This was originally written for the Berghaus Adventure Challenge: http://www.berghaus.com/community/?cat=146
Winter Skills Training Weekend,
Preparation for Mount Toubkal
(Can I, an above knee amputee, walk in crampons?)
Oh dear – I think a revised bag strategy is going to be required…
My axe is longer than my bag – I don’t think I can take it in hand luggage!
After successfully meeting up with the rest of the group at the easyjet check-in area of Gatwick’s North terminal, I boarded the plane to Glasgow with a certain amount of trepidation. I had won the crampon-attachment race at our group’s Christmas get-together, but as my victory was achieved with boot in hand this was not much comfort when it came to contemplating whether I would be able to walk with my prosthetic leg in the winter conditions that demand use of this serious gear. There was only one way to find out if I would be physically able to participate in the trip to climb Mount Toubkal and the plane North was the first stage in getting to the snow.
We arrived in Glasgow without incident then had much fun cramming the twelve of ourselves and our stuff into two hired people carriers. Our (self-appointed) supreme leader, Alan, had insisted that we keep our gear to a minimum, to the extent that the number of permitted underpants per person was theoretically limited, but this had not made the packing of the cars particularly easy. With the two smallest members of our party safely lodged in the third row of seats and the bags crammed in around them we set off for Glencoe.
Despite the darkness setting in, we began to appreciate the grandeur of our surroundings as we made our way north along the banks of Loch Lomond. After leaving the loch behind we were sufficiently on schedule that we found the famous ‘Green Welly Stop’ in Tyndrum still open. After extracting everyone from the cars we were able to stock up on essential supplies for the weekend. I did not need to buy anything at the road side as I had wisely bought chicken tikka slices before leaving England (they are the best hill food imaginable, I know you don’t believe me, just try one on a summit sometime!). In the now complete darkness we finished our journey trying to spot snow on the peaks that loomed out of the night as we made our way along the valley of Glencoe.
The Clachaig Inn welcomed us with its cheery glow and after dumping our stuff we met in the bar for pre-dinner drinks. Alan had cunningly arranged for the first day of our trip to coincide with his birthday so we gave him small tokens of affection. It was with a growing sense of anticipation that I knocked back a couple of lovely pints of ale from Skye whilst we tried to persuade the reluctant few amongst us that consuming haggis on the first night in Scotland was an obligatory rite of passage. In no time at all dinner was a pleasant memory and our guide Des had come over from the local hostel he was occupying and was introducing his colleagues; James and Simon. If we managed to convince them of the feasibility of the trip, these guys would be taking us up the Atlas Mountains! After a briefing that described timings and what to expect tomorrow (steep inclines, strong winds, lots of wet gloves and snow) we were instructed to get our boots and crampons to demonstrate to the mountain professionals that our gear was up to the task and we knew at least enough to attach one to the other – walking in them was another matter! After nipping back to the room I returned with my clean and shiny Kibo boots (I had cleaned them thoroughly after each previous use so in hindsight they did look suspiciously unused). James was unaware that Berghaus made B2 rated boots so was quick to grab them and perform the usual sole flex test. I am pleased to say they passed with flying colours and this gave me an opportunity to explain about my Berghaus obsession preference and being an ‘Adventure Challenge’ winner. Still boot in hand, I then went on to attach my crampons in record time and a helpful tip from Simon made short work of tidying away the loose end of the strap.
With equipment securely attached then removed and put away we were as ready as we could be for tomorrow’s trip into the unknown (snow). All that was left to do now was to ensure the quality of the ale remained consistent which I did with gusto!
Saturday’s first priority was breakfast. Those of the group that like to properly immerse themselves in the culture of the places they visit continued the haggis consumption but all of us were properly fed ready for the day ahead. On first inspection the weather looked pretty good but it was chilly, with a low-ish cloud base and the winds were predicted to get more serious with increasing height. We set off on the short drive to the start point at the base of ‘Buachaille Etive Beag’ in good spirits, especially as the cars were taking us to 250m without any effort on our part!
After the obligatory ‘before’ photo we naturally took the only footpath that headed up. This was initially a smooth, well made path which gave way to something more suitably bouldery as we climbed. We were heading to a saddle between two peaks approximately 500m above us where the plan called for crampons to be attached, we would then head up ‘Stob Coire Raineach’, descend triumphantly, practice self-arrest etc, then get back to the cars before dark.
Our guides had reconnoitred the area on the previous day and had assured us there would be snow. In the next hour or so they were proved correct and when the snow had reached sufficient depth following any path become impossible. After watching Alan and Paul go waist deep in snow whilst attempting to cross a snow bridge we all proceeded with more care, my B2 boots providing me with sufficient grip without crampons. As we continued upward the weather began to take a turn for the worse but after two and a half hours steady ascent we had we neared the saddle and reached the critical moment – crampon attachment! The wind had really started to gust strongly by this point so we found the most sheltered spot we could just over the saddle and got to work…
The wind was really whipping around us as we attached crampons ‘in the field’ for the first time. Our guides checked that we were all okay then I stood up for the first time and found I could walk! Although I had hoped this would be the case, I was far from certain that all would work out well prior to the trip. The resistance offered by my right knee is microprocessor controlled rather than under my conscious direction. Although the algorithms that control what the knee does are very clever, they are not intended for winter mountaineering. The increased level of traction provided by the crampons actually made walking easier as I my usually slippage-prone prosthetic foot was secured in place until I picked it up for the next step.
As the gusty wind had not abated, we were led to a more sheltered spot and talked through the basics of walking in crampons, which all looked pretty straightforward know I knew I could probably do it! Some movements would clearly be beyond my capabilities but Des and I had previously agreed that I would have to improvise and see how everything went. We then set off up ‘Stob Coire Raineach’ which initially proved reasonable but as we climbed we exposed ourselves more and more to the gusting winds that had begun to get pretty serious. The terrain continued to be easy enough to negotiate but we started to have to pause during the stronger gusts and mobility had become difficult. Although I felt secure in my footing, I was quite relieved when Des called off the summit attempt whilst we were still some thirty vertical metres or so from the top as the winds had further increased in ferocity at this point. After waiting for the present gust to subside, I picked myself up from the crouch that I had adopted to keep myself from being blown off the hill, turned round and began the descent knowing that we had failed in our first crampon assisted ascent but reassured that our leader was a sensible man and that I was able to walk as instructed without spiking myself!
At the bottom of our descent we were led to a more sheltered (nursery) slope with greater snow cover and instructed in techniques for straight ascents, descents and self belay. During the descent I got to put my theoretical knowledge of self-arrest into practice – it was fun!
As the wind had slowed our progress we had had less time for self-arrest practice than we had hoped and it soon became time to descend from the saddle area. With some reluctance I took off my crampons and we started downward. On the descent, with the great reduction in traction, I found myself slipping over in snow more than I would have liked but I think I was not the only one of the group having such issues. About half way through our descent we ran out of snow, quickly regained the path, then made rapid progress toward the cars.
When we had all made it safely off the hill, Des gathered us together for a quick debrief. I think he was pleased with our achievements given the nature of the group and now he had seen us in action in ‘proper’ conditions I was just hoping that he thought us capable of attempting Toubkal.
After returning to the hotel we had time for a quick pint and some chips whilst reflecting on the day’s adventures then it was time for a shower before consuming more haggis. Des and co had returned for tomorrow’s briefing which ruled out further snowy adventures due to unfavourable weather – instead we would be attempting a Graham!
The evening was rounded off by some excellent folk music thanks to Davie Tait, a regular at the Clachaig. He sang one of my favourite songs; ‘Fairytale of New York’, it was only just under a year early!
Sunday morning dawned fairly damp and miserable. The forecast low cloud base had materialised and the impromptu change of plan suggested by Des yesterday evening seemed particularly sensible. Fortunately we had haggis for breakfast to cheer us up and soon after we were fully geared-up and ready to go.
The venue chosen for today’s adventure was the Pap of Glencoe (Sgorr na Ciche) conveniently located near our hotel and on the banks Loch Leven. At 742m the view from the summit should be fantastic but we did not have high hopes of views as we decamped from the cars.
Despite the weather our spirits were high as we set off from essentially sea-level with a fair climb ahead. This started off on a steep gravel path that led to some waterworks. With navigation-magic from our guides, the nearly hidden path that led up from the waterworks was found and were soon suitably off-road. After some time striding across boggy ferns and large boulders we stopped for a short break and attempted to enjoy the view. Rain had intermittently been falling and unfortunately cloud obscured the majority of where we had come from and also the peak ahead.
At nearly 500m we reached a flatter part of the Pap that formed a slight saddle between peaks. This terrain respite was not to last long as with the path temporarily avoiding us we simply turned toward the peak and set off straight up the slope. We were now traversing some tricky boulder areas interspersed with slippery wet mud which proved to more difficult than expected. On one particularly slippy bit I lost traction with my prosthetic foot, fell awkwardly and managed to activate the failsafe mechanism that protects my bone implant from undue force. The result of this first ever hill-side failsafe activation was my prosthetic leg making a bid for freedom whilst I sprawled in the ferns. Fortunately my leg didn’t get far and I was able to reattach it without difficulty and carry on – not a sentence that many ‘mountaineers’ can include in a description of their adventures! This episode did provide Des with some food for thought as he contemplated my leg disappearing over the edge of some treacherous Moroccan ledge but Grace (prosthetic engineer) and I assured him it would be safely tethered to me for the big event. In hindsight, we should have got that ready for Scotland – oops!
After that little bit of excitement, the next 100m or so of vertical ascent seemed rather tame but the terrain then started to get more difficult. The wind and rain had also increased by now and we had to carefully pick and scramble our way upward. Despite being snug and dry in my gear I began to hope the summit would appear soon as this would hopefully give us an opportunity for a small respite from the weather and a chance to eat another chicken tikka slice.
As a result of having to concentrate on where my feet are more than most people climbing hills etc, I spend a lot of time looking down. It was a pleasant surprise then when the cairn that marked the top loomed into my peripheral vision out of the murk and I happily followed our leader off the peak into a lovely sheltered spot he had found for comestible consumption. The rest of the group soon arrived and we had successfully reached the top our first ‘Graham’.
Whilst we were happily munching, Des and co had decided that there were parts of our ascent that would be tricky to descend so planned to set-up a couple of rope assists. After all too short a stop we headed back in to the windiness outside our shelter, re-crossed the summit then descended one by one down the rope-strung rocky chutes, ably supervised / assisted by James and Simon in turn. The speed with which the ropes were knotted and secured provided more than just some help, it confirmed that these guys really knew what they were doing. Despite the wind and rain, there were no slippages down the tricky scramble or on the tamer path that we found on our further descent. Occasional pauses due to serious gust were the worst impediment that we encountered but soon we were low enough to be out of the worst of it and we could enjoy our steady return down the ‘Pap’.
Once off the hill, a short dash to the cars up a road (walking luxury!) allowed us to get back to the hotel for our now customary chips and drink celebration. After quick showers we returned to the bar to meet Des, James and Simon for our final evening meal of the weekend. All three of our guides expressed their positive feelings about our chances on Toubkal and I was left feeling pretty satisfied with both my own and the groups performance on the hills around Glencoe – Toubkal here we come!
Monday morning provided the last opportunity for haggis which I’m pleased to say that most of us took advantage of. We then sadly packed our gear away, crammed it all in the hire cars and headed for the airport. We had sufficient time for the obligatory ‘after’ photo whilst waiting to board then our mini-break was truly over. Not long until Toubkal now…