by John Burns
I had become resigned to death but it was the manner of it that rankled. I was going to die on a Mod. If that wasn’t bad enough I’d forgotten my helmet. I could imagine the conversations about my death.
“On a Mod, really!” they would say, “Of course, he never was much good on rock. No helmet too, I hear.” Vague innuendo of incompetence before the conversation returned to the weather. Searching in my memory I tried to remember when I had last been so scared and then it came to me, the common denominator, John. He had lured me, there can be no other word, on to this crumbling edifice of a climb on the Ben, why had I let him, why had I been fooled again?
I met John in the IMC almost 15 years ago now. I remembered the first Winter route we did when he led me, unroped and trembling, up my first grade II. Little has changed since then. We are contrasting climbers. I pride myself on safety, practice my belays, do everything by the book. John has never read the book, and if he had he would have tossed it contemptuously aside and done the crossword in the Sun. I always hoped that I could balance out his disdain for caution by making both of us safe. On this route that was not to be. Even if you know all the tricks you need something that won’t instantly crumble to attach yourself to. I looking at the detached block we were tied to. I could see that if John fell the slightest pull would dislodge it. I imagined us falling, landing in a heap in the corrie only to suffer the final indignity of being crushed by our own belay like Wily Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. I was also certain that John would walk away with barely a scratch whilst I would suffer horrible injuries. Such are the torments in the mind of a second who has all the time he needs to contemplate his doom. The leader at least has his destiny in his hands and often little time for imagination.
All the while I was tormented by my own incompetence at letting him get me into such a situation. I had been reluctant to start at all, seeing the state of the rock. John had assured me that it would improve higher up and carried on climbing through greasy slabs and loosely attached vegetation. Here I had begun to murmur my mantra “Let’s abb. off“. It had started as a suggestion but had become a prayer.
John was impervious to this and kept saying it would get better soon. He had led out up the crag avoiding some overhangs and disappeared out of sight. After a while the rope stopped running out and I waited for a long, long time. Eventually I decided that he must have died, the lager, roll ups and pursuit of l’amour had finally done for him. Clutching his chest he must have fallen back into the heather and departed for another life. What upset me most was that he had chosen to pass into the afterlife with me tied to him on this vertical slag heap. I was just about to solo up after him when the rope was taken in. Unfortunately for me it did not follow John’s line of ascent but drooped under the overhangs compelling me to follow through the overhanging rock. As I climbed up to the overhanging flake I noticed a little grassy ledge just below it that would allow me to hold the top of the flake and walk my feet along underneath. This was a trap, as soon as I did so the grass departed from the rock and left me swinging free from my hands. I looked left and saw another little grassy foot ledge. Lunging for it I discovered that this was also a trap as it too plunged into the corrie. At this point I was doing a passable impersonation of a cyclist who has, for some reason, been plucked from his bike and suspended in mid-air. My legs continued to pedal a non-existent machine. With my last dregs of strength I threw a leg over the top of the flake and was up, gasping like a landed fish. In a few moments I was with John.
I think I said something about ‘abbing off‘; he said it would get better soon and carried on. It was only when I was about to leave the stance that I examined his belay. There in the back of a crack lay my only flexible friend. I say lay because it wasn’t attached to anything. It was twisted as if it had been the victim of some terrible road accident. The wires were bent and the cams hung at weird angles. It dawned on me that whilst I had struggled with the overhang, this had been our only protection, I might as well have soloed it. Dark thoughts began to well up in my mind, I wanted to kill him. Very, very slowly. It is strange that for one of John’s mechanical aptitude Friends are beyond him. John makes the old pioneers look over-equipped, he has basically nothing, which is just as well because if he had a rack of high tech gear it would simply weigh him down.
Eventually we made it to the plateau, I have never been so relieved to get off a climb. “That was the worst climb I’ve done in my life.” I announced to John. He looked hurt “Oh, I’ve done worse.” he said. I didn’t doubt it. “I’ve had people in tears you know,” he had once told me with a mixture of pride and delight. Now I was one of them. Since we met, all those years ago in the club, we have climbed, drunk, fought and letched together for nearly 15 years. We have moved together in darkness 1500 ft above the corrie ﬂoor in Meagaidh with only a single ice screw pushed into neve between us. I have lowered him off into darkness on one shaky runner retreating from the NE Buttress of Aonach Beag. Somehow he always gets me into trouble and though we’re not the best climbers in the world we probably have the most fun. It is more than a rope that joins climbers. I know that despite myself I’ll always get fooled again.