Monday 31 January 2022

Redemption on Creagh Death

Hermless, hermless,

There’s never nae bother frae me.

Naeb’dy would notice if I wasnae there,

And I didnae come hame for ma tea.

Hermless by Michael Marra

If you are prone to frustration getting the better of you, watch out.It can kill you.We’d climbed a lot already on the imposing walls of Creag Dubh. The routes werenotorious for their seriousness and there were often fallen, exploded sheep carcasses at the bottom, so it was also known as ‘Creag Death’. But, I liked the style: steep with positive holds, and we ticked classics like Inbred and The Hill without much drama.The Great Wall of Creag Dubh could only be surpassed, I thought, if it was relocated to Glen Clova.

By early 1987 I was going quite well on rock, technical 5b already in my rearview mirror. The guidebook to Creag Dubh seemed bursting with a ladder of routes that,literally, just needed climbing. A next-level standout for me was Acapulco, listed as an E4 6a roof pitch above a short 5b entry to the main event. Bruce, Graeme and I got dropped off one rather damp, grey Friday evening and pitched our tents in the trees below the crag.

Saturday morning dawned as grey as the night before. As was the case with my new routing enterprises, the prospect fully occupied my mind, visualizing obstacles and solutions based on whatever knowledge I had access to – the guidebook description in this case. As I lay in the tent, awake from first light, I’d already climbed the route 20 times in my mind when I gave up the fight to stay quiet and I went to the other tents rousing the team. Bruce was not inclined for immediate action. He was never bound by fashion or ethics of the day and would climb in his own time and his own way, following his own route. To his credit he never gave a damn what anyone thought of his approach to rock climbing but it is certain that you’d have to compromise on something, possibly a lot, if you wanted him to partner on one of your own missions. This was a mutual understanding so I didn’t linger outside Bruce’s tent and moved to Graeme’s which was also silent.

Some one-sided commentary on the conditions and options for the day aheadeventually raised some groans and, finally, acknowledgement that he was getting ready. I wandered back to my tent, crammed my rack and rope into the rucksack then embarked on the process of waiting, withdrawing into my layers from the damp and chilly air. Graeme’s approach to climbing is steady, methodical, and as he demonstrated in winter, often unstoppable. But this careful, stepwise approach clashed with my anxiety to jump to what I felt was the point. That morning I was unusually exasperated, fuelled by nervousness about taking on an ambitious route while coping with the energy-sapping damp chill in the air. After some time, that in truth wasn’t so very long, we were trudging up towards Waterfall Wall, the ground giving way to an awkward boulder field steepening up to crag.

Simon Stewart climbing Mental Crack in the Sidlaws: Photo Simon Stewart

It was difficult to locate the first pitch of the route, which wiggles up a short, blocky lower tier. The boulders below it are large and jagged, reminiscent of fractured sea ice and not conducive to comfortable seating for gearing up. Graeme unpacked and laid out his gear like a masterchef, examining everything and rearranging with precision required to underpin his customary success. Meanwhile I’m geared up, booted and pawing at the initial moves, looking for a first runner. Of course we haven’t done any warm up, the ascent to the crag produced a mild sweat but that is now cooling us off. At last the belay is on and I can go. I give up on the first runner, all the cracks being thin and blind and set off up the first couple of moves, heavy rack jangling around my waistbelt. The moves pass fairly easily but they are on sloping hand and foot holds, and are surmounted by momentum and belief that good holds are to come. But they don’t.

I wriggle in a tiny RP, barely enough to resist the gravitational pull of its quickdraw. Another move up, even more sketchy,that one felt irreversible,going from a sloping undercling to an extended position without any positive holds, the rock steep and bulging. Looking down, the scene looked bad, the ground consisting of a jumble of sharp, multimetre scale boulders that you couldn’t walk on without twisting an ankle.

The cold air was getting to me, making my fingers and toes numb, even though they were clammy with the realization that I was getting to be stuck. Logic told me to continue, I’d read so many times of climbers heroically facing a crunch and climbing through it to success. But it’s a biased dataset – the climbers who fail in these situations don’t write their stories because they’re dead. Opposite logic said that the higher I climbed, the worse it was going to be if and when I came off, given that I had, basically, no runners. I hesitated too long, trying to muster the clarity to proceed or at least make the best decision, eventually reckoning the least worst option was to descend. But I was pumped, numb and the rock was greasy. I made one move down, my feet back at the RP. Now came the move that had been difficult to climb, I knew it was 50/50, at best, to reverse it; I was still 20ft or so from the ground. I didn’t have the courage to make a jump to a controlled landing on the jagged rocks because broken bones were guaranteed. At least downclimbing offered a chance. But it didn’t work. My foot slipped and I was off, out of control, falling in a sitting position without a chair. I went straight down with no arrest from gear and landed back-first on a pointed shark’s fin of a boulder, the first two points of contact being my lower back and left hand. I remained conscious. Graeme and Bruce were there immediately asking if I was alright. I knew I wasn’t – I could move my toes which was good news, but I could only take shallow breaths. Vaguely aware of conversation I heard Bruce ask if he should get the mountain rescue.

‘Yes. Please. Now.’

It was obvious from what he could see that this was the real thing. I saw Bruce, man of the family, sprint down the hill and off towards the local hotel and the nearest phone. If you have a minor injury you get over the initial shock and work around it. More major and that initial shock is difficult to surmount. Add significant internal damage and you are getting worse with time, possibly without ever turning the corner. After a few minutes it was clear I was in the latter category. It was getting harder to remain conscious. My vision would go in and out of focus, the colours from regular to a yellowish monochrome. Graeme was right besideme, doing what he could but this was a personal struggle; my main injuries were unseen.

It took a supreme effort to remain conscious, I could feel myself getting weaker. I had to force myself to breathe, something was preventing my chest moving. I felt that if I went unconscious, no longer in control, that could be it. Nonetheless I was close to that point and would snap to, having been somewhere, aware that I wasn’t breathing. Graeme held my head; I couldn’t hold it up. In moments of lucidity after I’d snatched a few breaths, I could see, and accept, that I might not make it, that’s how it is when you face unknown odds. I wanted to survive and was fighting with all my will power but I was losing.

My thoughts in those clear moments were sadness and self-pity: here I was 18 years old and now I’d miss out on all the things, whatever they might be, that I my future once held. Friends and family? They’d be just fine without me. Then, I died. At least, that large part of me that was the forceful, impatient climber, left, taking one if not more of my nine lives with him. He left behind a wrecked body clinging to life with an unknown but surely profound set of broken bones and internal injuries.‘There’s a helicopter coming, you’ll be OK,’ said Graeme.

I was annoyed by this seeming fabrication but couldn’t talk anymore. Then I heard it, the sound of a Wessex chopper, familiar from so many times I’d seen the mountain rescue practising and operating in the hills. For me? I couldn’t understand how it could have appeared so quickly, even in that state I could compute that a straight line from Lossiemouth or Leuchars would be more time than I might have left.

In a supreme, unwarranted stroke of luck It happened that the mountain rescue had been on training that day within a few miles of us. A medic appeared and laid me out on a back brace, broken spine being an obvious possibility. Next I’m being winched up into the chopper. It’s loud and the medic is giving me shots. It’s a familiar trip for these guys to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness and at that end it’s a well-oiled machine into A&E. Someone’s asking, ‘Road traffic accident?’ But I can’t reply and realise they’re not really interested and are focusing on the job that they’re trained to do.

Grant Farquhar on Colder than a Hooker's Heart-E5-5c on Creag Dubh. Photo-Graham Ettle

I get shuttled endlessly between the A&E bed and an X-ray machine as they put in chest drains, IV fluids, shots and whatever else they need to do. I remain conscious throughout, presumably through chemical support. I’m hooked up to an increasing number of machines and when I asked, ‘Am I going to make it?’ I didn’t get a straight reply which was a little depressing.The staff crowding around began to thin out, which was difficult to interpret but soon I was wheeled out; the immediate crisis apparently over. I didn’t know the details at that moment, but the fall had been slightly buffered by a chunky krab on my chalk bag, now badly bent but saving direct impact on my spine which got away with a chipped vertebrae. 

My ribs were not so lucky and took the rest of the force of the impact, each breaking in a diagonal line from the base of my spine up and leftwards, the broken ends getting forced into my left lung, which was handsomely punctured and collapsed, the void filling with blood. My stomach also ruptured. This was basically remedied by draining everything out into glass demijohns while blood was poured into me from bags above. Other thanthis I was actually unscathed apart from a broken thumb, a result of the impact being concentrated on my back.

Since this isn’t being ghostwritten, I obviously recovered in the end. The following days and weeks could support a whole separate story of in-hospital adventures but a highlight that sticks with me is that the sole visitor from the climbing community outside my immediate family and friends was the late, great Andy Nisbet, who I’d walked and climbed with a couple of years before. I was blown away that a hero like him would make the time to visit. In fact Andy got two for the price of one from that visit because a couple of days after my incident, another climber that he and I knew, George Reid, fell off exactly the same moves on Acapulco pitch 1 and also ended up in Raigmore. He was in a different ward, though, and we had to communicate by notes that we’d persuade the nurses to pass. In the long run the whole episode proved a redemption of sorts for me sinceI was on the verge of flunking out of my degree due to the amount of climbing I was doing. 

Bed-bound over the following weeks I resolved to fully review my entire coursework in preparation for the mid-degree ‘sorting’ exams that the departmentkindly deferred in my case. After spending every waking hour for two or three weeks reviewing the course material, I aced the exam to the bewilderment of my course mates who barely knew me, such was my absenteeism. So it turned out to my surprise that an aptitude, or maybe curse, of being able to single-mindedly pursue a vision, could be applied to any challenge. Climbing focuses this ability and any climber is well placed to harness it. I’ve sprayed it around liberally ever since, to the dismay of countless colleagues who no doubt wished the crazy bastard would just go away.

Bruce Strachan, Simon Stewart, Grant Farquhar,Stewart Tawse and Lee Delaney, setting off from Dundee, heading for the crags.Photo Simon Stewart
But it must always be seasoned with acute awareness of the moment – since it could be your last – and the value of the people around you. They may be all that stands between you and an untimely end. And you may be required to perform that role for them. It’s amazing how many non-climbers seem to have no vision or sense of their mortality and the consequences of their actions.

Simon Stewart 

Photos supplied by Grant Farquhar


This essay is taken from A’ Chreag Dhearg which was recently published by the Scottish Mountaineering Press.

Compiled and co-authored by veteran climber Grant Farquhar with contributions from a range of voices within Scotland’s close-knit climbing community, A’ Chreag Dhearg traces the rich climbing history of the Angus Glens.

Although less frequented than the forbidding ramparts of Glencoe or Skye, the crags and gullies in this unique area of the Cairngorms harbour classic summer and winter lines that have attracted some of Scotland’s most respected climbers over the course of a century. In this engaging collection of vignettes and photographs, the origins of many of the glens’ best-loved routes are described in intimate detail in an entertaining style that will appeal to both local climbers and those seeking new venues to explore. The authors have woven the distinctive dialect and humour of this corner of Scotland into the narrative, imbuing it with a quality that is, by turns, both edgy and wistful.

Despite the deceptively narrow scope of this story, the breadth with which it is considered here captures the way that climbing has developed in Scotland over time, and how this history is often exceptionally localised. A’ Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a poignant reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.

The book can be purchased from the SMP website.