish Rock Vol. 1 South. If you want to study the images closer just click on them and open up a bigger size.


All that remains of  "The Rannoch Doss" a once well used and secretive hut below Allt na Reigh
Bang in the pic centre at the top of the wall is the final groove (with a peg runner) of "Simmering Psycho" E3 6a Davy Gunn lead and Chris Ducker (Fionas Brother) 1998
The left side has a cracking E2 5b that I did with Mark Waugh as second. In the middle wall are the E4 6a's that need RP's and have exploding crimps!  I did a FA of one with Gary and the others I think he did with Stork. There is a dry platform below so no need for wet feet. Quite a pool and roaring waterfall across from you.
The Dry Gorge Crag. A great little micro crag. Maybe 18m in height. Right to left. The grey wall on the right with a very thin crack is "Crimp" needing a couple of RP's is E2 6a and crimpy. Left again is the very well protected "Sin Nombre" E1 5b a bomber crack for cams and mid sized stoppers. Left again across the black streak is "Ascolatre" E1 5c again good pro but a bit thuggy. Then left is an alternative direct start to the same finish which is maybe 5b/c. FA's Davy Gunn with Chris Ducker and others.
Slightly further up on the same side as the dry gorge crag is"Crack Route" HVS 5b FA Davy Gunn and Mark Tennant. A damp little number but well protected with cams and nuts.
Even further up on the left side is "The Squirrels Crack" by - you guessed it, the Edinburgh Squirrel climbing club.  No give away at HVS 5a/b it used to have a peg runner at the overhang and is fairly well protected but no belay at the top so its a sit and squat job or leave a rope far back. You can get to this route from the top of the dry gorge by scrambling in from the high point.
Garys Crag has a few hard routes but no gear. Multiple bouldering matts might suffice as they are "highballs"
Looking up into the bowels of Beinn Fhada in the middle is a slot. The left side is a detached pillar with a route called "Triple C Special" HVS 5a. You can take it that it's pretty much ungradable much like KAK it's V-Diff neighbour lower down which in the old english would be XS and would both be nice for those of a JH Bell style such as Chimney Route - Severe Aonach Dubh "and the last 20 feet are on rock"!!
Looking across from the top of "The Squirrles Crack" to Allt na Reigh home of  Downie's Barn (on the right of the cottage) which is often mentioned in Alastair Borthwicks book "Always a Little Further". This later became Hamish MacInnes's workshop when he started making ice axes and stretchers so is a bit of Glencoe's history. Under the old road bridge used to be another doss which in my day the donkey jacket clad "Black Frank" lived in. He was a dirtbag climber who lived rough and climbed hard in the 1970's who's favourite ice tool was shortened wooden grivel axe with a bent pick he had shaped over a gas stove.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Top to Bottom on Central Grooves

Sometime mid 1980’s. Fiona and I had recently moved back into the village from Achindarroch Duror. Fiona is away at the wedding of some folk I don’t really know and most of the climbing stars of GMRT are away in the alps with Hamish, working on a big film project. Ian Nicholson and Dave Bathgate have recently bought over the Kingshouse Hotel and LMRT stalwart Willie Anderson is painting at the hotel.

The phone rings at about 2pm on a nice August day. “Doris here Davy, theirs a call out on Stob Coire nan Lochan for a fallen climber. I can’t get anyone as a lot of folk are away”. I ask her to keep trying and get some gear together.  A Police Rangerover pulls up outside and toots and its Stewart Obree one of the local constables to offer me a lift to the pipers lay bye. He’s already asked for a helicopter and SAR 134 - a Wessex from Leuchars is on its way and 55 mins out. 

We arrive at the pipers lay bye and I get info from the reporting walker that someone is hanging free half way up the cliff and the woman holding the rope is screaming.  I get news that the rescue van has been picked up and Richard Greive and Hughie MacNicoll are on the way and Ian Nicholson isn’t at the Kingshouse but Willie Anderson is coming down to help. So, we have enough to do the job, but only just.  A 250-metre rope and technical kit is sorted out and a recently landed SAR 134 crew agrees to take 3 of us up to fly over the scene.

We fly slowly gaining height over Aonach Dubh, and circle the Corrie and see the climber is hanging via a single rope from a running belay some 25 metres above him in Central Grooves, and is hanging just below his belayer about 2 metres out free hanging in space. So at least a 50-metre lead fall and judging by the invertion of the harness (Pat LittleJohn Harness) and that he’s upside down and not moving it doesn’t look good for him, or easy for us. The woman belaying appears to be held by a single point to a very big single block of rock which looks precarious even from the air.

The SAR crew and I talk over the comms and hatch a plan. Drop Richard, Willie and I on the top of the buttress and I will get lowered down and make the belayer safe and taken out of the rope system for them to winch up off the face, and we will get the climber lowered to the bottom and while we are doing rope tricks they will pick up any extra GMRT and land them in the Corrie to come up to the foot off the climb with a stretcher and take the fallen climber down to a good pick up point.

Good belays are sorted and with the difficult task of managing a thick unwieldy rope Willie and Richard lower me down the shitty broken ground to the top of the corner line and lower me down the 100 or so meters to the incident. Loose rock and a few climbs up and down to get the rope directional and stop pulling rocks onto me are needed, so it’s not a quick job or safe. On the way down I see a watch caught by its strap on a relatively good hold in the vertical corner and see that the single running belay is an old rock peg and pretty manky, but its held. The climbers rope is a single 9mm stretched so tight it looks like a 6mm bit of cord. Eventually I arrive at the belay and a very upset woman with a belay rope at its end in the Stich plate. She’s held by a single large wire nut which she is holding in place by pushing the block back as its so loose. I have to spend a lot of time searching out and clearing cracks for rock pegs to both hold her at a single releasable point to get her into the helo strop easily and safely for winching and also separately take the active rope going to the fallen climber and anchor it.
Top to Bottom Lower

As it turns out I know the fallen climber Ray Hall who runs an ad hoc climbing instruction and guiding business and she’s a client on a course. He’s dead, its messy but that has to be isolated and revisited later. I get her safe and rigged for easy release. I have his rope isolated so move down to him and make another belay for me to clip into with an adjustable sling. I come off the lowering rope, lean out and hook his rope and pull him in, put a sling on him at the chest and to the harness to level him off and attach the long static lowering rope I was lowered down on, onto him. Then holding his rope against the rock face I bash it with my peg hammer. One hard blow is all it takes. He gets lowered about 60 metres to the foot of the corner where Hughie, Ronnie and a couple of co-opted climbers have come to help. They get him off and bagged, and I get the rope pulled back up to me and then get lowered down to the bottom and clear of the corner. Sounds easy. None of it was. Rockfall, upset belayer who is at risk, and the victims trauma and hard physical work.

SAR 134 then comes in at a hover and ever so slowly gets closer to the corner dropping the winchman slowly down and inching into the cliff. They get to her, put her in the strop, knife cut my sling and take her up. Very impressive mountain flying and crag rescue. She gets flown down and SAR 134 comes back up and takes us all down to our base at the Pipers Lay bye in a couple of lifts. Its surreal as there are cars and tourists blocking the A82 and hundreds of folks, some with binoculars have been watching the whole rescue.

Statements are taken. He’s being paid so an FAI is likely. Chats and a brew then down to Hamish’s to sort out kit then home for the usual ponder at another person you know killed in the mountains, thinking over many WTF moments of rope work, skills and what you might do different both as a guide as well as any lessons from the rescue. It takes days to come down and get stuff like that out of your head.  Often the best thing is to go climbing next day. So that’s what I did. With a hangover though!

As post script. Dennis Barclay the team’s treasurer gave me a roasting for buying seven new pegs and half a dozen slings from the recently opened “Glencoe Guides and Gear” to replace what I  had used on the rescue as the team didn’t have much money. How things have changed in MR. I often ponder that even then MR was about climbers helping climbers and even had these items not been replaced (and sometimes they couldn’t be) the job would get done regardless. There was an FAI, and someone put me up for a bravery award which I respectfully declined. The local constable being quick off the mark, good rope handling from above, the skill level of the SAR 134 aircrew (never bettered IMHO) and climbers abandoning their days climbing to lend assistance made it all work. Climbing is about the community of the mountains and MR is just another part of looking after your own. I hope that never changes.
Dennis the treasurer on right. Hughie kneeling by the woman. The pair either side of Hamish were lost skiers on Sron a Creise and Wull (arms akimbo) and I saw them get Avalanched into Cam Glen. Picture circa 1980

My Five Favourite Hard Rock Routes in Glencoe

Me on "The Screen" 1976.  No runners just head down with "The Terrors" until the rope stops
Plenty of time on my hands at the moment and it's so dry, so I got to thinking about rock routes that inspired me or made an impact on my climbing be it good or bad.  There are quite a lot to sift through and many of the most enjoyable routes have been notable not just by epics or grades but by the people I have shared them with.  I also confess that I have always loved climbing in the Lakes and the Peak.  I have done a lot also in North Wales but as someone from a gaelic culture always struggled with the attitude of some of the locals as it was so out of keeping with what I was used to.  An example being deliberately speaking to friends in a language they new they couldn't understand.  I have never come across that here even in tight knit Island communities where hospitality and courtesy is seen as normal. I have to say that I liked Cloggy though but always shat it at Gogarth above the sea!

There just isn't space here to cover every route that made an impact so I will stick with the ones I literally grew up on before expanding my ambitions a bit more to the Ben, Shelterstone and further affield. Some routes especially when I was a young man, were notable because of the psychological barriers they presented.  That was often because myth and and an aura impregnability surrounded them or in one case because I had been on two fatal rescues on the route when leaders had fallen, and yet it was a classic I wanted to tick (Big Top "E" Buttress).  It took me 10 years after the last rescue there to have the courage to climb it.  An absolutely stunning big mountain rock climb in outstanding situations and technically not too hard at all.  I even managed the pitch that had claimed leaders in a heavy drizzle. The sense of elation at finally laying that itch to rest was pretty heady.  Trapeze, Big Top and Hee Haw as a triple in a late afternoon sunset gives the very best of Glencoe rock.

The harder rock routes of Glencoe for me all had an aura and were shrouded in legend.  The name Smith, Marshall, Cunningham and Whillans were all in there, as was Haston (although Turnspit and Kneepad hardly do him credit) and also home grown hero's such as Thomson and Hardy (Kingpin). My top five to bag in the graded lists were:
  • Big Ride
  • Gallows
  • Carnivore
  • Yo Yo
  • Shibboleth
There are others that are also memorable. Bloody Crack or Ravens in summer (a hard little number!) Marshalls Wall or Valkyrie, or maybe Lechers/Superstition which is a fantastic combo. These five above though had the biggest aura so I will work through them although not by chronological order.  I have worked from Glen Etive to down Glencoe as per guidebook. Kingpin came when I was much older and wiser and less overawed by who had done what, and is one of the best routes in Scotland.  That came 15 years later!

The Big Ride. Haston fell off the big ride many times before giving up and producing an inferior line with a tensioned rope traverse.  He finaly went back and straightened it out to give "The Big Ride" aptly named for the scalps it claimed pre sticky rubber.  Alan Fyffe took on a bet that he would shave off half his beard if he fell off it when doing what may have been the second ascent. Sure enough he peeled off the crux going for a big 100ft slide and removing a lot of skin and had to comply with the bet. Alan was and remains one of Scotland best mountaineers.  Still graded at E3 6a this route still requires some bottle.  I did it on the 5th May 1983 with Wall Thomson and Mary Anne his daughter with me leading all the pitches so Wall could look after Mary Anne who was just 15 and also take pictures.  I still remember the knack of reading the slab for tiny indents and gently rubbing off any loose grains as the crack of a granite grain under your rock shoe would have you off.  The crux is at about 100ft out with no gear up a thin flange where the slab steepens by a few degrees and if you are very careful you can get a micro nut behind it before committing to the last 50 ft.  So 150ft one runner and a 6a move takes you to the belay.  A mental game!
At the pier Glen Etive sometime in the 70's I had long hair!
Gallows. I had been climbing with "Wall" on the Buachaille and we were wandering about doing various routes as you can there.  I think we had come up from Central Buttress doing a route over there that might have been "Iron Cross" which I don't know is recorded but it was Squirrel club little test piece, then we did Engineers Crack and a route thats called "The Widow" I think.  We then went accross and did Brevity, and a couple of other HVS routes when John Anderson walked across and suggested I should cut my teeth on Gallows.  I hadn't really thought of it -  but why not!  Although quite short the first few crux moves are about 5c and take you out on a rising traverse for about 50ft before the first bit of gear.  So Gallows is a test of bottle and thankfully as well warmed up, and with an audience of Creag Dubh who had come to gloat should I fall I managed to piss up it and make a bit of a  name for myself.  This was in 1982 so forgive me for being chuffed as I daresay its regarded as easy these days.  We did a route on the middle of the top tier after, up a thin crack line well right of the corner and it was harder!

Carnivore.  I was beaten to this by Fiona my wife.  We climbed very many routes together and she was a pretty able climber.  Sadly removal of the lymph glands on one side from breast cancer has scupperd that now!  We lived in Duror when first married and I worked as a woodcutter.  To say I was fit and strong would be an understatement.  George Reid my regular climbing partner phoned me up to see if I would take the afternoon off and go climb "The Villains Finish" with him.  I was away up the wood out of contact so Fiona offered to hold the rope.  The back rope on the first traverese pitch jammed so they climbed the entire route on a single 9mm which is pretty necky.  The Villains finish had a fairly big reputation for being brutal so good effort.  To say I was pissed off would be an understatement.  The monsoons came and winter and I had to wait until the following year to work off my frustration.  I was in a hurry to get it done and I press ganged a young instructor at the Glencoe outdoor centre to be my rope man.  So mid March in a snowstorm I stormed the first pitch. Linked the second two in a one'r and prepared for the overhanging crack that gives the direct finish.  Good rock, but hanging out over big space it's an  up out and right move with a stiff 5c pull onto the wall above where its a  gearless runout to the top at a steady 5a. All in a blizzard.  Kev Howett and Dave Cuthbertson were on the crag that day dropping a rope and cleaning what is now a tunnel wall bolt classic.  Kev snapped a photo of me which I have always wanted to see.  I knew Don Whillans quite well as I played darts against him and Joe Brown at the Padarn on trips to Wales, and he was well known by Hamish.  I never climbed with Don but I did climb with Joe who was a fairly regular visitor to Glencoe at that time.
Carnivore first pitch
Yo Yo.  As I worked as a woodcutter accidents were sadly common.  The first 12 years of being married I worked the wood.  Fiona eventually persuaded me to use my brain and I left then went and studied pharmacology, human physiology and went on to become the first person in Scottish MR to be a paramedic who was also registered by the state. This was before the NHS even got organised.  One of my early courses was Scotlands first ATLS course at the Victoria in Glasgow in 1992.  Anyway I digress - working in the wood was dangerous and two folk had been killed near me the year I did Yo Yo and I also slipped and chainsawed my achillies.  Lots of stitches in the Belford by Dr Sen and a few weeks recovery and I was gagging to get a route in.  Loads of holes from the stitches just out didn't deter me from persuading Duncan the lad I did Carnivore with to come and do Yo Yo. So on a hot July afternoon we made our way up the scramble to the bottom.  That whole N. Face intimidates me having been rescued off it at 16 and taken a fall late at night in winter on it and getting pretty badly ripped up.  So there was an edge to just getting to Yo Yo.  I though my foot would trouble me but it was fine.  The first pitch is supposed to be hard and wet but it was  just a bit necky and damp and easy.  I found the middle pitch hard and thrutchy. The last pitch was in late afternoon sun  and the climbing was superb.  Steady and interesting with a huge atmosphere it finished all too soon on "unpleasant terrace".  Getting off the terrace is interesting so worth keeping on the rope.  What a great route.  Quite thuggy but nothing too bad and what a place.  Ed's route the Clearances next door is also one of Glencoe's best but a tad harder and a bit more serious.  Not one to do with a buggered achillies heel!

Shibboleth. Of these routes this one was a bigger breakthrough than all the others combined. This route was Robin Smiths finest in Glencoe and while maybe not technically the hardest route of it's time, it was the neckiest.  I know the routes history fairly well as I new folk that had had climbed with Smith. He made several attempts at it, one resulting in a broken leg for Al Frazer and a huge impromptu rescue operation from the combined forces of Squirrels and Creag Dubh.  Al Frazer had broken his leg badly and was pulled up onto N. Buttress, along above Ravens and out onto the Buachaille summit ridge and then literally carried down to the bottom.  Smoth soloed off the route to the side to go summon help. Bold and necky. The rescue itself a huge physical task.  Al Frazer later worked in Raigmore with a climbing friend of mine Bill Amos.

My early interest in the route came from the infamous graded list in the red colored guidebook I had covering Buachaille Etive Mor and Glen Etive. This guide listed Agags Groove as suitable route of decent from Rannoch Wall (Ian Nicholson is the only person I know who used it as this).  With various friends and later Fiona I had been working my way up the graded list and only Shibboleth was left. Many routes at the bottom deserved a place at the top.  I had looked across at the route from various angles doing routes on either side and watched another party from the SMC (Graham MacDonald) on it while I was doing Bludgers/Revelation with George Reid. I even had John MacLean (The Great White Hope was Johns nickname after Smith got chopped) regaling me with the tale of the 2nd ascent he did when he was "looking for that fucker Wheechs peg" while rolling a fag while I was on the crux of "Pete's Wall" at Huntly's Cave. "Wheech" being Smiths nickname.
Gearing up for Shibboleth with George aka "The Mole"
1982 was a washout summer and despite getting a lot of routes done in the Lakes, Derbyshire etc it was very much a poor Scottish rock season until in late August the weather finally cleared and we had a few dry days and sun.  So one Saturday in early September, George  and I  arrived at the foot of Ravens and looked up the black groove of the 5c second pitch. The SMC party who  had been on the route while we were doing Bludgers were back doing the Bludgers/Revelation combo themselves which was a co incidence.  Fiona came up to take a few pictures but had to leave as she was later guiding a group up Gear Aonach as she was the senior instructor at an outdoor centre.

I can still remember stepping onto the first pitch, up past a block with no gear until just before the winking black groove.  I was pretty nervous.  The black groove was wet necky and hard with a cold welded nut hammered into the crack.  The 3rd pitch up to below Revelation flake is a joy but with a sting in the tail pulling onto the belay ledge. The best pitch is up the wall to the right of Revelation flake.  A long pitch of steady successive 5b moves on little rough holds on a plumb vertical wall, then a pull over a small overhang then up the wall to the belay.  With one runner!  All with the gaping maw of Great Gully below, and Ravens winking from the shadows. Absorbing climbing.  The final two 45m pitches to N. Buttress are great 5a climbing up steep walls, or go back as we all do one day and do the route again but traverse right across the cave and do "The True Finish" which Smith added later. The Hard Rock book version is the 5a finishing pitches which really are great.  The cave is just truly spectacular! On finishing we went across and did Yamay, Yam, Happy Valley and May crack in the company of the now sadly late Tam Macaully and Dave "Paraffin" who were well impressed we had done Shibboleth, especially as the crux groove was so wet.

We went to "The Ferry Bar" later that night  (under the bridge at Ballachulish) which was "the" climbers pub at that time.   Ian Nicholson and several others shook our hands saying well done lads, and for the next week we had folk saying I hear you guys did Shib well done! I don't think many routes had that reputation credibilty and aura in Glencoe.  It was nice for once to feel the equal of the legends. I can't think off many mountain routes since that were such a turning point in confidence.  Winter perhaps doing the point in the early 1970's was still something, even though Ian had soloed it in an hour.  Rock climbing probably doing Cenotaph Corner in a pair of big boots might come close!

Ronnie Rodgers on the slabs with the sticky boots of the day! Ronnie and I were probably the only two local boys of the time to take up climbing.  Ronnie did Centurion with Jimmy Marshal and his first route on the slabs was a solo of Spartan slab with Ian Nicholson who said it was just an easy intro to the slabs.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Pre Season Avalanche Avoidance Advice

1. Learn How to Interpret the Avalanche Forecast




The Avalanche Danger Scale uses five progressively increasing danger levels: Low, Moderate, Considerable,  High and Extreme. It indicates the likelihood of avalanches, how they might be triggered and recommended actions in the back country. However, the wording is very brief and does not include a meaningful indication of risk. Below is an explanation of each danger level, including the transitions between levels, signs of instability at each level and the implications of slope angle, aspect and elevation.
Understanding the SAIS forecast and acting on it could save your life
Low
Travel is generally safe. The snow pack is well bonded and natural avalanches will not be seen except for small sluffs on extremely steep slopes. Human-triggered avalanches are unlikely except in isolated locations in extreme terrain. The danger will usually be from wind-driven snow in gullies and chutes or deposited across very steep open slopes near ridge lines. Ski or board one by one as smoothly as possible without falling if you suspect the formation of wind slab. Be aware of shaded, north to east aspects where the danger may be transitioning to Moderate. There are few fatalities at this danger level.

Moderate
This is the most difficult danger level for back country skiers and boarders to assess snow stability. Many of the usual indicators such as cracks, settling, whumpfing and signs of recent avalanche are absent, especially at the lower end of the moderate level. Key indicators are any recent snowfall, and wind deposition. Snow pack tests may help assess stability.

Conditions are generally favorable for travel providing routes are chosen carefully. The snow  pack is only moderately bonded on some steep slopes. Areas of danger are usually restricted to certain types of terrain such as bowls and gullies. The altitude, aspect and type of terrain where danger can be expected are usually detailed in the Avalanche Forecast. Remote triggering is unlikely, so you only need to be concerned about the steepness of nearby terrain features.

Human-triggered avalanches are possible. Ski or board carefully, one by one, in suspect terrain and avoid high loading of the snow pack by spreading people out on the uphill track. Carefully evaluate the stability of very steep slopes (steeper than 35°) and aspects identified as potentially dangerous in the Avalanche Forecast.

Be especially careful if the higher elevation band in the forecast, or the danger on other aspects, is Considerable. There is a significant difference in instability between Moderate and Considerable. Don’t get sucked onto higher, steeper and more dangerous slopes. Although naturally triggered avalanches are not expected, ice climbers should watch out for the sun warming steep collection zones above their climbs. If deep-slab instability due to a persistent weak layer is mentioned in the Avalanche Forecast, you need to pay careful attention to the terrain. Avalanches from such a layer are not only likely to be large and extensive, they are completely unpredictable. Unless you have specific local knowledge, keep off large open slopes at this danger level if the forecast warns of a persistent weak layer.

29th March 2013 SAIS Graphic
Persistant Weak Layer March 2013

Click pics to enlarge

Large Slab Triggered off persistant weak layer 30th March 2013
Fatal Avlx x 1 Skier
Considerable
Conditions have become much less favorable. The snow pack is only moderately or poorly bonded over a much larger area of the terrain. Human triggering is possible by a single skier on steep slopes and aspects mentioned in the Avalanche Forecast. Remote triggering of avalanches is possible, so the maximum steepness of the slope above you should be used when deciding if you want to continue.

Instability indicators mentioned in Moderate danger above will likely be present. Back country touring at this danger level requires good route finding skills, and experience in recognizing dangerous terrain and evaluating slope stability. Keep to slopes of less than 35°, especially slopes at the altitude and aspect indicated in the Avalanche Forecast. Remember that remote triggering is possible. Typically the scree fans at the bottom of gullies starts out at around 30° and the slope steepens as it gets higher. Keep off such slopes at this hazard level. The remarks about persistent weak layers in the previous section on Moderate danger level also apply to this danger level.

Reports such as the above showing circles or areas of "considerable" risk within a moderate NW to E is the sort of thing that it's easy to become complacment about as its a common feature of the Scottish winter. You might very obviously if you have any sense stay well clear of the West to South East apsects but wander into a high risk situation on descent on the NW to East aspects.  The majority of avalanche incidents in Europe occur in these moderate to considerable forecast days as they occur most frequently in the season and folk become complacent (the familiarity heuristic) and that's why route choice approaching a climb and thinking about descent options prior to leaving and during a trip as wind and weather change should become part of your thinking.

High
Conditions have become dangerous, most often as a result of significant amounts of new snow, snowfall accompanied by wind or the snow pack becoming isothermal and threatening wet-snow avalanches. The snow pack is poorly bonded over large areas and human triggering is likely on steep slopes (steeper than 30°). Remote triggering is likely and large natural avalanches are to be expected.

Stay on slopes that are flatter than 30° for any part of the slope and be aware of the potential for avalanches from slopes above. If you do decide to walk ski or board on less steep slopes, be very aware of the surrounding terrain to avoid inadvertently crossing the bottom of steeper slopes or cutting down a steep convex rollover.

Usually this level of hazard is only present for a few days at a time. The smart back country traveler will stay in simple terrain until conditions improve. If you are caught out on a multi-day trip you may have to dig in and wait for travel conditions to improve and the avalanche danger to lessen.


Glencoe 19th March 2013
These circles in the avalanche forecast. My take is to think of them as landmines blown by the wind, lurking in eddies from cross loading when the wind blows across as well as down or over a slope, the color of them is the sensitivity of the pressure plate to you the trigger. If there are enough of them the explosion will propagate setting of others, or if the surrounding slope is weak enough then it will slide with it. As you can see there are areas of High on slopes with a "considerable" risk.  A lethal combo of detonator in red -  and explosive on orange making for events that will take lives if you don't tread warily.

Extreme
Extreme danger levels are rare in Scotland as usually this level is associated with buildings and roads or alpine villages under threat, and usually the result of unusually large amounts of new snow. The snow pack is weakly bonded and unstable. Numerous large avalanches are likely. The weight of the new snow can trigger avalanches on layers buried deep in the snow pack. Natural avalanches can release on slopes of less than 30° Back country touring is not recommended and often impossible. Avoid all avalanche terrain and keep well away from avalanche path run outs.

2.  Avoid Groupthink
In psychology "Groupthink" or "Risky Shift" behaviour is well known in groups and most of us will be aware that we have given in to it or even encouraged it. I strongly believe that in avalanche incidents in Scotland this groupthink or risky shift has become the biggest education issue and maybe why we see large group incidents or group events as occured in the Cairngorms when two seperate groups were avalanched last winter. Much has been made of the quick response from folk training in the corrie who helped.  And good on them. What I am about to say is not a reflection on these helper folks choices, as I am sure they stayed in safe terrain.  The  "however" bit though is that just by being there and numbers increase with lots of MRT's training, and groups under instruction, then a larger "Groupthink" takes place. Groups less experienced or not under instruction maybe feel safe, what McCammon labels  as Social Facilitation.  I would call this a  "risky shift". It's often this way in the climbing and skiing honey pots such as the Northern Corries where folk gather. Aonach Mor or ScRL in Glencoe are other places. Even if the waggon wheel of death shows Red on these slope aspects, they are still the places to be seen by the instructor masses who are now at the height of their annual gatherings with paying students. These are the places instructors are familiar with, and therefore where less experienced folk feel safer with an apparent safety in numbers. They maybe went there when they were on a course. Group thinking on a large scale perhaps.

Better minds than mine have already written about risky shift and here's an excellent article on it The Risky Shift Phenomenon and Avalanches. This kind of stuff has been getting applied to avalanche instructor training for a while by AAA.  Do current winter mountain training schemes  include enough if anything on this sort of thing?  I put this as a question, as I am certainly not in a postion to know, and maybe it is already covered. What I do know is that there is nothing that can change the pretty piss poor odds if buried and that pretty universally all of us involved in avalanche education are trying to jump forward and get to "no rescue".

No matter what we do, mountains and people are unpredictable. As a a keen off the piste skier I have to accept that luck is also in there as well, as on good snow days I am first in the que and having gone through the forecasts, stability tests you are only left with how the snow feels under you ski's and gut instincts. Sometimes it's a very subtle thing where in the morning it feels wrong, and by afternoon the snow "feels" safe.  I don't know how the feck that would stand up in court! I also know its taken 40 years and I still can't always be sure it all won't go tits up one day. I also know that it pays to voice your opinion when in a group, and make your own choice, not getting swept along by the group and it's most vocal leader. Beware Risky Shift!



"Destiny is a good thing to accept when it's going your way. When it isn't, don't call it destiny; call it injustice, treachery, or simple bad luck"   Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

3. 




For backcountry travel,side stash/off piste, or indeed anything out of ski area and uncontrolled, always carry the three essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and do a pre depart group test and practice.



If you need an airbag you have fucked up but might survive. If you need your transceiver you have fucked up and probably won't!

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