Friday 27 January 2017

Distant Snows : A Mountaineer's Odyssey.....Reviewed

‘Read no history: nothing but biography for that is life without theory’. Disraeli.

I believe this autobiography illustrates that mountain adventures do not have to be all cutting-edge or at extreme standards to make for fascinating reading, for by his admission the author has never been at that level, although some of the ski mountaineering and exploration described besides the classic climbing is by British historical experience of that description. The breadth of experience contained within this book, over a period of sixty years is however truly impressive, with many classic climbs and ski expeditions in so many countries that it will I am sure be a convenient reference point for future travellers.

Harding’s interest in mountains started in his youth, walking over the hills of South Wales, and his entrance into the ambit of climbing was when he joined the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club and took part in an expedition to the mountains of Iran in 1956. Their explorations and ascents were mainly in the Elburz range, but this was a typical student outing of that era, driving overland in two old ex-US Army jeeps, that needed constant attention and repair, with exposure to all the problems that such a first trip demand’s of its participants. Personal relationships and argument, culture shock, and health problems; throughout the book the author seems to suffer from the ‘squitters’ on innumerable occasions. This outing obviously had a major influence on the writer, and sowed the seed for a future adventurous lifestyle. 

Although he was ‘privileged’ by the standards of that era (privately educated, Oxbridge and National Service in the Welsh Guards), he was not so well heeled that money was not a real problem for him, and much of his early climbing in the UK was accessed by hitch-hiking, something rarely undertaken by today’s young tyros? Including to North Wales and to Skye where a standout achievement for that period was a traverse of the main ridge.

Life then intruded and leaving Cambridge, having read economics and law he eschewed following such a career track, and initially joined a City advertising firm, but somehow he found this was not for him, and so keen to get travelling again he joined the colonial service, partly enticed by the long leaves but fetched up in Aden as an administrator and political officer; whilst exploring the rocks and mountains of the Protectorate. However on his long breaks he was away to Mount Kenya, and the Ruwenzori, where he managed some classic ascents, and suffered some epic outings, with on occasion scratch parties, met on short acquaintance. I understand a little of these problems for when I lived in that country often finding a climbing partner was like looking for rare gems! On other leaves back in the UK he took up a long term ambition to begin Alpine ski mountaineering, and also to start what would become over the years many journeys, ascents and tours in the mountains of Turkey. On one of the ski tours his party was caught in an avalanche, a great danger for all such groups, and though the rest survived a family member died.

Leaving the Colonial Service he had to get down to starting a new career, and though initially he had no wish or inclination for this he decided to take up an offer of a post as  a trainee lawyer (having read such at University), and he also married. Unlike some of his contemporaries this did not end his mountain career and he enjoyed some classic alpine ascents and dolomite rock climbs, but more and more he was into ski touring taking on such classic outings as the High Level Route, the Valais to Mont Blanc.

But then having finally finished the marathon of completing his legal articles in 1969, he took off with his wife and two young daughters as £10 poms, to Australia. This was for somebody of his background (British establishment) a very bold and enterprising undertaking, especially as he had no gainful employment ready on offer in that new homeland. But somehow things worked out, initially they were in Perth and met up with some old climbing friends there and he climbed on the local outcrops and cliffs and even went caving, but then moved to a legal position in Canberra. Besides much bush whacking and some climbing in OZ and Tasmania, he managed to visit New Zealand and ascended Mount Cook and on a later visit other peaks in the South Island.

But somehow the lure of the UK was too great despite a demanding new environment and lifestyle, and he and his family returned back to the smoke and a job in the City, as a legal eagle. A real pull of this book is the honesty of the author about the twists and turns in his life, and his family relations whilst following his mountain star. Over the next years, trip followed trip, to Greece, to Turkey again and again, to the Arctic, and to Spain, an outstanding achievement being a winter ski traverse of the Pyrenees. I have climbed in that range in the spring (Mont Perdu) and so a complete crossing of the region was I understand a massive achievement, and the author thought his party was making a first such, but was to be sorrowfully disavowed when he found out that this was not so, for they had been beaten to this by a French team.

John Harding has become a senior figure in the British mountaineering and skiing world, a former Vice President of the Alpine Club, and a President of both the Eagle and the Alpine Ski Club. Putting back into the sports he has so keenly graced his legal expertise, and wise counsel. In later life he took on with his wife and friends some arduous treks in Sikkim, Bhutan and the Pamir/Tien Shan region. He is what Ken Wilson referred to as a ‘crink’; which was never intended as a derogatory term, it was kindly meant, and was aimed at a member of the establishment who does good things for the climbing world!

A strength of this book is the amount of background history and story about the places that the author has visited, with a classic school education he can elucidate on Xenophon, Hannibal and Odysseus and how they fit into his mountain explorations. Inevitably coming from the establishment background he does, his mountain companions were mainly from his own milieu, but I was surprised how many of them were also well known to me: unfortunately several of them are now dead.

This is a very well produced book; it has hard covers (case bound) and contains over 300 pages, and one hundred photographs and maps. These latter really do place the reader within the mountains, places and ascents recounted and they are very well executed. I think this book will become a classic of its genre, a life story packed with interest, adventure and history.

A sole criticism is that I would have wished at the end of the book an ‘Envoi’. For at the finish of such a world tour, and a lifetime of travel and adventure, what is the wisdom and meaning which might be found in such an odyssey? But otherwise a most enjoyable read, from an author whose honesty and historical/geographical knowledge is impressive.  

Dennis Gray: 2017

Distant Snows – A Mountaineer’s Odyssey
John Harding.  Published, by Baton Wicks £20


Friday 20 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec. 27th.

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

Dec 28th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Jean's Hut: Now demolished.Ray Sefton

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

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

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

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

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

5.25am. Woke up. Cold and shivering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec. 31st.

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

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

Frank Grant: 2017


Friday 13 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Be Continued

Frank Grant: 2017


Friday 6 January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The January Man: Dave Goulder

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

John Appleby: 2017