Fooled Again

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.

Trouble in Glen Einich

Another tale by Glasgow John, about a climb with the long-suffering Jack.

After the Beinn Eighe epic, it took me a long time to persuade Jack to come out with me again, however in June 1982 the weather was good, so off we went to Sgoran Dubh. We camped under the cliffs, and the next day found us looking for Married Men’s Buttress.

After much confusion, I started up a little 40 foot buttress on sound rock, indeed the only sound rock we found that day. Higher up we gained a rickety aréte; while I tried to understand the guidebook Jack spoke of retreat, even offering me a thousand pounds if I got him down alive. Very tempting! However, on we went to the next pitch, which looked much harder than a Diff, I thought. When I got about 70 foot up, in a wide bridge with one runner, I knew this could not be Diff. I was gripped, and finished the pitch with much relief.

Well shaken, I went round a loose corner. Jack was swearing again, which did not help me think as I put a large sling over a dubious spike. The block I was standing on started to part company with the rest of the cliff; I shouted a warning to Jack below. We had no helmets, as you might have guessed! It missed him, but only just. I ignored the swearing from below, as I was now hanging from a sling and feeling very sweaty indeed; the smell of brimstone was overpowering.

Later that day when we reached the top of the cliff, I offered Jack my hand – he declined. After a big argument back at the tent about loose climbs and loose climber’s brains, we packed up the tent and walked back to Aviemore in silence. Some weeks passed; he rang me up and said, “You nearly killed me!” I replied, “These things happen, you know.” We laughed.

We still go fishing together – sometimes.

If it weren’t for the Cuillin

The story of Nick Hamilton‘s Cuillin Main Ridge traverse has some useful lessons even for folk who don’t aspire to anything so challenging. The photo above is the main ridge, and the drawing below is by Nick.

Although it was many years ago I remember most of the details with surprising clarity. The cold, the heat, the rock, the snow, the exhaustion, and the exhilaration. It is all there in much greater detail than my remembrance of many recent days on the hills. But then a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is something rather special and not the sort of experience one forgets. I suspect the sharp images also result from having shared the experience with old Steve; tall and skinny, grey and wrinkled with tremendous stamina and a horribly smelly pipe clamped between his teeth. He’s gone forever now and I really miss his company on the hills.

Early June 1982; we left Sligachan campsite at seven in the evening to drive round to Glen Brittle. It was early June and the weather was set fair. We were walking before eight, slow and steady with all thoughts concentrated on the task ahead. Would I make it, would the weather hold, would the water last: why did I offer to carry the rope. Round and round in the head until it seemed only sensible to turn back and attempt it another time. But then the black-throated divers on Loch an Fhir-bhallaich whistled a more positive note and our spirits lifted. The faces of the Sron na Ciche were alight in the full glow of the evening sun and the temptation to go climbing instead tugged in a different direction. But that would be a cop-out too and the slog round to the Allt Coir’ a Ghrunnda was waiting. We filled the water bottles there, four pints apiece, because we knew we’d be finished before we started if we failed to find water higher up. Then a rising traverse across the rock-strewn shoulder of Sgurr nan Eag, around the head of Coire nan Laogh and onto Gars- Bheinn for eleven o’ clock and a twilight that only the mountaintops can provide.

The cold crept in quickly once we stopped moving and before it was fully dark we were frozen. Well, I was frozen because I had chosen to do without a sleeping bag. Steve was a bit more comfortable but I sought to reduce his comfort to a minimum by reminding him that he would have to carry his bag all the way and that we would not be taking it into account when we dished out the rope carrying duties. The night was beautiful but cruel and by three in the morning I could stand it no longer. We crept away from Gars-Bheinn in the dark and gradually gathering speed as the light increased and our bodies warmed up. Along the ridge to Sgurr a’Choire Bhig and up to Sgurr nan Eag. “Number one” said Steve with feeling and rapped his pipe on the summit cairn. We noted the occasional snow patch with some satisfaction; our plan might just work. Nothing stirred except some wispy cloud that had gathered overnight and the eastern sky glowed with the promise of pain to come. Down to An Casteil and the first bit of excitement when we couldn’t immediately find the route off the northern end. Up to Sgurr Dubh Na Da Bheinn and some hesitation as we justified our decision not to go off the main ridge to Sgurr Dubh Mor. It is not uncommon in mountaineering to invent compelling reasons for doing or not doing something only to find them shallow in retrospect and this was one of those occasions. We should have done Sgurr Dubh Mor but we were too anxious to get to grips with the dreaded Gap and we passed on in a hurry.

The Thearlaich Dubh Gap looked surprisingly mellow in the morning light, quite different from when I had contemplated it some weeks earlier in mist and rain and had fled. This time there could be no turning aside so we abseiled down the south side and scrouged * our way up the smooth and slippery north face. There was some relief to have got in front of the Gap. The short walk to Sgurr Alasdair was a lighthearted affair with the morning sun pleasantly warm on our backs and the prospect of a stop for refreshment. Six in the morning and all’s well. Or was it? Up until that point I had been very frugal with my intake of food and water to the extent that it was twelve hours earlier, at Sligachan, that I had last had a proper feed and a good drink. Even here at the top of Alasdair I was sparing in the extreme taking only a little of the precious water and a Mars Bar. I had forgotten all the lessons about stoking up for future effort in my determination not to run short later in the day. The steep descent off Sgurr Thearlaich was not too bad but it was my turn to lead at King’s Chimney and by the time I hauled myself onto the top of Sgurr Mhic Coinnich I knew something was going wrong. I was exhausted and couldn’t understand why. The thought of grappling with the loose rock on the ascent of An Stac did not go down well and I crawled up the An Stac screes instead to end up gasping and laid out like a beached whale at the foot of the Inaccessible Pinnacle. Whilst gazing up at the morning sky in a state of some shock and bewilderment at my condition Steve’s steady voice broke in and provided the key. “It’s an energy problem” he said and added between puffs of his pipe “You haven’t had enough grub”. Right; time for the secret weapon. Out came the steak sandwiches, prepared at some expense, to supplement the honey butties and the Mars Bars. A couple of these, half a pint of water and another Mars Bar for the kick-start. The power came flowing back and by the time we had abseiled off the Inn Pin I was recovering fast and cursing my stupidity. Nine in the morning and our schedule was in tatters.

The North end of the Cuillin

The middle part of the ridge from Sgurr Dearg to Sgurr a’Mhadaidh is straightforward and we could have moved faster but the sun was starting to hurt and we forced ourselves to slow down. Despite this our water was disappearing alarmingly fast and it seemed likely that we would be dry long before the end of the ridge. But our plan worked; by doing the ridge early in the season we had banked on using snow to boost our water supply. We had been careful not to drain each water bottle dry but had left them about a third full. We found a good-sized snow patch just below the summit of Mhadaidh and set about adding it to the water in our bottles. The time was well spent and we had another couple of pints each at the end of our efforts. It was after midday and the heat was vicious. From the lowest part of the ridge at Bealach na Glaic Moire the clamber onto Bidein Druim nan Ramh is short but strenuous. The peak is the least well-frequented part of the ridge being some way away from the nearest road with steep, awkward rock on all sides. In the wet the aid of a rope on ascent and particularly on descent can be very welcome. We took a break from the relentless glare in a dark recess on the eastern side of the summit looking down into Harta Corrie. It was an effort to force us back into the arena. We arrived at Bruich na Frithe in a state of some exhaustion but with the feeling that we would reach the end somehow. We avoided mention of the major difficulty still to be overcome; how to get onto Am Basteir. Our plan had been the direct route up Naismith’s but when we arrived at the foot of the Tooth our resolve melted in the afternoon heat and we opted for Collie’s route instead. We had rationalised our feelings of having cheated somehow. A conscience can be a terrible affliction for a mountaineer!

Four o’clock and while resting at the Bealach a’Basteir Steve suddenly announced that he was not going to the top of Sgurr nan Gillean and that he would wait for me to return before descending. He was very tired by this time and as this was his third complete traverse of the Ridge I accepted that reaching Gillean did not hold the same promise for him as it did for me. It was only later that I began to think that he had done it so I could go by myself, and that knowing my solitary nature he had given me the opportunity to be alone at the finish. I always meant to ask him about it but I was afraid that he might be embarrassed and now it is a mystery that will never be resolved. The climb up Gillean’s west ridge was slow but sure with the chimney at the start easier than I had remembered. The gendarme was in position in those days and I passed him by with reverence. He’s gone now, unrecognisable amongst the shattered rocks below the ridge. The final scramble to the top was exhilarating and then I was standing at the summit breathing heavily and looking back along the ridge that had held such pleasure and pain over the previous fourteen hours. I waved down to Steve like a child waving to a parent after climbing a sand dune during a picnic on the beach. A dream had been fulfilled and the pinnacle reached. It would be all downhill from now on.

Back down the west ridge to where Steve was waiting, with the pipe between his teeth and a grin on his face suggesting that he knew how I was feeling. No time to talk; straight down to Loch Coire a’Bhasteir for a long drink and an icy plunge. The track out to Sligachan was long and dusty but it didn’t seem to matter. I lay on the ground outside my tent for an hour without moving, just thinking and gazing at the sky and the hills relishing the feeling of never having to walk again. I thought about the recurring line in Sorley MacLean’s poem ‘If it weren’t for the Cuillin’ and pondered the thought that Scotland would be a less magical place if it weren’t for the Cuillin.

The next day we went our separate ways. Steve back to Penrith and me home to Inverness. It was the last time I was on Skye with Steve although we had many good days on other hills. We buried his boots on Suilven a few years later but it is those twenty-four hours on the Cuillin that provide me with my strongest memories of a great hill-man and a great friend.

*  this is a word that Nick made up that describes a series of climbing moves that show very little finesse, no elegance and exhibit a degree of desperation!

A Richt Guid New Year

A story by Ken Mackinlay about Scottish traditions as they are practiced on unsuspecting incomers. The old caving club hut, mercifully departed, is shown above.

It was a dark and stormy night… Actually, I can’t remember the weather at all, but we’re talking Elphin in Sutherland at New Year, so it was probably a dark and pissing wet night. The Inverness Mountaineering Club was in town, and had taken over the schoolhouse. It was the usual hut scene: men who could have later starred in Can’t Cook, Wont Cook emptying tins of dog meat into saucepans and sterilizing their throat with alcohol prior to engorgement. The Muftis were boiling their sausage.

Bothy ballads were out that year. Instead, an instantly forgettable cassette scraped out from a tinny boogie box, but stalwarts maintained ancient traditions by traversing under the dining table from one side to another. Elsewhere the card school was in full flight until…

The Bells, Esmeralda! The Bells! Stiff manly handshakes all round, and for the girls a peck on the cheek. Time for a first foot. We left the schoolhouse and wheeled right. The sparsely spaced cottages were all unlit. Maybe they’d gone to the fleshpots of Ullapool; maybe they’d emigrated to Canada; maybe they’d… Oh, who cares? – they weren’t in, and that was what mattered. We walked on. I wondered whether we had left Elphin behind (and how could we tell anyway?). The round bottle of Bell’s being nursed inside Neil’s jacket called to him, and their lips met quietly, time and time again. Then the old hands recognized the dark outline on the left, the Caving Club hut. The trogs, fed-up with their single-end where the rain blowing under the door was the only running water and the toilet was “somewhere outside,” were building a new hut, but meanwhile the old one was still in use.

But was it in use that night? We circled the tin hut; we had the exits covered. We thumped on the door. We cried out. No answer. Again, louder. We heard noises inside. We thumped again, “We know you’re in there. Open up.” And a wary English student opened the door, accepting us as local colour. Two or three had crawled out of their pits, the remainder were still cocooned on the matrazenlager. Pride of place was given to the village sign they’d nicked from Loch Lomondside, for they were the Leicester University Speleological Society.

We put them straight: it was New Year; it was Scotland, and we were first foots. They offered us whisky with a name like Stag’s Breath. They’d brought it up from Tesco’s down south, and after two glasses Neil brought it up once more. It has to be said that throwing up in a hut which is just a single room and has no running water could be considered antisocial. We didn’t want to impose on our hosts, so we put a basin next to Neil, removed his glasses before they fell in, and had only another dram or two before bidding LUSS goodnight and returning to the schoolhouse.

We re-arranged the bunks – not only did no-one want to be below Neil, but there was no way we could get him up top, and he’d probably fall out anyway. So he went to sleep cradling a basin, dreaming of… well, who knows? On Ne’erday morning we’d planned a short walk, Stac Pollaidh. A chance for Neil to redeem himself, except he couldn’t find his cagoule. We’d left it behind at the Caving Club hut. Neil knew his responsibilities, and the rest of us were right behind him as he approached the English students. “I think I left something here last night,” he said. How true, how true.

So if you quiz some graduates of a certain English university about Hogmanay, they’ll likely reply it entails being roused by a drunken rabble who invite themselves in, drink your whisky, throw up, and then leave. We of course know better.

Cul Mor as it could be seen from the old caving club hut

Squalor in Steall

This story, by Robin Forrest, describes the perils of using mountain huts many years ago.

An inauspicious start (ie Friday 13th December 1998) did nothing to deter a sizable crew of fresh new faces and stalwarts from making the annual IMC trek to Upper Glen Nevis. The curse of Black Friday didn’t precipitate anyone into the river from the bouncy bridge, despite the obligatory pub stop on the way, and indeed the first ‘winter’ weekend of the season beckoned enticingly. Peter and Barry were up and away early to perform mighty feats of marathon walking on mighty Mamores. They were followed by assorted laggards with the same general plan in mind but determined to enjoy breakfast at a slightly more civilised hour.

The non-Alpine team comprising the Carol, Julian, Pete, big Donald fae Kinlochbervie, and myself decided conditions were ideal for testing a new toy – a GPS device – on Aonach Beag. It was keep up or get lost as the man with the magic box scurried off onwards and upwards into the gathering gloom at his usual discouragingly high rate of knots. As it happens the summit cairn was attained using more traditional hit-and-miss navigation techniques involving much standing around, pointing in various directions with ice-axes and even, it is rumoured, the use of the map. Incidentally, can anyone explain why the sixth highest summit in the land is marked by a pitifully small cairn?

The Mamores from Meall Mor

Veterans of the last Steall meet (February 1997) who elected to stay away thanks to queasy recollections concerning the squalid state of the hut were vindicated in that nothing much has changed, ie the lights are still kaput, the cookers put out about as many BTU’s as a damp match, and the only comfortable place to sleep is on the mountain rescue stretcher. Lochaber JMCS should pay people to use the place, not the other way round. Fortunately the lack of light meant we couldn’t see the worst of the squalor and a sociable time was had by all, particularly big Donald fae KLB who appeared to drink most of a bottle of uisge beatha all by himself.

Sunday saw the multitudes disperse to all points of the compass once again. The GPS Evaluation Team from the day before decided on a mass assault of Stob Ban on the grounds that, the summit being clear, it could be located without taking a degree in advanced computing first. Even so, Peter must have been suffering withdrawal symptoms as he declared UDI at the col and went off to commune with the clag on Sgor an Iubhair. As may be imagined Donald was suffering from a sair heid and, deciding that the best hangover cure around was yet more exercise, was seen striding out for Mullach nan Coirean. For all we know he’s still out walking yet! (Ed- do not dismay, Donald was around for another day)

Beware of Weekday Folk

This story by Nick Hamilton, former IMC member and President, was published in the Mountain Bothies Association journal in 2012. The illustrations are Nick’s too.

Did you know that the singer Olivia Newton-John was the granddaughter of Max Born, the famous German scientist who was a contemporary of Albert Einstein and a pioneer of Quantum Mechanics. No! Well shame on you. Neither did I of course and little do I care about any of them either, I can tell you. However that ‘fascinating’ link between early twentieth century high energy particle physics and late twentieth century popular music culture gives you a flavour of a recent chance encounter in the hills that I would really rather forget about; but to do so immediately would deny me the pleasure of entertaining you with it.

I recently had cause to visit the bothy I look after for the Mountain Bothies Association. The House of Charr is its full and impressive title but most folk simply refer to it as Charr. In MBA terms the bothy is on the outer rim of the galaxy, a veritable dark star, light years from Alder Cottage and Staoineag at the centre of the Universe, unknown and unvisited by the ardent Munro basher and really only in the GPS database of those seekers of distant, specialist hills, such as Clachnaben and Mount Battock. Many have visited it and some have even slept in it; but only those with a strong constitution because bedding down in a cold and lonely open bothy, particularly on one’s own can be a scary and unsettling business. But I waste time on what you probably know already; I can tell that you want to know about goody-two-shoes Olivia Newton-John.

My visit was on a weekday, unusual in itself because I normally visit at weekends. Now weekdays are different in lots of ways. In particular, different folk are about, sometimes really quite different folk; you might even say a different race of folk. Weird individuals abound on weekdays and disappear at weekends when normal hill goers get out and about. Weekday people can be disconcerting because they talk a different language. They talk in wondrous tones of distant snowy peaks that nobody has ever heard of, they harbour ideas about long walks through misty glens in the land of Fae, they relate tales of troll-like beasts striding across uncharted plateaus east of the Mearns.  They carefully place little stones on the tops of other piles of stones in the belief that cairns have souls and are pleased to be nourished by visitors, and they carry enormous rucksacks with their sleeping bags on the outside to carefully catch every last drop of rain.  In other words weekday folk are to be avoided unless you’re particularly strong willed and not subject to the vapours when confronted by alarmingly red-bearded striders in kilts wearing boots large enough to boil wombats in.

House of Charr, by Nick Hamilton

Such was the nature of the individual ensconced in Charr when I arrived that fateful morning. He had clearly spent the night in the bothy; the blankets, the fag ends and the empty whisky bottle attested to that.  Cheerily I greeted him as I entered and immediately saw that he was a weekday person. I quickly explained to him that I was the Maintenance Organiser for the bothy and, in case he suggested that my presence was an intrusion and that he would be happier if I left, I hinted in a roundabout sort of way that my appointment as an MBA MO was not to be sniffed at and that I had the full force of Association power behind me.  Now you must appreciate that MBA authority and its associated back up is impressive. In the event of trouble I could summon reinforcements that would arrive in no time at all; less than three weeks is not at all uncommon for the mobilisation and deployment of an MBA rapid response unit.

I set about coffee from my flask and as an icebreaker offered my red and hairy companion a cup too. Much to my surprise he accepted, which was a bit of a problem because I only had one cup. However he produced a battered enamel mug from his pack and we settled down to the usual pleasantries that tend to take the form of discourse between total strangers with nothing in common except a shared geographical location.

My new acquaintance quickly led me to believe that he was a scholar of philosophy but was not in employment at the time having exhausted the intellectual capital of his previous seat of learning, and he had not managed to find another employer worthy of his talents and his intellect. Once he got started he quickly warmed to the subject. His particular interest, he informed me with much severity, was the philosophical relevance of the atom. As you can imagine I was not immediately able to respond with words that did the subject justice. In fact I was hard put to think of any philosophical significance of the atom. Small and insignificant, and simply ‘there’ was my immediate, but silent, reaction. The next half hour was a blur that I will not attempt to describe. I had finished my coffee and a check on the fabric of the building was required but the atom held centre stage and I could not escape. I understood very little but nodded politely and occasionally grunted in assent. Suddenly he announced that his second interest was popular music. Ah, I hear you say, at last, here comes the connection with the delectable Olivia.  Indeed, but the connection was a long time coming and I was ready to tear my ears off by the time it did arrive. What a man; I must have sat for an hour before the coffee finally worked its inevitable magic and I was obliged to retire outside. I was careful not to resume my seat and pleaded an urgent need to check out the integrity of the roof space before I was in a position to head back to civilisation. I left with a cheery wave and a sigh of relief, assured of plenty to think about on the walk out to the road. Did I warn other folks heading up the glen of what lay in store for them at the bothy, or did I leave them in blissful ignorance?  Should I warn Archie, the head stalker, of the presence of an unusual character on the estate?   Would Olivia be comforted or repelled by the thought that hairy red natives in far away lands talk about her at length to total strangers, and how had my feelings for the atom changed as a result of these recent revelations. Much to occupy the mind as I walked down the miles.    

So there it is; weekday folk are definitely different and more often than not weird and even a little frightening. However, one good thing came out of the experience, I have an unusual line in party conversation. Did you know that Olivia Newton-John was the granddaughter of…… not a lot of people know that.

Scottish VS

Dougie Borthwick’s gripping account of an ascent of the Long Climb on Ben Nevis. The photo is of the Orion face in the background and Tower ridge in the foreground.

“It will be fine Jock, it’s only a severe and it’s in Classic Rock, it should be a dawdle” was said knowing that Jock was one of the southern MRT’s finest crag rats, so I guessed that he wouldn’t be putting up too much of an argument. The heavy boots though, combined with heavy jackets and three season hill-bags all seemed to weigh heavily on the four of us. Two hours from the nearest road, with a dozen or so pitches none of which warranted grading; well under the standards he normally danced on. This was not what southern sun-baked rock was all about. Jock would soon get used to it.

“Right lads, you two tie on and lead off, and me and JP will monitor your progress” which immediately satisfied everyone, the newbies getting to show their improved rope management skills whilst ascending through the approach rocks, whilst us two got the benefits of an easy second. A gentle intro for all to reacquaint themselves again with the cold rock. A dawdle.

The route’s protagonist JHB Bell had not endeared himself to the crag rat fraternity by declaring ‘Any fool can climb good rock, but it takes craft and cunning to get up vegetatious schist and granite’ but he had sewn together the UK’s longest face climb up through the middle of the Orion Face, which he’d then assessed as ‘difficult, maybe severe’.   The Scottish gradings, though, were always something of an anomaly. Everything hard had been graded VS. The 1976 SMC Journal recorded ‘that we have extended the grading of summer rock to include Hard Very Severe’. By the following year the Journal reported that views differed; ‘some would like to see standardisation with England and Wales but some wished to retain the simple Scottish VS in all its glorious ambiguity’.  Hard Rock was first published in 1974. One couldn’t help but cry.

Cubby’s earlier write up for Newtonmore’s Creagh Dubh had been the initial E guidebook reference for some of us who were progressing with learning our rock craft from Duntelchaig and Cummingston, whilst the SMC still prevaricated. It was still very much second nature to assess all possible approach and exit points when contemplating anything graded Scottish VS, especially so in a big mountain environment, as there was no guarantee that the route being attempted was simply a VS.  Bell’s quote rang loud ’it takes craft and cunning to get up vegetatious schist’ which could of course be interpreted as ‘you’d better know your escape routes, and it’s no problem if you need to use your knees’. There was perhaps reason in the SMC’s madness, for looking directly up the middle of the Orion Face was like being in the Alps, surely not at all on the same classification grade as the 100’ routes of road-side entertainment.

Dr Bell on the first ascent of the Long Climb, Ben Nevis

The First Rib was quickly reached and its distinctive lines gave confidence that we were on the right track.  Warming up saw us approaching the basin and traversing across it; then looking up was like an amphitheatre, all dark and seriously gloomy. Seriously, seriously gloomy, for the dark walls just went up and up for ever. You could though make out the Second Rib angling up and over the basin, which then saw four lads moving up fast with much better rock harmony than when initially starting. 

Route finding though is, ahem, not always an easy skill.  Romping up and over the rock, spirits lifting with the height; and then an abrupt stop. High up on The Ben away out left and totally off route, lies a tall corner with unblemished sides. And I had sadly found it. The crack that I’d been following now petered out with another 10 metres or so of expansive corner rearing impregnable up ahead. The corner was totally blank. 

“It will be fine Jock, there appears to be a traverse line out to the left” but I could not yet discern if it was a Whillans Carnivore or a Hinterstoisser traverse that I might be attempting to emulate, albeit in wickedly heavy boots. Instructions had passed that the two youngsters were to come across when I had successfully belayed, and JP was to take up the rear. The protection would be a pendulum at the end of what at the time appeared to be quite a long rope, there being nothing on the wall to utilise. The blank wall though eventually succumbed and a wee ledge was gained. The perils of Scottish VS route finding then saw a small wedge being laid into the cracked lip of the smallest of bowls indented in the rock with the belayer having to sit low, so preventing the protection from rolling out. The two youngest then traversed quietly across. Jock was not so forgiving and the air had turned a darker shade of blue.  “It will be fine Jock, that’s the Man Trap up there and then we’ll hit Mactavish’s for a pint”.

NB. The Long Climb was originally graded as ‘possibly Difficult’ then quickly changed to Severe followed by Very Severe, then back down to Severe. It now sits properly at a respectable Scottish VS.  Climb it at your peril; Jock sought solace in a very neat ascent of Yo-Yo.

Shenavall in the Census

This article by Duncan Macniven, former Registrar General for Scotland and friend of the IMC, complements the brief history of Shenavall by Alex Sutherland drawn from recollections of one of the first occupants. Alex was a founding member of the IMC and former Maintenance Organiser for Shenavall; his article can be found at The photo above is of Shenavall in 1959.

Censuses have been taken in Scotland since 1801 but the first from which individual records survive is 1841 – before the present house at Shenavall was built. 

The 1841 Census records Strathnashellag before the coming of the sheep. There were 4 households around where Shenavall now stands. May and Ann McLeod, May aged 50 and described as a cottar (the smallest kind of tenant farmer) and 55-year-old Ann (perhaps her sister) lived with 20-year-old Rodrick McLenan (perhaps a relative of the McLenan family who lived nearby). Foxhunter Alexander McRae (30) lived with his wife Ann (20), their infant son Kenneth and 15-year-old Margrat McKenzie who was a farm servant. The third household consisted of agricultural labourers James and Alexander McKenzie (probably brothers aged 35 and 30), with whom lived Barbra McKenzie (60, and perhaps their mother), Murdoch McKenzie (80, perhaps their father or grandfather), 13-year old Lee McRae and 20-year-old farm servant Kathrin McKenzie. The final household was the largest – 7 people living in much the same kind of black house. Duncan McLenan (a 30-year-old agricultural labourer), his wife Flora and their 3 children aged from 4 to 8 lived with Donald McLenan (20, agricultural labourer and perhaps a relative) and 20-year-old farm servant Kathrin Mathison. All four households would have cultivated smallholdings, growing potatoes and probably oats, and would have kept a few black cattle and blackfaced sheep. They would have spoken Gaelic but would probably not been able to read or write. Their houses would have been dry stone walled, low and turf-roofed, with the cows living in one end and the people at the other. The smoke from the peat fire in a hearth in the centre of the living room would have escaped through a hole in the roof. People would have slept in box beds – wooden cupboards around the walls.

A Black House at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore

Ten years later, the 1851 Census recorded two of the same households.  The McLeod sisters and Roderick McLennan were all described as “Cotter and pauper”, meaning that they were so poor that they were receiving parish relief.  The McRae family had expanded: besides Kenneth, they had two daughters aged 9 and 6, and a servant (a local girl, 20-year-old Johanna Munro) and a visitor called Catherine Cameron, a 61-year-old farmer’s wife.  The father, Alexander McRae, was described as a “Gamekeeper and foxhunter”.  Besides these two households, there was certainly one more occupied house at Shenavall, occupied by shepherd Malcolm McLean (52, from Gairloch), his wife and mother-in-law (who hailed from Stornoway) and a house servant, 27-year-old local girl called Mary McBain, who was deaf.  Somewhere along Strathnashellag, but not necessarily at Shenavall, there were three more families – two headed by shepherds (one of whom lived in “Strathnashellag shooting lodge”), one by a gamekeeper and deerstalker, and one by a cottar and gamekeeper.  So at that time the Strath was used both to graze sheep and as a deer forest – with the original cottars at the margins of subsistence.   

By the 1861 Census, the land was a large-scale sheep farm, with only one family living there, in a house (probably of stone and lime, and almost certainly on the site of the present house) which had 3 rooms with windows.  Alexander McKenzie (56) and his wife Christiana (53) lived with their sons Angus (27) and Donald (19).  All 3 men were described as shepherds.  The whole family had been born in the local parish of Lochbroom.  On census night, they had a visitor – a 62-year-old grocer, also a local man and presumably a relative, called John McKenzie.

In the 1871 Census, Shenavall was home to a family of shepherds – the McLeods.  Alexander (37) had been born in Lochbroom parish and his wife Christiana (36) in Applecross.  They had 4 young children, probably born at Shenavall, aged from 1 to 8.  Christiana’s elder sister Alexandrina (40, described as a general servant) stayed with them.  The house had 3 rooms with windows and was probably the same building as in 1861.

In the 1881 and 1891 Censuses, no house was identified as “Shenavall” and the Ordnance Survey maps of the period suggest there may have been two houses.  Both Censuses show that William Angus (from Braemore in Lochbroom parish) lived somewhere in “Strath na Sealg” (and probably at Shenavall) with his wife Isabella (from Crofton, Lochbroom), their son James born in 1872 and their 6 daughters born between 1873 and 1885.  The family all spoke both Gaelic and English.  In 1881, William was described as a shepherd but in 1891 as a “forester”, working not with trees but with deer.  Their house appears to have been extended to cope with the large family, from 2 rooms with windows in 1881 to 5 rooms in 1891.  But that may not have been the present house – because Alex Sutherland, a member of the Inverness Mountaineering Club who died in 2014 aged 91, recalled talking in the late 1970s to 94-year-old Colin McDonald, who remembered moving to the present house when it was newly-built.  Colin, at the age of 7, is recorded in the 1891 Census living in the Strath in a 3-roomed house with his family, headed by his father Archibald (a 49-year-old deer stalker born in Gairloch), and a 60-year-old domestic servant.  Like the Anguses, the family spoke both Gaelic and English, while the servant spoke only Gaelic.  If Colin McDonald’s memory was correct, the Angus family lived in a house now ruined and the McDonalds were the first to live in the present house. 

Extract from the 1891 census listing Colin McDonald

By the time of the 1901 Census, the Strath was used simply as a deer forest.  Only 2 people lived at Shenavall – Finlay MacKenzie (25, a gamekeeper) and his sister Katie (22, a housekeeper).  Both were born locally, in Lochbroom parish, and both could speak Gaelic and English.  The house was described as “Shenavall Lodge”.  It had 3 rooms with windows.

The 1911 Census is the last from which individual records are at present published.  Again, no building was identified as “Shenavall”, but there were two houses in “Strathnashellaig”, both with 5 rooms with windows.  One was occupied by William Angus, described as a stalker, his wife Isabel and two of their daughters – and the other by their son James and another daughter.

Too much love will kill you every time

A cautionary tale for climbers by former IMC member and President Nick Hamilton. The photo above is Penguin Gully, and the drawing below is by Nick.

We sat on frosted rocks and rested. The walk up Gleann na Sguaib had been steady but we needed to sit down for a bit. I was nervous and my anxiety was heightened by the icy cliffs that swept steeply upwards on either side of the narrow glen, disappearing into the cloud base that obscured the summit ridges of Beinn Dearg and Meall nan Ceapraichean.  A feeling of foreboding had been growing ever since leaving the campsite at Ullapool and now my worst fears were realised.  Climbing on these ice-covered crags looked well beyond my capabilities and I was conscious that I was getting myself into a situation that I was not ready for, never had been ready for and almost certainly never would be ready for. Ice climbing is a dangerous business and I was past that early age when a mixture of bravado and ignorance can see you to the top of almost anything. My feeling was that at my time of life the end result was much more likely to be a bad day from a number of points of view.

We gazed up at Penguin Gully on the south west face of the glen. The green bulges of ice in the lower section of the climb looked ominously difficult. Peter looked approvingly at our proposed route and despite his words of reassurance I was frightened at the prospect of tackling the gully and became more and more agitated as time passed and we regained our breath. I was not ready for steep green ice and knew that this was not for me.

Gleann Squaib

The guide books featured a number of deceptive euphemisms; ‘an interesting winter climb’, ‘a sporting winter route’, ‘gives a sustained climb of quality’. These, and a number of other similar expressions, aimed at enthusiasm and motivation, are to be treated with extreme caution and evaluated with care from the comfort of your arm chair because when you are confronted with what they actually mean the reality is likely to scare the pants off you.

As it turned out I was spared, which was not the outcome for another pair of climbers. We went off round the corner to do Inverlael Gully instead, a rather easier climb, but not without its green ice. The other pair had set off up Penguin Gully and had, unknown to us, peeled off a third of the way up with a long fall to the floor of the glen, ice screws ripping out like shirt buttons from an over-weight Salsa dancer. Later, as we descended from the summit of Beinn Dearg, we encountered the Police and Mountain Rescue extracting the unfortunate pair from their predicament. Much as I was sympathetic for the individuals concerned I thanked my lucky stars that we had not preceded them up the route that morning.

I was much more careful about terminology after that incident. When I saw the words ‘sporting route’ or ‘interesting climb’ I knew to be wary and suspicious. For me those words and phrases spelt danger, anxiety and general foreboding. After this incident I always looked for the real meaning of those words. And ‘real meaning’ brings us to Freddie Mercury. When he sang about ‘too much love will kill you every time’ what he really meant was that an over-indulgence of unprotected sex with a large number of unsuitable partners is likely to end in an early and uncomfortable demise. An early and uncomfortable demise is exactly what awaits the poorly prepared climber who casually embarks on ill-judged adventures and takes the words in the climbing guide at face value. Look what happened to Freddie!

Ben Nevis: Pictures At An Exhibition

This story, by Mike Dixon, comes in two parts. The photo below is Mike’s.

Scottish Nordwand

A dazzling whiteness infused Ben Nevis. Everything was beautifully lit and shaded as we trudged up to the foot of the Orion Face. It was spring and even the light had a new-life quality. Surprisingly, Geoff Lowe and Willie Graham were walking away from this marvellous spectacle. Both displayed a sunken eyed, haunted look. They looked like two men who’d glimpsed some fundamental cosmic truth and were shaken by the revelations. Retreat from Zero Gully the previous day had instilled in them a healthy respect for the value of life.

Black thoughts and grave reservations remained unspoken but were dissipated by the job in hand. It was the first time I’d climbed with Pete Mayhew. The freezing level was around 3000 feet, producing ice which was fine to climb but poor for screws. During the entire route I wouldn’t have wanted to test any of the belays, even with my semi-anorexic frame.

Entering the Basin was like popping into some aesthetic wonderland. The succession of freeze-thaw cycles had produced a gallery of frozen time ice sculptures, several reminiscent of melting watches from a Dali painting. Any desire to linger was cancelled out by the detritus jettisoned on me from a climber on Astral Highway. Exposure renamed with a rush at the stance beside the Second Slab Rib. A short descent was followed by a diagonal traverse out of the Basin. Perched above Zero and with the ice not as solidly bound to the underlying rock, it felt committing, insecure and sparsely protected. From the stance I watched Pete come up in a truly nordwand setting. The chilly shade contrasted with the ice palace of the Great Tower glistening away in the background. The left slanting ramps that followed directed the gaze down to a pair in the Basin and added further scale to the whole undertaking. It was a great advert for Scottish mountaineering. A snagged rope provided a worrying moment before we emerged into a smaller snowfield below the final tower. Pete took an alternative direct line up a steep, shallow corner/groove; a dark slit visible from the road. I found this tricky to follow and a continuing lack of decent belays was stretching the nerves. A kick up easy snow led to the top.

Burgeoning standards will never relegate a route of this quality. It is a classic route on a mountain not short of superlatives. To put yourself in the mood make sure you’ve read Smith and Marshall’s respective accounts of the first ascent. Think yourself lucky you won’t have to step cut up it.

Carn Dearg buttress

Commando Climber

On a windy summer’s day in the early nineties we stood under the imposing bulwark of the Carn Dearg Buttress. To maximize the cliff’s potential to impress, first timers should walk up in the dark and in the morning burst through the CIC door for a direct assault on the senses. Never a fashion victim, my partner Peter Moffatt was kitted out in regulation green clothing not unsuitable for fighting the Viet Cong. Bullroar is an elegant route traversing across the frontal face; it offers absorbing slab sequences in exposed territory. We had the cliff to ourselves and the whole ascent went pretty smoothly.

We were ambling down. The sun was shining, the views to Loch Eil lovely, and even Fort William looked pleasant from a distance. Peter was in a good mood and this only added to the sense of foreboding. It was a short uneventful walk back to the car, or so it seemed. However there was one last obstacle, a hidden trip wire at the golf course perimeter fence where Peter took a spectacular flier. His tangled limbs resembled a figure from the Picasso painting Guernica. It was  quite ironic for someone who’d just Rudolf Nureyeved his way across 5a rock. Experience teaches that at times such as these you don’t ask Peter how he’s feeling.

On the final stomp across the fairways two cheery golfers engaged eye contact with Peter. Their faces stiffened as though they’d seen the Gorgon’s head. “He doesn’t look too happy,” one of them commented. “And that’s after a good day, ” I replied. It’s not always the route or mountain which lingers longest in the memory.