Snow Daze

Rappelling Off a Snow Bollard

Twenty meters below me, Jon flashes a big, wide grin. I am uncomfortable, and I look down and shout, “Climb on!” I shift my weight and change the position of my hands on the rope. I am ready to belay Jon as he climbs back up to my perch.

I look back down at Jon. He’s safely leaning in to my belay enjoying himself. He’s in no hurry, but I am. I’m freezing.

“Climb on?” I phrase the statement as a question thinking the American phrase might be different from the British one.

Jon slowly smiles back at me and takes a deep breath before he shouts, “Climbing.”

To pit oneself against the mountain is necessary for every climber: to pit oneself merely against other players, and make a race of it, is to reduce to the level of a game what is essentially an experience. Yet what a race course for these boys to choose! To know the hills, and their own bodies, well enough to dare the exploit is their real achievement.

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain

In our morning briefing, we checked the avalanche and weather forecasts. The likelihood of an avalanche was low for the Cairngorms and for the western facing aspect of the ficalli where we planned to spend our day. Regardless, Graeme showed us some online mapping tools that help estimate the slope angle, an important surface feature that helps predict the likelihood of an avalanche. According to the research of Werner Munter, avalanches are more prevalent at a slope angle of more than 35 degrees. Using the angle as a guide, we looked closely at our route for potential trouble spots. The slopes had a low level of snow, but the warm weather conditions could trigger a wet slab avalanche. Graeme stressed awareness making sure we understood the types of risk calculations mountaineers need to make.

The overnight change in the weather was another important consideration. The temperature dropped below zero degrees Celsius. A slightly cloudy forecast would mean colder temperatures on the eastern slope while the western one could be warmer due to early morning sunshine.

Digitally Checking the Slope Angle

Digitally Checking the Slope Angle

On the trail, we quickly confirmed the forecasts. The muddy valley of the previous day was icy underfoot. The temperature hovered around the freezing point, which was significantly colder than the previous day.

I was chilled on our approach. Before we left, I decided not to wear my long underwear and regretted my decision within the first kilometer of our hike. My hands were cold; my core would not warm up. Falling back behind the group, I checked my pulse. My heart rate was abnormally high, although our hike was quite easy. I started to worry that I was getting sick. My thoughts raced while my laggard pace continued to slow. Fortunately, Graeme stopped often to discuss a particular slope or to share a useful tip. I fought to maintain my body’s warmth and lower my heart rate to no avail.

We reached our desired waypoint halfway up the coire’s slope. The densely packed snow had an icy crust like crystalized ice cream left in the freezer for too long. The thin layer of ice easily disintegrated underneath our weight and our crampons.

Climbing Up the Coire

Climbing Up the Coire

Graeme showed us how to create a bucket seat in the snow. Using his ice axe, he dug a hole for his torso. The back rest tilted a bit backwards to accommodate his backpack. The front lip was slightly elevated to prop the knees upright.

A Bucket Seat

A Bucket Seat

With Graeme’s bucket seat as a guide, Jon and I dug our own. We removed the ice and snow with our ice axes building, in essence, an inverted pyramid in the hillside.

Chilling in a Bucket Seat

Chilling in a Bucket Seat

We were proud of our effort, but Graeme suggested a few minor changes. Jon and I quickly complied. The activity kept us warm. In fact, I was so warm that I joked about adding a cup holder to our bucket seat so we could lounge around and drink fruity cocktails.

Happy with our work, Graeme shows the group how to dig a deadman or T anchor. He built his anchor above his seat placing slightly off to one side. The placement in a straight line from anchor to the belay and climber became our new ABCs.

A Deadman Anchor

A Deadman Anchor

Jon and I build our own anchor. Happy with the results, I rope in with a Figure 8 on a bight. I then climb down until Jon (on belay) warns that I am near the end of the rope. He then belays me back up to our bucket seat.

We switch places. Jon ties in to the rope and I sit down in the seat. The cold hardness triggers a shock wave in my body. Jon smiles at me unaware of my body’s reaction. I grimace and try to maintain a stiff upper lip. My climbing soft shell pants and my hard shell pants are not enough to counter the cold that engulfs my lower torso. The coldness quickly radiates outwards to my limbs. I am freezing again.

With Jon tied in on belay, I can’t reach for my backpack. I wanted to use it or its contents as a cushion.

I panic when Jon says, “Climbing.” He deftly skitters down the ice in front of me. My shoulders ache as I shift the rope to match his movements. My actions are heavy and cumbered like an engine left out in the cold with too little oil to work its pistons.

I call down to him. He is near the end of the rope. I am near mine. My teeth chatter and my limbs shake. I want to get this exercise done quickly. I am impatient, but I refrain from calling back to Jon.

His climb is quick and effortless. My belay is hasty and sloppy. I am confident the slope and the snow pose little risk and no threat. My god, I’m freezing. My 850 fill, goose down belay jacket is back at the Lodge—overkill in the current weather conditions, but I daydream about its warmth. “Hurry, hurry,” I mumble to myself. Jon is considerate, but he is completely unaware of my predicament.

Jon finishes his climb and looks down at me in the bucket seat. I must look miserable. “Cold, isinit,” he jokingly exclaims using a big city phrase.

Unhappy Camper

Unhappy Camper

I force a smile back at him. He must know how cold the seat is.

The End of a Cold Day

The End of a Cold Day

 

Waypoints Time Distance Altitude
Cairngorm parking lot
to Coire an t-Sneachda
3:39 hours (travel time); 6:45 hours (total) 7.6 km + 425 m to 1034 m

 

Print

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *