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The Scottish Experience

Date: 28th September 2008
Submitted by: Anthony Feeney

I've started to get some of the feeling back into my fingers so I can finally get typing this report you've all been eagerly waiting for. You'd think I'd have learned by now that when George suggests a September weekend in Scotland that you can guarantee 3 things: rain, rain and more bleeding rain. I even looked at the photos of last year's Tower Ridge sogginess and STILL decided "Tra la la! Yup, that's how I like to spend my weekends!" I didn't even get to sample the whisky this time round, though there was a period when it would have been most welcome I can tell you. Anyway to begin...

On this trip were Pete, PJ, George, Mike, myself and Martin Bonar. The rest of us flew into Glasgow and hired a 7-seater while Martin drove and arrived the night before. I think he managed the North Buttress on Buachaille Etive Mor that day and it passed without incident. He was obviously blissfully unaware of the CCCC's capacity for crisis. We arrived at Kimber's around 2am, George and I having discussed everything under the sun on the way up while the other 3 jammy beggars slept. Oh the price of the front seat!

Despite the reputation of Martin's "Thunderbox" snoring technique I heard nothing and managed some sleep before drill master George sounded Reveille at 7:30am. We'd decided a scramble was the best way to pass the day and settled on one that led up to the peak of Stob Coire nam Beith. There's a steep walk up to the climb following the river and of course the rain was on. Pete was doing his usual Linford-Christie-Minus-The-Lunchbox impression and we sweated keeping up. "I thought he was a Man Utd fan?" sez Martin, "Don't they usually get off to a slow start?". It was with protesting legs near the top that I shouted "Are we having fun yet?!"

The descriptions in the guidebook weren't great and we spent a while trying to match the picture of the crag with what was before our eyes but eventually we settled on a line that might possibly be our grade 3S. S is for SERIOUS don'tcha know? To the left and right the rock was very sheer but our line looked doable. In the dry. Pete, George and I roped up with PJ, Martin and Mike but it soon became apparent that the route was treacherous to say the least, with poor protection, and slick crumbly rock. 20m up with no gear placed, my boot stuck in a wet corner and filling up nicely with water I was glad when the cry of "Discretion is the better part of valour!" went up from George and we all lowered off on a piece of in-situ gear. Obviously some other climber had had the same thoughts of this horrible route.

Since we'd struggled this far we decided to at least try and get to the top so continued up to the ridge between Stob Coire nan Lochan and Bidean nam Bian and then on up to the peak of Bidean. We finally met some other people up there, having initially thought that no sane person would be out in the conditions. There's a streak of madness in us all. We pulled out the maps, took a look in the poor visibility and decided to turn right. Right, mind you! Not East, West, North or South but a vague "right turn". No compass was consulted and despite a muted protest from Martin, 5 of us were convinced we were heading in the right direction. Martin's objections eventually grew loud enough to be heard and we had to sheepishly admit that the group mind had led us into Lost Valley. Still it was an interesting, if long, diversion.

Having picked our way through the boulder field we had just found the path again when we spied a man below us holding bloody bandages to his wife's head. She'd fallen aff the path and had a terrific head wound. Martin was all business and we helped move her to a more comfortable position and bandage her head. George and PJ followed their grandson out to the valley to get a phone signal and call Mountain Rescue, Pete went to direct them up the path (and help carry their equipment) while Martin and I tried to keep her warm and talking. They were from Kirkintillock, where the Irish migrant workers from Achill island were burnt to death in their bothy back in the 40s, following a row with a local. Apparently the village was dry for years too since her grandfather, who'd suffered an alcoholic father, had all the pubs closed when he grew up.

For a wee history lesson:

Anyway Mountain Rescue came and took over, though Martin was less than impressed by one of them turning up in jeans, especially when a heavy shower started just as we left. We had a few pints in Nevis Inn and I went off to buy some dry clothes for the next day, the "oul grey" jogging pants having got soaked through. My Goretex trousers were full of crampon holes and were useless really. Back at Kimber's we cooked, supped wine and played cards till about 11pm before turning in. I'd a particularly bad run, not winning a hand all night and made the others stay up till I'd won one. Pete nearly got out of the headlock after PJ went to bed but I kept a tight grip on him and played on one-handed. During the night I was woken by the house falling down round me and leapt out of bed to avoid the stampede of elephants who were intent on dismantling our accommodation. No, it was just Martin snoring. I sloped off to the living room where the walls were thick enough to mute the rumblings and I managed a few more hours.

Impressed with Martin's actions the day before I made sure there was a spare fleece and other emergency kit in the rucksack as we geared up for the back of the Ben. North East Buttress was on the cards if it was dry (some chance!) and either Observatory or Castle Ridge if wet. As usual I was last to the CIC hut which is currently getting an extension added to it - His and Hers compost toilets, and a new living area with the old part getting more beds added. We got tea made for us by the stonemason carrying out the work (can't remember his name) and chatted away about the SMC and his 31 years of service with Glencoe Mountain Rescue. Think his pal was called Brian McDermot?

The rain had started on the walk up and I was wearing Martin's salopettes, which were quite heavy and warm and were to make the difference between Mike and I later. We'd settled on Observatory and by about 10:30am were all roping up to climb it, in the same pairs as the day before. The 1st pitch was straightforward and I followed the same line as Pete and George. At the 2nd pitch they'd chosen separate line but neither looked appetising. Mike had to choose between George's wet pane of glass on the left or a series of sloping ledges on the right, which Pete had already taken a minor fall on. PJ's squeals, protests and slipping boots on the right made the left seem a little easier but here Martin wasn't having much friction either. Eventually Mike got up there and somehow I did too, though I doubt if I used my feet after the initial little ledge. It was all arms and careful balancing.

An easier section led to our big obstacle and the reason for our cold, wet, restless, hallucinatory night. The wall before us seemed to have an obvious centre line but Mike was unable to get more than 10m up it before backing off. To the left and right were exposed sections that in the dry may well have been fine but neither of us fancied climbing in the wet, dangling high above the deep gullies below. We had to try anyway so Mike tried the right section and I the left but, despite some initial easiness, they soon turned into wet nothingness with no protection that we could see. So it was back to the middle line for me to have a go, having no other choice really, other than somehow abseiling off. I managed to place a pretty bomber hex that gave me the confidence to move higher than Mike had got and could see a very decent flake just above. With the boots slipping and sliding I went for it, got there gasping and glad to finally have a decent hold. Earlier George had said "If you find yourself on something that's not obviously VDiff, you're off route". I think I was definitely off route then!

We must have wasted a hell of a lot of time here because we could hear shouts from the others WAY above us. We shouted "Hello" just to let them know we were still alive and moving and carried on. The rain, occasional sleet and icy wind hadn't really let up and when we weren't climbing it got cold real quick. Belaying in the conditions was awful and I was glad to get moving again when it was my turn to lead. The next few pitches were straightforward but the changing light started to tell me it was going to get dark real soon and the CIC hut below didn't look very far away. I tried to hurry us along but suddenly it was time to put the head torches on and make a decision about just what in hell to do. We phoned the others, who'd waited on top for over an hour (but were now in the Achintee Inn, Gaaah!) and let them know the craic.

For once I was glad of my big Petzl beam and not the puny LED light from these more modern torches. With an almost new battery I could see well enough and though the going was slow we made progress. Most of the climbing wasn't too difficult but twice we came to vertical sections that looked impassable in the dark and wet. Some careful studying though and adjustment of the Petzl beam pointed out features and on we went. Finally we did come to a complete halt. I could see no other way to progress than to drop down into the gully to our left. A quick call to George and it sounded like we were near the top so I sent Mike up the gully only for him to hit another impasse. My muscles had protested loudly pulling the rope in on the last section and when Mike belayed me up to him he said that his arms and legs were getting cramped too.

We were now unsure if we'd been at the section George described because in the fading torchlight we could only see sheer walls on either side. Mike had found a niche in the rock that could provide some shelter. What to do? Continue and leave this little sanctuary or take what shelter we could and wait for help? Like Mike said, "We could be 5 moves from the top or 500". We just didn't know and with the cramped muscles I was unsure if either of us could climb any further. We settled into the niche, hugged in a strictly manly way to share body heat, then called the others and Mountain Rescue. All along I was trying to avoid this because it just smacked of failure but it was time to swallow the pride and admit we were in a spot of bother.

MR were friendly and professional but basically they said "You're not injured, so we're not coming out. Get as comfortable as you can and we'll maybe see you in the morning". NOOOOO! Now that we'd stopped moving the cold really started to bite and Mike was shaking like somebody had plugged him into the mains. I just had to laugh when I remembered him showing me in Kimber's that he'd actually packed sun cream for this trip! He's nothing if not optimistic that boy. We spoke again to Pete and George and they made plans to get up at first light, hurlte up the tourist track , bring dry clothes and hot drinks and come find us.

I was very worried about Mike by this stage as he was nauseous and unable to eat, was having dificulty talking and even the shivering had stopped. I got out my dry fleece but could only pack it in around the front of his coat as he couldn't get the coat off. I wrapped myself round him as best I could from behind and joked abut "What happens on the mountain stays on the mountain". The MR guy, Terry, had said to keep talking but we were both so shrunk into ourselves and our misery that there was no speech, only chittering jaws. We tried taking turns at the front to bear the exposure but in turned out to be warmer there with a body at your back instead of cold rock so I let Mike stay there as much as possible.

Half way through the night the cold was so bad I was mentally exhausted with trying to deal with it. I started wondering, "Could we climb? Would it be better to be moving?". I'd half joked to Mike "Don't fall asleep, you mightn't wake up!" but now I was seriously worried about both of us. However when we got to our feet to make an attempt we were like 2 doddering old men. The legs had truly cramped up by now and I could hardly stand up never mind climb a wet wall of rock. So we stood like a pair of eejits slapping the body with our arms trying to get some heat going. I persuaded Mike to get the fleece on properly and then it was back in the niche for another round of "Love Thy Neighbour".

I must have nodded off now and again and maybe was dreaming of warm places to be but I had a strange couple of hallucinations later. I woke up and could have sworn I was in my mothers kitchen! It was like being there in the evening with no light on so all the furniture was muted shades of grey. Despite blinking several times the image remained and though my head was going "Ya big numpty, you're on Ben Nevis", my eyes were telling me different. In the end it was fascinating to study this mirage whilst knowing it wasn't really there. Another time I had a mirage of a field of waving tall plants and the third time I could have sworn I saw light from a head torch sweeping around our little niche. Wishful thinking the lot of it...

Come daylight we knew help wouldn't be too far away but rather than while away the time in anticipation chose to nod off as much as possible. Another hour or so wasn't going to finish us off. When we heard the shouts of "Mike! Anthony!" from above we were completely overjoyed. This feeling quickly turned to one of dismay when we crawled out of the niche, looked up and saw Pete and George not 10m above us. To have been so close to the top, so close to the emergency shelter, I couldn't help thinking "We should have made the final push". But hindsight is the best foresight as they say.

They lowered a rope and while Mike seemed able to climb a little, I got my sorry ass dragged up most of the way, Pete and George pulling mightily. I could have hugged the two of them if I wasn't so tired from hugging Mike. We all got up to the shelter and got dressed in the dry clothes the lads had brought. I don't drink tea normally but I very gratefully gulped down the hot stuff they'd brought up along with the sandwiches, chocolate and power gel. I thanked them for coming and they demurred but it was really really nice to see them. We'd survived the night! Full of energy now we took off down the path and the muscles soon limbered up. I even managed to keep up with "bullet from a gun" Pete until past the waterfall.

Back at Kimber's PJ had been up early, pacing the floor and cooking a fried breakfast for something to do. Martin had raced off to catch his ferry and she was alone with the daytime TV. The Kimber's had been made aware of what had happened and were letting us stay in the apartment a bit longer, so we managed hot showers and the fry before packing up for the trip home. Pete couldn't wait to tell us about meeting the great Dave McCleod at the Kimber's bouldering wall the previous evening also.

It was an eventful weekend by all accounts. Though I swore mightily while climbing in the dark that this was my last mountain adventure I think I can learn from it and do better next time. I was a bit blase about the climb because I've been up there a few times but it's so easy to get caught napping. Even a simple £3 bivvy bag could have made a big difference and if we'd had a bothy we'd have simply stayed the night and climbed out in the morning. My only worry is the numbness in my fingertips and toes that has faded somewhat but is still around a week later.

If I was to give up mountaineering I think I'd go into the drug dealing business. My motto would be "You'll get high but you'll find it hard coming down again." Till next time.

Photo of Route