By the time you’re reading this, I should have arrived back in the south of England, after having been a passenger all day in the back of someone’s car as we drove back from the western Highlands of Scotland. We based ourselves at the By The Way hostel in a little village called Tyndrum, north of Loch Lomond.
A word needs to be said about the cast. I got a phonecall from my uncle a couple of months ago, asking me if I’d like to go ice climbing with him and some of his friends in Scotland. Most of them were going to be around his age (mid 60s) and there were going to be a couple of their grandsons with them, which he mistakenly thought were my age, though they were some way younger than me, in their early 20s. Because we had a long drive ahead of us, we needed to set out early. So, after arranging a lift with some guys who lived nearby, I stood outside my front door at 6am on a Monday morning, to be greeted by a couple of older chaps, one of whom would not be out of place playing Fagin in an adaptation of Oliver Twist. With the exception of my uncle, I knew nobody here, but they all knew one another. So from the outset I was going to be the outsider.
We had a fairly easy journey for the first part until the M6 was shut near the border between Lancashire and Cumbria. We later got stuck in rush hour traffic whilst going through central Glasgow. The last of our party to arrive were held up as they had broken down and had to get a hire car. But we were all in place by about 10:30 in the evening, just in time for bed.
When we got up on the Tuesday morning, those who had been last to arrive assumed leadership for the trip. They were going to plan where we went. Instead of easing us in with a gentle day’s hillwalking they took us straight into the mountaineering. They wanted to do a Munro called Ben Challum. It was by no means the highest mountain I’ve ever done. My personal record is about 6,500 feet, though this was less than half that. But Scottish mountains are different beasts. For every 50 feet you rise, there’s a drop of 10-20 feet the other side of a bump. We started off with 9 of us heading up. After little more than an hour of firm, but not too difficult, ascent one of the chaps turned back. He wasn’t feeling particularly well and actually went home the next day. We carried on for about another hour and a half before we lost a second member of the party to fatigue.
The higher up we got, the more snowfields we encountered. Where I’ve encountered these before, there was enough latitude to traverse around them, but here we had no choice but to cross them. The weather was spectacularly good, which actually created its own problems. The sun was shining, though it wasn’t terribly warm above 1,000 feet which allowed the very top of the snow to gradually defrost during the day but then it would freeze overnight, hardening it and making it quite hard to get a grip on. Some of the snowfields had become just sheet ice and we didn’t dare set foot on these. A couple of people did so by accident and they quickly fell over, nomatter what footwear they had.
One of the tricks that mountains play on the climber is that very often you think you can see the summit when in fact all you can see is an area where the mountain levels out for a bit. As you approach it, it still looks like the summit, but just as you get to within 10 feet or so, you see another part of the mountain behind it. This happened quite a lot. After about 4 hours of climbing, we eventually made it on to the final snow field and make it to the first summit. Of the 7 members of the group remaining, 5 more went on to the second peak a little further along. This required 8-point crampons which I didn’t have. Having forked out several hundred pounds on new clothes for this trip (I’ve never needed very thick outdoor clothes before, nor an ice axe) I went for budget crampons. I got what I paid for. Within 5 minutes, they buckled and bits started falling off them.
The descent was a fair bit quicker than the ascent, though one of the guys twisted his knee a bit. I went down at a steady pace. There was a group who wanted to race down while the group with the slightly injured guy went down quite slowly. I was trying to keep both groups in sight, one ahead, one behind, though as we started to get down to a more gentle gradient, the faster group sped up immensely, while I was starting to get a little dizzy.
It was a pretty tough first day. Had I been in charge, I wouldn’t have chosen quite such a high peak to start with. But I managed OK. I was as fit as I thought as I was, though not quite as fit as the fastest group who were able to keep up a very high pace both up and down the mountain for long periods of time.
On the second day, the pair who were deciding where we were going had their eye on another pair of Munros. The trouble I found with them was that while they were vastly more experienced than I, I could trust their judgement in where to put one’s feet, but they could not be relied upon for a reasonable estimate of how easy or difficult a hill was. Considering that only 7 out of 9 made the first peak, which was 3,000 feet high and in places required a vertical climb, I thought it was pretty firm. If I were to rate it, I would say that was 3 out of 5 difficulty. Yet one of the guys, a very posh chap, was quite demeaning afterwards when he said that this was “just a bit of gentle hillwalking”. Now, I’m a fairly experienced hillwalker. The idea is that beyond a pair of stout boots, you don’t need any specialist equipment. You walk up a hill, with an ascent not much more than hour, before walking along the top of a ridge, tracing the contours which, though undulating, average out at being fairly flat. Also, you don’t tend to need to get on all fours in order to get up.
So I decided to leave them to their own devices and have a day that was slightly flatter. The hostel was right on the West Highland Way, so I decided to set off and walk a stretch of it. Because of the terrain, it was impossible to make a circular walk out of it, so I just walked northwards along the path for 3.5 hours before stopping for lunch and turning back. It was a vastly enjoyable day with some great views, though I covered around 18 miles in total, so was quite tired by the time I got back.
The evening brought its own source of tiredness. Those who know me know that I live alone. I value peace & quiet and find the company of others for extended periods of time to be extremely draining. Yet amongst the people who were staying there were some who are at the very opposite of the spectrum to me. There was endless talk into the evening. I suppose what it made it worse was that most people there had known each other for years, either through previous mountaineering experience or because they were part of the same family. I felt very much the outsider, looking in, listening, but unable to contribute; though I doubt I’d have been able to get a word in edgeways had I tried to do so. This is why, after dinner, I was always the first to volunteer to step away from the table and do the washing up. After all, I do the washing up at home every day, but it was a luxury to have someone on hand to do the drying up, which I always do anyway.
Then there were the night times. Of everyone I have ever slept with (in the most literal, not euphemistic sense), not one has ever complained that I snore. I have never woken myself up snoring either. Therefore, I am reasonably confident that I do not snore. The same could not be said of the 3 other blokes I shared a dormitory with. The youngest started as soon as he fell asleep. The eldest began his reign of terror in the couple of hours before he woke. The other chap took charge of the small hours after midnight.
So being physically tired and with little sleep, I set out on day three, when we all reunited to climb another peak. I was able to be some help, as the foot of the mountain was along the path I had walked the day before. It started relatively easy enough. We were walking up a frozen peat bog, so while it had potential to be very muddy underfoot, it was firm enough to just have a little crunch underfoot. In a few places, the streamlets coming off the hill went over rocks which, having frozen, made them quite slippy. But the first 1,500 feet or so were ok for anyone of a reasonable level of fitness. The only thing that made it potentially hard was the speed at which some of the members of the party wanted to move at. Weather-wise, it was the worst of the days we’d had so far, though it was still pretty good. We ascended through a layer of thin cloud but we had no problem with visibility, nor was there any prospect of snow falling anywhere in the vicinity.
However, as we got higher, the snow that was already lying was getting more and more concentrated. We tried, where possible to navigate round the snowfields, though this necessitated scrambling over rocks that had ice on top of them. So we were constantly having to stop and reassess our route, with different members of the party opting for their own routes. I was quite pleased with my judgement as I never took a wrong turn. One chap did, deciding to go up the right hand side of a snow field when I was going up the left. He fell about 5 or 6 feet and sustained a bit of a bruise on his leg. But when I saw him lose his footing, my heart was in my mouth for a moment. Had he fallen in a less controlled manner than he did, he could bounced a hundred feet or so back down the rocks.
Seeing someone else have a fall probably dented my confidence a little. One of the first rules of mountain climbing is to have respect for the mountain. In the week we were in Scotland one person died on Ben Nevis. Recently, we read that a man and his son died whilst hiking near Mont Blanc. So it might not come as a surprise to you that I took my respect seriously enough to turn back before I reached the top. After this other chap’s tumble, we ascended another couple of hundred feet and the amount of snow increased. There was no choice but to ascend the ice field, which I reckon was at about a 60 degree incline. I didn’t have proper crampons so I was climbing by throwing my ice axe into the snow above my head and trying to kick steps into the snow at my feet. But at one point I got stuck. My feet were forced together so I didn’t have much balance. But I had grip. Yet as soon as I moved my left foot outwards and upwards, I couldn’t get any grip. To stretch out far enough I’d have to sacrifice any remaining balance that I did have. Without the combination of balance and grip, and with a pretty steep icy and rocky slope beneath me, I made the choice to retreat. I didn’t want to. I wanted to get to the top, to be able to say I’d conquered a peak, to see the view out for mile upon mile. But it wasn’t to be. Not for me. Not then. I hope that someday I will be able to return in summertime conditions and have another go. I know where the mountain is and I don’t think it’s going anywhere. We can wait for one another.
Having failed, I didn’t fancy another failure the next day, so I decided not to join the others in the final full day. I returned to the West Highland Way, this time setting out to walk south instead of north. I didn’t quite so far as I did a couple of other days earlier. I had anticipated a flatter route, though I miscounted the number of contour lines on the map, meaning that I was going rather more vertical than I had intended. I wouldn’t have categorised it as climbing but it was certainly a good bit of strenuous hill-walking. But by the time I had turned around to start the journey back to the hostel, I was ready to go home. I still need to get a fair bit fitter; it’s hard to find the time to do when you’re a working professional. I have time to read, stuck as I am on trains for upwards of two and a half hours per day. But exercise isn’t so easy to come by. Still, I’d scratched the itch of climbing that had been growing for the last couple of years. I may go back to some mountain range or another in two or three years’ time.