This is another uncle windbag reminicence post as I get back into shape, which has seen a three munro walk completed yesterday without problems. This post contains the occasional naughty word and satire not intended to be taken seriously, loosely based on a walk some 15 years ago 🙂
Up until now, despite several trips to the area, I had never managed to bag more than one knoydart peak in a day. In the past, weather, time, motivation and the choice of route had conspired to prevent me from achieving this minor personal goal. This time Craig and I set out on a Saturday night in late February. We set out from strath ‘an to spend the night at a’ chuill bothy. This time, we arrived at the bothy at about 10.00 pm. This was in stark contrast to other expeditions to the area. On one such occasion, a group of us from the Glasgow university mountaineering club had set out one December night for the bothy at kinbreck, with the plan to walk from sgurr mhor to sgurr na ciche. We left strath ‘an at midnight and headed over the hills to the bothy. The night was cold, cloudy and moonless. The chill crystallised our breath and this was caught in the light of our torches. It must have looked like a procession of steam trains chugging up the hill. It was not going to be pleasant, so we bolstered our morale by singing songs like bohemian rhapsody (with head banging action – before wayne’s world) and right said Fred’s “I’m too sexy”. The latter obviously had a profound effect on young Brian and probably initiated his transformation from former altar boy to the self styled dark lord of heavy rock and bothying. We arrived at the bothy at 3.00am – goodness knows how. I have since done that walk in the light of midsummer and lost the track. Although I arrived at midnight with Dave R. we could still see without torches. Still, my blushes would light up the bothy that night as we met a couple of guys who worked at the national museum of Scotland. Not much embarrassing about that until you realise one recognises you. You were one of those two goofballs that got permission to film and dance there in Craig’s first music video. We were skidding about the polished floor and going arse over tit because Craig forgot to put eyeholes in the cardboard box robot heads that we were wearing! However, when we got to the bothy on this dreary December night, Brian, who was inspired by stories of Rhys and Scabby Neil decided to save time in the morning by having his breakfast before going to bed. He made a stomach churning mix of porridge, milk, eggs, kippers, bacon and jam – all in the one pot. After taking a few nibbles, he decided that he didn’t want to eat it and went to bed. That night was so cold that we put our sleeping bags inside our survival bags. The thing I remember most about it was that during the night all our sweat had collected inside our survival bags and had turned to ice in places. After we had crawled out of our ice chrysalises we made breakfast – except Brian, who had already made his the night before. It obviously had time to mature. It now looked even worse! And it now resembled congealed dog’s vomit in a perforated gastric ulcer wrap. Even more disgusting was the fact that he ate it. As breakfast was going down –or in Brian’s case, coming up- we were all gloomily pondering what we would do on this miserable day.
Because of our late arrival, and the miserable weather, not much got done that day. Brian and I managed enough motivation to climb sgurr mhor. Simon and Chris got as far as sgurr coireahcan with full packs- they planned to stay at sourlies- before returning, and I think quiet Dave did something long and silly, as was his want, like Gairich. Dave has a habit of blending into the background and then doing some epic walk in winter, like Derry Cairngorm, starting from braemar. He also has the ability to condense the whole experience into a single adjective: “how was your walk Dave?”…”Far”.
When Brian and I returned from the hill, the atmosphere was totally different to the one we had left. The rest of our group, who had spent the night camping at strath ‘an had arrived before we got back and had brought in some much appreciated coal. The bothy was now a cosy place with a warm orange glow that was supplied by the fire and helped out by various torches, candles and stoves. There was the sound of laughter and wee Pete playing the penny whistle. People were busy cooking and there was the roar of Duncan’s primus. You could feel a soothing warm damp comfort against your whether beaten skin, although in reality, it was only 50C inside, but it was still a world away from the damp chill and mank that we had just left on the outside.
On another occasion, I sent out for another location with Brian and Simon – again in December. And again we started out late. This time it was because Brian’s car needed some repairs done to it, and the garage took longer than expected and charged him more than his old Cavalier was worth. So, we set out at midnight. We plodded in the cold damp air without much motivation; each of us secretly hoping one of the others would say “lets just go back”. After about 90 minutes we stopped by an old building; more because we couldn’t be arsed with the walk, rather than because we needed a rest. We huddled against the wall and had some chocolate and Brian produced some whisky Then Simon said “look, this window can be opened.” So, we climbed in to be met by a notice that read “ This is not a bothy, but you are welcome to use it as a refuge in an emergency situation”. Well, we were cold, tired and our mental resources were seriously depleted by the thought that we still had at least another 3 hours walking until we reached our planned destination – unfamiliar routes take a lot longer in the dark when wearing plastic boots and carrying heavy packs that also contain coal. We therefore reasoned that this was a mild emergency and decided to stay. Most of our time was spent festering indoors, after all it was crap out side and the nearest hill was bloody miles away. We did venture out side to repay our anonymous host’s hospitality by filling up his stores of firewood. We then spotted some of our friends (Craig, Mark, Nils and Amanda) retreating from their bothy along the track, so we ran back inside to hide. Well, we didn’t want them to know that we had spent such a lazy and comfortable weekend, after they had got wet on the hills and shivered for a few days in a cold draughty hut with no fireplace. We didn’t hide out of embarrassment, although we did have to acknowledge that they had spent an “proper” weekend; Craig later told me he had a very nasty experience with a cornice in a whiteout. Our shyness had more to do with wanting to protect the identity of our holiday villa, and prevent it from being abused (hence the vagueness here ). I thought that this was rather “considerate” of us. Especially since we were squatting there ourselves, with our only justification being a rather liberal interpretation of the phrase “emergency situation”.
In all aspects of life, people who learn from their past mistakes grow from the experience, and improve their chances of future success. The lessons of these previous misadventures had now been assimilated; I had learned not to go to knoydart in December, or if I did, I would at least not expect a successful trip. I had also learned that getting to the bothy early was a good idea too. This time, it was late February and we had walked the 5 or so miles to the bothy by 10.00pm. This set us up nicely to climb Sgurr na ciche and garbh cioch mhor the next day.
- Sgurr na Ciche from Sgurr Mhor
As we left the bothy in the morning, we looked over to the hills. They were constantly kept out of reach by the river and forest that we had to walk along, but they looked stormy to say the least. The top third was in whiteout conditions, with the rest looking wet, grey, windy and miserable. It was like there was a doorman hovering around the hills. Not the professional but firm “regulars only tonight” type, but a nasty neanderthal knuckle dragger who kept a claw hammer with a stanley knife taped to it under his jacket and a rusty nail in his toe cap. This one snarled at us “don’t even think about it. ‘Cos if you do, you’re going to wish that you had stayed at home, sandpapering your fuckin’ nuts and dipping them in vinegar by the time I’ve finished with you. Now FUCK OFF!” Still, this was nothing to worry us; we’ve been out in this sort of stuff lots of times.
To this day, I’m not sure if our cockiness was due to experience or stupidity, but how else do you gain experience? By surviving similar things in the past – that’s how! I do believe that most situations can be tackled “safely” if you are confident in your own abilities and aware or your weaknesses and danger signs. I have often heard it said that there is no such thing as wrong weather. Just wrong clothing. I think this is a partial truth, as you do need a certain toughness and determination to be up for the fight. You should also be able show the wisdom not to get into a situation that you cannot get yourself out of. Mountaineering can be as safe or as challenging as you choose to make it. If you choose the challenging situations you do so at your own risk, and if it goes well, you will have a rewarding experience. However, you may also die. Only to be found in 5000 years time by a bunch of archaeologists that want to gang probe your butt.
I would like to say that we had weighed all this up, but without much thought, we just looked at the doorman and said, “Bring it oan ya dobber” and chibbed the walloper in the swingers with our crampons. However, we decided to tackle sgurr na ciche first, and headed up the gentle gully to the fedan pass. Halfway up, I decided that it was time to put on my crampons. This was going to be good. I had spent much of the previous year recovering from a broken ankle that I got running down stac pollaidh – seemed like a good idea at the time! Then, I also remember Brian thinking that it was a good idea for him to try impressing a girl at a party by licking a lit light bulb and stubbing a cigarette out on his tongue. This ended in screams of “aaaargh , I can taste burning, It really hurts”. Needless to say, he spent the night with Pam and her five sisters.
As we were gearing up in the gully, we were being plastered by a moderate mix of wet snow and hail at this point. We didn’t think that these conditions were bad enough to constitute an avalanche hazard, and there were no signs of weakness in the snow pack, so we continued upwards. Suddenly my left crampon parted company with the sole of my boot. The tensioning bolt on the heel clip had worn through. I tried to fix it, but it only lasted for a few steps and came off again. I considered going up with just one crampon, but reasoned that this could give my left foot a dangerous sense of false security. There was nothing for it; I was going to have to do it the old fashioned way by kicking extra hard and cutting steps where necessary. Despite this, we made remarkably quick progress up the gully to the gap, aided the strengthening wind that was pushing us on from behind. Heading up from the gap, we reached the break in the slope that leads to the summit, and took a bearing. The summit was found easily enough, but we decided not to linger there and tried to retrace our steps, but the wind and spindrift had filled them it. We took a back bearing and came to a break in the slope. We were not convinced that this was the exact spot that we had ascended from, but nothing makes much sense in these conditions, when you can barely see your feet, and few rocks protrude through the snow and spindrift to give you any point of reference. In situations like this, you have no idea where the ground is and you can quite literally walk into a snow bank or even over a cliff as some have done. I remember one occasion on the drumochter hills with Craig when we got separated in a white out. We had strayed no more than 10 feet from each other, and the wind drowned out the sounds of our whistles. I went up and down the ridge, 4 times looking for him, we could have passed within feet of each other and been none the wiser. The wind blew me over and turned me round. I was convinced that I knew which way to go, but my compass said otherwise. I had to follow the compass, even though my head said no. At this point, I was experiencing a strong inner conflict between perception and logic. This was causing me a great deal of uncertainty and filling me with apprehension, not what you need in a situation like that, where mental strength can make all the difference to the outcome. I carried on down to be blown over again. This blast caused a brief thinning of the opaque semi solid shroud that covered the hill. As I laid on my back, I looked around to work out where I had been blown to and to my surprise, floundering around me were four cross country skiers. The furthest one was no more than 10 feet away. If this had not happened, I would never have known they were there unless they skied over me. Experiences like this had justified our right to feel uncertain at this break in the slope. To make matters worse, this white out on sgurr na ciche was even nastier. We were now facing into the wind on the descent, and the winds were the strongest that either of us had yet experienced. It could only be described as awesome. It was a malevolent wind that was firing sharp pieces of ice up my nose and blowing my breath onto my storm flaps and goggles, where it was freezing. I couldn’t see and had to take off my goggles. However, I still couldn’t see as my eyes were now being sand blasted by the horizontal hail that was being thrust into our faces. The conditions were so bad that you could hardly see your feet. Though, considering that you could not open your eyes, this didn’t really add to the severity of the situation. It seems strange to say, but being stung by this barrage of icy shrapnel was still preferable to trying to see out of iced up goggles. The best that I could do was to take off my mitt and squint through semi splayed fingers. I would do this for as long as I could take it, then turn my back to the gale, close my eyes and let the pain and the tears subside, and then repeat the process.
- The Gully (Photo By Craig)
Trying to descend from the break in the slope was not going to be the piece of cake that we had anticipated. The wind was so strong that we were pinned to the spot; you could not even throw yourself into the wind, because it would just lift you back up. It is at times like this in the gloomy white haze that the red mist comes down and you tap into that inner beast. It was like the mountain had just spilled your pint, shagged your burd and then just called you a hand woven wicker jacket wearing rambler – without a bobble hat! Oh yeah, and if that wasn’t enough, the bastard was holding us prisoner and trying to kill us in to the bargain. So, feeling the adrenaline rush, I ran at the slope with all my being, arms wind milling in an exaggerated cartoon swimming style. I had all the determination and emotional content of someone charging a machine gun nest on the Somme. After all, it was laying down rapid-fire rounds of ice projectiles at us. So, here we go, over the top….”AAARRGGGHH, BASTARD! BASTARD! BASTARD! …AAARRRGGGHHH”. Pause, puff, pant ….”AAARRGGGHH, BASTARD! BASTARD! BASTARD! …AAARRRGGGHHH”. “This hill is Japan and I am Godzilla. I’m going to kick down its cairn and shit in its lochan…AAARRRGGGHH.” The mountain was fighting us and I was loving every minute of it. This went on for a while, it was an epic fight, like Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris. I was pumped up and felt heroic. I stopped to wonder how far I had come. How many feet had I kicked the mountains’ hairy oversized ass? I looked back at Craig. The fact I could see him was not very reassuring. I thought, “Fuck! Four fucking feet! That was the hardest fought four fucking feet of my life!” This was pretty poor when you consider that in the past, I have descended the 1000 or so feet of the an stac screes in under four minutes. It would truly have been easier to run at the all blacks with a rugby ball. Eventually we got down the slope by slow determined walking, not running. If I had ever bothered to think about the biomechanics of bipedal locomotion, I would have realised that this was the way to do it: always one point in contact with the ground! Once about 60 feet down from the break in the slope, the wind became less severe and I chuckled to myself as I remembered a throwaway piece of Brian Zen wisdom: “All ways walk below the ridge, it’s less windy – its true!” Although he did say that in a situation where it was actually more dangerous to walk below the ridge – clinging to the snottery frozen side of a cuillin coire.
This major struggle was behind us, but we still were not out of the woods yet. Craig needs his glasses to see, and they had frozen over, as had his trousers. In fact, he was beginning to remind me of the scene from “Terminator 2” were the cyberdyne T1000 has an unfortunate encounter with a truck full of liquid nitrogen. I was thinking that any moment now. I‘ll hear a crack and one of his legs will drop off. There was no crack, but what I did hear was just as disturbing. I have always thought of Craig as an “rock” on the mountain, but for the first time ever I could hear an alarming shakiness and uncertainty in his voice. Up until now, I had been joking with him that we HAD to get Garbh Cioch Mhor done, and if he died, I could always hollow him out with my ice axe to make a toboggan. However, it was now getting serious. He was becoming hypothermic. I now had to guide him down the slope, and through the crags. The going was tough and I was getting tired. I had to kick most steps (and several rocks) two or three times, and due to my ankle injury I was not as fit as I could be. Strangely, the thing that contributed most to this tiredness was actually trying to shout instructions to Craig; the wind just tore away your voice and it was lost forever. This disrupted my breathing and caused my strength to wane. Eventually we fought our way to a frozen waterfall and sheltered under it to have some food (eating on top was rather tricky, and the wind could easily have blown our gear away if we tried). As soon as we stopped though, I noticed that Craig was now shivering violently. I was also starting to cool down at this point, and my exposed hand was now numb and useless. This made me realise that we had to get to the bothy as soon as possible, get Craig in both the sleeping bags, get the fire going and make lots of hot sweet tea.
- The Ice Cave (photo by Craig)
As we got closer to the bothy, the food we had was starting to kick in and Craig was beginning to perk up, so we just decided to have some tea, pack up and head for home. By the time we got back to the car Craig was almost bouncing, and through all my extra efforts and injury, I however, was sore and dragging my feet. I also developed shin splints on that walk that prevented me from running and playing football for a year.
As I neared the car, Craig had been there for a few minutes and was starting to change. He was bouncy and chirpy, his spirits having risen considerably. I looked at him and wondered about the reversal of our circumstances. Why was he now so lively and I literally had to drag myself the last few miles? I somehow felt cheated. I don’t know what ending I expected. Surely I should have heroically carried Craig (preferably lifeless – or close to it) and his gear back to the car. Surely I would be heralded with ticker tape and fireworks as I approached the car to the sound of the ode to joy excerpt from dear old Ludwig van’s No 9. Surely the path before would be showered with rose petals from topless maidens. Then it would be off home to miss Scotland – please God, surely? In reality, I limped to the car, cursing every step and the resulting impact on my bruised and swollen toes and shins. When I finally drew up to Craig, I looked at him and demanded, “Why aren’t you dead you bastard? It would have made a better story and impressed the girls if you did. BASTARD!” Honestly, there is no justice!
Despite all the hardships, it was a very very memorable expedition that took us close to the edge, and we had the satisfaction of measuring up to the challenge of what the day had thrown at us. There is a great deal of comfort and peace in the tiredness that comes from such an experience. It seems so honest. It is an unparalleled restfulness that you feel as your mind and body start to settle down after such an epic adventure. It is like an inner tranquillity of your whole being. You know that you are going to sleep deeply and come the morning, you will feel renewed – I still only managed one summit, but the whole experience was much more valuable. It didn’t matter that the hill has been climbed thousands of times before us. What we had experienced was in the true sense of adventure in a pioneering spirit. And we didn’t have to go to some remote part of the world and eat monkey brains, yak’s testicles or Brian’s’ fishy porridge to get it. That is the true beauty and wonder of the Scottish hills – much more satisfying than a safe ramble!