Ice, Ice, Baby – an introduction to Scottish Winter Mountaineering

In my head, there’s an iconic picture of me, in helmet, sun glasses, bright coloured snow gear, at the tip of a snow-covered peak surrounded by other (lower) white-tipped peaks in the distance; with just a couple of pairs of footprints behind me and whoever I’m climbing with, in the snow, along the ridge to summit success…. I’d be at the top of Montblanc, or some other easily recognised gorgeous Alpine height. And I would be grinning, from ear to ear, high on achievement.

There’s only one problem (apart from the complete lack of snow/ice technical knowledge): I am terrified of the cold. I don’t mean “I don’t like the cold” or “I hate feeling cold”. I mean that I have no resilience against it whatsoever. I have been known to turn blue beside others sunbathing on a beach in Spain, start becoming hypothermic on a crag in summer-time Italy, and to keep on a cardigan in St Lucia because although it was around 32 degrees’s, there was a cool wind coming off the sea…

I don’t know how to do cold. I have numerous synthetic, technical pieces of gear to keep out the cold. I have gloves, glove liners, thermal hats with thermal liners. I know what to wear. What I don’t know, is how to withstand the cold itself.

Which is a bit of a bummer, because to be at the top (and return safely to the base) of an Alpine mountain, I need to walk and climb in cold temperatures.

I have tried to organise various informal trips to the snow and ice with friends or local climbing groups, but to no avail, so returning to my maxim “we’re only here once” I’ve booked a formal course, Scotland. Yes, I aim to learn technical climbing skills. More importantly though, I need to know if I can do this. Can I go out in these temperatures (forecast for tomorrow is -7 including windchill) and function…?

I am in The Onich Hotel, with nine other intrepid cold-doers, who have planned various guided/taught expeditions. My group has four gents (two of whom I shared the table at dinner) and two others seen across the room, but not really met. Duncan and Andy, were sat on the other side of the large dining room, and seemed chatty; various others were sat eating too but not making eye contact or conversation. The waitresses told me that the first night was always like this, conversation started properly on the second evening when every one had a day’s outing under their belts. I took the plunge and walked the length of the room to say hello. the guys were friendly, are chatty and I think it was a relief to us all to break the ice. I was glad I’d asked…

Which is something I should have done a better job of earlier today.

I have long held that questions are much more powerful than statements. Either in terms of avoiding assumptions and clarifying situations first or because answering a question creates a neural pathway that makes for much more impactful learning and insights.

I was on my second of what should have been four trains, heading towards Edinburgh and I showed the guard my ticket, enquiring about where I should catch the next train to Glasgow. She was very helpful. Alight at Haymarket and get the next train to Glasgow as it’s quicker and it’ll avoid a hurried change/missing the connection. What I didn’t ask was “How long do I have between trains?” So when she said breezily, you have plenty of time to get the 12:21, I didn’t confirm that the 12:21 was leaving from Glasgow, not Edinburgh.

We pulled into Edinburgh Haymarket, I thought I had plenty of time, so nipped to the loo and whilst having a leisurely sit on the pot, was vaguely aware of a train to. Glasgow being announced, arriving and departing in short measure. I emerged, wandering along the platform towards the notice board and then noticed the problem – the next Glasgow train wasn’t for AGES. Oh no….?

A very nice guard eventually stopped walking briskly away from me, examined my ticked, the schedule and sympathetically said “Sorry, you were here at the station, you could have caught the train”. He moved on and I looked, bewildered, at the board again – there were two trains for Glasgow coming up; one slow, the other slower. Which was which?

Laura and her colleague Steve were much more helpful; even trying to persuade the duty manager at Glasgow to hold the next departure but it was no good. My train from Glasgow to Fort William left at 12:21; the faster train to Glasgow arrived at 12:22. “Stand at the front of the train and RUN” advised Laura. And I did.

Which put me at Buchanen Bus Station, nearly three hours later, getting onto the 3pm bus to Fort William which, as it happened, stopped at Onich on the way through.

As I boarded at 14:45, the bus was already quite full and worried about getting travel sick, I saw that an extra leg room seat was available just two rows from the front of the bus. The window seat was occupied by a lady in her 60’s or 70’s who was clearly hoping to keep it that way. She very graciously smiled as I lumped down, sorting my stuff and settled in.

Conversation over the next 3 and 1/2 hours was wonderful. Margaret has always been a keen walker, having stomped the West Highland Way and Great Glen walks for years. We plotted how I would entice (entrap?) M into doing the Highland Way, starting at at the end of Loch Lomaond and walking from there to Fort William (72 lovely miles and only one real hill to speak of… honest…). Her knowledge plotted not only the route, but the over night stops, one B&B at a time! Conversation went all over the place, either of us empowered to deflect from uncomfortable topics (Nicola Sturgeon, Brexit…etc) and then talking about children, grandchildren (hers) and life in general.

So I got to ride along Loch Lomond, with views of a storm-torn vista that would have been missed by the train route set in the trees. After my train trials, I arrived at Hotel Onich, on the Loch-side just half an hour later than I might have done, but I was much the richer for my travel deviation: thank you Margaret!

Checking in, fellow travellers, food and “issues” will need to wait for tomorrow, save that the kit list they’ve given us tonight suggests you should have 3-4 spare warm jackets to take on the mountain. In total (spares included) I have just two…

Oh God…

3. How do Dragons Breathe Fire? (and) How do we know they’re real?

  1. How do Dragons Breathe Fire?

Well, technically, they don’t…

Ok, so deep breath here – I’m about to say something really contentious…

Dragons are a lot like lizards.  They are also quite a lot like crocodiles…

The following statements got a lot of people in the cryptozoology world REALLY upset.

It is thought that dragons may be the pre-existing, linking species between crocodiles and lizards . Over the last 4,000,000 years, climatic conditions have altered, and with them, so have habitats.  These  changes forced physical specialization; lizards and crocodiles separated into their respective species and evolved to their present day condition. The assumption was that dragons became extinct.

Lizards and dragons have similar digestive systems and skeletal structure, but the physiology they share with crocodiles, are the lungs.

The lungs of a crocodile are larger than in many reptiles. Human lungs are two sacs that fill with air and then empty on exhalation. Crocs fill the left side of each lung, storing the air before it moves into the right-hand side; then expel the air into the esophagus, and out through the mouth. Dragons have an extra chamber on each side, at the base of each lung, where air can be stored at great pressure. The more a dragon breathes in, the more pressure that chamber withstands. As with all gases, when pressure is increased, the air molecules get more tightly packed together and the temperature increases. This means that dragons can create immensely strong gusts of air that they expel at temperatures (we think) of up to 2500 Celsius.

The flames come from a volatile liquid (very acidic, therefore very poisonous) that sits in pouches on either side of the cheeks, close to the front of the mouth cavity. When in states of anxiety or anger, dragons breathe in and heat their stored air, and then squirt the flammable liquid out into the super-heated air stream just beyond the mouth opening, so that neither the teeth nor lips/mouth get burnt.

So, the answer is that they don’t breathe fire. They breathe out incredibly hot air, that ignites a flammable liquid, which creates a stream of flames that look like they come from the dragon’s mouth.

All of which is immaterial if you’re stood in front of one, because by then, you are literally toast.

 

How do we know Dragons are Real?

Back in 1964, in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, close to where many other dinosaur fossils have been found, three paleontologists with an interest in crypto-zoology (the study of strange and mythical beasts) discovered a partial fossilized skeleton; two thirds of a Pterosaur (a fossilised dragon). It was amazing… unlike anything they had ever seen.  It’s body was roughly the size of a British double decker bus (61′ long and 30′ high) with a tail that extended another 40′ behind and from the one partial ‘arm’ that was preserved, they estimated a wingspan of over 150′.

Seriously, this thing was enormous.

Being the only scientists at the dig that afternoon, the three of them spent a couple of hours re-burying their find before rushing back to base.  There followed an evening of anxious phone calls to  the University’s research funding department, urgently requesting additional monies for the retrieval of their once-in-a-lifetime find.

After much skullduggery, and many machinations, the team (Professor Jones, Dr Belloq and his assistant Doug) managed to get their discovery back to the State University facilities and began to work on the remains in secret.

Well, almost.

Asking an academic not to share their findings is a bit like asking a cow to eat grass and not produce methane. It’s not what either were built for and if required to hold it all in for too long, both will (probably) explode. So it was with Dr B. Some have ascribed his loose talk to a collegiate sense of fair play, wanting to share his discovery with his academic peers. Others speak of an ego the size of a planet. Either way Belloq let the cat (well, dragon) out of the bag one night over a game of pool and several whiskey chasers.

Bingo! Within 12 hours, 274 crypto-zoologists had descended on the small inner-state campus and the world’s gaze turned in their direction.

Professor Jones was apoplectic; the dean of the university was delighted; Dr B was out on his ear; Doug stayed quiet and kept his head down.

That night, with all 276 scientists (Dr B was already dismissed) sitting in the students’ food hall, there was a heated discussion. Not one of those present wanted the world in on their good news. It must remain a secret. Otherwise, every school kid who could buy a bus ticket or lift a spatula would be down in Mexico digging around, messing up any new finds that there might waiting for the community.

They chose to make the ultimate sacrifice (in academic terms). They would tell the world that this was just an April Fools’ joke, and apologize for the fact that it was late – the date being April 5th.

Any of the world still watching raised one eyebrow, emitted half a chuckle and nodded  – that would be right, bloody academics; can’t even do an April Fools’ joke on time.

Since then, this group of dragonologists, have met in secret, in Iceland (a long, long way from Mexico) every decade or so (because there really isn’t enough news to keep getting together on an annual basis) to compare notes on the re-re-re-analysis of their one dragon-find.

What came out of the study of “Balloq’s Demise” also known as “Bertha” was a set of answers about what dragon’s were or were not and how they might have lived. Roughly summed up this translates into:

  1. Dragons are real – we know this, because we found one
  2. They look like enormous flying lizards (see the Horned Marsh Dragon) and share many features, not least the feet with other lizards, but also pterodactyls and birds,
  3. They were carnivorous (from the teeth)
  4. They can’t have breathed fire – Bertha’s teeth showed no heat damage
  5. The lung cavity was huge though, so perhaps the lungs were working like another reptile, such as a crocodile (does this mean dragons could swim?)
  6. They produced offspring through eggs – Bertha was pregnant. She had been carrying three eggs inside her when she died.

Of course, fifty years on, after the discovery of the dragon fossil, and there was nothing to suggest that dragons hadn’t simply disappeared along with all the other dinosaurs.

News of recent events in the Himalayas hadn’t spread.  All the authorities knew was that a calamity had occurred on or near to Annapurna II. There had been a catastrophic avalanche that three teams of locals were currently trying to dig through, so they could work out what had happened.  The mayday signal from the base camp had been garbled. Frankly, the army staff who had been on duty at 5am on that November morning in 2017, had found it difficult to follow what was being said.  They got a shock when the line cut out and sent an armed response, just to be on the safe side.  But all of this was localised and the Nepalese authorities had no desire to let any negative publicity get into the news.

On social media, there had been a set of shares of a strange, fantastical beast that was making the rounds of trekkers’ family and friends. The images were a bit hazy and badly back lit, or had a lot of light distortion in them.  A couple of conspiracy theorists had whipped up a small frenzy about how there were aliens whose presence was being kept quiet, but this storm died down pretty quickly in the absence of any evidence.

One of the trekkers at the base camp that morning, Jon Reed, a 34year old physicist from Cambridge had messaged his girlfriend, Stacey, telling her that he loved her and tried to describe what he was seeing.  Given the time difference between Nepal and home, it would be another 5 hours before she woke up to hear his final words.  Stacey tried to contact state authorities, got a petition going on Facebook and did her best to energise an investigation into what had happened to her boyfriend, from whom she’d heard nothing since.  Likewise, other relatives of the missing westerners in the US, other parts of Europe and Australia were trying to connect with officials and find some answers.  All of them operating in the hope that their loved ones were ok.

What was that animal/beast in the pictures?  Where had it come from? And, where was it now?

2. Humans and Dragons

She flew southeast, away from her safe, quiet, and empty ledge, towards other islands she remembered. Another lair waited for her; where warm air floated above gentle seas; and food was in abundance. Through the evening she beat away the air, neck outstretched as if to gain extra inches by straining forwards. As night fell, she flew by instinct, but energy was failing and she was losing speed. It was centuries since she had felt the full warmth of sun on her scales; centuries since she had eaten. She needed rest.

Beneath her,  as twilight lifted the skies, she crossed a great massif from which one conical peak stood out. Just beneath the ultimate summit was a line of rock, like a saddle, a snow-ridge, scooped out of the granite. A place to rest and oversee the world including that small collection of stone huts some few hundred metres below her. She alighted on the ridge, tired, green scales dull; her whole frame dusty and worn. Panting, she clung to the stone, eyes closed, waiting for the dawn.

The first fingers of sunlight stole across the snowy mountain face, creeping towards her. She opened her eyes and watched them slink across first her claws, then lower limbs, rising up her torso.

The dragon soaked up the warmth and power of that fresh new day. She arced her neck lifting her head to the skies, feeling those rays warming her blood, feeding her whole. Now bathed in dawn light, she transformed, like a chameleon. In that golden sunrise, gone was the flat green of her skin. The tired grey-ish beast transformed into this creature of turquoise and azure; taller, grander, fiercer. Flattened neck spines stood straight and needle-sharp, her scales curved like individual shields of carbon; flawless and iridescent.

She had been recharged: more beautiful – more terrible; more wondrous – more terrifying than ever before. Magnificent. In her rejuvenation she opened her mouth, roared, throwing flames high into the sky in a plume of triumph.

Hundreds of decades ago, before her great sleep, the dragon had fostered a profound contempt for mankind.  In those simpler times, had men seen a mountain-top dragon throwing  fire into the sky, they would have run: very fast, very far.  But times had changed.

In 2017, the collection of small huts beneath the mountain’s peak contained two types of human. The first were trekkers, bound to scale the north face of the summit she sat just below, caught up with their own sense of achievement, fighting  with nature. Second, were the indigenous people who ran the camp, fed the walkers, charged exorbitant rates for the bacteria-ridden toilets, bottled water and WiFi access. The locals worked around the visitors whilst accommodating their impatient demands, ensured their safety against optimistic thieves and looked to make an early retirement from the foolish exploits of dreamy-eyed westerners.

Locals and trekkers rose early, keen to start with the first rays and make the best use of the fleeting daylight hours for their conquests. To a man (and woman), they heard the roar. They saw the plume of flames. The trekkers reached for their smartphones; the locals for their guns.

Lowering her head to the sound of their cries, she saw beings running, in all directions. She heard their shouts. Irritated she gave fair warning sending a long, low growl towards them with a gust of hot but not dangerous air towards the settlement. She puzzled that they remained in place or came closer. Sending a second warning salvo, hotter air and a louder growl.

To no effect.

Men ran towards her, not with spears or swords, but long sticks held close to their faces, pointed in her direction. These produced small bursts of fire that did not puncture her shiny, glorious scales, but stung nonetheless. Deeply annoyed she shifted on her snowy ridge and bent lower towards them. They continued to use their fire sticks, provoking her ire.

Two humans then ran in front of the others, holding what looked like a larger fire-stick between them.  The others stopped and she observed as the stick made a loud boom, propelling a speeding orange orb that moved towards her. Recoiling, she watched the missile go past her right wing and smash into the side of the mountain bursting into flames and leaving an ugly black scar on that perfect mountainside.

Now, she was incandescent with rage. This beautiful mountain, eons old, besmirched by imbeciles. Without another thought, she inhaled deeply, holding the air until it was super-heated. Exhaling, she created a stream of flames, as if an enormous frond of red and orange montbretia was wafting in front of her. The tickling of those petals, incinerated the humans, their artillery detonating in-hand, creating explosions and bangs that augmented the blaze, pin pricks of silver light from phone cameras adding flashes to the brilliant but destructive chaos.

After the charring ceased, small dust clouds drifted where people had been, some of that black dust sinking into the pool of melted snow. “Humans!” she thought. “Limited in understanding. What they don’t understand, they abuse or destroy

The dragon pushed up and away into the morning, flapping rapidly to create an updraft and rise above the wind-sharpened peaks. As she rose, the vibrations of her wings shifted any snow left balancing on rock. Starting slowly from the top, the white blanket grew, gathered pace and density and came crashing down.  The resulting avalanche tumbled over the stone huts, smothering them completely. This silenced the radio communication that had been taking place inside, the authorities already alerted to the threat.

(Please see the next blog entry for answers to the questions: “How do dragons breathe fire?” and “How do we know dragons are real?”)

1. Dragon (/ˈdraɡ(ə)n/)

The great beast shuffled to the cliff edge, pointing her front claws over the precipice, rear-claws gripping the stony ledge behind. She stretched out her broad, leathery wings in the last of the afternoon sun; flexing her neck and enjoying the remnants of warmth on her wizened reptilian scales. Lifting those wide capes of skin, she stretched out her arms, giving an experimental couple of flaps, loosening the joints before tucking them neatly beside her once again. She surveyed the vista, looking from side to side; unblinking black eyes taking in the mountains that surrounded her, the river slicing the valley below and the clear, dark skies above.

 

The dragon sniffed the air, sensing a thermal. Slowly she leant forward, raising her tail at the same time as opening out her sheets of leather to the breeze. She hunkered down, those massive powerful haunches storing up power. Suddenly, she catapulted herself out into the void. So large, so unwieldy, it seemed impossible that such a creature could ever be airborne.

 

But then she flapped her wings in a strong downwards scoop. Once. Twice. A third time and she caught the upward drift of the air’s current. Circled and rose. In huge open loops she moved, beating down against the atmosphere, pushing above the cliffs and lower peaks. Up, up, and up again, in those wide arcs, growing smaller in the sky. Until, like a speck, an eagle or maybe just a sparrow, she was lost in the twilight skies.

This writing lark

It was a square house, shaped like a child’s drawing – a door at the bottom in the centre, two windows either side and symmetrical windows above; triangular roof on top.  It sat apart, alone, surrounded by the tall, traditional sandstone buildings of Sheffield, our home being more squat in nature; constructed of 1970’s brick.

Open the scrolled-iron gate, down the dark, overgrown path, and open the oak front door, with small glass panels at the top.  Through the hallway, to the kitchen; left to the back door and out into the light.  The garden conjures memories of adventures, terrors; industry and leisure.  Enclosed within a high red-brick wall, on the right hand side sat a large ancient, unemployed greenhouse where I played.

It was also where the tortoises lived.  In that glass domain they bred and produced two milky, translucent eggs, which, despite the zoo’s advice, never hatched.  Ultimately, our friends perished; they escaped and were therefore unable to safely hibernate over winter.  We found their empty shells in the undergrowth next summer.  I doubtfully believed the story, that they might have grown new, better armour.  Part of me still hopes that the tale was true, and that they thrive to this day, in the shade of the peonies, close to the compost heap in the corner.

That garden was where my brother and I were taught how to make arrows from willow branches, without the censure of what (who) not to shoot at.  I became the anguished quarry of my younger brother and his fellow bandit; two mischievous 10-year olds, with an endless source of ammunition.  Round and round the paths they pursued me, with pitiless mirth.  Ambushed from behind the garage.  Caught unawares whilst musing; rude interruptions from shooting missiles. They laugh about it still.

At the bottom of the garden growing right up against that big brick wall was an old ash tree.  Most of the tree grew vertically, branches reaching upwards, but one bough ran horizontally, far enough out to grant me a throne.

I loved getting into the centre of that tree.  My back to the trunk, feet flat on the bricks, I would shimmy my way up to the height of the wall, then in one move, turn, feet atop the crumbly sand-cement, arms outstretched to encircle the smooth, greening trunk.  A big push forwards and I was on the flat bough.  Then carefully, each foot immediately in front of the other, holding higher branches for balance, out to where offshoots turned upward, offering me my seat.  From this castle, I looked over adjoining gardens, heard conversations, lawn mowers, arguments and laughter while birds swooped in and out of each enclosure.  For hours, I would perch, even into the dusky gloom, peering to make out the stealth of neighbourhood cats, stalking in the inky shadows.

Eventually, someone would notice I wasn’t inside. Clambering down I’d reposition indoors, to my window sill, gazing over the same parallel lines of grey-slate roof tiles.  In either location I carried notebook and pencil; I wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

Little of those scribbles remain, but vivid memories are unfaded.

Many of us write as part of our living: reports, forms, articles for journals (in academia), assignments for qualifications, more reports, memos, emails….  the PhD was 92,000 words.  I have always loved the writing process.

It didn’t occur to me to pick up writing for pleasure again.  The trekking blog was for family, but it offered me moments of reflection not otherwise afforded in the daily dash though life.  It gave me wonderful feedback completely unanticipated. It gave me a little more confidence, to let my fingers represent my brainwaves; thinking across the keyboard.

So this is fair warning.  there have been some great adventures, I’ll pen these and then there are more anticipated for the year to come.  Feel free to join me; for real with a pair of walking boots, or from the screen if that’s more your fancy.

I look forward to seeing you soon,

Jx