Day 2 – The View from the Back

I got down early for breakfast, hoping to write up the blog, but was joined by Andy. He was sad but resolute, no climbing for him today.  He recognised the signs of pleurisy and wanted to get to the nearest A&E for treatment.  Chris appeared and he, too, was signing out.  His knee hadn’t recovered overnight and he was going to hunt for a new brace.

That left me, Duncan and Alex for the second training session: rope skills and snow safety. Our day started with the briefing: had we checked the day’s sheets? We mumbled that we hadn’t. Rob said naught…

Then map out, avalanche and weather forecasts were compared with the suggested direction of travel. Which of our slopes (north, south, east or west) would be most at avalanche risk? Where would the wind be coming from? What other hazards could we anticipate between the map and the forecasts? A gentle drilling in being mountain aware, considering our options and their inherent dangers. All aimed at inculcating us with decision making processes that we might rely on in the future.

Rob had obviously been listening to my fears about the cold.  He presented me with a pair of mitts to borrow.  These were his wife’s and had been all the way to Antarctica.  I’m honoured and worried – can’t afford to lose one of these babies then.  They are deliciously warm.

The minibus ride took us to the start of a footpath up to Stob Ban. On the slippy, icy way we halted in a small, snow-filled corrie, happily sheltered from most of the wind that was forecast for 30-40mph today. We started with digging a snow belay – a hole in the snow in which to sit to belay a climbing partner. But not just any old hole. Ours must each be big enough for ourselves and our packs, deep enough that we sunk up to the back of our knees; undercut so that the front ledge pinned us in and gave us maximum possible security. Then an axe anchor behind the hold. Next, belay techniques and a few knots that I found familiar. I team taught with Rob, showing Alex the belay routine whilst Rob worked with Duncan who found rope management less natural.

More lessons, creating a snow bank to abseil down from, general snow safety, judging the ice pack, it’s dangers and likelihood of stability. Rob’s instructions were patient, detailed and clear. Everything we learnt was geared to safety, safety, safety. Lots of questions; he asked us to think out our answers as well as take additional information on board. He linked back today’s new chunks to yesterday’s and this morning’s. The training section of the day went quickly and we adjusted to grabbing mouthfuls of food when the opportunity arose.

Five freezing hours after leaving the minibus, Rob suggested that we “step up” and do the ascent of Stob Ban, an hour’s climb away. If he’d suggested that we go home for a cup of tea and hot shower before dinner I’d have readily agreed with him…

My legs were still aching from the day before but Duncan and Alex seemed unaffected, marching effortlessly behind our Leader. The further ahead they got the harder it was to maintain motivation. As for yesterday, the guys were moving at Rob’s Everest-ready pace. Alex is just phenomenally fit and ate up what each day offered him.  Duncan I think found the going more difficult but simply refused to be left behind.  Occasionally they paused and I caught up. By the time I reached them, they were rested and ready to move. This cycle worsened as we progressed.

Eventually, I decided that I’d just have to walk for myself. There was NO way that I would be giving in, or giving up, but I simply couldn’t chase them up this mountain. On one occasion, I got to them as they were inspecting the ice pack so I walked on past. It helped to be ahead, if only for a short distance. I maintained this lead for as long as I could, such a relief not to feel like I was being abandoned at the rear of the line. But as the gradient steepened towards 40 degrees near it’s summit, I inevitably fell back once more.

It didn’t matter if I walked left-side up, toes in first or right-side leading, muscles were lactic-heavy and reluctant. Plus my bag was so big that I couldn’t raise my head to see where I was going. It was also excruciating to wear. If I had the belt where it was supposed to be, it cut off the blood supply to my legs. If I hoisted it to the top of my ribs I could walk but with restricted breathing. If I loosened the belt and held it up, I could mitigate both issues, but then had no way to use my ice-axe, which I needed. In addition, my boots were a size too big and so my foot rotated when walking up the slope and changing foot direction.

I felt my emotions rising, and  when I paused, pushed back my sack and looked up, the guys were further ahead than ever; disappearing over one high, steep ridge after another. When we were just 100m from the summit, I found them waiting on a ledge for me. I didn’t take the rest, but went forwards. Rob seemed to approve and said “Good”. But it wasn’t good, it was desperation. We were not on Everest, we did not need to race. This was one of the most miserable days I’d ever had out on any mountain.

The top, at last the top. The boys were shaking hands and all happy. I tried to match their sense of achievement, but could have easily growled. So I kept quiet and smiled for the pictures.

And down we go…

More of the same, them ahead, me behind, feet, back, bag, legs, emotions.

When we reached the end of the snow line, it was time to remove harnesses, helmets, crampons. I fumbled and was so slow that Rob sent the others on ahead and came over, unceremoniously stuffing my bag with the things around me. He gave me a deeply reproachful look. What did he think I was doing, going for a Sunday ramble? Then we were back on catch-up…

I won’t repeat the woes above; you can fill in the blanks. Feeling like a hindrance was mixing with a whole bunch of unrelated emotions that I’d been carrying around for a while. My self esteem resembled a pre-packed block of Wensleydale; in it’s packaging it appears whole and firm but peel off the wrapper and it soon starts to crumble. Tired, with the others miles ahead, I turned into a rebellious teenager.

“Sod the lot of you.”

Unless they were going to drive off without me, all their rushing was pointless, they would have to wait at the bottom. So in a state of mutiny, I reduced my speed, not to a recalcitrant crawl; I wanted to get back too; but not doing the break-neck pace over loose rocks and black ice, so that I could be more sure of my footing.

Eventually, the final gate at the bottom appeared in view. Rob must be in a hurry. I saw him get in the van, start to move when poor Duncan appeared from the right, struggling with his trousers and running to get to the van as Rob drove off in my direction. I walked to the centre of the road, the bugger would have to stop or run me over. Duncan opened the side door and I was commanded to get in. I wanted to get in. My bag needed to come off first though. At the repetition of the order I agreed and said “I’m taking off my pack”. Silence emanated from the driver’s seat.

I climbed in the rear and Rob threw the van round corners. My stomach lurched. I’m not a good traveller in the back of cars, so the combination of the day’s exertion and being tossed around in a minibus was threatening to have dire consequences. I stayed quiet for as long as I dared, but after a particularly jostling bend I had to speak up. Could I come and sit in the front, next to Alex? If not, I might just vomit.

Unsurprisingly, Rob screeched to a halt and we played musical minibus seats. Rob constrained his speed and we trundled back towards the hotel.

“What time is your dinner at the hotel?”
“Not til 7-7.30, we have plenty of time. Do you have a timetable you’re working to?”
“I said I’d be back for dinner at 6”

The dashboard clock said 18:37.


There we had it. It was domestic issues that had us running up and down the bloody hillsides. Because of course, Rob wouldn’t get to just drop us off. There were ropes to sort and gear to stash and then he had a 20 minute drive back to Fort William.  When in charge of his own environment, Rob was calm, focused, and his level of experience meant that we could have absolute faith in his ability.  But at the wrong end of the day, when he was late for family routines and well past the 8am-5pm daily timeframe, then he got tetchy.

When we pulled into the hotel car park, I staggered into the reception area, pulled off my big, painful boots and slowly wound my way upstairs to my room. I had no energy to bid friendly farewells and needed to get horizontal before something dramatic happened.

I just got into my room in time. Lying down didn’t help and very shortly I was leaning over the loo getting reacquainted with my ham and mustard sandwich. Then a lie down and a chance to let my system settle.

I was not in the mood to be sociable; didn’t want to eat. But tomorrow was another full day.  I needed to replenish energy stores. So I gingerly crept downstairs and into the bar where there was much joviality. Andy had received wonderful NHS Scotland treatment and was buzzing on a cocktail of relief, antibiotics and steroids. Chris had found an adjustable knee brace and was also full of medication. Duncan and Alex, like myself, were wiped from 10 hours of effort, but it was.a cheery meal, with lots of chat and I was considerably brighter by the time I crawled back upstairs at 9:30pm.

Just before I’d retired to my room, Alex called me back: Oh, Julie, before he left, Rob said to tell you well done”.  I managed to smile in response.

Tomorrow we would have an extra guide, and split the group. Andy couldn’t take part.  The others were all leaving that day and Andy wanted to start the long drive back at 3pm, taking Duncan with him. So I would vote to be in the short-day group and try to recapture some strength before my final day on Tuesday when it would be just me and Rob…

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