Saturday, 11 August 2012

Hypothermia

At request, a post from the past. I have only ever taken one roll of black and white film, and wasn't very impressed with the results. But the time I did, occurred during one of my more frightening experiences.

Billy and I started from A'Chuil bothy on a Saturday morning in February. The weather was wet and miserable in the glen, with high winds and low cloud. We caught glimpses of snow through the cloud - the top third of the hills was covered in it. Or in Billy's words:
It was like there was a doorman hovering around the hills. Not the professional but firm 'regulars only tonight' type; no, a nasty neanderthal knuckle dragger who kept a claw hammer with a stanley knife taped to it under his jacket. This one snarled at us 'don’t even think about it. 'Cos if you do, you're going to wish that you had stayed at home, sandpapering your fuckin' nuts and dipping them in vinegar by the time I've finished with you. Now FUCK OFF!' Still, this was nothing to worry us; we’ve been out in this sort of stuff lots of times.
Personally I was concerned about the weather. It was turn back weather. On the ascent of the Coire na Ciche I fell through a bank of snow into the stream and didn't dry out or warm up again. Had I been alone I would have turned back there and then, but Billy's keenness drove us on. My brain was running a bit slow for part of the day, so I will leave most of the description to Billy...

Ascending the gully above Coire na Ciche:


To this day, I’m not sure if our cockiness was due to experience or stupidity, but how else do you gain experience? I do believe that most situations can be tackled 'safely' if you are confident in your own abilities and aware or your weaknesses and danger signs. You should be able to show the wisdom not to get into a situation that you cannot get yourself out of. If you choose the challenging situations you do so at your own risk, and if it goes well, you will have a rewarding experience. However, you may also die, only to be found in 5000 years time by a bunch of archaeologists that want to gang probe your butt.

I would like to say that we had weighed all this up, but without much thought; we just looked at the doorman and said, 'Bring it oan!'. We decided to tackle Sgurr na Ciche first, and headed up the gentle gully to the Fedan pass. W
e were being plastered by a moderate mix of wet snow and hail, but made remarkably quick progress up the gully to the gap, aided by the strengthening wind that was pushing us on from behind. At the top of the gap, we reached the break in the slope that leads to the summit, and took a bearing. The summit was found easily enough, but we decided not to linger and tried to retrace our steps. The wind and spindrift had filled them in. We took a back bearing and came to a break in the slope. We weren't convinced that this was the spot that we had ascended from, but nothing makes much sense in these conditions, when you can barely see your feet, and few rocks protrude through the snow and spindrift to give any point of reference. In situations like this, you have no idea where the ground is and you can quite literally walk into a snow bank or even over a cliff. We were now facing into the wind on descent, a malevolent wind that was firing sharp pieces of ice up my nose and blowing my breath onto my storm flaps and goggles, where it was freezing. I couldn’t see and had to take off my goggles. However, I still couldn’t see as my eyes were now being sand blasted by horizontal hail. The conditions were so bad that you could hardly see your feet (though considering that you could not open your eyes, this didn’t really add to the severity of the situation). The best that I could do was to take off my mitt and squint through semi splayed fingers. I would do this for as long as I could take it, turn my back to the gale, close my eyes and let the pain and the tears subside, and then repeat the process.

Trying to descend from this point was not going to be the piece of cake that we had anticipated. We were pinned to the spot; you could not even throw yourself into the wind, because it would just lift you back up. It is at times like this in the gloomy white haze that the red mist comes down and you tap into that inner beast. I ran at the slope with all my being, arms windmilling in an exaggerated cartoon swimming style.

"AAARRGGGHH, ...AAARRRGGGHHH".

Pause, puff, pant..

"AAARRGGGHH, BASTARD! BASTARD! BASTARD! ..AAARRRGGGHHH". "This hill is Japan and I am Godzilla. ...AAARRRGGGHH."

The mountain was fighting us and I was loving every minute of it. This went on for a while, it was an epic fight. I was pumped up and felt heroic. I stopped to wonder how far I had come. How many yards had I kicked the mountains' hairy oversized ass? I looked back at Craig. The fact I could see him was not very reassuring. I thought, "Four feet! That was the hardest fought four fucking feet of my life!" Eventually we got down the slope by slow determined walking, not running. If I had ever bothered to think about the biomechanics of bipedal locomotion, I would have realised that this was the way to do it: always one point in contact with the ground! Just 60 feet down from the break in the slope, the wind became less severe.

The major struggle was behind us, but we were not out of the woods yet. Craig needs his glasses to see, and they had frozen over, as had his trousers. In fact, he was beginning to remind me of the scene from Terminator 2 were the Cyberdyne T1000 has an unfortunate encounter with a truck full of liquid nitrogen. I was thinking that any moment now. I'll hear a crack and one of his legs will drop off. What I did hear was nearly as disturbing. For the first time ever I could hear an alarming shakiness and uncertainty in his voice. Up until now, I had been joking with him that we HAD to get Garbh Cioch Mhor done, and if he died, I could hollow him out with my ice axe to make a toboggan. However, it was now getting serious. He was becoming hypothermic. I now had to guide him down the slope, and through the crags. The going was tough and I was getting tired. My crampons had fallen off on the way up, I had to kick most steps (and several rocks) two or three times, and due to a recent ankle injury I was not as fit as I could be. The thing that contributed most to this tiredness was actually trying to shout instructions to Craig; the wind just tore away my voice and it was lost forever. Eventually we fought our way to a frozen waterfall and sheltered behind it to have some food (eating on top would have been impossible in the wind). As soon as we stopped, I noticed that Craig was shivering violently. I was also starting to cool down at this point, my exposed hand numb and useless. This made me realise that we had to get to the bothy as soon as possible, get Craig in a sleeping bag, get the fire going and make lots of hot sweet tea.
Billy in the ice cave:


Billy had brought a flask with hot drink and chocolate (my customary bag of dry oatmeal was not going to cut it at this point). I put on my dry spare woolly jersey my aunt had given me for Christmas, had the hot drink and chocolate, and fortunately recovered as quickly as I had started to fall victim to the cold.
As we got closer to the bothy, the food we had was starting to kick in and Craig was beginning to perk up, so we just decided to have some tea, pack up and head for home. By the time we got back to the car Craig was almost bouncing, but through all my extra efforts and injury, I however, was sore and dragging my feet.

As I neared the car, Craig had been there for a few minutes and was starting to change. He was bouncy and chirpy, his spirits having risen considerably. I looked at him and wondered about the reversal of our circumstances. Why was he now so lively and I literally had to drag myself the last few miles? I somehow felt cheated. When I finally drew up to Craig, I looked at him and demanded, "Why aren’t you dead?!" Honestly, there is no justice!
Thanks Billy. And people wonder why I don't like Knoydart...

3 comments:

billysands said...

Knoydart has always been good for winter epics involving walk ins starting at midnight.

I recall my crampon broke that day to make things more "interesting". I really miss these adventures.

Thanks for posting

Robert Craig said...

Knoydart is good for nothing except getting wet and miserable. Do you know there is not even a pub in Knoydart, well, not if you approach from Loch Arkaig or Kinloch Hourn like we used to do, not being flush enough to get the boat from Mallaig.

I have seen photographs of Knoydart in sunshine but have always assumed they have been knocked up in photoshop or a darkroom somewhere.

But ah - Torridon! Now that is another matter.

blueskyscotland said...

Thats one thing I dont miss.The "on the point of tears" pain in your hands and feet after they have been frozen far too long then you get the feeling back into them.
Some of my worst mistakes that way were all in the first two years of climbing mountains.
Its strictly summer only now for Knoydart due to the distance involved to reach the road again.