Up and Down Days, Part Seven: The Bad Day

I think that when people talk about having ‘adventures’ we generally mean doing something active, bold, possibly a little risky, but with a beneficial impact on ourselves. There’s an implication in how we use the word that the adventure will surely have a good outcome. It will be something fun and fulfilling, without doubt. But there is a commonly used definition for the word ‘adventure’ that runs like this:

An undertaking in which there is uncertainty of outcome.

The fact is that if you’re doing something that is genuinely adventurous, then there is always a possibility that it could turn to misadventure.

I’ve reached the part of my story that begins to be difficult to tell. It’s difficult to look back at some things. Difficult to accept your own folly, or the consequences. But I don’t want to play things down, or leave things out that are important. As I wrote at the start of this series, I want to tell the whole story. It’s not just called ‘Up Days’ after all.

The story I told in the last part, of climbing with Toby on An Teallach, was the epitome of a good day in the hills. I returned from that experience brimmed with self confidence and enthusiasm for all things mountain. That confidence played out in all sorts of ways over the course of the following year. Another year filled with fun and amazing days with wonderful people in wonderful places. New experiences and new possibilities. But the needs of narrative require me to skip over them, or at least most of them.

Kirsty happened that year. I’m sure I don’t need to say much more about what that means. I knew right from the beginning of our relationship that she was the one. We saw each other every day. We had the same friends, and the same passions. She introduced me to white water kayaking, and in return I introduced her to outdoor climbing.

But I wanted to share my greatest passion with her too; the mountains in winter. I wanted to give her the chance to discover the same unbelievable power in the hills and in herself. And I had come a long way. Outdoor pursuits were not merely a hobby to me at this point – we were coming to the end of our university days and I was seriously exploring the options to make outdoor instruction my career. I felt ready not to simply plod along in other people’s footsteps; I had enough experience and knowledge to make my own decisions and lead the way.

At the start of the new year Kirsty gave me a sketchbook to use as a diary of our adventures. A few weeks later she joined me on Skye for the annual Burns night trip at Glen Brittle. Examining the guide book I devised a plan that I knew would be within our abilities, but which I also hoped would be as thrilling and enticing as my own introduction to the Cuillin a few years previously.

It did not work out that way. Looking back now I find my memories of that day vague and unclear compared to the other stories I have chosen to share. That is not surprising; in the emotional aftermath I wanted to bury them and forget. Learn lessons and move on. But fortunately, for our story and for my own recollection, I wrote a complete account of it in the diary Kirsty had just given me.

This, then, is what happened.

Part Seven: The Bad Day

January 24th, 2009: The An Caisteal Adventure

Every now and then something happens which we can only describe (very unsatisfactorily) as epic. Saturday 24th saw such an event, a day in the mountains I shall find it hard to forget.

We set out at around 10am from Glen Brittle Memorial Hut. The group was myself, Kirsty, Jen and Luke; a Winter-ML trained fresher who I was glad to have along. Our plan (my plan) was to climb Bruach na Frithe from the south ridge traverse across the summit and descend the northwest ridge.

Quite an ambitious plan – we’ll come back to that point.

Kirsty was very excited about the prospect of the Fairy Pools, which our path took us past on the walk in. The weather was god and the location spectacular. We walked in broken sunshine – the summit of Bruach na Frithe was in and out of cloud – a white wall of snow rising into the ragged grey clouds. The northwest ridge slid down on the left, while the south ridge and the west buttress of An Caisteal stood grimly proud and magnificent, tucked away in Coire a Tarneleir. Grey clouds rose and fell away behind us. The wind was fresh but not strong.

We marched up past the Fairy Pools in grand spirits, enjoying the view of the mountains and the cobalt blue of the pools themselves. The path was good but waterlogged – typical Scottish fair. Every so often we would pass a gushing waterfall slicing through small gorges and white pools. The steep rocky cliffs dotted with inevitable heather clumps and birch trees.

The further in we walked the more rugged and broken the ground became: large and small boulders spilling across the hillside. The entrance to the coire was tricky ground – very steep and rocky, with the only flat area being the river bed of the burn. We carefully picked our way into the coire and started to find fresh snow in quantity.

Everyone was in excellent spirits as we surveyed our position – it was like standing in a chamber of God’s palace. Directly before us was the grim mass of An Caisteal, stacked up in walls and towers dark and threatening, picked out with snowy highlights. On our left Bruach na Frithe sloped up to the sky: rocks and cliffs making that path impossible. Between the two was our proposed route – a large snowy gully that swept up toward the ridge like a vast snowy ramp, narrowing as it rose until it tucked itself under a mighty bastion of rock on the right. The left was more open near the top; our intended path.

We had agreed that we would not attempt the gully if conditions looked poor, but standing here now we could not resist the lure of the mountain. The weather was clear and holding and the ridge was free of cloud. I inspected the snowpack. A single deep layer; crisp and firm. At this point crampons would not be necessary as the snow was not that hard. At the bottom of the layer it was hard frozen to the rocks and I could not move it an inch when I tugged. Go.

After some instruction in the use of the walking axe we set off into the gully. I led, leaning into the slope with my axe and kicking steps for the others to follow. It was punishing work as the slope gradually steepened, and I soaked up as much of the effort as I could. Eventually, however, I asked Luke to take over the lead for a while, and I fell in at the back for a while, enjoying the pre-made steps. We headed up the right of the gully bottom, and then curved to the left above a rib of rock. We were at the point where the gully was narrowing, and I led again.

Our position was increasingly dramatic, and this prompted grins from us all. When we paused for breath and looked out behind us we saw the great ampitheatre of Coire a Tarneleir. The mountains were bathed in sun, dotted with black rocks and glowing white snow. To our south was a high peak, with a grey cloud dragged over it. Beyond the gates of the coire Beinn a Bhragad lay brown and green, dappled by the shadows of clouds. Further north, light sparkled on the sea and lochs.

We set ourselves back to our task of stepping up the snow. Above us the head of the gully became tangible; a sharp crest of snow between the rock; with nothing but blue sky above.

As we neared the top of the gully I stopped the group below the steep section at the top – I wanted to check the way here, to be sure everyone could cope with this ground.

I headed solo toward the top of the gully. The snow was like icing sugar – deep, crisp and rough on top like emery paper. The wind had carved the top wall into a sharp ridge. I climbed up and looked over at the view. The west and south of the cuillins became suddenly real to me. From the right the long ridge of Druim nan Rath ran out, sprinkled with light and shadow, brown heather and white snow. Beyond it Sgurr na Stri lurked; the site of previous adventure. Further west, Bla Bheinn was shining bravely in the sun with the south ridge sloping away like the blade of an axe. All of Coruisk lay before me, a blasted and sculpted wonder of dusty shadows.

It was the last time I was able to actually enjoy the view.

I headed left, out from the gully up a steep and tricky snowbank. I found a reasonable stance to help the others up. One by one I brought them up and sent them into snow seats. I headed out from the bank. It was tricky work and I was glad to get it behind me. I didn’t fancy anyone falling back into the gully.

We turned out attention to our forward route. We had now to cross over a steep snow slope with several broken bands of rock slanting across it. The route was up and across this slope and thence back up to the ridge.

We headed out across the slope, facing it with axes in front and kicking in to the snow. This was when problems started to arise. I had hoped that we would not need crampons today, but the snow was starting to get harder. My fears were realised when we tried to cross a steep section of ground. Kicking in, I could not get enough grip to be satisfied. Although I felt that I could get up this small section, I realised that with the others in summer boots they could not.

I tried a route to the left, but it was too steep. Crampons had to be used, otherwise we would have to retreat back the way we came – a prospect not attractive to any of us.

Responsibility was starting to weigh on me. I had brought the group this way, and I was leading. If I make any mistakes they could be much more costly that I was prepared to deal with. I was confident that forward was still the best option – as long as we could get onto the main ridge we could hit the summit and then take the easy descent into Fionn Choir.

The ground was too steep for us to simply get our crampons on. I had Luke hack out a ledge, and one by one we sat in it to get our spikes on. Once set, we started up the steeper, icier section. It was tricky work probably went at Grade 2 for eight feet. I had no problem with it but I had to cut a couple of holds for the rest to use.

Once up, we switched back toward the ridge. Putting the crampons on had taken quite a while, and I was anxious about cold and time. I decided that we should take the easier descent option rather than the northwest ridge.

I was having a few worry moments. Our position was starting to look difficult rather than splendid now. The wind had picked up nearer the summit, and we were starting to get flurries of snow and spindrift, which slid hissing down the slopes toward the gully below. I was glad to be moving again, but was depending on the route to the summit being passable.

After climbing up more snow slopes we switched back to the ridge. I halted the group and scouted the route above – I wanted to check the way was not too hard before bringing up the others. Spindrift was starting to pile up deeper and deeper. The weather was getting wilder. I was anxious and worried now.

I returned to the group and together we headed round the way I had scouted. When we reached the high point, however, I had to make the decision. We had to go back. The way forward was blocked by an impassable wall of rock. The guidebook said it could be passed on the right, but the only visible ledge ran along the top of an infinite drop, and was now buried under a foot of slidy spindrift.

We were being blocked. The weather had turned wicked unspeakably quickly. The cloud was thick and hindered visibility. We were being hit with snow faster than I had ever experienced it – it was like a bucket emptied over your head, constantly. Our tracks were vanishing in minutes, filled with spindrift. The way forward was impossible and dangerous. I wanted to get off – this was no longer exciting and adventurous. It was scary and serious. I wanted to hide, I wanted to flee back down the gully and run back to the car. I couldn’t. The others, especially Kirsty, needed me to lead them back to safety now.

I announced the decision. We were pressed against the mountain by the wind and snow, holding against the storm as if the weather would forget we were there. But it was merciless. I gave out the sunglasses to Kirsty and Jen, and I wore my goggles. Nevertheless I could see the terror in her eyes at the thought of going back, It was a long way down, either way.

Seeing that fear galvanised me. I couldn’t stand to see it. I was horrified by the knowledge that I had put her in danger; the girl I love and want to spend my life with. I had to get her off. Had to. This was when I had to be strong for her and everyone else.

We started back, immediately hitting difficulty in the newly deep and slippy snow. We were on the lee slope as well, which made it worse. Our footprints were gone, and spindrift hissed down the mountain on the harder snow, falling so thick and fast it was a continuous avalanche.

We carefully picked out way back round to the snow slopes, where we descended in close order. It was tough and scary work. All the time the gully yawned beneath us – the route to safety so long as we could reach it in safety.

Kirsty was scared and her feet were in pain – she was in summer boots and the steps I was kicking were filling so fast that she often had to kick her own.

Falling. That was the fear. What if Kirsty fell? Could I stop that? Could I ever possibly deal with that? Questions like these pierced at the back of my mind. I shut them out and continued to kick and descend, staying close to Kirsty all the time. I tried to reassure her, but there was little I could do to help, really, except point out holds.

After what seemed an eternity of clinging to the snow, we arrived back at the hard, steep section. It was hard and terrifying. I had to kick hard into the ice, and what I needed was tech axes. I got down it, with difficulty. I stood directly under it, and waited for Kirsty. She was terrified, and so was I, but I had to watch. If she fell I would try to stop her, and then maybe I could stop myself somehow.

She got down, followed by Jen and Luke. I haven’t said enough about how great Luke was. He was there for Jen when I was there for Kirsty, and without him I could not have coped. Jen has been my best friend for years, but Kirsty needed me more. Jen was in good cheer still, seemingly. It made me doubt whether she realised how serious our situation really was.

We were, I hoped, past the hard bit. The gully was close, but we were not there yet.

Our footprints from before were gone. Even the seats we had hacked out were gone. From time to time I looked down at the impeccable coire. It looked very distant. The idea of relief, the anticipation of it, kept me going. I had to get us down. If I did, I wanted to hold Kirsty and cry for hours, and tell her how sorry I was.

I suddenly realised that all the extra snow may have made the gully a very bad place to be. The snow had all fallen as hail and spindrift up near the ridge, which had sluiced straight down the slopes. If it had formed windslab, however, we could be heading for avalanche avenue. There was nothing I could do about it – this was the only choice we had.

We could not re-enter the top of the gully. The snow had built up a sharp, overhanging cornice where we had climbed up, making the way impossible. We had to enter it lower down, and that meant another hard ice section. We were shivering and scared.

This ice section was harder than the first. I got down it, but my heart was hammering out of my chest as Kirsty descended. She couldn’t do it – it was too hard and her feet were in agony. I had to drive the pick of my axe into the ice so she could step on it, and somehow I got her past it. Jen managed with Luke’s help.

I was horrified at the danger I had put her in – I could hardly bear it. But, we were back at the gully.

From here things got easier again – it was still steep but we were back on good snow. Spirits rose as we descended, and I realised as the slope got less steep that I had got them off. Today no-one was going to be hurt after all.

We got back to the coire in fading light, and walked out in the dark. We made it in the end, but the terror and the lessons will stay with me from now on.

Being the leader made it awful. The safety of people I loved was in my hands, and that is a terrible responsibility. I questioned every decision, lectured myself about the right course of action. In the end, I was humbled, but I am proud that I proved myself. I made the decision when I had to, and I had (barely) the fortitude to carry that decision through.

I didn’t cry, and I didn’t dream about it. I have written it out as it occurred.

I have not read these words in full since the day I wrote them. From a distance of ten years and more I read them back as if I am a stranger. Details I have forgotten, rationalisations for decisions I am no longer sure of. I find old photos, read old words, and I am not quite sure they fit the memory, or the knowledge of how I was affected.

Those last paragraphs, especially. ‘I am proud I proved myself.’ They sit ill with me. I can hardly believe I wrote that, even if I was so at the time. They smack of false confidence – like the words of someone searching for a positive note, or a way of escaping consequence; of drawing a veil over the real vulnerability. An attempt to dodge trauma.

Doubt besets me about what really happened that day. Did I write the truth or did I write something else to justify a bad call? Sometimes I wish that I could see it all again, from an unbound vantage point, to see if things were really as I perceived. Especially at the moment when I decided to turn back. ‘I made the decision when I had to.’ Did I? I wonder again and again if we might not have actually been able to keep going. What lay beyond that seemingly unclimbable wall? Was there a route forward to safe ground? Every time I drive down Glen Brittle I still look up at that part of the ridge. I still think it looks easier than I remember, and wonder if we could not have found a way forward. But perhaps that is the very fallacy that drew us to that route in the first place. I have looked on that piece of ground again in summer and seen no particular barrier. But winter changes things. The fact is that I’ll never know. We were either this close, or this far. I made the decision I made. I must have thought it was right at the time.

I hope that whoever reads this will learn from my mistakes. My overconfidence, which led us to choose the route that I wanted. Our lack of kit, such as winter boots and ropes, which I overlooked because I hadn’t used them on my first days out and therefore assumed wouldn’t be necessary. Starting too late in the day, and not giving ourselves a safety margin of daylight. And, quite possibly, the mistake of not calling for help.

One thing I do recall quite clearly though: ‘The idea of relief, the anticipation of it, kept me going.‘ I remember that yearning. But relief never came. I never had a moment of ‘phew, we’ve made it.’ We gradually got safe again, but the fear had twisted a knot of tension into me that had no release.

We returned to the hut that night for our Burns supper and a night of high spirits. I watched the others, and no-one seemed any the worse for wear. I ask them now if they remember being affected by it. ‘Not as much as you’ come the answers.

A few days later Kirsty and I walked at Neist Point together, before driving north to Torridon for more walking and kayaking. When we arrived there I wrote this in my diary:

After final fond and admiring looks at Neist Point we set out properly for Torridon. I drove, as Kirsty was still a bit sore. It was wonderful that we could go from the danger and adventures of the mountains to such bliss and comfort so quickly. Skye has that effect on us – such drama and sublimeness, all at once sheltering you and exposing you – making you both humble and immortal. It distils lives so that we live in a pure, intoxicating reality.

3 thoughts on “Up and Down Days, Part Seven: The Bad Day

  1. Credit for sharing this. It was good but not easy to read. I honestly thought this was going to have a much worse ending. There’s a lot to learn from a near miss but it would be nicer if they weren’t so harrowing.

    Liked by 1 person

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