Memoirs: Mountain Climbing
6 June, 2010When I was nineteen years old I was bothered and not at peace with myself. The primary reason for this was I was letting myself be dominated by fear. I had a strong fear of heights. I wasn’t too crazy about the dentist either. As a healthy teenager I detested this state of affairs. It was unfinished business, so I decided to face up to those fears. The dentist was the easiest part so I quickly put that experience behind me, then decided to take up mountain climbing.
It started rather innocuously in 1953 when, with a group of fellow Clydesdale Harriers, we were driving across the Rannoch Moor in Pat Younger’s little 1936 Singer car. We saw a beautiful mountain about a mile away and John Hume, who had been climbing for about a year, suggested we tackle it. It was named Clach Leathad, in ages long past it had been a volcano, a beautifully shaped mountain with a washed out basin. It had snow and ice on top, and was just over 3,600 feet high. The climb was not very difficult but a bit strenuous, and in the snow and ice we had to kick steps for ourselves on the steep slopes. After that invigorating experience, I found myself hooked on climbing. I was used to running around the 1,800 feet high Old Kilpatrick Hills, but this was a real mountain.
All of the mountains in Scotland were surveyed by a man named Munroe, so any peak over 3,000 feet high, and there are 324 of them, is known as a Munroe. Almost all of those in the Highlands have Gaelic names, many with poetic meanings.
Anyway, another member of the Clydesdale Harriers, Jack Higginson, a fine athlete about seven years older than I, came with me to join the Glenmore Mountaineering Club, which organized bus trips to the mountains. Very few people had cars then, so transportation to the hills was very important. The members of the Glenmore club were a friendly group of mostly young people, although when I was nineteen, the thirty year olds seemed rather ancient to me. We met at a school gym in Glasgow for training and conditioning with weekly or biweekly climbing trips. Sometimes we would take a day trip by train on a Sunday to Arrochar, a village on Loch Long, to climb a peak named Ben Arthur better known as “The Cobbler” From some angles this mountain looks like a cobbler bending over his last. If you have a lot of imagination, that is.
I think of The Cobbler very fondly and it was where I learned a great deal. Scrambling there I found I could control my fear and eventually became a competent climber. I was still terrified at times, but it no longer controlled me. Any climbing move I could do six feet off the ground, I learned to do a thousand feet off the ground, not allowing the exposure influence my ability which was OK but not brilliant.
I was to find that on almost every climb there came a “moment of truth”, when I thought I was going to die in a great fall within the next thirty seconds. It never happened, but the feeling was extremely real. Having faced those situations I found myself unafraid of any normal stress at work, in studies, or anywhere else in my life.
The Cobbler had three peaks and many routes with a wide range of difficulty from “Easy” to “Very Severe.” I remember even on one Easy route, I had to jump across a gap with a great deal of exposure below and the wind flapping my clothes. It was not a very big jump, but quite unnerving for a beginner. One Sunday on The Cobbler, rain was pouring down so a few of us decided to go caving instead (know as spelunking.) I remember going down a “chimney” with my back against one wall and feet against another. The walls gradually diverged and I became totally stretched out and wondered how the hell I was going to get down or up from that position. I still don’t know how, but here I am all these years later.
A few of us later made our way down an ever narrowing cave, squeezing though tight openings while wondering if we could get back. We were prepared for daylight climbing so had only one flashlight and a couple of candles to light our way. The lead guy was roped and I was third. I remember him saying “There is some kind of underground stream here. I am going to stand on this earth bank.” Then we heard a great splash and the rope came tight. We managed to retrieve him, all 230 pounds, and back out of there minus the flashlight he had been carrying. When we finally reached daylight and the now welcome pouring rain, we found our boots and clothes covered in some kind of sparkling stuff. It was mica, also known as “fool’s gold.”
That was the first and last time I tried spelunking.
Jack Higginson and I paired up and he, while older, was happy to allow me to lead on the various routes. The role of a leader and second on a rope is different. The leader has to take more risk as when he falls he will go twice the length of the rope that has been paid out before the it tightens and the second can start to try to brake the fall. When a second falls there is almost no slack so he does not go very far before the braking effect. The leader has to trust his partner, that if he falls, the second will be securely belayed and will hang on to the rope as it runs out and burns through the leather gloves and the skin on the palm of the hand. Anyway we were both willing to trust each other in our chosen roles, and hope it would never be put to the test. Forty years later we were reunited in Glasgow for a meal and he observed “I think you were trying to prove something then.” Boy, he got that right!
We climbed together in Glencoe, in the Cairngorms, the Island of Skye, the Mamore Forest and the Nevis Range. The Cairngorm Mountain range was where mountain climbing started in Scotland. In the 1890's it was not a sport, but semi-precious stones were discovered there and people started to search for them. The stones were a beautiful smoky topaz, known in Scotland as Cairngorm stones.
The sheer rock face can test you to your limits, but some ridges can be every bit as difficult. Slogging up a mountainside the view is often limited to the few feet ahead, On a ridge the view is often spectacular. In Glencoe one summer we traversed the Aonach Eagach Ridge I don’t remember much about that day. It was quite challenging and the view was incredible. Jackie took a picture taken of me on a small cliff just as the cloud started to roll in.
One New Year an older climber (must have been at least thirty!) from the Glenmore Club and I were the first that year to do the winter traverse of the Devil’s Ridge. This was a spectacular experience as there was lots of snow and ice and a huge wind blowing. We saw a golden eagle battling its way into the wind. What a sight! The ridge took longer than anticipated and we were benighted on top. It became dark and we were making our way by flashlight until suddenly a full moon rose, and we could see for miles. The ice covered mountains were glistening and sparkling like diamonds in the moonlight. I shall never forget that night.
In preparation for long hikes I had started experimenting by adding whisky to my flask of tea as a “pick me up” for fatigue. What I discovered was that booze really is a depressant. It picked me up alright for about twenty minutes, and I could hear and feel my heart pounding, and a pleasant glow, then I mentally crashed, thinking “what the hell am I doing this for?” Later on I stuck with glucose and candy bars as less dramatic but more dependable as a source of energy.
I remember spending a weekend in March, 1954 in the Cairngorms with Jack Higginson. On the way in we had to pass over the 3,200 foot high shoulder of Cairngorm Mountain itself which was covered in deep, ice crusted snow. My pack was extremely heavy and I kept breaking through to my waist. I became exhausted hauling myself out of the snow so many times. Jack was much lighter and managed to stay on top of it. On the downslope I found I could lie on top of the snow without breaking through and started to let myself slide. It felt so pleasant and I was so tired I just let myself slide faster and faster. I was coming to a frozen waterfall and could care less, when Jack reached out with his ice axe and hooked my pack to pull me to safety.
We camped in Lost Valley that night. The wind was extremely strong and our little tent had to be weighted down with stones as we could not get tent pegs into the frozen and rocky ground. I recollect getting out in the middle of the night and finding heavier stones to weigh down the tent which was threatening to blow away.
The next day we were to have a close encounter the Gray Man of Ben MacDhui. We had read all the stories about this frightening apparition. Legend, originated by monks, had surrounded this mountain for centuries about a ghost which is seen from time to time. We were in the clouds and travelling by compass, as we could not see very far because of the mist. As we walked on the icy ground we could hear footsteps that were not our own, and we could swear that someone was following us. When we stopped walking, it stopped too. We continually looked around, but saw nobody. We were totally alone on this day and had seen no-one for two days. It was very spooky and our nerves were tingling. Suddenly out of the mist a giant figure loomed up coming towards us with his arms outstretched above his head. Were we scared! The runners were ready to run! It turned out to be a skier who had climbed up from the other side of the mountain with his skis strapped crosswise on his back. I think he got more of a fright than we did.
The Cairngorms today houses a luxury ski resort with hotels, lodges, restaurants, ski lifts, groomed trails, ski instructors, and rescue teams. In 1954 if you wanted to ski down, you had to climb up, and carry all the gear you might need.
On the way from Lost Valley to Ben MacDhui I was climbing solo a relatively short but difficult route on the “Forefinger Pinnacle” with Jack was standing below watching. The rock was loose because of the action of ice over the centuries and near the top I accidently dislodged a huge pillar of rock which, without warning, plummeted down to smash the ice axe Jack had laid on the ground at his side. That was a narrow escape for Jack. At the cost of a package of cigarettes the hickory ice axe handle was replaced the following week at John Brown’s Shipyard in Clydebank. They had built the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, so we were sure they could do a good job on the ice axe!
In the Summer of 1955 I took a trip to the Island of Skye. Today the Island is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. In 1955 we had to travel over rough seas in the small mail boat. It was the first time I was to see the magnificent Cuillin Mountains. They are of a rough craggy Gabbro rock with spectacular knife edge ridges and great long scree slopes of loose stones and boulders. I travelled with a group of young members of the Clydesdale Harriers whose names now escape me, except for Eric McMahon. At age twenty I was the senior member of the group for a change, also the most experienced. We stayed in the youth hostel in Glen Brittle and I remember the bread arriving via the mail boat from Glasgow, of all places. Each loaf was coated with green mold which had to be sliced off to eat the somewhat hard bread inside. One would have expected a local industry of baking, but no such luck.
We set off for the hills next day and left our packs and food supplies at the foot of a climb that was graded as much too difficult for us. We thought we would just try it for a bit then come back down, however we met with success and after a long hard climb managed to scale to the ridge at the top. There must have been iron in the rock in this locale for our compasses gave us totally wrong directions for getting back and we went on for miles and hours. We were somewhat weakened from hunger when we came to a sharp overhang on the ridge that demanded a lot of arm strength, which we no longer possessed. It was a short pitch and finally one of the group managed to get up the thing. I remember him bending over and a pocket watch slipped out of his anorak pocket and came crashing down beside me. It was an Ingersol make and must have been sturdy for it survived the fall. Once he was up the rest of us were assisted by a fixed rope and it was easy, however by the time we got back to the hostel it was dark and we were quite exhausted.
Next day we climbed a mountain named Sgur Alisdair and to attain its summit required a fairly formidable climb, well named “The Inaccessible Pinnacle.” It was at the foot of this climb we met an older man who had climbed every Munroe in Scotland all 323 of them, except this one. Over the years he had managed to scale every one taking the “easy way” up, without himself being a rock climber. He had deliberately saved this one to last as he had to climb this last part. Fortunately he was successful. We sunned ourselves for a while on top the decided to abseil or rappel down using a rope and “walking” down the vertical face. I was wearing a thick cotton shirt and I still remember the rope burning my back all the way down, and leaving a scar to remember the occasion for some time.
On the way back we had a wonderful time launching ourselves down long scree slopes and moving at great speed, taking twenty feet long strides all the way. We saw a magnificent little loch of a startling blue colour and just had to peel off and have a bracing swim. When we finally reached the river in Glen Brittle I saw a large fish swimming upstream so had to jump in after it in fairly shallow water. I chased it around throwing rocks and finally managed to bring in a twenty two inch long salmon, which we later cooked in butter at the hostel. We were rather fortunate to get away with this as the Warden at the Hostel was also the Game Warden and catching salmon without a license carried an extremely heavy fine, which would have been all out of proportion to my wages of twelve dollars a week as an Apprentice Tool Maker.
Guarding the entrance to Glen Coe is a beautiful mountain named the Buachaille Etive Mor. It has a twin mountain called the Buachaille Etive Bheag. Mor means bigger and Bheag means smaller. Side by side they look magnificent, when you can see them without rain or clouds in the way. Buachaille Etive means the Shepherd of Glen Etive. I was climbing solo there in 1955 on a quite difficult route and when I was almost at the top of the climbing face, I was rejoicing inwardly. It had been a risky and dangerous day. However I rejoiced one step too soon as when I carelessly brought my trailing foot over the top ledge, it struck the rock leaving me standing at the edge with my arms windmilling, trying to regain my balance. This always looks funny when it happens to Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, but I can assure you there is no more frightening experience. Most times when this type of thing happens one gradually loses balance and takes the fall. With several hundred feet of exposure, I can assure you I would not be writing this had I not managed to stay on top. This was a lesson, never to be forgotten. In rock climbing and in life, no job is over until it is completely finished.
At this time I was reading every book I could get my hands on about mountain climbing, and there were not all that many. Mount Everest had been climbed and mountain climbing now received a lot of attention. I read a book by a man named Ben Humble about a marathon climb he and a couple of friends made in 1936 in which they climbed fifteen Munroes in the Mamore Forest in a single day. I thought that unbelievable so got out my maps and pored over them. There were mountain ridges connecting many of these peaks and you did not have to go all the way down before scaling the next one. Not only was fifteen possible, but I thought that given the right weather and extra long summer days, it was possible to climb twenty four Munroes in a single day. There was one location where one would have to go down to 1,000 feet above sea level and cross a waterfall at Steall then climb back up to the Ben Nevis range to finish with nine mountains all over 4,000 feet.
We planned it for a couple of months and with a group of fellow harriers, (Pat Younger, Jim Young, and Davy Panton) Jack Higginson and I spent a week of our vacation in July 1956, camping by the river in Glen Nevis each day waiting for the cloud ceiling to be above the mountains. This required us to hike five miles into the town of Fort William to the nearest public telephone and call long distance to the weather office at Glasgow Airport for the forecast. (This was the days before cell phones.) Finally we got the all clear. The cloud ceiling was to be above 5,000 feet the next day. Perfect!
Jack and I set off in total darkness at 3 AM and headed up the Glen with the others cheering us on and Davy Panton playing “Scotland the Brave” on his bagpipes. Coming to the foot of the first mountain we slowly climbed up, trying to avoid tripping over obstacles. It was still dark when we reached that summit, and we had to guess the route to the next peak. A number of times we found ourselves coming down the mountain rather than finding the ridge to the next peak. When dawn arrived we had not got very far and, to our disappointment, we found ourselves in thick cloud cover. We wandered around like this for about three more hours. Not a great start for a record breaking attempt and a marathon climb.
As the morning wore on, the dense clouds lifted and we made better headway, until gradually a problem of another nature emerged. Jackie Higginson was substantially fitter than I, so naturally he went on ahead. Each summit I reached, Jackie was sitting on a rock nearby resting and was ready to press on. This meant that I started out with him each time without having had any respite. As the day wore on and we successfully scaled more peaks I was getting more and more weary. When we descended all the way down to the waterfall at Steall, just 1,000 feet above sea level Jackie wanted to quit. I was determined to go on. Neither one of us were fighting men, but we were seriously at odds over it. In the end we quit after having climbed fifteen Munroe’s. We trudged back to join our friends who were on the lookout for us at the camp in Glen Nevis. Their cheers were encouraging and once again Davy Panton piped us home.
That day we covered 29 miles and climbed 9,000 feet up and, of course, another 9,000 feet back down. Starting at 3AM, we finished at 7 PM, a sixteen hour journey. Some of the Clydesdale Harriers asked me about it over the years, Jim Shields and others, men much more capable than I. I am sure others have improved on that effort, but it remains memorable.
It is funny how life turns out. We never got another chance at this route. Our vacation was used up, then at New Year, 1957 Jackie took his big fall on Ben Nevis. I went to sea on oil tankers in January - February, 1957. Jackie blew a cartilage in his knee climbing in the Cairngorms with John Hume that Spring. Eileen and I were married in July, and I emigrated to Canada in September that year. Neither of us ever climbed again.
In hindsight, quitting at the Steall Waterfall was a wise decision. Climbing another nine mountains, each over 4,000 feet , in fatigued condition and fading light could have been fatal.
The last climb Jackie and I had together was on New years Day of 1957 when Jackie survived a huge fall. It was the end of my mountain climbing days and the beginning of a spiritual quest.
In 1990 my son Robert graduated from Laurentian University and to celebrate, he and I revisited some of my old haunts in Scotland. I am a hill walker now, rather than a rock climber. We had planned to try the last part of the West Highland Way, a difficult slog up what is known as the Devil’s Staircase, crossing from Glen Coe to Glen Nevis. However when we started out we found that the packs we had were much too heavy for that tough hike, so we stopped for a meal in the old Kingshouse Inn, a favourite haunt of movie star Sean Connery, who was also a climber. We pitched our tent at the foot of the Buachaille Etive and in the morning fried up breakfast in pouring rain, sheltering in the hut belonging to the notorious Craig Dhu Climbing Club, then headed up the mountain. At around 3,000 feet we heard the roar of an engine below us and here came a US fighter plane doing low level flying through Glen Coe. As we watched in amazement we heard what sounded like a huge thunder clap - it was the plane going through the sound barrier.