Setting the scene…
In 2010 a group of civilian amputees, physios, prosthetists and friends trekked to the summit of Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Limbless Association. United by a taste for further adventure, the core of this group have stayed in contact and continue to walk regularly. Our de facto leader suggested that we tackle Mount Toubkal in the Moroccan High Atlas range in order to introduce us to mountain walking in winter conditions and this is what we are attempting. Amongst the Toubkal sub-group there are three amputees, one of which is myself. I lost my right leg above the knee in a motorbike accident getting on for twenty years ago now and for the majority of that time I was fairly restricted in what I could manage walking-wise. Three years ago all that changed… I was fortunate to be chosen to participate in a trial of a novel method of attaching prosthetics via a bone implant that protrudes through the skin. I can now attach my leg effectively to my skeleton, removing the biggest impediment to amputees – how the prosthetic fits to the person. As a result of this I have dramatically improved physical capabilities and am yet to find out the limit of what I can do! In order to train for Toubkal, get a taste of winter walking and in my case find out if my prosthetic would cope with crampon walking, our little band set off for a long weekend in Scotland. Here’s how we got on:
Oh dear – I think a revised bag strategy is going to be required…
After successfully meeting up with the rest of the group at the easyjet check-in area of Gatwick’s North terminal, I boarded the plane to Glasgow with a certain amount of trepidation. I had won the crampon-attachment race at our group’s Christmas get-together but, as my victory was achieved with boot-in-hand, this was not much comfort when it came to contemplating whether I would be able to walk with my prosthetic leg in the winter conditions that demand the use of this serious gear. There was only one way to find out if I would be physically able to participate in the trip to climb Mount Toubkal and the plane north was the first stage in getting to the snow.
We arrived in Glasgow without incident then had much fun cramming the twelve of ourselves and our stuff into two hired people carriers. Our (self-appointed) supreme leader Alan had insisted that we keep our gear to a minimum, to the extent that the number of permitted underpants per person was theoretically limited, but this had not made the packing of the cars particularly easy. With the two smallest members of our party safely lodged in the third row of seats and the bags crammed in around them we set off for Glencoe.
Despite the darkness setting in, we began to appreciate the grandeur of our surroundings as we made our way north along the banks of Loch Lomond. After leaving the loch behind we were sufficiently on schedule that we found the famous ‘Green Welly Stop’ in Tyndrum still open. After extracting everyone from the cars we were able to stock up on essential supplies for the weekend. I did not need to buy anything at the road-side as I had wisely bought chicken tikka slices before leaving England (they are the best hill food imaginable, I know you don’t believe me, just try one on a summit sometime!). In the now full darkness we completed our journey trying to spot snow on the peaks that loomed out of the night as we made our way along the valley of Glencoe.
The Clachaig Inn welcomed us with its cheery glow and after dumping our stuff we met in the bar for pre-dinner drinks. This proved to be an opportune moment to give Alan small tokens of our affection as he had cunningly arranged for the first day of our trip to fall on his birthday. It was with a growing sense of anticipation that I knocked back a couple of lovely pints of ale from Skye whilst we tried to persuade the reluctant few amongst us that consuming haggis on the first night in Scotland was an obligatory rite of passage.
In no time at all dinner was a pleasant memory and our guides Des, James and Simon had come over from the local hostel they were occupying. If we managed to convince them of the feasibility of the trip, these guys would be taking us up the Atlas Mountains! After a briefing that described timings and what to expect tomorrow (steep inclines, strong winds, lots of wet gloves and snow) we were asked to get our boots and crampons to demonstrate to the mountain professionals that our gear was up to the task and we knew at least enough to attach one to the other – walking in them was another matter!
After nipping back to the room I returned with my clean and shiny Kibo boots (I had cleaned them thoroughly after each previous use so in hindsight they did look suspiciously unused). James was unaware that Berghaus made B2 rated boots so was quick to grab them and perform the usual sole flex test. I am pleased to say they passed with flying colours and this gave me an opportunity to explain about my Berghaus obsession preference and being an ‘Adventure Challenge’ winner. Still boot-in-hand, I then went on to attach my crampons in record time and a helpful tip from Simon made short work of tidying away the loose end of the strap.
With everyone’s equipment securely attached then detached and put away we were as ready as we could be for tomorrow’s trip into the unknown (snow!). All that was left to do now was to ensure the quality of the ale remained consistent, which I did with gusto!
Saturday’s first priority was breakfast. Those of the group that like to properly immerse themselves in the culture of the places they visit continued the haggis consumption but all of us were properly fed ready for the day ahead. On first inspection the weather looked pretty good but it was chilly with a low-ish cloud base and the winds were predicted to get more serious with increasing height. We set off on the short drive to the start point at the base of ‘Buachaille Etive Beag’ in good spirits, especially as the cars were taking us to 250m without any effort on our part!
After the obligatory ‘before’ photo we naturally took the only footpath that headed up. This was initially a smooth and well made path which gave way to something more suitably bouldery as we climbed. We were heading to a saddle between two peaks approximately 500m above us where the plan called for crampons to be attached, we would then head up ‘Stob Coire Raineach’, descend triumphantly, practice self-arrest etc, then get back to the cars before dark.
Our guides had reconnoitred the area on the previous day and had assured us there would be snow. In the next hour or so they were proved correct and soon the snow had reached sufficient depth that following any path become impossible. After watching Alan and Paul go waist deep in snow whilst attempting to cross a snow bridge we all proceeded with more care, my B2 boots providing me with sufficient grip without crampons. As we continued upward the weather unfortunately began to get worse. After two and a half hours steady ascent we had reached the saddle and also the critical moment – crampon attachment! The wind had really started to gust strongly by this point so we found the most sheltered spot we could just beneath the saddle top and got to work…
With the wind really whipping around us as we attached crampons ‘in the field’ for the first time. Our guides checked that we were all okay then I stood up for the first time and found I could walk! Although I had hoped this would be the case, I was far from certain that all would work out well prior to the trip. The resistance offered by my right knee is microprocessor controlled rather than under my conscious direction. Although the algorithms that control what the knee does are very clever, they are not intended for winter mountaineering. The increased level of traction provided by the crampons actually made walking easier as my usually slippage-prone prosthetic foot was secured in place until I picked it up for the next step.
As the gusty wind had not abated we were led to a more sheltered spot and talked through the basics of walking in crampons, which all looked pretty straightforward know I knew I could probably do it! Some movements would clearly be beyond my capabilities but Des and I had previously agreed that I would have to improvise and see how everything went. We then set off up ‘Stob Coire Raineach’ which initially proved reasonable but as we climbed we exposed ourselves more and more to the gusting winds that had begun to get pretty serious. The terrain continued to be easy enough to negotiate but we started to have to pause during the stronger gusts and mobility had become difficult. Although I felt secure in my footing, I was quite relieved when Des called off the summit attempt whilst we were still some thirty vertical metres or so from the top as the winds had further increased in ferocity at this point. After waiting for the present gust to subside, I picked myself up from the crouch that I had adopted to keep myself from being blown off the hill, turned round and began the descent knowing that we had failed in our first crampon assisted ascent but reassured that our leader was a sensible man and that I was able to walk as instructed without spiking myself!
Back down at the saddle we were led to a more sheltered (nursery) slope with greater snow cover and instructed in techniques for straight ascents, descents and self belay. During the descent I got to put my theoretical knowledge of self-arrest into practice – it was fun!
As the wind had slowed our progress we had had less time for self-arrest practice than we had hoped and it soon became time to descend from the saddle area. With some reluctance I took off my crampons and we started downward. On the descent, with the great reduction in traction, I found myself slipping over in snow more than I would have liked but I think I was not the only one of the group having such difficulties. About half way through our descent we ran out of snow, quickly regained the path, then made rapid progress toward the cars.
Des gathered us together for a quick debrief when we had all made it safely off the hill. I think he was pleased with our achievements given the nature of the group and now he had seen us in action in ‘proper’ conditions I was just hoping that he thought us capable of attempting Toubkal.
After returning to the hotel we had time for a quick pint and some chips whilst reflecting on the day’s adventures then it was time for a shower before consuming more haggis. Des and co had returned for tomorrow’s briefing which ruled out further snowy adventures due to unfavourable weather – instead we would be attempting a Graham!
The evening was rounded off by some excellent folk music thanks to Davie Tait, a regular at the Clachaig. He sang one of my favourite songs; ‘Fairytale of New York’, it was only just under a year early!