The accident I was involved with highlighted a few issues about winter climbing that other climbers might find beneficial. This short article is not meant as a 'whipping stick' for the unfortunate climbers that I had to help rescue. No offence is meant in mentioning their misfortune but good lessons can be learned for all.
Smith's Route, Ben Nevis: this photo shows the leader at the point where the second fell from, hitting the ground 60m below
It was a cold clear day as we stomped up to the CIC on the Ben, conditions looked perfect for the classic Ben gullies. Folk were already queuing in Point Five. Our aim was to find some ice and bag a climb. As we approached Observatory Gully it was obvious that Smith's Route was in top condition. From the base of the gully two climbers could be seen climbing the first pitch direct.
Phil, my partner, and myself made our way up to the base of the climb, thankfully using the above climbers kicked steps. We arranged a good belay in deep ice. Two ice screws up to the hilt equalised with a sling. I looked up to see the team ahead confidently climbing and the leader pulling over the final moves of the second (crux) pitch. The fall line was clear for me so I started off leading the first pitch. Just as I was arriving at the first belay (in a small cave) I heard a shriek from above. The second, while pulling through the final ice budge, had ripped both axes. I assumed the rope would go tight and the second would come to a halt after some stretch had been taken by the belayed rope. But to my astonishment the unlucky chap kept falling and rolling down the steep ice pitch. Falling past me the second went out of sight. Eventually he stopped when he hit the deep snow at the base of the climb, 60m below. Phil shouted up that miraculously the chap had survived the fall with what appeared to be no injuries. Just as the incident happened a couple of other climbers arrived to help out and check the fallen climber out for injuries. All seemed well so I carried on leading the second pitch. Suspecting a problem up top with the leader I ran both pitches together.
Arriving at the stance I found the belayer injured with a broken wrist, suspected dislocated shoulder and bad rope burns around his neck. He was cold and unable to do much for himself. The belayer had been using a waist belay, probably with the twist around the wrong hand, also around his shoulder instead of his waist. Part of his belay had pulled and he was hanging on a poor nut and poor in situ peg. I did feel that if the full force of a 60m fall had come to bear down on his anchors that they would have probably failed. His mate hitting the ground probably saved his life.
The belayer admitted to losing his belay plate on a previous day. The belayer had failed to hold the fall of his second due to the poor waist belay technique and the team were climbing on a single 8mm rope! An inability to hold such a thin rope is understandable. Their second half rope was in the second's rucksack.
I created a solid 8-point belay and lowered the climber off to a waiting reception. As I lowered the climber he mumbled something about how he hoped his mum didn't find out! Phil and myself finished the climb via the final two pitches to a magnificent view.
ANALYSIS: Some points to ponder on.
1. The climbers were strong rock cats but it was only their second hard winter route. Thus their winter experience was very thin but capability and aspirations high.
2. Belaying in winter on a single 8mm rope is hard to hold on a waist belay.
3. Using a belay plate can really help with holding a fall.
4. Experience of building winter belays is essential and often problems arise that wouldn't come about in summer.
5. Ice screws need to be cleaned out before using again in ice.
Some pointers I use for my winter climbing.
1. Use a belay device to match the gauge of the rope. 8mm ropes need a device similar to a bugette (dmm)
2. Use two ropes if climbing on 8mms.
3. Avoid using 8mm ropes in plaquette (e.g., a Magic Plate used to bring two climbers up). If bringing two climbers up on such a device use at least 8.5/9mm ropes or in some cases a single rope (this depends on manufactures advice).
4. Waist belaying is difficult to arrange. Stitching the rope correctly around your body needs experience and understanding of how your anchors work. If resorted to using another system the Italian hitch can work well. If using the waist belay why not tie off the rope every so often with a knot clipped into your anchors.
5. Spend as much time as is needed to create a good solid belay. Be prepared to scrape and clean masses of snow and ice from the rock to expose anchors. Belays often take as long to arrange as the pitch takes to lead.
6. Due to ice and dirt in cracks assume anchors (nuts and cams) are more marginal than first appear.
7. Pegs can be a useful in winter.
8. In situ gear is often in poor state due to corrosion. Just because it is bedded in ice doesn't make it any stronger.
9. Brace yourself to incorporate your body to help buffer the anchors. Your legs are a strong brace in them selves. Use a bucket seat dug from the snow to improve a poor belay. Use the ABC. Keep the Anchor-Belay-Climber in a straight line.
The two climbers involved have been in contact with myself and they are both still talking and climbing with each other. Hopefully they have learnt from their mistakes. Rock climbing experience doesn't always transfer into a winter mountaineering environment. Get advice from a more experienced climber.
I hope the climber's mum never found out. Better not
mention it to my mum!
See also: 'A Golden Week on the Ben' by plummet.
"The next day, another perfect Alpine affair, saw Smith's route dispatched in the same workmanlike, step-assisted manner as Point Five. This assistance, however, did not detract from the heart-stopping exposure of this prominent curtain of ice. I even seconded the crux pitch with great care, taking heed of guidebook warnings that of dodgy belays. As it happened, though, the incredible ice made any screw placement rock solid, and my fears had been unfounded."
Mike 'Twid' Turner has held an MIC for almost 20 years and has been an IFMGA Guide for 15 years. He was a full-time instructor at Plas Y Brenin for 15 years where he was head of rock climbing. For the last 5 years he has run his own Guiding company (www.sheersummits.com).
Twid has climbed extensively around the world. Climbing grade VI on ice, grade VIII on mixed, E8 on rock, 8a sport climbing and has ski toured around the world. His drive is climbing at his limit and taking his customers to challenging and adventurous places.
Twid is based with his wife Louise, also an IFMGA Guide (profile) and Elin, their daughter, between North Wales and St. Gervais France, while not on Expedition.
Twid's profile at UKClimbing.com is here