Memoirs of a Climbing Cad, by John Burns

Another instalment from John Burns, former President of the IMC and writer. The picture is of a monstrous cornice on Braeriach in 1956.

First let me say that in no way am I writing this as some form of confession or apology. Far from it, I take quite a pride in my achievements, even if they are somewhat different from the rosy-cheeked innocence of the traditional climbing fraternity. It began when I first saw all that pretty climbing gear in the window of Messrs Roland and Pratt. Festooned with that I imagined what a dashing figure I would be, striding across the Highland glens, here it struck me was a first class way to impress the ladies whilst at the same time distancing myself as far as possible from any useful employment. I strode into the local climbing club and professed to all the assembled worthies and wasters that they were in the company of a new and rising star. To my surprise they were unimpressed and it dawned on me that one actually had to do something noteworthy before assuming the mantle of demi-God for which I had clearly been chosen. Still, this could hardly be difficult I decided, and set off to my dewy eyed aunts with tales of my ambitions and outstretched grubby paw. This, and my sister’s piggy bank, together with other examples of quick-footed shenanigans produced the necessary capital for all those shiny things and a pair of lurex tights.

Now I was off and ready to walk into legend. It was here that I encountered my first snag. When I first grappled with the unfortunate rock face I discovered that not only was this climbing business difficult, it seemed bloody dangerous. Being fairly attached to the old earthly vessel, the prospect of hurtling downwards to a fate worse than death did not appeal. Still I was able to come up with a few rather amateurish ruses. Such as “I prefer to solo, really” and vanishing into the mists to sit behind a boulder with a Woodbine for a couple of hours only to return with the names of a couple of hard routes dangling from my lips. This was not really successful and did not bring me the kudos I deserved, only knowing looks from the hairy cliff dwellers who inhabited the club from time to time.

I began to despair, but then I was saved. Winter came. Here I discovered was a different theatre in which my true talents could be revealed. I saw photographs of even more shiny and impressive gear and bold looking chaps securely nailed to the ice with impressive spikes which could surely prevent any possible mishap from taking place. So I announced that I was done with that awful rock climbing and had become a winter climber where true adventure lay. So it was off to the dear old aunt’s to persuade her to invest even more of her hard earned cash in my adventures and round to Roland and Pratts to acquire the necessary paraphernalia. It was here that my career really took off and I found in winter climbing the opportunity to build an awesome reputation, whilst at the same time departing from the horizontal as little as possible.

Firstly, I discovered opportunities for winter climbing are limited, due to the excellent climate of this precious Isle. One can spend weeks staring misty eyed from the window of the lounge bar, cursing the weather and building a reputation without the danger of spilling a drop. Unfortunately, there do come times when the crags are festooned with the white stuff and it is necessary to exert oneself in order to keep up appearances. Here is where I excel, and this missive has been written as a lesson to young aspiring climbers, whose aim should be to appear to climb without actually risking anything. This I have done and some of the ploys I have developed into an art form will serve you well.

I was greatly aided in my exploits by meeting the perfect climbing partner, Dudsworth. He is a stout chap whose courage is only matched by his gullibility and who has aided me through many an epic with no idea of his own prowess and an over-inflated idea of mine. I well remember one of our first serious routes where, by dint of mathematics I had conspired to give him all the hard pitches. He was out of sight up some of the tricky white stuff when cries of “watch the rope, I think I’m coming off!” began to drift down. Well you didn’t have to tell me twice and in a moment I did watch the rope although it was only with academic interest since I had long since untied and attached myself to a spike some feet from the route. This had of course reduced the possible casualty rate by 50%, me being the important 50%. Dudsworth did not depart peremptorily for the glen and so I simply retied on to the rope and followed him up. This is a tactic I often employ together with carrying a small very sharp knife secreted in my sleeve ready to sever the rope should any unfortunate accident threaten to dislodge yours truly.

Modern climbing gear is also excellent for avoidance ploys and I’ve had my ice axe modified so that with a surreptitious turn of the screw the pick will swivel limply from the head and I can announce it unreliable and reluctantly relinquish the lead to Dudsworth who sympathises over my awful luck. Similar health problems have often come to my aid and an old back injury is prone to flare up at any time and prevent me from being at the sharp end of the rope. Far from diminishing my efforts in the eyes of Dudsworth this has elevated them, and he recently professed himself amazed at my ability to second a route whilst in agony from my back injury and totally blind in one eye.

There was one incident that occurred when I was unfortunately at the sharp end, but as fate would have it, further enhanced my reputation. On this occasion I had to lead the final pitch over a very dodgy cornice. Just as I put my foot on it and swung onto some God-forsaken plateau it dislodged and began to plunge down the mountain. Dudsworth was ensconced below secured to a snowman and the vision of him being swept away alarmed me somewhat. But not half as much as the prospect of following him down the route to certain annihilation. Luckily I had emerged only a couple of feet from where some stout-hearted chap was belaying his second up the last few feet of the crag. With an athletic ability I had hitherto only dreamt about, or seen on video, I leapt across and clipped in to his harness. Fortunately he was tied on to something that could have held a falling cathedral, and the day, and most importantly I, was saved. The only black spot was that this leader seemed somewhat put out by my use of him as an anchor and went on and on about it at great length. I did point out that he had only been dragged a few yards across the plateau but this did nothing to assuage his anger. His gibbering was only terminated by a sharp rap on the back of his helmet with the business end of my ice hammer. Following this I brought both the extremely appreciative, if slightly squashed Dudsworth, to the top followed by the mystified second of the other party. I then went down to alert the rescue that something had befallen the leader of the other party and thereby became something of a hero. Fortunately the chap whom I had been forced to silence had suffered amnesia, and it was decided by the rescue team that he had unaccountably been struck by a falling rock whilst on the summit of the mountain. That night, complete with casualty turban, he forced large quantities of beer on me although I’m sure his was the greater hangover. Well, now that Winter is nearly over, I shall be forced into several months of idleness to await its return which, if the last few years are anything to go by, probably won’t happen. With luck, I will be able to sit in the bar pouring scorn and whisky over rock climbing and yearning for the return of Winter. If it does come I’m sure Dudsworth can be jostled into taking the brunt of it and I and my reputation will remain secure for many Thursday nights to come.