Sunday, 29 December 2013

Winter part 2: When people and avalanches mix

In my first winter post on avalanches I focused on the causes of snowpack instability and likened the structure to a very strange wedding cake. In this post the I want to focus on what it is like being caught in an avalanche, drawing on my own and my father's experience. 

Avalanche incidents in Scotland are not new; the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland's 'Survey of Scottish Avalanche incidents from 1980-2009' report gives a very interesting insight into the recorded causes, impacts and trends in avalanches over a 30 year period. The Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) publish annual reports on the previous winters avalanche incidents, these provide an interesting glimpse of the changes in weather, snowpack state over time, and the number of incidents. Both reports are well worth a read, if not to just bring some context to the way avalanches were reported on by the media following the very sad loss of life due to a number of avalanches in 2013. I don't intend to ramble on with my own views about the media's interpretation of mountaineering; best follow the link to these well written articles instead.

Here then is my report of being avalanched. To set the scene, it was the 7th January 2003, I had just turned 18 and was focusing (!) on my last couple of terms in the Upper Sixth. Dad was taking me on my first winter climb, the aim was a grade 1 gully called Jacob's Ladder in Coire an t-Sneachda in the Cairngorms.

Photo and annotations of the avalanche site in Coire an t-Sneachda mid rescue. Photo credit: Alan Dennis (David Monteith collection)

A wee Monteith's  account of an avalanche 

The writing below is taken from an account I wrote immediately after the event, I have tried to change as little as possible save for a few minor grammar corrections. Included at the end is my fathers account of the day; as a retired geography teacher and MIC his account provides more context to the day than the ramblings of an 18 year old!

We started out aiming to do the above route. We walked into the main corrie from Cairngorm carpark to get to bottom of route where we took our sacs off and had a Snickers. Dad was on my right (facing the gully) when I heard him shout something like 'Alasdair, move right now', I looked up to see an avalanche and moved fast due to the urgency in his voice. I managed to move about three steps to the right and grab my sac when the first wave of snow hit me. Although I didn't really budge at first but saw snow all around, I was then hit by a slab which turned me over. My immediate thoughts were: *#%!, I'm not invincible, I might die; I'm going to hit my head so better put my hands over it, although I had no gloves on; where is Dad, I hope he is ok, I don't want him to die.

A sheer terrifying experience, I didn't want to believe it was happening, but it was, so face it and get on with it. I remember turning over several times and hoping I didn't get buried, I think I bounced off a few rocks before I stopped, hitting the bottom part of my spine. When I came to a stop I was about 6-7 ft up from Dad, with my rucksac just above and to the right of me. I was shocked, disorientated and sore. Dad had a cut to his head above his eye, relieved to see him alive but worried about his wounds.

I tried to move but couldn't and didn't think it was a good idea with my back, I couldn't get to my first aid kit as the bag was stuck solid in the snow and my hands felt as though they were frozen. Luckily, a team from Glenmore lodge and the Scottish Avalanche Information Service were nearby. They set about with first aid and radioed for a rescue. I was soon wrapped up in an orange bivy bag and covered with clothing. After only 40 minutes the helicopter, Rescue 137 from Lossiemouth (just across the field from the house!) arrived. It circled the corrie checking out the wind conditions and dropping a flare before lowering the winchman down and then the stretchers. It didn't take long to get us both hooked up to the stretchers and we were winched up into the cold. I was spun around by the rotor wash and was tipped up (a result of having my head at the wrong end of the stretcher as it turned out).

A welcome site: Rescue 137 ready to winch. Photo credit: Alan Dennis (David Monteith collection)

It only took around 15 minutes to get to Raigmore hospital in Inverness, during which we were given oxygen and checked over. Arriving at Raigmore, we were both placed in the same room which was reassuring. Being covered in warm towels after constant cold is a feeling I will never forget. I was also reassured when they decided not to cut away my new salopettes and jacket. I had about 6 X-rays taken of my neck, back and arm, but luckily nothing was broken. Dad's X-rays showed he had broken the top part of his hip and needed stitches to his head.

The next day was interesting. The press, tv and radio were in all day interviewing us.
I reckon we fell around 150-200ft and it may have been the initial impact that sent me flying onto my back and then around like a washing machine. Scary, but i'm going to carry on climbing.

Below is an extract of one of those news articles. As well as the Scotsman, Scottish Sun and Daily Mail I also made it into the illustrious pages of Sugar magazine, for which I received the pricely sum of £30. However, the editorial style of the article have cost me far more in jokes over the last 10 years!

The event, as reported by the Scotsman (click for larger view). Photo credit: David Monteith collection

15 minutes of teenage fame, Sugar Magazine, March? 2013.  Photo credit: Alasdair Monteith

The wise old wizard's account of the avalanche 

Below is my fathers account of the day and post event thoughts. This was originally printed in the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI) magazine.

The 7th January 2003 dawned cold and crisp in the Cairngorms; it was a blue sky, high pressure day. My plan was to take my eldest son Alasdair on his first winter route in the winter tyros’s paradise, Coire an t Sneachda. We had already climbed a lot together in summer, the pinnacle of our experience so far being an ascent of Centurion the previous September, and we had spent lots of days in the winter mountains developing axe and crampons skills and looking at the special demands of navigating in the white stuff. The choice for Alasdair’s introduction to winter climbing was Jacob’s Ladder.

There had been the usual early season promise of a good winter with a heavy snowfall at the end of the previous October. In fact my log book records an ascent of The Messenger on the Mess of Potage on 26 October 2002! However the early snow had soon gone or been transformed to nevé in the nooks and crannies of the corries. Fresh snow fell on this old base in early January 2003, an extensive covering, which gave us a fairly strenuous walk into Sneachda that morning as the gentle but keen easterly wind filled in the previous day’s tracks. However, the avalanche hazard was 2 so we trudged up the approach path anticipating a good day.

An alarm bell rang when we met two climbers walking out – too much fresh snow and spindrift was their verdict. This was countered by another early riser exiting the corrie who had soloed Aladdin’s Mirror Direct and seen two skiers descend the Couloir. Things can’t be that bad then! We continued apace, following a deepening trench as we closed with the cliff and selected the right-hand of two beaten tracks through the soft snow. Up ahead several climbers were approaching the base of Jacob’s so I slowed down to see where they might go; they split and prepared to go left onto the Mess of Potage. We reached a platform prepared by the previous day’s teams and prepared to gear up.

In the eerie half light of an orthopaedic ward in the wee small hours you have a lot of time to think things through. Embedded freeze frame memories flashed through my mind: the crump as the avalanche released; the focused image of tons of snow breaking into slab above us; the cry ‘run right’ as I tried to steer us out of its path; the seemingly gentle push as the snow reached us, rapidly turning into a chaotic, tumbling motion; the blood on the snow when we finally stopped; the friendly banter with our rescuers as we waited for the Sea King to ferry stretchers to the rescue site; the hypnotic slow motion of the spiralling stretcher and the raw power of the Sea King’s rotor above as I was winched up. All of this impregnated with huge relief that we had survived albeit with bruises, breaks and scrapes; I had not been the agent of my son’s death.

SAIS, Glenmore Lodge staff and a young Monteith waiting for the Sea King. Photo credit: David Monteith collection

Through an amazing set of circumstances we later gained a detailed insight into what had happened. Basically we were caught by a build up of windslab over soft snow on the apron just below the entrance to Jacob’s ladder. When it released it swept the accumulated powder down onto us. We were gearing up on the edge of what became the debris fan and just missed getting out of its path. Unfortunately it took us onto rocks below, hence the scrapes and bumps!

Our luck held in the form of a Glenmore Lodge party, the group we had seen climbing towards Jacobs’s Ladder. Within minutes one of the Lodge staff was on the radio back to Glenmore and the soothing tones of Tim Walker penetrated the static in reply; the helicopter was scrambled from RAF Lossiemouth after only 15 minutes. Two SAIS forecasters were up on Windy Col assessing the snow and they also swept down on skis to assist, capturing the scene on camera as they descended.

The SAIS forecasters later passed on the snow profile for the day, which clearly shows a very weak layer at 20cms, the windslab above and soft snow beneath on the old snow base – the snow that had fallen the previous October, by January it was a perfect sliding surface. There was also a temperature unconformity at about 12 cms reflecting the windblown snow being brought in on a cold SE wind. Despite the avalanche hazard being 2 the build up of windslab on the apron on top of the very soft powder was significant.

Two weeks later during a pre-arranged visit to the Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre at RAF Kinloss we were able to view the archived plot of the rescue. It took less than 2 hours from avalanche to landing on at Raigmore prior to being admitted to A & E. We also visited the SAIS office to discuss the event and later met with them and some of our rescuers in the Bridge Inn to say thank you. The conclusion was that the wind had subtly changed overnight, loading the particular aspect by Jacob’s Ladder but there was no obvious cause to the release, it was just spontaneous.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the experience was the media interest. When we landed at Raigmore a battery of press photographers were waiting to snap our arrival. I was barraged by requests for interviews and after a hospital manager negotiated a delay to inform next of kin we were interviewed by local TV and news reporters. The next day we were also major news across both tabloid and broadsheet national newspapers. For once they wanted a good news story

Within a few weeks Alasdair was running in his school cross country race. I was back on the hill in mid-March after eight weeks recovering from a cracked hip and twelve stitches in my head. It was a salutary lesson that despite checking weather forecasts and avalanche information and being aware on the approach you can still get caught out. This time we had been lucky.

Learning points

• Eke out every detail from the avalanche forecast.

• Beware pockets of slab accumulating on avalanche prone angles above you.

• Check below as well as above – the run out is important!

• Subtle changes in wind direction lead to a greater build up of slab on slightly different slope aspects.

• It’s worthwhile trying to get out of the way of the main bulk of the avalanche.

• Try to avoid being buried.

• If you are going to get avalanched try to do it in the vicinity of folk who know how to put a rescue together.

• SAR helicopters in the UK are second to none.

• Have a plan of what to say to the press.

• Location, location, location. Had I bought the 2nd edition of ‘A Chance In a Million’ I could have read a similar tale by Bob Barton (page 111). I now own a copy!

But 11 years on we are both still out and about climbing (and skiing!) in winter.

David Monteith (Left) and Alasdair Monteith (right) both on South Gully, Cwm Idwal, IV 5.  31 years apart: 1982 and 2013. Photo credits: Arthur Collins and Dougie Maudsley

1 comment:

  1. A sheer terrifying experience, I didn't want to believe it was happening, but it was, so face it and get on with it. I remember turning over several times and hoping I didn't get buried, I think I bounced off a few rocks before I stopped, hitting the bottom part of my spine.

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