Spiky lessons for us all from Adam Potter’s 300-metre plunge

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<em>Picture: Mitch Barrie</em>
Picture: Mitch Barrie

The prevailing response to the story of Adam Potter – the 36-year-old landfill manager who fell 300 metres down the side of Sgurr Choinnich Mor on Saturday and survived without serious injury – is, quite rightly, that he was a lucky, lucky man.

It’s impossible to guess quite how many falls of that length would result in neither death nor paralysing injury – not least because all hill falls differ in terms of type of terrain, angle of slope, the casualty’s reaction, etc. But it’s hard to imagine that more than one in 100 could escape in the way that Potter did, quite possibly no more than one in 1000. Lucky indeed.

Because Potter’s plunge was widely reported in the mainstream media, the story was high on the adrenaline-rush aspects but low on the more technical, safety-related, what-can-be-learnt details that many regular hillgoers will have wanted to know.

One question being asked in the immediate aftermath was whether Potter had an ice axe and crampons with him – and, if so, was he using them? In general, the winter-hill situation for walkers (as opposed to climbers, and Potter was by his own admission out walking even though he climbs to Extreme standard in summer) divides into three categories. People have (a) axe and crampons in use; (b) axe and crampons still attached to their rucksack; or (c) neither implement, and are armed with either nothing or with just a set of walking poles.

Accidents can and do happen in each of these categories, but people in (c) are clearly at considerable risk if they stray into steep, icy territory, given that they have neither the means to avoiding slipping in the first place, nor to attempt self-arrest if they do slip. With neither the BBC nor Sky interviews providing any information on this, the worry was that Potter was a Category (c) walker, the numbers of whom appear to have been steadily on the increase since the popularisation of walking poles around 20 years ago.

It was left to the Daily Telegraph to clarify matters and confirm that Potter was actually in Category B. “The accident,” wrote Auslan Cramb, the paper’s Scottish correspondent, “happened seconds after [Potter] turned to his girlfriend Kate Berry, 30, and said they should stop and put on their crampons and take out their ice axes because the snow was getting icy. He then lost his footing and began tumbling out of control down the mountain while attempting to use his walking poles and his feet to slow his descent.”

Potter himself, posting on UKClimbing.com under the name “stunt climber” on Monday evening (by which time he had been released from hospital), added some more detail: “I had literally just said to the rest of the team: ‘Lets put our crampons on and get the axes off sacks now’. I was walking approx 5 meters to a boulder to a flat spot with shelter to re-kit myself and that is when I slipped.”

So Potter fell victim not to the recklessness (some would say stupidity) of going up wintry hills with no ironmongery, but to the type of error that pretty much every winter hillgoer – the present writer included – has made at some stage: not using the spiky kit early enough.

A good rule of thumb – or rule of foot – in such situations is this: as soon as the word “crampons” first enters your head, stop and put them on. Or, as a friend commented on hearing the Potter story: “My aim is never to say: ‘We should have put crampons on ten minutes ago on that nice flat bit’.”

Of course, from what Potter has said, it could be that he and his colleagues abided by this on Sgurr Choinnich Mor. But while only they will know what underfoot conditions were like in the preceding minutes, given their position high on a 1,094-metre hill in conditions of widespread ice and very hard snow, it does look as though they left it too late, and should have had the crampons on already.

Sgurr Choinnich Mor might not be the most spectacular hill in the country, nor a traditional accident blackspot, but it’s not to be underestimated. A curious, transitional peak, it stands halfway along the great ridge on the north side of Glen Nevis, not really part of the Grey Corries to the east and certainly not of a type with the heavy-duty Aonachs to the west.

Ralph Storer, writing in The Ultimate Guide to the Munros, says of it: “…the very steep exposed slopes of both Sgurr Choinnich Mor and Sgurr Choinnich Beag require great care when iced or snow-bound, especially on descent … It is a magnificent winter peak that affords Alpine views, but only competent and experienced winter walkers should tackle it.”

Adam Potter is certainly much more of an experienced winter walker than he was a few days ago. He is perhaps also now wondering whether Danny Boyle fancies making a short film by way of a follow-up to 127 Hours.

Crampons, axes, poles and the noble art of getting down alive

By coincidence, I was thinking about winter-walking equipment and safety this past Saturday, even before hearing of Adam Potter’s remarkable 300-metre fast-track descent.

I’ve worried previously in these pages about seeing people climbing Ben Vorlich, the 985-metre Munro above Loch Earn, in winter without ice axe and crampons.

Along with Bens Lomond, Ledi and Lawers, Vorlich is one of those southern-fringe Highland hills that has come to be seen as an any-time ascent, even by people who wouldn’t normally do much serious winter walking.

None of these hills should be treated lightly in ice or hard snow, and this particularly applies to Ben Vorlich. Whereas the standard routes up Lomond and Ledi take south-facing ridges, and that up Lawers comes in from the south-west, the main trog up Vorlich is a straight north ridge – a significant factor that appears to evade many of those who target it in winter.

Not only that, but while the lower slopes are straightforward, the upper chunk steepens markedly, is composed of thin, shaly ground, and has a bad fall-line – not straight back down the ridge (which would be bad enough), but away down a steep scarp slope on the eastern side.

On Saturday there was almost no snow below 600 metres, then patchy stuff to 800m or so – very hard patches, such that no one wishing to get further uphill could have been in any doubt that both care and equipment were needed. The critical upper 100m was as icy as I’ve seen it, needing careful crampon-placement. Halfway up wasn’t the moment to snag a front-point or to see a crampon skite off a glazed-over rock.

It was relief to reach the summit ridge and easier ground, and there is no way that I would have attempted that last 100m without an axe and – particularly – crampons. Even had someone offered to pay off my mortgage and throw a nice big yacht into the bargain if only I would attempt the slope in bare boots, I would have politely declined.

At the summit, however, were three cramponless blokes. I assumed them to be hill tigers steeped in the old arts of step-cutting – until, as I ate lunch at the far end of the ridge, I found myself wondering if they even had axes. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. What I do know is that on descent of the easier north-west ridge I overtook another threesome, one of whom had “fallen over” on the steep bit and only then decided to put his crampons on – Category B behaviour, “axe and crampons still attached to rucksack”, to use the terminology outlined in the above discussion of Adam Potter’s plunge.

These three had in turn chatted with the other three, one of whose number had fallen and slid ten metres before somehow stopping. It was his first Munro – and very nearly his last.

Earlier, approaching the steep bit, two friendly women said they had decided to leave their crampons in the car. I didn’t see them after that, but they spoke about only going as far as the final slope. This had to be the right decision on safety grounds, but it was a shame, given that they could so easily have reached the summit – as they had set out to do – had they brought the spiky feet with them.

I must admit to finding all this something of a puzzle. It’s axiomatic in the hills that there are no real rules, no requirements to take specific pieces of gear, but there is very much a requirement for common-sense and a close reading of conditions. Also, crampons aren’t expensive – they’re cheaper than many cagoules – and the basic technique isn’t hard to acquire. As to deciding to leave them down below – when the summit is in full view from the car, steep, white and north-facing – this just mystifies me.

In many situations a set of crampons is more important than an axe, to the extent that crampons-plus-poles can be a safer option than axe-but-no-crampons, at least for the humble non-expert, a category in which I include myself.

Prevention is more important than cure, and crampons greatly reduce the risk of falling in the first place (but without eliminating it – crampon-points can catch with catastrophic results). Even well-practiced axe-arresters tell of the difficulty of stopping on steep hard snow once any kind of speed has been picked up – which means, on slopes such as those down the side of Ben Vorlich or Sgurr Choinnich Mor, you have, ooh, a couple of seconds in which to make the axe do its work, otherwise you’re gone. Better, much better, not to slip at all.

Happily, all the people mentioned here survived to climb another hill. But what I’ve seen on Ben Vorlich, over several winter visits, makes me wonder if there aren’t more and more of these unnecessary risk-takings, with a lot of small fallings-over or ten-metre-slips going unrecorded and almost unnoticed.

Then again, given that people do seem amazingly good at getting away uninjured despite being seriously underequipped – I know of just one fatality on Ben Vorlich, for instance, and only a very few other incidents – perhaps it’s not really as risky as worriers such as me would have people believe.

My feeling, however, based on discussion with friends and colleagues and on-the-ground observation, is that carelessness and corner-cutting is on the increase. And after getting away with scrapes and squeaks, are people genuinely learning from what happened and modifying their behaviour and technique next time? I have my doubts.

To put it another way, even though one would assume that surviving a Category C (no axe/crampons) or Category B (axe/crampons still attached to rucksack) incident would almost always lead to someone becoming a Category A walker (axe in hand, crampons on feet), it’s not at all clear that this is universally happening.

It could even be that it’s the other way around, with Category C people steadily increasing as a proportion of the winter hillgoing population, precisely because they think they can get away with a minimal, casual approach. If true, that would be very worrying.

Surviving small accidents has always been part of the learning and experience-garnering process. It’s both essential and inevitable. All that can be done after any accident – be it an unreported small slip, or a monumental, media-hogging plunge – is to learn from it, take advice from friends, try and reduce the risk next time.

Going to the hill in winter is, ultimately, about having a good time while staying safe. It’s a brilliant pastime – on a crisp, clear day I know of none better. But it’s crucial to remember that you’re always learning – and hopefully always living and learning.

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Dave Hewitt has been writing about hills – and the people who climb them – for over 20 years. As befits the editor of The Angry Corrie, he is interested in the offbeat, quirky and occasionally obsessive side of the outdoor world. His own hillgoing hasn’t followed any real pattern. There has been a desultory round of Munros (and of the underrated Donalds), and also – a quarter-century ago – a 12-week walk along the Scottish watershed. These days, based in Stirling, he tends to be Mr Daytrip, enjoying endless local-Ochiling plus meanders over Munros and Corbetts – with a great fondness for, although no great prowess in, winter.
  • Fergus Wyllie

    Actually, it wasn’t left to the Daily Telegraph to clarify matters about Adam’s crampons, etc. The Daily Record carried this quote – “It was icy, snowy and we got to a point where I said, ‘Okay, let’s put on our crampons on and get our axes out now, just in case’.
    “I said, ‘We will do it just behind that rock’, which was about five metres away.
    “As we walked towards the rock I slipped and then I kept falling.”
    Fergus Wyllie, Daily Record

    • Dave Hewitt

      Here is the link to the Record report. Incidentally, the photograph accompanying that piece doesn’t show Sgurr Choinnich Mor, but Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, the 948m (3110ft) Munro roughly halfway along the Cuillin ridge on Skye, at the head of Coire Lagan.

  • cheekyweeman

    Mistakes on Munros – ah yes. Fortunately never had as close a shave as that. In fact my most recent was realising that I had checked more peaks on my list than i actually had climbed, thus reducing my running total by three. Never mind the fortunate Mr Potter – that hurt!

  • Dave Gibson

    Good piece Dave – will put this on the MCofS facebook page. It’s never too early to put your crampons on.

    • Dave Hewitt

      Thanks. I think one can occasionally put them on too soon / take them off too late, but it’s better to err on that side of things and it’s certainly the case that the majority of people tend to err the other way. I often find I leave them on to a lower height than where I first put them on – Vorlich at the weekend was an example of this, as even once below the main snowline there was scope for linking together patches of hard snow and ice that could be easily seen from above. There were bare-hillside gaps between these, such that I felt a bit silly a couple of times, but overall it saved time and made things easier/safer.
      Quite why people so often carry crampons but then decline to put them on even when it’s perfect conditions for them is a puzzle. I sometimes wonder if – for men at least – it’s a sort of macho thing, akin to Newcastle Utd supporters not wearing their shirts on freezing cold terraces. See how tough/hard I am, etc. But normally the using of anything techie or gadgety – which crampons and axe surely are – is itself seen as macho or at least blokeish, so you’d think they’d be worn/wielded asap.

  • MrsH

    Simon Steer, Deputy Leader of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, stressed the importance of using crampons in his highly amusing Mountaineering Council of Scotland talk at the Mountain Café in Aviemore last night. Yes, we all know folk who’ve cramponed their trousers and tripped, but most live to tell the tale and learn to walk more bandily. He also made a timely point that around Cairngorm, people are assuming that if they’d skied/boarded something with impunity last winter, they could do it again this year. But the snow pack is quite different (though at least it doesn’t have last winter’s layer of hoar crystals) and has to be assessed on its merits day by day. Who knows what it’s going to be like once the current storm dies down but I shan’t be going off-piste for a day or two.

  • R webb

    That weekend saw some strange underfoot conditions. I waited until a 940m summit to put the spikes on, having strolled up a pony path – it’s that slope aspect thing again, the ridge being a south east facing one. Things got icy on the northwest continuation though, only to return to snow free for 1km – spikes off. The trap was sprung, soon I was on a narrow icy ridge steep ridge wishing I had put the hedgehogs back on. We all do it, you need to be alert to the significance of that nice flat bit when you pass it.