Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Red Slab to The Water Slab... Killing it!

Getting Off Flat Street...

The Mountain (Photo Dave Cuthbertson)
"I could never work out, if I should have stayed in the avalanche debris looking for longer. To this day it plagues me. 

He was  already dead, but I never knew that. I was scared, 19 years of age and had just survived a large 700ft  avalanche over steep buttresses and couldn't understand how long I was supposed to search for him on my own versus making the timing of a rational decision to go for help from the Glen Coe MRT (rescue team)... 

... I was spitting blood and had a feeling I had broken my arm and I heard others from above (Di Lampard and Mick 'angry' Thompson) shouting down that there had been an avalanche.  After stumbling around the debris of large blocks of snow, ice and rocks calling his name, I decided to make a run for the Jacksonville hut at the bottom of the mountain and try and get proper rescue help from there. Tam 'the bam' of the Creagh Dhu Mountaineering Club was having his tea in the hut and saw me as I was running down the hill  with my crampon hanging off. I couldn't stop and just kept running towards the black hut with uncontrollable thoughts about what was happening.. Was this real or was it just more of my minds unreal and just thought that Colin would shout down from behind me to calm down and that he was OK and what a buzz it all was..

Colin.. (Photo Mick  Thompson)
... Davy Gunn from the MRT found the body in the dark, jammed under the 'water slab' and later the autopsy confirmed a burst spleen and other terminal injuries and that we had fig rolls for lunch., but I knew we had fig rolls, that was all I really knew.. .

I met Dai Lampard in Wales a life time after the avalanche and he recounted what he witnessed, telling me that it was triggered by a party traversing from Curved Ridge across the top of the gully . It made no difference how it started really, as we were pushing our limits so hard that perhaps we would have come unstuck later, in another place and another time. This was just my friend Colin's time that weird day on a winters afternoon on that mountain that had shaped so much of my life and in the end his brutal death.

We had done the FWA of a then technical rock climb called Red Slab on Rannoch Wall the previous week and it was clear to us and perhaps others that we were doing something new in Scottish winter climbing. It was hard, scary, exhilarating just being on that wall together, charging towards our little place in Scottish climbing history, but in the end we pushed too hard without enough fear of what could happen if things went a little wrong at the wrong time... A chance in a million they said later in a book:

       "1988, February 6    Buachaille Etive Mor
          Two Scottish climbers descending from Rannoch Wall avalanched in Easy Gully and carried down 250m. 
          One man (19) sustained broken elbow but other (23) was buried and was dead on recovery by the Glen Coe
          MRT." (A Chance in a Million)"

On the day of the avalanche, we were trying to compliment our previous FWA with another called Satan's Slit on Rannoch Wall, but on the second key pitch where I was trying to access the safety of the Agag's Groove ledge via a precariously thin and bold traverse line. My crampon came off my left boot leaving us two choices: for me to try and complete the rest of the unprotected traverse with one crampon on or to down climb what I could towards Colin's poor belay of 2 slings over small spikes and just jump. We agreed the latter and so I wobbled down a few moves till I was parallel with Colin, looked him in the eye and nodded, then jumped off the icy wall...

We both held our breathe awaiting the belay to rip and take the 80ft fall into the snow filled gully together below, but luckily (for me) it held and we laughed it off as another little part of our Rannoch Wall history. We both thought that if the belay would have ripped that, although we would have probably broken some bones in the fall and screamed like babies, we would certainly have tried to stay alive and concentrated in the free fall. Sounds weird now, but then we were in a place that allowed us to push through the norms, because without that, we would never have stepped onto that great wall covered in snow and ice.

We took lunch on Curved Ridge (fig rolls) and watched Mick and Di on Agags Groove then began our solo descent down the Curved Ridge with intermittent moves into the snow filled gully to get past difficult sections on the ridge. 

We were discussing the pros and cons of Frank Zappa's music when I heard a huge thunderous bang behind me. But Colin, poor Colin, was just to my left about 20ft below and obviously got completely swallowed by it... I remember him just looking up and a noise came from him that was just visceral and maybe he knew then he was about to die in that moment because it was the sound of an animal not my 23 year old climbing partner.

Then darkness and three large drops over cliffs with the impact on my back each time. Choking in my lungs from the powder snow being rammed down my throat as I tumbled through the air in the most surreal of places. I tried to just stay alive in that moment, holding my hand over over where I thought my mouth was in the tumbling darkness. 

The experience of being thrown through the back windscreen of the car at speed along the road  directly below this mountain the year before, was confusing, because I was unconscious laying on the road and I try to remember the impact or tearing the back windscreen out, but I can never remember any of that, just gripping the back of the drivers and passenger seat instantly before impact against the rocky embankment that flipped the car upside down. My friend Graham took the worst of this crash when the car landed on it's nose in the moor pushing the engine through and crushing his feet. He eventually learned to walk again and climb again, an impressive person.

 But this time, I was falling in a white darkness over a buttress that I had climbed a hundred times since the age of 12.  It was confusing that the avalanche and the car crash happened so close together and why I never gave myself the time to recover and found myself shaking with terror halfway up the North Stack Wall in Gogarth in the Easter of  '88 realizing I was going to hit the ground hard... Again. 

Di told me in Wales that we didn't stand a chance, it was like a huge speeding train coming down the gully in an fury. After the second impact I began to stop struggling and awaited my fate, my transcendence to the other world. I expected nothing but the red blood of my flesh and bones impacting through my face and to simply wander off into the next place with just the warmth of my blood comforting me on the final journey. I didn't want to be buried alive on that mountain, to feel alone like that would just be too much... I rolled out the bottom of the avalanche to the left of The Water Slab in the bright sunshine to a beautiful view of Rannoch Moor panning out before me. 

Later, siting in the car park with the rescue underway for Colin in the dark night, it came across the radio that they had found his body jammed between the Water Slab deep down beneath the debris. I felt by then that he must be dead but Kristine (his ex girlfriend) burst into tears crying for her friend, her first love. I didn't feel much of anything until the police took his body back to the morgue in Glen Nevis where, (after a visit to the Belford hospital to deal with my arm) I was asked along with Kristine to identify his body as Colin Gilchrist, our friend. 

Seeing him with his climbing gear on, slayed out flat on the concrete slab in the early morning hours in that cold building stays with me, but poor Kristine had it worse and cried real tears of pain and confusion why her friend was lying dead on a slab with me hopelessly standing over him wondering what was going on trying to work out why we weren't still up on Rannoch Wall scraping our way to the finishing moves of Satan's Slit first winter ascent. ...There was nothing rational about any of it, but when I touched his lifeless cold head in the morgue I regretted all our bravado... all of it.

Colin's death had a profound impact on my life and climbing was never real for me until that day.
Colin was an only child to a widowed mother and his death and the loss his mother felt cannot be imagined. Maude (Colin's mum) didn't have much money and I cycled Colin's recently purchased new Dawes Touring bike up to Glencoe from Balloch after work where Ian Nicholson from the Creagh Dhu, the then owner of The kings House Hotel, bought the bike to help Colin's mum with funeral costs. I visited Colin's mother every week in East Kilbride for a while until one day  it stopped... The guilt. 

I always tried to lead a bigger life after that, and I always told myself it was for both of us, and that I could pack in two young lives into mine and always keep on choosing the bigger choice in the hope of a bigger return that could maybe balance my books a little...

... I stopped winter climbing for a period until I was there again, in that unreal place watching closely as god took his best go and poked and stabbed his finger around my climbing life. Another mountain in the dark, another body tossed around in front of my eyes on an ice covered face.

He was a friend and experienced mountaineer Con Higgins from the Creagh Dhu. We were on the North Face of Ben Nevis in winter and had just completed a classic ice climb called Minus Two Gully that lead to the long ridge of the North East Buttress, but the winds had been increasing in the day and by the time we stuck our heads over the top of the gully to the exposed ridge, the winds were extreme and gale force. We could hardly stand up on the ridge let alone climb it to the summit. So we abseiled down two rope lengths to a leftward snowy traverse rail that would lead us to an easier descent lower on the North East Buttress.

Everything was going as planned and Con's knowledge of Ben Nevis in winter was impressive. I hadn't been on this part before and so relied on his trustworthy knowledge and judgement on this face. As it got dark, we made it to the easier snow field that hung above the steep buttress below and so we moved together (roped) in the terrifyingly high winds. I suggested we took the rope off and just soloed because the rope was being arced in the high winds like a sail and I instinctively thought I wanted to climb on my own in such aggressive conditions than move together without protection. Con was cool with it and we packed the rope away and began the traverse above the buttress.

The winds were gusting so hard that I was having to front point to just stay attached to the ice and I turned round to the noise of a garbled shriek only to see Con being blown off backwards into the darkness over the buttress out of sight. My immediate thought was that he was just dead now  (another one gone) and that I was next. 

My head torch was still in my sack and I just decided to try and down climb the line which Con had gone over in case I could find his body wrapped round some rocks, just in case there was a chance because I always felt I ran away from the avalanche and this time I was staying at the crash site to help. 

The wind was terrible, I could hardly move with fear and the adrenalin had just rushed up my legs in gallons piping all round my whole body in a way I had never experienced before.It nearly overwhelmed me. It wasn't the gusts that felt the most dangerous but the turbulence created by the wind bouncing off the rock and ice features that surrounded me, this caused so much confusion. I couldn't even reach into my pack for the torch in fear that another extreme gust would just catch me unawares and throw me off like another puppet as it just did with Con right in front of my eyes. So I began to front point down the ever steepening face in between the aggressive gusts in the darkness. 

It was about grade III conditions, which isn't too bad normally but in these extreme conditions and the not knowing what I was climbing into was confusing but I continued slowly down the face shouting for Con but not really expecting him to be alive. Expecting to find a corpse was one of the most terrifying things in my life (but the room in the Pyrenees where I had to commit psychological suicide was much, much worse, but I wasn't there yet, I was here in the dark on another north face solo looking for a corpse that was once a friend).

After an hour or so I made it down to steep snow that I could walk on, but had not seen traces of Con's body, bodily parts or belongings in the dark yet. I decided I would kill this when I got down and stop winter climbing near my limit as others just seem to get hurt around me.

I heard his voice a few feet away in the dark and carried his concussed and broken ass back to the CIC hut and called the rescue team out from the radio hut to come get him. It made me cry a little when they packed him up on the stretcher and took him away to the hospital, but he managed a good laugh about the morphine they had given him to ease his broken pelvis and sore heed. Con was a hero to me after that, not because he was a great mountaineer but because he managed to stay alive.... "