The Angry Corrie 73: Apr-Jun 2008 No. 73

Accidents will happen

Some on-hill accidents are fatal, some are trivial, but the majority fall - pardon the pun - somewhere between these two extremes. All accidents, however, are troubling for the people involved. Here, from Grant Hutchison and Dave Hewitt, are two accounts of days that suddenly and very unexpectedly went wrong

IT'S A LONG TIME AGO NOW. But even immediately afterwards, I couldn't have put my finger on a map to show you precisely where it happened.

I'd climbed Scafell by its western shoulder above Wast Water, and was ambling back by the same route, keeping close to the edge of the crags for the view down towards Lingmell Gill. Somewhere along that descent, I heard voices waft up from a cleft below, and stopped to watch three young guys scramble the last 20 feet up and out. It was steep stuff they'd just come up, but not so full of scree as to look dangerous. 'How was that?' I asked, nodding down into the cleft, and they panted and grinned and said it wasn't too bad.

So down I went. Slow progress, stepping carefully and testing for solidity, occasionally poking stuff with one of the walking poles I was experimenting with at the time. But it was a fine day, I was in no hurry, and there was satisfaction to be had from this little exercise in care and judgement. I emerged on to steepish grass dotted with craglets, the path down to Lingmell Gill a very visible scar below me. Routefinding was easy enough, just zigzagging gradually lower with dry grass secure underfoot, weaving in and out and down between the outcrops. I've descended ground like it a hundred times, before and since. I was almost down, maybe 30 feet above the point where the slope finally eased off towards the river, when I got hung up above a big steep slab, running wet with spring-water. There seemed no immediate way around it, so I backtracked upwards by maybe ten or 15 feet, to stand on top of a little crag and cast around visually for a route to the right or left.

And the edge fell off the crag. A big wedge of it, maybe a foot-and-a-half deep and five or six feet high, lurching out from under my feet. I went down and backwards initially, landing hard on my right buttock, with my left wrist yanked upwards by the sling of a well-planted walking pole, and my right arm flailing for balance. Balance never came - my centre of gravity was just a tad too far forwards, and I knew almost immediately that I was going to come unstuck and fall. The grass below sloped straight down to the wet slab, and beyond that was more steep grass and craggy bits. When I tell this story I say '40 feet' out of habit, but I really don't know exactly how far down it was to the point where the ground levelled out below me. Far enough to look like a hell of a long way, but short enough for me to think: I'll survive this if I don't get a head injury.

So I remember wrapping my arms around my head as I started to pitch forward off the fractured edge of my little crag, and twisting to the side so that when I hit the ground it was with my hip and shoulder, not my face. Then landing amongst the rocky debris below; feeling myself starting to roll, and flinging my arms out to the side to stop that happening, in the entirely instinctive realisation that a high-friction slide was infinitely preferable to any sort of tumble; but sliding, then, on to the steep wet slab and accelerating horribly; briefly airborne and thumping down hard, a walking pole mashing up into my ribs; starting to roll again, and this time just losing it utterly, flailingly ... arms out, arms around my head, nothing under any sort of conscious control, airborne and crashing down, flipping over and over, airborne again and then down again, very very hard. And suddenly, blessedly, stationary.

image from source document

Just enough time to think I'm OK, and then a comet tail of loose rock fell on top of me, and one final big lump whacked down on my ribs hard enough to elicit a drumlike thunk from my chest. 'OOOO-oooh,' I wheezed, and felt a fierce little pulse of petulant disappointment. It was the strongest emotion of the whole fall. At the outset there had been a lurch of surprise, of course, but then time for some surprisingly rational thought. On the way down, just a dreamlike jumble of impressions, but against the background roar of adrenaline all I can recall is a sort of feverish self-pity - if time had permitted, I think I might have burst into tears.

I got off the hill under my own steam, pausing only to wash my face and hands when I got to the river. There was a long shallow cut in the palm of my right hand, and a couple of fingernails were peeled back halfway to the quick - I had no recollection of that happening, and had felt no pain until I caught sight of the injuries. When I got to the car I felt tired and battered and very stiff indeed, but also cheerful and even a little smug about how quickly I'd been able to stride back down the valley. But bending down to get my boots off was bloody painful, and the big muscles of my thighs began to jump uncontrollably. And then my hands and jaw were suddenly trembling, and a succession of big, fluey shakes washed through me so that I had to lower myself stiffly to the ground and lean my head back against the side of the car, swearing tremulously and wiping at a suddenly runny nose - riding out the slow, tidal withdrawal of an adrenaline high, my extended legs twitching and bucking on the tarmac.

I don't often tell the story to non-hillwalkers - they generally wonder aloud if I have 'learned my lesson', or if I ever climbed a hill again. But it seems to me that there's really no lesson to learn, apart from the already obvious one that the universe is a random and dangerous place to inhabit. Of course I climbed hills again, just as soon as the broken ribs knitted, and of course I have picked my way down many a steep and craggy slope since.

And of course I now find it difficult to stand near the edge of anything higher than a table.


TO LOOK AT, Saturday 12 January 2008 was the perfect winter's day in the Highlands. Clear skies, icy glens, snow down below 300 metres, no wind. Postcard stuff. Val Hamilton, friend of this parish, went skiing on Ben Chonzie and described it as 'a once in ten years day'. Online you can find pictures of happy people climbing fantastic-looking white hills on that date - I've seen Flickr-type galleries of the Cobbler, Lochnagar and Bidean nam Bian, and they all look wonderful. Search a little further however and you start to find references to 'poor snow', 'worrying powder', people backing off halfway up climbing routes and so on.

Three of us headed for Glen Lochay that morning. I collected Mike from the far side of Stirling and we picked up Robert in Callander. The glen road was icy, but not perilous, and soon after ten we were parked at the cattle-churned road-end beyond Kenknock. Had there been no ice we would have driven up the bends of the Lairig nan Lunn road to park where the side-track goes off, but we were never going to risk that in such conditions. (This didn't stop a couple of youth-group minibuses giving it a go, however. The first made it up the steep section but the second got stuck immediately, disgorged its shellsuited cargo and reversed back down. The driver then produced a set of chains for the wheels. We left them to it.)

Stepping off the track beyond Batavaime came as a shock: the grass was solid with water-ice. We almost put on crampons here, before discovering that the first snows took a kick and allowed us to wait until the stock fence at the foot of Sron nan Eun. We hadn't expected spiky feet by 400m, but it was fun, and had it continued then the day would have been a cruise. But it didn't stay like that: from about 500m the south-facing snow turned to soft, sun-soaked mush.

There was an open snowy scoop directly above, while across to the left some craggier ramps and bluffs led to the south shoulder proper. We couldn't quite agree as to the best route. Robert - a serious, competent, back-of-beyond skier - was worried about avalanches in the scoop. Some dribbly debris could be seen, but nothing more than that. Mike was confident that it wouldn't avalanche. I could see both sides of the discussion, felt that either route would work, so suggested we err towards caution and angle across to the south ridge to minimise whatever avalanche risk there might be. Even as I was saying this, part of me knew that, had I been here alone, I would have headed up the scoop with scarcely a thought.

image from source document

We angled across and started to run into small problems. An initial bank of snow was rubbishy stuff with a slab hidden underneath, and while backing down this my right crampon came off. This has happened before, but hardly ever, and in retrospect it felt like some kind of warning that I didn't heed. A ratchet screw - I wear step-ins - had worked loose. I fixed it, we steered even further left to better-looking ground (but even more into the glare of the sun), and I started hacking and kicking up a moderately steep slope in my usual inelegant way: brute force fuelled by impatience.

The actual period when things went wrong was probably no more than a minute, but seemed longer. I had been aware of crampons starting to ball up - they're 15 years old and don't have deballing plates - and the standard whack with the axe wasn't clearing them. The snow was as sticky as wet sugar. No great worry at first, but the slope steepened slightly, to an angle where I suddenly felt uncomfortable about having only two points of contact each time I hit a crampon with the axe. I tried kicking hard into the slope as an alternative means of deballing, but this didn't work. And so, with feet bulky as moonboots, I started to slide backwards.

At first the slide was slow, and I was confident the axe would stop me: it was pressed into the slope in reasonable style, although at shoulder-height rather than with my weight over it. But in snow such as this, I might as well have been holding a flamethrower. The axe just sliced through.

Pace picked up, and I knew it was going to be sore or worse. Below was a short, steep snowbank, maybe five metres high, over which I went, airborne, in backward ski-jump fashion. Impact brought a few seconds of tumble-dryer mayhem before I flailed to a halt in less steep snow below.

I had gone maybe 30 metres all told. It had been akin to a heavy sledging tumble, but done face down and on terrain markedly rougher than parkland. Then again, coming detached from a tea-tray in a park risks hurtling into (a) trees, (b) metal benches, (c) old ladies with little yappy dogs. At least there hadn't been any of these halfway up Creag Mhor.

Knowing immediately that I was basically fine if rather shaken, I shouted up to the others, something Kinnockesque like 'I'm aaawright!', before adding that I'd lost my specs and my axe. Mike could see these from higher up: they were nearby, along with my hat. As I Mr Magoo-ed over to retrieve them, my head was a strange swirl of thoughts and feelings. There was self-fury (very different from self-pity) at having screwed up both a fine day out with friends and a 20-year sequence of accident-free hills (my last prang had been in 1987, the Beinn Mhanach scree-slither during the watershed walk). There was also a sort of weird wry satisfaction at having emerged unscathed from a fairly bad fall.

Well, unscathed-ish. There was no blood on the snow, and no bones felt broken. But I'd damaged my left shoulder muscles - nothing major, more a reprise of something I do from time to time when twisting to reverse-park the car. Also a cricked neck - again not too bad, but any assassin coming at me from my left side during the next few days would have been in luck. And the following midweek, a lower-back spasm would put me in stiff-robot mode for a while. On the whole, though, I was remarkably well considering what had happened. To use what was soon to become another New Labour analogy, I had got off as lightly as Wee Wendy.

Clearly, chasteningly, it could have been much worse; a rogue rock to the head and I'd have been dead, an awkward landing on my neck and it would have been wheelchair time. These things are pretty random once you're out of control. But it could also have been almost nothing: had the steeper snowbank not been there, I would just have smeared my way down the whole slope, suffered nothing worse than a jacket filled with snow, and we would all have laughed.

Accidents tend to be a gradual accumulation of small things that go wrong - in this case a late-ish start, rubbishy snow, dubious micronavigation, rather antiquated crampons, perhaps not ditching the crampons when the going became treacly, and so on. Eventually, if you're unlucky, all this incremental stuff reaches critical mass and leads to trouble.

It's unrealistic to think you can eradicate all these factors. All you can hope for is to increase the store of experience, such that this particular type of accident doesn't happen to you, or to those alongside you, ever again. The main thing that lingers from 12 January doesn't concern crampons, but route choice: had we not been on that side of the hill in those conditions, then all the other problems would have been manageable. Conditions were unusual (maybe it was indeed 'a once in ten years day', particularly given that even a slight breeze would have made the snow more solid), but we should still have been canny enough to steer for east- or north-facing slopes rather than trying to plowter up the near-unclimbable, porridgified, south-facing ones.

This became clear after we regrouped, headed back round to the original scoop and trudged up Sron nan Eun without further incident. (We didn't have time for Creag Mhor itself, and probably wouldn't have had even without the half-hour lost to the fall.) Coming down east off here brought a lovely mix of ice and firm névé. Suddenly it all seemed so straightforward and simple again.

The annoying irony was that I had recently written a newspaper piece chastising summer walkers who attempt north-ridge paths in winter (eg the Vorlich tourist route) wielding only poles or less. Now I had made the same mistake in reverse - fully armed with ironmongery, but likewise attempting the stupid side of the hill.

At least there had been one rather subtle piece of consolation. Just before falling, I had been alongside the footprints of a walker who had got there early enough to find the snow in better condition. At one point this person, evidently not fancying the direct line, had opted for a big zigzag, right then left. Almost intuitively - such that had I not come a cropper I wouldn't have remembered this - I became wary of the ground this led over. Some part of my brain was thinking 'fall lines'. So I went left then right, and perhaps this saved me. Had the fall been from even slightly further right, it would have dumped me over outcrops rather than over pure snow.

So there was one positive to be taken from the day. (Well, more than one: the light was great, the views amazing, and my friends were all you could ask friends to be.) The rest, however, felt like a mess of negatives, not something to be at all proud of or pleased with.


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