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planetFear - Rock Climbing, Adventure Racing, Mountain Biking

Avalanched in the Lakes.

Posted by Jake Morgan
Wednesday 13th January 2010

Last Sunday 10th January I set off an area of windslab the size of a football pitch and got carried down a slope for about 100m and then a further 100m down a gully in avalanche debris and was lucky not to be buried.

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Skinning from Winder towards Arant Haw (Howgills)

(Photo by Anthony Emmet)

 

The weekend had started well with a day out ski touring in the Howgills. We started from Sedbergh and skied some excellent easy angled gullies on the western side of the fells. There were strong easterlies blowing all day and the tops were icy and scoured. On this day I had accidentally left my avalanche transceiver in the car thinking that it was unnecessary, after all we were skiing in the Howgills (!).

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Removing skins on the top of Arant Haw at the end of a good day

(Photo by Anthony Emmet)

 

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Sunset turns at the end of the day

(Andy Benson)

The next morning, after a bit of deliberation, we set off skinning up the bridleway from Thirlmere, to see if the wind had left us anything to ski. The weather had warmed considerably and there was a melt going on in the valley. I was pretty non-enthusiastic about skiing. I was pessimistic about the chances of finding anything worth the long walk/skin.

 

As we gained height the powerful easterly that threatened to blow us off our feet did nothing to change my mood. Nor did the icy landscape with grass tufts showing through. Why hadn't I gone ice climbing?

 

Anyone who has done even a small amount of avalanche training is probably already thinking that these don't look like safe conditions - A bit of a thaw and lots of wind blown snow = lots of unstable windslab.

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Skinning into the wind above Thirlmere

(Photo by Anthony Emmet)

As we got higher it looked as though we might get some snow on the south facing slopes across to our left. We crossed the bottom of the valley and zig-zagged our way up the hillside, to our right was a large steep sided gully with clearly a large amount of windslab on its right hand side. This was formed in a process known as cross-loading where the snow that is blown across the hillside deposits in the lee side of gullies. The plan was to traverse well above the top of the gully on easy angled ground and ski down to the right of it on the south facing slope.

 

Andy Benson, Ant Emmet and I skinned faster than my partner Lucy and Ruth Bowman and another Lucy. We arrived at the top while they were part way up. The top was covered in large sastrugi formations formed by the howling wind.

 

We de-skinned and set off down. The light was completely flat and the angle below us was hard to see. Andy set off first as always and was soon out of sight. In the poor visibility I, followed closely by Ant, went too far left and I suddenly realised that I was on the steeply angled windslab I had made a mental note to avoid. I turned quickly to the left to head towards steeper ground. I heard a shout from Ant behind me. He later said that he had shouted because of the crack that had opened above me. My legs were swept from under me and all of a sudden the valley bottom was rushing up towards me. Oh shit I'm in an avalanche. My skis released straight away and my first thought was to get into the kayaking defensive swimming position, with legs downhill and slightly bent ready for impact. The impact in the bottom of the gully was going to hurt. This first stage probably lasted not much more than a second or two, the slope started at about 35 degrees and steepened into the gully bottom. It almost felt like freefall.

 

The enormous impact I had expected did not come. I had a relatively soft landing in a river of moving debris. I was rolled over and over and started fighting for breath. It felt like a combination of being buffeted by white water in a swim whilst kayaking and face planting constantly in a ski crash. I realised that my hands were being dragged down by my ski poles and wriggled my hands free of the leashes and started trying to front crawl for the surface. Then as suddenly as it had started it stopped. A moment of panic and I thrashed about. Luckily I had an arm out above the surface and the rest of me can't really have been buried much. I still couldn't breath. I coughed and wheezed and expelled snow and blood from my throat (note to self: keep mouth shut in avalanches). If I had been buried It would not have been long before suffocation.

 

I started looking back up hill to see where Ant was. He was already stood up and waving. I couldn't shout because my throat hurt. Andy was stood at the side of the gully about 30m away. I waved at one of the girls I could see on the skinning track to let them know I was ok. I felt a sense of massive relief. At certain points in my rapid journey downhill I had wondered if I was going to get killed.

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Looking back at where it all happened.

The route I went is marked in red and Ant in Blue.

The area of windslab in green

(Photo by Anthony Emmet).

 

We had joked that morning whilst putting our transceivers on how embarrassing it would be to die in an avalanche in the Lake District. It immediately dawned on me just how complacent I had been and also how lucky (if that's the right word) I had been.

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Looking back up the gully, the debris is about 5m wide and I don't know how deep. Ant Emmet with his one remaining ski is in the distance. (Photo by Andy Benson)

 

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

Looking down the gully from about halfway with me at the bottom.

(Photo by Andy Benson)

 

To give some more background about the run up to this I had just returned form skiing in the Alps. Two weeks in Chamonix and then La Grave. 4-5 people died in the Chamonix valley skiing while we were there. Also a good friend of some of our apartment mates had died in an avalanche on Ben Nevis. We had two weeks of skiing with very competent friends some of them Aspirants and Guides. There was a strong culture of talking to each other about conditions, moving tactically through terrain and generally being very careful. There was a lot of snow about and avalanche risks were high. 

 

So why did I get avalanched in the Lakes? A simple lack of respect for the prevailing conditions. And now I have lost my skis, poles, goggles and hat, the avalanche snapped the waist and chest buckles on my rucksack, I have a dented pride and a knackered back. I have the necessary knowledge and experience to have prevented this and am disappointed in my own decision making process.

 

Lakes Avalanche Jake Morgan planetFear

The long walk back without skis and a sore back.

(Photo by Anthony Emmet)

 

In the aftermath I have spoken to a number of people who were out on the hill that day ski-touring. A large number were not carrying transceivers, shovels or probes. I wonder how many people out doing anything in the Lake District hills over the Christmas period had the knowledge, skills or equipment to help them to avoid walking in to the same trap.

 

When I got home that evening I searched the web for Lake District avalanche information. The result of my Googling was the knowledge that there had been an avalanche warning issued for Helvellyn on the 6th of January but nothing else. Should there be more? Would it have made any difference?

 

Britain's largest avalanche happened on December 27, 1836, in Lewes, East Sussex. Eight people died. Not all avalanches happen to somebody else, somewhere else.

Read more blog entries by Jake Morgan

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