Key To The Door

Peter Moffatt is one of the longest-standing members of the IMC, and was made an honorary member at the club’s 50th Anniversary. This article is the result of many years’ experience of meets – and sometimes things go wrong. The picture above is of the Ling hut, the scene of one of the misadventures.

It is generally accepted that one of the major benefits of belonging to a mountaineering club is convenient access from time to time to huts belonging to other clubs sufficiently prosperous or organised to own them. In the nature of things, club huts have to be secure and so have locks, and locks have keys – and funny things can happen to keys.

Sometimes they don‘t arrive. Years ago I had arranged to get a key for a weekend at the CIC, and duly received a brown envelope split down the side and very empty. I entertained thoughts of dirty deeds of sabotage and hijack – a disgruntled would-be member of the SMC whose application was rejected? – and concluded that accident and an insufficiently strong envelope were more probably the explanation. Luckily, a phone call to the Inverness sorting office revealed that the key had been found there – bursting from the envelope as it passed through a franking machine was the official explanation – and the weekend was saved.

One of the contributory factors in that accident was the weight and bulk of the envelope’s contents, since to get into the CIC you not only have to have a key for the lock, but also a fairly substantial hexagon Allen key to unscrew the bolts securing the steel plate which covers the keyhole, and more recently the outer grille intended to protect the door from the use of a gas cylinder as battering ram! Fine-threaded bolts in an exposed environment have a tendency to rust and seize up, as members of an IMC meet once found to their cost. One of the bolts on the grille refused to budge. “What’s needed” pronounced Neil, “is more torque”, whereupon he fitted the hole in the end of his ice axe to the arm of the Allen key and applied what most of us would describe as considerable leverage – with the unfortunate effect of shearing the Allen key rather than turning the bolt. Fortunately someone noticed that the bottom of the grille was a foot or so clear of the ground and the more submissive bolts on the keyhole plate had either been opened in advance or yielded to the stump of the Allen key, so the disaster of being denied access was replaced by the indignity of the entire party having to go in and out of the hut for the rest of the weekend by wriggling under the grille – which must have been an entertaining sight for those who didn’t have to do it.

The CIC hut, Ben Nevis

On another occasion the key to the Ling hut was for some strange reason entrusted to a young lady called Elaine, who proposed to cycle there from Inverness on the Friday afternoon. Obviously of less stamina than the current generation of IMC female cyclists, Elaine apparently collapsed exhausted at a B&B in Achnasheen or Kinlochewe, leaving the other members of the meet locked out of the hut. In the end some went home, some later arrivals got in when another party arrived, and Barry Winston slept in his car. Elaine meanwhile presumably enjoyed a good night’s sleep in Achnasheen, and on the Saturday morning, still blissfully unaware of her weighty responsibility as keyholder, reportedly took a train – and the key – back to Inverness.

Sometimes it’s not the key but the keyhole which gets lost. On a meet which some of us remember with a twinge of shame, having preferred the gentler pleasures of Ewen’s barbecue to the rigours of a weekend in Glen Clova, the two members who did attend arrived at the Carn Dearg hut in the dark, inserted their key in a perfectly ordinary-looking keyhole in the normal place near the door handle, and found that it did not turn. A great deal of wiggling and jiggling and pushing and pulling and turning this way and that (and possibly even a little mild cursing) ensued, until the unhappy pair were on the point of concluding that they would have to retreat. In the nick of time a desperate casting around with the torch beam revealed an alternative keyhole in a somewhat unusual position about a foot from the ground. The designers of this ingenious system were no doubt called a variety of names, but at least the key fitted and Bob and Fay enjoyed a good weekend.

On better-attended meets there is always the problem of finding a suitable hiding place for the key, so that whoever is first off the hill can get in to get the fire going and the kettle on. This is a complicated subject and a whole treatise could probably be written on “The theory and practice of concealing and re-locating keys to communally-occupied premises during periods of temporary absence”. The theory is that a commonly acceptable hiding place is agreed on by a representative of each hill party, and that any of them can therefore find the key on their return. The practice can be made more complicated in a number of ways. Members of the “make it hard to find” school of thought are likely not only to put the key under the specified stone, but to bury it there in a pit; or when the hiding place is the ledge above the door inside the outhouse, to push the key a little more so that it drops onto a second lower ledge further back. There is the problem of members arriving on Saturday who naturally have not been present at the concealment conference. Their task is to try and divine where the overnight occupants might have hidden the key, and they are probably best helped by an idea of who was present and a degree in psychology, but in the absence of either of these would be well advised to try turning over every sizeable stone in the vicinity of the hut. Occasionally forethought and psychology are applied on the other side, and the concealers try to imagine where the late arrivals, assuming them to be of average intelligence, would be likely to look. Sadly I have to record that at Mill Cottage, the year before last a key left under the front doormat was not discovered by the Saturday party.

Mill Cottage, Feshiebridge

This failure has a bearing on the great Mill Cottage Key Mystery which unfolded shortly before Christmas last year. The story will be familiar to current active members of the club, but it is a good one and deserves retelling. A moderate snowfall and unpleasant driving conditions on the Friday before the Mill Cottage meet resulted in only three members heading down to the hut that evening. They called at Heatherbrae, where Albert and Elizabeth were installed with the fire going and were offered tea and tempted to stay the night instead of trudging through the snow to open up a cold hut. This was resisted with varying degrees of sternness and reluctance, and the small party duly made their way to the hut, let themselves in and hung the key on a nail beside the electricity meters. A still-fresh carton of milk on the table suggested that there had been a party in during the week.

Saturday dawned bright and clear and the three were eager to get on the hill. Mindful of the fact that other members would be arriving at various times during the day and remembering the poor key detection skills shown the previous year, it was decided to take a very slight risk and leave the hut unlocked and the key on the nail, in the interests of ensuring that anyone who arrived could get in. It later became apparent that several better solutions could have been found, but it seemed a good idea at the time.

We picked up Albert and met Sue along the road, and had a good day on Geal Charn in Glen Feshie. Back at Heatherbrae we were met by a group of the day’s new arrivals demanding the key to the hut. We scoffed at their stupidity and told them it was open, went there straight away to demonstrate the fact and found it firmly locked. Our only key, you will remember, was hanging on a nail inside.

Luckily Heatherbrae not only offered convenient shelter for the waiting members but also  a public telephone box just outside the door, which was a great help in addressing the practical problem of how to get into the hut. We knew that the hut custodian lived in Kingussie (we were lucky it wasn’t Glasgow or Edinburgh), but didn’t have the address or phone number. By chance I had recently been in touch with Nick Hamilton (a former IMC member now in Dundee) and learnt that his club had a meet to Mill Cottage the following week. I remembered Nick’s address, and four telephone calls later we had the custodian‘s number. Luckily again, he was at home, and although I had assumed he must have locked the hut and expected to be reprimanded for leaving it open, it turned out he hadn’t been near the place and obviously believed one of our group to have locked it. What mattered was that he was willing to let us have another key, I raced off to Kingussie to collect it, and twenty minutes or so later we were in. Everything was as we had left it, and our key hung peacefully on its nail.

The customary sociable evening followed, except that the party games and feats of strength and contortion sometimes engaged in were replaced by the exchange of speculation as to the identity of our locker-out – the more rational theories based on the carton of fresh milk as evidence of recent occupation being replaced by a multitude of wilder and more unlikely fantasies as the evening wore on. We eventually learnt that a local member of the previous party still had the key, and was asked to retrieve something left by one of his friends, but why he took it on himself to lock the hut having found it open with obvious signs of occupation remains a mystery.

Suileag bothy

A final tale concerns a shutting in rather than a shutting out, and occurring as it did at an unlocked bothy, has nothing to do with a key. On the Sunday of a Burns supper meet at the Caving Club hut a year or two ago Marion, Robin and I decided to walk to Suileag by the path from Little Assynt and come back over a little hill to the East. On the way in we met two or three women walking out, who said they had been at the bothy overnight and that the rest of their party, including the children, had gone out by Lochinver. We arrived at the bothy in time for lunch, and chatted about bothies and so on to the other occupants, a couple from Thurso who had also been there overnight and were loud in their complaints about the children in the other party rushing from room to room with a great deal of noise and disturbance, and totally unrestrained by their parents. We duly sympathised, said goodbye and went on our way, following a small path from the bothy to Sron a Bhuic and back down the attractive Allt an Tiaghaich to our starting point.

At home on Monday evening I received a phone call from a gentleman in Thurso, (I’d mentioned I was Maintenance Organiser at Alladale, and he had traced me through an MBA list), who informed me with a politeness which must have required considerable restraint that when we left the bothy the previous afternoon we had shot the bolt on the outside of the door and left him and his wife shut inside. Of course I apologised profusely, and he was gracious enough to concede that we probably hadn’t done it on purpose. He had apparently spent a long time working at both sides of the door, trying to move the bolt or unscrew the hinges, before having to resort to breaking the back window and climbing out. None of the guilty party has any recollection of shooting the bolt, which must have been done as an automatic and unconscious sequel to closing the door and we have no idea as to which of us actually did it. Fortunately the MO when I telephoned rather sheepishly to apologise and offer to repair the damage, was kind enough to treat the whole affair as a joke. Not much fun at the time though for the couple locked in, for whom the disturbance caused by a few excited children the previous night must have paled into insignificance by comparison.