Friday, 24 February 2017

Walter Parry Haskett-Smith: To Napes Needle and Beyond


Napes Needle: a rare photo of Haskett Smith posing half way up, taken in 1890 by Edmund, his younger brother. It was found in a box in an attic in Sydney, Australia in the personal effects of Rusty Westmorland.

Haskett-Smith, Haskett-Smith
Alone he slew the Monolith.

      
There can be no doubt that Haskett Smith slew the monolith in July 1886, which may have been the major event that was instrumental in turning rock climbing, from a training ground for those aspiring Alpinists who were affluent enough to be able to afford to visit the Alps regularly, so they could be led up mountains by local guides, into what it is widely accepted as today – a sport in its own right in all its current formats and approaches.

History tells us, that Haskett Smith made his first visit to Wasdale at the end of July, 1881, when he fell in love with the place immediately, making it his regular haunt for the rest of his life.

On his initial visit he stayed with Tom and Annie Tyson at Row Farm guesthouse, but all other visits were spent at the Wastdale Head Inn run by Dan Tyson, (no relation to Tom and Annie).

Much has been said about his meeting with Frederick H. Bowring, (then aged 58 – Haskett Smith being 22) but nothing as to why they became very close companions. Similarly, his relationship with Maurice Byles has never been explore, given that it was immediately after Byles’s death in 1921 that Haskett Smith’s behaviour and attitude changed. He no longer cared about his appearance, allowed his health to deteriorate, neglected Trowswell, the family estate he was guardian of, to such an extent that it was demolished in the 1930’s for being in a dilapidated state. It is also interesting to note, that it was from this time that his interest in actual rock climbing all but ceased along with his travels to Europe, which he used to do several times every year with Byles.

Eric Greenwood, Haskett Smith, H. Scott Tucker, Gerald West, AN Other,J. Robson, G. Craig, George Seatree and William Brigg.

What has to be remembered, is that Haskett Smith [not his real surname – it being plain Smith], came from a wealthy upper class family, who like most families of that era, had ‘skeletons in the cupboard’ – twin sisters (the Smith families first born children in 1854), one of who was placed in a Mental Institution at 13 and never appeared on any family census sheets or even in the family records; Algernon the first born son was a  practicing homosexual, who got involved with members of high society including royalty and nobility whilst attending the notorious known homosexual brothel run by a Charles Hammond, at 19 Cleveland Street, just off Tottenham Court Road in London. Before the scandal broke in July 1889, (which precipitated Prince Albert, Duke of Clarence, being sent on a seven-month tour of British India in Sept 1889 in order to avoid the press and subsequent trials), Algernon ‘accidentally’ shot himself in the head whilst cleaning his 12 bore shotgun, prior to going on a hunting trip to Scotland in 1887. Rumours at that time suggested that his death may not have been an accident or even suicide.

Fellow barrister, Montague John Druitt, was a friend of Algernon’s, another well-known visitor to 19 Cleveland Street, and who also died by drowning in the River Thames under strange and unexplained circumstances in December 1888, a year after Algernon’s death. It was from this time, that Druitt became a one-time suspect for being ‘Jack the Ripper’!


Haskett Smith was interviewed by Scotland Yard in January 1889, regarding what he knew of Druitt’s personal life, for no other reason than (a) Druitt’s association with his older brother Algernon, and (b) both Haskett Smith and Druitt, whilst at different University Colleges at the same time, were members of the same Oxford University debating society, both were athletic and played sports,  both were called to the Bar in April 1885 – Haskett Smith on 23rd and Druitt on 29th, and both trained as barristers together. Just after qualifying as a barrister, Haskett Smith received a case in his docket at Lincoln’s Inn from a friend, to act as co-counsel with none other than Druitt. Haskett Smith was far from pleased with this and is known to have refused to take on the case. Indeed, as we now know, he never took on any cases as a barrister throughout his entire life.

FRCC Meet: Wastdale
Historically, writers state unequivocally that it was his solo ascent of the Needle, that opened the door to rock climbing being viewed as a sport in its own right, and as such, place great significance to the event. However, did he and his climbing colleagues of the time, see the same picture as those writers?

Given the accolade assigned to him, it is interesting to note, that his contemporaneous note in the Wasdale Hotel book relating to the climb, contained 5 lines which showed no sign of emotion or even achievement.

“A fine climb of the arête character may be found in Gable Napes. This arête is the right hand bank of the right hand of the two great gullies which are seen from the hotel and is marked by a peculiar pinnacle at the foot of it. The pinnacle may be recognised (till the next gale of wind) by a handkerchief tied to the top”.

Either he was being very modest, or, he did not view the climb as being anything significant. His next article in 1890 in the Pall Mall Budget titled ‘The Napes Needle’, contained 22 lines with a little more detail. But it was 28 years after the event that he actually wrote an article describing the climb in detail!
           
As the initial five-line hotel book article was undated, various dates from June 28th through to July 4th have been given for this historic solo ascent. However, as noted above, in 1914, he published in the Fell & Rock Climbing Club Journal, a more comprehensive account of the ascent and combined with some research, we can make certain assumptions as the most likely date of the ascent.


Research shows that on June 28th, he was with other climbers making the first ascent of South-East Gully on Great End, (originally known as Robinson’s Gully); on 29th June, he was with Charles Baumgartner, Frederick Bowring, Miss. M. Holderness and John W. Robinson, climbing Slab and Notch climb on Pillar Rock. As the 30th was a wet day, nothing much was done by anyone. On 1st July, along with Baumgartner, Bowring, and Miss Holderness, he climbed Broad Stand and descended via Deep Ghyll. 


On 2nd July, weather reports from the Meteorological Office records, show that it was a wet day again and as we know that he climbed the Needle on a day when it was hot, it cannot have been this day. According to Haskett Smith’s article in 1914, he had agreed to accompany a group of friends who were leaving the hotel and making for Gosforth, were they were to get transport to the nearest mainline train station. As their luggage was being taken to Gosforth by pony and trap, they decided to walk over the fells so that he could lead them up a climb on Buckbarrow, situated at the bottom end of Wasdale just above Wasdale Hall. 


We know that 4th July was a Sunday, so as all the locals were avid church goers – Methodists or Chapel, they would not have worked on the Sabbath. Therefore, it is highly likely that they left a day earlier on Saturday 3rd, which happened to be a very warm muggy day and most likely, the day he soloed the Needle. This is of course, pure speculation by the author, but until someone else can come up with a more concrete date?

As the Needle did not get its second ascent until 17th March, does this indicate that neither Haskett Smith nor the climbing fraternity of that time, felt the climb was of any value and therefore not worth repeating until 3 years later! The question to be asked is; (a) what happened to cause the sudden rush of ascents in March 1889 when it received its 2nd ascent, continuing through to 24th December, when it received its 10th ascent? (b) similarly, given that Haskett Smith made repeated ascents of many other climbs between 1882 and 1910, why is it that the only repeat ascent of the Needle that appears to be public knowledge, was his 50th anniversary climb in 1936 when in fact, he made two other ascents in between his first and the 1936 climb; his 2nd ascent in 1890 and the 3rd ascent in 1899, both with his younger brother Edmund.


There are of course, many other aspects of his life that were not common knowledge, unlike his climbing record and his many articles he wrote for a variety of climbing club journals. For instance, he smoked a pipe, liked cigars and cigarettes; played chess; sailed frequently with Maurice Byles in the Byles family steam yacht SS Saevuna to the continent, where they both cycled across most European low countries; he spoke French; had a tussle with the King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria in 1914 on a train station; and despite having poor eyesight due to an earlier infection which never cleared up, and both his arms and hands shook constantly (possibly onset of Parkinson’s disease), he still owned and drove a car right up until 1938. (His first car was bought in 1910 – a GN basic model and his second car a 2 seater Clyno, in 1920)
                
It is interesting to note; that all that has been written about Haskett Smith since his death on 11th march 1946, contains the same errors of facts. For instance, they all state that he was born at Trowswell in Cranbourne, Kent, the family estate, when in fact he was born in Bognor Regis.
Similarly, most writers state that his first visit to the French Pyrenees was in 1880 with the explorer Count Henry Russell, when in reality, he visited Russell in 1873 when he was aged 14, as his family visited Russell in the French Pyrenean village of Faubourg whilst touring Europe during summer as they did every year.   By the end of 1930’s his health had deteriorated to such an extent, that he was barely able to write his signature, and in 1936 at his 50th anniversary ascent of the Needle, he had to be placed in the middle of a rope of three.

Whilst a great deal is known about his 50th anniversary climb of the Needle in 1936, very little is known about events that occurred after the climb as it was not made public, let alone the fact that as his eyesight was failing and his hands shook permanently, he was reluctant to drive to Wasdale at the behest of FRCC in order to make the anniversary climb and so asked Graham Wilson (Assistant Ed. Of the FRCC Journal), to accompany him on the drive from Maidenhead to Wasdale on 10th April - Good Friday. After the ascent and the climbing party were returning to the hotel, some of the onlookers decided to climb up Needle Gulley, and in doing so, someone knocked down a stone which struck one of the ladies below on the head. Luckily she was not seriously injured but with hindsight, it was a prelude of what was to follow.

At mid-afternoon, news came in of an accident to a climber on Great Gable and so Prof. Robert Samuel Chorley (President of the FRCC and who led Haskett Smith on the anniversary climb), called for eight volunteers to carry up a stretcher and first aid packs to aid the rescue of the stricken climber.
It was now 5.45pm and the light was fading, but off they went in the direction of the Needle again. Half-way along the path, the eight volunteers were overtaken by Chorley, carrying another first aid sack, his stamina endless in the extreme. 


The rescue party were met by another party of walkers who were returning to the hotel, so they turned around when they heard where the rescue party were going, offering to carry the stretchers and first aid sacks. The rescuers tramped past Moses Finger, along the track to Hell Gate where they found the injured climber, a John Murray. The time was 7.30pm and all light had but faded into the darkness of the cold night. It appears, that the injured climber and his companions had decided to down climb unroped, a route called Tophet Bastion when Murray slipped on either wet rock or grass, rolled down across the sloping scree where he sustained some serious injuries.


His companions had already applied bandages to his injured limbs and so by 8pm, the rescue party were ready to carry him down to safety back down to the Wasdale Hotel, arriving finally around 10.45pm. Fortunately, one of the hotel guests was a doctor who examined the injured climber, and an hour later, both were in an ambulance off to Whitehaven Hospital. 


The Hotel had made a meal for the rescuers who spent the evening discussing Haskett Smith’s jubilee climb and the subsequent events. Several days later, it came to light, that Murray, the injured climber, died during an operation to amputate one of his badly crushed legs. A sad ending to a celebratory event!
Sadly, Haskett Smith developed dementia in the last few years of his life and died alone in a nursing home in Poole. He was buried in the local cemetery and it is interesting to note, that no climbers or members of any of the climbing clubs he was a member of, attended. A sad end to an individual who gave so much. Indeed, between 1886 and 1942, he wrote and had published in excess of 80 articles, including his two climbing guide books – England 1894 (the first ever climbing guide book to be referenced in another book), and Wales and Ireland 1895. 



He did not complete his third volume – Scotland – due out in 1896, due to poor sales of his first two volumes, negative reviews in Alpine Journal and Climbers’ Club Journal, and on hearing that O. G. Jones was publishing a guide book in 1897. This and the negative reviews, persuaded him not to go ahead with it. It is believed that the manuscript for the Scotland book was destroyed in an air raid in 1945 in London. 

A fitting epitaph should be:   ‘non omnis moriar’ - ‘not all of me shall die’
                                             

Frank Grant.2017

 
Note: Whilst the 400+ page, 133,500 word biography is finished, it appears publishers of climbing and mountaineering books, are currently only interested in publishing stories and biographies of ‘eminent climbers'.Preferably ones that are still alive! FG

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Shortest line to Nowhere



Recent marketing media from Adidas is indicative of a wider trend in the climbing community, one of commercialisation that threatens the cultural and historical health of the sport.

Let us be clear, bolting is in certain cases, a necessary evil and is here to stay. I think we might all agree that in a perfect world, bolting and the wider environmental impact certain climbing techniques inflict would not exist. We would leave no spittled chalk, no rubber streaks, no tired rock. All climbing, we must accept, has an impact and there is a responsibility on every participant to limit it.


However, where these limits should lie are sensitive – we have had this debate. Messner, Chouinard, Wilson, Edwards, The Cornish, they’ve all had their say. The parameters of what is acceptable are subjective, however, even in this present day much can still be said for Messner’s ‘Murder of the Impossible’; are the limits of climbing pushed by our own courage, or by a willingness to assault a cliff with bolt and drill?


That said, Lito Tejada-Flores (in a seminal essay, ‘Games Climbers Play’, that should be read and studied with all the fervour of learning to tie a fig. 8) defined ethics in a neat package back in 1967; that as objective risk increases the number of restrictions one places on themselves can decrease. For a boulderer, with fewer objective risks, it is accepted that items such as a mat and shoes are the acceptable limits of an ethical ascent. For the expedition climber, everything is fair game; bolts, radios, helicopters, ladders. And this scale slides depending on the ‘game’ a climber wishes to partake in. 


This debate of how and where to set this limit is healthy, and in fact necessary. Climbing is a beautifully autonomous activity so much so that we as a community are the only people who can hold ourselves to account. It’s a decade old debate and the battle lines are very clearly drawn. For the first time since its inception though we are standing on the edge of a precipice. A new challenger has appeared on the horizon and we seem unable yet to entirely make out its detail. Modern day climbing cannot be considered anarchic, nor subversive.


It is not the 1970s sub-culture that actively resists assimilation in to the societal ‘norm’. Mountain culture is reaching an audience and participant like never before. And when the likes of Adidas and Nike begin cashing in from the desires of the populace you know you’ve made it to the big time. Such commercialisation is changing the face of the sport, reducing its complexity and history down to such grey, one dimensional ‘musak’ as to render it part of the broader static buzz of everyday life. Suddenly we’re amongst new territory, a place where Simpson and Yates may as well be a publishing firm and Messner’s mountain firsts are apparently still up for grabs. Commercialisation is reductive and will eventually consume itself. It cares not for the richness of feeling, for the lived experience of the community, but only for profit and will pillage both the mountain community and the mountain environment for all its worth. 

Enter, not from stage right, but from the depths of a trapdoor in the floor: a recent short video published  and sponsored by Adidas (* See Below) – Gareth Leah and Sergio Almada bolt a new big-wall line up the 455m face of Pico Cão Grandé in São Tomé. A video that makes no apologies for cutting from shot to shot to shot of drilling and hammering. Tone is everything and the edit sets an uncomfortable one which does not do justice to the sensitivity of bolting on such a remote location. The style of the ascent is at odds with the location; a pristine and unspoilt wilderness that is laid low by an all-out assault on the rock (over 200 bolts on 455m of rock).


Tejada-Flores


The ‘Big Wall Game’, as Tejada-Flores defines it, is ‘characterised by the prolonged periods of time spent on the walls and by the fact that each member of the party does not have to climb every lead […] The full technical and logistic equipment range is allowed.’ So, for the purposes of assessing whether São Tomé was ‘ethical’ or not, one can clearly see that no margins were crossed, the ethics themselves are broadly correct – if a little unsettling to watch – and the basic principles of a big wall ascent were followed.
The problem however lies within its portrayal, and the reductive tone the film sets. What Adidas are condoning, and indeed profiting from, is the systematic destruction of a pristine natural environment. The ascent might be ethical, but was it stylish? Screaming 200 odd bolts in to rock and crawling upwards.


But more importantly for the mountain community is that this commercialisation is happening so quickly that the historic ethical debates that our sport is founded upon are being lost amongst a whirlwind of quick to produce and quick to consume media. When Adidas publish a film on a new route in São Tomé that displays a complete disregard for the sensitivity of bolting ethics, we must all raise our heads and take notice. Not because bolting is inherently unethical, but because it is portrayed in such a reductive way to such a large audience that it lays out our sport and the values it holds in the entirely wrong light. It forewarns of a future where generations of future climbers have no understanding of ethics, of style or of impact.
Business has no interest in the edginess or culture of climbing, it wants to package it down in as neat a box as possible and sell it to as many laymen as possible. Make no mistake, such a film is advertising, and serves to commercially benefit the company. It does not serve to develop the cultural vibrancy of the community and does not take any interest in the ethical debates that our history is founded upon. Such content will continue to reduce our sport until it is on its knees, has no dignity, no ethics and no direction before steamrollering forward on its merry way. 

Clearly, such organisations are not going to attach a recommended reading list to every product or media item they publish. It is, therefore, up to us to keep such debates current and keep our values alive for new participants. The likes of Wilson and his contemporaries are still as relevant as ever and must be at the forefront of all our minds in the face of this new adversary; one that risks destroying the very history and tradition that our community is built upon.


Tejada-Flores, and the rest, are the vibrancy of culture that accompanies climbing, and in the same way that we are accountable for our own codes and values, so too are we accountable in ensuring that our story and the ethical debates that shape it are not lost amongst the modern day white noise that threatens to make us forget who we are.
Jonny Dry: 2017

Friday, 10 February 2017

St Sunday Crag



Somewhere in an old guide-book, published more than fifty years ago, I remember reading: "St. Sunday Crag IS the Ullswater mountain," and, when you come to think about it, it's not a bad description. For St. Sunday Crag dominates the western reach of Ullswater far more dramatically than Helvellyn and, in a sense, commands the whole length of the lake better than any other mountain. And yet its summit is disappointing and the mountain not especially popular. Not many people bother with the ascent for its own sake, but are more likely to use the mountain as a pleasant route off Fairfield.

Which is very strange, for St. Sunday Crag is a massive, soaring fell, one of the steepest in Lakeland, with a fine shape when seen from any angle. Who St. Sunday was I've little idea. W. G. Collingwood suggested the name might be derived from St. Sanctum, but this doesn't help a great deal. I have also been told the name is thought to be derived from St. Dominic--the Saint of the Lord's Day—which suggests there might be some tradition of a religious house of this order in the district, but I have no facts to substantiate this. There is a St. Sunday's Beck to the south-east of Kendal, but no apparent connection between the two, and the old books named the mountain St Sunday's Crag. But perhaps the name doesn't matter very much and it trips readily off the tongue, although it is really surprising how few people know the mountain. I was there one October, climbing some of new routes on the crag but when I happened to mention this few days later to a friend who has been walking the fells for years, he confessed he had never been on the mountain and had never even noticed the crag.

And yet the Grisedale face of the mountain, which drops nearly 2000‘ in half a mile is one of the most dramatic fellsides in the country and the crags below the summit are nearly a mile long. But my friend is by no means alone in not knowing about this long line of crag, as big as several Napes Ridges crowded together, for rock climbers had missed it for years and only started making climbs there 12 years ago.

Seen from the valley the crags look almost insignificant because of the length and steepness of the fellsides below them, and it is only when you get among them that you realise what you have been missing. The crag is not among the best in Lakeland, but at least there is a lot of it, the rock is good, and some of the climbs, particularly on the Great Nose and The Pillar, are quite impressive. So far about 20 routes have been made and there is scope for more climbing there, although the approach to the crag-for the climber- can be rather long and tedious.

But there’s much more to St Sunday Crag than this rather restricted appeal to the rock climber. For the mountain is not only a shapely impressive fell but a magnificent viewpoint. the summit itself,as I have indicated, is rather dull, but from a point a little to the north, and indeed, from any point on the NE ridge, there are wonderful views of Ullswater. Perhaps the best views of the lake from any of the surrounding fells.

The classic scramble-Pinnacle Ridge
And the descent from the ridge,across the shoulder of Birks and through the steeply wooded slopes of Glemara Park, is among the joys of Patterdale. This is a track for walking down rather than up, for the view is below you all the way. The lake curving around the side of Place Fell,with its tiny islands, riding like yachts at anchor, and the scene slowly changing from crag and woods to the pastoral beauty of the eastern end.

The hard way up St Sunday Crag is to plough up the rather dreary zig-zags from Elmhow is Grisedale, and this is the way the climber goes, but there is an interesting route from Deepdale by way of the East Ridge, or better still, the mountain can be approached from Fairfield. I suppose I must have come off Fairfield this way a dozen times, over Cofa Pike, down to Deepdale Hause and then pleasantly and easily over the top of St Sunday Crag and down to Patterdale for food and drink. Alternatively, the walker can get his peak the long easy way by walking up Grisedale to the tarn, and then working his may up the to Deepdale Hause and on to the summit with the run  down to Patterdale as dessert. Before the rock-climbers found the crag, the Grisedale face of the mountain used to be an interesting place for wild flowers, perhaps because hardly anybody ever went there. I hope and believe it will continue so, for the climbs are not likely to attract crowds of Great Gable proportions, and you can still have them to yourself and watch the processions moving over Striding Edge across the valley.

Perhaps we've been on the crag a dozen times, but we've never seen anybody else there. Although the actual summit of St. Sunday Crag is not an especially interesting place and only a moderate viewpoint, the neighbouring top of Gavel Pike, across a little saddle,  is a pleasant, airy peak well worth a visit. One rewarding view from the main summit-perhaps its main feature-is the splendid peeps into the coves below the summit of Helvellyn, but the bulk of this mountain, and of Fairfield, too, prevents many distant views. The sweeps down into Grisedale and Deepdale, however, maintain St. Sunday Crag's dominance, and the views to north-east, once the descent is begun, will always justify the climb to the top.

The last time we came down from St. Sunday Crag, the lake looked like a silver scimitar curving around the shoulder of Place Fell and the air was so still we could see the Scots pines reflected in the waters of Lanty Tarn in the little col on the edge, overlooking Glenridding. The dogs were barking down at Grassthwaite How but the Grisedale Beck was silent and we could see no movement, except for the clouds, over the whole countryside. Down in the woods the leaves were turning to gold and the smoke from the cottages in Patterdale rose straight and slowly in the evening air. 

AH Griffin: The Roof of England-1968 
 

Friday, 3 February 2017

Livesey on Langdale

Livesey on Gogarth

The following piece, originally published in the late lamented Crags magazine, 37 years ago, shows the inimitable Pete Livesey in waspish form as he offers 'another vicious poison pen guidebook review'.Casting his national health specs over Mike Mortimer's Fell and Rock Club Langdale guide.

Another vicious poison-pen guidebook review. The man they all love to hate strikes again! 'Have pen, dog and Marjorie; will travel'—the motto of Mike Mortimer, country-trotting lightning guide writer. Now working for the FRCC, Mortimer has produced a thoroughly modern update of Allan Austin's 1966 and 1972 guides to Great Langdale.A place like the Llanberis Pass that is considered the barometer of an area's climbing position and progress. In comparison with recent CC guides, the FRCC are producing a much tidier job with more information where it should be, ie- with the route, and not hidden among innumerable lists and indexes at the back. Information is well presented, understandable and well suited to its function; guiding. In sorting out both the Tremadog and Langdale guides, Mortimer has shown what a professional job in guidebooks should look like. The guide is hardly the revelationary affair that the recent Tremadog and Northern Limestone guides have been. New routes since 1977 in Langdale have been both fewer and of lower quality than in most other popular climbing areas. And it may well be that the guide will not be in the same sales league as, say, the Tremadog and Borrowdale guides, despite the area's traditional popularity.

Mortimer again indulges himself in his own brand of idiosyncrasies and dogma, much of the comment in the guide being a reflection of pure Mortimer. The FRCC parochialism still exists, perhaps surprisingly in view of MM's international activities and allegiances. Comment in the historical section and in the first ascents list persists in devaluing certain climbs (and by implication, climbers) in particular, through sometimes misinformed, ethical grounds. Other climbs, or new route activities involving other possible ethical malpractices are however completely ignored. Routes described as minor variations are omitted while others of more recent but even less worthy origin are included. Longhair is left out (and wrongly described in a passing comment) but the much less independent and more artificial Poacher Right Hand is included. Fine Time is debased with the comment "Yet another preplaced peg and sling 'for aid".Inferring that "It is no solution at all to fail, and then go round to the top and abseil down and place a fixed piton and hanging sling which can be reached from below, in order to bypass a particularly troublesome spot".

Langdale: Image-The National Trust 
Both insults are totally untrue, ill conceived and unnecessary; Fine Time was climbed on sight and the route's aid point was already in place, complete with an old sling (it was of course an old aid route). There was no "pre-preparation" as there is on most modern (IE. since 1970) first ascents. The Ragman's Trumpet/Sally Free and Easy confusion is still not sorted out, the dates again being wrongly recorded. Sally Free and Easy was climbed in two attempts, the first pitch being the major pitch (indeed, the only real pitch) of Ragman's Trumpet, but climbed nine days before that route. Neither is the upper pitch loose as described—it is eminently sound and holdless. Why doesn't the historical comment mention the much more serious trends evidenced by recent routes; the preplaced nut on Warrior, the profusion of manufactured holds on Desperado, Peccadillo and Take it to the Limit, or the almost universal practising of crucial moves on a top rope prior to the first ascent?


Such practices, particularly the last one, should be mentioned; they have a profound effect on the possible seriousness of a subsequent ascent, particularly on unprotected routes. The style of ascent of older routes such as Cruel Sister and Peccadillo, criticised in the text, is considerably "whiter" by comparison. Despite professionally written material, the finishing work on the guide is seriously lacking; the old Heaton Cooper diagrams are hopelessly inadequate for today's crowded cliffs. Indeed, many have not even been amended to include newer routes or correct old mistakes. Even worse, a second modern diagram of the East Wall of Pavey Ark is included.


Although both diagrams cover the same piece of rock, they are both unrecognisable as the same cliff and neither are much good as topos. Photographs are included but are distinctly mediocre, although I have rarely seen good photos of the Lakes suitable for such a small format—perhaps better to leave them out altogether. I think the grades are generally good, with the glaring exception of Armalite (Raven Crag) graded E2,5c and badly described, while the route is in fact a 6a unprotected chop route—just the thing for the aspiring E2 leader! I actually wonder how someone who aid climbs most routes over El can give such a subjective appraisal as an E grade to harder routes; maybe they are printer’s errors for Al, A2 etc (Bitch!!!—Ed).

Finally, I'd like to know why the description of Poacher Right Hand didn't say "Alternatively the crux can be avoided by following Poacher on the left", just like the Tremadog guide described Legbreak.


Pete Livesey: First published in Crags, Aug/Sep 1980. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Distant Snows : A Mountaineer's Odyssey.....Reviewed



‘Read no history: nothing but biography for that is life without theory’. Disraeli.

 
I believe this autobiography illustrates that mountain adventures do not have to be all cutting-edge or at extreme standards to make for fascinating reading, for by his admission the author has never been at that level, although some of the ski mountaineering and exploration described besides the classic climbing is by British historical experience of that description. The breadth of experience contained within this book, over a period of sixty years is however truly impressive, with many classic climbs and ski expeditions in so many countries that it will I am sure be a convenient reference point for future travellers.

Harding’s interest in mountains started in his youth, walking over the hills of South Wales, and his entrance into the ambit of climbing was when he joined the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club and took part in an expedition to the mountains of Iran in 1956. Their explorations and ascents were mainly in the Elburz range, but this was a typical student outing of that era, driving overland in two old ex-US Army jeeps, that needed constant attention and repair, with exposure to all the problems that such a first trip demand’s of its participants. Personal relationships and argument, culture shock, and health problems; throughout the book the author seems to suffer from the ‘squitters’ on innumerable occasions. This outing obviously had a major influence on the writer, and sowed the seed for a future adventurous lifestyle. 


Although he was ‘privileged’ by the standards of that era (privately educated, Oxbridge and National Service in the Welsh Guards), he was not so well heeled that money was not a real problem for him, and much of his early climbing in the UK was accessed by hitch-hiking, something rarely undertaken by today’s young tyros? Including to North Wales and to Skye where a standout achievement for that period was a traverse of the main ridge.

Life then intruded and leaving Cambridge, having read economics and law he eschewed following such a career track, and initially joined a City advertising firm, but somehow he found this was not for him, and so keen to get travelling again he joined the colonial service, partly enticed by the long leaves but fetched up in Aden as an administrator and political officer; whilst exploring the rocks and mountains of the Protectorate. However on his long breaks he was away to Mount Kenya, and the Ruwenzori, where he managed some classic ascents, and suffered some epic outings, with on occasion scratch parties, met on short acquaintance. I understand a little of these problems for when I lived in that country often finding a climbing partner was like looking for rare gems! On other leaves back in the UK he took up a long term ambition to begin Alpine ski mountaineering, and also to start what would become over the years many journeys, ascents and tours in the mountains of Turkey. On one of the ski tours his party was caught in an avalanche, a great danger for all such groups, and though the rest survived a family member died.

Leaving the Colonial Service he had to get down to starting a new career, and though initially he had no wish or inclination for this he decided to take up an offer of a post as  a trainee lawyer (having read such at University), and he also married. Unlike some of his contemporaries this did not end his mountain career and he enjoyed some classic alpine ascents and dolomite rock climbs, but more and more he was into ski touring taking on such classic outings as the High Level Route, the Valais to Mont Blanc.


But then having finally finished the marathon of completing his legal articles in 1969, he took off with his wife and two young daughters as £10 poms, to Australia. This was for somebody of his background (British establishment) a very bold and enterprising undertaking, especially as he had no gainful employment ready on offer in that new homeland. But somehow things worked out, initially they were in Perth and met up with some old climbing friends there and he climbed on the local outcrops and cliffs and even went caving, but then moved to a legal position in Canberra. Besides much bush whacking and some climbing in OZ and Tasmania, he managed to visit New Zealand and ascended Mount Cook and on a later visit other peaks in the South Island.

But somehow the lure of the UK was too great despite a demanding new environment and lifestyle, and he and his family returned back to the smoke and a job in the City, as a legal eagle. A real pull of this book is the honesty of the author about the twists and turns in his life, and his family relations whilst following his mountain star. Over the next years, trip followed trip, to Greece, to Turkey again and again, to the Arctic, and to Spain, an outstanding achievement being a winter ski traverse of the Pyrenees. I have climbed in that range in the spring (Mont Perdu) and so a complete crossing of the region was I understand a massive achievement, and the author thought his party was making a first such, but was to be sorrowfully disavowed when he found out that this was not so, for they had been beaten to this by a French team.

John Harding has become a senior figure in the British mountaineering and skiing world, a former Vice President of the Alpine Club, and a President of both the Eagle and the Alpine Ski Club. Putting back into the sports he has so keenly graced his legal expertise, and wise counsel. In later life he took on with his wife and friends some arduous treks in Sikkim, Bhutan and the Pamir/Tien Shan region. He is what Ken Wilson referred to as a ‘crink’; which was never intended as a derogatory term, it was kindly meant, and was aimed at a member of the establishment who does good things for the climbing world!

A strength of this book is the amount of background history and story about the places that the author has visited, with a classic school education he can elucidate on Xenophon, Hannibal and Odysseus and how they fit into his mountain explorations. Inevitably coming from the establishment background he does, his mountain companions were mainly from his own milieu, but I was surprised how many of them were also well known to me: unfortunately several of them are now dead.

This is a very well produced book; it has hard covers (case bound) and contains over 300 pages, and one hundred photographs and maps. These latter really do place the reader within the mountains, places and ascents recounted and they are very well executed. I think this book will become a classic of its genre, a life story packed with interest, adventure and history.

A sole criticism is that I would have wished at the end of the book an ‘Envoi’. For at the finish of such a world tour, and a lifetime of travel and adventure, what is the wisdom and meaning which might be found in such an odyssey? But otherwise a most enjoyable read, from an author whose honesty and historical/geographical knowledge is impressive.  

Dennis Gray: 2017

Distant Snows – A Mountaineer’s Odyssey
John Harding.  Published, by Baton Wicks £20


 

Friday, 20 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part Two


As I rolled over and over, the snow was suffocating as it filled my nostrils, and when I opened my mouth to say goodbye to the world, it filled my mouth cutting off my ability to breath. My ears filled up which meant all sound was blocked making my senses accept that death was inevitable. But I had no wish to die, not yet and so tried my best to swim with the tide of powder and wet snow that rolled me down the hill. Pointlessly I know but there was nothing I could do until I stopped moving.

For a split second, I remembered that when it did stop moving, it set like cement and would entomb me in whatever position I was in. Should I just relax and let it happen! Then suddenly, all movement stopped and I was motionless, entombed in cement coffin. Time stands still and the silence is deafening. Just relax and wait for death and all worries about my situation would be over.

But this is not what I want and so I struggle a little to find that I can move my left arm a little, so start to rotate the wrist to enlarge the space. But, am I facing downwards or upwards? How far beneath the surface am I? How long can I stay alive without being able to breath and how long does it take the snow to set like cement?

Such questions annoyed me and so I started to vigorously turn my hand until it allowed my elbow to move and suddenly, I felt it break through the surface. This spurred me on to twist and turn more until the upper torso was able to move. Then a faint noise was heard, shit, another avalanche was on its way! To prevent myself from being encased once again, I screamed and violently swung my arms about and fell out of my snow coffin onto the cold wet floor of the hut.

Dec. 25th Christmas Day. 
Awoke on the floor of the hut still wrapped in my wet damp sleeping bag, no doubt from the profuse sweating during the nightmare. Merry Christmas I said to myself as I extricated myself from the bag and thought about a nice bowl of dry muesli. I smell the pipe tobacco again from the outer room. I shout out good morning and Merry Christmas but get no response. I decide to go into the outer room to find out why he has been ignoring me. I opened the door to find the room empty. The air suddenly becomes clean, no smell of tobacco, nothing. No puddles of water from any boots. No sign of anyone being there. I opened the outer door to see smooth white snow stretching way off into the distance. No footprints. No one has broken last night’s snow fall.

I return to the inner room. Sit on my damp bag with my knees up to my chin. Had I dreamt it all?  Was it a ghost?  Is my mind playing tricks on me? Is the lack of human company getting to me?

I try to dismiss the incident as just a dream but I know the smell of tobacco was real as was the noise I heard. I decided to leave the Sinclair hut and move on to the Rynack Bothy.

6pm. Had a good days walk. Peaceful and calm. Snow conditions great. Truly exciting walking across pristine snow. Brain feeling lighter. Head not aching. Lungs working steadily.

Not a bad Christmas day after all. Didn’t even miss the traditional turkey dinner but enjoyed my tin of peaches. A pity the bothy stinks of animals. Will move on tomorrow. Even considering going to Morlich youth hostel for one night to shower and dry clothes.

Dec. 26th Boxing day.
6.15am. A strange day. Didn’t sleep very well last night, foul animal smell was too much for my nostrils. Some strange dreams and images coming in and out of my mind. At one point I had an image of me climbing Everest by a new route. I was alone except for a faceless person who was carrying a flag with a star and a moon on it. They were wearing ordinary clothes and I was in a space suit.

As I got to the top, there was a party going on and I was told I was not invited. This dream changed suddenly to me standing in a crematorium looking into a coffin. Again the figure inside was faceless but I could hear others crying around me. A tap on my shoulder made me jump and I too jumped as I lay in my sleeping bag. The dream was almost surreal. The dream melted into a scene now in the bothy with me waking up to find some magical little people sitting around playing cards.

One of the little magical people dealt me a hand which I picked up. As I looked at the cards, I felt my heart rate and pulse double and without warning, I sat bolt upright to find myself sweating profusely. My hands were shaking as I recalled the hand of cards I was dealt.

Each card had the face of a friend who was deceased.  The fright came not from seeing their faces, but that one of the five cards had a faceless figure on it.

I sat up in the corner of the bothy waiting for the morning light to take away the dark depression I was feeling. Tried to work out what if anything it all meant. If I had been drinking, I would have had no problems in understanding the hallucinating images!

I did not come to any conclusion but assumed the loneliness was playing games with my emotions and thought processes. I was glad when daylight started to filter in through the dark and oppressive long night.

Decided to walk back to youth hostel for a night. Feeling excited with anticipation of a hot shower, decent meal and a good night’s sleep in a dry bed.

Got to youth hostel around 4.15pm. The SAS lads who I met earlier had also returned to the hostel for a night so invited me down to Aviemore for a drink or two, or was it three, perhaps in truth it was a lot more than four!

Dec. 27th.

9.15am Do not remember much about last night. Remember being in the second row of seats in the land rover when it careered off the road and flipped over into the roadside ditch. Remember crawling out through someone’s piss and stomach contents. Also remember the funny side of us trying to right the land rover whilst everyone was giggling. When we got to the youth hostel, the warden was mouthing off about it being past the stopping out time. Obviously had no idea about what repercussions there could be through trying to dress down several inebriated SAS lads, so I kept my distance and slipped off to my room.


Dec 28th.

10am. Went downstairs to find SAS lads had left. The warden was cleaning up a mess in the kitchen so I sneaked out the back door not wanting to get involved in any discussion with him about what mess the army lads had left him for Christmas.

6.25pm This morning when I left the hostel, I felt recharged, full of motivation for some serious climbing. I walked along the road and onto the hills where I wanted to be. Reached Jeans Hut, still empty. Left rucksack, took two climbing axes and walked over to Coire an Lochain, making sure I circumnavigated the Great Slab as best I could.

Climbed The Vent a superb snow climb on good consolidated snow. Walked back down and climbed up Left Branch Y Gully another good climb which tested the sinews in my arms to their limit. Not enough so went back around and climbed up Right Branch Y Gully but taking an inordinate amount of time to do so.                                                

Had a piece of cheddar cheese, an apple and a mars bar for lunch. Sitting there on my own in a wilderness of pristine untouched snow which stretched for miles was electrifying. High emotions were flowing through my whole body and I just knew this was a good day and that I needed to do several more climbs before I was satisfied. A quick drop down and a climb back up Jacob’s Ladder seemed to do the trick.

Walked over towards Sinclair memorial hut, but turned left at the path junction not wanting to visit the hut on this occasion, as memories of the visitor that never was still uppermost in my mind. Continued on down the Lairig Ghru for a while until I came to a snow slope on the left hand side that was begging me to climb it so I obliged. The cornice at the top was huge and I had difficulty in digging my way through and at one point, I heard creaks that told me that the cornice was about to break off taking me downwards with it to the gully floor way way below.

My brain snapped into another gear and I methodically dug with my beloved Pterodactyl ice axe and Chouinard ice hammer (no fancy tools for this guy!) until I broke through the surface layer and I could crawl out, roll over and shout for joy.

 Jean's Hut: Now demolished.Ray Sefton

I had not noticed the storm brewing. A sudden gust of wind blew me off my feet and sent me tumbling across the plateau, but thankfully, away from the edge.


9.10pm. Feeling alive. Can’t wait for morning so I can go climbing again.

10.28pm. Can’t sleep. Too excited about tomorrow's possibilities.

Midnight. Still awake. Final entry for the night. Will force myself to sleep.

Dec. 29th.
3.15am. Still tossing and turning. Made a brew.

5.25am. Woke up. Cold and shivering.

6.45am. Got up. Cold muesli and a tin of peaches for breakfast.

Studied my copy of Hamish MacInnes Scottish Climbs Vol 2. Decided on visiting Coire an Lochain again to do some other routes.

7.30am Left hut. Clear blue skies. No clouds or wind. Calm. Cold air hitting the exterior but feeling warm as toast inside. Ate an apple on the way. Looking into the Coire I kept asking myself what it was I was going to do. Decided to turn left and go into Coire an-t Sneachda to start with Fiachaill Ridge to get warmed up.

Mid-morning. Stood on summit after great climb up Fiachaill Couloir which was in good condition. Looking down to Jeans Hut waves of excitement caused my stomach to turn over a few times. Head spinning with the sheer delight of my situation. Need to climb more.

Descended down Y gully, making good use of hard compact snow to slide down testing my ability to brake with ice axe, head first, feet first, on the stomach, on the back, rolling over and so it went on until I came to a stop in a pile of banked snow.  Felt like the time Karen paid up on a bet I had back in Malta all those years ago - orgasmic!

Up Vent Rib and Traverse feeling exposed on the traverse section. Back down via Y gulley again, back up Ewen Buttress. Had great difficulty in negotiating the final narrow crack to the final summit. Topped out exhausted so went back down The Couloir route and had a bite to eat. Sun long since departed the sky, being replaced with cold air but I convinced myself that there was enough light to just do one more climb before returning to Jeans Hut for a well-earned meal. Walking back around the base of the cliff face, I sensed someone walking beside me. I knew no one was there but I could hear their movement just the same. I sensed it was everyone I had known all rolled into one. It was comforting to know they were still with me.

I started to climb Left Branch Y gully for the second time and felt cocooned in a web of love and warmth, so much so that although my body was shivering with the cold, my inside was warm and content. I felt safe. However, after an hour, I wished I had decided on an easier route or even returned to the hut before setting out on this last climb. Struggled the last few hours to make headway but always knew I would do it as they were with me. Topped out around 8pm in the dark my only light being the bright full moon in a cloudless star riddled sky above and a rather dim head torch with batteries long past their time. Knackered but satiated.

8pm. Returned to hut tired and physically exhausted but truly alive. A fantastic days climbing. Brain is swimming with positive neurons giving me fantastic visions which in turn is sending pulses coursing through my entire body. It felt as if everything that composed my whole body was vibrating and working in total unison.

No aches or pains. No tightness of the head or eyes. If there is ever such a thing as being at your optimum, your peak of fitness, this has been how I have felt all day despite the struggles of the Vent Rib and Traverse and Left Branch Y Gully.

10pm. My mood has dramatically changed for the better. I no longer fear anyone or anything. I am my own master. My future is what I will make it, alone or otherwise. The hills and mountains are my salvation. I know it now. No more pretence. No more living behind a facade. Adversity I spit in your face! I have an inner strength that I never knew I had. I am truly reborn this day. My God has come alive within me.

All that evening I swam in an emotional sea of bliss, soaking up that tremendous feeling you get when your’ on a high, so high that even falling off that can be dangerous to your health and welfare. Every pore in my body was alive with tingling sensations and the energy flow I was experiencing was nothing short of orgasmic ecstasy and I was loving every moment of it. I felt proud, I felt in touch with everything and my head was full of nothing but goodness and satisfaction.

After swimming in this orgy of self-idolatry, I allowed the sandman to creep over me until my eye lids closed for the last time that night to peace and calm. Nothingness finally took over and I was in the land of pleasant dreams.

Dec. 30th.
8.15pm. Woke feeling so refreshed and energetic it frightened me a little, as I am not used to this first thing on a morning. Decided to do a long walk. What can I say - but that it was another great day. I completed a gruelling nine hour walk which included a climb up Pygmy Ridge – what a climb!! Superb views into Central Gully. Conditions excellent. Snow & ice firm and crisp. Continued along plateau to Lairig Ghru over to Cairn Toul.

Sat on the summit ridge in bright sunlight, exuding breath in wafts of steam in the intense cold air. What to do for the second week. Should I stay in the same area and continue walking and climbing or move to another area and more of the same there?

Could not come to any decision. Suddenly a heard a voice somewhere, outside, inside who knows but just a voice all the same. It kept repeating home, home, home. This was one time when I listened to the voices so made the decision to walk back across the icy tops down to Aviemore youth hostel via Braeriach.

Decided to spend one last night at Aviemore Youth Hostel. Uneventful night. Sat and watched a group of young people play Monopoly, they were full of life and fun. I envied them their youth but was still happy to be me. Despite the snoring I even got some sleep before dragging myself out of the bunk bed and getting my thoughts in line.

Dec. 31st.

10.10am. Rang dad to ask if he could telegraph me some money for a train ticket home. It arrived late that afternoon.

The long journey home to Brighton was uneventful as I slept soundly and contentedly for most of the way. Alighting from the station in Brighton on New Year’s Day, I was conscious that people were staring at me. I caught my reflection in a shop window and saw why. My clothes were dirty and dishevelled. My hair was matted and I had not had a shave for over a fortnight. There’s my dad. Big smiles and hugs all round. The prodigal son had come home at last.

Frank Grant: 2017

 

Friday, 13 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part One



1975 started to die out and the long hazy summer days had finally retired to the southern hemisphere giving over its space to the short winter nights, allowing the cold to slowly encroach on the mind. Thoughts were turned to the Christmas break when thousands of students like me would be heading home, but as I had planned a climbing trip for the following year to Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, I had other ideas on how to spend my time; two weeks alone climbing in the Cairngorms staying in the bothies.

If the truth be known, I also had another reason for wanting to go to the Cairngorms; to climb and stand on top of the Rock called Craigellachie outside Aviemore [meaning: ‘come to me come to me’], the historical meeting place of the Clan Grant. It is said that when the Clan Chief required the clan to attend a meeting, his caller would stand on top of the Rock and shout Craigellachie repeatedly until the call was sent out across the Clan Grant lands.

Having traced my male family line back to a James Grant, born 1664 in Glenmoriston, and who as a Jacobite, fought at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, I as a child had always wanted to see the landmark called Craigellechie, where he would have heard the call to arms. When I was 10 years of age, we lived in Glasgow and my father took me to see the rock from which time, I had always had a strong desire to climb its face, stand on the point and shout out “Craigellechie, Craigellechie” to honour my ancestors who fought and died for ‘their cause’.

And so on the Friday evening, I packed, unpacked and repacked my rucksack for the umpteenth time in a useless attempt to get all the equipment I wanted to take in the one sack. Something definitely had to be sacrificed. First to go was all my spare clothing. I reasoned that as I would be on my own I would learn to cope with the smell.

Next to go was the binoculars then the telephoto lens camera. Still not enough room for what was left. Should I take the trangy or the gas stove? The trangy won although I was not taken with the idea of having to take a fuel bottle but my reasoning was that the trangy was reliable and the gas stove was not. The four season’s sleeping bag was exchanged for the lighter two season’s bag and the down duvet jacket exchanged for two Helly Hansen sweaters, items I would later regret leaving behind. A little stomping with the foot made it go down somewhat, but just a little more had to go. Out went all the food as I decided to buy some supplies at Aviemore when I got there, or so I reasoned at the time. Finally, out went the climbing helmet as this was superfluous given that I cared not if I fell as death was no stranger to me and it held no fear.

Finally, the rucksack was full and once more with a concerted effort of the customary helping of the foot stomp, I managed to get the top closed. Despite my culling exercise, it still weighed far too much, but as I had no way of knowing its true weight, I again reasoned that all I had to do was carry it to the station and the train would take the rest of the strain. It is only with hindsight that I realised that during this activity, I had given no thought to where the food was going to go when and if I remembered to buy it. The crampons and two climbing ice axes had to be tethered to the outside of the rucksack which was a pain as I had lost the crampon rubber stoppers for the spikes which kept getting caught every time I lifted the bloody rucksack onto my aching back.

Alone in a carriage on the train to Aviemore, I watched the scenery flash by until fading light made it impossible to enjoy so I turned to my climbing guide to see what I could do over the next fourteen days. Long before I arrived at Aviemore station, I had decided to start my expedition by doing the rounds of the bothies in the area starting with Jeans Hut (sadly no longer there) somewhere near where the current ski lift is situated.

From there I would climb some gullies that led up to the plateau, then go on to the Sinclair Memorial hut for a few days before moving on to Rynack and Corrour bothies before making my way back over the tops, back to my starting point. If I had time, I would just repeat the routine but this time in reverse.

As the train pulled into Aviemore, I was the only one to get off. The train pulled out heading north leaving me standing there alone in the dark as there was a power failure. Guess where the bloody head torch was? Sods law dictated that it would be somewhere at the bottom of the rucksack and surprise surprise, sods law was right. Shivering and sweating as I pushed the stuff back into the rucksack, the power came back on. I should have known then that things were not going to be as I had hoped they would be. I walked across the road to find nothing open although why I thought anything would be open at 9.45pm in the evening is still a mystery to me today, as this was Scotland and you tell me where in the 1970’s you could find a garage or a shop in the highlands that is open after 6pm!

I went into the nearest pub and bought some peanuts, crisps and a bar of chocolate to keep me going. As I walked back down the road, I passed the brightly lit Youth Hostel where from inside, I caught the merry making of the guests as they were obviously getting ready for the Christmas festivities. I did not have to think twice about it so booked in for the night (there was only one bed left!) knowing that in the morning I could get my supplies and start off in daylight, at least, that was the plan, and anyway, Craigellachie is situated some way behind the youth hostel so I was all but at one of my desired destinations.

However, as the old saying goes, ‘the plans of mice and men are as different as chalk and cheese’ which my diary that I diligently kept is testament to. Extracts from that diary give an indication of what I was feeling and thinking at the time and which I still refer to when I need some reassurance that life is for the taking.

Dec. 21st
Slept badly. Someone snored all bloody night. Had a cold breakfast. Left hostel, tramped until I got to the hump that is Craigellachie. Climbed scree slope over and through snow covered bracken and heather making a right pig’s ear of it. Reached some rocks after about an hour.  Fought my way through and up a large boulder scree slope, jarring my knee several times. Was Craigellachie that damn important! Back was aching with heavy pack so left it under a small bush. Tied my neck scarf to the tree so as to find it on return journey.

Better progress followed. Came upon thick briar bush barrier. Tried to go through it but it scratched hands and face. Cursed the place more than once. Had to go round it. Pissed off with detour. Suddenly I was stopped by a crag face. Looking up I saw, and hoped, that this was the rock. Steep slopes to either sides meant either a wet scramble or, I could do my favourite way of going up anything, direttissima i.e. go straight up the front which was more to my liking. Fuck death. Straight up won the day.

The face was only about twenty to thirty feet but it was sheer and very cold to the touch. I wondered how many of my ancestors had stood where I was standing, at the base of the crag looking upwards listening to their Chief. I was proud to be standing there and wanted more than ever to get to the top, despite the growth of vegetation that was using the rock as its residence having other ideas.
 
 I climbed up a crack for some fifteen feet, then an awkward traverse for a few feet to the left followed, up and over a wet slippery bulge and I was there - standing on top of Craigellachie. A young man’s dream finally fulfilled. I sat for a while and dreamt of how things might have been different if James Grant had not fled to London after the battle of Killiecrankie, resulting in me being born an Englishman.

Such thoughts were rudely interrupted by the caw caw of a couple of hooded crows fought over a scrap of something one had found, so I walked off the back way, found my rucksack eventually, and headed for Loch Morlich allowing a tirade of thoughts and images to float pleasingly in and out of my brain as a result of my recent experience.

It was about the two-mile marker that the thunderbolt hit. I had forgotten to get supplies so back I trudged cursing my ineptitude for forgetting about it. Once I had two full plastic bags full of supplies which I hoped would last the whole two weeks, I set off mumbling to myself as I had to carry them as there was no room inside the rucksack!

Still muttering to myself as I trudged along, head down looking at my feet as they moved automatically, I was startled by a Landrover that pulled up beside me offering me a lift as I was obviously going in their direction. The occupants were some SAS guys who were also going to the Cairngorms for some survival training, but all they were interested in was the opening and closing times of the local pubs. After sharing a bottle of whiskey and a dozen cans of larger, I finally extricated myself, leaving them to finish off the other bottle of whiskey and a few dozen cans of beer.

Dec. 22nd
Reasonable night’s sleep. SAS guys never made a sound, must have spent the night in town! After breakfast, trudged up to Jeans Hut. Nobody at home, thank goodness, would have just walked back out if there had as I wanted to be on my own.

Spread gear around to make it look as if hut was full if anyone called, hoping it would send them off to somewhere else. Happy to be on my own. Cooked a meal and sorted out climbing gear. Was in my soggy sleeping bag by 8pm.

Dec. 23rd.
Squashed all the food into the rucksack ignoring the mess it made. Set off early in fine weather. Clear blue skies. Snow crisp underfoot. The world was mine as I climbed up ‘Y’ gully then along the top of the plateau. Wind got up mid-morning, increased to such a force that it blew me off my feet. Thunder claps in the distance. Temperature dropped and sun went inside for the rest of the day.

Made for the Sinclair Memorial hut, arrived around 4.30pm as dark was settling in. No one at home again, I felt blessed. Went into back room got brew on and tried unsuccessfully to dry clothes against trangy. Cursed myself for leaving behind spare clothes. Got into sleeping bag fully clothed. Tried to sleep but too cold as sleeping bag was too thin and too soggy. Regretted leaving the four season’s sleeping bag behind and the duvet jacket. Still, my choice so live with it.

4am. Sleep still won’t come. Bloody freezing. Wish I was home, anywhere else but here. Brain hurting. Everything was damp or wet with the incessant running of the condensation across the ceiling, down the walls and all making for where I lay.

Dec. 24th. Christmas Eve:
Must have fallen asleep around 5am. Looked at watch. 9.40am. Too cold to get out of bag. Tried to make a brew but knocked it over. Swore profusely. Finally get out. Clothes damp. Steam rising making the room foggy and unpleasant. Thought of those lucky buggers back down in the youth hostel. I envied them, no I hated them.

Left rucksack in hut and went for a walk. Clear blue sky again. Sun warm. No wind. Snow as crisp as yesterday. Up on the top of Sron Na Lairige. Fantastic atmosphere. Felt sorry for those poor sods below in the youth hostel. 

Absolute peace and tranquillity. Brain not hurting as much. Body a little warmer with the suns struggling bright rays and physical movement. Walking along the edge looking down into the Lairig Ghru deep in thought, when I heard the familiar sound of a jet engine in flight.

Suddenly without warning, an RAF Phantom jet roared past below me in the Lairig Ghru!  I stood transfixed. As it past, for a split second, I could see the face of the pilot and automatically waved, he seemed to wave back. Then silence. I felt a mixed bag of emotions. First I was annoyed that he had invaded my space, my peace, my thoughts and then I was pleased that he had acknowledged my existence. In and out of my life in under a second.

As waves of RAF nostalgia swept over me, I heard another loud roar and looked down into the Lairig Ghru to see the first plane’s wing buddy following on. Past experience told me that low level flying exercises are always done in twos or threes but never alone. The ground shook a little and I sensed something was wrong as a voice in my head told me that I was not meant to be standing, there so without trying to analyse it, I just ran away from the edge just as the avalanche happened.

Although my heart rate was working overtime, my breathing was in short gasps as I trembled with either excitement or fear, I’m not sure but for all of a few seconds, my mind was full of unpleasant emotions and feelings. I felt absolutely alone in the universe and yet I was enjoying every second of it.
Silence fell. I gingerly inched my way near to where I was standing just seconds before. The cornice had gone and with it tons of snow from the valley walls directly downwards which now lay in a heap on the valley floor below. Again, the ‘what if’ thoughts came back.

I allowed the thoughts to die so that I could carry on with my day. Gripping my walking poles tightly, I moved away from the edge and continued along the top to Ben MacDhui.  Stopped for some dried fruit on the summit. Sitting there staring out across miles upon miles of snow covered mountains, all alone was something you could not buy. I felt rich beyond belief. At one point I felt a presence beside me but as I knew that the mountain was supposed to be haunted by a Victorian walker who died of hypothermia on the summit back in the 1900’s, I just ignored it as I did not want to start any conversation with anyone or anything who might just be present, so got up, donned rucksack and walked back to the hut along the valley floor dragging my weary but satiated body along on lead filled legs. On reaching the spot where the avalanche fell, I had to climb up the side of the valley and circumnavigate the snow debris which was a pain in the arse but necessary.

5.30pm. Sitting here in the back room. Morbid thoughts entering my head. Am I getting depressed. Is this where I really want to be. Haven’t spoken to anyone for 48 hours now. Thought I would miss human contact but I don’t so why this feeling!

6pm. Half asleep I am startled by a strange scratching noise on the outer door. Overactive mind working too much. A little scared and nervous. Scratching continues and I pluck up the courage to go and see what it is. I go into the outer room and ask who is there. No answer just more scratching. Anxiously I take hold of the door catch and fling it open to see a stag standing there rubbing its antlers on the wooden door. I laugh and shut the door, call myself some unprintable names and go back to my soggy and unglamorous sleeping bag.

7.20pm. Still not able to sleep. Suddenly I feel my stomach turn, my body twitch with electricity. I feel decidedly strange. My hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I feel very very cold. The darkness all around is frightening, suffocating me. I don’t know what’s going on. I sit up and look out the frosted window and in the moonlight I see a dark shadowy figure walking up the steps towards the hut. He has a long stick or pole. He appears to be wearing what I believe to be a shoulder cape of some sort and a strange looking hat.

He appears to be carrying something on his back, a pack perhaps. I calm down and feel relieved that I will have some company at last although I hoped he would stay in the outer room for the night. I heard the door latch open, then the door is shut. I gave him time to get himself sorted out.

8pm. I shouted out to him to ask if he is ok. Silence. No reply. I heard a match strike and soon I smelt the sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco, distinct and aromatic. I was both pleased and annoyed as at that point in time I was trying hard to give up smoking so I found the smell of tobacco repulsive. However, I shouted again. No answer. Ignorant bastard.  Settled down and tried to sleep.

Image: Welcome to Scotland
Got up. Cold miserable. Need my climbing fix urgently. Leave the hut and head for Coire an Lochain. Pleased to see it covered in thick ice and hard snow.  I head for the Central Crack Route but male the cardinal error of judgement by crossing the Great Slab, oblivious to the fact that there had been a heavy snow fall the previous evening. Too late – the cracking sound broke the silence – movement downwards........shit!


To Be Continued

Frank Grant: 2017