The Long Read #2. SAIS Creag Meagaidh ‘Hall of Fame’.
29th March 2018
Observant viewers of the SAIS website will have noticed an advert for an SAIS Avalanche Forecaster Training Programme in 2017. It was first posted back in the late summer last year and was a response to a need to secure succession by introducing new blood to our veteran workforce.
After an extended selection procedure a small cadre of training candidates emerged who are to be deeply immersed in advanced snow science, avalanche mechanics and SAIS procedures over the next few seasons. Their calibre is impressive. One SAIS old lag on the selection panel commented, without much hyperbole, that if his younger self had applied last year he wouldn’t have made the final cut in selection.
(Above) Some of the trainees with the SAIS trainer team in Torridon. The training involves on-site familiarisation with each of the 6 SAIS forecast areas. Andy Cunningham (second left), ‘Our Man in Torridon’, hosted them earlier this winter.
Once fully trained and accredited these trainees will enter the system and be eligible for work in one or more of six SAIS areas, including here at Creag Meagaidh.
(Above) Trainees and SAIS training team on Cairngorm this winter. A not untypical example of what snow study and formal stability evaluation entails in the Scottish Highlands. (Note the tactics of the trainee closest to camera attempting to look at millimetre sized snow grains on a crystal screen with a lupe.)
With personnel changes on the horizon it seems an appropriate moment to look back at the pioneering group of forecasters who inaugurated the service at Creag Meagaidh back in 1996.
Avalanche forecasting in a new area isn’t easy at first. Finding good, safe and representative places to check out snow stability has its challenges. Fortunately, John Lowther – the last of the pioneering group who first worked at Meggie – was on hand to ‘show the ropes’ to the present incumbents back in 2003. The pioneering group of forecasters had no such induction or guiding hand and started from scratch in 1996. I’ve contacted a few of the individuals who toiled up ‘that’ path (plus elsewhere & beyond) in the early operational days of SAIS Creag Meagaidh for their thoughts and reflections on working for the service at ‘Meggie in the very early days. A couple have responded and their words make illuminating, often amusing reading.
So the Roll of Honour in 1996 was as follows:
Ian Dillon, John Lowther, Tom McCallum, Shaun Roberts, Kathy Tighe (nee Harding) and Ewen Todd.
(Others may have worked here occasionally as well but not as frequently as those listed).
Let’s start with Shaun Roberts. Shaun’s the SAIS ‘super’ boss and though not involved in the day to day running of the service he is responsible for securing our budget and fighting our corner down at ‘sportscotland’ HQ in Glasgow. So he’s SAIS man & boy. A callow youth in 1996 but now Principal of Glenmore Lodge and, amongst very many other things, is now well versed in the asymmetric warfare skills required for success in committee meetings. Here’s his take on the early days at ‘Meggie:
Walking the Boards
It was a privilege to be part of the SAIS team who delivered the first season of forecasting at Creag Meagaidh, in part because the place meant so much to me. The routes in Coire Ardair had been some of my most significant adventures as a winter climber and I had great memories of walking snowy railway sleepers on dark crisp mornings, hoping that we would find quality ice, and hoping we were equal to the challenge. The chance to walk those boards at a more leisurely pace and have time to explore the terrain and intricacies of this massif, made for an easy decision when asked to join the team led by Ewen Todd.
I remember in the early days that it was obvious, that if we were to find terrain of relevance we had to get high, but could we get somewhere without hours of walking? If I wasn’t forecasting, I was thinking about it. Many personal hours were spent pouring over a 1:25,000 map looking for the forecasters’ treasure – terrain with representative aspects and altitude without a 2 hour walk! We found a few gems that became our regular sites in prevailing conditions but little time would go by without a team getting high in the most popular climbing venues.
Back then we were given a lot of licence in terms of how we achieved the aims of the day and if conditions were good there was some motivation to forecast and climb. No time though to get involved in any roped ascent and pitching, it was straight up the route or not at all if you were to get the forecast out on time. And a SAIS Forecaster always gets the forecast out on time (or so they tell me). I can still hear Mr Todd’s husky laugh when offering advice on the short but very high crux of Stag Horn gully – ‘don’t look down’. I’ll be honest, I was hoping for a rope rather than encouraging words but once through the steepening we were back on our snowy subjects that dominated our forecasting conversations.
We worked in pairs back then on ‘Meggie and one windy day with Tom McCallum, bodies sheltered in the snow pit taking measurements, we emerged to find not two rucksacks parked on shallow ledges but one. Mine had blown away. This was the newest rucksack I had ever owned and was part of a new Berghaus sponsorship package at the time, and most of the meaningful items I owned were in it. Important to note here that the following is NOT safety advice but it was my luck on this day, whilst forecasting in relatively safe terrain, that I had left my avalanche transceiver in the top of the rucksack and it was switched on! I was very motivated to get my gear back regardless of the awful conditions that day (Tom was not). Ear piece in and a very dated transceiver set to receive we set off with our backs to the wind. After 2kms not a sound but I was still motivated (Tom was not). After another 500m or so and reluctant to carry on, Tom spun around to indicate he was off, when a faint ‘beep’ caught his ear. Almost 3km away and in stormy conditions we dug out my new rucksack and of course got the forecast out on time.
Years later I was looking at a small photo of a winter mountaineer in a classic one knee down pose with ice axe in hand. The photo was mostly the person and behind there were glimpses of something more. The person in the image was standing behind me and offered a challenge, ‘only one person has ever been correct in identifying the area in the image’. I smiled. I knew exactly where he was sitting, the angle of the slope, the gully in the background, the edge of black cliffs to the left, the boulder to his right. As you recognise your own child in a crowd, I knew this mountain.
Bio 1996 to date
- SAIS Forecaster Creag Meagaidh 1996
- Winter Contract Glenmore Lodge 1997 (Instructor)
- Full-time contract Glenmore Lodge 1996 (Instructor)
- Principal of Glenmore Lodge & sportscotland SAIS Lead 2014
(It’s a privilege to still be part of the SAIS team)
To be continued..
Today at Creag Meagaidh:
(Above) Looking towards the eastern end of our patch today, with the River Spey in the foreground. Great snow cover but best above 650m, with more less complete plateau cover. Cornices can be very large over steeper NE to SE aspects. Was a generally dry day but the far eastern end of our area did experience a little late very light snowfall.
(Above) A view of the Sron a Ghoire massif. Again, good complete cover at higher altitudes. Cloudy at times today but with some warmth in the sun when it appeared. Shaded locations stayed cold all day.
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