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.
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!