Earlier this year, Scott Martin and his climbing partner were caught in an avalanche on Beinn Udlaidh. This low lying ice climbing venue in the West Highlands is not known for its avalanche activity, but in the preceding days there had been a considerable build up of snow. Here's Scott to take up the story...
"At 0730 we left the farm track and gained the snow line quickly. Once there we noticed the snow to be very deep in places but the weather to be fairly benign. We pressed on gaining the ‘Quartzvein Scoop’ area in around 3hrs.
About 1200 the weather turned and it began to snow. At this time we were joined by 3 friendly guys who kindly took over the lead and moved onto the route quickly.
Wading through very deep snow! The 3km walk in took approximately 3 hours
We started up the climb which was thin but manageable with full on conditions.
With no major issues we moved to the last pitch where my partner lead off relaying to me that the top slopes were loaded.
Without any warning a huge thud and a massive amount of snow came over the top of me. I sorted my self out and noted the rope had became tight - I shouted out - nothing...
Quartzvein Scoop (IV 4) - Described in the SMC's Scottish Winter Climbs as an, "excellent route amidst impressive scenery". The route is one of many excellent ice climbs to the west of Beinn Udlaidh's summit
I knew my partner was in trouble. I looked back down the route and he was laying on his back before jumping up. Known as ‘jack-in-the-box’ this often happens when someone has experienced major trauma.
Training kicked in and I quickly pulled the ropes though and cut my lines, due to tangle, before constructing an abseil with the kit I had.
I got down and to my amazement my partner was, on the face of it, in one piece; however, he was complaining of ankle pain.
The ends of Scott's ropes. After his partner fell he cut his ends and tied them into an anchor and abseiled off
At this time further avalanches raced passed us to the west - I quickly tried to retrieve our ropes but time and safety didn’t allow. I made the call to leave the kit and get us off the loaded slopes as quickly as possible.
Towards the bottom of the valley and as the adrenaline wore off I saw my partner was not doing great - but we pressed on, taking around 3hrs to get back to the farm.
I knocked on the door for assistance and the lovely farmer ‘Tristan’ welcomed us in where we stripped my partner, checking for injuries. So far so good...
Tristan then warmed us up and I quickly drove my partner to hospital.
As of this morning I have had an update that despite walking off he has sustained a broken back (L3) and a suspected broken ankle/substantial ligament damage. He is expected to make a full recovery.
The long and short of this story is that despite extensive experience (15yrs+) and training (ex military) accidents do happen!
Massive thank you to Tristan at the Glen Orchy Farm for taking us in. Hamper is on its way! If anyone comes across our gear (3 screws and a set of doubles) when conditions allow please get in touch.
Stay safe out there people!"
A map of Beinn Udlaidh. Quartzvein Scoop lies on the eastern side of Coire Daimh and immediately west of the summit. The approach starts close to Glen Orchy Farm and heads south on a good track through woodland. The final approach into Coire Daimh is along a vague track and would have easily been missed in heavy snow.
Recently, we were able to catch up with Scott and ask him a few questions...
-Can you talk through your decision to climb on Beinn Udlaidh that day?
My climbing partner and I are both police officers and have limited time to get out together due to opposing shift patterns. The area has a nice short walk in and due to its relative height it was initially the safest area to climb on that day as opposed to some of the higher mountains.
On the day of the incident the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) issued a "Considerable" avalanche risk for the area. They wrote, "At first the snowpack will soften in the warmer and wetter conditions, with wet snow instabilities developing. Cornices will soften. As the freezing level lowers through the night, the snowpack will refreeze. By the morning drifting of new snow will build windslab onto wind sheltered terrain. Mainly affecting coire rims, ridge flanks and gullies on West, North and East aspects above 750 metres. Cornices will develop on the same aspects."
-In hindsight, what clues were there that an avalanche might happen?
As stated, the weather and snow conditions in the morning were benign; however, at around 1200 the snow started falling heavily coupled with strong winds which loaded the upper slopes of the route and lower slopes extremely quickly. As we were 3/4 of the route complete we made the decision that the safest option was to climb out to the relative safety of the summit ridge line.
Quartzvein Scoop in better times! The route lies on the eastern side of Core Daimh at a height of approximately 700m
-Had you been caught in an avalanche before? What surprised you?
I have been around avalanches before but never caught in one. The speed and amount of snow which came down surprised me.
-You did incredibly well to get to safety. What were the biggest hurdles to getting you back to the farm?
We knew that rescue was not an option due to poor viz and putting others at risk. That said, initially the self rescue was challenging as I had o construct an abseil only using the kit I had on my harness; cut the ropes and resecure; tend to my partner. Then I made the decision due to further avalanches to leave the kit in-situ; before attempting to descend the loaded lower approach slopes. This was extremely difficult due to small avalanches being triggered by our body weight; the depths of the snow (hip height) and my partners injuries. I broke trail down to the valley below but after about 3 hours my partner's adrenaline had dissipated and he began to struggle. A chocolate bar kept him going up until the last section just before the farmhouse when he eventually couldn't make the last quarter of a mile.
Once within the farm we were able to warm him and check for any obvious injuries.
Thanks Scott for providing the text for this post and answering our questions. We wish you and your partner a very swift recovery!
Further information on avalanche awareness can be found here.
Dr Mike Greene, Medical Director for England and Wales Mountain Rescue, will be talking about head injury management at this year's Hathersage Mountain Medicine Festival. Further details can be found here.