On not getting avalanched

Walt Black abseilling from Central Chimney, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms

In full retreat from the first attempt on Central Chimney, in March 2010

Sometimes the days where nothing happens turn out to be the good ones.

Walt and I had headed up – again – with the intention of going up Central Chimney, on Creagan a Choire Etchachan, in the Cairngorms.

First attempt last winter was called off after the first pitch, with masses of deep, unconsolidated snow making for rather insecure climbing. Another day, we thought, and abbed off.

That ‘other day’ didn’t come last winter. Or it did, but wet slush all the way up to the Hutchison Hut so discouraged us we didn’t even reach the foot of the climb.

A first attempt this winter found me in dithery mood and we walked away form a climb that would have been thin, but do-able.

So two weeks later we were back again.

Only trouble was, the further we got up Glen Derry the more fresh snow we found had fallen overnight – far more than the forecast had led us to expect. And by the time we turned up Coire Etchachan, it was even deeper and softer.

We lunched in the less than salubrious confines of the Hutchison Hut, enjoying the floorshow provided by a tiny shrew that popped up out of a tiny hole in the snow outside the door before scampering across 10 metres of fresh snow, leaving barely a trace, and disappearing into an even smaller hole beside a boulder. The Hutchie, it seems, is too cold even for shrews.

Lunch past, we headed up to the cliff. Where two weeks earlier we’d cramponned up solid neve all the way from the hut to the route, this time we were floundering in the soft stuff – and the closer we got the more and more avalanche debris we were seeing. Just short of the foot of the route I watched a small powder avalanche come down the neighbouring Winter Route.

It was tempting though. We could see ice in the middle section of Central Chimney, and the ‘sporting’ start was better built up than the last time (the stumbling point which proved the final straw in my chickening out). But to get to the climb, the snow was deep and unconsolidated, and balling up on my crampons.

So we got there and I started up into the V-cleft which marked the direct start, and I saw that there was water running between the rock and the ice. A tap with the pick of my ice axe confirmed that it wasn’t attached. So down I came.

We dithered again. I went up again. Found an old piton which at least gave some security beyond Walt’s crappy ice-axe belay, and got into the ice at the back of the corner.

Thwack! Solid. Move up, feet still on crap. Crash! Second axe placement provided no solid thwack, just a crash as the ice shattered, then the axe pulled through. Sod it. Enough was enough and I was on my way back down.

Dither time again. Wade out to the right to start up Squarecut Chimney and take the easier start to our route. But still deep, unconsolodated, balling-up shit, about two feet of it over a hard surface of neve, and another 30 feet or so to the nearest solid rock. And all to a soundtrack or snow and ice falling from above.

I decided the only reason I was still trying was because I wasn’t sure whether my judgement or my fear that was saying I shouldn’t be there. From there it was a short journey to saying that, if both agreed, then it didn’t matter which  was speaking loudest: it was time to go home.

Was my decision right in retrospect?

On the way back down we followed the footsteps we’d made on the way up – and found them crossed by avalanche debris.

And I later learned that there had been two people caught in an avalanche on a similar slope in Coire an-t Sneachda that day.

That’s good enough for me. But I’ll still need to get back in there.

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