by Nick Williams
Mountaineer and author
That wintry Saturday, the snowy corrie that arcs down from Church Door Buttress into Glencoe looked fantastic. The sky was a perfect light blue, the type which mountaineers look at in wonder. The distinctly alpine-like feel of this place would make anyone feel on top of the world. But in the early afternoon, a small movement triggered a giant slab of snow to crack. The resulting avalanche became, almost instantaneously, the most tragic in recent memory in Scotland, killing four from a party of six and injuring a fifth. It spared only the last of the group. As a long-time climber and survivor of mountain tragedy, I understand both the landscape and the emotions following such an incident. It is really terrible.
The Saturday forecast was for ‘considerable risk’ of avalanche on the northern, western and eastern slopes of the Glencoe summits. The data originated from the daily monitoring of five mountain regions by the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS). Results are posted to the web, to mobile and on notice boards. Angle of slope, quality of the crystals and the freeze-thaw cycle all contribute to the strength of the pack. It’s mostly science, with some art – mountains are not uniform and winter weather is full of surprises. Last season, there were more than 150 recorded avalanches, most triggered naturally, some by skiers and mountaineers. If you are in the hills when the warnings are amber or red, you might need to adjust your plans.
Mountaineers have strong ethics. This includes limiting one’s trace, not using fixed equipment and looking after the environment. But the most important is the duty to respect the rights of all others who work or visit the landscape in the ways that they choose. Nobody can be stopped from climbing a rock route with hardly any protection, or from setting off alone on a run across the tops as twilight is falling, or from descending a slope where there are risks, unforeseen or not. Those caught in the avalanche were exercising their rights.
The tough conditions and steep faces of the Highlands have produced extremely creative and accomplished climbers, from Hamish MacInnes to Dave MacLeod, plus a long list of locals who are not household names. The weather and the topographical variety make Scotland a testbed for anywhere else in the world. At the Glenmore Lodge International Meet some years ago, I accompanied a Chinese climber, a veteran of three Everest expeditions, into Coire an t-Sneachda. As we battled our way up the cliff, he swore he’d never been in weather like the spindrift hell we experienced. To the rest of us, it was just another day in the hills.
That is, of course, part of the problem. The erratic nature of our weather patterns shifts airflows willy-nilly from the Arctic, Atlantic and continental Europe. When the mountains suddenly ‘come into nick’ at the weekend, there’s a rush of visitors up the A9 and A82 from all parts of Britain. Often, the conditions aren’t all that brilliant.
The objectives of trips to the hills include having fun, de-stressing, getting physically fit, exploring places that you cannot from an armchair and experiencing the calm of nature or the rush of adrenalin. You can tread off the beaten path and see wonderful places that still seem virgin. Nobody can say that you cannot do something here, unless you are breaking the laws, the privacy of those who live there or the unwritten code of the hills. Giving advice and heeding it – well, that’s a different matter. It’s up to the individuals to choose where to go, be informed of the risks and how to minimise them. That is called taking responsibility. It is a core part of mountaineering ethics.
The gap between responsibility and hoping for the best seems to be knowledge. The foresight to choose one route over another or to stay at home perhaps makes good mountaineers stay out of trouble. Some seem to have an implicit understanding of the hills, though most knowledge is probably experiential. Elsewhere, much can be learnt by reading, talking to experts or enrolling on a course. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland might be the first port of call for finding out more. There is also sportScotland’s training facility at Glenmore Lodge or the option to have private courses through practicing members of the British Mountain Guides. Tuition does save lives.
Sometimes terrible things happen. People make mistakes. The weather turns. Lightning strikes. I feel for the survivors of the tragedy, the families of the whole group and to the rescuers who were called out in the night to look for the dead. These people will need support and empathy. However, for our own souls, we must continue to explore and challenge ourselves. In Scotland’s fabulous mountains and on its choppy waters, we learn resilience and resourcefulness that have enormous benefits to our personal and professional lives. This helps in some small, indirect, unquantifiable way for our society to be more creative and successful in the world at large.
Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. In his professional life, Nick works in corporate communications and information strategy. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.
www.nickwilliams.org // @jaggedredline