Whenever there is serious snowfall, the mountaineering fraternity goes wild, the reason being that the winter season in the UK can be so short (this is in terms of snow arriving and lying the mountains, and not the ‘general’ winter season – which does have a tendency to go on forever) that you simply can’t afford to waste any opportunity to get out there. However, when the snow falls in earnest, it tends to be non-selective. The ideal scenario would be for the snowfall to tamely confine itself to the mountains, while roads and car parks remain beautifully clear. Dream on. So, when the snow arrived at the end of last week, we had to think carefully about which hills it might be possible to access. The main roads were likely to be open, but narrow, minor roads into various glens might prove treacherous to negotiate – and as for parking spaces, yes we had a shovel, but did we really want to begin a winter hill day already shattered after having had to dig our own parking space? With this in mind, we opted to park at Keiloch (Invercauld), just off the main road to Braemar. Clearly many others had had the same thought process – and so it wasn’t surprising that the car park was already fairly full when we arrived.
The forecast was an odd one, with neither the local weather prediction or the MWIS (Mountain Weather Information Service) being in agreement. Being clothed for minus 5 in the glens and being prepared for a similar temperature plus the chill from 40-45 mile per hour winds on the summits proved to be an error of judgment. It was clear from the start that it was going to be a much warmer day than expected, probably around the zero mark: it certainly had all the makings of a drippy, semi-thawing snow day. So as we made our approach through the forest, there were a few halts to remove layers in order to ensure that neither of us started to overheat. Once out of the trees and across the burn, we started to climb. I stopped to adjust the venting system on my newish jacket – bought at a knock-down price in a sale (being small does have its advantages) and then left unused for over a year – but a very fetching 2-tone purple that eventually proved too much to resist. Kit failures 1 and 2 ensued. The taped pit zips on my shell layer refused to budge. I had to shed my rucksack and perform some strange yoga-type movements in order to get them open. Had the designers ever tested this jacket??? In the process of this battle, my left silk liner glove was completely destroyed. Again, this was a relatively new item. Why bill silk liner gloves as ideal mountaineering equipment when they aren’t robust enough to even cope with the mere opening of zips (OK, granted these were difficult zips – but still?)…
We carried on, and as we got higher, it was windy, but nowhere near as desperate as the MWIS had suggested. The cloud base lifted gradually and eventually the wintery upland landscape was under a continual shifting light pattern, sifted through the rapidly racing clouds. Tendrils of spindrift snaked their way across the snow-covered ground, converting themselves into blistering sprays of crystals in stronger gusts of wind. From time to time, a snow hare would dart out from in front of us and race for cover elsewhere, hunkering down and flattening ears close to bodies in an effort to conserve heat. We went over Carn an-t Sagairt Beag (1044m) and then up to the summit of Carn a’ Choire Bhoidheach (1110m). A retrace over Carn an-t Sagairt Beag to its neighbouring higher summit of Carn an-t Sagairt Mòr (1047m) meant that we were now facing into the wind. I donned my goggles only to discover kit failure no. 3. My googles (again newish – and, it must be said, not cheap) demonstrated an annoying tendency to completely steam up on one side. The left side of my world was fogged over, but with the wind in my face, I needed the goggles on. We continued. The sun started to sink behind the distant hills. The approach from the north east to Carn an-t Sagairt Mòr is steepish and about half way up we hit a patch of hard névé, pretty much a layer of ice. Iain, in his double plastic boots (why on earth was he wearing those – they looked ridiculous!?), skimmed up the slope effortlessly. My old Mantas with starting-to-wear profiles got me about 5 steps up. Using the boot edge as a tool was proving completely ineffective, so grumbling, I retreated and re-tried, this time deploying the ice axe for step cutting. The icy névé was pretty solid and I could see me being there until midnight as I tried to carve out something resembling a stairway for myself. Cursing even more, I retreated again and whipped out my crampons (all good fun when working with liner gloves that provided no protection from the elements). Kit failure no. 4. I had checked at the beginning of the season that my crampons were correctly adjusted for my boots, but I had forgotten that there had always been a very slight mismatch between the right boot and its crampon. And now, the lever at the back of the crampon was rather loose on the boot. Eventually, I managed to adjust the system to the point where I felt happy that the combination of the straps and mechanism wasn’t going to cause any problem. And, finally, up I went.
Summit attained, we descended (Iain now also wearing crampons for the descent over the névé and ice – naturally I took no satisfaction from his lone kit failure: the instep crampons he had lazily intended to slip on didn’t fit over his plastic boots – he insisted he had worn them for the entire circuit of the 5 Loch Muick Munros last year, but clearly had never checked for compatibility with other boots – [please note, instep crampons need to be treated with a hefty dose of caution: they cannot and should not be considered a replacement for full crampons under any circumstances]). It was getting dark and it became evident as we descended back towards the forest that the snow had become decidedly softer in the lower reaches during the day – that sort of waist-deep softness that doesn’t do any more for hurry than it does for already fraying tempers. Sitting in a nice horse shelter watching the snow gently falling, whilst devouring unusually copious remaining supplies of chocolate, helped restore some semblance of good humour. Once again, it was a long walk-out by light of head torches, but with the snow coming down was all rather therapeutic.
When I acquire new mountain kit, I expect to have to try it out in a variety of conditions and in combination with other items, but I do also expect the manufacturers to have tested items themselves. There was no excuse for those zips, the gloves or the goggles. It seems amazing now looking back on the kit worn to the mountains many years ago when still at school or as an impoverished student – any old shirt and trousers (except that we all knew that jeans were a no-go), a non-breathable set of waterproofs, some cheap ski gloves, a headtorch with a battery the size of a generously-proportioned slab of vanilla cake and a bobble hat, all stuffed into a cheap £10 rucksack. I would say that it all worked just fine, but of course it didn’t, we just didn’t know any better (but it certainly lasted well, vaguely did what it was supposed to do, didn’t cost the earth – and of course never went out of fashion…never having been stylish in the first place). That said, the spare liner gloves I finally located at the bottom of my pack late yesterday did cost just £1.50 from the local petrol station… and, unlike those upmarket silk gloves, they cheerfully withstood the final ferocious fight that I had to have with the zip of my shell jacket – just so that I could take the wretched garment off at the end of the day …
2 thoughts on “Spindrift And Kit Failure”
Oh this is a delightful post! I like the mixture of landscape description, tips for other mountaineers, personal annoyance – combined with more advice for other mountaineers – and the photos. Wonderful! Thank you!
Ah,the joys of testing out new kit. I remember the shear joy that I experienced discovering that my lovely new water proof jacket (also acquired at sale prices) wouldn’t fit over winter gloves… That was the day I also learned my lesson about wearing goggles rather than simply relying on glasses to protect my eyes. Anyway, I now have two new jackets; the one described which is my summer and a new, heavier duty model with wider cuffs for the winter days. So not so cheap in the longer run…