WE were on the summit ridge of Beinn a’ Chaorainn with no visibility, thick mist all around and the path buried under deep snow.
We had lost all vision in a matter of seconds. The compass was our only clue as to where we should be heading. But there was a problem.
Beinn a’ Chaorainn has three summits, all roughly the same height, the main one in the middle. It also has two huge bites out of the ridgeline on the right which hold a massive cornice.
One wrong step and we could plunge through the fragile snow and plummet hundreds of feet down the rocky ramparts into Coire na h-Uamha. It has happened before on this mountain.
It was at this point I was so glad that some years back I had done a micro navigation course. Traditional compass work could lead to disaster, step counting would be a far safer bet.
We trained on a lochan-strewn plateau in Torridon. Our step ratio was worked out by walking 200 metres over undulating ground. Then we were taken out at night so that landmarks were invisible and compass readings had to be spot on.
Finding a pool of water in that landscape in the dark was ideal training. Now it would be put to the test in trying conditions.
But to paraphrase a famous war correspondent, we counted our steps out and we counted them back in again. All the way, right round the peaks, from cairn to cairn, without coming to grief.
I learned micro navigation from an expert about 12 years ago. I had practised it on a few occasions but this was the first real test and it proved to be a success.
I reckon there will be a lot of step counting going on just now. The massive snowfall on the high peaks has created some massive cornices and we have already seen accidents this winter with climbers and walkers going through the overhanging snow.
In a whiteout there’s often no way of seeing the danger. Even in clear conditions it can be difficult to know exactly where the solid ground starts and finishes.
The other main problem at the moment is the instability of the snow. There are so many layers but without the very cold conditions the snow hasn’t bonded and huge slabs can break away, sweeping everything, and everyone, before it.
The Scottish Avalanche Information Service website is a must for anyone thinking of venturing out in the mountains at the moment. It covers the five main areas - Lochaber, Glen Coe, Creag Meagaidh, Northern Cairngorms and Southern Cairngorms - highlighting the avalanche risk factors.
On just one day last week, there were 18 avalanches in the Nevis range alone. There have also been huge falls in the Cairngorms and on Buachaille Etive Mor.
When you visit the Buachaille’s Coire na Tulaich in summer you can see the amount of debris that has come down over the years.
When you visit in unstable winter conditions, you can be walking into a death trap. It’s a giant bowl with snow overhanging the cirque of cliffs above.
Just a few years ago three climbers lost their lives at this spot in one devastating avalanche. The danger signs are there - make sure you know how to avoid disaster.
(First published Daily Record, February 13, 2014)