A Lucky Break On Beinn a' Chaorainn

On Sunday 29th December site user Peter Corrigan and his walking partner Sue fell through a cornice on Beinn a' Chaorainn in poor visibility. Large cornices often build up on the steep east flank above Coire na h-Uamha, and due to the incut corrie edge a safe line between any of the hill's three summits requires a dogleg rather than a straight line. It's a well known spot for tricky navigation, and for accidents, but though Peter's guidebook mentioned the cornice it was silent on the dogleg needed to avoid it. Peter first posted this account in the forums, but we think his experience deserves a wider audience since it could prove useful for anyone heading up the Munro in thick weather.

Sue and I were traversing a wide ridge on Beinn a'Chaorainn between the southern two tops, in a complete whiteout. When we got to the plateau I calculated we were nearer the cliffs than I wanted to be, so we walked on a bearing roughly NNW to give use some 'wriggle room' with the cliffs. We paced 100m, rechecked were we were and set off again.

Beinn a Chaorainn panorama, 199 kb
Beinn a Chaorainn panorama
© Mjenn2, Feb 2010

The guidebook and the map didn't indicate that there was a big dogleg between the two southerly tops.

Because I couldn't see it I fell through the cornice and into the corrie below. This came as a surprise, as I thought I was walking away from the cliffs.

"I was airborne for a long time and bounced a few times before being buried in snow, and unable to move"

Cornice on Beinn a' Chaorainn, 226 kb
Cornice on Beinn a' Chaorainn
© Mjenn2

I was airborne for a long time and bounced a few times before being buried in snow unable to move. The plateau is at 1040 metres and the corrie's floor is 900 metres which means I fell 140 metres or 450 feet in old money.

Luckily my face was not buried although the rest of me was. Sue fell too and also survived, and although she had busted four ribs and broken her shoulder she was able to dig herself out, and then dig me out.

We were then both injured at the bottom of a cliff on the wrong side of the mountain an hour before dark, in bad weather and no phone signal to call for help... not ideal.

My only explanation for our survival is that we 'clipped' the extreme inside edge of the corrie rim and went down the gully in the corner (there must be one clear channel!). I think that this must have happened because we didn't hit anything hard and looking up from the corrie it is clear that there are lots of rocks all around the corrie.

I couldn't get my sack back on and left it in the corrie before climbing out. It's been reported lost with local police so that if it is seen the local Rescue Team don't waste time looking for me. 

Lost Kit: 
Lowe Alpine Alpine Attack rucksack 45l
Exped bag, (small)
Petzl Head Torch
Blue Wallet
Credit Cards
Driving Licence
Olympus Compact camera 
.75ltr steel flask
DMM 'Deadman'
2 x Leki Walking Poles, (non-matching)
Nalgene bottle

My first inclination was to go down, however the maps said there were cliffs and we'd fallen down one already; not a good option.

I did think about staying put, but 16 hours in the dark and cold wasn't appealing, and we'd still have to get ourselves out. I've dug a snow hole with an ice axe before... it's hard work; not a good option either.

That left climbing out of the corrie. I wasn't keen on that either as I was hurt and exhausted and I wasn't sure that we wouldn't set off an avalanche. However I thought it was the best of the bad options.

We climbed out of the corrie up the snow on the south wing, kicking steps, and then up the ridge to the south summit. We got a phone signal here and did debate calling the Mountain Rescue, but as we were mobile we decided to walk out.

It took us about three hours to get out of the corrie, but five hours to walk back to the road, arriving about 21:00.

We went back to our apartment as I couldn't face sitting in A&E for 4 or 5 hours. We went to hospital the day after, Monday, and got patched up as a day case.

I'm back in Yorkshire now and am going to the fracture clinic tomorrow to find out how damaged I am.

After the event I've found out that it's a notorious black spot. The lesson learned is to do more research.

I don't think I did anything wrong on the day, I just didn't do enough of it, i.e. when I was calculating my bearing I should have walked more NW than NNW.

Glen Spean from Beinn a' Chaorainn's southern flank, 90 kb
Glen Spean from Beinn a' Chaorainn's southern flank
© Dan Bailey

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