Ben Nevis avalanche: Harsh reality and valuable lessons
Paul Boggis runs Mountain Magic, a non-profit organisation that provides courses and adventures in hill walking, rock climbing and mountaineering for children and adults. He happened to be close to the scene when the Ben Nevis avalanche struck earlier this week, killing three men and leaving one badly injured.
Alongside many mountaineers and rescue team members, Paul and two clients helped to carry three of the four men – Swiss and french visitors – down the mountain. Paul has written a moving and poignant article. He has also offered a wealth of advice to people who like to venture into the winter mountains.
Paul has given me permission to republish and share, so that more people can be aware of the dangers and precautions.
Caught in the eye of a storm
The face of a dying man was held between my hands. I did my best to cradle his head and keep it still. He was one of four people that Number Five Gully caught in its avalanche on Ben Nevis this week. Three died. One survived.
I have long preferred prevention over picking up the pieces. When those precious pieces land a few minutes’ walk away, one helps to pick them up as well as one can. I have a great respect for the brave mountaineers who were first on the scene, and a big admiration for the work of the Lochaber and Glencoe mountain rescue teams.
I’m not sure if I could do what they do.
Respecting the memory of the dead and the feelings of their friends and family is a big deal. It’s so sad to see these three mountaineers go and I can only begin to imagine what their loved ones are going through.
Yet, as hard as it is, I know I would want the death of a dear friend or family member to help prevent it from happening to other people in the future.
What lessons can we learn?
As a mountaineering instructor and outdoor educator, I am always asking, what can we learn from this? How can we do it better? How can we enjoy these beautiful mountains and still come home to our loved ones every time?
There are no guarantees but there is much we can do to widen our safety margins and improve our odds of living a long and healthy life.
Some people reading this will already know what I am about to write. Some of them would have chosen to stay well away from Number 5 Gully yesterday.
Some of them might have chosen to risk brief exposure to its lower reaches, in order to fulfil their love for a good adventure above. Either way, I respect their choices and their outcomes.
Life is ours to live.
We don’t know the full extent of the information that the four avalanche victims had, neither do we know the details of the choices they made. I would ask everyone out there to be kind and sensitive to the tragic loss of these three men.
If their passing can offer more safety to mountaineers like them, it may give some comfort to those who need it most at this time.
Avalanche facts and advice
For anyone who is wondering how this avalanche occurred and what avalanche hazard means to them, here are some facts and advice.
I hope the high-profile nature of this tragedy will help to improve the safety of people who love the Scottish mountains in winter, and I hope the death of these men will have a meaning that contributes to life.
On the 11th of March 2019, the Scottish Avalanche Information Service reported a “High Avalanche Hazard” for the Lochaber region. This was on north, north-east and east facing slopes and gullies above 900m.
The SAIS definition of a ‘High Avalanche Hazard’ is this: “Natural avalanches will occur with numerous large and often very large avalanches expected. A single person load is likely to trigger an avalanche on many slopes.
“Good visibility in mountain terrain is essential as is experience in hazard evaluation.
“Be aware of and avoid runout zones at low altitudes.
“Careful group management and good spacing is vital.
“Use mountain features (ridges and scoured slopes etc) to travel safely.”
Also on the 11th of March, the Mountain Weather Information Service and the Met Office forecast heavy snowfall on Ben Nevis, with storm-force, south-westerly winds blowing across the mountain.
Thus, the snow accumulated fast in east-facing Number 5 Gully and all others like it, almost certainly forming unstable cornices at the top of these gullies, too.
Number 5 Gully is about 300m high and 500m long, with a 200m wide snow fan in its upper reaches. When it avalanches, the snow has been known to travel for up to 300m beyond the lower reaches of the gully.
That is a huge volume of snow. When snow avalanches like this, it gets packed into a hard consistency, making lumps as big as boulders and almost as hard as ice.
Given the nature of this event and others like it, what can we walkers, mountaineers and climbers do to look after ourselves and others as best we can?
Assessing weather forecasts
First of all, we can have a good look at the mountain weather forecasts. We tend towards these two great services run by MWIS and the Met Office.
With useful links to summit specific forecasts on the Met Office website, too, we make sure we look at the overall picture from MWIS and the Met Office.
The more informed we are, the better the decisions we can make.
When we’re looking at the weather forecasts, we ask ourselves how much snow will be falling, where will the wind be blowing from, how strong will the wind be and what will the temperature be?
The more snow there is on the mountain, the greater the avalanche risk tends to be. If the wind is coming from the south, for example, it will transport the snow to accumulate in north-west, north and north-east facing locations. The stronger the wind, the more snow it will tend to move.
The effect of temperature on snow is complex but the following applies:
- The further below 0ºC the new snow is, the more slowly it consolidates and the more unstable it remains.
- The further above 0ºC the snowpack is, the faster it thaws and the more unstable it becomes.
- The further below 0ºC the snowpack is after a thaw, the faster it freezes and the more it consolidates.
Once we’ve looked at the weather forecasts, we look at the avalanche report. The SAIS offers brilliant information, with reports for six of the most popular mountain areas in the Scottish Highlands.
We read all of the report carefully, including the observed avalanche hazard for that day and the avalanche hazard forecast for the following day.
The report tells us about the stability of the snowpack, where any avalanche hazard is likely to be and how far up the scale it is.
It’s important for us to understand the meaning behind the avalanche hazard scale and there is a link to click for the SAIS definitions of low, moderate, considerable, high and very high. There is also a useful link on the website with advice on how to interpret avalanche reports.
To learn more about avalanche awareness, or to refresh if it’s been a while, there is the SAIS Be Avalanche Aware website:
The Be Avalanche Aware guide outlines the three fundamental factors to consider when assessing avalanche hazard: the avalanche and weather conditions, the skills and experience in our party, and the landscape we intend to visit. We consider these factors in three important phases: planning, the journey and key places. Most of the decisions that keep us safe happen in the planning phase, before we step onto the mountain.
Our skills and experience need to be appropriate to the conditions and the landscape.
Our abilities to understand how the landscape affects the avalanche hazard, to plan a safe route through the landscape when looking at a map, to navigate safely through the landscape in the conditions, to read the signs that the conditions are telling us on our journey and to put it all together when making a decision at a key place, are all crucial to our safety.
The SAIS also publish daily snow profiles. Understanding these helps us develop our knowledge further and digging them for ourselves gives us a visual, tactile and hands-on experience that helps to consolidate our learning even more.
Here’s a really good video on the SAIS website about interpreting snow profiles:
It takes time to develop our skills and experience in avalanche awareness and decision making. It’s time well spent and it’s a good learning process.
There are books, videos and websites, and there are brilliant guides, instructors and courses too. We want everyone to enjoy their mountain adventures and to come home safe.
Writing this advice feels a long way from the sadness I feel at the loss of the three who died on Ben Nevis.
I’m feeling a deep respect for them, their loved ones and all who helped with their rescue and recovery on the mountain.
It’s heartening to hear that Mathieu is alive. He and the friends and family of his companions need a great deal of love and support to help them through their grieving process.
Please stay positive and be kind.