Caught Out On Ben Nevis (Part 2)

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Oct 30, 2020

Jamie Barclay's recent post on being avalanched on Ben Nevis prompted many of you to get in touch with words of support. Thanks to all those who took the time to write! John Ellerton, GP and member of the Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team, was prompted to go one step further and describe his own experience. Here it is...  

I’m more a winter climber than skier, so avalanche awareness, safety and avoidance came late in my learning. By the time I got 10 steel ice screws and a tortured medley of pegs into my rucksack along with all the other paraphernalia that went with winter routes there didn’t seem much chance that anything could move me as I trudged up the hill. Perhaps all this weight was incompatible with venturing onto avalanche-prone snow from a purely VO2 max limitation!

As a mountain rescuer in Patterdale with the steep north and east faces of the Helvellyn of course I was aware that avalanches affected mountaineers as well as skiers. After all the team were still living the Nethermost Gully (I/II) avalanche of 1984 when I joined in 1986. In this incident, 3 young mountaineers died and 3 casualties with severe injuries were rescued. A few other spots, such as Coire Lochan and Coire Bhrochain in the Cairngorms, were known as avalanche hot spots but it wasn’t until I went to the Alps in the 1990s that thinking about the avalanche risks on every winter mountain day became routine. Though skiers had their avalanche forecasts, a shovel, probe and transceiver, we mountaineers used our boots. We listened for the crack when a slab gave as we ascended. That ‘warning’ would make us wonder if the slope was safe. Our response was to change our ascent path to a rib or ridge but I don’t think we ever ‘backed off’.

Nethermost Gully (I/II) is a 200m long east facing route on Helvellyn. Prevailing westerly weather patterns mean that cornices form readily at the top of the route. In mild conditions these are prone to collapse (Image: UKClimbing)

This changed after my closest shave with becoming a mountain rescue statistic. We were in Adelboden, Switzerland climbing long lines of perfect water ice. On our second day, we completed the horizontal walk in 30 minutes and were still musing on future high altitude venues for later in the week as I put in the first ice screw. This was to act as our first belay point and signalled that we were preparing to activate our climbing brains. But not yet:

“Let’s have a swig of coffee” before we set off on the 4-5 hour climb.

So we walked back to our rucksacks 10 metres away by a boulder.

Rubble, rubble, down wind, pow; we were knocked off our feet.

Yes, we had been ‘avalanched’. As the powder settled, our rucksacks were nowhere to been seen. The first 15 metres of our climb had disappeared below a mass of snow that had fallen down the climb. Rucksacks dug out of the trees 5 metres away; no chance of reclaiming the ice screw - it must be under at least 10 metres of snow in every direction and the snow was already hardening up. We didn’t’ talk about what if we hadn’t stopped for coffee. My partner - who is an alpine guide - said:

“I had to shut my window at 3 am when the wind got up last night”.

This was our clue that the snow had been redistributed overnight in the gullies and hollows 1000 metres above us and we had picked a gully that would take the overload in the morning. Yesterday’s climb was 100 metres to our left and had the same aspect. We had not encountered a single loose snowflake but, as if to confirm our hypothesis, yesterday’s climb avalanched as we reached the car.

Adelboden at dawn. Our objective was the ice runnel in the centre. This photo was taken the day before our incident - we thought that the snow had accumulated in the red circle. The arrow points to our rucksacks. Lurking Fear is a better known climb just out of shot on the left. It is more frequently in condition than the climbs in the photo (Image: John Ellerton)

Prospective avalanche decisions for mountaineers is an imprecise risk assessment. We know about the importance of observed avalanche activity, recent and current snowfall, changes in temperature, topography, slope aspect and wind slab formation, and direct sunshine. We know that alpine and maritime conditions differ. We know that UK avalanches are more likely to cause traumatic injury than suffocation. Experience from back country skiers’ and avalanche rescuers’ deaths tells us that avalanche forecasts are too general for an individual slope assessment. We know that a considerable amount of avalanche mitigation activity goes on in ski resorts, including the use of explosives; the on-piste avalanche danger is arguably zero in this context.

All these factors can, and should be, considered. Social media, the weather and avalanche services, forums, blogs and web cams could all be part of the risk assessment; an investment to make the most out of a precious day out. However, we are now treading on icy ground. Weather and avalanche services are pretty clear of their weaknesses and limitations, and we all respect the errors that can occur when moving from forecasts to micro-mountain weather. As for forums and blogs, the governance of the information must be viewed with scepticism. Human nature is a peculiar thing. In the early days of the Helvellyn fell top assessors a post on Wednesday evening said that the avalanche risk was very high - ‘the snow is waist deep’. And so it was. The next few days involved a series of Atlantic lows and as a consequence no further fell assessments. On Saturday, the car parks were full of people despite the ongoing cyclonic weather. The avalanche risk was zero; the snow had been washed away. We were out twice to fatalities blown off the ridge by 100mph winds. It was hard not to link ‘loads of snow’ with ‘yippee let’s go’, and then to speculate that the disappointment distorted decision-making in relation to the actual conditions. On a more scientific level, when we published a paper entitled ‘The impact of avalanche rescue devices on survival’ we were acutely aware that human nature might interpret the results as a green light to take more risk. Wearing an airbag reduced the chance of dying from 19% down to 3% despite a 20% failed balloon inflation rate. Who wouldn’t think they were invincible! (There is a follow up study to be done here to see if airbag users have lost their advantage by taking more risk in the intervening 15 years.)

This brings me to a frequent question I’m asked:

“When I go backcountry skiing I have my shovel, probe, transceiver, and airbag (for good measure). But when I go mountaineering I have none. Shouldn’t we have …?

My answer is:

“Well it depends”. To my mind if I was accessing a climb by skis in the Alps, I would have my shovel, probe and transceiver. But on foot on the slopes of the Ben or in the Cairngorms? I never have, and don’t know anyone that does. I suspect I am thinking of a much higher rate of trauma pathology than complete burial (asphyxia), and neither transceiver nor air bag mitigates against these. I also know that rescue teams are getting very savvy on using mobile phone sensing to locate a person so a separate gadget in a couple of years may seem unnecessary.

Point 5 Gully (V 5) - one of the world's finest ice climbs and a very good Plan B! See this short film made by local guide Alan Kimber for more inspiration!

So like Jamie, it’s the assessment of the ground that will hone most of the on-the-day decisions. All the stuff on social media from the night before, all the good advice from trusted sources and less good advice you have received count for less than what you are experiencing. I have learnt many times that a plan B is always worth thinking of in winter. It’s not only avalanche conditions that require a change in plan. One of my best days out was on the Ben in perfect weather and conditions. We were heading for Zero Gully (V 4), but we could see that at least 5 parties were at the bottom already. This equated to danger with shrapnel from above and long delays on cold belays. We hadn’t realised it was its 50th anniversary! Rather down hearted we trudged on probably aiming for consolation on the Good Friday Climb (III). But what was that perfect line to our left with no one on? Oh yes, Point 5 Gully! A great Plan B enjoyed in complete isolation with a cup of tea half way up!

It is inhuman to think that Plan B will be analysed in the same detail as the prize route that you sought. However pessimistic you were when you set off, there will be a dip in concentration and mood as the objective changes. Remember that snow is required for avalanches, not altitude or steepness. The last avalanche death in Patterdale was not on a high mountain slope; it was on the path 100 metres above the last field wall on the south side of Grisedale within hailing distance of a farm. You need to rapidly get back into mountaineering mode.

How a ‘mountaineering mode’ develops is a whole new topic. The reality is that we are coming to the mountains with a different education. Less clubs with experienced members, less guiding, less time, a different kind of fitness, better equipment some of which requires batteries, and it’s modern communications that frames our aims, goals and priorities. The modern mountaineer will develop skills in assessing loads of information, advice and guidance that 10 years ago was unthinkable.

Thanks! John's experience of Covid-19 lockdown can be read here

Read more about being caught in an avalanche here

Find out how to climb Everest in a fortnight here! Looking for an adventure? Chee Tor GirdleSkeleton RidgeWelsh 3000's Challenge?

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