Thursday, 29 August 2013

Saved by the Lizard

What greater bliss could there be than a weekend near midsummer in the Black Cuillin of Skye, surely one of the most spectacular places in our country? It was early in June and I was whirring back to Crieff in the evening on my beloved Ariel, the freedom of wheels after the years of hitching.
Most of the way it was snowing (for Global Warming had yet to be arranged), and I was shudderingly cold as I came down from the Rannoch Moor and approached Bridge of Orchy, hotel one side of the road, petrol pumps the other side, grey van at the pumps, so I slowed to around 70 mph (no speed restriction back then) in case anyone should suddenly cross the road. A man finished fuelling the van, parked the pump nozzle, came round to the driver’s side, opened the door, paused, looked back along the road in my direction. “Good,” I thought, “he’s seen me coming” and I began to accelerate to get out of his way.
But he drove straight out in front of me, and there was no chance at all of avoiding him.
Time, as it does in such moments, went into slowmo, and the lizard brain, the amygdala, woke from its reptile doze and came to the rescue. There are many scenarios where you do well to switch off all conscious effort and let the lizard look after you: coming down a steep rocky heathery hill in the dark, if you try to watch where your feet are going you will almost certainly stumble and fall, but if you let the lizard guide the feet you’ll probably get down safely; as you stroll along a heathery track, the lizard can stop you in mid-stride, one foot in the air, when you were just about to tread on a snake. Cherish your lizard, for he’s your best hope of staying safe: he sees things that you haven’t noticed, and his reaction-time is lightning swift because he doesn’t have to do all that big-brain thinking stuff that makes us humans often too slow.
My youthful years were spent in Perth, where we lived on a road which ran steeply downhill until it came out onto the Glasgow Road, and in the winter we used to sledge down there; to avoid hurtling out on to the traffic-rich main road we had to roll off the sledge, holding its reins, and so I had perfected a kind of shoulder-roll to come to a stop without injury. The lizard remembers this kind of physical expertise (it never forgets how to cycle, swim or skate), and even as the bike slammed into the grey van I was already launched into mid-air, preparing for a main-road-avoidance shoulder-roll landing.
Mid-air seemed to go on for quite some time, during which, while the lizard was busy organising injury-reduction, I had time to recollect that we also sledged down a hill called Necessity Brae, which was great for roller-skating as well, and not far away was another good roller-skating place called Needless Road, after which we would go for a bag of chips, and what Perth bureaucrat humourist had decided on these names, and which came first in time . . . ?
Yes, there was heaps of time, it must have been two, maybe three seconds before I landed on the opposite side of the road, soaking up the impact with the technique learnt all those years ago, leaving my beloved Ariel to be smashed into a write-off.
The lizard had done well, I was not a write-off, but I couldn’t get up and walk. The memory flashed through me of a friend whose bike had had an argument with a truck, and was still in a wheelchair – what would that be like?
People came and carried me into the hotel and sat me down in the bar. “We saw it, we’ll be witnesses,” they said, “we’ve phoned the police, they’re coming up from Oban, they’ll be a wee minute yet.” (Oban was about 40 miles away, it’d likely take an hour.) The man from the grey van came into the bar, a bit white; “I never saw you, I didn’t know you were there, I was drunk.” The witnesses drew in their breath, though at this time there were no drink-drive laws, and you could drive on country roads at any speed you liked, completely blootered.
The bar was fine and warm, but as the minutes passed I got the shakes, and the witnesses in their concerned way offered me a tot of whisky “for the shock”. I imagined the police writing down all the details and smelling whisky on my breath, and tried to express simultaneous gratitude and refusal, but found that the words would not come, I could only stammer “c-c-can’t” and the effort of doing it was so great that I began to cry. In public. Oh, the shame!
Eventually, the police came and asked their questions and wrote down whatever it was that they needed to, and went away again, and I wondered what to do now, and more importantly, how to do it.
The owners of the Bridge of Orchy Hotel were brilliant: they gave me food, they took me upstairs, carrying the luggage they’d retrieved from the mashed Ariel, they gave me a bedroom and ran a hot bath. By this time the ability to move had come back, clearly no limbs were broken though movement was slow and stiff.
It was desperately hard getting the motor-bike leathers off, fairly hard climbing into the bath, but gorgeously soothing to float in the hot water. I fell asleep for a while, and woke to find that the water had got cold – and that I couldn’t get out.
Was I going to lie there, wrinkled like a prune and growing colder by the minute until someone happened along? Was I going to shout, and be rescued? In the scud? Strewth, as my Leader would have said. It was a black moment.
An idea. I wriggled, found the taps with my toes, turned them on, and smoothly and effortlessly, like a yacht in a lock of the Crinan Canal, rose to the rim of the bath and made it over the edge, even managing to turn off the taps and avoid flooding my kind hosts.
It was, I often think, the greatest combined intellectual and physical achievement of my life. The lizard and the higher brain had both done their bit.
*   *   *   *   *
Some weeks later, with a new Ariel, I headed off, bound for Greece. But a shoulder muscle had been torn, and there was weakness in the back and one leg, and in order to get off the bike I found that I needed a lamp-post or a wall to lean it against till I could pull it safely onto its stand, for if it fell over I couldn’t get it up again. Once at the Mediterranean, I spent a lot of time floating about in the warm comfy sea, and progress Greecewards was slow. Reaching Italy, on the winding mountain road to Triora, a little hill town only partially restored after the war, an Italian car, driven in the Italian manner (i.e. faster than possible), pinked the Ariel and broke its windscreen and came near to mashing its rider, before roaring away down the valley. Aarggh.
Pressing on down the coast beyond Genoa I reached Levanto, where  the ice-cream was amazing, but the road ran out and you had to take to footpaths or else climb up inland. It was my farthest south, for heading inland towards Parma on an unsurfaced zig-zag mountain road where Ariel kept sliding on the gravel towards the edge, with its vertiginous view of dead cars scattered about on the steep slopes below, I began to question the wisdom of trying to reach Greece.
In Parma camp site, the next tent contained a German who was collecting folk-songs of all the countries he was travelling through, had detailed tunes and words in a vast notebook, and sang them, accompanied on his guitar. He was an excellent guitarist with a pleasant baritone voice, and he sang a Spanish song that I still remember: Ya se van los pastores a la Extremadura; about shepherds going away, leaving the place sad and dark. I’ve found several versions on youtube, with footage of awesomely huge herds of sheep and bonny sheepdogs waving curly tails aloft, quite fetching, but nothing as good as the German’s slow, melancholy version. However the songs that he really wanted to sing were German songs about dark birds and white birds; there seemed to be loads of them, and he explained the symbolism: “ze vite birds means dess”, or possibly it was the dark birds that meant death, and I can’t now remember what the other lot of birds meant, life? love? love of life? no matter – after an hour or two of symbolic death I was beginning to be spooked.
Beginning, too, to tire of solo travel in places where communication was stilted and basic.
And tired of all that blue sky and warmth, day after day, missing the rain, wind, clouds, the variety of weather back home; so northwards I sped, into Switzerland, where a view of the north face of the Eiger seemed a more compelling symbol of death than any bird, dark or white;  on into northern France, where the enormous war cemeteries reminded me that I was likely travelling over ground that my Dad had fought across in WWI, and maybe only a week in hospital at the beginning of July 1918 had stopped him being killed, so that I could possibly owe my very existence to the flu bug – did that make influenza a dark or white bird? Finally the air ferry took me to  Lydd and Biggin Hill, of which I’ve written previously, in Guessing Games,
sailing and matrimony
Home again, it gradually became clear that with a shoulder, leg, and back that were no longer reliable, much of the joy had gone out of climbing. What alternatives were there? I had always fancied that a wee sailing boat in which you could cross to an island like Rhum or Soay, not easy to access otherwise, would be a good thing to have – and falling into the water wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as falling onto the road.
Onwards, then, into a future of sailing and matrimony.

So, Mary Hunter, who urged me to write this, you may well owe your very existence to a man with a grey van at Bridge of Orchy, and, at one remove, to influenza.

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Long Thumb Home
Trient - Entreves - Crieff

Trient - Orsieres - Val Ferret
Fine and restful it was at the Trient hut, our day of strewthdom past; who could tell what awaited us in days to come? Lounging in the sunshine on the terrace we admired the circling peaks that we’d been too knackered to appreciate the previous day; and of course our Leader was particularly taken with the sniggerfulness of Le Pissoir and its neighbour, Aiguille du ditto, so I have added a special little bulge to this map in his memory.
But time was pressing and there was much to do, for we had to get away south to Italy and the lure of the pointy stuff near the Dent du Géant (Dente del Gigante) which had been in our sights way back when we’d first been trundling up the Mer de Glace.
So, down to Champex, 4829ft, a pretty lake, strawberries beside the track, yumyum; thence to Orsières, 2913ft, ghastly low altitude, heavy air, too hot; a track up to a wee col at 8163ft (ah! back to a decent altitude where you can breathe) from which we followed the Ferret Burn all the way to Entrèves, 4291ft. No hurry, for it was a most pleasant stroll through meadows starry with tiny bright alpines - gentians, intensely blue, and many others whose names we didn’t know, each one of which would cost considerable bucks at a Garden Centre. By the time we reached Entrèves it was 10 p.m., and had been dark for some time.
“Go and find a place” said the Leader, fixing me with a stern eye, “where we can sleep, and where there’s a bench for us to set up the primus and cook our spaghetti.”
Yes, we were in Italy now, and I had to do the speaking. Um. All You Need to Know in Italy had struck me as nigh on useless. I’d memorised some salient numbers and requests enough to do una camera per quattro persone per una notte, and seen that much of Italian was close enough to Latin to make reasonable guesses, but when had Cicero needed a bench to set up his primus?
Val Ferret - Entreves - Chamonix
In the darkness of the night, all the doors were shut, there were no lights to be seen, nor any living person. “I’ll see what I can find,” said I, with the confident stare of one who is thinking of running away. And off I strode round the corner.
And looked up at the lintel of a door, and saw the message:
C L U B   A L P I N O   I T A L I A N O
Yes! I knocked, and presently the door opened and a woman of formidable aspect looked me up and down, and her lip curled, and she said “You English. You want a room and cook on primus, no?” I knew she had instantly assessed the Britsqualor of my grubby crumpled clothing and did not approve. “Sì, signora, ma non siamo Inglesi, siamo Scozzesi.” And she thawed, just a little; for up there at the north end of the valley, deep in what used to be Savoy, there was a desire for independence that paralleled the similar desire in Scotland; the local dialect was a French-Italian mix, and over the border in France there was a Free Savoy movement as well. Not that I knew this at the time, but it probably helped our present needs. “You come see,” said she and took me to a room with four bunks and a bench.
I went and fetched Joe, Allen and Mac, who were impressed. For a minute or two.
In the morning, food shopping, and coffee and gigantic ripe juicy peaches at a café. And then up to the Torino hut, 11073ft. There was a cable car but Joe snarled that it was for skiing trash, and a waste of good money, and we could easily walk up there; so up the equivalent of a double-Munro we plodded, sulking.
Joe had long ago told us his favourite climbing-hut-toilet story, about this girl whose money had fallen out of her pocket and disappeared down the cliff face where all the evacuant fell, and whose friends had to abseil down the cliff to collect as many notes as they could find from among the  varied shite lodged there. He told this story quite often, with many a snigger. I wondered, when at the end of a stinking dark corridor I found a noisome place with a hole in the floor, and a long pole with a wooden disc at the end, to push the more solid stuff down the hole, where it plummeted into a measureless void, was this the legendary sniggersome toilet? It was possible, but I didn’t want to know, for I was feeling, ever so slightly, hints of Montezuma’s revenge. Those giant juicy peaches had been a mistake.
Rochefort Ridge
Soon it was clear that I was going to have to stay near the noisome hole next day, and early in the morning the rest set off for the Rochefort Ridge.
With the passage of time, the peaches finished their deadly work, and I was able to wander away from the hut, up to where I could view the Rochefort Ridge and the Gigante behind it. There were tiny dots on the snow below the ridge (green arrows in photo): were those my friends? Going or coming back? No way of knowing.  Off to the left, the cluster of the Chamonix aiguilles, and the Mer de Glace, and the Dru – we had come nearly full circle. We’d be starting back next day, so I thought I might as well sort through the rucksack ready for the journey.
It wasn’t a difficult job, but it revealed a problem: no train ticket. Not even after many increasingly desperate searches. What could have happened to it? I’d never taken it from where it was tucked away right at the bottom, nothing had fallen out during any of our adventures; it had to be there. But it wasn’t. Maybe someone nicked it in a hut? If so, they’d left the passport and tiny bit of cash.
looking back at Chamonix aiguilles from Italy
Obviously, I must get out there on the road, stick out my thumb, get lifts. I’d hitched many weekends Crieff to Glencoe, because that was the only way to get there, and it normally took about an hour and a half. How far was Entrèves to Crieff? 1,000 miles? 1,500? I didn’t know. Crieff-Glencoe was around 70 miles, I could do several of those in a day, say 300 miles a day, four or five days, maybe. With no money and hardly any food? Wearing heavy warm clothes, carrying ice-axe and crampons? Probably stinking (when was the last time a wash had been possible)? Not great at the language? OK, say a week . . . And so on. What was the worst case scenario? Walking all the way, say 50 miles a day, three to four weeks. But it wouldn’t come to that. Of course not.
Mac offered to come with me, since he was thumbing his way back home anyway, and had more experience of European hitching than I did (i.e. more than none). Though solo is usually faster, and girl gets a lift easier than boy I was grateful for his offer: he was better at French than I was, and had found a number of free dosses in the past.
Entreves and Gran Paradiso
The others were off to the Gran Paradiso, a little farther south – from the Torino hut you could see it, far away down the valley. Good luck, see you back home; and so we parted. We had the primus, half a small packet of spaghetti and enough cash for the ferry.
To Geneva, doss in a museum; walk - no lifts - over the Jura mountains, doss at side of road, hungry; fast lift to Paris (chap racing the mother-in-law to Orly airport), doss in park, climbing over railings after dark; escape shouting official in morning, hungry, short, slow lifts, press nose to window of épicerie, impressive burst of saliva, Jaguar slows down, speeds on past, bastard, may your exhaust drop off, see, from a distance, him boarding last ferry of the day, can’t get there in time, bastarding dastard, doss in waiting room, HUNGRY; first ferry in morning, rough weather, people leave restaurant in droves to puke, we cruise around the leftovers, yum yum YUM; England, Mac and I part company, first car stops and chap says “Where to?” “Oxford.” “That’s where I’m going, hop in.” Brilliant, how I love England!
To my sister’s, where I tell a little about the last wee while, but can see she thinks it’s all lies. At 2 a.m. I creep silently down to where the biscuit tin lives, and stuff my face. In the morning I lie in bed and hear her: “Funny, I thought I’d got – where are they?” and feel ashamed, but not very.
On northwards and the hitching gets steadily easier, and at last there I am in Crieff, going up the steps to the door of my digs, door opens, and there is Mamouchka, my Polish fellow lodger, and I’m thinking how entertaining she’ll find my stories.
Big smile from Mamouchka. “Ah, good that you have come! Chain pull in lavatory is stuck, you mend it with axe.”

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Moment of Strewth
Requin - Couvercle - Trient

 legendary brunch squalor
The day that followed our Requin failure was a rest day. We surfaced late in the morning and brunched on the terrace outside the hut, exhibiting our legendary Brit squalor for all to see: Brits abroad were renowned for their filthy, unkempt, ragged, disorganised . . . why go on? Continentals, by contrast, were well-groomed, clean, tidy . . . ach well, see if we cared.
Requin hut to Couvercle hut and Moine
Brunch over, we headed down to the Mer de Glace, cautiously across it, and up again on the other side to the Couvercle hut, 8852ft. Cautiously because there were many sharpish ridges of ice with crevasses yawning on each side, our loaded rucksacks swinging to unbalance us; falling into a crevasse would be a seriously bad idea: it would attract a scornful cry of “Strewth!” from our Leader, even if it caused neither death nor injury. Had we looked around to admire the panorama we would have seen our old friend the Dru, away down the glacier, but most of the time we preferred to look straight ahead, keep the balance, avoid the strewth.
Moine summit, Mont Blanc on the horizon
From the Couvercle hut, the local hill, the Moine, 11104ft, proved to be the very doddle we had been looking for, to wipe the Requin failure from our memory: a lovely scramble, scarcely needing to be roped up for, and from the summit we could see all that pointy stuff we’d been wandering about on as we tried for the Requin, and the looming hulk of Mont Blanc, and a skyline just beyond which lay Italy and Entrèves, whither we were ultimately headed. If we were spared. Fingers crossed.
Down (still daylight, no abseil, no wee glacier, how relaxing), and an early bed; for there had to be a payment for a day of doddle, and its time came at 2 the next morning, as we tottered sleepily in the dark down the moraine rubble from the hut to the glacier. Came the gradual lightening through monochrome greys to the moment when colour springs into being and our progress became easier and faster.
Couvercle hut to Trient hut
Across the glacier, up to the col at 12461ft, down the other side, across the next glacier, up the Glacier du Chardonnet and onto the Col du ditto, 10902ft, where we dumped our heavy rucksacks, for we’d be back there after we’d sewn up the Aiguille d’Argentière.
Up the steep snow to the ridge we cut huge bucket steps (so that coming down would be easy and safe), and hearkened to the Wisdom of the Leader about jumping off the other side if our partner fell off the ridge; “yeah, yeah,” we mumbled, and started along the ridge towards the summit, not far away, concentrating on managing the rope and not tripping over it. For we were now at 12802ft and the altitude was biting, a numbness was on our brains, a headache behind the eyes blocked any appreciation of the multitudinous pointy bits heaving into view, and the wee fluffy clouds floating about, way down below, and the band of atmosphere above the far far curved horizon, and the near-black of the sky. We’d all read the climbing books, and knew that this was when folk made stupid mistakes, so we trod with caution and spoke not at all.
Aiguille d'Argentiere: near the summit
Recollecting that moment, it occurs to me that it’s the highest I’ve ever been (outside of an aircraft) in my whole life, but at the time I hardly appreciated it.
If we’d stayed up there, of course, we’d have acclimatised and the numbness would have gone away, but in our fuddled heads one idea was still clear: we must get down before the sun turned the snow to porridge, and so after just a brief moment on the summit, back along the ridge we toiled, and carefully, carefully down the huge bucket steps to the col, where our rucksacks awaited us, the headache receded and our brains gradually returned to normal.
Phew! That was the iffy bit behind us. The next bit would be just a steady grind, down onto the Glacier de Saleina, across to the Fenêtre de ditto (10719ft) through that window and on to the Plateau de Trient, at the far side of which lay the Trient hut (10433ft), food, drink, rest.
But even as we started, still roped together, weary yet confident, on the steep slope down to the glacier, the snow was turning to porridge beneath our feet; in moments, it had broken away beneath me, and I was accelerating  so fast that the ice-axe could not stop me, and I pulled the others with me, none of us able to get a purchase anywhere in the porridge.
At moments such as these, time slows down, doubtless to allow you to review the events of your life, and repent of your evil deeds. Instead of which, I found I was observing the rapid approach of a wide crevasse that ran at right-angles across our path, and recollecting the account in a book pressed on me by our Leader, of a sturdy mountaineer who had fallen into a crevasse, struggled for many days to escape, and ultimately perished.  Now, if ever, was a major strewth moment, and there was no obvious way to deflect it. Nearer and nearer drew the jaws of the crevasse, they gaped  . . . and were behind us . . . and we were travelling onwards, slowing, stopping. Such had been our speed, such the angle of the slope, we had leapt right across the crevasse.
Wordlessly, without even a faint phew, we sorted ourselves out, checked our gear, started the steady grind once more.
Which took us across the Glacier de Saleina, up to the Fenêtre, down the other side, on to the Plateau de Trient, a vast flat expanse across the other side of which we could see the hut, on a rise above the plateau, with a terrace, and people. And food and drink. And no doubt a bonny clean toilet, for this was now Switzerland.
So near. But the surface of the plateau was the kind of snow that is a firm crust until your full weight comes on it, whereupon it gives way, and you jolt down to knee level. Each step a major effort. And the hut never getting any nearer. On, jolt, on, jolt, on . . . beginning to have food fantasies, plod, plod . . . until, suddenly, there was the final little steep rise, the terrace, the hut.
Wearily we sat on the terrace wall, feebly we plucked at the ropes, whose knots had tightened so much during our porridge-slide that we could not undo them. And all of us desperate for a pee. A moment of strewth was imminent.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man: for from the assorted persons sculling about emerged the very pinnacle of English gentlemanhood: observing our dilemma, he approached and quietly, considerately, he undid the knots, murmured gently in response to our squeaks of gratitude, and let us get to the bonny clean Swiss toilet. This was the sort of English that you would hardly even notice you were being ruled by, far less resent it, and as I luxuriated in the bonny clean toilet I wondered what a climbing holiday would be like in the company of such a person. Strewth-free, without a doubt. And yet, how could a body cope with absolutely no abrasiveness, no insults at all? No, the culture of the English Gentleman was a fine thing, but the culture of the abrasive Scot was finer yet.
Meantime, a Swiss hut had its own rules, and one of them was No Cooking, You Pay For Food, We Cook It, so Mac, whose job was Swiss-speak, had organised a perfectly splendid giant omelette and actual real coffee.
Yum yum.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

A New Playground
(French/Swiss/Italian Alps)

Chamonix - Montenvers - Petit Charmoz - Requin
(green line shows where we went)
Came a time when our Leader, Joe McCash, judged us fit to knock off a big Alp or two, since we had bagged a few wee Tyrol Alps without difficulty or harrowment the previous summer, and he unveiled his Plan: start in Chamonix, thence into Switzerland, toddle over into Italy and back again to Chamonix, sewing up a number of Aiguilles of varying difficulty (“granite and sunshine”). All of which sounded both alluring and cheap.
There would be four of us: Joe, Allen, Mac, and me. We’d take our own sleeping-bags, stay mostly in mountain huts, carry our food (too expensive in huts), use a primus for cooking; it would be sunny all the time. Languages? “I’ll do French,” volunteered Joe confidently, “Mac can do Swiss, and you [that was me] better do Italian. Allen can do the currency conversion and expense sharing.” Ho, hum, I’d better put in some effort at All you Need to Know in Italy.
And so, train south, ferry across to Calais, train to Paris, an evening soaking up the culture (omelette, dodgems, hugely entertaining toilets), then onwards to the south. The entertainment in the toilets was not so much that they were merely a hole in the floor bracketed by two raised foot-sized stances, but that they flushed automatically every x minutes, and when the ceiling-height cistern flushed and the water rose above the stances you had to be prepared to climb up the tall cistern pipe in mid-evacuation, or else be swamped. “Good practice,” said Joe. Practice for what? Best not knowing.
In Chamonix, Joe (French) did the shopping: a dozen baguettes. Why? We already had our staple diet: dry pasta and pemmican, lightweight and unappetising, plus Nescafe and as many bars of chocolate as we could carry.
(In my geekish way, I am now going to add heights in feet, as an aid to Really Old people like myself, who don’t have a feel for the metres which you less old people can read off the maps.)
From Chamonix, 3402ft, we toiled up beside the railway (too expensive to ride in) under our unaccustomed loads, to Montenvers, 6280ft, where Joe found us an outhouse to doss in. Here was our first view of the Dru, as the clouds lifted and revealed it across the Mer de Glace (the local glacier) spectacularly vertical. The head, used to the angle it needs for looking at the top of the Buachaille from the road, suddenly finds it has to tilt up, up past the belt of cloud, and up yet more, to see the Dru summit, twice the height of anything we were used to in the homeland.
view from Petit Charmoz
(Geek note: much later I found that the Buachaille from road, an altitude of 2425 ft, 1.28 miles away, involves an upward tilt of 24.7°, while the Dru from Montenvers, 6036 ft over 1.86 miles, needs 49°)
The next day, Allen and I sewed up the Petit Charmoz, while Joe and Mac knocked off the Grand ditto, and that evening we toddled up the Mer de Glace to the Requin Hut, at 8255ft, marvelling, as we hauled ourselves up the last scramble from the glacier, at the carrying capacity of porters who took crates of provisions up to the huts in training to become guides. No wonder food in huts cost a lot.
toddling up the Mer de Glace
the Requin hut
Our next objective was the Dent du Requin  (“Tooth of the man-eater, or white shark . . . so called on account of its causing requiems to be sung” – gulp). The Shark being 11217ft high, this was going to be a Munro-sized day, surely easy-peasy? Well, aside from having to start at 4 a.m. to avoid all the avalanches and stone-falls that would clobber us if we weren’t back down before the sunshine heated the snow.
Once on the move and shedding sleepiness, it was beautiful, lovely firm holds everywhere in the red granite, cloudless sky, glacier shimmering far far down below, altitude beginning to bite a bit but, so far, not enough to destroy the enjoyment.
Except that we got lost.
Lost! How could this be?
lost: which is the Requin?
Back in the homeland, any much-used climb was clear to see, because of the nail-marks on the rock, for this was a time before vibram soles had come into use. But among the Chamonix Aiguilles, the Playground of Europe, vibrams had been used since the mid-thirties, hence no nail-marks on the rock. Suddenly we realised we’d have to read the climber’s guide written in a foreign language! if we hoped to find where the route should go. Poised on those lovely red granite holds, we wrestled with technical terms in Frogspeak, and finally realised we were way off course.
Abashed, but comforted by a bite of chocolate, we wove to and fro, hither and yon, without ever finding the proper route, and time passed with frightening speed: long ago we should have been back at the hut, now the avalanches and stone-falls were going to get us, the white shark was about to eat us, we could hear its teeth snapping.
So, reluctantly, we embraced the unfamiliar spectre of Failure, and started the descent. Down is always harder than Up; Down when you’ve wandered off course is harder still; Down when you’re hungry and getting tired and can hear the shark’s jaws snapping and it’s late is yet harder.
Abseiling in those days was simply a matter of finding a suitable bit of rock to put a sling around, threading the rope through it and wrapping the rope about your body in such a way that you could control the speed of descent with your arms. That was fine, we’d practised it back home on the Cobbler. Not so fine, though, was abseiling into the darkness where there was no way to know if there would be anything to stand on at the end of the rope or if you’d just shoot off into space; and least fine of all was the last abseil where the only thing to loop a sling around was a loose boulder which inched its way ever closer to the edge as each body jerked its way downwards. After which the last little glacier, while unduly soft and possibly hiding crevasses, seemed a doddle, and was extraordinarily beautiful in the moonlight.
Our easy-peasy climb had taken eighteen hours, and we had shared a 2-oz bar of chocolate between four of us. Need for sleep trumped the growling stomach, and we groped through the dark for the dormitory, where we found our sleeping-bags . . . occupied by dormant bodies which muttered “Ah, M’sieu, Madame, we ‘ave thought you dead.”

[Note: the photographs are my own, taken during the events described. Google has heaps of far better pictures of the places mentioned.]

Friday, 16 August 2013

Sewing up the Coe

(photographs are on different days, with different people)

map information says the route has 8,635 feet of ascent and takes 7h 43min 

Early December, a big snowfall followed by a good freeze, tempting: Twisting Gully maybe? And so Allen and I headed for Glencoe, the Playground of the Scot in that era, and maybe it still is, how would I know?

But a sudden massive thaw had put a stopper on any proper winter climb and so we spent Saturday idling on the Buachaille. Half way down Curved Ridge, we paused to replenish our energy levels; sitting there we watched the Black Rock hard men “balance walking”, as they termed it: this meant descending, facing outwards, a fairly hard route on the Rannoch Wall, while simultaneously singing a capella, a performance keenly appreciated by this audience of two who had not long ago done that same route.

idling on the Buachaille
Meanwhile we considered our options for the morrow. Joe, our Eminence Grise, was currently knocking off the cluster of Munros at the summit of the A9, derided by some as ‘Orizontal Slagheaps, but forming part of Joe’s Programme; we ourselves, while never deriding any hill, felt these ones could safely be left until we were old – sad to say, we never got round to them, perhaps because Allen never got old. In retrospect maybe Joe was wise, since he didn’t get old either.

However, back to our deliberations as we munched chocolate biscuits half-way down Curved Ridge on the Buachaille. Perhaps this was a weekend for knocking off the entire valley, north and south of the road in a mighty circular putsch, such as even Joe had not considered, at any rate not openly.

And so as daylight faded we drifted down to the west end of the glen, put the tent near Loch Achtriochtan, and through the roar of the primus as it attacked a gigantic chunk of ulster fry we discussed the best strategy for the limited hours of daylight and unpredictable weather on the morrow.

Recently we had both been reading Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s Mountain Craft, a detailed account of everything the Edwardian mountaineer should know. And though GWY was seriously out of date in some areas, such as clothing and gear (for he was of the pre-WWII era, when the only people that went into the mountains purely to entertain them­selves were well-off gentlefolk), his ideas on what makes a good or bad leader (or follower), and on how to achieve a day that everyone was satisfied with at the end of it, still seemed as relevant as ever. What wisdom might we derive from GWY? What nuggets might be useful for a long day, maybe 7 or 8 hours, all the available hours of December daylight, with possibility of worsening weather?

“Aha,” said I, “remember the bit about being benighted on the glacier, where he says the hills draw nearer in the dark? So why not hit them in the dark, while they’re still near?” “But it’s only an illusion “, said Allen. “Aye, but we might knock them off faster just because they appear closer?” This seemed vanishingly unlikely, but another nugget indicated that starting well before sunrise would be best, ascent being a lot safer than final steep descent in the dark, tired at the end of the day.

So before dawn on Sunday we’d finished the ulster fry, washed down with strong coffee laced with Famous Grouse (a seriously bad move, not a GWY recom­mendation), and were on our way up An ‘t-Sron, not yet fully awake but very conscious of the way the Grouse had unhinged our knees. Why had we decided on a Sunday of suffering? Must be idiots.

As the minutes passed, the ground gradually turned from near-black to shades of grey, as in a monochrome photograph, and then, as the sun heaved over the rim of the earth, suddenly colour was invented and our knees began to work properly, the clouds of sleep lifted, the panorama broadened and became steadily more spectacular, and we fell into the effortless rhythm of a well-oiled sewing-machine.
on Bidean nam Bian

Which rhythm took us in a blink (seemingly) over An ‘t-Sron and a couple of Stob Coires of the Bidean nam Bian massif (see map) and down into the magic of what the map calls Allt Coire Gabhail but everyone knows as the Lost Valley. There, in the maze of big boulders that you can go through to add interest, we passed by a place where in the summer we had tested GWY’s style of bivouac, employing two layers of stout brown paper instead of tent and airbed; we had concluded that Edwardian brown paper must have been superior to this thin post-war trash, and that a tent was well worth the extra weight.
bouldering in the Lost Valley

It seemed a good place for lunch, and we’d gone quite fast so far, and the weather for the rest of the day looked settled, so we took our time over a gourmet assortment of energizing chocolate biscuits, and discussed whether we might possibly unhinge Joe’s leadership by using GWY’s description of the Bad Follower; for Joe, we had found, was very near to being the Bad Leader: to get in front he’d use any device, like letting a gate clang back on you, or sprinting away just as you were tidying the tent and cleaning the mess-tins; he’d pour out a stream of information and commands to the front, never heeding that you couldn’t hear it from behind; he was quite capable of powering away into the sunset, leaving one to nurse a tired, slow novice down to safe ground. Two advantages were in his favour: he mostly had good and well-researched ideas where to go and what to do, and he had wheels (a thing we could not yet afford) to get us there and back. In the event, the next summer would afford a weekend sewing up the Five Sisters of Kintail, where we did Bad Follower with some success. And felt a little ashamed. Ah well.

And so, down to the road, and a moment of hesitation: should we just coast down to the Clachaig Inn, not far from our camp site? But no, there would come a reckoning when we described the achievements of the weekend to Joe, and while the plod up on to the Aonach Eagach would entail a bit of suffering, that was as nothing compared to enduring the joyous condescension with which Joe would toss our weekend into the Bin of Unworthwhileness – “a mere pub-crawl”.

Aonach Eagach
Up, then, onto the Aonach Eagach, a beautiful ridge with just the occasional wee narrow bit requiring care (for if you came unstuck you’d be unlikely to stop for 3,000 feet or so) and a marvellous view of the Mamores, Nevis, the islands to the west, the Stobs that we’d just sewn up to the south, and (if you turned and looked back eastwards) the Buachaille. Once on the first summit, the momentary tiredness on the road was a thing of the past, and we became well-oiled sewing-machines once more.

But not for long, because soon, in front of us, we beheld a monstrous ribbon of Ramblers, many wearing sensible skirts and lisle stockings (!), rambling nervously and terribly slowly, and not making any effort to get out of our way. They had, of course, every right to be nervous, but not (we felt) to block us; somehow we must get past without actually pushing them to their doom. But how?

Recently we had studied and become addicted to Brahms’ Requiem, a combination of typical Brahmsian gorgeous harmonies and (unsurprisingly) a powerful sense of doom (“relentless urgency” said the critics); could we perhaps lay a smidgen of relentless urgency, a tiny bit of doom, on the lisle stockings? We chose the bit where “All flesh is as the grass”, relentless baritone, urgent melody, doomy message. Ever nearer to the lisles we drew, relentless Allen and urgent me enunciating the message of doom, and eventually they found a place to let us pass; which we did, breaking off Brahms to exchange greetings and appropriate gratitude.
requiring care

Thereafter it was pure pleasure, and as the sun descended in the southwest and the colours did that thing they do towards sunset, we felt the timing had been good, it had been an excellent day, now for a pint.

To the Clachaig, where one had to sign the book, for this was a time when the Sunday traveller must have travelled three miles to be served alcohol. Where had we started? Achtriochtan (stupidly unwary). Where had we finished? Here, the Clachaig. “Not three miles, can’t serve you.” “But we’ve been over Stob …” “Not three miles start to finish.” Mm. A really powerful example of miserable buggerism, people had hinted as much, we hadn’t believed it. Later, we measured the distance on our map, and it was almost certainly just over three miles; but at the time, in the glow of a really quite fine day, we couldn’t be bothered to argue, and so, back to the tent.

Where we found that our cooking tin, left outside to clean itself in the rain, if any, had been peed into by a dog.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Guessing Games

(alas, I could take no pictures at the time)

on the way back to England

Reverently - for it was still an iconic place then, redolent of Spitfires, Hurricanes, chaps with moustaches, posh voices, laconic descriptions of mayhem and expectation of an extremely short future – I guided my Ariel motorbike into the hallowed precincts of Biggin Hill, where the interview was to take place.

Ariel reaches Switzerland
That summer evening, Englandshire was looking particularly English to an eye that for the last five weeks had been watching the French, Italian and Swiss scenery roll past; here everyone was speaking a language I could understand, even at a fast mutter, and I could communicate my needs without recourse to All You Need To Know in France/Italy/Germany; not that my needs ever seemed to include “take the sheets away, they are damp/dirty, bring new (ones)”; my needs – for instance “my bike is upside down in the ditch and too heavy to lift, please help” - were untouched-on in the booklets. So it was quite good to be back in untidy, disorganised, comfortable UK … but revenons à nos moutons.

The interview, by the Officer Selection Board for the RAF, would last for three days, during which the candidates would live on site and undergo a number of tests, indoors and outside; some tests, e.g. intelligence test, would be individual, others would be challenges to be solved by teamwork. Such was the official information.

By chance I knew a little more, for some years back, when I was doing my Dip.Ed., the Psychology class was under the tutelage of the very person who had devised this selection process, and we had listened in class to his minute description of the tests, and of what it was that they were actually testing (as distinct from what they seemed to be testing). Even back when it didn’t look as if this knowledge could ever be relevant, I had been gripped by the ingenuity and deviousness of the process; and now I felt simultaneously carefree and exceedingly wary – for who could tell what treacherous extras might have been added in the intervening seven years?

Now, at Biggin Hill, we were a team of females and we were all nervous, so we coped with that by going along to the nearby pub and sinking some alcoholic  backbone-stiffener and getting to know one another. We bonded, at least superficially: Charlotte, a brusque product of Roedean, probably ex-head-girl, staunch and competent, would breeze through effortlessly; Brigid, Irish, lovely, gentle, uncomprehending of English modes of brutality, probably stood no chance; for the others, including me, it probably depended on how much we wanted it, and how many recruits they needed. Would it be kind or not to pass on the secret underground knowledge that I happened to have? Mm, there wasn’t time, I’d make do with any nudges that might be possible along the way.

Thus we settled in. The next morning began with the challenge of Getting One’s Preferred Breakfast. This didn’t seem like part of the interview but, noticing that we were being observed by a Moustache, I felt it might easily be. So, using what I thought of as my plonking voice (good for unnerving a clever-clogs) I demanded coffee instead of tea, butter instead of marge. A lifting of eyebrow from the serving chappie (goodness, how the vocabulary was adapting to the environs!) and a tiny nod from the observer (if such he was), and the coffee and butter appeared. Brigid gaped, Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. From the rest of the team came some hard-to-interpret Looks, but there was no time for explanation.

Outside (minimal time allowed for attending to the bowels) we were steered towards a couple of chalk lines, some lengths of stout rope and a few assorted planks. “This here is a river full of man-eating crocodiles”, our chap explained, “and behind you is the enemy; you have to cross the river to get to your platoon and safety; use the rope and the wood to make a bridge; you have 10 minutes before the enemy get here; we want to see team-work.”

“Come on, chaps,” I cried, mezzo forte, still in plonk mode, “let’s get the planks strung together, and make a bridge.” (I wondered if “chaps” was overdoing it, but it looked to be going down OK, and I thought about a possible “rumpy-tumpy” which I’d heard used by ex-RAF persons extracting the slothful from their tents at dawn; but the idea was perhaps too outlandish and I discarded it.) Charlotte was already connecting bits of wood by strong, efficient knots: she’d probably sailed dinghies since she was a tot. Brigid was wringing her hands; I thought the observer was eyeing her appreciatively – now there was a factor I hadn’t considered.

So here we were, the enemy closing in to massacre us or worse, unless we bridged the river in 10 minutes, using what I knew from First Ordinary Psych to be deliberately inadequate materials; for the test was really to find out who had Leader Material and who would simply fold up. Lateral Thinking, I guessed, was the way to go now. So I plonked (crescendo for the observer) “We’ve not enough wood - let’s rope together for safety, and wade across, and use the planks to beat the crocs off. Come on! (fortissimo)” Brigid looked as if she might burst into tears as we started linking ourselves with rope and picking up our anti-saurian weaponry, but luckily the 10 minutes were now up, and we could abandon this game and retire indoors for an Intelligence Test.

Opening the paper, I found an old acquaintance – the Moray House Test that we had tried and scrutinised and been lectured on in the Psych class. And I remembered the wisdom from back then: it was found that moderate scores predicted the best officers; anyone who finished in time or could do the last few questions was no use. With this as guide, I could cruise gently through enough of the test to make a moderate score, and pass the time wondering why I was here.

I was here to escape from teaching. In final year at Edinburgh my careers advisor (whom I saw only once) had asked what I wanted to do; “Anything except teach”. “I’ll put you down for teacher training, then.” End of interview, he was almost completely deaf. At that time, unless your family had lots of money, there were really only three careers for a female graduate: teaching, civil service and marriage, the last of which would normally end your career. After a few years proof-reading in Oxford I realised that no female creature would ever find promotion there, we were hired only because of knowing an ancient language; and so, in order to get back to northern parts, I trained to be a teacher. Now, after six years in a fine school, I needed out, surely there was something better to do than trying to get the rudiments of a dead language into the heads of nice young things who’d be better without it?  So here I was, looking for a change, and realising that in amongst the teacher training might have been the very thing that could bring the change about. Maybe. I riffled through the test: moderate enough? too moderate? But time was up.

Now came the interview where one was grilled by three senior officers, all sporting moustaches. The Most Luxuriant Moustache conducted; the others were instrumental in (a) disconcertation (a triangle, perhaps?) and (b) hostility (trumpet?). Luxuriant Moustache outlined my scenario: a cricket match was due to start in an hour; I must round up three players who had not yet turned up; here was a map of the village, and marked on it the houses where the errant three lived; none of them had a phone [!! – but quite likely back then]. I was given 5 minutes to devise my plan of action.

How enchanting! A story to make, concerted Moustaches to convince! The Prof’s voice sang in my head: “candidates are given a scenario, a problem to solve; there is no possible solution; what we do is watch how they behave under pressure, whether they can invent new strategies when faced with new difficulties”.

After 5 minutes, I outlined a simple plan: go to the houses, tell the players they were late, job done.

Aha, said the Conductor, how many miles can you cover in less than an hour? you did notice the scale on the plan? how far do you have to go?

Well, said I, you noticed a lad who propped his bike on the wall and went into the post office? I take his bike and get round the lot in less than half-an-hour; it’s only about 10 miles.

A blast from the Trumpet: Eh? You steal the lad’s bike?

-     Oh yes, of course. It’s for Cricket. He’ll understand.

Hmm (chime from Triangle). You get a puncture after two miles.

-     I’ll mend it, it’ll only take 10 minutes or so.

Conductor: What with? The lad’s bike has no puncture repair outfit.

-     I always carry about my person a book of postage stamps, I’ll use one of those.

Pah! Rubbish! (Trumpet) You can’t do that, it wouldn’t work. Harrumph!

-     Last summer (molto suave), on the rough and stony road down Glenbrittle in Skye, I had three punctures, and mended them all with postage stamps.

It was clear that the orchestra wanted to sound a tutti fortissimo of “lying toad”, but I laid on the Conductor the confident stare of one who is very nearly telling the truth, and he looked at his watch and presto, con dolore. “Thank you. Would you ask the next candidate to come in?”

In the pub that evening, we discussed how it had gone. “Bastards,” said Charlotte, “you couldn’t win.”

-     “You weren’t meant to.”

-     “That’s rather what I thought.”

Brigid looked shattered. “Why were they were so nasty, they hated me. And I’ve not been able to go, you know, Go, for days and days …* and she gave a tiny sob. So we all sank a bit more alcohol.

There was more, much more, along the same lines – things to do, hostility to face, composure to be kept. Finally a medical, and then the verdict. Charlotte was selected (of course: exactly the right sort) and so was I (possibly not the right sort at all).
*   *   *
Back home, I handed in my notice at the school, and told my parents about the change of career. “Oh dear”, said my mother.

As it turned out, in the course of the three months working off my notice, I was so enchanted by the skill of a dinghy racer I found at a regatta, who sailed me to Cramond Island and back in a boat without sails, oars or rudder, simply by holding out his jacket to the wind and shifting balance to steer, that I became engaged to him. And cancelled the RAF and all its possibilities.

When I told my mother, she said “Oh dear, you won’t get that nice uniform.”