Ben Nevis : whiteout on the Red Burn

Close to summit of Ben Nevis shortly before a whiteout, May 2011.

Close to summit of Ben Nevis as visibility falls.

And then the world disappeared.

Where seconds earlier there had been, metres ahead, a cairn all was suddenly white.

Up, down, left, right, forward and back, a complete blank.

My companions P and J were behind me but the fierce wind rendered shouting useless. Coordination was difficult and not simply because of the westerly headwind we were battling.

Our body temperatures had also plummeted in the 15 minutes since we stepped off the summit and the blizzard had hit.

Edging on through the whiteout I was dimly aware that losing the route, marked by cairns, could see us walk into the notorious Five Finger Gully, which threatened drops of hundreds of metres.

We were descending from the top of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, by the Red Burn track. It was May 24, 2011 and we were at 1300m when the blizzard blew in.

It was the first time on the mountain for all three of us.

_____

Few things offer a more immediate mental and physical challenge than experiencing a whiteout.

Whiteout on Ben Nevis, May 2011

Whiteout.

For seconds (if you’re lucky) or minutes (if you’re not) your senses are scrambled. Of the five only sight is useful – hearing, smell and touching are all drastically limited by the conditions, and taste long forgotten.

Even with good navigation doubt is constantly present, not least because of the ferocious weather. Stopping, or changing course, is not an option.

Faced with a situation where the ground, air and sky all appear identical and perfectly desolate – and the threat of simple white panic is blowing all around – a feeling of movement is vital.

It is a foremost a test of composure, skill and physical fitness. There can be few better proving grounds for a hiker. And so you keep going.

_____

On May 24, 2011, after three or four minutes battling our way down the Red Burn, we came through. (And shot the video below).

Luckily for us it was summer and the storms blowing over the West Highlands that day lacked the length and ferocity of the Scottish winter tempests.

Within 20 minutes we were below the snowline, scoffing bread and chocolate and packing our away our Down jackets.

Having come through even the briefest of whiteouts it’s hard not to feel grateful. Grateful that you have emerged safely but also thankful that you have experienced such a situation.

'The risk is the lure' Summit of Ben Nevis (1344m), May 24, 2011.

‘The risk is the lure’. Summit of Ben Nevis (1344m), May 24, 2011.

Many would argue that climbing with the risk of such conditions is reckless. But such mental and physical tests are an intrinsic part of mountaineering – though few willingly put themselves directly in the way of such events.

But the risk is a lure. It’s one that seems distant in these summer weeks, when the toughest challenge facing hikers is usually cloud or rain.

After I had returned home from Ben Nevis more than one pal questioned my soundness of mind for even venturing on the mountain in such conditions, concluding that I had had ‘a lucky escape’.

The late Scottish writer and mountaineer Nan Shepherd provides the best response to such a view.

Writing about the deaths of two young hikers in a blizzard on the Cairngorm plateau on January 2, 1933, Shepherd argued risk is an inherent – and necessary – part of the mountain experience.

“They committed, I suppose, an error of judgement, but I cannot judge them. For it is the risk we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.”*

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*Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (Canongate Books, 2011), p 40.

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5 thoughts on “Ben Nevis : whiteout on the Red Burn

  1. I’m glad I didn’t know the full extent of this until long after you came home. I trust your judgement but, as your wife, I worry every time you go up a mountain. It just cannot be helped!

  2. Wow Cormac, this is really hard core stuff! I could even feel myself panicking as I read it, fair play to you, I couldn’t do it.

  3. […] then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me […]

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