Earlier this year Pete Callaghan spoke to Ffyon Davies about the new BMC project to document incidents and near misses amongst climbers, mountaineers and hill walkers. Here's what inspired him to get involved...
"I have changed the names. We were a party of 4 in total, part of a climbing club group visiting the Lake District for winter climbing and hiking. Of the group, I was the least experienced in winter conditions. I had only one previous experience of mountaineering or alpinism and no formal training.
We had discussed snowfall conditions the previous evening when discussing route selection. The guidebook warned of cornices above the gully, but the group consensus was that there had not been enough snowfall to create significant cornices. None of the group were aware of the Fell Top Assessor's Report and so we based our conditions assessment on snowfall history and recent Met Office forecasts.
Helvellyn's Nethermost Gully in late winter condition. The upper section of Striding Edge can be seen on the right
We reviewed our decision regarding route selection as we left the hut, but concluded that the conditions still suited our target route - Nethermost Gully of Lad Crag, Helvellyn. The approach is a couple of kilometres, and was relatively free of wind despite forecasts of strong winds. Our approach valley and the target route lay in the lee of the prevailing winds. However we observed that snow depth was much greater than we expected, and as we neared the route it became deeper still, requiring tiring post-holing to progress upwards. Below the approach slope, we reviewed our route. Due to a very low cloud base it was impossible to see far up the route. Nevertheless, we were able to identify the start of the route, so we decided to ascend to the point where the approach slope met the mouth of the gully to reassess conditions.
At the mouth of the gully we decided to fit crampons, helmets and ice axes. I was the lowest of the group. Above me, in order, were Fred, Alice and John. I took off my backpack and anchored it with one of my ice axes. Due to inexperience I had to remove and refit my crampons, as they were not fitted correctly. I had just done so, and was about to attach the leashes of my ice axes when I heard 'Wumpf!' followed by Alice's shout of 'Shit!'
A close up view of Nethermost Gully in full winter condition - note the precarious cornice at the top
I looked up and was hit by a wall of snow. I was thrown on my back headfirst down the slope and managed to flip myself around so that I was feet-first on my front. I tried to slow my descent but rapidly found myself stationary above the snow. Looking down I could see Alice sliding on her bum down the slope a few metres below me and Fred far below her. John was standing stationary just above me. I quickly discovered that my right wrist was painfully sprained. I checked with John who was unhurt and had two axes (one of mine and his own). My sack and other axe had disappeared. Alice confirmed that she was unhurt. Fred had descended further down the slope, about 100m below us. John, Alice and myself traversed right (facing the slope) to move out of the debris line, and then John and Alice briefly ascended to see if they could find Alice's axes or my axe or rucksack.
We were unable to find them, though found some bits and pieces from my rucksack, and did not want to spend too long in the debris fan due to risk of another avalanche. Instead we descended to John, where we discovered that he had retrieved my backpack and one of Alice's ice axes. Overall we had lost 4 axes. Remarkably Fred was uninjured despite tumbling around 100m down the snow slope. Eventually I found my Osprey rucksack, the frame of which had snapped.
Striding Edge on Helvellyn
As we descended we reviewed our decision making process and John stopped to perform a snow pack test. A 12 inch deep block on the slope sheared easily, indicating an unstable snow pack.
My right wrist was severely sprained and developed extensive bleeding and bruising, but did not require anything more than a check up and some physio. Fred suffered some bruising and stiffness. The other two were unharmed. The front pointing teeth of one of my crampons pierced the top and back of my right calf, creating two shallow cuts surrounded by small bruises, as well as tearing numerous holes in my waterproof trousers and gaiters. I also found a single hole in the seat of my waterproof trousers.
Two days later we ascended Striding Edge, which overlooks Lad Crag, and photographed a couple of very impressive cornices above Nethermost Gully. If we had seen them from the base of the route we would not have attempted the climb.
Lessons I learnt...
We should have been aware of the Fell Top Assessor's Report. The report for the previous day was explicit about avalanche and cornice risk.
We should have deduced from what we knew of the forecast wind, the leeward aspect of the approach and the route, and the lack of wind on the ground that there was a high risk of cornice build up.
As soon as we encountered more snow than we expected, we should have reconsidered our route choice more seriously. Coupled with wind direction this significantly raised the risk of cornices.
Falling in winter can be terrifying - if you don't believe me, take a look at this extraordinary footage from Snowdonia!
We should also have performed a snow pack test before committing to the mouth of the gully.
While gearing up, we should have positioned ourselves to the left or right of the fall line, off the direct approach to the gully.
I should not have considered attaching my axe leashes - I am very glad that I was not accompanied by attached axes in my fall.
We were very fortunate not to be caught by the avalanche while we were high up the gully. If we had been higher, the risk of serious injury would have been much greater".
If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.
The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.
Further details can be found here.