Friday, 23 September 2016

Voices from the Past


I stand and peruse the multi-faceted stacks, each calling for me to go to them and expose their treasures held therein. They look tired, dusty and have been ignored for far too long. They yearn for the touch of human hands, they long to be of value again, and they have a need to be seen, wanted and loved. I notice that some stacks are leaning to the left whilst others to the right but was relieved to note, that some were standing firm and resolute after all their years of being ignored. It was always my intention to visit the stacks to sample their delights in whatever shape or form that may be, yet every time I set off to carry out my intentions, I talked myself out of it and went off climbing somewhere.

One particular Sunday, I was not feeling too good and decided that this was the day I would go and visit the stacks and do what I had promised myself all these years to do. So there I was, standing in front of the stacks, shades of brown, rough, smooth edges, some higher than others and whilst others were more inviting than some, I forced myself to go to the one that was always the one that I thought about; standing alone on my far left with its wide base tapering into the small block that was its summit.

My hands started to shake at the expectant desire and fear that could well be my reward for daring to be here once again after so long an absence. Desire because I knew what delights I could experience and fear because of the possible outcome if I had made the wrong decision all those years ago.

I took a series of long deliberate breaths before reaching out my hands to the stack standing before me, it appeared to be leaning towards me as if to greet and old friend. I lifted the top cardboard box off the stack and blew off the dust that had slowly accrued on its summit surface, it had begun; the attic was going to get its first clean out and the contents of the boxes, would once again be revealed to my eyes. Excitement levels rose as I ripped off the sellotape, wondering why I had placed there instead of putting them in the bin as I was asked to do by my good lady wife who said my study resembled a magazine warehouse that had been hit by a hurricane.

A grin that would shame any self-respecting Cheshire cat, spread across my face as I saw the pile of old climbing magazines. As I sat down beside it, I knew this would be the only stack that would see the light of day, the rest would have to remain where they were for another forty odd years!

Excitedly as a child opening their Christmas or birthday presents, I lifted out the first magazine and flipped through it. The next magazine had a picture of Everest on its front page which invoked a memory going back to 1953 when I was nine years of age.

The school took us all to the local cinema in Fareham to watch a film of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which included a few minutes of the first ascent of Everest. It was at this point that my life suddenly that day, had purpose – to be a climber.

As it turned out, within two weeks of seeing the news film, I was climbing on the rough walls of Portchester Castle and exploring the local area for rocks to climb, which came in the shape of old military installations and chalk quarry walls.

A few more magazines later, there was a picture on the front cover of the Eiger and I recalled that on 15th birthday, I got a copy of The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer, and after reading it, I wanted to be the first Englishman to solo climb the Eiger North Face. My heart rate had increased as the tsunamis of childhood memories came flooding back, not just the good, but the bad through the loss of so many good climbing partners and companions – Chalky White killed in the Alps – Tom the Milky Bar Kid killed in Snowdonia – Geordie Brown killed in Cyprus – and recently, Rup killed on Ben Nevis in Scotland. At this point, I decided I had had enough of clearing out the attic and what was needed, was a quick drive to Headend Quarry on the Caldbeck Hills to celebrate the lives of those friends I had lost, and of course, to satiate my desire for climbing rock.

As I started to pile the stack of boxes back up, one slipped out of my hands and fell to the floor where it spilt it contents like the Langdale Scree slopes. I got a plastic box and started to put them in. The last item I picked up was a toned copy of a 1975/76 Durham University Mountaineering Club Journal which I had totally forgotten I had. I carefully stacked the boxes back up, shut the attic door and with the booklet in hand, went down to my study where I intended to read it to refresh my memory banks of my time as a student at Durham when I spent more time climbing on the Belling, Causey Quarry, Bowden Doors, Shittlington Crags, Crag lough and Peel crags, Simonside crag and a host of others, rather than in lectures.

Sitting in my study with the coffee machine spluttering into the pot, I started to read the Journal. Names of my fellow committee members invoked smiles, grins and images of them and what we looked like back in the 1970’s with our long unkempt hair and couldn’t-care-less attitude.
 

I immersed myself in a world of memories as I read every word that was typed, smiled at the matchstick images that represented the world of climbing mishaps, and felt very nostalgic when I read my own articles and and interpretations of the psyche of the ‘student climbing scene’.

Then towards the end of the small A5 stapled Journal, two articles struck a chord and which related to my earlier mentioning of the loss of so many good climbing companions. The first was an article titled ‘Alpine or Siege’ by Pete Boardman (pages 23/24), and the second article was titled ‘The Dinner Climb’ by Trevor Jones (pages 48/49).

I had forgotten that they had contributed articles to our small and insignificant Mountaineering Club journal, and realised that these were lost gems of voices from the past. I decided to share them with you, by reproducing them exactly as they were written.

Frank Grant: 2016


Pete Boardman:Vertebrate
Alpine or Siege
  
 
Climb Everest in September, be at home by October’. So read the graffiti on the boudoir walls of the camp II superbox. and all the climbing team of the British Everest Expedition South West Face 1975 were agreed – we were there because it was Everest and we wanted to climb it soon and go home. Alpine style is the ethic for the Himalayas of the ‘70’s, and the ascents in 1975 of Dunagiri and Gasherbrum proved this. Nick and Chris thought of their ascent of Brammah I, Doug thought of Baffin, Tut and Ronnie thought of the Pamirs, I thought of my climbs in the Hindu Kush and Alaska. It’s a matter of as much how you climb as the peak that you climb, how you draw the line between the possible and the impossible, between adventure and safety, impulse and planning, irresponsibility and spontaneity.


And yet there was the South West Face of Everest,8,000ft looming up to a plumed summit. Access to its secrets had only been achieved after a 2,000ft ice fall and a two mile walk under the dangerous flanks of Nuptse and up the Western Cwm at 21,000ft. Yes, in September 1975 looking up at the Face we felt humbled and that our big expedition was justified and that we were only capable of puny ant-like scratchings. For I was to discover that, beyond the end of the fixed ropes, there is a sense of total alpine commitment. It seems worthwhile to describe that sensation.

“Mount Everest, the Highest Point of Earth”. As a child I had two favourite picture books. One was written in the 1930’s and was called “The Winder Book of Wonders”. It had a picture of Everest, white- an ethereal rising in the distance out of the great brown plateau of Tibet. The caption beneath it briefly, enigmatically, described the disappearances of Mallory and Irvine on the summit slopes in 1924.

 The second book, “Adventure of the World” had a painting of the summit of Everest as the only peak visible, thrusting out of an endless sea of clouds, with the tiny figures of Hillary and Tenzing standing on the summit.
 

The 26th of September- the day I reached the summit with Sherpa Pertemba- started with a scene just like that second picture – it was as if a forgotten bell in a distant room in the picturehouse of my mind had been rung. We were moving across the great traverse of the upper icefield above the Rock Band, towards the gully that led up to the south summit. We had left the end of the fixed ropes and were now moving free and unroped, committed to our attempt. The cloud layer was up to 27,800ft, for the weather was changing. Below us there was an infinite cloud sea. Above us the wind was blowing ice particles off the summit ridge that were shimmering in the sunlight.


Our summit day ended in the tragic death of Mick Burke and Pertember and I having to get back in the dark to Camp 6 – a painful memory. But that morning traverse for me held the key to Everest magic.

Peter D. Boardman
December 1975  
                                           

-------------------

The Dinner Climb

“You are old Father Jones” the young maiden said “and do you really expect to lead our young heroes up Praying Mantis?” “Of course dear child for I have 28 years of skill, experience and bullshit”.They twirled around the dance floor, alcohol slopped into his eyeballs and caused a qualm about trying a hard climb after a five month lay-off.

 By this time the young heroes were wrestling on the dance floor. Father Jones remembered the two bones he had broken whilst fighting. The broken leg over a disputed 17 year old beauty. The broken nose over being in bed with a young lady in circumstances which probably should not be explained in a journal as pure as this. Next morning, Fred, Chris and Andy together with Father Jones looked up at the leering crack of the first pitch of Praying Mantis, a rotting bootlace sling hung limply half way up.


Father Jones rushed at it in a bridging sort of layback. Just before the bootlace his dentures became dislodged. A vast National health bill seemed possible. He retreated. Fangs in position, he rushed again and lodged in a niche with a compression on a quarter of a cheek; feet flapping and trembling aimlessly. A high step and it was done.
 

Fred, Chris came up like wing gazelles but Andy lost interest and decided it was butty time.The last pitch was overhanging in its middle part the holds were all wrong. Suddenly he remembered Joe Brown’s advice “when its ‘ard, get yer leg right oop about yer ‘ead”. This Mancunian advice resulted in Jones's foot shooting off. The resultant heavy breathing was heard in Carlisle. It started to rain on the final few moves, but with one quick bound he was up.

Sunday night conversation:-
"Did you have a nice time with the young people dear?'....'Yes.'


'Did you hit anyone?'.....'No.'

'Did you crash the car?'....'No.'

'Did the police get you again?'....'No.'

'Were you sick?'....'Certainly not'.

'Where did you sleep?'....'In a tent.'


'What about your arthritis?'....'No reply.'

'Were there birds?'....'Er, can’t remember.'

'Did you climb?'....'Yes.'

'Did you fall off?'....'No.'


'Sounds as though it was a bit of a bore. Oh and by the way, I left the dinner dishes for you to wash up.'

Trevor Jones


The sorrow of death is not in the passing, but what could have been in life

Friday, 16 September 2016

Napes with the Singer

Remember the 70's man!....Advertising feature in the 1975 Climber and Rambler magazine.
After an appallingly cold day on Scafell Shamrock where we found Silver Lining too wet, too mossy and altogether uninviting, I viewed the clouds gathering over Hollow Stones with some distaste. The usual "Morning after" feeling of a night spent in the Wastwater Hotel did nothing to improve my flagging level of enthusiasm, nor did the chilly wind blowing across the campsite. Pete's face appeared at the rear window of my van and the door was pulled open to admit the cold breeze. "What are we doing then?" The Singer was his usual irritatingly cheerful self but as yet unmelodic. "Not going to Scafell, that's what," I answered, then added with little keeness, "But Gable's clear and I've never done anything on Napes." Wigan's answer to Donald Peers doesn't need second bidding and was off to fetch his gear while I dug about among the dirty breakfast pans, ropes, clothing and assorted "useful items" that no climber can afford to be without and eventually came up with the Gable Guide.

After some minutes spent thumbing through the pages on the Napes, doing my rain dance and voicing my various "ploys for not climbing" my boots were on and we tramped off across the campsite with the Singer in fine form as soon as we began to go uphill. A quick discussion at a point on the Styhead path immediately below Napes and we turned to ascend the fellside directly. Jean, who had accompanied us this far, took one look and set a resolute course for Styhead. What a shattering slog up, almost 1500 ft.; but for once it put a stop to Pete's singing except for occasional bursts. Someone once suggested that he should be made to carry a hundredweight sack to slow him down to a more human pace.

"Right, Tophet Wall for starters is it?" I could only collapse and manage a breathless gasp by way of reply and a full twenty minutes expired before we were roped up at the foot of the Wall. My delaying tactics of disputing the point at which the route begins had worked well! I started up the pitch, a wall followed by an over-hanging crack. It looked horrifying but with a Severe grade it had to be O.K. Feeling weak and lacking confidence I fixed two doubtful runners then a good one in the crack and moved up, then down, up and down again almost in time with the rhythm of the vocal from below.


After ten minutes of this I cheerfully handed over the lead. Pete did not hesitate but agreed that it was a bit awkward before turning on the strength to pull up the crack and on to a narrow ledge. A lull in the vocals occurred for a few moments as he did so. The top rope made all the difference and instead of straining up the leaning crack I moved out left when the previously awkward hand-holds became good jugs. A small foothold on the wall to the left and I was up easily although I thought that it merited hard severe. Leading through the rising traverse of the second pitch proved very pleasant, mostly due to an abundance of places for my favourite aids — big, safe looking runners. I never miss an opportunity to make sure of staying alive to enjoy another day, even on Diffs. Apart from stops to extract my well bedded runners, the voice all but ran up the pitch and led through up the next little wall without protection to belay in a comfortable corner.

I followed making my own line in order to be more directly below the belay since the holds were rather small and sloping. From this point we could see the so called Great Slab and vaguely discussed doing the Demon Wall traverse of it before I started up the corner. There seemed no point in belaying 25 ft. further on, so dropping a good runner over a spike continued along the semi-hand traverse. It appeared to be considerably longer than the 30 ft. stated in the guide but has excellent holds, and need I say, plenty of runners. The corner at the end is furnished with some fine loose rock and is in a delightfully exposed situation. I took a belay on an uncomfortable ledge, having failed to spot a bigger one a few feet higher, and called for the Singer.

I noted a lack of vocals from below as the rope came in rapidly and quickly had an answer to this puzzle when Pete's face appeared. "Bloody 'ell that wind's cold. Let's get this finished and get down out of it." The next section looked interesting, to say the least. A fist wide crack formed by what seemed to be a pinnacle silhouetted against the sky with no indication of what lay around the corner to the right. Pete mounted a smaller pinnacle and was at once blasted by a cold wind. A few unprintable comments later he reached the top of the crack and reached round, left hand followed right, two steps in a sensational position seen from my viewpoint and he disappeared upwards into an apparent nothing. "Good pitch that." The usual cheery voice. "O.K. taking in." After a crotch splitting stride to the crack I soon reached the impressive skyline position and reached to the right. An enormous jug came to hand, right foot round, left hand, lean out. So that was it! The pinnacle was actually the end of a flake and round the corner good holds led to a large ledge quite hidden from below.
 
The final scrambling remained before we unroped for the descent to Hell Gate. On the way down we came across three people and a boy of about five trying to ascend the scree in the face of a shower of debris being sent down by sheep. The boy was in some danger and though his mother was trying to help she was having a difficult time herself. We were joined by two other climbers and the mother called for assitance. After some struggling on the loose steep scree we managed to get the boy to a safer grassy rib. Had he slipped he would undoubtedly have gone a long way down resulting in injuries that don't bear thinking about. These people should have had the sense to avoid such a place since relatives of theirs were climbing on the crag and should have explained the dangers.

Anyway, safety point made, so back to the climbing. The weather had greatly improved in the previous half hour so we moved along to the Needle where with all due respect to Mr Haskett-Smith we decided that Uncle Tom Cobleigh and clan had swarmed over this spire through the years and duly left it to the three who were about to stand on its hallowed summit. At the extreme right of Abbey Buttress I was feeling confident enough to set off up the first easy rocks of our next effort. Plenty of runners as usual and somewhat higher than the guidebook's fifty feet a good ledge on the right with a fine view of the Needle. My brief investigation of the ridge above caused Pete to pause in his latest refrain and ask if I was going on.

"No mate, I'll leave it for you. Looks good though." Deliberate casualness to hide returning lack of confidence. Pete came up and the guidebook was consulted. It proved to be misleading in suggesting that parallel cracks should be used to traverse left as the cracks are best used to move directly up to join the ridge about 25 ft. above the ledge. Silhouetted on the edge the Singer would have made an impressive picture from the top of the Needle, but no photographer was at hand nor a sound recordist! Tin Pan Alley doesn't know what it is missing. Vocals were temporarily interrupted. "Ah, this must be the Eagle's Nest." Another couple of musical moves up then, "And this is the Crow's Nest." Further crochets and quavers from the Minstrel Boy and rope movement ceased. "How are you doing Pete?" The refrain stopped for a moment to let me know that he was taking in. It proved to be a pitch worth singing about. Always a hold when it was needed, steep, delightfully exposed and just about deserving the M.V.S. grade.


Nevertheless one is bound to have respect for the efforts of Solly and Slingsby who made the first ascent as long ago as 1892. I wouldn't have liked to try even seconding in the big nailed boots of their day. Clouds were scudding in along Wastwater by the time we finished the route, which continues by way of Eagle's Nest Ordinary, so after returning to the bottom we enjoyed a fast descent of the scree directly to the Styhead path leaving billows of red dust in our wakes. No sound from the Singer; must have gone through his entire repertoire. Maybe he'll master some downhill songs one day.


Tony Sainsbury: First published in Climber and Rambler November 1975 

Lancs MC Tony Sainsbury Obituary 

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Pennine Way: The Path,the People,the Journey...review


In the world of outdoor literature, a book entitled ‘The Pennine Way: The Path, the People, the Journey’ is not at first glance, likely to set one’s pulse racing with anticipation. Its not going to make the Boardman Tasker shortlist and Tom Cruise is unlikely to purchase the film rights. And after all, books about the UK’s longest trail are not exactly thin on the ground. Apparently there have been over fifty books written about different aspects of the ‘PW’ and hundreds of articles published in various outdoor publications over the years.

So does author Andrew McCloy-experienced walker and contributor to outdoor media-have anything to new to add to the extensive PW body of work? Well an unreserved Yes would be the answer to that question.. Although like most people, I can’t say I’ve read and inwardly digested everything ever published about the 268 mile walk, and although I have to admit I haven’t had the inclination to walk it myself, I did find ‘The Pennine Way’ a pleasure to read and one of those books I looked forward to getting back to.

Unlike so many long distance trail books which simply detail ever minute aspect of the journey..’at this stage my water had long since run out and I was reduced to sucking my socks etc etc’ Andrew’s book skillfully combines his day to day peregrinations oe’r hill and down dale, with a comprehensive socio/political and cultural overview behind the Way's conception and realisation over the decades. Casting a spotlight on the appalling access situation which existed at the time. Particularly at the Way's southern extremities where the grouse stocked uplands were fiercely protected by crusty landowners and their servile goon squad of gamekeepers. A situation which of course led to the mass trespass movements of the 1930‘s and the politicisation of the great outdoors movement involving left wing organisations,political parties and feisty campaigners like Tom Stephenson, Benny Rothwell reinforced by establishment figures like Labour cabinet members,Fred Willey and Barbara Castle.




Well known as those political struggles may be (See Dave Cook’s article on the Kinder Trespass) another important aspect of the PW which is well covered here, is the environmental impact. An entirely predictable and natural consequence of thousands of walkers descending upon a fragile, upland ecosystem which is highly vulnerable to erosion. The early days of the Pennine Way saw the newly liberated rambler hoards unleashed upon peat bogs and wet moorlands which all to quickly were reduced to a peat soup. The powers that be faced a losing battle as authors like Alfred Wainwright increased usage through the publication of his popular eponymous guidebook to the trail. Incidentally, it appears that AW who never walked the Way in a single push but in bite sized chunks, didn’t actually think much of the trail and preferred his own creation, The Coast to Coast which crosses the PW in Yorkshire.

With those walking the Pennine Way at an all time high in the 70‘s and 80‘s it was ironic that this coincided with the Way’s ecological low point. Battered and bruised by over twenty years of foot fall -The Pennine Way officially opened in 1962 after decades of campaigning and planning- it became obvious that the authorities responsible for their particular section had no option but to up their game and introduce some drastic measures to save the trail. Sections were tweaked and re-directed, experiments into different types of duck boards across eroded muddy wastelands were investigated before finally, the use of re-claimed old mill flag stones were chosen as the most aesthetically pleasing, durable and ecologically acceptable way of transporting walkers across the battered bogs.

After all, the gritstone flags had generally been quarried ‘oop on’t moor’ and they were just coming home; albeit in a man made form.

Another fascinating socio/cultural aspect which is well researched and detailed herein is the growth and decline of hostels along the Pennine Way. At one stage, the walker could count on 14 YHA hostels along the trail to rest their weary head. These YHA hostels were supplemented by private hostels, farm B&B’s and the odd rough bothy or hut. As the Pennine Way approached the 21st century, the traditional hostel was becoming a thing of the past. Most were either closed down and sold off by the YHA or in some cases, demolished completely.

High Cup:Cicerone

The decline of the hostel mirrors the decline in popularity of the Pennine Way. In its early years, most walkers were in the under 40‘s age group. This included school and scout groups led by beery cheery leaders in breeches or just a gang of mates ‘doing it for a laugh!’. These days, most people doing the PW are the middle aged... the 50/60/70 and even 80+ who have sensibly eshewed buying a 750cc motor bike and who have decided instead to 'find themselves' on a long distance trail. Of these silver surfers, three quarters are men although the author comes across a fair few women who are doing the trail on their own.

Its interesting to note that although the Pennine Way is the granddaddy of long distance trails in the UK, it is easily beaten-mile wise- by trails like the South Coast Path or the new Wales Coastal Path. As far as popularity goes, I was surprised to read just how far behind in terms of usage it was with the aforementioned Coast to Coast. Its popularity perhaps helped in no short part by Julia Bradbury’s BBC six part series and the continuing popularity of all things Wainwright. It also helps that the 190 mile coast to coast can be squeezed into a fortnight’s holiday but you’ll really need your skates on if you can do the PW in a fortnight. An example of the competing trails’ conflicting popularity can be gauged when the author stays the night at a hostel where the two long distance paths converge. The hostel's mine hostess informs the author that those doing the Coast Coast outnumber the Pennine Way walkers by twenty to one!


The Cheviot end of the Pennine Way.A few miles from Kirk Yetholm
I recently walked a short section of The Way in the Cheviots above Kirk Yetholm-traditional end-or start- of the PW- just inside the Scottish side of the border. Although I can’t say I was inspired to one day complete the walk, I could imagine the relief and elation of those stumbling down after 260 miles of hard walking, knowing that the end was in sight. A free half pint at the Border Arms awaited those completing the trail-a similar freebie awaits those finishing at the Old Nag’s Head in Edale apparently. Like the majority of outdoor folk, I might not ever walk the Way but Andrew McCloy’s well written and comprehensively referenced book has at least planted a seed and I’m sure that will apply to other readers. A good book to me at least, is one which you are sorry to have finished and perhaps surprisingly- given that I was expecting something of a dry read- this was one of those books.

Published by and available to order from Cicerone

John Appleby: 2016 




Friday, 2 September 2016

To Wild Places



I was very sorry to miss a visit from my Lancashire friend Stan Bradshaw recently.The note he had slipped through the door told his own story:

“Called at 10 a.m. on my way home, after climbing
my last tops in Glen Affric. Wonderful days! Left
Alltbeithe at 6 p.m. and got to the top of Sgurr nan
Ceathreamhnan at 8.30 p.m. Watched the sunset
about 10 p.m. and the new moon set at 1 a.m.
Bivvied right down on the summit.

“Rising sun awoke me at 4 a.m. Set off and did the
nine tops and back at Alltbeithe at 11 a.m. Good meal.
Slept outside until 4 p.m. Climbed 32 tops this time,
22 to go. Will be up again soon, Knoydart this time,
maybe see you then. Trust you and your wife are both
well and enjoying life as we are.”

That peak with the difficult spelling—it’s usually pronounced Keranan—is the fourth highest north of the Great Glen, and in my mind’s eye I could see the wee man tracing and retracing his steps on the complicated ridges of this massive mountain with its inconveniently placed tops.I didn’t see him walking like me, for Stan is a noted fell runner and at 68 years of age is the youngest old man I know.

I wrote about him when I met him on the Cuillin.At 63 he wondered if he was the oldest man who had ever done the main ridge in a day, involving 10,000 ft. of ascent and eight miles of intermittent rock scrambling, some of it very serious. Curiously enough when I got Stan’s note on his latest ploy I had just been out with a climber who had celebrated his 70th birthday by doing the same ridge.He was Charles Warren who in pre-war days had been on Everest in the early attempts on the mountain. Charles and I had climbed what was a new Munro for me, Mullach Fraoch-Choire, 3614 ft., which looks directly across to Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan.

There was an even greater coincidence, for another friend, John, who is coming up to 73, wanted to celebrate his birthday by climbing The Cobbler, so since it was to be an old men’s expedition I invited my friend Pat Sandeman along as well to share the fun. Off we went on a morning of such warm sun that I was glad of khaki drill shorts on a day of high promise with old man Cobbler, softened by heat haze, looking down benignly on a limpid Loch Long.

It was four years since I had been up on its rock prongs, and I had forgotten what a lovely approach it has by the Buttermilk Burn on a path rising swiftly past a succession of waterfalls shaded by rowans and birches, each rock pool an invitation to dip in its green depths. Then you are into spruce forest, following a steep ride to the plantation edge where suddenly the angle eases and the full splendour of the open corrie lies ahead, the jagged Cobbler to the left, and the bouldery Narnain to the right. John and Pat, who had never been here before, were fumbling with their cameras at the vision of wildness bursting on them so soon.

Warm sun, cool breeze, drifting cloud shadows, it was perfection, and underfoot everything was dry after weeks of fine weather.It was an easy walk to the Narnain Boulders and now that we were close in to the corrie floor it needed little imagination to see how The Cobbler got its name; the slender pinnacle—the highest point of the centre peak—resembles a man with a hammer bending over his last, with the bulkier hunched shape on the right, his wife, and on the left, shapely Jean, his daughter.We struck off for the north peak, rising swiftly on a well-trodden path through beetling slabs of wrinkled mica-schist which were a mere foretaste to the rock architecture to come, a world of overhangs and strange jutting beaks.

We thought we had it all to ourselves until we heard voices and the clink of steel on steel, and I spotted a party of helmeted and roped climbers in the vertical slit between overhangs known as the Right-angled Gully. We arrived on top to watch the second man of the party of four, edge up the final moves of the vertical crack which was led for the first time by Jock Nimiin in the ’30’s when it was considered to be the hardest climb on the Cobbler.The leader grinned when I told him this.

“Now, it’s for beginners,” he said. “None of this party has climbed before. They’re from Jordanhill College for Teachers and for them this is just another ‘activity’, part of their course as physical education instructors. It doesn’t follow they will be mountaineers. This is rock climbing, with specialised boots and safety aids that were unknown in the early days.”
Leaving them to their sport I couldn’t help reflecting on the difference in attitude between theirs and mine.Armed with gear and guided by a trained leader they were engaged in rock sport, a form of athletics shown now as television entertainment in which the star performers are described in extravagant phrases such as “the finest climber in Britain “.

They are men who train on indoor climbing walls and on rock outcrops to attain world champion boxer fitness. From our armchairs we watch a very first ascent up a blank wall, or not quite blank, for the star climber has roped down it to inspect the face and brush the possible holds clean. As well as looking for cracks to insert wire chocks, he puts in one piton, telling us as he does so that a lot of climbers will criticise him for it. He says he knows he might die, but he has to challenge the rock rising sheer for 160 ft. Well, it’s all very wonderful in a way, but does it make sense? Not to me, I’m afraid.

What we were looking for was a special place out of the wind, and in the sun, to have lunch in sight of the best rock scenery of all three peaks. And we got it on an airy eyrie with a mica slab as back-rest, while John got out his birthday cake and Pat poured a refreshment guaranteed to do his health good while not affecting the steadiness of his feet. John usually has a nap at lunchtime but not today. Soon we were packing up for the climb up to old man Cobbler himself whose bare rock prow is to be reached only by an airy traverse along a shoulder blade exposed to a big drop below. They were content to leave it to me and enjoy the absolute silence of the summit, where neither sound of bird nor of man could be heard.


“It’s very, very rare in this modern world to hear silence” This remark was from John as we scrambled on along the ridge to the south peak, Jean, on which the rest had no intention of making conquest. So while they sunned themselves I enjoyed the succession of little rock walls leading directly from the col to the sharp summit from which I looked clown on narrow Loch Long winding to the widening Clyde dimmed by haze. This summit also enjoys the noblest aspect of Ben Lomond, elegantly pointed, and it was good to reflect that, for the next few years at least it has been reprieved from the threat of “hydro-electrocution”.
When I rejoined the others John asked Pat and me to go on ahead as he wanted to linger and enjoy the marvellous rock scenery and atmosphere of the corrie, since it might be his last visit here.

Later we all followed the burn from the corrie down through the trees and past the waterfalls. Back at the car for tea out of the flask we left it had been a good birthday party.I had enjoyed that day on the tops immensely.I was at Balfron and I thought I’d take a walk along a stretch of the Endrick where it meanders below the conies of the north side of the Campsies, lovely rolling countryside of big fields and woods. Under blue skies and towering banks of white cumulus I had never seen it look better than on that day, except that the river was less than half its usual size.

There was plenty to see, however; a family of dancing grey wagtails, the young ones trying to ape the darting flights of their acrobatic parents; a somnolent dipper; two pairs of sandpipers and a family of redshanks. Then came the thrill of the day, as a kingfisher went whirring past in a flash of sun-brilliant blue- green. To my delight it curved towards a high bank and settled for about two minutes. No bird plate could have been more artistic than the sight of that beautiful creature, two feet above the water of a crystal pool reflecting the yellow of the flowers on its banks.

 Just nine years ago I bought a couple of folding bicycles for my wife and myself, so that we could use them in the glens on right of way paths where locked gates debar motor cars.Fitted with 3-speed gears, the bikes have been a splendid success, and we’ve taken them over to Raasay, the Outer Hebrides, and many other places with no more trouble than the occasional puncture. Now that Pat has one of these bikes, too, he’s become a fervid enthusiast for excursions that combine cycling and hill walking. I had done one trip with him, and now he unfolded the map to show me what our next trip should be.

“We’ll take the bikes to Stronachlachar on Loch Katrine, and cycle the private road round past Glen Gyle. The bikes can be left at the burnside and then we’ll climb the peak due north, Stob an Duibhe. It’s hidden by other peaks, but I’ve looked at the wee bit you can see of it, and it’s got a pinnacle on its ridge.” He’d said enough, but we hadn’t fixed a date. Came a vivid morning of hail showers following a delightful sunrise of soft gold, and I phoned him before he was properly awake. “I had a late night,” he apologised, but when I suggested we make the expedition that day he was more than ready.

We met up two hours later at Aberfoyle when the sun was still playing hide and seek with the clouds scudding before the north wind. It was a joy to leave the car and take to the bike along the shore of Loch Katrine, with frequent stops to look at mergansers, mallard and teal, watch whinchat and redpolls, and enjoy the fringing oaks above the mirror of the loch.

 Past rocky Glen Gyle, birthplace of Rob Roy, and in another mile we were at the deep cleft of our burn, overhung with natural woodland but with a comfortable ridge on its flank for easy walking.We struck on to the Meall Mor ridge first where we were in the company of the red deer. From up there we could watch the hail showers approaching and then rattling us with white pellets before passing on like gauzy curtains dimming the outlines of the Trossachs hills and the distant Campsies. Luck was with us for we arrived on the top of Stob an Duibhe as all the high hills cleared, from Beinn Chabhair to Stobinian, each peak a different shade of grey or blue.

Now for a go at the wee pinnacle which had excited Pat’s interest.I took it by its overhanging front and it was good fun, with a raven seeming to bark approval. Immediately below us was the River Lochlarig and by dropping north to it and walking its course eastward for about three miles we could have been at Inverlochlarig, where Rob Roy lived at a later stage- in his life.Between Loch Katrine and Loch Voil is still a very wild block of country, cut up by innumerable glens and still unspanned by roads. Down at the house we spoke to the shepherd who told us he was having his problems. Because of the dry weather, the ewes were being tempted on to the lusher grasses of the rocky ledges where they get stuck.

“There’s one now I’ll have to go up and see to, and take it out with the rope.” Over a cup of tea he displayed a real knowledge of wildlife and enthusiasm for it, which was echoed by his young wife. One of the early records of this bit of country came from the Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg, who in his Tour of the Highlands in 1803 speaks of droving sheep from the head of Loch Lomond to Falkirk by way of Glen Gyle and Loch Katrine to Aberfoyle.

The present hotel of Inverarnan was a droving inn in Hogg’s time and a pass leads from it west to Loch Fyne, with another one just to the north for Glen Shira. Just three days after our trip Pat and I went off to examine the rather complicated topography of this area, and now we had the company of two ornithological friends. We were not out to keep to paths, but explore some of the normally very boggy bits peppered with wee lochans, haunts of golden plover, which at 1500 ft. were calling mournfully around us, piping from high knolls and running ahead of us to lead us away from their nesting areas.

It was Pat who spotted his favourite bird, the golden eagle, a mere speck in the sky above a distant ridge, but coming nearer and nearer and showing off the breadth of its long wings relative to the short tail. Suddenly we saw it swerve as a peregrine falcon attacked it. For fully five minutes we watched the finest peregrine aerobatics of our lives as the falcon whirled about, climbing and attacking from every angle, wings going like a swift as it came in again and again skirmishing with the much larger eagle.

After watching that we didn’t mind getting a wetting, crouching against boulders on the edge of a small lochan eating our pieces, and having a celebratory glass of red wine. Our boggy plateau had a wee surprise in store for us yet, when we nearly stood on the nest of a dunlin, the little wader going off with a “scrake” of alarm to reveal four eggs neatly tucked into a tussock. “It would be easy to imagine you were amongst the flows of Sutherland,” I said, casting an eye over the bog cotton moor with its moranic knolls where 10 red deer hinds stood silhouetted. The time was 3.30 p.m. and two of our party were back in their homes in Glasgow by 5.30 p.m., which illustrates how convenient our greatest city is to some of the best country in Scotland, small scale in the Trossachs but becoming bigger and more spacious with higher tops as you go up Glen Falloch.




Tom Weir: First Published in The Scots Magazine 
 

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Gully....Part Two


We went into the bar and there in the left hand corner were a group of six lads with enough pints of beer lined up on the tables to quench an army. Tam walked over to hoots and yells with a few expletives thrown in. “Thar yous ar yous ald bastad” said one, “whare the fack av youse been Tam” someone else shouted out. “Whoos that wanker with yous Tam” came another retort. Tam introduced me to the group, all Glaswegians to a tea and proud of it.
“This heers na wanker, this heers ma mate” said Tam, “he kens Jock fra ma ma’s street”. No one seemed impressed. Then Tam said “he laved in Greenock, he wos a fucken ‘hatchet warrior’ yous ken yous daft wankers”.  Now this did the trick and everyone moved up and made room for me. They all had obviously heard of the ‘hatchet warriors’ reputation, but if they only knew about me being a pacifist, but then why spoil a good thing, especially when several pints of beer appeared before me.

Any intention of getting an early night was soon out of the window when another round was bought and someone told me that we had to finish all the beer standing on the table before anyone could leave. My heart sank when I counted 45 pints of beer and eight people in the group one of whom could only manage a few pints since his kidney failure through drinking every day for three years whilst serving in the RAF in Germany - me! 

The evening wore on and when the barman tried to tell us it was closing time, a few whispers in his ear seemed to do the trick and he agreed to stay open for a few more hours but the doors had to be locked. Tam’s reply was as good as it gets: “eye, ahn keep yon bloody door locked so we canny get ooot”. I contented myself with the fact that this was going to be an all-nighter, if not, someone was going to pay and I don’t mean the transferring of money!

Around 3am a loud knock on the door interrupted the session. I thanked whoever it was as I was by now lagging behind with emptying the glasses in front of me, but got a little anxious when in walked a police sergeant. I thought things were going to get ugly but he just said that he was looking for volunteers to help on a rescue as someone reported shouts for help from around the base of the Buchaille several hours ago and the regular Coe team were still out helping the Fort William rescue team on the Ben.

Tam and his mates were up in a flash, downed all the pints still standing there and were off to get their gear. It was then that I realised that these were what an earlier mountaineering instructor had referred to, as ‘committed mountaineers’. I was glad to join the rush as no one noticed the full pints’ glasses of beer I was leaving which was just as well as I realised that if I was going to make my get-a-way, this would be my opportunity.

I drove alone to the car park below the mountain, word arrived that the body had been recovered. This was my excuse to say goodbye to Tam and his mates who were already eager to get back to the pub in the hope the barman would re-open it for them. Chance would be a fine thing I thought but then again, you never know!!

We parted company with me driving south cautiously out of the Glen in the direction of Callander whilst the others crammed into Billy’s car shouting and singing unprintable words to the tune of ‘the wild west show’.  Poor barman I muttered to myself as I drove off.

I drove until my eyelids refused to stay open for business so pulled over into a lay by and tried to get some sleep in what was left of the morning. As it was, I got little sleep so got up around 7am and started off for the car park below Ben Ledi arriving around 8am. I hurriedly got my climbing boots and other gear on, donned my head torch and set off in the morning darkness along the path towards the gully. As I left the path so that I could head for the start of the gully, I had to fight with snow covered bracken tufts which made my legs and thighs ache.

After what seemed hours, I arrived at the start of the gully just as the light was pushing the darkness out of the way. Looking up I felt the adrenaline start to course through my body, and my head cleared of all the nasty things I wanted to do to heather, scree and gorse. What a sight. The gully looked vertical, snow filled and very welcoming so I did not disappoint it and took my first step on the snow slope. As I thumped one of my climbing axes into the hard crusty ice wall it made that fantastic noise that climbers love, the pinging sound which tells you that it is a good hold on good solid ice.

Once I was climbing, my world opened up to allow a multitude of warm sweet feelings to flow in which in itself, gave me the impetus to keep climbing upwards despite the fact that higher up the gully the snow cover was unconsolidated and loose, in addition to last night’s alcohol intake playing havoc with both my head and my bladder.

Three quarters of the way up I was confronted with a large boulder wedged in the gully. It was covered in rime ice and attempts to get a good pick hold with either my Pterodactyl climbing axe or my Chouinard ice hammer was proving difficult and time consuming. Looking back down there was no way I was going to reverse my position as I was too close to the top, just thirty to forty feet away. After struggling for some twenty minutes to overcome the boulder, the weather changed dramatically. Cold winds were blowing, increasing with every gust, and snow put in an appearance, first as a flutter of slow falling flakes, but rapidly turning into a swift downwards fall of a blanket of snow. The early morning sun vanished in a cloud blanket that said I’m here to stay so goodbye sun and any modicum of heat. Finally, it turned into a ravaging snow storm, not wishing to offer up any mercy to those caught out in it which of course really meant - me!

One final effort allowed me to get two good pick holds and without any finesse or decorum, I pulled up and slid over the boulder using my knees and stomach not caring if anyone was watching my unceremonious movement.

A few more hard pulls, some heavy breathing coupled with impaired vision by the stinging snow and sleet which was now attacking me horizontally, and the top disappeared in a white out just when I thought I had reached it. My position was getting serious. The snow was balling up under my crampons so that the points could not get a good grip and visibility was down to less than a couple of inches.

At one point a gust of wind pushed an intake of air deep into the back of my throat making me struggle to catch my breath like a fish out of water struggling for life giving oxygen that wasn’t there.  My energy was quickly being sapped and my arms and legs were telling me constantly that they had had enough of fighting and wanted a rest.  I knew that in my rucksack somewhere, I had a pair of snow goggles but I was unable to take the time to get the rucksack off and to look for them so had to endure movement without them.

My brain however, knew that rest was also impossible due to the unconsolidated snow base this high up the gully which was soft and loose causing every step to end with the snow cover to fall aimlessly down the gully. Without a doubt, this was a terrible day to be climbing solo up a gully that was relentless in its efforts to prevent any degree of success.

As I took a few seconds from the battering storm to get my breathing into some semblance of order so that much needed oxygen could get to my brain and onto the muscles that just did not have any strength left in them, I thought of that big open coal fire in my study where I sit and work when not out climbing or trying to prove that I am immortal and I wilted at the thought of the flames as they danced across the logs and coal to a merry tune.  It was not long before the shrieking wailing wind brought me back to reality and the task to hand and despite its rip roaring theatrical approach to my situation, it continued incessantly to buffer my sodden and damp clothes as it tried so very hard to knock me off balance and tumble down to my final demise below.

I suddenly and uncomfortably became aware that the sleet, snow or rain whatever it was blowing horizontally at the time, was finding those little openings in my clothing allowing the cold to sweep across my already numb body. If there was any time in my life when I most closely resembled a drowned rat, this was surely it.


Reaching down for any internal mental and physical reserves that I hoped was there somewhere deep within my psyche I was shocked and somewhat frightened to discover that these had been used up earlier. In addition, I realised that the gully was higher than I thought and therefore it had taken me longer than I had anticipated just to get this far. I also realised I had made the cardinal error of not taking into account the weather patterns which had turned violent, angry and determined to hurt.

I tried to work my way to the sides of the gully to see if I could climb out onto the mountain slope itself but the absence of any consolidated snow proved that this was not on. Just then a window in the swirling snow, allowed me to see what I assumed to be the top just some fifteen feet away. With such a motivation, I summoned what strength I had deep inside of me and lunged upwards with my two ice axes, kicking as hard as I could with my crampons into what I hoped would be consolidated snow or ice, which it wasn’t but I cared nothing as I was grateful for the rock hard frozen sods and earth so long as it held.

Anger, hate, confusion, bewilderment, anxiety, euphoria, fear, regret and pleasure. How can I be feeling all these emotions at once? What is happening to me? Why am I slipping? Why is my head full of this crap?  Relax. I must clear my mind, say a quick prayer if you must, even accept the inevitable outcome of the fall downwards but get on and do something. I know in this split second that I have probably outreached myself this time. Too arrogant by half. This time I have to pay the ferryman, there is no escape as he waits for me at the bottom. Who will cry for me? Who will miss me? Who will even care when they pick my broken mangled frozen body from among the rocks below. No answer was forthcoming. The silence of ensuing death was all that could be heard.

Life has real meaning when you are about to lose it. All that matters, is how hard do you want to stay alive and what you are prepared to do to achieve that.One-minute I was lunging upwards with every conviction that I would top out within seconds and the next I was slipping downwards. The snow cover let go its grip on the gully surface and decided to drop not knowing or caring that I was relying on it to stay where it was so that I could get out of my predicament.

Snow like a virus has no need of logic and is none selective on who or whatever it attacks. It just does what it wants when it wants.  Frantic stabbing into the tufts of grass that became stripped of its white blanket with both ice axes did not appear to be working, but then, just when I thought I was going to make contact with terra firma in a way that I would rather not, I came to a stop. Frozen not daring to move a muscle in case it started my down wards movement again, I breathed slowly and quietly tried to evaluate my situation. Looking up I saw that all the snow cover had gone leaving hard compacted tufts of grass and a few frozen sprigs of heather decorated with white frozen snow.

I really only had two choices open to me. The first was to just let go and take my chances on the down wards fall, the second and most logical, was to hold my breath, and scrabble upwards using everything and anything that I could, not stopping until I got to the top which was now some distance away if not more a thousand miles!

Despite the cold wind and blinding sleet and snow, I took a few seconds in order to breathe deeply and to calm my insides from its incessant bobbing like a piece of cork floating on an angry sea. 

Looking down I saw that the boulder that I had surmounted a while before, was jutting out some ten to fifteen or so feet below and the snow that had banked up above it after falling from above, was in some way responsible for my sudden stop. However, once again, amid the storm that was raging all around as well as the storm raging inside myself, that old familiar feeling returned that this was not the time for me to die, although looking up did nothing to ease the anxiety I was feeling about my current situation.

Everything went quiet with not even a sound coming from my heavy breathing or fast pumping heartbeat. I felt in a familiar serene and peaceful place and noticed that around me the raging snow storm had abated but was still raging ‘outside’ my cocoon. Darkness slowly engulfed my body starting with my head and going down to my cold snow covered boots and despite the raging storm all around, I felt warm and safe. 

I was convinced someone was talking to me, saying ‘You know what you have to do, so just do it’. Feelings of déjá vu spread through me just as the darkness left and became replaced by the storm which shook me back to reality.

I felt a slight comforting twinge at the sound of a distant voice and without thinking about what I was going to do, I allowed my climbing axes to hang by their wrist loops, took off my gloves, said my farewells to Sandy, my children and family, thanked whoever was listening for a good life and just moved upwards grabbing whatever I could. Heather, grass tufts, frozen stones, whatever, they all became good handholds and I cared not for climbing etiquette.

Just why each and every tuft of grass and clump of frozen heather I grabbed that day held is still a mystery, but hold they did which finally enabled me to roll over the top where I lay on the deep snow, oblivious of the snow storm that was still raging furiously all around. The storm could not touch me now as I rolled away from the edge and crawled to a large boulder which I sat against, ignoring the fury of the storm, no doubt angry that I had got away. My whole body was trembling and shaking but whether it was from the cold or the release of tension I had been under is hard to say, but possibly a mixture of both.

The trembling and shaking stopped as suddenly as it started being replaced by euphoria, relief, elation and uncontrollable whooping and shouts of delight. This in turn was eventually replaced with a feeling of arrogance as I punched the air with clenched shouting into the howling storm, “sod you, it’s just not my time to die yet”. I allowed myself to enjoy the flowing and ebbing of a spring tidal wave of emotions as I took great internal comfort from the fact that death can be overcome in extreme circumstances when you have the resolve to want to live.

It mattered not that I may have miscalculated the snow conditions or that I should have been aware that the weather was most likely to turn for the worse, what matters is that as I struggled to get back down the mountain in a white out, I was in control - I resolved to live. 

Somehow, it seemed as if I was pardoned for all my earlier transgression including the Glasgow gang fight incident, slate wiped clean, penance accepted, move on with my life.

Frank Grant:2016 
 

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Gully....Part One



“And now that I have climbed and won this height,
             I must tread downward through the sloping shade,
                 And travel the bewildered tracks till night;
                 Yet for this hour I still may here be stayed,
                 And see the golden air and the silver fade,
                     And the last bird fly into the last light”.

                                           Dante G Rossetti

Anger, hate, confusion, bewilderment, anxiety, euphoria, fear, regret and pleasure. How can I be feeling all these emotions at once? What is happening to me? Why am I slipping? Why is my head full of this crap?  I sense my head telling to relax, clear my mind, say a quick prayer if I must, even accept the inevitable outcome of the downwards motion but get on and do something.  I accept and acknowledge in this split second, that I have probably outreached myself this time. Too arrogant by half. This time I have to pay the ferryman, there is no escape as he waits for me at the bottom. Who will cry for me? Who will miss me? Who will even care when they pick my broken mangled frozen body from among the rocks below. No answer was forthcoming. The silence of ensuing death was all that could be heard.

The winter of 1977 was turning out to be a reasonably good one for early climbing routes and I was keen to get out and do as much as I could. Although Sandy and I had only been married for a year, we had agreed from the outset that we should not lose any of our individuality or who we were before we were fortunate to meet, and so whenever it was possible and appropriate, I would go climbing somewhere.

It all started one Friday night as I was sitting in the Golden Rule in Ambleside, having a quiet pint before driving back to Carlisle after climbing alone on Dow Crag where Easy Gully and Easy Gully Ridge Branch gave excellent satisfaction, when my world was rudely intruded upon. “What’s to do Frankie boy” inquired Mick loudly as he danced a jig in my direction, arms swaying to and fro like some mad monk with his habit on fire. This was Mick’s usual entrance when he was trying to impress somebody and in this case it was the new barmaid despite her being nearly twice his age, but then he always fancied himself as a lady’s man and this was to be no exception and so Mick thought he stood as good a chance as anyone else. He was, believe me, full of rampant optimism that night!

I looked up from the book I was busy trying to read and replied as quietly as I could, in the hope that he would steer himself towards someone else in the pub that he knew, but it was patently obvious that this did not have the desired effect as he came over, sat down and helped himself to some of my crisps. I gripped my pint glass tightly.  “Not a lot Mick, what’s to do yourself?”

As he tried unsuccessfully to get some more crisps from the packet I was now holding tightly with the other hand, he replied in a loud voice, no doubt hoping to impress the new barmaid who was paying him no attention whatsoever, “I’m off to the Cairngorms for some winter routes with Charlie, fancy coming along for the ride?”  My reply was quick, precise and to the point and left no words to be misconstrued.  “No thanks Mick, I’ve got other plans”.

Now it wasn’t that I didn’t like climbing with Mick, he was precise in his movements, strong as they come and level headed in dodgy situations, it was the thought of going with Charlie that put me off. Charlie was as they say, ‘another kettle of fish’. Charlie found it impossible to be quiet when climbing and was devoid of any degree of decorum when leading any climb. 

His party trick was to see how many times he could belch and break wind which he always tried to do when he was on the front end of the rope, and thought it hilarious to suddenly stop and relieve himself irrespective of who was below him, which was usually his climbing partner. I had been there twice and was determined that there was not going to be a third time.

I well remember the last time when Charlie and I last climbed together in the winter. Whilst Mick’s idea was to eat as much cheese as he could so that it would bung him up, negating him having to bare his backside to the cold. Charlie for his part was the exact opposite. He would eat as much curry as he could, followed by tins of cold beans. His reasoning was that if your crap was like water, then it was over quicker in which case your bum was not exposed too long to the cold. I suppose they both had fair points although in reality terms, we all know that when you’ve got to go you’ve got to go and the cold will have its affect no matter how long, or short, you expose your nether regions.

So there we were, Charlie and I, climbing Central Buttress - Original Route on Lochnagar in Scotland, a route I had wanted to do since doing Parallel ‘A’ Gully solo several years before.

We were going to lead alternately with Charlie climbing the first pitch and I the second and so on. On the third pitch which Charlie was leading and I was tied on and belaying him from a narrow part of the gully lower down, he decided the curry and beans for breakfast just had to go, so without warning, he wedged himself below a bulge, dropped his trousers to relieve his heaving belly of its contents.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that in any gully, there is only one direction for anything to travel (according to Issac Newton that is), and that’s downwards and if your’ standing beneath whatever is coming down and you can’t get out of the way, there is a high probability that it will hit you on its way down at 32 foot per second per second.

Up above, Charlie was wetting himself with laughter at the sight of me trying desperately to avoid the downward contents of his bowels. Believe me, I did not see any funny side to his antics and promised myself that I would never be in a similar position again. I knew therefore, that Mick’s attempts to persuade me to accompany them on this occasion, would be fruitless, and it was.

However, Mick was never a one to let sleeping dogs lie so as he was striding to the bar with his usual swagger, he turned his head and asked what it was that I had in mind. As it happened I had nothing in mind, but I was not going to give him an opportunity to try to talk me into going with him and Charlie.  I therefore convinced myself that in such situations a little white lie was acceptable. “I’ve had my eye on a route for some time now which hasn’t had a winter’s ascent to my knowledge” came my curt reply. Just as Mick was about to press me for more information, the barmaid who was wearing a tight low neck sweat shirt, leaned over the bar to wipe some of Mick’s beer that spilled out of his glass when he tried to grab it to capture the froth that was still spewing over the top. Fortunately for me, a part of her anatomy was also spewing over the top of her T shirt, which thankfully distracted him long enough to allow me to drink up and leave unseen.

As I drove home to Carlisle, I started to ponder on the little white lie I had told Mick, thinking that this was not such a bad idea after all. After I had given it some more thought, I eventually decided to go to Glen Coe for a brief foray calling into Ben Ledi [north of Callander] and on my return to try a winter ascent of the central gully that can be seen from the car park and roadside and which had not had a winter ascent for many a year if at all, which I hoped to address.

Sandy was already in bed reading when I got in so after some discussion about my ideas for the weekend, I settled down to get some well-earned sleep. As is always the case, sods law came visiting in the guise of a bout of insomnia which clearly had returned with a vengeance. I kept thumping the pillows as if this would somehow bring sleep to my tired eyes but it didn’t so I just got up at 3.30am and had a brew.

By 4.30am I was sitting in the freezing car trying to get the damn thing to start. I did my ‘Basil Fawlty’ routine but from the inside, thumping the dashboard, screaming at it that it was going to a scrap yard if it didn’t start, but this had no effect. I got out of the car and repeated my poor John Cleese impersonation by kicking the wheels and threatening to carry out my threats if it didn’t start the very next time. It did and after patting the dashboard and calling it some nice names I set off northwards up the A74.

The car spluttered and coughed all the way to Stirling where I stopped at a transport café for a hearty but greasy breakfast. Once I was sated with my eggs, bacon, beans and toast, using the last piece of toast to wipe the plate clean, I became conscious of someone standing over me, blocking out what little light there was emitting from a 40-watt grubby looking bulb above the table I was sat at.

I looked up to see a gangly youth, unshaven, long matted hair, wearing a baggy jumper that had more holes than a pound of Swiss cheese, and a rather thin hungry looking roll up fag hanging from the corner of his mouth. On his jumper were what was left of the words ‘I’m a fuken Gls’wgian’ so I knew that whatever he wanted, it was not to offer me a cup of tea and hoped it was not to ask which football club I supported, Celtic or Rangers!

“Pardon, I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. Did you say something?”  “Aye” he said in gutteral Glaswegian as he took the half smoked fag from his lips. “och, I dinny ken youse waa an Englishman, but I asked if yoose wa gooing ta tha Coe”.  Before I could stop myself I replied rather quickly, “yes as a matter of fact I am, do you want a lift?” regretting it instantly once it was said.

The gangly youth sat down shouted for “two laarge brews hen”, [ok so I was wrong!] threw me his baccy tin offering me a rollup.  Sliding the tin back in his direction, I said no thanks as I had given it up. As he reached out for his baccy tin I noticed his tattoos, love and hate across both knuckles accompanied with the usual gang related dots on the skin between thumb and forefinger. On his forehead he had a star which was repeated on the left ear lobe.

I refrained from asking him about his tattoos as I knew such questions were unwelcome at the best of times. He sat there watching me, his eyes staring, unblinking, which was both off putting and disconcerting. However, as I had done some basic psychology at University, I knew that silence and giving the ‘eye’ is sometimes used as a means of testing out someone else’s mettle.

After a while, he asked, almost demanded to know “whit youse aftee pal”. Not quite sure whether he was referring to the fact that he thought that I was staring at him or not, or he was challenging me to a fight, I asked him what he meant, standing up to take off my denim jacket to expose my tattooed arms as I did so. This caught his attention. I had him thinking now. It appeared I had turned the tables and waited for his next move which came almost instantly, “Whit youse gooing to da in tha Coe then laddie”. The penny dropped so I told him that I was not going to do anything specific just going to see what the conditions were like before making up my mind. “Nort veery talketive are yous paaal” with the emphasis on the word pal. 

In an instant, memories came flooding back of the two years as a twelve-year-old that I spent living on the outskirts of Glasgow in 1956/57. Gangs were all the rage back in the 1950’s, teddy boys ruled in most towns and cities but there was also those who were not teddy boys who made up a wide variety of gangs, usually comprising of lads from either a long street or a council estate.

The daily behaviour of such gangs were two fold – first to shop lift for kicks rather than for profit (apart from when it was sweets or cigarettes), second to commit minor acts of vandalism, scrumping fruit from orchards, and generally being a nuisance to their local community and society in general, and third, to protect your territory from other gangs.

It was generally accepted that boys were expected to join a gang and I was no different, and as I knew that once you were a gang member, you had the protection of your own gang member friends, it was a no-brainer, so when told to join the gang by lads on the estate, I readily agreed.

Fraser was the street boss and his word was never questioned. In the greater scheme of things, all the street gangs in Greenock (where we lived), were called ‘Wasters’ by those who lived in the city and each had its own preferred ‘weapon’ – flick knives, chains, catapults, bats, and knuckle dusters. The gang on my estate was called the Hatchet Warriors and it does not take Dixon of Dock Green to know what our gang’s preferred ‘weapon’ was!

I could see that my new found Glaswegian friend was getting impatient for an answer to his “Nort veery talketive are yous paaal” statement, so I shook the memories away and said without giving it a second thought “It’s just that I’m tired of driving, you must know how it is paaaaaal”.

He appeared to flinch at my seemingly challenging response and asked me where I was from, what did I do, how old was I, and more to the point, “whit does yon tattoo mean laddie”, as he jabbed a tobacco stained finger to my right forearm, but I was elsewhere. My mind had switched to that time in 1957 when I went with my gang and eight other ‘Waster’ gangs to do as Fraser put it, “haaav a feeecken geed ruck with tha tooonie wankers”, names given to gangs from the city of Glasgow. I recalled the splattered blood, the roar of the gangs as they set into each other, I heard the yells of triumph, the yells of pain and the clanging of the police cars as they rushed to end such ridiculous carnage. I know my hatchet hit something or someone and I was pleased that within two days, my father came home to tell us he was posted to Northern Ireland (he was in the Armed Forces) and we were to leave in two days-time. I was relieved that I would not be around when the townie gangs came to take their revenge.

Thinking rather foolishly that he may well have been one of the gang that I and my other pals wreaked havoc on in Glasgow all those years ago, I was paranoid that he had recognized me. Once I realized that this was impossible as that was some twenty years ago and I had improved with age! I just said that it was the mark of a group of RAF lads who had formed an elite club consisting of those airman who had cheated death whilst carrying out their duties.

He was hooked now, I just reeled him in with the knowledge that I was in control and he needed to know more. I explained what had happened many years earlier, when stationed in Germany and I was working inside a confined space of a Canberra aircraft and the ejection seats went off accidentally, but I managed to do the impossible, crouch down between the two front seats which even a stick of rhubarb would find difficult, and I lived to tell the tale.

Sitting there with his mouth open wide, he just leaned forward stuck out his right hand and said, “I like yoouse pal, yoor no feart bastad reet enough”. He shouted for two more brews and we started to have a decent conversation. We discussed my time in Greenock, my Scottish ancestry, my love for all things Scottish, and by the end of twenty minutes’ conversation I had been told his life story, given the names of all his family and we had agreed that not all “bloody Englishmen were wankers”.

He said his name was Tommy Scott, although his family referred to him as Tam and his friends referred to him as Scotty. As I knew there was no chance we were related and that as we had only just met, there was no way he would consider me his friend, I erred on caution by not calling him by any name at all, this way I would be on safe ground, hopefully.

He wanted to know where I lived in Greenock, what school I went to, what gang I was in. This was it I thought, the bugger has recognized me and is just toying with me. I knew in my heart that it would have been impossible for him to recognize me even if he was a member of any gang that we fought with but even if he didn’t recognize me, finding out I was a member of ‘that’ gang, might just be enough for him to exact some revenge right there, right now.

I clenched my fists under the table and told him I was a member of the hatchet warriors. I waited for him to make the first move, but did not expect him to stand up so quick whilst I was still seated, catching me off guard. He leaned across the table “Fack ma ald boots pal, whit a fucken heed banger yous arr” was all he said with a grin that put any Cheshire cat to shame.

He held out an outstretched scrawny hand “poot it thar pal, whit a fucken heed banger”.  I assumed, hopefully, that he wanted to shake my hand so stood keeping the left fist clenched, just in case, and took his hand. He clasped his other hand over the handshake and shook it until I thought one of my false teeth was going to drop out.

It would appear that the incident went around Glasgow gangs like proverbial wild fire – blood curdling roars as youths tore into each other – police cars racing to the scene to investigate calls from the public, a by-stander taken to hospital with shock, three young lads accompanied him but for different reasons, and four were seen running off screaming for their mums, some wiping the blood away as they tried to evade the onslaught. All in all, the hatchet warriors had gained a reputation and as such, three months after we left to go to Northern Ireland, they were involved in a gang fight in the city centre when one of the hatchet gang was killed, knifed through the heart.


My new found Glaswegian friend did not recall the name of the poor sod who met his untimely death so whether or not it was Fraser, I’ll never know.

For his part, my enthusiastic new found traveling companion, was a member of the Easterhouse putty gang. Don’t ask me where putty comes in as I dread to think so did not bother to ask him, I just took his word for it that his gang were well known for things they did with putty and left it at that.

Cleary I had risen dramatically in Tam’s estimation and was someone he wanted to be friends with, why I don’t know because if he knew the truth, in reality I am a pacifist by nature, he would no doubt rate me a ‘soft pussy’. However, he was fine with what he knew so I was not going to deprive him of any excitement he was feeling at being in the company of one of the ‘hatchet warriors’, anyway I was relishing the status he was according me as well as the free flow of tea coming my way.

He said he was a shipyard worker who spent every weekend with his mates climbing in the hills and mountains around the Trossachs, but this weekend they were going to visit the Coe as he so eloquently put it, “weeve goot unfinished busniss oop theer pal, and this weeken is when weer gaing to seetle it”. I had no idea what he was talking about but I was sure it had nothing to do with any business proposition. 

We left the café and as I opened the car door for him to throw his tattered rucksack onto the back seat, he held out his hand again and said, “caal me Tam”. I had made a new friend!

When he got in my battered old car, he delighted me by taking off his boots, which resulted in the car being filled with an aromatic smell that would make a Turkish whore house smell sweet, not that I would know what one smelled like as when I went to Turkey, it was for climbing rock, honestly.

He put his feet onto the dashboard and fell asleep. There was no way I was going to wake him to ask him to take his smelly feet down from the dash so just sighed and drove off. As we drove down the main street of Callander, he woke and started to sing. I ignored his singing and allowed my thoughts to dwell on the gully on Ben Ledi as we rounded the bend which brought it into view on our left. It appeared to be in good condition and not wanting to bring Tam’s attention to it, I tried to not make it obvious that I was looking past him to the gully.

He must have caught me looking side wards and thought I was looking at him so he stopped singing whatever song he was well into. “Eh pal, sorry aboot the sang, I ken forgoot youse was a bloody Englishman”. “Oh don’t worry”, came my swift reply a little embarrassingly as he should think himself so lucky that I would want to look at him! “It’s just that I wondered what you were singing that’s all” came my reply, quick as a flash to dispel any thoughts he might be harbouring.

Small chit chat ensued for another hour as we drove towards Rannoch Moor and at one point, he looked as if he was going to start singing again so I distracted him by asking where his mates were if they were all going to the Coe, and why had he not gone with them? His answer was to say the least, not surprising given my evaluation of his lifestyle back in Glasgow.

Apparently on the Thursday night he and his mates had gone out for a drink or two which resulted in him getting into a fight around 2.30am with a bouncer who refused to let him into a night club, because as Tam said, he was not drunk enough. Tam took a dislike to this discrimination and showed the bouncer what he thought of him. The rest of the morning was spent in the police cells sobering up. When he was released around 8am because the custody sergeant could not be bothered to do any paperwork as he was about to go off duty, Tam found out that his mates had left without him. He had hitchhiked to Stirling which confused me a little as the more direct route for him was a straight north from Glasgow. This conundrum however, was soon settled when he said the only wagon that stopped for him was going to Stirling so he just had to take it.

Conversation turned to climbing which was fine for me as my eyelids were getting heavy and I was losing the battle to keep them open. Tam never offered to do any of the driving so I assumed that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t, so kept quiet about it and just continued with a window open from time to time and the occasional sharp slap across the face to keep my attention especially when Tam fell asleep, which was often. He asked me if I knew any Scottish climbers to which I replied several but have only climbed with one particular Scotsman, a Jock McGowen who I served with in the RAF in Germany.  He had a broken nose, a legacy from his youth and as it had set at an angle, which made a lasting impression on you.

He asked where Jock came from and when I said I think it was Paisley, he slapped his left knee and said, “Weel, shag ma auld boots pal, I ken wee Jock, he lives in ma ma’s street”. A further descriptive input from us both confirmed that his Jock and my Jock were one and the same. I asked how he was getting on and was sorry to hear that Jock had cancer and that he had been given a medical discharge from the RAF and was counting his days.


Before I knew it, we were driving down the road into the Glen, past the Buchaille wearing her white mantle, round a few curves and then turning off right to the Clachaig Inn where he said his mates would be. As we pulled up, he said his mates were there already. I asked him how he knew and he pointed to a van parked in the corner. There staring out of the back window was a blow up doll with gaping mouth surrounded by ruby rich lips. Around her neck was a sign which said, ‘Hurry up darling, ma lips await your manhood’.  “Ay, that’s Billy’s van aright” Tam said with a smile. 

Frank Grant:2016 

Part Two of The Gully- Next Week