Whilst I was physically unhurt by what happened at Curved Ridge, I don’t doubt that it had a deep and lasting effect on my psyche. Rob and I (Rob was the lad from Kingussie who knocked me from my perch on the ice) had no business surviving such a fall.
I recall falling head down on my back, and tipping head over heels, until I was facing inwards to the snow and ice, head uppermost. I came to a halt. I truly don’t know how that happened, because I had let go of my ice-axes, and they dangled uselessly on their wrist cords. They played no part in my narrow escape from death. One might retain no composure at all during such an event. One moment I was climbing a fifteen foot wall of ice and someone shouted “Watch out”! The next moment I was off and falling. In fact my colleague, hoping to snap a racy and exciting action shot of me battling my way up the ice pitch, had slipped and plunged off downwards, unfortunately landing on me on the way past.
When my wits returned – it was probably no more than a few seconds of confusion – I found myself on the steep snow below the short ice pitch. Of my friend there was no sign. My first understanding was that we had been caught by an avalanche. A few glances about me, however, and I knew the truth, that we had fallen off. I looked around for Rob, but of him there was no sign.
Darren, the third member of our team, bravely made his way unaided down the ice pitch we had been climbing, and together we gazed into the depths. It was entirely possible that a small yellow speck on the snowfield a thousand feet below was the broken body of our friend. He could not have survived such a fall. It was a sour moment.
We could not follow him down the cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, the mountain we were climbing. To get down, we had to move on up to the summit. Girding our loins, we set off, hurrying up and over the top. We went swiftly on down into easier terrain, country where we might walk without risk of falling to our death. After an hour or so, we chanced upon some of our colleagues from the mountaineering club, to whom we relayed the terrible news. All of them were stunned to silence, appalled at the news of violent death. Someone immediately set off on foot to raise the alarm – this was 1986, long before the advent of mobile phones. The rest of us moved in a group around the skirts of the mountain, through the melting snow, to search for Rob. At this point I was suddenly struck with a tremendous fatigue. I felt terribly guilty about it, as if I was betraying my friend. I could go no further; I was almost staggering with exhaustion. That I had myself been involved in a serious fall, that I was bruised and in shock, and had narrowly escaped with my life, did not occur to me. I felt bad that I could not keep up with my companions.
And so it was that that paragon of the mechanical engineering department, Mr. Ray Boucher, came into view some time later, with unlooked-for good news. Rob lived yet! The best news ever delivered in a strong Ulster accent. By some miracle he had survived a fall of some fifteen hundred feet. Really this was what I needed to hear; uncaring of anything else, I felt I could retreat to the minibus without further disgrace. I recall stumbling right through the icy and swirling waters of the river, hip deep, unheeding of the cold and wet, the quicker to get back to the minibus.
Much later there was the helicopter, settling onto the car park in the grey and blustery afternoon. In the artificial gale caused by the helicopter, an old Citroen 2CV in the car park was rocking back and forth on its springs to such an extent that we thought it would blow away. From the chopper emerged Mr. Hamish McInnes, mountaineer extraordinaire and leader of the Glen Coe mountain rescue team. He was dressed in immaculate light blue Gore-Tex over-trousers. The Great Man spoke briefly with us, telling me that Rob and I were incredibly lucky to have escaped with our lives. More chance of winning the football pools than both of us surviving such a fall, he said. Odd that. It didn’t feel like I had won the pools. I’ve thought about it a bit then and since, thought about other narrow escapes. Is there destiny? Does God in Heaven direct the affairs of men, delivering one, whilst allowing another to die alone and in pain? I didn’t really consider myself important enough to be delivered from death, and still don’t, but that never stopped me wondering.
Rob dislocated his hip. He fell over a thousand feet over snow and ice and rock and dislocated his hip. And that astonishing luck meant that he made the Daily Mail, as did I myself in a small paragraph in the same article. In hindsight he reflected that the dislocation of his hip had done more damage and hurt more than if he had actually broken his leg. He was on crutches for months and limping for longer still.
That summer I put the Curved Ridge accident behind me. Three of us went to Glen Brittle on Skye in an old black Mk I Escort, and climbed and walked the Black Cuillin. It is only a coincidence, so I tell myself, that I have not climbed ice since the fall at Curved Ridge. The final word? News of the accident, published as it was in the local press and even in the “Daily Mail”, made it to the ears of a teacher from my old school. He was a very experienced alpiniste, a climber of an entirely different stamp to me. He said to me at beer one night, in jocular reference to an article in the local press,
“So did you fall off the dangerous and treacherous Curved Ridge or was it the easy and classic Curved Ridge?”