Cracks in the Ice

by Sarah Whiteley on December 1, 2011

“There are Cracks in the Ice!!”

“Don’t worry, we’re fast climbers!”

* * *

We had seen the forecast and knew we needed to get to the base of the ice climb early.

As a staff team of Outdoor educators, we were in training in the Scottish Highlands learning the winter arts of ice-climbing, skiing and winter mountaineering.  We were excited as this year – 1985 – held the best conditions for years.  Glistening, thick snow, cold conditions and bright blue skies.  We were blessed.

So here we were – journeying to the base of Oui Oui before dawn – a notorious ice-climb deep in the mountains of Glencoe.  Climbing ropes lassoed over shoulders, rucksacks filled with ice equipment – ice screws, belays, harnesses – and metal crampons – devices that had spikes on the bottom and the front of each – that would eventually be strapped tightly onto the base of each leather boot, plus ice axes strapped to the outside of each rucsac.

As a team, we had climbed in the Lake District – but Scottish climbs were another level altogether and would test our skills and courage to the limits.

* * *

At the base of the climb, we divided into teams of two’s and three’s – with accomplished lead climbers and less experienced – myself included – seconding.

We slowly and meticulously prepared the ground – uncoiling ropes, donning climbing hats, attaching the climbing equipment methodically to lead-climbers harnesses.  We were ready to scale the heights of this huge column of ice glistening in the early morning sunlight.

Slowly and sure-footedly, we started our ascent.  The tingling sounds of the tap-tap of the ice screws being placed deep into the ice to then clip the rope into a webbed strap and a metal karabina at the end, was interspersed with the light ice-showers that fell in response to our human interventions.  As the rope was threaded through, the climbers potential falling distance, lessened.  Without this safety line, either by ill-placed steps and the ice itself cracking – the climber would hit the ground.  Reducing the risk was a crucial part of the art.

All of us had practiced many times, including free-climbed in the Lake District – feeling the exhilaration of each trusted step, each move, each placement of axe or foot – reaching the top of less imposing climbs with the deep sense of elation.

Oui Oui was a long climb and three hours into our ascent we noticed small water rivulets running behind the cracks in the ice shield as the heat of the rising sun warmed the day.  At the same time, we saw another team of climbers making their way up the boulder field, clearly coming the base of this magnificent climb.

“It’s starting to melt…” one of our team called down to the three people starting their own preparations as we had, hours before.

“Don’t worry – we’re fast climbers!”

Our team increased our speed of movement, paying attention to technique, but equally, to the shifts and sounds in the ice.  Adrenaline flowed – sharpening our efforts – breathing precision into every placement of ‘gear’ – ropes tightened swiftly by the belayer – the safety rope holder that tracked the climbers every move.

Finally, we transitioned beyond the edge and stepped onto solid, rocky ground – tired, relieved and with a deep sense of our individual and collective accomplishment.

The other climbers started their ascent.  It was 11 am.

We traversed the edge of the huge cliff face and descended the steep pathway that circumnavigated the ice wall.  As we progressed further from our climb, we heard the familiar calls of the climber ascending and the belayer tucked behind a huge bolder,  anchored securely to prevent them being jettisoned into the air should the climber fall – but with a clear line of sight of the steady ascent and the tap-tap of the ice axe alongside the silent witnessing of the mountains.

Suddenly there was a deep, distant rumble and sheering shouts of anguish.

The bottom third of the huge column of ice was peeling away from the cliff face.  Our team spun round to see, in horror, the climber falling through the air – being hit by falling ice and ricocheting hard again and again against the rocks.  The human form was as fragile as a rag doll – as the ice rained down in shards, shattering on impact on the ground below.

The belayer and their team mate – tucked deep behind their safe boulder, tightened the rope hoping to prevent ground impact – yet fearing the worst.  They had to protect themselves and the other climber without visual contact, as they undoubtedly must come to their aid – so simply had to wait and suffer the deafening sounds of the ice fall and the cries of their friend.


Our team re-grouped.  Those who had mountain medical training moved swiftly back up the boulder field – whilst others of us began to make swift progress to the nearest village to call out the mountain rescue team – a time before mobile connection.

Incredibly, the climber was still alive – yet receiving severe head injuries and several broken bones.

With immediate medical care in place – in time, the rescue team arrived – and the various climbing and rescue teams moved the injured climber, in one coherent unit down the mountain to safety – sharing the stretcher carrying – and, eventually returning to base camp, food and showers and a debrief.

Suffice to say, we went skiing during the coming days…until stepping once more into the shadows of an even bigger climb, No 6 Gully – soaring hundreds of meters high into the Scottish sunlight.  After hours of fear-raising climbing – and returning to the ground – I knew this would be my last ever ice climb.

* * *

How bold we are as human beings – believing that we have the ability to transcend conditions that clearly ask for a different response.

In this situation, the conditions were clearly shifting and council had offered its wisdom through direct experience – and knowing.

Yet they still decided to climb.  Why?

This memory re-appeared in recent weeks – and has been playing in my mind over time.  It was a dramatic example of moving beyond limits that Risk, himself would not recommend.  The most significant flaw was that Right Timing was not in alignment – and indeed, that the conditions increasingly unfavourable.

Instead of shifting to another pattern – in this case – moving to a less exposed or even shorter climb, the team decided to proceed with the one they intended.

How doggedly we proceed, when all the signs – the cracks in the ice – suggest another approach, and even aborting an intended pathway altogether.

How quickly we ignore Right Timing’s Knowing, Intuitions’ wisdom and Risk’s council – our own and other human beings?

What are we choosing to ignore – when all the signs suggest otherwise?  What do we believe we have the experience, expertise and courage to conquer?  What sound advice are we misreading – or ignoring completely.

How open are we to listening to the wisdom of others who have travelled the pathway before – and have certain knowing that it would be in our interests to adhere?

What are we ready to rescue – to bring down the mountain – to shelter – to allow more life to course through?

What are we ready to say “thank you – this is not mine to do…I have another path to walk” knowing that some might see this as uncourageous and bailing out.  Taking another route – and admitting this is not ours to do – is perhaps one of the most wise and courage acts of our times.

Where are the cracks in the ice that we need to notice at this time on the Planet – that ask for a more measured response?