Avalanched on the Lancet Edge - a Cautionary Tale

© gregor

Mountain rescue expert Dave 'Heavy' Whalley recalls a serious incident in the early 1970s, a time when avalanches in Scotland were poorly understood. These days we have far more information to help make safe decisions, thanks in large part to the Scottish Avalanche Information Service - if we choose to use it.

This article has been adapted from a piece on Heavy's blog.

It was the final weekend of my Mountain Rescue trial at RAF Kinloss in 1972. The weekend was planned at Ben Alder, a wonderful remote area just off the A9. The team used the garage and sheds at the Ben Alder Lodge a 5 mile drive up a rough estate track near the A9 near Dalwhinnie. This was an amazing place, and hundreds of stags and hinds were right down to the road. The keeper Mr Oswald was a long-time friend of the team and our leader George Bruce. We had the use of the estate tracks to those huge remote hills, a great privilege and fantastic assistance to great days in the mountains.

Lancet edge in the wind  © gregor
Lancet edge in the wind
© gregor, Feb 2013

The team took a couple of barrels of beer out which we had in the garage when we got there, and it was amazing as the team members all sang folk songs round a fire that night, I loved it.

We had fallen over 600 feet, some of it over a steep cliff. We were very lucky that no one was killed

The garage was where we cooked as well and most of the team were in tents. It was amazingly cold all night and next morning when we got up I could not believe the view: Loch Ericht was frozen solid, as was all our water.

I was to go out with George Bruce and two other team members. George had planned a winter scramble or climb up the Lancet Edge, a magnificent ridge on Sgor Iutharn near Culra bothy, right in the heart of the Alder Estate. It was a wonderful drive across the moor full of snow, and across the icy river Pattack by Landrover. The views of the mountain were incredible, snow everywhere and blue sky. These are huge mountains with the magnificent Ben Alder dwarfing its lofty neighbours with its sprawling ridges and huge corries. We left the wagon at Culra bothy.

From here the Lancet Edge looked so Alpine and impressive, a thin icy ridge running up to a snowy plateau. In my inexperienced mountaineering mind I wondered how we would get up that ridge. We had with us a very experienced climber who had worked at Glenmore Lodge as a civilian Instructor, Davy Sharp. As I found out on the walk up across the moor, he was just recovering from a serious avalanche accident in the Lake District the previous winter. George was on great form, telling stories, talking about the area and setting an enjoyable pace, not the usual rush to the top. He was teaching and laughing all the time and in the hour on the walk in we learned many new skills. I was shown again how to use my axe and crampons on some ice on a small buttress and how to ice axe brake properly on some steep snow.

Ben Alder is a long way from anywhere unless you have an MRT Landrover!  © Dave Heavy Whalley
Ben Alder is a long way from anywhere unless you have an MRT Landrover!
© Dave Heavy Whalley

I was amazed how heavy and frozen the snow was, and I doubt I could have got out without help

Then we set off kicking steps up the slope leading to ridge. As is the normal procedure we all took our place in front - kicking in the snow was hard work. As we got higher, the snow became deeper and was lying in places in drifts on top of steep frozen grass. I know now that this is not a good combination.

We traversed round some steep buttresses and marvelled at the views which opened out as we got higher. Just below the top of the ridge I was just behind George when I heard a crack and then we were tumbling down the hill. I remember going over a crag and then tumbling and crashing over rocks. It all went quiet when we eventually stopped and I was partially buried by snow, and could hardly move my legs. George was next to me and helped me get out; I was amazed how heavy and frozen the snow was, and I doubt I could have got out without help, my legs were frozen in. I had swallowed lots of fine snow particles and was coughing fairly badly (later on I had an x-ray and was told that I had damaged my lungs. I've coughed every morning since that accident in 1972).

I could hear Dave groaning and George was helping him out as the snow had by now frozen. Like us all he was very badly shaken and bruised. I was battered but the adrenaline kicked in. George got on the radio and asked for assistance from other team hill parties as we feared that Dave would not be able to walk off. We gathered our equipment that was scattered all over and started back, helping with Dave's bag.

The Lancet Edge in winter
© Dave Heavy Whalley

George, though shaken, was completely in control and explained that we had been avalanched. With his usual sense of humour he said this was very rare in Scotland, and it was a great honour to be avalanched in such experienced company. His humour was just what we needed, and I was to learn so much from this great man throughout my Mountain Rescue career and throughout life. We managed to get back to Culra Bothy and then to the wagon. By now Dave could hardly walk and was taken to hospital for a check-up. George reckoned that we had fallen over 600 feet, some of it over a steep cliff. We were very lucky that no one was killed. I had used up one of my mountaineering lives!

When we got back to the Base Camp we spoke to the keeper George who offered us a dram, and in his own measured way said "aye I thought the hill was pretty dangerous after the heavy snow and that wind. You were very lucky".

Later I stiffened up and bruising came out on my back and legs, but next day I was back on the hill, the only one out of the avalanche who went out again. As George said, when you fall of you have to get back on straight away. I had a wonderful day on Ben Alder climbing it the amazing Short Leachas ridge. The plateau to the summit was incredible with huge cornices. By now the weather had changed and it was difficult navigation to the summit. I marvelled at the team navigating in a full white out, over this complex plateau, with its huge cornices overhanging the cliffs. Near the summit we heard a huge crash as a cornice tumbled down into the corrie. I was really tired on the way off but they dragged me up Beinn Bheoil as well which was complex as the wind was in our faces and the slopes very steep; this was serious mountaineering.

Getting back to the Landrover I was exhausted but happy, and the river crossing in the wagon was serious as there was a big thaw on. When we arrived back at the Lodge Mr Oswald the keeper said that we were lucky to get the Landrover over the river as it could have been there for the whole winter!

George had a wee word as we packed. "You have passed your trial wee man, you are now a Novice team member" he said. "You showed them, but do not let it go to your head, it is a long way to go and you are just starting, take no hassle from anyone, stand up for yourself and learn every time you go on the hill." My mountaineering apprenticeship had begun.

Later I was told by several in the mountaineering world that avalanches do not happen in Scotland, a misconception common before people knew better. After this incident I took a great interest in snow conditions and avalanche prevention, and a year later attended a course on avalanche awareness. Looking back I could see where the snow had drifted when we walked into the hill. Slabs of snow were breaking off on the way up. Nowadays you are taught how much you can learn on the way to a climb but this was 1972 when little was known of avalanches.

In the years that followed I climbed the Lancet Edge many times. It was often with new team members and I would tell them the story. It gave me a huge respect for winter conditions and the avalanche service that we now have.

So please use the wonderful Scottish Avalanche Information Service. It's free, and easy to access. Even better go on a course to learn about safe travel in the winter mountains.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by heavy

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