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Saturday, 6 March 2010

Mountain scare ends in helicopter rescue

My most recent Munro bagging hike ended just two hours into the outing – when the G-Force and I were helicoptered off an avalanche prone snowfield by a Mountain Rescue Team. The situation was extremely scary but the call out was not made without a great deal of thought and consideration.

Indeed, there was a 30-minute delay during which the G-Force and I sat stranded but in reasonable safety in the middle of the treacherous snowfield and spoke to other experienced walking friends on our mobile phone. We also discussed our situation with two members of the MRT and considered the possibility of making our own way off the mountain.

But in the end it was decided that the safest option was for an MRT helicopter to rescue us. In retrospect, and having read about a number of avalanche incidents in the past few weeks, as well as two deaths, I believe the G-Force and I made the right decision.

But the question that keeps coming back at us is this: Should we have been on the mountain in the first place? It's something we have seriously asked ourselves and it is also a topic that we have discussed with a wide range of walking friends and MRT members.

Of course, a number of people have also accused us of "wasting tax payer's money" by making a call-out that they considered would not have been necessary if, in the first place, we'd stayed put at home.

So this is what happened. Setting off from near Bridge of Orchy we had planned to summit the Munros, Beinn Achaladair and Beinn a' Chreachain. We were not alone. We walked in the trail of two other experienced-looking hikers, and later we saw at least five other pairs of walkers in this area. Perhaps all of us could be considered foolhardy being out in Scotland's mountains during the winter but this is not my opinion.

We were adequately prepared for winter walking carrying a long list of safety kit. Both of us are fit and experienced walkers, in particular the G-Force, but still we chose a route we deemed to be the safest. We picked a line of ascent that was both sheltered and appeared to have the least snow cover. We were aware of the risks of avalanche in the area but walking in snow always carries a risk of avalanche so we chose the route we felt was the safest.

And, indeed, for much of the ascent the snow was so thin that we could see grass and rocks below. We felt satisfied that this was as safe a route as was possible.

But then we suddenly came across a snowfield just a few hundred metres below the summit. It was the kind of snowfield we'd encountered many times before and so we did not feel terribly alarmed. However, we did take out time to stop and assess our route up. What gave us a great deal of reassurance was a line of obvious boulders and rocks some 100m above us, which we felt offered a safe enough target.

Putting on crampons and armed with our ice axes we started to move up the steep slope. Progress was quite slow and tiring but then the sun broke through the clouds and lifted our spirits. This mood was short-lived, however.

For half way up the slope I heard the first dull cracking sound. Not familiar with this sound – and believing that it was some distance away – I didn't immediately mention it to the G-Force. He tells me later he was in the same situation. Apparently these cracking sounds can appear to be some distance away even when they are within a few metres of your feet.

And then we heard the sound again and this time it definitely sounded much closer. Like right below us.

Things happened quickly after this. We heard several more cracking sounds and then began to see huge cracks suddenly forming right across the snowfield. The situation was extremely scary and very alarming.

With great composure given the potentially lethal situation (this snowfield was well over a metre deep and if it avalanched it would have plunged us more than 500m down a fairly steep ascent) the G-Force looked quickly around and saw we were now within just five metres of a huge boulder, situated to our right. Having completed an avalanche awareness course (as well as a winter skills course) I knew that traversing might only make things worse but it was a case of reaching the boulder or finding ourselves stranded, or worse still being flung down the mountain in an avalanche. Thankfully we made it to the boulder and "relative" safety.

It was from here, hunkered down close to the boulder at ground level, that we began to discuss our predicament. To begin with we thought about simply sliding back down the snow that we had ascended but then we noticed that the cracks were the entire width of the snowfield and directly below our boulder.

Going further up would have meant a walk into the unknown. It was only when we'd reached the line of boulders that we realised there was a further few hundred metres of the snowfield to tackle to reach the summit ridge. Unfortunately, this had been out of our line of sight at the base of the snowfield.

And so we spoke to friends and then the MRT. If we had still been stranded in the middle of the snowfield the MR chap would have suggested a very quick, but potentially risky, descent. But since we described ourselves as being in relative safety and hopefully not in immediate danger he said he would prefer to take us off the mountain by helicopter. "We'd prefer to come out to rescue two people who are still alive than to find we're rescuing two injured, or at worst, dead bodies later," he said starkly. "In any case," he added, "we're about to airlift two skiers who have fallen 2000ft in avalanche in your area so we'll get you guys on the way back."

For the next hour or so we drank warming tea, put on all of our spare layers, huddled together for further warmth and considered rather numbly (both physically and mentally) trying to take in the enormity of the situation. Certainly it felt surreal but it also gave us both some time to reflect on how potentially dangerous winter mountain walking can be.

We agreed that this experience would not put us off our hobby. We both felt that if you were to worry excessively about all the potential dangers of mountain walking, whether winter or summer, you would never get off the sofa in the first place. The key, we believe, is to be prepared and to use commonsense at all times. And, if you do spend a lot of time on the hills, then there is a chance that at some point you will find yourself in a tricky situation.

This was out tricky situation. Thankfully we had the wherewithal to take the appropriate action to make it to a safe-ish place. There is an argument that we should perhaps have avoided walking into the snowfield in the first place, and that the second I heard the first crack we should have descended as fast as possible. But that is in hindsight - and without having been in the tricky situation in the first place we might never have learned to listen for the ominous sound of an avalanche crack.

Being winched off a mountain and returned to safe land was a very sobering experience. The MRT guys were highly professional and we did discuss with them whether we had done the right thing in calling them out. "For sure," they said. "This is what the MRT are for." One team member went on to say that while all walkers should be adequately prepared for the winter mountains – and experience enough to cope in a variety of situations – they were not there to discourage walkers.

And so when relating our experience to friends there have been two definite camps. One group are adamant we are taking too much of a risk being out in the winter mountains. Full stop. The other camp are with us. It's vital that weather reports are checked, that you have the right experience, knowledge and kit, and that you take due care and attention before and while heading into the hills. But, like us, they do not think we should stop walking in Scotland's mountains, whether it is summer or winter.

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