Ach, it’s all been a bit serious on here the last few posts, so here’s a wee bit of light relief – a tale from the early years of this century when I still thought I was a climber and occasionally made it further afield than the Cairngorms. It happened on Ben Nevis, starts out sounding fairly unlikely, and gets more unbelievable as it goes on, but I swear it’s all true, and there are even witnesses.
Outside the CIC Hut in March 2003: Ronnie Strachan, Lucy Hailey (now Murdoch), myself, Colin McGregor and Gavin Gibbon. Ken Murray took the photo
I had just finished arranging a belay and was sitting in the snow at the top of No 2 Gully on The Ben, starting to pull in the spare rope. True, the earlier sunshine had gone, replaced with a thick white mist and visibility of about ten yards, but life seemed pretty good.
That’s when he appeared.
I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked round to see him, clad in jeans and trainers, slithering across the snow towards me. Towards me and a cornice over a 2000 ft drop straight down to the CIC Hut.
I called out: “Watch yourself, mate: we’re near the edge.”
It made no difference: he kept skiting and sliding towards me.
“Stop there! We’re at the edge!” It seemed dreadfully rude to speak so, but if nothing else I had to think of my second below, who was seeming increasingly liable to be wiped out by a 10 metres per second per second putative corpse.
This time the newcomer did stop and leveled an unnervingly intense gaze at me. The voice, when it came, was best Russian spy guttural: “You have seen.” Pause. “A girl.” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
I could have shown more interest here. It was, after all, a most arresting introduction. But my mind was on other things (like a rope to my second which had finally come tight) and I was still a little unsettled.
“No,” I said, perhaps a little peevishly.
I turned back to the rope to fit it through the Sticht plate and when I looked again the apparition had gone. Not even a shadow in the mist.
So I took Gavin up and we stood a few feet back from the edge, exchanged congratulations, and started stuffing ropes and ironmongery into our sacks.
“You’ll never believe what I just saw,” said I and, of course, he didn’t, because it all seemed so unlikely.
But just as I was fighting with frozen knotwork, what appeared out of the mist but… A girl. A vision, actually. Beautiful face framed with shoulder-length frizzed hair (a la Crystal Tips & Alastair for those of a certain age). Somehow you could tell that, under that bulky puffa jacket with its collar framing her fair skin and rose red cheeks, was a slim, nay, svelte figure. However on the minus side, the hair was pure white with frost, the nose was red and dreeping, and the hands were blue-white with cold. The tight jeans and trainers didn’t seem too good an idea either.
I was pretty brain dead by this time in the day, but a light bulb flickered on inside my skull. In my best understood-even-by-foreigners voice I asked: “Could someone be looking for you?”
“Is possible.” Where the male Russian had been brutalist accusation, the girl was all honey and sexy, foreign lilt. I was in love.
“Wait there. We’ll get you down.”
In a fit of gallantry I gave her my warmest gloves while I stuffed the unknotted rope into the sack. A somewhat bemused Gavin tried to engage her in conversation as we set off down.
She was sure, she said, she would find her way down, but we were not and she didn’t argue, so we plunged on into the mist as she told us her story. They were indeed Russians, and had been up Mount Fuji when they were in Japan, so had anticipated no problems on lowly Ben Nevis. And neither there had been, unless you count getting separated and almost losing her minder over the edge of the cliff (for I had convinced myself, against all the evidence of Glasnosk and Perestroika, that she was secretly a White Russian princess and he her KGB guard).
We were still in the cloud when the worried looking Russian spy reappeared on the scene, heading back uphill towards us. His face lit up when he saw her but our hopes of offloading her and then taking a shortcut down to the Halfway Lochan were quickly dashed.
“You have found her!” he exclaimed in best KGB guttural. “I tell the others.”
And he was off again at a great rate of knots. Credit where it’s due: he may have been dressed like a div and still skiting all over the place in the snow, but this guy really was fit.
So that’s how we ended up going much further down the tourist path than we’d intended, not saying farewell to our beautiful Russian princess until we were clear of the cloud and in sight of a whole gang of Russians looking up towards us as the chief spy gesticulated with all the physical enthusiasm only a continental can muster. We thought it was better to avoid any outburst of Slavic bear hugs and before we reached them we slunk off towards the Halfway Lochan and the waiting car in the North Face car park, remembering, at least to retrieve my gloves. Kiss from the princess would have been nice though. Maybe one of those with cute face uptilted, soft lips pouted, and one foot lifted behind her as she stretches up on tiptoe on the other… Hmmm?
Anyway. That’s not what I started to talk about. Come back up the hill a bit to the top of No 2 Gully, where I was so rudely interrupted.
Life did indeed seem pretty good as I sat there at the top of the climb. For it could all have ended so much more badly.
For Gavin had led the second last pitch. Which might have been all well and good if only he had ever done any climbing in his life before, and if only he wasn’t afraid of heights.
The problem, you see, was that he couldn’t navigate. In fact he hadn’t even hill-climbed in winter. So there was no question of letting him out on his own. But all of us that weekend wanted to climb. He was my mate, so I felt sort of responsible; just not responsible enough to give up the prospect of what would probably be a last route of the winter.
It was only Grade II, I justified to myself. He would manage. He had borrowed axes. I gave him my helmet so he wouldn’t get his head hurt, I gave him my harness so he would be secure on the rope. It didn’t matter to me that my own head attracted every single fist-sized lump of ice knocked down by climbers above; it didn’t matter that my improvised harness not only had to be hitched up every few metres, but also deprived me of slings for protection and belays.
And there is no excuse, or perhaps forgiveness, possible for what happened as we neared the top of the gully.
With an appreciable length of the rope wound around my waist, my pitches were shorter than most people’s and eventually I found myself at rope’s end in the middle of the gully, with no belay in sight. I took a rather inadequate axe-belay in the neve and brought Gavin up. I was tired myself, and couldn’t face the faffing about necessary to change over the belay, so I pointed to a huge boulder in the middle of the gully, not even 50 feet above, and to a large crack visible from where we stood. I handed him a Friend, explained how to use it, and told him to put it in the crack – it would fit – and then clip onto it and take me up.
And up he went, his tired feet marionette-loose on his ankles, until he reached the level patch of snow I’d directed him to in front of the boulder. He took the Friend from his harness, looked at it, looked at the crack … then looked round at me for assurance.
This guy, who was so scared of heights he had never once in the climb looked back down the way he had come, turned round in his footsteps and looked down 2000 feet straight into beckoning oblivion.
From almost 50 feet away I could see his eyes pop and his whole body convulse as, for one heart-stopping instant, vertigo kicked in and balance went.
Then he turned back to the big, solid boulder, touched it, placed the Friend perfectly and secured the belay. With that action I forgave him everything – he who had done nothing but cope with my idiocy. We were going to live.
I even forgave him for shrugging his shoulders down there at the bottom of the gully when we started out. For many things can be hidden, many left untold, but there, in that shrug, my humiliation had been assured.
I’d set up the first belay, tied him into it, shown him how to feed the rope through the Sticht plate, and set off upwards. After a few feet, of course, the rope jerked taut because he wasn’t feeding it through fast enough. I shouted at him. After a few more feet I stopped for a rest and looked round to see him contentedly continuing to pay out the rope. I shouted at him. It wasn’t fair because there were a lot of people about, both on our route and within hearing range.
At the end of the first pitch I found a belay. I looked down and shouted to him to take me off.
He looked up. He gave his shrug. And he spread his hands in the universal gesture of puzzlement.
Well of course. I hadn’t explained that bit.
I’d done everything for him: checked the harness, tied on the rope, fed it through the Sticht plate and into the krab. But he didn’t know how to do anything for himself, or even know what anything was called – and it was all my fault.
And, of course, as I drew breath almost 50 metres away, there came one of those freakish moments usually encountered only when you say something really embarrassing at a party: everyone, on every climb – and they were many – fell silent.
Just as I shouted, very loud and very clear: “See the round metal thing at your waist …!” The silence, born in coincidence, became stunned, and lasted well past the end of the explanation. There could be no recovery.
Fool on The Hill indeed. It was me.
And I swear all this was absolutely true, and that the real hero of it all was Gavin Gibbon who held it all together when everything was turning to bewildering shit around him. Or maybe he didn’t know how close to the wind we were sailing and just assumed climbing was always like that. Whatever, he was afraid of heights but was still willing to give it a go – and rock climbed with us at Poll Dubh the next day too, even though the whole Saturday had been debacle. For it wasn’t just me who was a fool on the hill that March day back in 2003. That photo at the top of this post shows five people. Colin and the lovely Lucy climbed a route and went back down the hill with no fuss, but Ronnie (far left) and Ken, who took the photograph, had their own comedy of errors, which involved flat tyres, two people on the same rope climbing two different routes, a descent in the wrong direction, dancing up and down in rage on a public road, an aborted DIY rescue party and – whisper it – taxis!
But hey, that’s another story.