Cautionary tale

Three Men and a Dog

Coire an Lochain, the furthest west of the northern corries, is the classic avalanche site of the Cairngorm massif. The lochans that give the corrie its name are in a bowl at the base of the cliffs known as the Great Slab. All the avalanches run out on to the ice covering the lochans – up to 0.5 m thick.

One Saturday in January 1997, three mountaineers and their dog approached Coire an Lochain on their way to Ben Macdui. The weather was less than ideal – visibility was poor and the wind was from the south-west, blowing about 45 km/h. There had been some fresh snow. That day, SAIS observers on the headwall of Coire Cas noted a weak layer of ice crystals in the snow, about 30 cm in depth – a sign of potential avalanche hazard.

At the bottom of the slope leading out of Coire an Lochain the party stopped to review the situation. Because of the unpleasant weather, one member of the party decided to go back, the remaining two carried on with the dog.

Normally, an avalanche-safe route exists close to the path ascending this particular slope. However, where there are steeper slopes, just beyond the Twin Burns area, avalanche paths are frequent. In poor visibility it is easy to stray onto these slopes and that's what this party did. Without warning, they were caught in a large slab avalanche.

Although neither climber can recall the event clearly, it appears that they were carried down a vertical distance of about 150m on to the lochan surface, and buried under 2.5m of snow. They were both unconscious for a while and at that stage, their survival was unlikely.

Then a chance event changed their fortunes. As the full weight of the avalanched snow bore down on the surface ice of the lochan, the ice fractured, allowing a substantial volume of snow debris to pour into the lochan itself. As this happened, cracks opened up in the surface of the remaining debris. When one of the mountaineers regained consciousness, he was aware of being buried and trapped, but also that he was breathing fresh air.

He was still buried in the snow, but his face was exposed and he had a clear airway through to the surface. He could hear his companion but not find him and the dog was at the top of the crack barking furiously. The will to survive appears to have taken over at this point but the only part of his body that he could move was his head and chin.

Over several hours, using his chin in a nodding fashion, he managed to burrow down to his right hand and get into his map pocket. It contained his compass and by using this as a shovel, he managed to dig himself out. By this time darkness was falling. A further amazing stroke of luck then occurred. His friend was buried by his side with his arm touching the first man’s leg and he had managed to hang on to his ice axe. With the aid of this, he managed to dig himself out of the snow and both men were soon reunited with their dog.

Remarkably, neither man had felt the cold during their time under the snow. For this reason, perhaps, they kept going and set off towards the car park at the ski area. They reached the car park just as the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team was setting out, having been alerted by their friend who had stayed behind. He had become concerned when they failed to return before dark.

It was a few days before the two men could relate their amazing story to SAIS staff at Glenmore Lodge. However, what is remarkable is that even witout their own heroic escape efforts, they might have survived. Why - they didn't feel the cold, they could breathe, their faithful dog was marking the place and a rescue team had been alerted.