[Above: Walking in the treacherous conditions - snow depths over 10ft are not unusual.]
I had arranged to meet Mark Diggins before breakfast. He’d called up from reception, and by the time I’d got downstairs he was back in the hotel car park with the Land Rover’s engine running, making adjustments to his boot straps. He took one look at my shoes and by way of a greeting shook his head. “No.” An outdoor clothing company had been kind enough to kit me out for the trip to Scotland before I left, but apparently its all-terrain boots weren’t going to cut it.
Diggins liked to get to work early and I could already sense his impatience: now we were going to have to stop at a mountaineering shop along the way.
Diggins had qualified as a mountain guide 27 years previously and his wind-worn face spoke of a life spent in the extreme and difficult outdoors. His job had taken him rock climbing in Jordan, trekking in the Dolomites and canyoning in Borneo. According to the long list on his website, his “environments of operation” had included sea cliffs, rock walls, volcanoes, glaciers, skyscrapers, jungles, deserts and lift shafts.
But since 2010 he had been in the Scottish Highlands running SAIS: the Scottish Avalanche Information Service. Every day between mid-December and mid-April, Diggins and his 16-strong team go out on the mountains to assess the condition of the snow, often digging away in blizzard conditions. It’s their job to provide avalanche forecasts for Scotland’s five most popular mountain areas: Creag Meagaidh, Glencoe, Lochaber, the Northern Cairngorms and the Southern Cairngorms. For climbers and walkers, and for skiers and snowboarders, it’s a vital service.
“It’s really unique because it’s the people that go into the mountains that come back and write the forecasts,” Diggins explained. “In other countries, people go out on the hills, gather the information and then send it to someone in an office.”
As we drove through Aviemore, a small town and resort within the Cairngorms National Park, Britain’s most extensive mountain massif loomed spectacularly above us. Queen Victoria used to get the train up here in order to take the air, fortifying herself with whisky and water, and you could appreciate why. The place felt magical. Diggins has been all over the world, but thinks these mountains are the best.
“People don’t realise we’ve got somewhere like this in this country,” he said. “Somewhere better than the Alps.”
Despite the cold, some winter sun was beginning to break through. Diggins said I had chosen a good day to go out with him.
“Last week it was five consecutive days of winds of 100mph.”
The Cairngorms plateaux are the highest, chilliest and snowiest in the British Isles, temperatures of –27°C have been recorded there. Because of this they offer some of the best snow for skiing, boarding and mountaineering you’ll find anywhere: depths of 10ft have been recorded, while Whistler in Canada, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, sometimes struggles with half that. If you live in the UK, they’re close enough for a weekend’s skiing, without the hassle of having to change currency or pack your passport.
Plus, everyone speaks English.
[Above: An avalanche on Observatory Gully, a section of Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain.]
They’re a big earner for Scottish Tourism and visitor figures are on the up: 1.5m came last year. But then mountaineering and climbing are on the up all over the country. The British Mountaineering Council has seen its membership triple from 25,000 in 1990 to 75,000 now. A recent Sport England survey found that more than 250,000 Britons over the age of 14 go climbing or hill walking at least once a month, with nearly 100,000 doing it once a week.
Mount Everest has become such a popular destination that climbers now report the bizarre sight of queues on the upper slopes as people wait to reach the summit.
This January’s mind-boggling feat by Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell, the pair who scaled El Capitan’s near-vertical 3,000ft rock face in Yosemite National Park while urged on by Obama and a social media audience of millions, can only have encouraged more. (“I would love for this to open people’s minds to what an amazing sport this is,” Caldwell said.)
Backcountry, the vogue for exploring remote, isolated and difficult-to-access terrains, of which there is little else in the eastern highlands of Scotland, is also increasingly popular. Climbers and walkers from Scotland alone now spend more than seven million individual days in the hills every year.
[Above: A member of the team tackling a slope, caught in a snow flurry that could easily turn into an avalanche.]
“Winter climbing’s in fashion at the moment,” says Will Harris, a regional development officer at the British Mountaineering Council. “The equipment has got lighter and stronger, making it more accessible for people to get involved. It’s also been a bumper few years for snow, and that’s helped the Scottish ski industry, which looked like it was dying for a while.”
With figures like this, it’s not surprising there’s accidents. None of the above is without its risks — if it was, no one would want to do it. But the Scottish Highlands have had a bad run of late. In the 2012 calendar year, mountain rescue teams helped 720 people, with 240 injured and 25 killed. During the winter season of 2012–13, eight deaths were caused as a direct result of avalanches, while, in 2013, a further 14 died in separate climbing accidents. It was a season that saw heavy snow falls, high winds and bitter cold.
Many of these, however, weren’t amateurs but seasoned climbers who were both well equipped and well-versed in weather and snow conditions. Among them was an RAF squadron leader and someone on a winter skills training course, killed in an avalanche in the Cairngorms. Weeks earlier, two doctors and two PhD students were swept away by snow and died 1,000ft down Bidean nam Bian, Glen Coe’s highest peak, causing some to call for restrictions to be imposed on mountains access.
The climbing community disagrees, stating that by its nature, mountain weather is unpredictable and you’re going to have good and bad years, however you try and control people’s movements. (There has been one fatality since, on Coireag Dubh Mor this February, a week after my visit, when an avalanche killed a climber from Suffolk.)
What’s essential is common sense and preparedness. That’s where Mark Diggins can help. The SAIS website, backed by Sport Scotland, has grown to become the main source of dissemination of snow and avalanche reports, with 500,000 people logging on over the course of the season. Last year, SAIS recorded 350 avalanches: another season characterised by stormy weather and sharp fluctuations in temperature.
“We’re very conscious when we write every avalanche report how many people are reading them and how many people make decisions based on them,” Diggins said. “We’ve got to be super-accurate in what we say.”
The problem is that once people have it in their heads that they’re going to go up a particular mountain on a particular day, perhaps having taken holiday to do so, its very hard to change their minds. Anyone can spend £100 on a North Face jacket and drive to the foot of Cairngorm Mountain. There’s a massive car park there. But even before you’ve got out of your vehicle you’re at 600ft. You’re already in an Arctic environment.
[Above: The snow-covered antenna of the weather station at the summit.]
“No matter how experienced a walker or how good a climber you are, when the weather gets bad you need to be on top of your game in terms of navigating,” Diggins said. “You have to be able to use a map and a compass. I’ve been on some rescues where people have been relying on their phone’s GPS, then the battery runs out.”
I laughed, and said I often struggle to get decent signal at work. I wouldn’t fancy relying on my mobile up a mountain.
“That’s logical,” Diggins said. “But sometimes logic doesn’t come into it.”
We drove past the Cairngorm Reindeer Centre, home to the UK’s only reindeer herd, and a gathering at the side of the road preparing for a husky race, and pulled up outside Glenmore Lodge, SAIS’s base. Diggins knocked the snow off his boots and went inside to check the forecast data from the Met Office, and to work out a good place for today’s dig. There seemed to be a problem with the automated weather station at Cairngorm’s summit, so instead he turned to his maps. The screensaver on his computer showed Wadi Rum, the vast desert in Jordan. “A contrast to all this,” he chuckled, gesturing at the snow piled up outside the window.
We were joined by Catherine Grindrod, another member of the team, who set about zipping me up in a second snow jacket to cover the one I was wearing, tucking the gaiters on my snow-proof trousers into my boots and strapping an avalanche transceiver across my chest. It was a homing device.
“As a group we all wear one,” she explained. “If I was buried, you pull it out of the harness and listen to the beeps. It will draw you to where I am.”
(If you’re buried alive, everything depends on how quickly you can be found. A few years ago, such a transceiver helped skiers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, find their buried companion in less than eight minutes. That was still too late.)
Then it was back in the car for the short drive to Cairngorm Mountain. We parked up and took the funicular railway to 3,600ft, then disembarked with dozens of skiers and snowboarders. As they turned right to begin their descent, Diggins pointed to the horizon above us and indicated we should carry on walking up the mountain. The snow lay 13ft deep and it was hard to put one foot in front of the other. My new boots felt like bricks. It wasn’t that easy to breathe.
Grindrod shouted above the wind, and advised me to place my feet in their footprints. This first part of the expedition would take about 30 minutes.
“And don’t put anything down,” Diggins bellowed.
He meant that it would blow away.
“There are times when the winds are at 170mph, you are just a leaf in a storm. Sometimes it can be so violent that you lose your glove. The repercussions of losing a glove out there can be enormous because you can’t hold things. One thing can often lead to another when the weather is so extreme.”
The views were spectacular but I wasn’t exactly having what you’d call a good time. Pressing on my mind was the fact I’d been up all night with food poisoning. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other was a mental task in itself, and I fell down more than once. I was also trying hard not to have a more prosaic accident in my borrowed ski-pants.
In the Looney Tunes cartoons, an avalanche is caused when a snowball rolls downhill and gets bigger and bigger. In the 19th century, there were Swiss guidebooks that claimed you could start an avalanche with a good, hearty yodel. But snowballs and sound can’t trigger avalanches. While the vast majority of avalanches in Scotland are natural, most people who are killed by one trigger it themselves (in that respect they’re not really a “natural disaster” at all).
Despite appearances, snow is remarkably inconsistent. When it hits the ground it can be transformed in any number of different ways, depending on what the weather is doing, the wind and the temperature of the air. (The Inuits with their 50 words for snow were on to something.) Any snowpack is made up of layers, like a lasagne, with each layer being linked to the next by each new fall of snow. The layers also connect and change over time, melting or stiffening in unpredictable ways.
Avalanche danger is there when one layer is insufficiently bonded to another layer. The art of avalanche control then, is a combination of science, judgement and luck.
There are research centres where people study this stuff, such as the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, and Montana State University with its Cold Climate Simulation Chamber where they build artificial avalanches. There are also countries where avalanche prevention takes a more direct action approach. In the ski resorts of the Rocky Mountains, snow patrollers dislodge potential hazards using bombs packed with pentolite, a high-explosive used in warheads, and cannons that fire nitrogen-powered canisters onto the hard-to-reach cliff bands.
This doesn’t happen in Scotland, though. (To Diggins’ knowledge, explosives have been used just once, in the 2009–10 season, to safeguard a railway line near Glencoe.)
Avalanches typically travel between 40 and 80mph and once you’re swept up in one, there’s really only a limited amount you can do. A swimming motion may help you thrust up to stay near the surface of the snow, while people have survived by cupping their hands in front of their faces to create an air space. Shouting to alert your companions to your position is also recommended so, conversely, is trying to remain calm — though good luck with that.
[Above: Concentrating hard on putting one foot in front of the other in snow at least 13ft deep.]
As well as the danger of disappearing over a cliff or smashing into trees or rocks, your throat can become plugged with snow and your chest compressed to the point your breathing stops. Asphyxiation rather than freezing is the major cause of death in avalanches.
Snow can also set like cement. In his book White Death: Tragedy And Heroism in an Avalanche Zone, Professor McKay Jenkins describes a snowmobile rider being discovered buried after a crash by two of his friends. He was fine, and they managed to dig him out successfully — all except for one of his feet. The snow had set so tightly that two grown men couldn’t pull another man’s foot free. (Later, in hospital the crashed rider was dismayed to discover his urine “looking like root beer”. His muscles had started to leak protein into his body and he’d suffered such trauma that his internal organs were in danger of shutting down.)
Mark Diggins has only ever been in one avalanche, out on the Scottish mountains, and that was before he joined SAIS. “It was a storm situation and I was blown onto a slope that ultimately avalanched,” he told me. “The thing that struck me was how inconsequential you are: the speed at which you travel is just astonishing. It’s like being in an elevator.” He said he broke his fall using his fingers and toes, and scrabbled up on to a hard slab of snow above him.
“I was fortunate,” he explained. “If you get avalanched in Scotland, it’s not a good option; there’s such a great deal of rocks and rubble. Most people die from trauma before the avalanche stops, basically. It’s rather a grim subject.”
After some time that felt much longer than 30 minutes, the mountain started to plateau and we came to a pile of rocks that had obviously been assembled by hand. Diggins slapped me on the shoulder.
“Congratulations,” he beamed. “You’ve reached the summit of the sixth highest mountain in Britain.”
For a while, things got easier. We walked on and came to the weather station that had failed to transmit the requisite data back to Glenmore Lodge. It was obvious why. The whole thing was frozen solid: with its snowy antenna sticking out in all directions it looked like an art installation. Diggins fished in his pocket and pulled out his map and compass.
“I’m going to take a bearing,” he said. The area he had in mind to study required us to descend the southern face of the mountain. He pressed on with Grindrod following closely, but I became increasingly aware that I was lagging.
Occasionally, they’d turn round and one or other would give me the big thumbs-up, but they were too far ahead to communicate with. All I could hear was the sound of my own laboured breathing. I don’t consider myself particularly unfit — I run, and do a fair amount of walking — but this was hard work. I didn’t feel terribly well.
As we descended there were rocks, the famous Cairngorm granite, coming through the snow that needed to be negotiated and the wind had picked up considerably on this side of the mountain. At one point it blew me over, and I was grateful that neither Diggins nor Grindrod saw. Have I mentioned it was cold? Yes, it was very, very cold. Diggins later put the wind chill at –20°C, and the wind speed at 40mph. God knows what 100mph felt like last week.
Diggins circled back on himself and indicated a spot where he wanted to dig. It was on a northwest aspect, with a sheer drop some 30ft in front of us. From his backpack he produced a snow shovel and pickaxe and hacked into the snow with gusto. He was digging a hole for me to sit in. Then he dug another and hefted out a huge slab of snow in one solid block. “Feel how heavy that is,” he said. But I couldn’t, because I couldn’t lift it.
Diggins dropped into his hole and chipped away at some of the exposed snow strata. He scattered a handful onto a pocket measuring chart, and produced an eye loop.
“Look at that,” he said, with satisfaction. “It looks like glass.”
Indeed — through the magnifier it didn’t resemble snow at all, but crystals of something that had shattered on the floor.
Then he took some other measurements, including temperature and depth readings. He deduced we had a classic case of hard slab overlaying weak, poorly-bonded snow layers. Later that day, his report for the Northern Cairngorms appeared on the SAIS website. “Deep instabilities will persist on some aspects,” he wrote. “Cornices over northerly aspects will be prone to collapse. The avalanche hazard will be considerable.”
It was time to descend the mountain. Before we did we took a minute to catch our breath behind a boulder that offered some shelter from the rampaging wind.
I told Diggins I thought his job was totally mad.
“It’s nuts,” he agreed.
We’d been on the mountain for three hours. Diggins, Grindrod and the rest of their team would be back here, or somewhere that looked exactly like here, doing it all again tomorrow morning. Just as they would be every day for almost half the year.
“On Christmas Day it’s nice out here because it’s so quiet,” Grindrod said. “Then we come down and have our turkey.”
[Above: Diggins and the author pause, contemplating views at over 3,600ft on Britain's sixth highest mountain.]
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service aren’t there to discourage anyone from going up the mountains. In fact, quite the opposite. “Recreation is such an important part of the Scottish economy,” Diggins said. “What we do is provide information for people to use so they can go into the mountains with a better knowledge and understanding of where the dangers may be, so they can make informed decisions. It’s about encouraging people to come, basically.”
And none of their reports – even ones saying “Avalanche hazard: considerable” – say keep away. “We never say ‘Don’t go’,” Diggins said. “We always say: ‘There are places to go. You just need to be thoughtful’.”
“Look at that mountain,” he told me, back on the flat. “You’ve got snow on the left but it’s clear on the right. If we have an avalanche hazard in those areas, you can avoid it, can’t you? So, it’s about working out where to go on the landscape. Really, it’s all about choice.”