Sunday, February 26, 2006

Scottish misery

Some people argue that mountaineering is about pain and suffering, and that true mountaineers are those that can withstand or even enjoy miserable times in the hills. The week has just ended and I am back from a trip to Scotland, where I got more than my fair share of suffering, and I can truly say that I didn't enjoy it.

On Monday 20th February 2006, I headed with a bunch of friends to the North Face of Ben Nevis. We decided to tackle the classic, easy (grade II), Gully Number 2. We were pretty excited about the climb, and after about a 3-hour walk from the car park we were at the bottom of the gully, past a couple of climbers that decided not to go up for fear of avalanche. The snow was very soft that day, knee deep, very hard going. Nonetheless we headed up the gully, unroped. The couple decided to follow us after all. At the bottom a team of four German climbers just arrived intending to do the route as well.

The climb was pretty beautiful. We easily overcame a couple of small icefalls, and struggled a bit because of the strong spindrift. My french mate Pascal reached the top first. He stayed below the cornice waiting for me and our two friends to arrive. I was a couple of metres below him, when suddenly I started to slip. I tried to dig my ice axes firmly in place and kick my crampons in place but I kept slipping ... I looked up and to my horror I saw a crack developing and widening quickly on the snow all around me. The windslab I was standing on had collapsed. I managed to shout "avalanche" and a few milliseconds later I was sliding at full speed down this waste pipe of a gully. The Ben Nevis had flushed me down mercilessly. I slided very fast, trying to self arrest unsuccessfully. I kept trying until at some point I tipped over, my feet kind of stopping and my whole body whipping around, I started to roll wildly, hitting everything on the way down. The ride was so wild that I just thought that I would kill myself. Suddenly I stopped in the soft snow of the lower slopes, shaken but relatively unhurt. I lost both Ice axes. The four German climbers where still at the bottom of the gully and hadn't started climbing yet. They kindly came down to me, they had found one of my ice axes. They checked if I was ok. They draw my attention to two people further down the slope. My two friends had been avalanched as well! The German guys were pretty helpful and helped us down the slopes to the CIC hut. There we managed to recomposed ourselves and head back to the car park.

We found Pascal on our way down. We later lernt that the couple that was following us up the gully happened to be just below one of the little icefalls inside the gully and we just flied past over them! And it seems they didn't even realised! Went to the hospital in Fort William were we were checked over and found to be fine. We also lernt that the avalanche hazard for that day was grade 3 (considerable), with hight risk at North East facing slopes with unstable windslabs and snow over 900m, with special mention to gullies!

The rest of the week was filled with an easy traverse of a lower Munro and returning to Ben Nevis were Pascal and I tackled Castle Ridge (grade III). Beautiful but miserable. The wind at the top was hurricane like, and I kept climbing with visions of my body rolling down the hill and over the rocks, the snow slabs breaking underneath me! My biggest regret is that in these occasion I didn't manage to conquer the Ben's summit! I'll probably head back during the summer to do the easy 'tourist' route . . .

Gully Number 2 (red arrow) from the CIC hut:

The slab avalanche started near the top (top arrow) below the cornice, and I ended up well below down the lower snow slopes (bottom arrow)

About to be avalanched: looking down gully number 2