J. Parkinson and I, at this point in time busy people working for a living and raising kids, wanted to get away hillwalking, but we found that the time could not so easily be spared. After our successful overnight assault on Nevis of the previous year, we thought we might resolve this conundrum (and spend less time away) by the simple expedient of doing some classic hill-walking overnight. On this occasion we did the Snowdon Horseshoe; on another, we made a noteworthy attempt on Idwal Skyline, and bailed after rather too long spent on Tryfan – of which more later.
We left Derby at 7.35pm. We parked at Pen-y-pass and started up the PYG track at 11.30pm. The drive in along the coast road had taken 2 hrs 40 minutes. There was some moonlight on the climb up to Crib Goch. We had of course deliberately chosen a clear night as near as was practical to full moon. I walked in up the PYG track, and out along the Miner’s Track, in trainers, only using big boots for the actual route itself.
Unfortunately the moon disappeared behind clouds and our traverse of Crib Goch was accomplished in darkness without benefit of moonlight. It was windy; both of us found Crib Goch technically very demanding in the dark. Scary, in fact.
Up and over Crib-y-ddysgl, up the railway and onto the summit, which lost it’s cloud cap only while we were there, about 3a.m. We found that route-finding on the ridge was impossible by torchlight; there was no way of looking ahead. The light of dawn started to appear as we crossed from Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) to Y Lliwedd. As we descended from Y Lliwedd, there was beautiful, transcendent morning light. We were back at Pen-y-pass at 6.40am. Seven hours on the hill.
On another occasion – I can’t find any paper notes for this but I remember doing it – we decided on an attempt on Idwal Skyline in the dark. We picked a moonlit night of course, and set off from Derby, arrived in Snowdonia, parked up at Milestone Buttress, and set off up the North Ridge of Tryfan.
The North Ridge…what we hadn’t bargained for, what we had not implicitly understood, was some basic astronomy. The moon shines from the same direction, more or less, as the sun. It is never found in the north in the Northern hemisphere. I ought have known this, having worked at or near the equator and seen the rather odd spectacle of the moon being DIRECTLY overhead – something you’ll never see the UK. Ever tried climbing the North Ridge of Tryfan in the dark? Don’t. A fit party might climb the North Ridge from the road to the summit in slightly over an hour. I’ve done it many times, summer and winter, in between 70 and 90 minutes. It took us three hours. That was a salutory lesson. Wisely we opted not to climb Bristly Ridge. We descended to Bwlch Tryfan and from there straight back down to the road.
Here are a number of accounts of climbing the Sharp Edge of Blencathra, over thirty years. The first, in the mid-1980’s, and most recently in 2015.
From Castlerigg into Keswick. Then we tramped out, eventually hitting the disused railway. It was a hot, hazy, blue sky kind of day. Under the big A66 bridge, and some of the old river bridges had a very Canadian feel to them. Splendid scenery. We left the old railway and crossed several fields to a road, which we followed down into a ravine. We stopped in the shade by the babbling brook, a lovely spot encouraging lassitude, but eventually we had to push on.
Up the hillside as the sun beat down on us. This is your Mousthwaite Combe. We laboured up a grassy path up onto the shoulder, which offered amazing views. FM radio reception was quite remarkable – we were listening to Q102 Dublin on our walkmans – in stereo. We continued onto the summit, not taking the route via Sharp Edge on this occasion. We dropped back down to the road arriving at the Salutation Inn in Threlkeld for an excellent bar meal. From there after a pleasant drink, we walked back to Castlerigg in the gloaming.
A large party of ten for a mass ascent of Blencathra! From the inn we moved along a road and struck left into a short valley, across the headwall of which, could be seen our path, forming a diagonal upwards. Mousthwaite Combe. At the top, we found ourselves on a broad whale-back, with a deep valley below. In it, the gloriously Tolkienesque River Glenderamackin. [Tolkienesque to me that is, not to the younger fellow who wrote this account in 1985; he knew nothing of Tolkien when he was 20.]
Along the left side of this valley, before climbing steeply up into the corrie of Scales Tarn. This is really impressive rock scenery, particularly Sharp Edge. One member of our party, somewhat afraid of heights and exposure, went up the screes to the summit. The rest of us went up Sharp Edge, with K. and R. at the front, and myself and T. J Walmsley shepherding one or two less experienced walkers in the rear.
It was my first time here on what became and what remains probably my favourite route. I found it passably sharp, suitably impressive and very exposed, but too short. It looks a lot worse than it is from a long way off. When you think of the great ridge walks in the British Isles, the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is by no means least among them, though is one of the shorter routes, the crux of it being only a hundred yards long. Even Crib Goch is only a few hundred yards of really sharp rock ridge mixed in with a mile or so of reasonably narrow ridge walking. For sustained narrow rock edge work you have to go to the Aonach Eagach above Glen Coe, which is miles long. But that’s not passable in winter conditions for walkers.
The route lies up over some gendarmes and up onto the summit where we had lunch. To the north there are many kilometres of wild moorland, but not particularly exciting hill country. At the top, it started to mist up. Blencathra has little to recommend it but Sharp Edge, and the descent was tedious. This being a Sunday, it had to be a short day – 4 hours on the hill. But satisfying for all that.
On a windy day, myself and J. Parkinson walked into Blencathra through low cloud. There was a fair amount of snow visible in the corrie of Scales Tarn. Sharp Edge itself was in cloud and the rock was exceptionally greasy to the fingers and to the boots. There was little snow on the ridge itself, but a fair bit on the face at the end.
We did not reach the summit: My friend noted that he was in his element roofing, sitting on the crown of a house in the urban environment, and had no problem with heights, but the conditions here put us both out of our element. The rock cold and greasy, we withdrew safely.
Always know when to turn back. A key lesson for the mountaineer, learned here at no cost. I’ve been fortunate over many years to learn some important lessons in mountaincraft at very, very modest cost.
Myself and R.C.E Ball, in heavy standing snow but clearing weather, climbed up into Mousthwaite Combe. It was windy; spindrift was troublesome to us the whole day. The path round to Scales Tarn was barely visible under the snow. In places, folds in the land caused very deep snowdrifts to form, hindering our progress considerably.
We got into the Scales Tarn corrie about 1.30pm. Scales Tarn itself was frozen. The main part of Sharp Edge was great sport, if spoiled somewhat by constant spindrift storms. There was hard frozen snow from previous falls, as well as fresh snow. The crest up to the summit was technically very difficult in winter conditions, as we neither of us were carrying ice axes or crampons. An axe would have been a great help. The snow was very hard, the rocks iced over to eliminate all handholds, and footholds were hard to make.
The summit plateau was lethal verglas. We got up and off quickly but with considerable difficulty, via Scales Fell, and good glissading (or bumslides in this case) down to Mousthwaite Combe. We were the first party on the hill after heavy snow.
The previous day, 8/1/91, we’d taken a short stroll from our camp at Braithwaite, up Stile End to Overside (1863′), before retreating before a blizzard in late afternoon. A warming up stroll terminated abruptly by a heavy snowstorm.
We were on the hill (that is, into Mousthwaite Combe) by 12.15pm. We arrived in the Scales Tarn corrie around an hour later. There was an attack of hail as we climbed up to Sharp Edge. The conditions were excellent. Up on the top of Blencathra we could see Styhead Tarn glinting in the distance. We detoured around for extra hill-walking – Blencathra is a short route. However, the weather worsened and a snow squall forced us to shelter. So we came down and were off the hill by 4p.m.
I think this is the time we went to camp at Castlerigg, but decided to go to a B&B in Keswick instead. I recall getting wet even opening the car door, at the campsite up at Castlerigg, and we thought, “No.”
We drove through to Scales and set off up Blencathra at about 2pm, in good weather.
As we got into the corrie of Scales Tarn, the weather broke big time, and our scramble up Sharp Edge was lethal. Conditions were very greasy and slippery underfoot. The mist was down, and for a time it rained quite heavily. My young colleague had never been here and struggled with confidence. We got up Sharp Edge only after long meditation and careful consideration. In any case, to withdraw from Sharp Edge in those conditions would have been more hazardous than going on. An ascent of the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is no mean achievement in any conditions.
So, on and up we went, and we were soon finished. We were further encouraged by three friendly men making their way slowly up the ridge behind us with much talk and laughter. After the summit we descended through pleasant afternoon sunshine to the car and drove directly to Honister Hause YHA. We checked in and had the cup of tea we as Englishmen had been desiring for some time. I saw that Youth Hostels are now licensed. Supper was at the Fish Hotel in Buttermere, taken outside, on a very clear and pleasant evening.
A trip to Knoydart – extreme backpacking in October
My trip this October, in the planning these last three months, was to walk from the railway at Glenfinnan, through to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula. Inverie is one of the most remote places in mainland Britain. The walk itself I understand is part of the so-called “Cape Wrath Trail” though there was nary a sign at any point to indicate that.
I took the 48km walk in three more or less equal stages of about 16km each. From Glenfinnan to Strathan, Strathan to Sourlies, and from Sourlies to Inverie. As I was hiking alone, completely out of phone range, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to call it “extreme” backpacking. Conditions underfoot were absolutely dreadful, wet and deep mud and peat throughout. Across that ground, I was walking at barely 2km per hour averaged over the whole day. I thought I’d meet few people if anyone at all, mid-week in October, but eight other people were on the hill travelling more or less the same route at the same time. We met several times, finishing with drinks in the Old Forge in Inverie.
As in the past, my journey north on the Caledonian Sleeper began with a pint in the Doric Arch at Euston station. Virtually deserted on a Monday night, this railway-themed public house has a giant scale model of “Evening Star”, British Rail’s last steam locomotive, strategically placed behind the bar.
It was really rather pleasant to sit in my berth in the morning, watching the West Highland landscape scroll past the window. Breakfast came as the train rounded the famous Horseshoe Curve near Bridge of Orchy. At Fort William there was ground mist. My eye was caught by a Stanier Black Five stood waiting in the mist for the off with the “Jacobite Express” charter train to Mallaig.
After shopping for some minor groceries in Fort William, I took train a little after noon to Glenfinnan. The mist had burnt off; the skies were clear. The train was absolutely rammed full of tourists, and the officials of the railway company, in consequence perhaps, were a little above-averagely irascible. Passengers must not leave bags here…bicycles must be stored front wheel uppermost…
In the most beautiful clear weather, I hiked up through the heather and trees towards the viaduct. It is concrete: anywhere else but in this stunning location it would be ignored as an industrial monstrosity. But here, certainly since Harry Potter, people travel hundreds of miles to visit Glenfinnan viaduct.
The way ahead lay up a tarmac road through Glenfinnan. As a 10k runner I have learnt much about pacing myself this last year – but not enough. Though I consciously tried to keep the pace down, I still went too fast along the tarmac and in only a few kilometres the hard impacts did more damage to my left heel than in the whole of the next three days, causing a small blister. I continued past the bothy at Corryhully, taking a late lunch, and continuing up to the top, the Bealach a Chaorainn. Here there was a rather surreal gate with no fence on either side of it. Onwards, trending north-east away from the setting sun, down into a wide glacial valley, the long and straight Gleann Chaorainn. As the afternoon wore on, the light grew more delicate.
The ground underfoot became boggier and more complex, and I was starting to tire. As the valley came out into the bigger Glen Pean, I fell over in deep mud and somehow managed to buckle the bottom third of one of my trail poles. Ratty, I crossed the bridge over the Pean and approached a band of forest. Here I met the first of the eight people who were crossing to Inverie at the same time as me, an Englishwoman called Suze and her partner Andy, a Scotsman. After a brief chat I left them in peace and sought somewhere to pitch my tent. But the ground was tussocks and hummocks, dreadful, pathless wet ground wholly inappropriate for camping. In the middle distance I spied some different green, and thought, that might a better campground. It did – but it was on an island in the river. I crossed to the island with only minor difficulties (the boulders in the stream bed were a bit slimy). I deemed the risk of flooding on this particular night, to be negligible, although there was clear evidence that the island could and would flood when the river rose in spate.
Next day, the tent was wet inside and out with dew and condensation. In packing, I found that I had inadvertently brought onto the hill, over half a kilo of spare cheap tent pegs which had been stored right at the bottom of my rucksack. Rather too much weight to casually carry around – I had to abandon them. I crossed the river again, noting that the river had fallen during the night, and set off into the forest. The route lay along a track that clearly predated the trees (an industrial plantation) by decades if not generations. Round onto a forestry road and onwards; beyond the woods, the sky was clear and blue. A choice presented itself: I could hike up Glen Dessarry in the woods, or in the sunshine. On such a beautiful morning, it had to be the sunshine, at the expense of a short detour.
There is a reasonable unmade road up Glen Dessarry, up which it was my task to toil. I took an early lunch – or maybe it wassecond breakfast. I am become a creature of Hobbit on the hill: bread and butter, cheese, tomato, Chorizo sausage, chocolate, date/nut/seed trail mix, perhaps an orange. At Upper Glendessarry the path leaves the unmade road and kinks to the right – “Inverie, 17miles” a sign says. Wet and very muddy, the path continues, keeping another industrial plantation on the left. I reached the top edge of these upper woods and found a convenient flat stone on which to have another snack. A mile or so away below I spied two hikers, presumably the Scotsman and Englishwoman. They saw me clearly against the sky, and waved, but I missed that. They must have taken the route through the woods. As I lunched, a single Typhoon fighter roared past in the distance.
The path continues upwards, always wet, muddy and boggy, over Bealach an Lagain Duibh, which to my unschooled eye looks something like “Black Lake Pass”. One arrives in due course at two linked lochans, dark and forbidding in the lost, high hills. That said, the sun was out and though the water was black, the mood was not too bad. Lochan a’ Mhaim, it is called. On the bank of the second of these, a small boat was stashed, having clearly been laboriously carried up from Loch Nevis.
On the way down to Sourlies from this lochan, there was at least one significant ford over the Finiskaig river. One has to take care with fords, hiking alone. The trail poles are a great help in safely crossing a river. It was a lovely walk down through variable terrain, but always muddy and wet underfoot. At times the river meandered as a “misfit stream” through the valley, then it dropped down through a gorge to the valley floor proper at the head of Loch Nevis. After the initial significant ford, the path kept to the right all the way, sometimes high on the hillside above the river, other times, lower. I passed three people, the first of whom I spoke with briefly. In a strong Slav accent, he told me he was making for the roadhead at Strathan, and that his friends were some hours behind him. An hour or more later I passed his companions. A lady with a Husky and an older, less fit looking man, labouring slowly up the hill with stertorous breath and a Cross of St Andrew on the back of his rucksack. They had started from Sourlies – and late indeed was the hour for them to be passing me not even close to half-way to Strathan.
Once on the valley floor I spotted a party of two walking ahead of me. They arrived at the Sourlies bothy a few minutes before I did. Mark and Dave; Dave, a Scotsman, Mark, an older guy from near Manchester. I decided to stay in the bothy and I put my tent up to dry in the stiff breeze, and it dried in minutes. Mark made some tea, and I contributed some milk from the sleeper train. Not long after that, the Englishwoman Suze and her partner Andy arrived, and there was some sociable chat. They opted to camp outside. Then, four Dutchman arrived – going to be crowded tonight! But they also opted to camp, although they prepared their food in the bothy and stayed for a chat. We started a fire, but if there was any wind at all, the chimney didn’t draw properly, and the bothy soon filled with smoke.
I cooked spicy lentils and a “faranata” – a chickpea flour pancake. This impressed everyone, as freeze-dried wilderness meals seem to carry all before them. Just add hot water. But I like cooking, and one-pot cooking in the wilderness is a challenge I cannot resist. It does mean that I have to carry various bits and bobs onto the hill to make such mountain cuisine possible. A small onion perhaps; a clove of garlic, a twist of spices and salt and pepper. It all adds weight but is worth the effort. As I am a big man, today weighing over 90kg, I can afford to carry 20kg on the hill.
During the night it rained for a time and the wind rose. For some reason I did not sleep well, though i was comfortable enough on a little wooden platform with a couple of mats under me. The Sourlies bothy is in a magnificent wild location at the very head of Loch Nevis, a fjord in all but name. The Fort William to Mallaig road is 15km to the south and about the same to the west, over trackless mountains. To the north, across more trackless mountains 10km to Loch Hourn, itself 15km from Loch Alsh, another fjord or sea-loch. To the east, the route I walked – 13km or so to Strathan at the roadhead on Loch Arkaig. In short, as wild a place as anywhere in Britain.
Next day I was away bright and early, on the hill by 8.15a.m. The couple camping had already set off. The first part of the route lay right along the seashore, quite literally on the beach. Would be tricky at high tide, I would think. The path curves right up onto the headland of Strone Sourlies, and round into Glen Carnoch. One is then presented with a dreadful flat salt marsh to cross. At this point, before nine in the morning, the sky was deeply threatening, lowering grey. There were various paths across the marsh, and the light was good enough, but the going underfoot was really slow and boggy, very, very wet. Without trail poles this would be a really challenging walk.
I found crossing the marsh not so much the moral low point of my journey, as the moment when the sheer wildness and remoteness of this terrain, came home to me. Fall over badly here, walking alone, and even sprain your ankle, much less break your leg, and you’d be in a world of hurt. There’s no mobile connectivity. At best, at this time of year there might be twenty-odd people a week through here, and raising the alarm, without satellite telephony, would only be after 6-7 hours walk from here. Last year in the Cairngorms, I found the scale of the wilderness there similarly daunting. This West Highlands terrain is more intimate and familiar than the Cairngorms, resembling as it does the Lake District or North Wales, but this particular stretch was the exception, and that sense of intimacy deserted me. It was almost frightening.
Halfway across the marsh, I spied a stag and his harem of does, right in my path. I was concerned that the stag would get edgy and jealous if I came too close, and I tried to give them a wide berth, which wasn’t easy in a marsh. I’d been hearing rutting stags all the way from Glenfinnan. As I pondered the way forward, the deer moved out of my way. I spotted the footbrdge which I needed to cross. The scale of the landscape was so great that I had not seen it sooner. Soon after, I spotted the Englishwoman and her partner some way off course, keeping to the right up the valley. There was nothing I could do about it. I became conscious that I was not even carrying a whistle.
The bridge at Sourlies is new, having been erected in 2019 after the old one presumably collapsed or washed away. In October, one might ford this river only with the greatest possible care, and to do so alone would be foolhardy. Crossing, one then hikes up to the ruins of Carnoch, a substantial village or even township. Strange and ghostly it seemed me under that lowering sky. A substantial community once lived here.
From Carnoch, the path lies slow and steady uphill to 575m, back and forth in neat zigzags, to the col which is marked only by a small cairn. This morning’s walking, from Sourlies to this col, has been the summit, the climax, the crux, of the whole three days from Glenfinnan. A propos of the wilderness situation, the guy Dave had shown me earlier, some form of satellite-based emergency position-indicating device, for use in such country as this. I may have to consider carefully, obtaining something of that nature.
And on down into Mam Meadail and the rough bounds of Knoydart. The path was straight and true, steadily downhill and on the right of the river, but ever wet and muddy underfoot. Quite some way down – it is not obvious on the OS map, and so is a relative innovation of recent times – the path becomes a rather obtrusive unmade road. There is evidence of digging machinery having been here; the road is graded and passable with great care in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
The valley narrows into what is almost a gorge as it passes Torr an Tuircc on the right. There is a footbridge and a ford for the tracked vehicles used to make the road. From here, on the left of the river through pleasant woodland, into the wider valley of the Inverie River, to another more substantial footbridge. Thence onto a pretty useful unmade road, past a monument on a hillside. Then – again the OS map has not caught up with reality – past a blasted wasteland of harvested plantation, all giant grey tree stumps and waste timber. I continued along a high forestry road until reaching the edge of the land owned by the Knoydart community, where there was good signage. Along the side of some woods, which were somehow reminiscent of the Dark Peak, and then left, in spitting rain, down a path beside a babbling brook, down to the road.
The West Coast atmosphere here is very strong. These houses and lanes of Inverie very strongly resemble the settlement at Kinloch on Rum, as well they might. I walked out towards the campsite, passing as I did so, a mobile home. As I passed, two little girls leaned out of the window to tell me that the campsite was cold and wet and that there was a bunkhouse. Bemused, I stopped for a moment, and their father appeared to shush them, telling me that the campsite was fine. This pleasant-mannered Englishman sold me a place in the Knoydart Foundation bunkhouse nonetheless, for £22, and with that I was well pleased. The bunkhouse was great: comfy bed, superb showers. I had a cup of tea and sat in a lovely lounge, very high-ceilinged and gloomy. A fire crackled and two visiting old Lancashiremen sat chatting. I made myself some supper in the kitchen, and then walked out through the damp autumn leaves to the Old Forge, the “most remote pub in mainland Britain”.
Today, to walk through from Glenfinnan, though objectively a tremendous achievement, is not unusual. I was the first of nine people to cross today from the Sourlies bothy. This evening, all nine of those people were in here – myself, the couple from Edinburgh, the two guys from Manchester, and the four Dutchmen. Five of us sat down for drinks, and we had as remarkable and pleasant a time of fellowship with strangers, as ever I had.
“Somebody left us whisky And the night is very young I’ve got some to say and more to tell And the words will soon be spilling from my tongue”
I would not recommend going on that route without trail poles, waterproof trousers and gaiters. The weather was unseasonably mild, so I didn’t use gloves or a hat at all. I used a waterproof copy of OS “Outdoor Leisure map” #398, Loch Morar and Mallaig, as there does not appear to be a Harvey’s Mountain map of the area.
When I look back over more than forty years of hillwalking and mountaineering, starting in 1977 and continuing to the present day, there are a small handful of summits I find I have visited time and time again. Tryfan and Snowdon are two of them; Blencathra is a third. I was very surprised to find, when I started preserving my written mountaineering logbooks, that the Old Man of Coniston (803m) was actually quite high on my list.
We visit the mountain here in February 1986, in what were superb, icy-cold snowy winter conditions: quite remarkable for the English Lake District even forty years ago. I rather suspect that we shall not in our lifetime see snow like that in the Lakes. But one may hope.
Five of us left the hut in Coniston and walked up the path, towards Low Water. A tedious slog saw us into the Low Water corrie in deep snow, where we practiced ice techniques for a while on a large, gently sloping icefall. We went on up a gully to the right of Low Water Crag. Apart from a steep grassy step, it was easy but very satisfying snow climbing. It brought us out in due course onto the unconscionably cold and icy summit of Brim Fell.
In mist we continued south along the ridge, which looked quite alarmingly sharp in winter conditions. Snow can sometimes have the effect of making the merely British hill look alpine, and give the appearance of difficulty to what is merely straightforward. I recall being told that one of the first French mountaineers to see the Snowdon Horseshoe in winter, in the late 19th century, wildly over-estimated the height, length and complexity of the route under winter conditions. The party got to the start of Crib Goch, and saw Snowdon in the distance, covered in snow, looking very Alpine. The french mountaineer declared that the summit of Snowdon was too far away to reach from where they stood, in daylight.
Coniston Old Man was iced over, but not completely covered; the Lakeland summits are not high enough to permit a serious build-up of snow. We left north, as the mist cleared to reveal Goat Hause and Dow Crag. We stopped for lunch at Goat Hause and continued across rather rough mixed ground, which was very hard on the crampons. This would be scree in summer and there would be a perfectly obvious path to follow. We were aiming for a snow gully at the northern end of Dow Crag. The first section was just drifted snow, but soon it became some rather trickier frozen-over grass and rock steps. Nearer the top we moved over a rocky rib into the next most southern gully, which was well in condition, packed with hard snow, especially near the top. It twisted away below us down to Goat Water. [It is entirely possible that the photograph of me that opens this article, was actually taken here. At 40 years remove I cannot be sure.]
This was fulfilling and satisfying work, a great end to the route as we scrambled out onto the summit of Dow, to clearing weather and the sight of the Scafell massif absolutely plastered in snow. The weather was photograph-clear. From Dow, we considered our options, and moved onto Grey Friar. When we got there, it was cold, and windy, and we were becoming rather tired. We thundered around the hause and up the gentle slope to Swirl How.
From Swirl How there is a very steep ridged descent called the “Prison Band”. This was excellent sport downhill to Swirl Hause, and from there, down to Levers Water through a good foot of soft powdery snow. That was hard going. In the sky, pastel hues of pink and yellow, a beautiful evening in the making. An absolutely grand day. Down past the iced-over quarry roads through the Coppermines Valley, arriving at the hut around 5pm.
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?”