Cold!

What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness…

John Steinbeck

As I wrestle with our ever hotter summers I find the perfect antidote to the blazing heat is in my mind. Of course it does also require staying quite still which always helps. My sweat trickles from brow to ear and drips languidly on to the sand or the pillow or if it’s fiercely hot outside on to the stone flagged floor of the bedroom. As the evening cools Milly the spaniel lopes along and licks up the pool of damp I leave behind.

Aladdin’s Gulley, Cairngorms, Scotland – January 2018. Even the easiest routes become deadly in extreme weather conditions. In the photo my cousin Nick Williamson and my brother Duncan.

This summer has been particularly hot and by all accounts southern Europe will be a desert by the end of the century so we are all going to need more than imagination to keep us cool. Meanwhile there are two places I travel to when I need that blast of fresh air. One is the coldest place I have ever been and the other is the coldest I have ever been. Out of embarrassment I steadfastly ignore the time I drove my car in to a midnight Highland ditch in a blizzard and ended up walking 3 miles through driving snow with nothing but a lightweight jacket. That was very cold but also rather stupid, not a happy memory.

The coldest place was a few days in January of 1985 in Sierre Chevalier in the French Haute-Alpes. The temperature dropped below -20ºc. and the light breeze pushed the chill factor down to -30ºc. Nothing outside could be touched without gloves on for fear of getting skin stuck to the surface. I lifted my goggles at one point and the cold seared my eyeballs to the point where I felt my eyelids were going to be sealed shut. These were working days and we were up the mountain for ski school and unusually we were praying not to see any clients. One of the great advantages of very cold weather is the quality of the snow on the mountain. Snow crystals degrade with warmth so the colder the better for keeping powder light and fluffy. We didn’t want clients because we wanted to go skiing!

Guy Rigby and Graham Shephard in deep. Serre Chevalier 1985 – with the coldest weather comes the best snow…

The coldest place wasn’t even close to the coldest I’ve felt. That honour goes to a couple of years ago climbing in the Cairngorms. These Scottish hills rise no higher than 1,300m., they are not peaky and jagged like the Alps and from a distance seem quite benign with their rounded crests. “The plateau area is more like the high ground in arctic Canada or northern Norway than anywhere in the Alps or Rockies. The weather often deteriorates rapidly with altitude so that, when there are moderate conditions 150m. below the plateau, the top can be stormy or misty and there can be icy or powdery snow. Even when no snow is falling the wind can whip up lying snow to produce white-out conditions for a few metres above the surface and snowdrifts can build up rapidly in sheltered places. Gravel can be blown through the air and walking can be impossible” (Wikipedia). Disaster frequently strikes in the winter and 2018 alone saw ten deaths often with experienced mountaineers. The lowest temperatures (-27ºc.) and the highest wind (283km/h) in the UK have both been recorded here. With my cousin Nick Williamson and my brother Duncan we thought this would be perfect training ground for our planned winter ascent of Mont Blanc. It also had the added advantage of being close to our family home the other side of Dava Moor.

From my journal – 2 Feb 2018 ‘Ice bound! Ouch I sort of feel I know what it must have been like for Shackleton’s men abandoning ship for Elephant Island, with the advantage that I can throw a switch and boil myself a nice mug of hot chocolate. Never have I been so consistently cold as the last 3 days, if I was to write by hand old school style I wouldn’t be able to. Pity brave Scott whose last words “it seems a pity but I do not think I can write more” were written with two men dead by his side as the cold covered them in its gentle shroud.

Driving through Rothiemurchus forest on the way to the mountain

‘Cold is entirely relative of course, my wife often says “och it’s chilly out” when the temperature drops below 18ºc. I remind her that it’s a late summer evening and she’s wearing nothing but a flimsy dress made for wearing to the beach. But today I am really feeling it, nothing to do with age of course (!), just poor circulation which inner gloves and down gloves to do nothing to alleviate. Our planned winter ascent of Mont Blanc seems a step too far if I’m not even able to survive 3 days climbing in the Cairngorms!!’

‘These early morning starts from the house with the heating on and the snug of the car are a blessing. So much better than crawling out of an icy tent after eating sugary lumpy porridge cooked while lying in a sleeping bag. Having a mountain so accesible is a novelty as most of my winter mountaineering and ski touring has been done in the Atlas where the fun starts at 3,000m. but getting there involves donkeys, mules and day long hikes over flinty ground. Here in the Cairngorms you can drive up to the ski station, ignore the lifts, throw a crust to the reindeer that hover around the car park looking for a winter morsel and then head in to the depths of the National Park. On a bright day it all seems very easy until of course the weather changes at which point the icy wind and brutally hard ice underfoot make walking even with crampons a complete nightmare.’

Feeling the cold, Cairngorms

There are too many well worn tales of being caught unawares in the mountains, so many deaths that could have been averted with a bit more planning, a bit more education. In 1971 Cairngorm witnessed a tragedy that changed the rules for outdoor education when two groups of teenagers and their guides became lost in a devastating storm. One group made it to a rudimentary shelter while the other made a tragic mistake and bivouacked in a gulley notorious for drifting snow. Five of the children and one of the guides died under the suffocating snow, the remaining guide and single surviving boy suffered severe hypothermia. This story is always told to Cairngorm novices who look at the mountain disparagingly – “Well it’s not very high is it, can’t be difficult” – tell that to the children who survived the ordeal.

Simon Edwards showing us the ropes…

Over the years I’ve really done my best to stave off the cold, usually by spending money on great gloves that haven’t worked and more money on hand warmers that also haven’t worked. After this Cairngorm trip it took well over a year for my fingers to resort back to normal and with a bit of investigation I seem to have Reynauds syndrome – basically very poor circulation. My father’s hands go bright purple, mine go white. When I get to my Dad’s age I guess they’ll be purple too just like the dyers in the Marrakesh soukh without hopefully the whiff of dead goat.

Having a beard in the mountain is supposedly great protection against the elements. All those bearded adventurers climbing the Himalayas, trekking across Antartica or pillaging their way from Norseland to Scotland look fantastic in illustrations and photos.  Apparently some evolutionary theorists argue that men are bearded as a protection against the cold while out hunting while women took refuge in their caves looking after the children. That may be so but the cold air and lack of humidity sucks all the moisture out of beard hair making it quite brittle, not a problem for a Viking more of an issue for the modern well groomed man ha ha! Snow loves hair, not sure why but it sticks like glue and actually does sort of insulate the face but it’s quite impossible to pull off without removing chunks of beard from your skin. A gradual warming does the trick when back in the tent or steamy café in the valley leaving the happy drip of melt water down your neck as a memory of a great day in the hills.

Checking I still have all my fingers…

We survived Cairngorm and trooped off the mountain after 3 days exploring the Coire an t-Sneachda, every day in a bitter wind with blistering blizzards hammering us on to the already icy rocks. The only life we saw were some other equally weather beaten climbers and some beautiful white snow ptarmigans who looked passively at us from their exposed nests while wearing the warmest looking puffy feather overcoats. They didn’t move as we walked past them, their heads just slowly turned down the hill as if to say in their Highland burr ‘off you go, leave the mountain to us, this is our home, we may be tiny but we’re as hard as the ice under your feet’.

Did we ever make it to Mont Blanc? Well we made it to Chamonix. The conditions were appalling with the wind from the south over the previous few days having formed heavy cornices over our route. Not wanting to become statistics we took a long look at the mountain and decided to leave it for another season. Instead we took our equipment and skiied the Vallee Blanche from the Helbronner (Italian side), Courmayeur, Argentiere and spent a couple of days ski touring around Verbier. Did I get cold? Yes – but this time it was my feet.

Post script – After posting this on Facebook Graham Shephard got in touch and sent me this memory of the top photo in this blog. ‘That was just off the Crête drag lift at Villeneuve I believe, it used to drift over into the trees. One of the very very few places I’ve ever had it go over my head while remaining both vertical and on my skis. Two runs then down to meet the punters giggling like children. Us, not the punters. GREAT TIMES’.

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Get this guy – not only was he cold he must have had an extra 10 kilos on him too! Alan Fineau from Instagram #icebeard