As I rolled over and over, the snow was suffocating as it filled my nostrils, and when I opened my mouth to say goodbye to the world, it filled my mouth cutting off my ability to breath. My ears filled up which meant all sound was blocked making my senses accept that death was inevitable. But I had no wish to die, not yet and so tried my best to swim with the tide of powder and wet snow that rolled me down the hill. Pointlessly I know but there was nothing I could do until I stopped moving.
For a split second, I remembered that when it did stop moving, it set like cement and would entomb me in whatever position I was in. Should I just relax and let it happen! Then suddenly, all movement stopped and I was motionless, entombed in cement coffin. Time stands still and the silence is deafening. Just relax and wait for death and all worries about my situation would be over.
But this is not what I want and so I struggle a little to find that I can move my left arm a little, so start to rotate the wrist to enlarge the space. But, am I facing downwards or upwards? How far beneath the surface am I? How long can I stay alive without being able to breath and how long does it take the snow to set like cement?
Such questions annoyed me and so I started to vigorously turn my hand until it allowed my elbow to move and suddenly, I felt it break through the surface. This spurred me on to twist and turn more until the upper torso was able to move. Then a faint noise was heard, shit, another avalanche was on its way! To prevent myself from being encased once again, I screamed and violently swung my arms about and fell out of my snow coffin onto the cold wet floor of the hut.
Dec. 25th Christmas Day.
Awoke on the floor of the hut still wrapped in my wet damp sleeping bag, no doubt from the profuse sweating during the nightmare. Merry Christmas I said to myself as I extricated myself from the bag and thought about a nice bowl of dry muesli. I smell the pipe tobacco again from the outer room. I shout out good morning and Merry Christmas but get no response. I decide to go into the outer room to find out why he has been ignoring me. I opened the door to find the room empty. The air suddenly becomes clean, no smell of tobacco, nothing. No puddles of water from any boots. No sign of anyone being there. I opened the outer door to see smooth white snow stretching way off into the distance. No footprints. No one has broken last night’s snow fall.
I return to the inner room. Sit on my damp bag with my knees up to my chin. Had I dreamt it all? Was it a ghost? Is my mind playing tricks on me? Is the lack of human company getting to me?
I try to dismiss the incident as just a dream but I know the smell of tobacco was real as was the noise I heard. I decided to leave the Sinclair hut and move on to the Rynack Bothy.
6pm. Had a good days walk. Peaceful and calm. Snow conditions great. Truly exciting walking across pristine snow. Brain feeling lighter. Head not aching. Lungs working steadily.
Not a bad Christmas day after all. Didn’t even miss the traditional turkey dinner but enjoyed my tin of peaches. A pity the bothy stinks of animals. Will move on tomorrow. Even considering going to Morlich youth hostel for one night to shower and dry clothes.
Dec. 26th Boxing day.
6.15am. A strange day. Didn’t sleep very well last night, foul animal smell was too much for my nostrils. Some strange dreams and images coming in and out of my mind. At one point I had an image of me climbing Everest by a new route. I was alone except for a faceless person who was carrying a flag with a star and a moon on it. They were wearing ordinary clothes and I was in a space suit.
As I got to the top, there was a party going on and I was told I was not invited. This dream changed suddenly to me standing in a crematorium looking into a coffin. Again the figure inside was faceless but I could hear others crying around me. A tap on my shoulder made me jump and I too jumped as I lay in my sleeping bag. The dream was almost surreal. The dream melted into a scene now in the bothy with me waking up to find some magical little people sitting around playing cards.
One of the little magical people dealt me a hand which I picked up. As I looked at the cards, I felt my heart rate and pulse double and without warning, I sat bolt upright to find myself sweating profusely. My hands were shaking as I recalled the hand of cards I was dealt.
Each card had the face of a friend who was deceased. The fright came not from seeing their faces, but that one of the five cards had a faceless figure on it.
I sat up in the corner of the bothy waiting for the morning light to take away the dark depression I was feeling. Tried to work out what if anything it all meant. If I had been drinking, I would have had no problems in understanding the hallucinating images!
I did not come to any conclusion but assumed the loneliness was playing games with my emotions and thought processes. I was glad when daylight started to filter in through the dark and oppressive long night.
Decided to walk back to youth hostel for a night. Feeling excited with anticipation of a hot shower, decent meal and a good night’s sleep in a dry bed.
Got to youth hostel around 4.15pm. The SAS lads who I met earlier had also returned to the hostel for a night so invited me down to Aviemore for a drink or two, or was it three, perhaps in truth it was a lot more than four!
9.15am Do not remember much about last night. Remember being in the second row of seats in the land rover when it careered off the road and flipped over into the roadside ditch. Remember crawling out through someone’s piss and stomach contents. Also remember the funny side of us trying to right the land rover whilst everyone was giggling. When we got to the youth hostel, the warden was mouthing off about it being past the stopping out time. Obviously had no idea about what repercussions there could be through trying to dress down several inebriated SAS lads, so I kept my distance and slipped off to my room.
10am. Went downstairs to find SAS lads had left. The warden was cleaning up a mess in the kitchen so I sneaked out the back door not wanting to get involved in any discussion with him about what mess the army lads had left him for Christmas.
6.25pm This morning when I left the hostel, I felt recharged, full of motivation for some serious climbing. I walked along the road and onto the hills where I wanted to be. Reached Jeans Hut, still empty. Left rucksack, took two climbing axes and walked over to Coire an Lochain, making sure I circumnavigated the Great Slab as best I could.
Climbed The Vent a superb snow climb on good consolidated snow. Walked back down and climbed up Left Branch Y Gully another good climb which tested the sinews in my arms to their limit. Not enough so went back around and climbed up Right Branch Y Gully but taking an inordinate amount of time to do so.
Had a piece of cheddar cheese, an apple and a mars bar for lunch. Sitting there on my own in a wilderness of pristine untouched snow which stretched for miles was electrifying. High emotions were flowing through my whole body and I just knew this was a good day and that I needed to do several more climbs before I was satisfied. A quick drop down and a climb back up Jacob’s Ladder seemed to do the trick.
Walked over towards Sinclair memorial hut, but turned left at the path junction not wanting to visit the hut on this occasion, as memories of the visitor that never was still uppermost in my mind. Continued on down the Lairig Ghru for a while until I came to a snow slope on the left hand side that was begging me to climb it so I obliged. The cornice at the top was huge and I had difficulty in digging my way through and at one point, I heard creaks that told me that the cornice was about to break off taking me downwards with it to the gully floor way way below.
My brain snapped into another gear and I methodically dug with my beloved Pterodactyl ice axe and Chouinard ice hammer (no fancy tools for this guy!) until I broke through the surface layer and I could crawl out, roll over and shout for joy.
Jean's Hut: Now demolished.Ray Sefton
I had not noticed the storm brewing. A sudden gust of wind blew me off my feet and sent me tumbling across the plateau, but thankfully, away from the edge.
9.10pm. Feeling alive. Can’t wait for morning so I can go climbing again.
10.28pm. Can’t sleep. Too excited about tomorrow's possibilities.
Midnight. Still awake. Final entry for the night. Will force myself to sleep.
3.15am. Still tossing and turning. Made a brew.
5.25am. Woke up. Cold and shivering.
6.45am. Got up. Cold muesli and a tin of peaches for breakfast.
Studied my copy of Hamish MacInnes Scottish Climbs Vol 2. Decided on visiting Coire an Lochain again to do some other routes.
7.30am Left hut. Clear blue skies. No clouds or wind. Calm. Cold air hitting the exterior but feeling warm as toast inside. Ate an apple on the way. Looking into the Coire I kept asking myself what it was I was going to do. Decided to turn left and go into Coire an-t Sneachda to start with Fiachaill Ridge to get warmed up.
Mid-morning. Stood on summit after great climb up Fiachaill Couloir which was in good condition. Looking down to Jeans Hut waves of excitement caused my stomach to turn over a few times. Head spinning with the sheer delight of my situation. Need to climb more.
Descended down Y gully, making good use of hard compact snow to slide down testing my ability to brake with ice axe, head first, feet first, on the stomach, on the back, rolling over and so it went on until I came to a stop in a pile of banked snow. Felt like the time Karen paid up on a bet I had back in Malta all those years ago - orgasmic!
Up Vent Rib and Traverse feeling exposed on the traverse section. Back down via Y gulley again, back up Ewen Buttress. Had great difficulty in negotiating the final narrow crack to the final summit. Topped out exhausted so went back down The Couloir route and had a bite to eat. Sun long since departed the sky, being replaced with cold air but I convinced myself that there was enough light to just do one more climb before returning to Jeans Hut for a well-earned meal. Walking back around the base of the cliff face, I sensed someone walking beside me. I knew no one was there but I could hear their movement just the same. I sensed it was everyone I had known all rolled into one. It was comforting to know they were still with me.
I started to climb Left Branch Y gully for the second time and felt cocooned in a web of love and warmth, so much so that although my body was shivering with the cold, my inside was warm and content. I felt safe. However, after an hour, I wished I had decided on an easier route or even returned to the hut before setting out on this last climb. Struggled the last few hours to make headway but always knew I would do it as they were with me. Topped out around 8pm in the dark my only light being the bright full moon in a cloudless star riddled sky above and a rather dim head torch with batteries long past their time. Knackered but satiated.
8pm. Returned to hut tired and physically exhausted but truly alive. A fantastic days climbing. Brain is swimming with positive neurons giving me fantastic visions which in turn is sending pulses coursing through my entire body. It felt as if everything that composed my whole body was vibrating and working in total unison.
No aches or pains. No tightness of the head or eyes. If there is ever such a thing as being at your optimum, your peak of fitness, this has been how I have felt all day despite the struggles of the Vent Rib and Traverse and Left Branch Y Gully.
10pm. My mood has dramatically changed for the better. I no longer fear anyone or anything. I am my own master. My future is what I will make it, alone or otherwise. The hills and mountains are my salvation. I know it now. No more pretence. No more living behind a facade. Adversity I spit in your face! I have an inner strength that I never knew I had. I am truly reborn this day. My God has come alive within me.
All that evening I swam in an emotional sea of bliss, soaking up that tremendous feeling you get when your’ on a high, so high that even falling off that can be dangerous to your health and welfare. Every pore in my body was alive with tingling sensations and the energy flow I was experiencing was nothing short of orgasmic ecstasy and I was loving every moment of it. I felt proud, I felt in touch with everything and my head was full of nothing but goodness and satisfaction.
After swimming in this orgy of self-idolatry, I allowed the sandman to creep over me until my eye lids closed for the last time that night to peace and calm. Nothingness finally took over and I was in the land of pleasant dreams.
8.15pm. Woke feeling so refreshed and energetic it frightened me a little, as I am not used to this first thing on a morning. Decided to do a long walk. What can I say - but that it was another great day. I completed a gruelling nine hour walk which included a climb up Pygmy Ridge – what a climb!! Superb views into Central Gully. Conditions excellent. Snow & ice firm and crisp. Continued along plateau to Lairig Ghru over to Cairn Toul.
Sat on the summit ridge in bright sunlight, exuding breath in wafts of steam in the intense cold air. What to do for the second week. Should I stay in the same area and continue walking and climbing or move to another area and more of the same there?
Could not come to any decision. Suddenly a heard a voice somewhere, outside, inside who knows but just a voice all the same. It kept repeating home, home, home. This was one time when I listened to the voices so made the decision to walk back across the icy tops down to Aviemore youth hostel via Braeriach.
Decided to spend one last night at Aviemore Youth Hostel. Uneventful night. Sat and watched a group of young people play Monopoly, they were full of life and fun. I envied them their youth but was still happy to be me. Despite the snoring I even got some sleep before dragging myself out of the bunk bed and getting my thoughts in line.
10.10am. Rang dad to ask if he could telegraph me some money for a train ticket home. It arrived late that afternoon.
The long journey home to Brighton was uneventful as I slept soundly and contentedly for most of the way. Alighting from the station in Brighton on New Year’s Day, I was conscious that people were staring at me. I caught my reflection in a shop window and saw why. My clothes were dirty and dishevelled. My hair was matted and I had not had a shave for over a fortnight. There’s my dad. Big smiles and hugs all round. The prodigal son had come home at last.
Frank Grant: 2017