Monday, 4 February 2013

Demons

There is a demon waiting out there in the storm for every prospective winter ML candidate.  You know it is coming, but you have to wait to learn how and when it will attack. At the half way point in our assessment last week,  a little band of hopefuls climbed in to a Glenmore Lodge bus and left behind comfort and warmth to go find our demons, meet them, and (fingers crossed) deal with them.
The week had started poorly for me. On day one I felt that I had botched not only the simple navigation tasks that we had been set around Coire Laogh Mor but my step cutting and self arrest had been clumsy. Our assessor gave clear and calm instructions, but nerves got the better of me, and I failed to make the distinction between personal movement, and preparing steps for clients.
On the Tuesday, things looked up a bit.  We took a journey around the crag aprons in Coire an t' Sneachda looking at personal skills on steep ground, emergency ropework, snowpack analysis and crampon skills. Normally nervous on the steeper stuff, on this occasion I really enjoyed exploring the corrie, and after a positive and constructive debrief on the walk out at the end of the day, I felt a little more optimistic about my abilities, although still terrified of the expedition to come.
And so there we were on Wednesday morning,  loading our expedition packs in to the Lodge bus, a manic and slightly hysterical group. Each of us pondering the unknown challenges to come, with ferocious winds forecast, and the certain knowledge that if the conditions didn't test us, our assessors certainly would. The bus delivered us to Glen Feshie, at the western end of the Cairngorms, a beautiful forested glen below soft heather-domed munros, but for us it seemed a place haunted by unspeakable horrors.
Initially we were eased in to the process by simple navigation legs up the glen and on to the hillside. Suddenly, as we crested the plateau, snow appeared underfoot and the cloud descended.  In an instant we were plunged in to whiteout conditions, and as the wind strengthened, the stage was set.  Cue monsters.
Each leg was a blind leg, meaning that only the assessor and the candidate "on point" knew where we were aiming for.  For the first and only time, I was allowed a complicated relocation strategy on my leg, but it got us where we needed to be, a heavily corniced river bed, where we began to dig our snowholes for the night. As the wind got up, we frantically dug for shelter.  Darkness fell, progress was slow, and then, disaster, the snowholes started bottoming out.  There was not enough snow to make three useable shelters.
At this point, we knew things were serious, and assessors Shaun Roberts and Derek Bain took charge of the situation. A bearing was handed to the group, and we set out in a line, retreating head first in to the wind, to a safe route off the hill. Each of us took a turn on the front.  Some team members managed to battle away at the head of the line for huge and heroic distances.  I could barely manage a hundred metres, pushing against the wind that bore down on me like a ten ton truck, knocking me off my feet.  Floundering in the snow, I watched as the group trudged past me.  Derek pulled me to my feet and I tucked in at the back of the line to wait my turn. Every now and then, a gust would come that wiped out several of us at once.  We tumbled like dominoes. Head torches, hoods and goggles were ripped from peoples heads.  As we staggered across the plateau in the storm, gusts of 114mph were registering on Cairngorm summit.
Retreat brought us some luxury in the form of the bothy at Ruigh Aiteachain.  By ten o clock we were safe and warm, full of food, sharing banter around the wood burning stove.
Day two of the expedition dawned full of the promise of more navigation, and with high hopes for less wind. Again the nav was initially easy, but the mist soon closed in and a fresh breeze began to whip up the spindrift. The navigational challenges came thick and fast.  No more relocation strategies allowed, just pure hard-as-nails bearings over 1km or more in bad visibility and featureless terrain. My first whiteout leg was a duffer. I wandered from my bearing and was saved from utter disaster by a sudden parting of the mist, revealing a dark crag above the river bed I was searching for. I paced towards it. I was at least 100m out. Here, at last, was my demon, teeth bared, and ugly. As I handed over my leg it wasn't the spindrift that stung my eyes.  Someone gave me a hug.  I felt like a disaster and wanted the whole experience to end, but I knew that the only way I could resolve the situation would be if Derek gave me another, identical leg.  I would have to face the demon at least one more time.
My opportunity came later that evening, in the darkness, an 1100m leg that at least was heading for home. I held my compass in front of me, set my jaw, and ignored the monsters that seemed to be dancing in the edge of my torchlight. Pace- pace- pace- pace, don't stop counting....watch that needle like a hawk. I dragged myself over a ring contour that barely registered on the map but that seemed like a mountain to my tired legs.  Down the hill on the other side, down, down, down, until, I stood in a gully, pretty much where I'd hoped to be.  I pointed to the map.  "I'm here". And that was it. It was over.
The following day a weary and elated band of WML candidates marched out of Glen Feshie.  None of us felt sure of victory, and some knew already that they would need to do more. We were all simply happy the torture was over.  For my part, I hadn't a clue what my fate would be.  I knew I'd made mistakes, and wasn't sure how forgivable they would be.  In the end, I'd done enough.  A handshake and a little silver sticker in my logbook-three years hard work had finally paid off.

6 comments:

Phil said...

Many many congratulations Lucy - when I saw the weather forecast I feared ANOTHER postponement, but I'm glad it just bashed you about a bit!

Gerald Davison said...

Congratulations Lucy. You've just brought it all flooding back to me :shudders:
Trying to pace 1000m legs in the dark in white-out. I know exactly what you mean.
There are more terrifying and dangerous things you can do in life, but those few days are right up there with the toughest for me and I know I will always remember them, as I suspect you will too.
"Character Building" as they say...

Well done!

Lucy Wallace said...

Cheers guys! Phil- they don't cancel WMLs for bad weather only good! Gerald- I'll be wearing my battle scars with pride. :-)

Peter Duggan said...

Talk about 'bringing it all back' (different mistakes, similar doubts), but very well done, Lucy! :-)

Jon said...

Great blog Lucy, well done! I was wondering if you could share your choice of kit and what size pack you took?

Lucy Wallace said...

Hi Jon,
My kit for that week included a really warm sleeping bag, and a super lightweight bivi bag from Rab. I wore Paramo (Aspira) which was warm- ideal for those conditions. Kit has moved on a bit now, and I would probably travel a bit lighter if I had it all to do again, but would not compromise on warmth. I really love the Rab Latok gloves for dexterity and warmth. I think my big tip with gear would be a remote gas stove, that enables you to invert the gas cannister so it burns efficiently when cold. Some of the winter gas now available out there is pretty good too. The instructors and everyone else on the course had jetboils, which are great, but heavier.