An introduction to aviation
High drama on the hills
Like many British mountaineers I have ambitions that will require trips to foreign climes. Unfortunately for me there is a stumbling block; I’m afraid of flying and a long road trip to the Alps doesn’t really hold much appeal. So with that in mind I’ll be staying on UK soil until I can vanquish my qualms.
This of course is no hardship. Enjoying the romance of the Lakeland fells, maintaining my love affair with Cymru and jaunts north of the border keep me busy enough, and apart from our hit and miss winter conditions I am left wanting for nothing. I am a very lucky man to have been born and raised in a land that enslaves my heart, so for now the mighty snow peaks of Europe must wait. Likewise my first taste of air travel…or so I had thought.
For weeks I had been counting the days until my latest communion with the ancient rock fortresses of Alba. Imagine our disappointment when Juggs, Nobz and I found ourselves at the foot of the Douglas Boulder in torrential rain. We had come a long way to climb Tower Ridge on the North Face of Ben Nevis and a pessimistic weather forecast wasn’t going to stop us. At least that was our collective assertion the previous evening when, fuelled by liquid midge repellent we had vowed that “Come what may, we’ll bag the bastard”. In the cold light of day however, we peered up at a huge streaming castle rising into a vaporous veil of clammy clag. We looked at each other in silence and then turned to the sodden rock before frowns confirmed a wordless consensus; “Carn Mor Dearg arête it is then”.
Back at the Manse Barn, clouds of steam issued forth as wet layers of Gore Tex and polypropylene were peeled away from wrinkled skin. Clad in just our underpants and thus stripped of any pretension a lengthy cogitation ensued. With the knowledge that the morrow would bring similar conditions we concurred that the requirement was for a route that would ‘go’ in the wet but still deliver a satisfying outing without being technically demanding. After tossing around a few ideas we plumped for Curved Ridge, the classic grade 2/3 scramble on Stob Dearg, the eastern outpost of Buachaille Etive Mor.
With our plans settled, I was then free to pay some attention to my bottle of Glenmorangie which had been calling “Come hither” throughout our discourse. A nice drop indeed and a welcome change from my usual tipple ‘Trampagne’, which would have been most incongruous in our highland setting. I did pity my companion’s choice of refreshment, The Famous Grouse and Tennents lager respectively. But was I going to share my malt? At £30 a bottle I most certainly was not; a decision I would regret come the morning.
Hangover notwithstanding, dawn brought a smile to my face; the rain had abated and the tops were free of cloud. Perfect. This unexpected turn in the weather had inspired my spirit to soar higher than the mountains that surrounded us. “Hear me now, thou beef-whitted codpiece sniffers, the time is upon us for high adventure on yonder precipice”. To this there was some protestation, “I’m going nowhere until my belly is full of black pudding and square sausages” declared a ravenous Juggs. Food? FOOD? I was aghast at such talk. “Think not of food thou swag-bellied baggage, feed the soul and the stomach will surely follow”. My appeal fell on deaf ears, and try as I might I failed to rally the troops into action before their lust for offal was satiated. A nauseating display and I don’t mean maybe.
In due course and not before time we were treading the stony track past Lagangarbh, and soon we were beneath the complex arrangement of gullies, ribs and buttresses that make up Stob Dearg’s impressive façade. It was then that the weather pattern was set for the next few hours. A brief cloudburst left the wet crags gleaming like silver in the morning sun and the air fresh and clean. Before long we had reached the Waterslide Slab, a key landmark in order for us to find the start of our route and our cue to start ascending.
I checked the guidebook and was pretty sure that our way lay up the obvious ridge to the left of a small gully, Juggs was in agreement and we made our way to its foot. Beautiful scrambling took us upwards at a rapid rate and soon the feeling of air beneath our boots intoxicated us, we were alive again. After a couple of hundred feet we encountered a slimy wall barring the entry to a chimney. Juggs made an inspection but didn’t fancy it and traversed airily out to the left, finding a route to the chimney, up which he quickly disappeared.
I was then joined by Nobz who had been labouring under the weight of the rope in his sack. We discussed how we would tackle the next section as neither of us liked the look of Jamie’s traverse line. It was exposed and unprotectable so we decided to rope up and climb the wall and chimney as a conventional rock pitch. Nobz led the wall and although a ‘one move wonder’ he was thankful of the two good nut placements he’d found. Then, he too scampered up the chimney and brought me up to a large and comfortable ‘smokers ledge’ where we could take in the view over Rannoch Moor, its many lochans and a distant Shiehallion.
Easier ground lay above, so we took chest coils and moved together up grotty grooves until we met with another wall, this one steeper and some 20 metres high. By this time Juggs had almost scaled the beast but had stopped climbing and was puzzling out the way ahead. “It’s bold” he called down, “You may want to pitch it”. “Too bloody right” I thought, “This doesn’t look like a grade 2 scramble to me”. After a moments thought, Juggs made the move and reached the top of the wall, hooting with relief, “It’s all there but it’s incredibly exposed”.
I was now becoming a little nervous so rather than hang about and fret I started to climb. There didn’t seem to be any protection and my resolve was waning. Up I went, then down again repeating the sequence until I conceded defeat. My head was going and I just hoped that Nobz was up to the challenge as there was no way Juggs could return and lead the pitch for us. “Things” I mused, “are getting a little too spicy for my liking”.
I explained to Nobz that I was having an off day so he took some gear from me and quickly climbed above my high point where he found an indifferent placement. Further up he found better gear and a move later he was standing below the crux that Juggs had found so thought provoking. I shouted encouragement from below but Nobz gave me a knowing look and I was glad that it was him up there and not me. Nobz groped around looking for good holds…there weren’t any and I, fearing an imminent fall started to pray in earnest. Nobz would have to make a leap of faith, get his feet high and hope for better holds above.
He steeled himself and went for it, struggling to remain in contact with the rock. His hands slapped in desperation, his feet scrabbled about in search of friction and then, with a muffled cry of resignation he fell. The following split seconds felt like eons as I watched him bounce off a ledge and invert before another ledge righted him. I was in sheer terror and was convinced that I was watching a dear friend fall to his death. And then I thought about the belay; it was shit and he would surely pull me off with him to oblivion. We were caught in the irreversible process of ruining our friends and families lives and I felt so sorry for what we were doing to them.
But then, with a jolt he stopped. The gear had held. I looked down at my hands on the dead rope, my knuckles white in their death grip on our slender lifeline. For a few moments there was silence, a much needed respite from the horrific scraping and thudding that had accompanied the fall. I then shouted up to Juggs, “Nobz has fallen, we’re going down. You carry on to the top and we’ll see you back at the car”.
To Nobz’ surprise he hadn’t broken anything in the fall and apart from some minor cuts he was fine and slowly down climbed as I held the rope tight. This was my last lucid act of the day as I felt myself descending into shock.
On joining me at the belay we realised just how lucky we had been. Just above Nobz’ stopper knot the rope was badly damaged; the core was broken and a frayed sheath was all that was keeping it in one piece. I felt like crying but couldn’t, I was numb. Nobz on the other hand was calm, in control and set about planning our escape, nonchalant and matter of fact in his delivery.
First he retied onto the rope above the damage and set about lowering me down the grooves. This took time as I was all but spent, his patience and encouragement paying dividends. At the bottom of the grooves I anchored myself to the rock and waited for him to arrive. An hour passed and still he hadn’t appeared. “What the fuck is going on up there” I bellowed, Nobz’ shouts were lost to the wind and I cursed myself for setting foot on this mountain. Then the rain came down in a tremendous and persistent deluge, soaking my tobacco and further adding to my misery. Soon I was getting cold and not long after that I started shivering uncontrollably. “Oh shit, hypothermia”, I was in the depths of despair and had taken to talking to myself for company.
Eventually Nobz came into view at the top of the first groove. He’d been battling with a jammed rope and was quite literally at the end of his tether. When at long last he escaped the groove I had long gone into myself and shaking more violently than ever. The ‘smoker’s ledge’ was just around the corner so using the last of my resolve I crawled around to it and we scouted around for anchors. “Bollocks, there’s nothing to abseil off”, Nobz was becoming despondent and we talked about our options knowing that we really only had one. Though unspoken, we knew that we were trapped and to consider down climbing would possibly see the situation spiralling out of control. It was now 5pm and we had spent three hours trying to extract ourselves from our situation. “That’s it” I snapped, “I’m going to call mountain rescue. I don’t want to but we’re fucked”. Nobz said nothing but the look he gave me reassured me that I was doing the right thing.
I made the call and the police operator told me that Juggs had already called them and they would be with us soon. It was then that we looked down to Lagangarbh and saw a team coming for us. “How could we have got into so much trouble on a grade two scramble”? It didn’t make sense and we were ashamed to have had to resort to such drastic action. Within minutes of making the call a distinctive rumbling was heard to be coming from Glen Etive, and then we saw its origins. “I don’t believe it Nobz, they’ve sent a bloody helicopter”, I was incredulous and not a little worried about what this meant; I hate flying, I don’t want to fly.
The helicopter got closer and then the door opened. We waved at the crew and having made visual contact with us they swung away in a wide arc returning a minute or two later. Slowly, they sidled up to the side of the mountain. The noise was deafening and I shouted to Nobz, “Downdraft, get down”. Soon they were hovering directly above us and we clung the rock, I was anchored to a boulder but Nobz wasn’t and I feared he would be blown from the mountain. I also had grave fears that the rotor blades would make contact with the crag above and the consequences of such an occurrence.
Suddenly there was three of us on the ledge. We had been joined by Royal Navy SAR personnel and he tapped an oblivious Nobz on his helmet. He barked orders to untie and Nobz complied before our rescuer placed a large sling like harness over his head and under his arms. And then they were gone. When my turn came I was all fingers and thumbs and it took me too long to untie from the rope and anchor. I was being shouted at and I struggled to free myself until at last the rope fell from my waist. Up I went, not able to comprehend what was happening to me but amazed at how different the mountain looked from my improbable vantage point.
Before I knew what was happening I saw the footrest above me and a second later I was bundled into the helicopter, still shaking. I was strapped in and then threw my arm around Nobz’ shoulder. Our relief was all consuming and our heads swimming so much that we had failed to notice a girl with a TV camera to our right. “Channel 5” said winchman Marcus ‘Wiggy’ Wigful. “You’ve got to be joking”!
A short time later we had landed at Lagangarbh and were ushered out of the helicopter to face our audience. A tearful Juggs gave me a massive hug and led me to the MRT vehicle where they offered us food and drink. We then learnt that we hadn’t been on Curved Ridge at all, but D Gully Buttress instead. It was explained to us that it is a common mistake and happens a lot. Also, the place where Nobz fell was called Hell’s Wall, a rock climb graded Severe.
Before the SAR left the scene the girl with the camera came to interview us and said that they were filming a new series about the Royal Navy SAR team and would we give permission for them to show our rescue? “Well” I said, “After all that I’d be annoyed if you didn’t”.
All in all it had been an incredible day and an experience I shall never forget. Our heartfelt thanks go out to Juggs for raising the alarm and most humbly to the RN SAR team and the Glencoe MRT who dealt with our situation with great skill and professionalism. Be careful out there folks and please stick a bit of spare change into the MR collection boxes…next time it might be you that needs them!