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.