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.