Friday, 20 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part Two

As I rolled over and over, the snow was suffocating as it filled my nostrils, and when I opened my mouth to say goodbye to the world, it filled my mouth cutting off my ability to breath. My ears filled up which meant all sound was blocked making my senses accept that death was inevitable. But I had no wish to die, not yet and so tried my best to swim with the tide of powder and wet snow that rolled me down the hill. Pointlessly I know but there was nothing I could do until I stopped moving.

For a split second, I remembered that when it did stop moving, it set like cement and would entomb me in whatever position I was in. Should I just relax and let it happen! Then suddenly, all movement stopped and I was motionless, entombed in cement coffin. Time stands still and the silence is deafening. Just relax and wait for death and all worries about my situation would be over.

But this is not what I want and so I struggle a little to find that I can move my left arm a little, so start to rotate the wrist to enlarge the space. But, am I facing downwards or upwards? How far beneath the surface am I? How long can I stay alive without being able to breath and how long does it take the snow to set like cement?

Such questions annoyed me and so I started to vigorously turn my hand until it allowed my elbow to move and suddenly, I felt it break through the surface. This spurred me on to twist and turn more until the upper torso was able to move. Then a faint noise was heard, shit, another avalanche was on its way! To prevent myself from being encased once again, I screamed and violently swung my arms about and fell out of my snow coffin onto the cold wet floor of the hut.

Dec. 25th Christmas Day. 
Awoke on the floor of the hut still wrapped in my wet damp sleeping bag, no doubt from the profuse sweating during the nightmare. Merry Christmas I said to myself as I extricated myself from the bag and thought about a nice bowl of dry muesli. I smell the pipe tobacco again from the outer room. I shout out good morning and Merry Christmas but get no response. I decide to go into the outer room to find out why he has been ignoring me. I opened the door to find the room empty. The air suddenly becomes clean, no smell of tobacco, nothing. No puddles of water from any boots. No sign of anyone being there. I opened the outer door to see smooth white snow stretching way off into the distance. No footprints. No one has broken last night’s snow fall.

I return to the inner room. Sit on my damp bag with my knees up to my chin. Had I dreamt it all?  Was it a ghost?  Is my mind playing tricks on me? Is the lack of human company getting to me?

I try to dismiss the incident as just a dream but I know the smell of tobacco was real as was the noise I heard. I decided to leave the Sinclair hut and move on to the Rynack Bothy.

6pm. Had a good days walk. Peaceful and calm. Snow conditions great. Truly exciting walking across pristine snow. Brain feeling lighter. Head not aching. Lungs working steadily.

Not a bad Christmas day after all. Didn’t even miss the traditional turkey dinner but enjoyed my tin of peaches. A pity the bothy stinks of animals. Will move on tomorrow. Even considering going to Morlich youth hostel for one night to shower and dry clothes.

Dec. 26th Boxing day.
6.15am. A strange day. Didn’t sleep very well last night, foul animal smell was too much for my nostrils. Some strange dreams and images coming in and out of my mind. At one point I had an image of me climbing Everest by a new route. I was alone except for a faceless person who was carrying a flag with a star and a moon on it. They were wearing ordinary clothes and I was in a space suit.

As I got to the top, there was a party going on and I was told I was not invited. This dream changed suddenly to me standing in a crematorium looking into a coffin. Again the figure inside was faceless but I could hear others crying around me. A tap on my shoulder made me jump and I too jumped as I lay in my sleeping bag. The dream was almost surreal. The dream melted into a scene now in the bothy with me waking up to find some magical little people sitting around playing cards.

One of the little magical people dealt me a hand which I picked up. As I looked at the cards, I felt my heart rate and pulse double and without warning, I sat bolt upright to find myself sweating profusely. My hands were shaking as I recalled the hand of cards I was dealt.

Each card had the face of a friend who was deceased.  The fright came not from seeing their faces, but that one of the five cards had a faceless figure on it.

I sat up in the corner of the bothy waiting for the morning light to take away the dark depression I was feeling. Tried to work out what if anything it all meant. If I had been drinking, I would have had no problems in understanding the hallucinating images!

I did not come to any conclusion but assumed the loneliness was playing games with my emotions and thought processes. I was glad when daylight started to filter in through the dark and oppressive long night.

Decided to walk back to youth hostel for a night. Feeling excited with anticipation of a hot shower, decent meal and a good night’s sleep in a dry bed.

Got to youth hostel around 4.15pm. The SAS lads who I met earlier had also returned to the hostel for a night so invited me down to Aviemore for a drink or two, or was it three, perhaps in truth it was a lot more than four!

Dec. 27th.

9.15am Do not remember much about last night. Remember being in the second row of seats in the land rover when it careered off the road and flipped over into the roadside ditch. Remember crawling out through someone’s piss and stomach contents. Also remember the funny side of us trying to right the land rover whilst everyone was giggling. When we got to the youth hostel, the warden was mouthing off about it being past the stopping out time. Obviously had no idea about what repercussions there could be through trying to dress down several inebriated SAS lads, so I kept my distance and slipped off to my room.

Dec 28th.

10am. Went downstairs to find SAS lads had left. The warden was cleaning up a mess in the kitchen so I sneaked out the back door not wanting to get involved in any discussion with him about what mess the army lads had left him for Christmas.

6.25pm This morning when I left the hostel, I felt recharged, full of motivation for some serious climbing. I walked along the road and onto the hills where I wanted to be. Reached Jeans Hut, still empty. Left rucksack, took two climbing axes and walked over to Coire an Lochain, making sure I circumnavigated the Great Slab as best I could.

Climbed The Vent a superb snow climb on good consolidated snow. Walked back down and climbed up Left Branch Y Gully another good climb which tested the sinews in my arms to their limit. Not enough so went back around and climbed up Right Branch Y Gully but taking an inordinate amount of time to do so.                                                

Had a piece of cheddar cheese, an apple and a mars bar for lunch. Sitting there on my own in a wilderness of pristine untouched snow which stretched for miles was electrifying. High emotions were flowing through my whole body and I just knew this was a good day and that I needed to do several more climbs before I was satisfied. A quick drop down and a climb back up Jacob’s Ladder seemed to do the trick.

Walked over towards Sinclair memorial hut, but turned left at the path junction not wanting to visit the hut on this occasion, as memories of the visitor that never was still uppermost in my mind. Continued on down the Lairig Ghru for a while until I came to a snow slope on the left hand side that was begging me to climb it so I obliged. The cornice at the top was huge and I had difficulty in digging my way through and at one point, I heard creaks that told me that the cornice was about to break off taking me downwards with it to the gully floor way way below.

My brain snapped into another gear and I methodically dug with my beloved Pterodactyl ice axe and Chouinard ice hammer (no fancy tools for this guy!) until I broke through the surface layer and I could crawl out, roll over and shout for joy.

 Jean's Hut: Now demolished.Ray Sefton

I had not noticed the storm brewing. A sudden gust of wind blew me off my feet and sent me tumbling across the plateau, but thankfully, away from the edge.

9.10pm. Feeling alive. Can’t wait for morning so I can go climbing again.

10.28pm. Can’t sleep. Too excited about tomorrow's possibilities.

Midnight. Still awake. Final entry for the night. Will force myself to sleep.

Dec. 29th.
3.15am. Still tossing and turning. Made a brew.

5.25am. Woke up. Cold and shivering.

6.45am. Got up. Cold muesli and a tin of peaches for breakfast.

Studied my copy of Hamish MacInnes Scottish Climbs Vol 2. Decided on visiting Coire an Lochain again to do some other routes.

7.30am Left hut. Clear blue skies. No clouds or wind. Calm. Cold air hitting the exterior but feeling warm as toast inside. Ate an apple on the way. Looking into the Coire I kept asking myself what it was I was going to do. Decided to turn left and go into Coire an-t Sneachda to start with Fiachaill Ridge to get warmed up.

Mid-morning. Stood on summit after great climb up Fiachaill Couloir which was in good condition. Looking down to Jeans Hut waves of excitement caused my stomach to turn over a few times. Head spinning with the sheer delight of my situation. Need to climb more.

Descended down Y gully, making good use of hard compact snow to slide down testing my ability to brake with ice axe, head first, feet first, on the stomach, on the back, rolling over and so it went on until I came to a stop in a pile of banked snow.  Felt like the time Karen paid up on a bet I had back in Malta all those years ago - orgasmic!

Up Vent Rib and Traverse feeling exposed on the traverse section. Back down via Y gulley again, back up Ewen Buttress. Had great difficulty in negotiating the final narrow crack to the final summit. Topped out exhausted so went back down The Couloir route and had a bite to eat. Sun long since departed the sky, being replaced with cold air but I convinced myself that there was enough light to just do one more climb before returning to Jeans Hut for a well-earned meal. Walking back around the base of the cliff face, I sensed someone walking beside me. I knew no one was there but I could hear their movement just the same. I sensed it was everyone I had known all rolled into one. It was comforting to know they were still with me.

I started to climb Left Branch Y gully for the second time and felt cocooned in a web of love and warmth, so much so that although my body was shivering with the cold, my inside was warm and content. I felt safe. However, after an hour, I wished I had decided on an easier route or even returned to the hut before setting out on this last climb. Struggled the last few hours to make headway but always knew I would do it as they were with me. Topped out around 8pm in the dark my only light being the bright full moon in a cloudless star riddled sky above and a rather dim head torch with batteries long past their time. Knackered but satiated.

8pm. Returned to hut tired and physically exhausted but truly alive. A fantastic days climbing. Brain is swimming with positive neurons giving me fantastic visions which in turn is sending pulses coursing through my entire body. It felt as if everything that composed my whole body was vibrating and working in total unison.

No aches or pains. No tightness of the head or eyes. If there is ever such a thing as being at your optimum, your peak of fitness, this has been how I have felt all day despite the struggles of the Vent Rib and Traverse and Left Branch Y Gully.

10pm. My mood has dramatically changed for the better. I no longer fear anyone or anything. I am my own master. My future is what I will make it, alone or otherwise. The hills and mountains are my salvation. I know it now. No more pretence. No more living behind a facade. Adversity I spit in your face! I have an inner strength that I never knew I had. I am truly reborn this day. My God has come alive within me.

All that evening I swam in an emotional sea of bliss, soaking up that tremendous feeling you get when your’ on a high, so high that even falling off that can be dangerous to your health and welfare. Every pore in my body was alive with tingling sensations and the energy flow I was experiencing was nothing short of orgasmic ecstasy and I was loving every moment of it. I felt proud, I felt in touch with everything and my head was full of nothing but goodness and satisfaction.

After swimming in this orgy of self-idolatry, I allowed the sandman to creep over me until my eye lids closed for the last time that night to peace and calm. Nothingness finally took over and I was in the land of pleasant dreams.

Dec. 30th.
8.15pm. Woke feeling so refreshed and energetic it frightened me a little, as I am not used to this first thing on a morning. Decided to do a long walk. What can I say - but that it was another great day. I completed a gruelling nine hour walk which included a climb up Pygmy Ridge – what a climb!! Superb views into Central Gully. Conditions excellent. Snow & ice firm and crisp. Continued along plateau to Lairig Ghru over to Cairn Toul.

Sat on the summit ridge in bright sunlight, exuding breath in wafts of steam in the intense cold air. What to do for the second week. Should I stay in the same area and continue walking and climbing or move to another area and more of the same there?

Could not come to any decision. Suddenly a heard a voice somewhere, outside, inside who knows but just a voice all the same. It kept repeating home, home, home. This was one time when I listened to the voices so made the decision to walk back across the icy tops down to Aviemore youth hostel via Braeriach.

Decided to spend one last night at Aviemore Youth Hostel. Uneventful night. Sat and watched a group of young people play Monopoly, they were full of life and fun. I envied them their youth but was still happy to be me. Despite the snoring I even got some sleep before dragging myself out of the bunk bed and getting my thoughts in line.

Dec. 31st.

10.10am. Rang dad to ask if he could telegraph me some money for a train ticket home. It arrived late that afternoon.

The long journey home to Brighton was uneventful as I slept soundly and contentedly for most of the way. Alighting from the station in Brighton on New Year’s Day, I was conscious that people were staring at me. I caught my reflection in a shop window and saw why. My clothes were dirty and dishevelled. My hair was matted and I had not had a shave for over a fortnight. There’s my dad. Big smiles and hugs all round. The prodigal son had come home at last.

Frank Grant: 2017


Friday, 13 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part One

1975 started to die out and the long hazy summer days had finally retired to the southern hemisphere giving over its space to the short winter nights, allowing the cold to slowly encroach on the mind. Thoughts were turned to the Christmas break when thousands of students like me would be heading home, but as I had planned a climbing trip for the following year to Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, I had other ideas on how to spend my time; two weeks alone climbing in the Cairngorms staying in the bothies.

If the truth be known, I also had another reason for wanting to go to the Cairngorms; to climb and stand on top of the Rock called Craigellachie outside Aviemore [meaning: ‘come to me come to me’], the historical meeting place of the Clan Grant. It is said that when the Clan Chief required the clan to attend a meeting, his caller would stand on top of the Rock and shout Craigellachie repeatedly until the call was sent out across the Clan Grant lands.

Having traced my male family line back to a James Grant, born 1664 in Glenmoriston, and who as a Jacobite, fought at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, I as a child had always wanted to see the landmark called Craigellechie, where he would have heard the call to arms. When I was 10 years of age, we lived in Glasgow and my father took me to see the rock from which time, I had always had a strong desire to climb its face, stand on the point and shout out “Craigellechie, Craigellechie” to honour my ancestors who fought and died for ‘their cause’.

And so on the Friday evening, I packed, unpacked and repacked my rucksack for the umpteenth time in a useless attempt to get all the equipment I wanted to take in the one sack. Something definitely had to be sacrificed. First to go was all my spare clothing. I reasoned that as I would be on my own I would learn to cope with the smell.

Next to go was the binoculars then the telephoto lens camera. Still not enough room for what was left. Should I take the trangy or the gas stove? The trangy won although I was not taken with the idea of having to take a fuel bottle but my reasoning was that the trangy was reliable and the gas stove was not. The four season’s sleeping bag was exchanged for the lighter two season’s bag and the down duvet jacket exchanged for two Helly Hansen sweaters, items I would later regret leaving behind. A little stomping with the foot made it go down somewhat, but just a little more had to go. Out went all the food as I decided to buy some supplies at Aviemore when I got there, or so I reasoned at the time. Finally, out went the climbing helmet as this was superfluous given that I cared not if I fell as death was no stranger to me and it held no fear.

Finally, the rucksack was full and once more with a concerted effort of the customary helping of the foot stomp, I managed to get the top closed. Despite my culling exercise, it still weighed far too much, but as I had no way of knowing its true weight, I again reasoned that all I had to do was carry it to the station and the train would take the rest of the strain. It is only with hindsight that I realised that during this activity, I had given no thought to where the food was going to go when and if I remembered to buy it. The crampons and two climbing ice axes had to be tethered to the outside of the rucksack which was a pain as I had lost the crampon rubber stoppers for the spikes which kept getting caught every time I lifted the bloody rucksack onto my aching back.

Alone in a carriage on the train to Aviemore, I watched the scenery flash by until fading light made it impossible to enjoy so I turned to my climbing guide to see what I could do over the next fourteen days. Long before I arrived at Aviemore station, I had decided to start my expedition by doing the rounds of the bothies in the area starting with Jeans Hut (sadly no longer there) somewhere near where the current ski lift is situated.

From there I would climb some gullies that led up to the plateau, then go on to the Sinclair Memorial hut for a few days before moving on to Rynack and Corrour bothies before making my way back over the tops, back to my starting point. If I had time, I would just repeat the routine but this time in reverse.

As the train pulled into Aviemore, I was the only one to get off. The train pulled out heading north leaving me standing there alone in the dark as there was a power failure. Guess where the bloody head torch was? Sods law dictated that it would be somewhere at the bottom of the rucksack and surprise surprise, sods law was right. Shivering and sweating as I pushed the stuff back into the rucksack, the power came back on. I should have known then that things were not going to be as I had hoped they would be. I walked across the road to find nothing open although why I thought anything would be open at 9.45pm in the evening is still a mystery to me today, as this was Scotland and you tell me where in the 1970’s you could find a garage or a shop in the highlands that is open after 6pm!

I went into the nearest pub and bought some peanuts, crisps and a bar of chocolate to keep me going. As I walked back down the road, I passed the brightly lit Youth Hostel where from inside, I caught the merry making of the guests as they were obviously getting ready for the Christmas festivities. I did not have to think twice about it so booked in for the night (there was only one bed left!) knowing that in the morning I could get my supplies and start off in daylight, at least, that was the plan, and anyway, Craigellachie is situated some way behind the youth hostel so I was all but at one of my desired destinations.

However, as the old saying goes, ‘the plans of mice and men are as different as chalk and cheese’ which my diary that I diligently kept is testament to. Extracts from that diary give an indication of what I was feeling and thinking at the time and which I still refer to when I need some reassurance that life is for the taking.

Dec. 21st
Slept badly. Someone snored all bloody night. Had a cold breakfast. Left hostel, tramped until I got to the hump that is Craigellachie. Climbed scree slope over and through snow covered bracken and heather making a right pig’s ear of it. Reached some rocks after about an hour.  Fought my way through and up a large boulder scree slope, jarring my knee several times. Was Craigellachie that damn important! Back was aching with heavy pack so left it under a small bush. Tied my neck scarf to the tree so as to find it on return journey.

Better progress followed. Came upon thick briar bush barrier. Tried to go through it but it scratched hands and face. Cursed the place more than once. Had to go round it. Pissed off with detour. Suddenly I was stopped by a crag face. Looking up I saw, and hoped, that this was the rock. Steep slopes to either sides meant either a wet scramble or, I could do my favourite way of going up anything, direttissima i.e. go straight up the front which was more to my liking. Fuck death. Straight up won the day.

The face was only about twenty to thirty feet but it was sheer and very cold to the touch. I wondered how many of my ancestors had stood where I was standing, at the base of the crag looking upwards listening to their Chief. I was proud to be standing there and wanted more than ever to get to the top, despite the growth of vegetation that was using the rock as its residence having other ideas.
 I climbed up a crack for some fifteen feet, then an awkward traverse for a few feet to the left followed, up and over a wet slippery bulge and I was there - standing on top of Craigellachie. A young man’s dream finally fulfilled. I sat for a while and dreamt of how things might have been different if James Grant had not fled to London after the battle of Killiecrankie, resulting in me being born an Englishman.

Such thoughts were rudely interrupted by the caw caw of a couple of hooded crows fought over a scrap of something one had found, so I walked off the back way, found my rucksack eventually, and headed for Loch Morlich allowing a tirade of thoughts and images to float pleasingly in and out of my brain as a result of my recent experience.

It was about the two-mile marker that the thunderbolt hit. I had forgotten to get supplies so back I trudged cursing my ineptitude for forgetting about it. Once I had two full plastic bags full of supplies which I hoped would last the whole two weeks, I set off mumbling to myself as I had to carry them as there was no room inside the rucksack!

Still muttering to myself as I trudged along, head down looking at my feet as they moved automatically, I was startled by a Landrover that pulled up beside me offering me a lift as I was obviously going in their direction. The occupants were some SAS guys who were also going to the Cairngorms for some survival training, but all they were interested in was the opening and closing times of the local pubs. After sharing a bottle of whiskey and a dozen cans of larger, I finally extricated myself, leaving them to finish off the other bottle of whiskey and a few dozen cans of beer.

Dec. 22nd
Reasonable night’s sleep. SAS guys never made a sound, must have spent the night in town! After breakfast, trudged up to Jeans Hut. Nobody at home, thank goodness, would have just walked back out if there had as I wanted to be on my own.

Spread gear around to make it look as if hut was full if anyone called, hoping it would send them off to somewhere else. Happy to be on my own. Cooked a meal and sorted out climbing gear. Was in my soggy sleeping bag by 8pm.

Dec. 23rd.
Squashed all the food into the rucksack ignoring the mess it made. Set off early in fine weather. Clear blue skies. Snow crisp underfoot. The world was mine as I climbed up ‘Y’ gully then along the top of the plateau. Wind got up mid-morning, increased to such a force that it blew me off my feet. Thunder claps in the distance. Temperature dropped and sun went inside for the rest of the day.

Made for the Sinclair Memorial hut, arrived around 4.30pm as dark was settling in. No one at home again, I felt blessed. Went into back room got brew on and tried unsuccessfully to dry clothes against trangy. Cursed myself for leaving behind spare clothes. Got into sleeping bag fully clothed. Tried to sleep but too cold as sleeping bag was too thin and too soggy. Regretted leaving the four season’s sleeping bag behind and the duvet jacket. Still, my choice so live with it.

4am. Sleep still won’t come. Bloody freezing. Wish I was home, anywhere else but here. Brain hurting. Everything was damp or wet with the incessant running of the condensation across the ceiling, down the walls and all making for where I lay.

Dec. 24th. Christmas Eve:
Must have fallen asleep around 5am. Looked at watch. 9.40am. Too cold to get out of bag. Tried to make a brew but knocked it over. Swore profusely. Finally get out. Clothes damp. Steam rising making the room foggy and unpleasant. Thought of those lucky buggers back down in the youth hostel. I envied them, no I hated them.

Left rucksack in hut and went for a walk. Clear blue sky again. Sun warm. No wind. Snow as crisp as yesterday. Up on the top of Sron Na Lairige. Fantastic atmosphere. Felt sorry for those poor sods below in the youth hostel. 

Absolute peace and tranquillity. Brain not hurting as much. Body a little warmer with the suns struggling bright rays and physical movement. Walking along the edge looking down into the Lairig Ghru deep in thought, when I heard the familiar sound of a jet engine in flight.

Suddenly without warning, an RAF Phantom jet roared past below me in the Lairig Ghru!  I stood transfixed. As it past, for a split second, I could see the face of the pilot and automatically waved, he seemed to wave back. Then silence. I felt a mixed bag of emotions. First I was annoyed that he had invaded my space, my peace, my thoughts and then I was pleased that he had acknowledged my existence. In and out of my life in under a second.

As waves of RAF nostalgia swept over me, I heard another loud roar and looked down into the Lairig Ghru to see the first plane’s wing buddy following on. Past experience told me that low level flying exercises are always done in twos or threes but never alone. The ground shook a little and I sensed something was wrong as a voice in my head told me that I was not meant to be standing, there so without trying to analyse it, I just ran away from the edge just as the avalanche happened.

Although my heart rate was working overtime, my breathing was in short gasps as I trembled with either excitement or fear, I’m not sure but for all of a few seconds, my mind was full of unpleasant emotions and feelings. I felt absolutely alone in the universe and yet I was enjoying every second of it.
Silence fell. I gingerly inched my way near to where I was standing just seconds before. The cornice had gone and with it tons of snow from the valley walls directly downwards which now lay in a heap on the valley floor below. Again, the ‘what if’ thoughts came back.

I allowed the thoughts to die so that I could carry on with my day. Gripping my walking poles tightly, I moved away from the edge and continued along the top to Ben MacDhui.  Stopped for some dried fruit on the summit. Sitting there staring out across miles upon miles of snow covered mountains, all alone was something you could not buy. I felt rich beyond belief. At one point I felt a presence beside me but as I knew that the mountain was supposed to be haunted by a Victorian walker who died of hypothermia on the summit back in the 1900’s, I just ignored it as I did not want to start any conversation with anyone or anything who might just be present, so got up, donned rucksack and walked back to the hut along the valley floor dragging my weary but satiated body along on lead filled legs. On reaching the spot where the avalanche fell, I had to climb up the side of the valley and circumnavigate the snow debris which was a pain in the arse but necessary.

5.30pm. Sitting here in the back room. Morbid thoughts entering my head. Am I getting depressed. Is this where I really want to be. Haven’t spoken to anyone for 48 hours now. Thought I would miss human contact but I don’t so why this feeling!

6pm. Half asleep I am startled by a strange scratching noise on the outer door. Overactive mind working too much. A little scared and nervous. Scratching continues and I pluck up the courage to go and see what it is. I go into the outer room and ask who is there. No answer just more scratching. Anxiously I take hold of the door catch and fling it open to see a stag standing there rubbing its antlers on the wooden door. I laugh and shut the door, call myself some unprintable names and go back to my soggy and unglamorous sleeping bag.

7.20pm. Still not able to sleep. Suddenly I feel my stomach turn, my body twitch with electricity. I feel decidedly strange. My hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I feel very very cold. The darkness all around is frightening, suffocating me. I don’t know what’s going on. I sit up and look out the frosted window and in the moonlight I see a dark shadowy figure walking up the steps towards the hut. He has a long stick or pole. He appears to be wearing what I believe to be a shoulder cape of some sort and a strange looking hat.

He appears to be carrying something on his back, a pack perhaps. I calm down and feel relieved that I will have some company at last although I hoped he would stay in the outer room for the night. I heard the door latch open, then the door is shut. I gave him time to get himself sorted out.

8pm. I shouted out to him to ask if he is ok. Silence. No reply. I heard a match strike and soon I smelt the sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco, distinct and aromatic. I was both pleased and annoyed as at that point in time I was trying hard to give up smoking so I found the smell of tobacco repulsive. However, I shouted again. No answer. Ignorant bastard.  Settled down and tried to sleep.

Image: Welcome to Scotland
Got up. Cold miserable. Need my climbing fix urgently. Leave the hut and head for Coire an Lochain. Pleased to see it covered in thick ice and hard snow.  I head for the Central Crack Route but male the cardinal error of judgement by crossing the Great Slab, oblivious to the fact that there had been a heavy snow fall the previous evening. Too late – the cracking sound broke the silence – movement downwards........shit!

To Be Continued

Frank Grant: 2017


Friday, 6 January 2017

Christopher Somerville's 'The January Man'...Reviewed

Travel writer Christopher Sommerville, is best known for his walking features in newspapers like The Times and his fairly extensive catalogue of walking guidebooks and coffee table tomes. However, The January Man is something of a departure in that it is a highly personal account of a walking year which uses the well known folk song which gives the book its title, as a key which holds together the walking narrative with a highly personal account of his, at times, difficult relationship with his father.

From the breaking year when ‘The January Man, he walks abroad in woollen coat and boots of leather’ to dark December when ‘December man looks through the snow to let eleven brothers know, they’re all a little older’, the author wanders across the landscapes and timescapes of his life to bring places and the living and the dead into focus. His travels take in those areas which lend themselves to Dave Goulder's seasonal song cycle. From the sombre grey flood plains of his childhood haunts on the River Severn to the high sheep country of Nidderdale in the north east of England; From the dramatic guano crusted cliffs of  Shetland to the mythical woodland of Sherwood Forest,the author brings to life each region’s unique history,its wildlife,the topographical lie of the land and the independently minded people who inhabit these often remote backwaters.

The author wanderings reveal a timeless landscape where old habits and traditions die hard and where he can often find himself face to face with old ghosts. Not least in the form of his late father, John Sommerville, who while he was alive spent most of his life hidden behind a veil of secrecy. Being in the employ of  the British intelligence and security services at GCHQ in Cheltenham where he was a senior operations manager. As a conscientious ‘spook’, his father never spoke of his work and remained a somewhat aloof and detached figure throughout his working life until after retirement, when the author and his newly liberated pater saw their relationship grow closer through their mutual love of walking.

Christopher Sommerville: Photo CS
Switching between personal accounts of his late flowering relationship with his father to contemporary wanderings ten years after his death, the author’s adventures shift seamlessly between that lost country, the past, to link in with the present where absence and the wisdom and understanding which often springs from experience, helps heal old wounds and raw emotional scars. Outside of this highly personal realm, the author never loses sight of the people and the places who inhabit the here and now, despite often touching base with the past and introducing the reader to those historical and cultural elements which helped shape the present. Bringing to life the local characters and the common folk who are inevitably fiercely proud of their region, and who remain suspicious of those individuals, organisations and political forces which threaten their identity and way of life.

Amongst these landscapes which vary from the spectacular to the mundane, and from the conversations he has with ‘the natives’, the author offers his own philosophical musings  which draw on his childhood memories and recent experiences. Even within the authors lifetime, the land and the people’s relationship to it has changed immeasurably. Yet some things appear fixed and preserved is aspic. Not least as witnessed in the books final chapter which sees the author in a traditional English pub twixt Wiltshire and Dorset, acting out the role of a Mummer..... Mummers' Plays are folk plays performed by troupes of amateur actors, traditionally all male, known as mummers or guisers (also by local names such as rhymers, pace-eggers, soulers, tipteerers, wrenboys, galoshins and guisers). It refers particularly to a play in which a number of characters are called on stage, two of whom engage in a combat, the loser being revived by a Doctor character. This play is sometimes found associated with a sword dance though both also exist in Britain independently.: Wikipedia)

Here in the green rural rides of the prosperous South-as is the case throughout the regions and nations of the UK- the old and the new are melded in a timeless ritual.

If The January Man captures anything, it is the ever changing nature of the natural environment within which we live, yet the powerful emotional forces which tie us to these places. Whatever the era, whatever the political climate, there is a thread of human experience and a spiritual dimension to these experiences which spans the generations and holds those who live in the countryside, in a timeless green maw.

The January man, he walks the road in woollen coat and boots of leather.
The February man still wipes the snow from off his hair and blows his hands.
The man of March he sees the Spring and wonders what the year will bring
And hopes for better weather.

Through April rain the man goes down to watch the birds come in to share the summer.
The man of May stands very still watching the children dance away the day.
In June the man inside the man is young and wants to lend a hand
And grins at each newcomer.

And in July the man in cotton shirt, he sits and thinks on being idle.
The August man in thousands takes the road to watch the sea and find the sun.
September man is standing near to saddle up and lead the year
And Autumn is his bridle.

And the man of new October takes the reins and early frost is on his shoulder.
The poor November man sees fire and wind and mist and rain and Winter air.
December man looks through the snow to let eleven brothers know
They're all a little older.

And the January man comes round again in woollen coat and boots of leather
To take another turn and walk along the icy road he knows so well.
The January man is here for starting each and every year
Along the way for ever.

The January Man: Dave Goulder

The January Man is published by Penguin and is available from 12th January

John Appleby: 2017 

Friday, 16 December 2016

Bill Tilman: Turning the page once again on old adventures.

Original Photo: Sandy Lee

When Bill Tilman was lost in the stormy South Atlantic seas in 1977, with the entire crew of the the En Avant, en route to Smith Island, where several of the crew intended to launch a mountaineering expedition, the world lost a remarkable adventurer and irrepressible free spirit. In his 80th year, an age when most people-even those with a climbing and sailing background-have gracefully retired from the activity and content themselves with books and gardening, Tilman found it impossible to let go of the reins. Pushing his elderly body as far as possible. Never for one moment entertaining the possibility that he could not still play a hand’s on roll on an expedition.

Now Vertebrate Publishing-best known as one of the UK’s premier mountaineering book publishers, have teamed up with sailing publishing house, Lodestar Books- to bring Tilman’s adventure books back into the spotlight. With over half of the reprint run already in the bookshops, its a good time for those unfamiliar with this fascinating and iconic figure from the world of mountaineering and ocean sailing, to acquaint themselves with the Tilman oeuvre.

Born at the very end of the 19th century, just as Queen Victoria was leaving the stage, the Merseysider who was born in Wallasey on the Wirral was the son of a successful sugar merchant. Tilman would have looked out to the Liverpool docks across the busy waterway, where he would see the commodity which funded his somewhat privileged life, unloaded into  the great warehouses which lined the then thriving Liverpool docklands. Perhaps it was being born at the mouth of a great river which stimulated an interest in all things nautical?

Sent off for a private education at Berkhamstead, after completing his education, the young Tilman soon found himself caught up in the carnage of the first world war. Surviving amongst other campaigns, the battle of the Somme. Ten years after the war, Tilman met up with Eric Shipton who like himself was engaged in the coffee trade of East Africa. Early forays upon Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzori cemented a highly successful and long lasting climbing partnership.

Between the wars,Tilman was involved in two of the 1930s Mount Everest expeditions. The 1935 Reconnaissance Expedition, and as leader of the 1938 expedition when he reached 27200 feet without oxygen.  With Shipton, he ventured into the previously unexplored Nanda Devi sanctuary in 1934 and two years later he returned and led a UK/US expedition which mounted a successful attempt on the summit. A mountain which until 1950, remained the highest yet climbed.

Despite his age, Tillman volunteered for service in the WW2 and served in  North Africa and Dunkirk. Later in the campaign he saw action behind enemy lines and fought with Albanian and Italian partisans in their bloody campaign in southern Europe and was awarded the DSO for his sterling work with the partisans.

After the war and now approaching his 50‘s, he began an impressive ocean sailing career to which complimented his mountaineering activities by enabling him to visit far flung and previously inaccessible areas. Initially setting sail in his famous Pilot Cutter ‘Mischief’ and visiting the Arctic regions and several remote Atlantic and Pacific islands, Tilman went on to skipper  two more pilot cutters; ‘Sea Breeze’ and ‘Baroque’, before setting out on his fateful final voyage as a crew member of the Simon Richardson skippered ‘En Avant’.

With regard to the ill fated vessel, its worth quoting from a Yachting and Boating forum where a contributor’s diligent research had turned up the following information.....

“En Avant was a wartime tugboat hull constructed by slave labour. She was a semi-wreck and had been sunk more than once, Richardson himself fitted a Deutz marine engine, large battery banks and a welded keel. She had good stability but low freeboard. There have been differing views of the boat, Colin Putt wrote: "En Avant proved to be a good sea boat and the crew turned up trumps" elsewhere she was described as a "sorry sight" and was thought to be unsuitable for the trip. Conditions on board would have been stark.

I suspect the trip was funded by Richardson's own resources perhaps with contributions from the crew. He bought the boat for £750 and was given the engine. He was keen on Tilman's concept of small, low cost, expeditions. His Mother's writings (which I have not seen) would no doubt flesh this out.....There were seven on the trip: Tilman, Richardson, Coatman, Toombs, Williams (contacted by advert), Johnson (old school friend) and Dittamore (American Climber)....I guess some of the three brought in by advert would be sailors.’.

Bill Tilman spent the last 30 years of his life here in North Wales.Living in the beautifully situated traditional stone country house of Bod Owen, above the Malltraeth Estuary near Barmouth in Gwynedd.Ironically, a quiet and peaceful stretch of water compared to the incomparably wild and stormy waters of the South Atlantic which took his life.

The Adventure Archive..

  • 1929: Tilman is introduced to rock climbing in the Lake District of England.
  • 1930: He ascends Mawenzi and almost ascends Kibo on Kilimanjaro, with Eric Shipton.
  • 1930: He makes first ascent of West Ridge of Batian, and traverses to Nelion, with Shipton.
  • 1932: Tilman ascends Mounts Speke, Baker, and Stanley in the Ruwenzori Range, with Shipton.
  • 1932: In April, he is involved in an accident in the Lake District which leads to the death of J. S. Brogdon.
  • 1932: Later that year, he makes various climbs in the Alps.
  • 1933: Tilman ascends Kilimanjaro (to summit) alone.
  • 1934: Tilman and Shipton, with three others, make the first recorded entrance into the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. They also explore the nearby Badrinath Range.
  • 1935: Tilman unable to acclimatise on the Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition led by Eric Shipton, but climbs various 20,000 ft. peaks in the Everest region.
  • 1936: Tilman attempts various peaks and passes, including the Zemu Gap, in Sikkim, near Kangchenjunga. Later, he leads the first ascent of Nanda Devi.
  • 1937: Shipton and Tilman make a major reconnaissance and surveying expedition in the Karakoram.
  • 1938: Tilman leads another Mount Everest Expedition; he and three others reach above 27,300 ft (8,320 m) but fail to reach the summit.
  • 1938: He traverses the Zemu Gap.
  • 1939: He leads an expedition in the remote Assam Himalaya, which ends in disaster. They attempt Gori Chen, but reach only the lower slopes. The party was ravaged by Malaria, causing the death of one member.
  • 1941: Tilman climbs various peaks in Kurdistan.
  • 1942: He makes a night ascent of Zaghouan, in Tunisia.
  • 1947: Tilman leads an attempt on Rakaposhi which explores five different routes, none of which get near the summit. The expedition then explored the Kukuay Glacier on the southwest side of the Batura Muztagh.
  • 1947: He attempts Muztagh Ata, with Shipton and Gyalgen Sherpa.
  • 1948: Tilman attempts Bogda Feng, in northern Xinjiang, with Shipton and two others, but they only reach outlying summits.
  • 1948: He attempts Chakragil, in western Xinjiang.
  • 1948: He travels in the Chitral area of the Hindu Kush.
  • 1949: Tilman leads a four-month exploratory and scientific expedition to the Langtang, Ganesh, and Jugal Himals in Nepal, in the early stages of that country's re-opening to outsiders. He climbs Paldor in the Ganesh Himal.
  • 1950: He leads the British Annapurna Expedition, which gets close to the summit of Annapurna IV, and attempts other nearby peaks.
  • 1950: Tilman and Charles Houston view Mount Everest from the lower slopes of Pumori, on the recently opened Nepalese side of the peak.
  • 1955 – 12 months, 20,000 miles: First voyage in Mischief. Together with Jorge Quinteros he performs the first longitudinal crossing of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
  • 1957 – 12 months, 21,000 miles, circumnavigation of the African continent
  • 1959 – 12 months, 20,000 miles, South Atlantic, Iles Crozet
  • 1961 – 4 months, 7,500 miles, West Greenland - Upernavik region
  • 1962 – 4 months, 6,500 miles, West Greenland and Baffin Island
  • 1963 – 4 months, 7,000 miles, Bylot Island, Baffin Bay
  • 1964 – 4 months, 3,700 miles, East Greenland
  • 1964 – 5 months, 10,000 miles, skippering the schooner Patanela to Heard Island in the Southern Ocean
  • 1965 – 4 months, 4,000 miles, East Greenland - Return visit
  • 1966 – 12 months, 20,400 miles, Islands of the Southern Ocean
  • 1968 – 3 months, 2,500 miles, East Greenland, Jan Mayen, Loss of Mischief
  • 1969 – 4 months, 3,400 miles, first voyage in Sea Breeze - East Greenland
  • 1970 – 4 months, 5,000 miles, South West Greenland - Faeringehavn, Julianhaab, Nanortalik, Torsukatak
  • 1971 – 4 months, 5,000 miles, Faroe Islands, Iceland, East Greenland - Angmassalik
  • 1972 – 3 months, 3,000 miles, East Greenland, Loss of Sea Breeze
  • 1973 – 4 months, 5,000 miles, First voyage in Baroque, to West Greenland.
  • 1974 – 4 months, 7,000 miles, circumnavigation of Spitzbergen
  • 1975 – 4 months, 5,000 miles, West Greenland
  • 1976 – 4 months, East Greenland - Angmagssalik - Reykjavik
  • 1977 - 1 month, Reykjavik-Lymington
  • 1977 – 4 months (?), Carried as crew/navigator on Simon Richardson's En Avant from Southampton to Las Palmas then Rio de Janeiro. Vessel presumed lost at sea on route to the Falkland Islands with loss of all hands.
  • Source WikiPedia

  • John Appleby:2016

    The Tilman Series of adventure books are available from Vertebrate Publishers. 

     Tilman Archive: Yachting and Boating forum

    Friday, 9 December 2016

    Bowfell Buttress...Waterlog

    I suppose a solid week of rain and gales can make even the most hardened of the rain dancing pub dwellers wish for a bit of sunshine. If only in order to remain dry between car and bar. After all, it is possible to spend an entire day in the Old Dungeon Ghyll starting in the snacks and soft drinks end at 9 a.m. (does anyone really crawl out of their tent that early) moving to the bar at the stroke of eleven and back to the snacks for the brief respite from 3.10 till 5 p.m. After a week of these conditions, Friday morning produced some change in that it managed to rain even harder and we were on the verge of becoming totally insane, irretrievably alcoholic, or both. Something had to be done rain or not. Leaving the bar shortly after midday (after all we do have to pay our respects to the brewery) amid the usual flurry of ribald and colourful remarks, we headed for Stool End just as the downpour turned on an extra violent display.

    One or two well waterproofed early risers looked a little surprised to see anyone starting up the hill at that late hour (for them anyway) especially after a morning during which conditions had degenerated from worse to much worse. Nevertheless we were greeted cheerily, no doubt because they were on their way to dry warm surroundings such as we had recently vacated. Rick set a cracking pace up the Band and it was not long before I cracked and allowed the gap between us to widen, settling down to a steady, head down plod, which allowed the rain to drip from my cagoule hood to the ground instead of coursing down my nose and eventually trickling down my neck. By the time we turned off the main path to head for the Climbers' Traverse he was almost out of sight and soon disappeared over the ridge. I stopped briefly to see what it felt like not to be heaving for breath, then struggled on to reach the high point. Sensing relief at the thought that the next section was more or less level. No sign of Rick. Another brief respite, then making a much better pace I managed to catch him as he stopped to examine the dripping walls of Flat Crags.

    Bowfell Buttress itself was by turns hidden or visible as banks of cloud swirled up and down the gullies and cascaded over the top like a silent, ghostly waterfall. And still it rained. Once ,at the foot, we exposed the ropes and assorted gear to the elements and made haste to get started before we had time to cool off. My one previous acquaintance with Bowfell Buttress had been in glorious weather four years previously and I had climbed, unethically I feel, in PA’s. This time Rick was in a pair of very bendy army type boots- of dubious origin- matched by my worn out, loose soled ‘leakies’. Both in full waterproofs (at least, that's what equipment dealers sell them as) and carrying sacs with us. All we needed were Alpenstocks and Edward Whymper would have been proud of us.

    As I was tied to the rope ends which came from the top of the now soggy heaps, I took first lead up what should have been easy rock to the foot of the chimney. Every reach upwards produced an uncomfortable trickle down the sleeve of my Kag and every flat or slightly hollowed hold contained a puddle which froze the fingers and improved the flow of water down my arms. The footholds could be likened to miniature skating rinks so it was some relief to find the chimney relatively dry. "I'll carry on Rick," I said, dropping a tape runner over a large block. His face was a study of wet, cold misery, huddled at the foot, paying out soggy rope through frozen fingers. I moved up, jammed myself in and struggled, gaining height by inches rather than feet. The exit right at the top proved extremely awkward since I was unable to reach a large hold, and every time I moved up, my sac jammed under the overhang at the top of the left wall.

    Five minutes later more squirming and heaving had generated considerable warmth and enough progress to allow a step right, then up to the large terrace. And once more into the driving rain. "Alright whose silly idea was this anyway?" A "Thank Gawd" look spread across Rick's face as I called for him to climb. He made short work of the first bit and used his height and reach advantage to make the chimney look easy before accepting some ironmongery for use on the next pitch. I watched with growing apprehension as Rick normally leads several standards above mine and was spending some time making moves up the first steep wall. Eventually he disappeared around a corner on the left and seemed, to be climbing steadily. Occasionally the chink and click of karabiners drifted down through the rain and mist till I soon called that there was only ten feet of rope left. No reply. A lung splitting shout prompted an answer, rather muffled, but to the effect that he was about to belay.

    I had to assume that the next call from above as the rope tightened meant that I could start and quickly discovered why the little wall had proved awkward. Two steps up on sloping wet foot holds with nothing much for the hands, followed by a tricky move right to a small ledge then better holds to traverse up to the left and round the corner into an open chimney-groove cum watercourse. A doddle in P.A.s but in these conditions it took me some time to reach the comparative security of the watercourse. Thirty feet of this led to a large runner and the rope vanishing round to the right over easy ground. ,Rick was belayed at the bottom of a vertical, ten foot crack that formed the start of the next pitch. I studied it, unconvinced of my ability to lead in the prevailing conditions. Two attempts were enough and I more or less slid back down. Hanging on to the sling from a chock jammed high in the crack as part of the belay.

    "We'll be here all day if I keep at this," I said, "you have a go." Gear was exchanged and in a matter of minutes Rick once again vanished from view. With only a few feet of rope left movement ceased. A moment or two of delay then a voice from the clouds, "Right, when you're ready." Confidence in the top rope improved the appearance of the crack no end and in spite of one boot sliding from a greasy foothold, I was soon up and following the rope away to the left. This proved to be the wrong line, forcing me into a difficult and slippery step round on to a sloping ledge to regain the route. Easy climbing from here led to a short wall with a Chimney in the corner to its left. I ascended the wall on good holds to a narrow ledge which ended some feet from the Chimney from where the step across looked decidedly nasty.

    A very long, blind, off balance stride to a slimy unseen foothold. Easy in the dry but with rain still bucketing down-and in bendy boots- quite intimidating. I was glad to have avoided leading that. Sixty easy feet to go, I accepted the sharp end and made quick work of yet another chimney and easy groove that trended to the left and easy ground. As Rick arrived the heavens decided on a final fling and pelted us with fair sized hailstones for some minutes before easing away to nothing. Just another bit of amusement for us as we coiled the ropes. "Oh for a pint !" Scrambling to the top of the ridge we were rewarded for our efforts by a remarkable sight. The clouds had lifted and were scudding just above the top of Bowfell on our left and looking underneath them towards the coast, we could see the line where they ended abruptly. Brilliant sunshine produced an intense silvery reflection from a sea darkened  by scattered cloud showers near the shore but quite clear and tending to become almost golden further out. In the distance, the shadowy hump of The Isle of Man stood out beneath the final ridge of Scafell. 

    Image: The Old Dungeon Ghyll 
    What a superb way to finish a climb we thought. As we walked over Bowfell summit and down towards the Band, the rain ceased completely and a patch of blue widened above us. "Well," Said Rick, "I think that's done it, we've frightened the weather off." And indeed we had. Saturday and Sunday provided us with two excellent days climbing. But that's another story before which we had an appointment with a pint glass and some dry clothing. A worthwhile day? Yes definitely. Under these conditions Bowfell Buttress gets my five star rating for a fine mountaineering route. 
    Tony Sainsbury: First published as 'A Worthwhile Day'in Climber and Rambler-September 1977 

    Friday, 2 December 2016

    Sandy Irvine: Oxford Blue on Everest

    Ever since the mountain was first attacked in 1922 Everest has taken its toll of human lives. Of course everyone interested in the history of Himalayan climbing knows that the summit bid made by Mallory and Irvine on June 8th 1924 ended in disaster. I should expect an educated young climber to be able to tell me something about Mallory: I should be astonished if any information were forthcoming about Irvine. Not so now that the Irvine diaries and his biography have been published. Before it would hardly have been wrong to call Irvine "the unknown Everester". Now on Everest's roll of honour he can occupy the place he deserves. With hindsight one can see that the years between 1919 and 1925 were not the best of times to launch attempts to climb Everest.The climbing world of those days was very small and the number of experienced mountaineers of the right age had been heavily cut down by the blood bath of the 1914-18 war.

    Passages by sea made it necessary for a man to get leave of six to eight months from his home and many ‘possibles’ could not do this, nor could they have afforded it had the leave been given. Thus the 1924 expedition started out with only eight 1953 there were 14. about high altitude climbing we then had almost everything to learn; as an example, i remember Captain Farrah saying to me in 1920 that he thought that four climbers on an expedition would be a big enough team to make an effective dash for the top.

    One had to admit that the pioneer climbs on Everest had two major results. first,they set foot on great controversy about the use of oxygen on high altitude climbs. At first, most mountaineers were against it. this certainly applies to the climber on the 1922 and 1924 expeditions.

    Irvine's former home in Birkenhead.After falling into dereliction it has since been restored and converted into apartments

    in 1922 Finch was the chief advocate of oxygen but he was a voice crying in the wilderness; none of the experienced mountaineers wanted to go with him but Geoffrey Bruce did not mind because he was a mountaineer and was game for adventure. secondly, there was an undoubted influence of Everest on expanding the interest in climbing; you might almost say, it was the spark which set the world alight. the selection committee in 1923 were in two minds about including Irvine on the team for 1924. some held the view that he was too young. But Irvine’s supporters had three strong argument in his favour.

    First he was a very fine athlete of well proven stamina and splendid strength. Secondly: Noel Odell had been greatly impressed in Spitsbergen (August 1923) with his cheerful devotion to the work of the sledge journey and the dogged determination with which he faced its problems. Odell’s views carried the weight with the pundits in London. Then....and most important of all..Irvine was the right man to be in charge of the oxygen equipment. He was a born engineer and had good workshop experience. he had a keen eye for the solution of practical problems and very skillful hands. None of the others could have done what he did.

    The homeland of the Irvine clan in times long past had been in the Scottish lowlands, not far north of the English Border. In the past, one of them had walked south to Liverpool to start a small commercial enterprise. Slowly that business grew. By the time Sandy came on the scene, the family were established in moderate affluence in a nice house in Birkenhead. the sons were sent to Shrewsbury, a school which at the start of the century had on its staff, the best rowing coach in England. When he took up residence in Merton, Oxford in January 1922, Sandy was immediately given a place in the university crew. He was a very fine oarsman indeed.

    The speed with which sandy mastered the techniques of racing on skis was to some extent due to his considerable experience of ordinary ski running in Norway and Spitsbergen in 1923. As a mountaineer he was clearly competent above the average for a man of limited experience-the assumption that he had done no previous climbing is quite wrong.

    Chester Cathedral Memorial window.Dedicated to its Cheshire born heroes.

    At the end of a long life of devotion to the mountains, I look back on so much that has been thrilling and delightful, (though there have been incidents that have given me grief and pain) The days of my active climbing are now long passed. Yet now, in old age, comes a pleasure I never anticipated; the privilege of doing something for the mountain world. For I have revived the memory of an Everester who must not be forgotten. If I may borrow the words from Holy Writ: Andrew Irvine ‘was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’.

    Herbert Carr: First published in Climber: December 1979


    Friday, 25 November 2016

    Skye Revisited

    “Thy love of Nature, quiet contemplation,
    In meadows where the world was left behind,
    Still seeking with a blameless recreation,
    In troubled times, to keep a quiet mind;
    This, with thy simple utterance, imparts
    A pleasure ever new to musing hearts”

    Bernard Barton

    It is Easter 1982, and I decide that I need to get away for a few weeks climbing as life is beginning to stifle my senses. After some deliberation, I settle on driving to Skye for a return visit but rather than go to the Cuillins to climb, I decide to go to Staffin where I knew there was great potential for much climbing.

    Planning takes all of half an hour as I throw everything I think I will need for the fortnight, into the back and boot of the car before leaving home to drive north. The suspension springs are at full stretch and the tyres appear half inflated despite how much air is pumped into them. Turn left at the drive, on through Edinburgh city, bustling with ants hurrying and scurrying about their business, faces set in concrete as they live their lives within a well framed lifestyle of worrying about their mortgage, the cranky boss at work, mundane financial matters, what excuse to use this time for arriving at the office late again, and so on. I drive past without a care in the world knowing that two weeks well-earned holiday on the island of Skye, offers me so much rock to touch and get acquainted with. What a mind blowing thought.

    As I drive through Edinburgh, the only two thoughts in my head are, would the trusty old banger make it there, and, would it make the return journey? Nothing else matters, not the weather, not the midges, not even the time of year, April, could dampen my spirits.

    After a long but pleasant drive, I arrive at the Kyle of Lochalsh but having missed the last ferry for the night, settle down to sleep in the front seat which was not all that easy given the amount of climbing gear I had thrown on the back seats. I try as best I can to get comfortable in a small space under the steering wheel, but whichever position I get into, the damn thing just sticks out preventing me from doing so. I try sleeping in a sitting position but as the seat would not go back due to the gear stuffed behind it, I just toss and turn, huffing and puffing and moaning to myself as the slow passing of the night crawls agonisingly past.  

    Dawn finally starts to arrive as I wake from a half sleep, but am dismayed that it is another two hours before the first morning ferry is operational. ‘God I wish they would build a bloody bridge across’ I muse to myself, as I try once again to get comfortable in a space even a contortionist would find difficult. As the full morning sun finally pokes its nose above the murky horizon in a clear blue sky, the sound of the ferry, its diesel engine chugging merrily along, calls out to me: ‘I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming’. Eventually it enters the small harbour, and the steel ramp scrapes along the concrete slope as if to say ‘I have arrived’.

    At last, I am crossing over the sea to Skye, jubilation, excitement all mixed up with the weariness and aching bones, but at least I was moving. The shore gets closer and so the engine is revved in anticipation which does little to make the last few yards go any faster. Bump, the ferry slides into the far shore ramp and within seconds I am off down the road with the wind at my back.

    The ten odd cars that accompanied me across, jockey for first pole position down the narrow road and I am no different. Race after the car in front. Overtake. Get overtaken. Drive faster to overtake the car that has just overtaken me and so the game of leap frog goes on until I get tired of it all and slow down enough to allow them to disappear into the distance, leaving me an empty road. Sods law was only taking a short nap, for when I rounded a sharp bend, there in front was a slow moving lorry.

    Braking hard I become frustrated because the road is full of bends for the next few miles or so. A car comes up behind me, close, too close so I tap my brakes to give him a fright hoping that it will make him back off a bit but it doesn’t, it just makes him more determined to overtake me and the lorry at the first opportunity that is presented. Suddenly a straight stretch of road appears and so I signal to pull out, but the car behind has other ideas as he pulls out without signalling and forces his way past me and the lorry waving with two fingers as he passes.

    I ignore his gesture and stop at Portree for breakfast before driving on to park in the lay by beside the Old Man of Storr, a magnificent obelisk of rock that stands proud inviting those interested, to come close to its base and admire the conical shape of the rugosities that adorn the surface. Standing around are an array of other odd shaped pinnacles, rugged, weathered and just as magnificent, pleasing to the eye and touch.

    I put on my running shoes and with my soft soled climbing shoes slung around my neck, I trot over to the base of the Old Man eager to feel its surface under my fingers.

    I remembered that Harold Raeburn a noted Scottish climber and mountaineer visited the Old Man back in 1898 with A. W. Russell who noted at the time, that “we will not venture to assert that the Old Man will never be ascended, but we were quite content to look at him without making an attempt”.

    It was not until 1955 when three climbers, that the legendary Don Whillans with George Sutton and John Barber made the first recorded ascent of the Old Man, although it rarely gets repeated ascents due to its suspect rock and the difficulty of finding good protection. However, for the solo climber it is ideal and I was in no mood for thinking otherwise.

    As I stand at its base, some 40 feet in diameter, I crane my neck upwards following its shape to the overhanging summit some 160 foot above, being thankful for the light warm breeze that caressed the air making the atmosphere both pleasant and reassuring to me. Donning my climbing shoes, I deliberate on where to start climbing. Should I follow the first ascent line carried out by Whillans, Sutton and Barber assuming I could find it, or should I seek out a route of my own?  I chose the latter.

    Finding some good hand holds just above head height, I place my right toe gently yet with conviction onto the rock surface and pull up. My fingers are soon playing sweet music on the many protruding rugosities that covered the rock keyboard and my feet dance gracefully to the tune of the tiny holds. Climbing is both ecstatic and friendly in its harmonious contact with me and I truly feel life is indeed, full of bliss and rewards. As soon as my fingers touch the rounded globules and intrusions, my feet follow contentedly, gripping snugly to the same holds that earlier had caressed my fingers.

    Movement is ballerina like, tempered with the approach of a fine arts restorer repairing a priceless china vase, delicate, with precision and all with a flowing purpose to please. 

    My mind is devoid of all thoughts as I allow my senses to become one with the rock itself. Life in every sense of the word, at least right then and there at that moment in time had meaning but impossible to verbally describe. As I move across the angulated rock surface, I sense I was not climbing alone and at one point I was convinced I felt someone’s breath on my naked arms. However, I dismiss this as possibly being a gust of wind until I thought I felt their body touching mine, and so I suddenly stop moving for no apparent reason. I still feel safe so smile contentedly to myself and ‘welcome’ whoever or whatever it was and carry on my ever upwards flowing movement.  

     Up and up I climb until suddenly I become aware that the holds begin to become intrusive as fingers ache with the roughness of the rock. As I halt my upwards movement, I instinctively look down which is when I realize how far above the ground I am and that a slip would likely result in serious injury or death. In an instant, I relinquish the urge to continue upwards and start to climb back down the odd fifty feet I had gained.  

    Like Bentley Beetham, I am an ardent advocate of descending a climb, or down climbing as it is often referred to, believing that you should not climb anything you are not prepared to climb down, especially when soloing.

    Once back on the ground, I move over to a smaller finger of rock, often referred to as The Old Women, and climb it several times by different routes. Clearly my body is receptive to climbing and so I indulged myself once more back on the Old Man by climbing up and around the circumference in an upwards spiral for approximately sixty feet, then back down using the same strategy.

    After playing on some of the other rock pinnacles, I run back down to the car enjoying the tingling sensation in my toes that race upwards flooding all my body senses. I know that the rest of the holiday will be even better.

    I had booked a small self-catering cottage in the tiny hamlet of Staffin, but lose no time once I had dumped all my gear inside, to set off to explore the Trotternish peninsula before the sun gave way to the rising moon which had already put in an appearance.

    Over the next few days I thrill myself by making acquaintance with many of the odd looking rock pinnacles that surround the upper peninsula area. First there was the Needle, a 100ft pinnacle where I just could not resist the invitation to join the surface all the way to the top. Feeling fit and good with myself, I amble over to the Prison and found an exciting route to the top only to surprise a few local sheep busy munching the sweet green grass that adorn the top ledges. Later, I meet up with the Central Gully to make a hairy ascent inside its dark and dank interior, exiting onto a platform of crumbly schist. 

    Frank Grant: 2016- Previously unpublished.