Day 3 – Rock and Empathy

A new day, sunshine, an additional guide and even more importantly – another pair of boots! I’ve gone down half a size and the ‘new’ boots feel a lot better. Still a bit too much room, but my feet don’t rotate each time I walk and my heels don’t leave the boots behind, so we’re onto a winner.

Plus (and it’s a biggy…) as we were on our way out, my huge blue pack towering above me, Chris suggested that I ask Andy if I could use his bag instead. He may have been joking, but like a drowning girl, I grabbed at this straw. Andy, to his eternal credit, paused (it was his new, lovely bag, used only once by himself and set up for his eventual trek round the Himalayas) said “of course…”. I hugged him; couldn’t help myself. Thank you, thank you thank you… Andy disappeared to empty his bag of his own things and presented me with his sack, compeed plasters, just in case, additional sets of hand warmers and his emergency bivvy-bag.  Hard to imagine how he could have been any kinder.

So, the day started with a bacon sandwich, boots that rubbed less and a bag that was only slightly too big for me… could it get any better?!

Yes, as it happens, it could, but then….

During the briefing we met Tom, our new guide.  He watched as Rob briefed us for the day  Had any of us checked weather and avalanche reports?  I had checked the weather.  Ok…

Rob’s irritation at our lack of proactivity is not unreasonable.  The aim of this course is to leave us reasonably self-sufficient in terms of making sensible and safe choices in winter mountain conditions.  We can’t afford to be passive about the elements and Rob was trying to get us to take responsibility for our future activities. The rest of the briefing covered route, quizzing us about likely risks, avalanche likelihood, wind speed and direction and so on…  We were doing a grade I winter scramble, using ropes and would ascend the nearest munro if time allowed.

At the start of the day’s adventure the split of the group was clear. Rob would take the ‘better’ group (Alex and Duncan), Tom had me and Chris. In other circumstances, I might have been insulted to so clearly be labelled as ‘less than’; today I was delighted. After yesterday’s emotionally and body-bruising experience, I no longer cared where I stood in the rankings, I just didn’t want to chase up another mountain side feeling like a vague irritation.

We (obviously) weren’t doing the “normal route” (i.e. footpath for tourists),. So instead of taking a gentle rise, we headed up a frozen waterfall in order to quickly gain the 500m height that would take us to the start of our winter scramble. Half way up and my base layer (nylon tights) and wardrobe malfunction (failed elastic in my walking trousers) were combining to leave me somewhat exposed. I stopped, ordered all five blokes to look the other way, stripped off, removed the tights and used Andy’s rucksack waistband-strap to loop through my trousers so that they would stay approximately around my waist. Finally, on day 3, I could walk without impediment – wonderful!

Then an hour of ‘up, up, up?!

We paused, at the bottom of the snow line, crampons on at the base of our first buttress of rock. The climbing had started.

Tom roped us up. Tom first – then me – then Chris. 2.5m of rope between us. Chris’ job was to maintain the distance between me and him, so that we could avoid a shock-load if he slipped. For those of you who haven’t climbed; avoiding a shock load in a rope system is one of the key elements of climbing safely outdoors. The rope is dynamic (i.e. it stretches a bit if you fall off). This is a good thing, it provides ‘give’ in the system and reduces the risk of serious injury. However, having that safety lag depends on the system (the people attached to each other) having a little bit of tension in the rope. Imagine driving a car: you can feel the pressure on the acceleration pedal, so that if you put your foot down, the car’s engine is already working with you and can accelerate in response to you lowering your foot. If you were stationary at a red light, tried to put the car into 5th and pull away, the engine would stall.

In rope terms, the stall means that whoever’s at the front of the system hasn’t had a chance to prepare and at best they’re struggling to hold you if you take a slip or fall. At worst, you’ve yanked your lead climber off their feet and you’re both off the mountain, free-falling the hundreds of metres to the bottom of the valley. Sometimes, a bit of tension is a marvellous thing…

But this was Chris’ first time on rock. In his head he was trying to keep up, so the notion of staying back and having a bit of stretch on the top between us must have seemed foreign. However, we progressed easily. Our pace wasn’t much behind the other group (a few minutes?) but the going was easier, Chris under instruction not to apologise for stopping, Tom was very relaxed, cheerful company. And, because we were well within my comfort zone, for the first time this trip, I could enjoy the cloudless deep blue sky, crisp white snowy peaks and miles and miles of visibility. Stunning: mountains behind mountains all the way into the distance…

And then we were on rock. Lovely, lovely, positive holds, foot ledges where I could jam my crampons into cracks and gain secure spaces to move up from. Crisp, icy snow between crags; each toe thrust held and the front of my crampons bit into the ice, making me feel stable and safe. My ice axe either dug into the snow or served as an additional 55cm of height. So I could always find something to grab hold of. It was… delicious….

Chris did brilliantly. As I finished one scrambling section, I looked back and watched him reach around a precipice, feel for and find a hand-hold. Then came his head, and his left foot. Finally, he hoisted himself onto his left leg, bringing round right hand and foot until he had swivelled in the air and traversed a corner. He was awesome. Go Chris. Below him was a 500m drop and he didn’t flinch for a second. Coming up to meet me (oh, well, never mind the shock-load) he stood beside me – we giggled for pure joy. Look where we were and what we were doing. This is what climbing is all about

Eventually, we neared the summit (boo, too soon). The others, maybe 5 minutes ahead of us, were eating and taking on fluids. We took pictures, shared congratulations, smiled and relaxed in the sunshine. There was only the descent now to finish the day…

Ah yes, the down bit…


Of all the ways down, this was not the route I expected. Rather than following the slope further down the ridge, we turned a sharp right, down a corrie at least 45 degrees in slope.

Seriously? It was as steep as a 90m ski-jump slope, but five times as long. You’ve got to be joking… I only put on these crampons for the first time 40 hours ago…

Rob is calm and implacable. “If you fall, it’s a very icy surface; you will struggle to do an ice arrest. So don’t fall…”


With my stomach somewhere around my knees I follow Tom and Alex over the edge and onto this impossible slope. One tentative step at a time. I stab my crampon spikes into the snow. Trekking pole down next, ice axe plunged into the surface above me. Left foot down at the same angle as the slope. Right foot follows. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. With each move I listen intently for the crunch. Did all points engage? Did the surface shift at all? Am I stable? Then repeat. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check. Each repetition gains me 3 feet forwards and 2 feet drop in altitude. It is a slow and laborious process. I am utterly focused on the task at hand.

Tom’s voice intrudes on my concentration. He points out the route we need to take and how to zigzag down the slope. Pole, axe, left foot, right foot. Check.

Then I hear Chris’ voice above me. “Rob, my knee has gone”. I check for stability and then look behind and above me. Chris is sitting in the snow, collapsed on his injured left knee. He’s only made it four feet from the top.

Rob moves back towards Chris, Tom is alarmed and annoyed. In his opinion it wasn’t fair to let Chris make this call; that’s the job of the guide. Chris had struggled with his knee on the ascent, it wasn’t a surprise that the descent was more difficult. Tom stays with me, Duncan and Alex; it becomes his job to see us down. Rob will find an alternative route that Chris’ poor knee can tolerate.

Pole, axe, step, step, check. We continue downhill. Alex and I find a rhythm and move more easily.

Duncan falls, he slips and calls out. I watch him slide a few metres down the mountain.

We watch Tom run to his aid some 50m above us. Duncan is caught by an exposed patch of heather. Both men wait, catch their breath. I start to breath again too.

Tom helps Duncan regain his feet and shows him how to take toe-steps down, facing onto the hillside. It is an exhausting way to retreat, but has the comfort of staying close to the ice surface with your ice axe permanently engaged in the snow.

Deep breath. Pole, axe, step, step, check…

The four of us drop to base of the snow line and stop to remove crampons and climbing gear. No sign of Chris or Rob. We continue down on surfaces that are unpredictable. Sometimes frozen and slippy, other times boggy and sinking, other times again, full of roots that catch on our boots. We have a mile in distance and 300m of descent through this terrain. Each of us slips and falls at some point. Poor Duncan does a full 360, Tom at his side, he steadies D and then helps him locate his glasses. Alex and I pause, check that no serious injury has occurred, then we all continue down.

I’ve enjoyed conversation with all my companions, but perhaps had most to chat about with Alex.  This time our route down is less hurried.  So when I need to take off a layer he waits for me to get going again rather than needing to rush on by.  The lack of pressure is a relief and I appreciate his patience.

Suddenly behind, there are Chris and Rob. Yahoo! Chris is moving. Slowly. Clearly in pain. Rob is some 50m or so ahead of him. I watch, i move down a few feet, then pause and recollect. It’s the same as yesterday. Chris brought his car to the base of the route, so in theory he could be left on the mountainside. I cannot be left behind. There is no way that I’m going to let Chris be subjected to the lonely and miserable experience that I had the day before.

I pause, let chat briefly with Rob, but let him pass by and wait for Chris. We talk for a bit and then Chris says “On you go Julie”

“No” I reply “I’m behind you”

Poor bugger is in too much pain to argue. He sets off. On occasions we chat, often we’re in silence. But I will not pass in front of him and I will not let him descend alone. As a result he speeds up a little, and we make a companionable route to the base.

Eventually, we make the car park beside the school that gave our route it’s name: The School House Ridge. Chris collects email addresses, but I don’t have his. I will set up a Dropbox file and sharing our digital memories, I need to get his email at some point to do this. We share a companionable hug farewell.

Chris sets off for Edinburgh and home. The rest of us go back to the hotel. I return Andy’s bag and go to Fort William to purchase an alternative that will see me though tomorrow’s adventure with Rob. The evening is spent with the lovely Jo, who’s event managed a team of 10 Jewish fundraisers ascending Ben Nevis, a new mountaineer doing a course with my company and one of their guides. It’s a cheerful evening, but I’m too tired to keep up conversation long after dinner. By 9:45 I need to be in bed and just manage to haul myself up the two flights of stairs to my room.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring but the last thing I do before I sleep is check the weather forecast – tomorrow should be lovely…

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…

Day 1 – 40-ish…

Oh My Goodness!

But I digress…

I met up with Duncan and Andy, who had been at supper last night. It was great to have friendly faces this morning. Added to our group were Chris, who’s driven over from Edinburgh, and like Me, Andy and Duncan, he appears well past worrying about a 40th birthday. Then Alex, (29 and going to Island Peak, Himalayas this year) who thought he should know how to put on crampons. Good move, I would say. With our guide, Rob, there’s me, five blokes and a surprising lack of testosterone (e.g. I’ve climbed this high; I’m really good at this; What, you’ve only done that?) which is a bit of a relief, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Rob gave us a briefing, which included a kit check (my layers should be enough), a long talk about staying warm, how the body’s core temperature falls; tell tale signs – cold hands are often an indication of a cold core, so put on more layers. Lots on avalanche and weather warnings, how to read the avalanche reports (of which there are two daily for this area); general danger signs.

Feeling duly cautioned, we go out to the minibus which will take us to today’s playground. I faff with my gear a lot. Can’t get my sac comfy, fumble with the straps, feel slow. I’m frequently the last to get sorted and when we walk it’s me and Andy, who’s struggling with asthma, at the back.

But this weather is wicked… Visibility ranges between 3 and 300 metres, often changing at a moments notice. At it’s calmest the wind blows a steady and constant 20-30 miles an hour. Gusts are 40-ish miles an hour. Rob judges the wind speed by how likely he is to be blown over. A really strong force of wind and snow stops us in our tracks. That was 40-ish says Rob – it had him rocking. When it’s too strong we should drop to the ground as it will make us more stable, or grab someone else. Apparently two unstable people are less likely to be felled than one.

As we trail the others, Andy and I agree that Rob will probably pull us off the mountain in these conditions. But this is a WINTER mountaineering course. We’re here to learn how to do precisely this – cope in winter. And Rob is completely unperturbed. Only once did our skills session pause; Rob was facing into the wind, a huge gust carrying all sorts of nastiness blew straight in his face. It simply wasn’t possible for him to speak. He waited for the gust to pass and then continued precisely from where had left off. We moved onto using ice axes to cut footsteps in the ice/snow, making progress up and down the mountainside.

So the day continued, past morning (no break), past lunch (no break), to early afternoon(no break); too chilly to stop for more than a few moments to grab a mouthful of sandwich and swig down liquids. Colder and colder, -20 with windchill. Frostbite will attack exposed skin at -26. My gear was fine! The combination of layers was working. I found an easy set of adjustments for when we did heavier exertion and I needed to let out steam, covering back up quickly when the wind surged over us and body temperatures plummeted again.

We’d covered most of the skills that Rob had planned for us today; no chance of rope work in these conditions. So our leader announced that we may as well do the nearest Munro and get the ascent whilst we were here. It was three o’clock’ but there should be time…

Suddenly those crampon and ice axe skills were for real. We were travelling up a steep slope of snow and ice, wind strength and height increasing simultaneously. As I walked I sensed as much as heard my crampons biting into the icy snow surface with a reassuring crunch. The going was tough on quads, calves, knees, and chest as I gasped for breath through the wind. Feet sideways, rocked downwards to the slope so that all 10 teeth of the crampons connected with the snow surface, increasing stability. Ice axe held into the snow above me, always with the axe blade pointing behind in case of a slip and needing to ice-arrest. When fatigue cramped muscles, I carefully turned to face the hillside, climbing straight up. Each step involved a kick into the white so that the front of my footwear broke the surface and gained a secure toe-hold. But not for long, calves screaming, I turn to the side again, and let my feet rock over apologising silently to my complaining ankle joints.

Just 30m from the summit Andy’s asthma kicks in properly; he’s pink in the face but has white/blue lips. He sets himself in a rock nook, as protected as he can be, the rest of us struggle upwards. Chris has already paused. Knee issues and lack of energy and hydration. We continue: up, up, up.

Blow, Blow, GUST, WHOOMP, I can stand still and stay upright, but dare not move for fear of destabilising. Suddenly a tall blue-clad figure is beside me; Rob has reached over and grabbed my pack, not taking weight or guiding me, just preventing me from blowing off the ridge. And we’re back to inching our way onwards. Up, up, up. Chest dragging in air, quads filling up with lactic acid. Step, crunch, kick other foot forward. Step, crunch, kick other foot forward…

Then we’re there… up! The top is too blowy to have a visual record of our first achievement, none of us have the energy to remove packs, fish out phones and battle the storm around us. As we stand there momentarily, I take the offer of Young Alex’s arm just to stay stationary. So it’s a short sharing of victorious smiles before we turn and trudge down the steep, icy, slippy descent, picking up Chris and Andy on our way.

Up is so much easier.

But down has us learning a new skill – plunge steps – on a soft deep snow section we goose-step, pounding our heels into the snow and feeling the glorious soft powder collapse beneath our feet and cushion each footfall. It’s the best bit of the return journey. Leaning back slightly and throwing ridiculous moves in the fabulous white stuff, we make great progress and I laugh as we go. Then back to ice: step, crunch, kick, step, crunch, kick, step…

At different points during our descent Andy and Chris put a foot through the snow, dropping thigh deep through the surface, whilst the rest of their frame moves forwards. Knees are badly jarred. For Andy, this is an insult to the injury of his unhappy lungs. Both guys are stoic, but clearly in discomfort.  Despite his challenges, Andy is always the one to ask if others are ok.  Chris takes another fall and uses his ice axe to stop his slide.  Back in the minibus, we give him the “Ice-Arrest of The Day” award, for his use of technical equipment.  I think he’s a bit non- plussed by the honour…

So, Julie who was terrified of the cold, need not have been. My gear was great – too warm on occasions. From Rob, I’ve learnt new ways of using what I have to better effect (Down layers on top of hard shell; very effective for quickly restoring core temperatures). I didn’t get mittens for this trip and they would have been good for today, but my gloves were still good and on occasions too hot. I’ve more of a sense of how to function and move in this environment and lost my fear of snow and wind blowing; it’s quite possible if not pleasant, to move and make progress is truly horrid weather. If you have to. I am a little euphoric about this change of perspective. If I can do the rest of this course, then…

Over dinner, we chat bout the day, re-live our funny points, share consternations and how they were overcome. Andy and Duncan reliably inform me that the wind speed at the top gusted at 50+ miles an hour. I have no way of judging; once it gets over 30mph, I focused on staying on the mountain. Strong enough to blow you off is all I need to know.

Then bed and in theory write up the day, in practice turn out the lights and feel the aches and strains of unnatural muscle-use slowly wear away.

Where did we go?

On the image attached are the car park in a red circle,  where we did our skills training (blue circle) and then in the black circle, the ascent we did after our 4 hours of skills training!  Access the car park on the road from Fort William through the Pass of Glencoe.

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,