The Mountain and the Marriage
It is known as Ben Nevis, or "the Ben". All mountains in Scotland are called bens, just as all lakes are called lochs. I suppose ben is Gaelic for mountain. One school child mistakenly spelled it Ben Nervous, but he was not far off the mark. It is a killer, and each year, without fail, some people die on its slopes. The poet and climber Hamish Brown terms it "the Great Harlot" and it can turn from benign and friendly to cruel and vindictive in a very short time. Sometimes the reverse is true, and you can climb through clouds of pouring rain to bright sunshine and a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks. Situated in the Western Highlands of Scotland, it rises almost from sea level some 4,400 feet, making it the highest mountain in the British Isles. It is geologically old and the top is relatively flat, being worn down by weather over millennia. The "easy way" to the top involves a six-hour exhausting plod up winding paths, but even there one has to exercise caution, as the path comes perilously close to the edge of the climbing face -- and what a climbing face! Starting about halfway up there is a valley with a small loch, surrounded by scree and huge broken boulders, then soaring from there is over 2,000 feet of crags and gullies capped by cornices of snow and ice. The whole area is a vast wasteland and the cliffs run for about two miles on the exposed face of Ben Nevis. The cornices are created by the prevailing winds blowing the snow and sleet across te summit and building up a huge overhang of ice and snow. There is snow on top all year round and in spring some of the great cornices come crashing down.
I had taken to mountain climbing when I was nineteen because of a fear of heights, and became quite competent. I still feared heights, perhaps because of an active imagination, but was able to keep fear in check. Jack Higginson, like me, was a member of Clydesdale Harriers. He stood about five foot eight, was perfectly proportioned, and had unusual talents as a runner, as he excelled in sprints and marathons. Together we joined the Glenmore Mountaineering Club so we could gain climbing experience and transportation to the mountains. Jack was seven years older than I, but was willing to let me lead on our climbs. In turn I needed someone I trusted to be second on the rope. If the second falls the rope comes tight very quickly, but when a leader falls he can have a substantial drop before the rope tightens and you have to trust the second to hold on to the rope as it burns through the skin on his hand.
Ben Nevis is a magnet for adventurers. Every year since 1920 a footrace has been held in August from the town of Fort William to the summit of the Ben and back -- a brutal race of fourteen miles. When I competed in 1955 and '56, the others were a strange mix of about sixty -- athletes, distance runners, adventurers, mountain rescue experts, a couple of shepherds, a few Marines, some Commandos, and a few from the Royal Navy. Some trained on mountains all year and travelled hundreds of miles just for this race. The distance runners usually fared well, the best of them trying to stay close to local athletes who knew the mountain and its short cuts. The winner took about an hour and forty five minutes. I finished in the middle of the field -- ahead of the military types but behind the distance runners -- in about two and a half hours. While the Ben is usually benign for race day, she has turned bitchy and people have died in the race. There was a dance in the evening after the race, but my legs were always shot and dancing was the last thing on my mind. The locals love the racers and cheer them on over the last few miles. I had always known hospitality and a warm welcome here. On my next visit here I was not so welcome.
Jack and I had planned this climb for months. We had bought crampon spikes for our boots so we could tackle the ice fields. In Scotland we used to work Christmas day but have three days holiday at New Year. Combined with a weekend, this made a nice long winter break. The people of England had several days holiday at Christmas and some of them head for adventure to Scottish mountains. The year was 1956, and over Christmas holiday a nasty accident occurred when five people who had climbed up "the easy way" became disoriented and, roped together, glissaded (slid) over the climbing face. All were killed. The press had a field day; sensational news titillates the public.
Despite the accident, Jack and I decided to go ahead with our plans and took the train from Queen Street Station in Glasgow to Fort William. Arriving on a Friday evening, festooned with climbing ropes, ice axes, crampons, and camping gear, we were surprised to encounter a hostile crowd, shouting and jeering at us, yelling for us to go home. Inspired by the media, they were objecting to climbers causing others to risk their lives to rescue them when they had a fall. We could care less about their feelings as it was not the town bullies that would come out on a rescue, but other climbers just like us. We had been called out on other rescues in the past. We shouldered our way through the jostling crowd without serious incident, and decided as it was late and dark, to stay at a bed and breakfast place in town. The place where we lodged was owned by a man who worked as a nurse at the local hospital. He had seen the results of many accidents and told us that these bodies had been found because the birds were feeding on them, and that the head of one man was still not recovered.
It was windy and overcast when we set out early next day, but we pressed on and made camp, eventually making our way to the foot of the climbing face. We had planned to climb Number Five Gully, but changed our minds when we saw that birds were at something further up, and we had no wish to retrieve the missing head. We went further around and started up Number Eight Gully and were soon in snow and ice as the wind picked up. In the gully the wind became very troublesome, as it would sometimes blow above our heads and then strike with great force. When that happened, we would drive the shaft of our ice axes into the snow and hang on until it veered away.
As the day wore on, the snow and ice became very brittle and little sections of it would break away around our crampons and go tinkling down the slope. We decided that it could avalanche so we unroped and were climbing independently -- if one fell, he would not drag the other. Finally, about fifty feet below the summit, we reached the bottom of a huge cornice, an overhang of ice and snow. We had to choose between tunneling through this mass, or turning back. It was soon going to be dark, the weather conditions had worsened, and neither of us had ever performed this tunneling operation. While we were discussing this, suddenly the decision was made for us. A huge gust of wind hit and I drove my ice axe into the snow and hunkered down. When I raised my head, I was alone. I had heard no sound above the roar of the wind, but my partner was gone.
I started down, carefully at first, then as there was neither sight or sound of him, faster and faster until I was bounding down the gully, the crampons tearing my pants and my legs too. He had been wearing new blue leather mittens and they had become wet, and every now and then I would see a blue streak of dye on the ice. When the wind came up I still dug in and in those moments I prayed desperately, making a bargain with God that if Jack survived this fall I would look around for what I should do with my life. After an hour or so of reckless descent I found Jack standing dazed in the half darkness. He had survived a fall of over a thousand feet. The strap on his backpack had broken, causing him to overbalance and he fell headfirst, tobogganing down the gully with the pack hitting obstacles first.
Assessing the damage I found that he had gashes on his wrists that did not look too bad, but the blood trickling from his mouth had me very worried. This also turned out to be minor as he had bitten himself on the way down. He had come to a stop just a few feet away from a frozen waterfall that would have been dead fall of over a hundred feet and killed him for sure. We still had to get off the mountain and made our way back to our tent, laughing hysterically for no particular reason and stumbling a lot over our own feet. I suppose we were in shock.
My life went on, but the experience left more than physical scars. I had recurring nightmares for some months, re-enacting the accident, but coming down I would find Jack's head and put it in my pack, wondering how I would tell his mother about what had happened. Then I would find him intact and wake up in a panic, soaked in sweat.
That was to be the last time Jack and I were on the mountains together. A few months later he suffered a torn cartilage, hiking in the Cairngorms and that was the end of his climbing days. Eileen and I got married and moved to Canada, and with family responsibilities, I never again did any serious climbing.
Years have passed and Eileen and I still love to be on the mountains in Scotland, always now taking the "easy way". The Great Harlot still takes her annual harvest of lovers, but this one escaped her.
What happened to this perfectly proportioned athlete that I knew, the man who could not only sprint with the best, but also won the eighteen mile road race at Bute Highland Games? We did not see each other for forty years, then met in Glasgow for a meal. I barely recognized the short, fat, bald man who told me he had taken up lawn bowling. What a transformation.
I wonder if I have changed too ...
Even from the great distance of forty three years and all that has subsequently happened, 1957 was an outstanding year, a major turning point in my life. After the mountain accident and its consequential spiritual quest, after two months on the high seas and the life shaping lessons involved in that, Eileen and I were to be married in July and then move to Canada, myself in September and Eileen following in October.
We were both 22 years old on a beautiful July day when we were married in a very old church (Presbyterian) in the village of East Kilbride. By some weird twist of fate we can never remember whether it was the fifth or sixth of July, and every year we have to look up our marriage certificate to get it right. Eileen's parents let us choose either to have a large wedding or a small one, in which case they would give Eileen the cost difference as a dowry. Since we were so young and poor, we chose the latter, had a very small wedding and Eileen had a fund of $400 when she arrived in Canada.
I would have chosen Jack Higginson as my best man, the man who fell down the mountain, but he was unavailable, so I asked dear Pat Younger, a fellow member of Clydesdale Harriers, and one of nature's gentlemen, to stand up for me. Eileen chose the friend who had been with her when we first met at a dance in Glasgow. I cannot remember her name, but I do recall that she had a pet fox that hated men. Pat and I have maintained our friendship ever since, and whenever we get the chance we visit him in his cottage, "Tigh Phadaig" (The House of Patrick) at the head of Glencoe, almost in the shade of Ben Nevis.
In our wedding pictures you will see that the men have a rose in the appropriate buttonhole of their jackets, except for me. Don't blame me. I pinned Pat's rose on him and he pinned mine on me. I was so nervous that day at the ceremony, that it was all a blur. Eileen, I am sure, was no better as I recall standing beside her at the altar and out of the corner of my eye seeing her bouquet quivering.
We had a small wedding reception in a Glasgow restaurant and Eileen and I, because of signing papers etc, arrived by taxi later than the others. Unfortunately, because it was near the "Glorious Twelfth" of July a huge Orange Walk parade poured out of a train in Central Station, complete with band and big drum beating. They had been having an annual parade somewhere to commemorate the victory of King Billy (William of Orange) over he forces of James VI at the Battle of the Boyne several centuries ago. They use this occasion to celebrate and provoke Roman Catholics. Apart from delaying us they were quite pleasant, many of them calling in the taxi window and wishing us well. Unfortunately we were in a huge rush to catch the last train to the Clyde Coast and the nice hotel where we would spend our honeymoon.
The reception was attended by a small party. We had no time to eat, gulped down a glass of champagne and leaving the guests to their meal, rushed off to catch the train. We had a carriage to ourselves until a man boarded at the last minute. Eileen tells me that I scowled at him so fiercely that he promptly left to find another carriage.
The honeymoon was problematic and adjustments had to start right away. As soon as we unpacked I was in trouble as I had brought along my climbing boots and rope as well as my running spikes and Eileen was not very happy about that. She was even less happy when she found that she had left her make-up case at home. Getting ready for bed I thought I had a chance to redeem myself as Eileen screamed and I rushed over to see a huge horrible black bug crawling out of the sink drain. Uttering a horrible swear word, I grabbed a piece of tissue to kill and get rid of the monster. Then I discovered it was plastic, a practical joke Eileen had devised. The next morning as we were heading downstairs to breakfast, Eileen could not control a fit of giggles. Thus tipped off, I went back to my room to inspect myself. That was when I found out she had provided a bar of soap which turned my face entirely black. I considered suing that practical joke shop; maybe I will yet.
The hotel was a lovely old stone building and many of the guests were attending a sailing course but for some reason we chose not to participate. We went to a nearby resort town and rented a rowing boat to go out fishing. Eileen caught a large fish and I didn't. Not having the means or desire to clean and cook fish, we approached another rowing boat captained by a simple minded young man. He was delighted when Eileen presented him with her fish. "I'll tell my Mammy I caught it myself," he proudly announced.
Over the next few days we tried what we call miniature golf (in Scotland "putting") and Eileen was unbeatable at that. In the evenings or when it rained we would play cribbage, and I continually lost, then we made the mistake of playing table tennis. I had never played before but came close to winning the first game so I said "Let's make it the best two of three games." I lost those too and chose "the best three of five", which I proceeded to lose also. By the time we left for home I had been bitten by the table tennis bug, but was on the losing end of something like "the best 41 of 80."
We had no place to live when we returned to Glasgow, so Eileen's dear Grandmother MacPhee unselfishly chose to go visiting relatives and leave her flat for our use for a couple of months until I would leave for Canada. Both of us were working in Glasgow as we settled in to married life. We decided to buy a dartboard and mounted it on a cupboard door, anticipating that we would never miss the board. By the time we left that poor door was perforated like Swiss cheese. I'm afraid we were not very good tenants.
We looked forward to Friday nights when the work week was over and payday, and I would join a line up of the rest of Glasgow at the local fish and chip shop. We usually had Pat Younger or some for Eileen's friends over for supper and beer, then all played cards or darts. On the weekends we paid last visits to my old haunts, including some climbing at the Whangy, a huge rock cleft near Drymond and hikes over the Old Kilpatrick Hills to the Stocky Muir Road.
All too soon the time passed and I had to pack my meagre belongings to prepare for immigration to Canada.