Wednesday 15 December 2010

Sometimes it makes sense to turn back.....

A brilliant sunset with the snow-covered mountains sharp against the sky had me longing to be skimming over those summits on skis. The forecast was mixed and somewhat confusing, with a threat of complete cloud cover but the promise of superb visibility. Wind speeds would be low and precipitation unlikely. The next day the clouds were there but patches of hazy blue sky suggested clearances were possible. I decided to be optimistic and set out up towards the Cairngorm Plateau, the climbing skins on my skis sticking firmly to the crunchy, crusty snow. Soon I was entering the cloud and the hints of blue had faded. The chilly breeze became a cold wind bringing sleet and drizzle. I zipped up my jacket and pulled up the hood. The sleet became heavier and soon froze on my clothing and pack. The slope grew steeper, the snow icier. The skins started to slip, a backwards jerk that tugged at the groin. A ski pole skidded off hard ice. Finding a flattish spot beside some rocks I decided crampons made more sense than skis. Changing from one to the other was not a simple procedure however. Balancing on one ski I unclipped my boot from the other one and slid it into the crampon whilst the wind whipped the sleet against me. Threading the crampon strap through the attachment rings and tightening it was finger-freezing work, my thin gloves inadequate for warmth and becoming wet from the sleet. I was glad I didn’t have the multi-strap crampons of old. Finally I had both crampons on and felt more secure as they bit into the icy snow. My fingers grew colder as I strapped the skis to my pack and swapped a ski pole for my ice axe. Setting off I regained some warmth with the effort of climbing and of resisting the wind which caught the skis and tried to blow me sideways. The cloud thickened, the sleet grew denser, the wind strengthened. All I could see was the white slope rising ahead and the occasional rock. Head down against the stinging, scouring, freezing, wind-blasted wet sleet I struggled on for a short while then stopped. I hadn’t reached the plateau yet. The wind would be stronger there, the visibility no better. These weren’t the conditions or the place to ponder long. Once the thought of turning back had occurred I knew it was the right thing to do. The wind was behind me, out of the north-east. I faced into and began the descent, relying on the points of my crampons to prevent me slipping. Once I reached the softer snow the crampons sank in and caught on rocks and bits of ice, becoming more of a hazard than a help. Time for the skis again. Changing back took even longer as the straps on my crampons and pack had frozen and had to be rubbed between my fingers before they would slide through the buckles. I ripped the skins off the skis and stuffed the wet, half-frozen bundles of sticky nylon into my pack. My gloves were sodden now and my fingers numb, a reminder of why I always carry several pairs in winter. Dry fleece gloves and weatherproof overmitts felt delightful. I skied carefully downwards, unable to see much detail in the snow and making big slow turns. The cloud base had lowered and I was still in it when I reached the car park. There was sleet here too and a colder, stronger wind than when I’d set out. The promise of that fine sunset had been false. I felt relieved at having turned back and surprised at how intense and demanding a few hours in a storm had been.

Photo info: The sunset over the Cairngorms that lured me out the next day with the hope of good weather. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 55-250@100mm, 1/400 @ f5.6, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 3.


  1. This made exciting reading. Thanks chris and I am relieved that you turned back. You always seem to have the good sense to make the right decision in matters of safety and that's why I don't worry about you too much. love rowena x

  2. Hi Chris,
    If you had kept going you may have had a more interesting story!

    Alastair ;)

  3. "My gloves were sodden now and my fingers numb, a reminder of why I always carry several pairs in winter"
    After all these years I had never thought of that... doh! What a good idea! Weighs virtually nothing and blissful comfort too!
    Thanks Chris!
    Alan (slightly embarrassed)

  4. A fantastc mini-adventure Chris,it was without doubt, correct to turn back !

  5. I agree with the previous posters, quite a story. Glad you got back safely.
    A question. What footwear did you have on?
    If you had got stuck overnight, would you have been ok?
    OK, 2 questions ;-)

  6. Mmmm, immediate postings now.

    Another question! You mentioned the word "skins" what's that?
    Like the koi people I know, they talk a foreign language;-)

  7. Tony, I was wearing Garmont Xcursion ski touring boots.
    If I'd got stuck overnight I could have survived, though I wouldn't have been very comfortable. I had a bothy bag, bivi bag, warm clothing and a stove.
    Sorry to confuse you with skins! These are strips of brushed nylon that are stuck on the skis to give them grip when going uphill. The surface is like cat's fur - brush it one way and it's smooth, brush it the other and it stands up.

  8. I really must buy some of these modern easier to fit crampons. I still use the old multi-strap Grivels - I have two pairs and I hate throwing things out when they still work!

    Like you I always have spare gloves. I carry spare polypro inners as well as spare fibre pile lined mitts and weatherproof over mitts. I've carried spare gloves in winter for decades and folks that don't should!

    Lovely sky in your photo. Back from a walk in the woods with snow gently falling. The sun came out briefly and I could see Ben Rinnes from our window. Now it is snowing again.It is going to be a long winter - Ah well only three more days and the days will start lengthening...but winter only just beginning!!

    Hope you don't have to make too many trips into Grandtown this winter on snoweshoes or skis!


    Rob fae Craigellachie

  9. A timely reminder Chris for us to always listen to that little voice in our head.

    Doing things as soon as we think about it is even more important at this time of year. Even simply overheating and sweating heavily in winter clothes can cause problems. It's easy to just put our head down and keep stomping on. The wind might be cold and the sleet stinging but its imperative that we stop and sort it out even if that means stopping, taking off our pack and changing layers.

  10. Good points Joe. Also, use closures and hoods on garments to control temperature - on the trip described I used the front zip of my jacket for this frequently.

  11. Glad to read you turned back, I know first hand how bad the weather can be on the Cairngorm plateau in winter. I'd be interested to know if you were using pacer poles? I read on their website that you frequently do. I'm considering getting a pair myself for walking and maybe cross country skiing, but I'm also wondering if they're as easily used to set up a tarp because of the angled handles? Keep up the good work.

  12. Eiran, I was using Pacerpoles. I use them for walking and skiing. I've used them with tarps without problem. I used them for pitching the Shangri-La 1 on my Pacific Northwest Trail hike last summer and they were excellent.