/ A Hundred and Ten Years of Experience

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George Allan 21 Mar 2020

A Hundred and Ten years of Experience: a cautionary tale (or something to amuse you while you're confined to barracks).

“The forecast’s bad.”

“Tell me about it,” he replied. “I’d call it terrible- plan A is out. It’s marginally better towards the east and it’s arriving here a little later.”

He closed his tablet. I poured more tea and picked up a different map.

“How about A’ Mharconaich above Drumochter: half an hour’s drive from here, straight up and down, we’ve both done it many times?”

An hour and a half later, we stopped. We were on the NE ridge and about to enter the cloud. It was all remarkably calm. Time for a bearing, so out came the map.

“When we reach a flatter area, we need to swing west then climb again”.

“No, no. You go almost due south”.

Damn it, he was right.

We set compasses. It’s a broad ridge and the going is easy enough.

As we climbed, the wind rose and rose again. There was no precipitation but snow was whipping up and stinging the face. We could see enough though- a boulder here, a pile of stones there. Things began to level off briefly so we changed the bearing and ploughed on upwards again. It was all very vague but we felt no concerns. We arrived at a plateau area and a semi-circle of stones which had once been a shelter: not the summit but it would do. We reversed the bearing. It had started to snow and the wind was gusting seventy knots - it had arrived. We were soon in total whiteout and heading into a maelstrom. After a while we stopped.

“There’s a steep corrie to the east, we mustn’t turn north east too early.”

“We should have paced it.”

“Too late now but you've got a GPS.”

“The one on my phone's not working. Just keep on the bearing”.

A few hundred yards further down, we agreed that it was time to change direction. I went ahead. Strange- you should be terrified in a whiteout but you seem to enter a cocoon, a cocoon that dulls the senses and shields you from what’s around you- you can almost feel safe.

Then I fell.

Peddling wildly in nothingness, I hit soft snow and stopped.

“KEEP BACK FROM THE EDGE!”

No reply: then above the wind- “I saw you go.”

At first I could see nothing in the white vortex but slowly the shape of a cornice emerged seemingly vertically above me. This lot might go – concentrate – move as if you weigh nothing. I inched upwards, cutting a channel, until I reached slightly more consolidate material below the cornice but it wouldn’t hold the pick. My best chance was two axes driven in up to the top of their shafts.

“You’re going to need to get your axe to me somehow”.

“It’s down with you already- I dropped it trying to cut a groove”.

There it was, fifteen feet below. Ever so slowly I worked my way down and then back up again.

It mustn’t go, it mustn’t go, and it didn’t as a pulled up on the shafts, buried to their hilts, and over the edge I went.

When we emerged from the cloud, we stopped to remove crampons. The drone of HGVs on the A9 was a comforting sound.

He looked at me- “For goodness sake, we’ve a hundred and ten years of doing this between us!”

“You are never too old for a new experience”, I replied.

We laughed.

So what are the lessons to be learned? If, Dear Reader, you have stuck with me up and down this easy ridge, I’ll leave you to decide.

N.B. Not having a GPS with us is NOT one of them.

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