The Mystery of the Black Mount

© Dan Bailey

How did those footprints just disappear, and what happened to the walker who made them? Spontaneous combustion? Alien abduction? John Burns has a confession to make.

That winter's evening the back bar of the King's House was packed to the roof with a menagerie of outdoor folk. Keeping his voice low in a conspiratorial whisper the young walker leant over towards his mate, 'Where did he go?' he whispered, clutching his pint to him like an errant child.

Black Mount  © Garbhanach
Black Mount
© Garbhanach, Dec 2009

'Gone, just vanished' his tousled haired companion replied, staring off into space with a glazed expression.

The youngster took a sip of his beer, 'You don't think... You don't think...'


'Like, he was never really there? Maybe we imagined...'

'Nah, there was foot prints in the snow' replied his companion banging his glass down on the table for emphasis. 'They just stopped. Perhaps he was abducted by aliens.'

'Don't be daft!'

'Happens all the time in the USA, it's a wonder they've anyone left' his hirsute companion retorted. 'He could be being probed at this very moment!'

The youth squirmed involuntarily in his seat, 'Oh no, don't say that. Well it's a mystery that's for sure, people don't just disappear.'

'That's right, it's a mystery. The mystery of the Black Mount!'

I have a confession to make.

I think I have mellowed over the years, for looking back on the incident on the Black Mount I am embarrassed at the arrogance of my youth and of conduct unbecoming of a gentleman. In those days I was a mountain cad and this is my confession.

'My arrogance in those days knew no bounds, I couldn't let myself be passed. Then a cunning plan occurred to me.'

It was a few days into the New Year and for once the mountain Gods had smiled on us and the hills were covered, right down to the tarmac that snaked between them, by a blanket of deep snow. My friends, Martin and Joe, were already married and were reduced to remaining on toddler patrol in the confines of our chalet in Glencoe, whilst I, still single, was left to wander the hills alone. The previous night walking back from the Clachaig Inn I had glanced up at the sky and seeing it still and clear realized an early start could yield a good day the following morning.

I dumped my car at the ski road and hitchhiked round to Victoria Bridge intending to walk back over the Black Mount and collect my car on my return. A young Glaswegian woman on her way to a holiday cottage stopped for me at the head of the glen only to find her car doors frozen shut forcing me to climb, inelegantly, across the driver's seat and into the passenger seat. By the time she dropped me at the foot of the first hill the sun was almost fully risen and what promised to be a glorious day was opening up.

Black Mount from Beinn Udhlaidh  © Dan Bailey
Black Mount from Beinn Udhlaidh
© Dan Bailey

Just as I was about to leave the road I spotted a walker's rucksack sitting forlornly by the side of the road. The hoar frost covering it possessed revealed it must have been sitting by the side of the lay by all night. A quick check around revealed no walker frozen into the ditch so I decided some poor soul must have driven off leaving his rucksack, gear and all, standing in a lonely vigil at the roadside. How annoying it must be to arrive home and find your car boot empty. The sack had no name or address, so contacting the owner wasn't an option; I decided he could be back in Manchester or Birmingham by now. I've always felt that gear I find on the mountainside is, well, mine basically. I've spent many happy spring days "harvesting" gear, dropped by inexperienced climbers at the foot of crags in the Northern Corries or on Ben Nevis. I confined myself to the odd carabineer, a nut or two or perhaps an ice screw. I would sometimes use this gear myself but my mate John would sell it in the pub for beer money declaring it, 'Good as new!'. It's a fairly dubious proposition using gear whose history you don't know, I don't like to think about the morality of selling on found gear. A whole rucksack full was too much even for me so I left it standing beside the road, wondering if its owner would return.

I made good time on the hill, breaking trail through the fresh snow and I was at around two thousand feet when I noticed two figures following my route up. They were using the trail I had broken and, as they didn't have to plod through deep snow, were gaining on me. My arrogance in those days knew no bounds, I couldn't let myself be passed and pressed on as fast as I could. These days I would have found some pretext to stop, let them pass me, and then used their footprints in the snow to make life easier. These, however, where different days. But despite my best efforts they were still closing. I had to lose them.

I noticed that, here and there, horizontal bands of rock broke diagonally through the deep snow. A cunning plan occurred to me. I crossed one of the rock bands and headed for the deepest area of snow I could find. After a hundred yards I was up to my waist. There I stopped and walked backwards, using my own footprints, to reverse back to the rock band. I turned to head off up the rock but realized, in the warm sun, the snow melting off my boots would leave footprints. Carefully I dried off my boots on a patch of moss and scampered off up the rock band. Climbing higher on the mountain, careful to avoid the skyline, I was able to watch the figures below follow my footprints into the deep snow and suddenly grind to a halt. I never saw them again.

It seems so petty looking back on it. I wonder what they thought when I suddenly disappeared from the mountain. Later, drinking my beer in the King's House I realized I was nothing more than a climbing cad.

This story originally appeared in John's excellent blog

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