A ‘Comedy’ of Errors
By Gary Hill
What follows is an account of my first ever climbing holiday. I had, at the time, been climbing for less than a year and had very little experience. Both my companion and I were practically entirely self-taught climbers, both of approximately the same standard and had climbed predominantly on gritstone in the Peaks.
This account was written down during the holiday, simply as a reminder of what happened and how terrified I was. I have not altered the text in any way, so that it may reflect on us as a pair of incompetent idiots. Perhaps we were, but hopefully this account may provide 'food for thought' to newer club members or serve as a gentle (or not so gentle) reminder to the more experienced of something similar which may have occurred to them in their early climbing days.
Isle of Skye, 31st August (Bank Holiday Monday), 15 days after my own 30th birthday.
We had already spent one drizzly day in Skye walking around the Quirang (N.E. coast). On a second, utterly miserable day, we again set forth, determined, even if it was unlikely that we would get any climbing in, to at least get out and about and experience a little more of the dramatic Skye landscape.
We drove down to Glen Brittle in the hope of managing even an eensy climb, should the weather permit. It didn’t, and midday found us munching on our packed lunches in a forestry car park, casting hopeful glances skywards, searching for some slight improvement in conditions. By 1 PM there seemed, or so we imagined, to be some encouraging signs, (it was 'definitely brightening', wasn't it?) and so we decided 'just a little walk' was in order. Ever optimistic and enthusiastic, however, we thought that we would carry the climbing gear with us, just in case the weather cleared completely. We wouldn't want to miss an opportunity now, would we???
We set off, already a little moist, for the Cioch Buttress area on Sron na ciche. The cloud base was so low, visibility so limited, that our only guidance was the O.S. map and the almost non-existent footpaths. (Due to the heavy rain all run-off routes were active so few paths were to be found). One ford, in particular (allt Coire Lagan) was a raging torrent, and it took quite an upstream search to locate, a fork were crossing was possible, and then only in stages, gripping tightly on to one another in case we fell in. (Should this gentle start have given us a clue ???)
3 p.m. found us stumbling (literally) into the Cioch Buttress. We had just worked out that if our navigation was correct then 'the rock face should be....', when we smacked straight into it!
Trying to identify any climbs proved very difficult for two reasons: to begin with we had forgotten the guide book, and secondly, visibility was very poor, limited to just 8-10 m at best. A stone bivouac was located with the letters CW/VD painted upon it (the start of Cioch West climb, graded very difficult, we later worked out) and just past this was an easy gully (later found out to be cioch gully). This ascent looked simple enough, to us poor fools, and having already assumed we were at the ‘correct’ location, we thought that we would see if we could easily reach the cioch by a series of short, not too difficult scrambles, despite the fact that we could not see very far vertically (or, indeed in any other direction).
The Cioch Gully initially shares the start of another (H.S.) called the Crack of Doom and having caught a glimpse of the Cioch itself (we thought, but it was actually The Hexagon), we moved on to this climb. We traversed on to a fairly easy terrace, but during the traverse the fingers of doubt had started to feel our collars (God only knows how it had taken them so long!) and it gradually dawned on us that we were not where we thought we were. Nevertheless, (next mistake), we decided to press on upwards!
Up to this point we had been climbing solo, failing to notice that what had been a nice easy start (with us clad ‘only’ in leggings, jackets and walking boots & carrying rucksacks) had turned into a ‘proper’, and precarious, rock climbing. We had finally got the hint that things were getting dodgy and that our easy ascent had become rather more serious. It seemed high time for us to rope up. Continuing upwards would by now appear to be most sensible (dare I use such a words?) route to take, since climbing back down looked to be quite dangerous. (We later discovered that at this stage we were about 90m up the ascent
Pitch after pitch was lead with the two of us alternating. The climbing was tough but there was no other choice than to push on. We were enveloped in cloud and the rain poured down incessantly, sometimes defying gravity by rising vertically past us. I can recall spitting out a mouthful of rain and seeing the spit rise upwards, passing Mike, who was leading some 15m above me. (Lovely!)
After what seemed an age of concentrating on leading/belaying in turn, I caught (whilst belaying) a glimpse, through a thinning in the cloud, of jagged peaks and I remember, at this point, starting to sing snatches of various songs to keep my flagging spirits up. ( 'Always Look On the Bright Side of Life' was one of my 'numbers'). Until now we had been unable to work out how far we had climbed and how far we had still to climb and the only sign of us being on an actual route had been a sling and a karabiner left on a spike on the opposite side of the gully. (Mike had also left some gear behind after he had gone off-route as it was too dangerous to reverse without protection). Now, with at least some goal in site, we pressed on up and my memories of this part of the 'adventure' are almost dream-like. I can remember hearing an unidentifiable scream from above (I subsequently realised it must have been 'below!') and looking up to see a loaf-sized rock falling soundlessly and apparently in slow-motion, towards me. It glanced off the top of my helmet-protected head. I can also remember, at one pitch, desperately making an unprotected, move which reminded me, even at the time, of a protected move on gritstone that I had 'chickened out' of wearing rock boots (The Grazer, VS, at Burbage North). The thoughts of Reinhold Mesner, that when you feel you are at a point of no return you have to just go for it, came into my mind (peculiar, I know, but perhaps desperation does things to the brain!) and it actually gave me a kind of perverse encouragement and motivation to be able to identify with them.
Eventually... I don't really know how... we reached the top of the climb.
'Stage One' was, at last, certainly out of the way, but all was not yet over. We had yet to get 'home' and still had much to contend with. The main problem facing us was that we didn't actually know where we were! We had climbed what we had believed to be Cioch Buttress, but saw no Cioch and it is a known fact that compasses do not perform well on top of the Cuillins. It was also, by now, 7.15 PM, giving us only about one hour of daylight left.
We consulted the O.S. map and, having attempted to identify our location, decided that the easiest descent was going to be to the right ('Rock & Ice on Skye', however, suggests left is better) and we set forth again looking for the nice, gentle, downwards slope the map had shown us. Yet again we had got it wrong. Where was this gentle slope, where, in fact, were we???
Descent from the Cuillins, even in optimum conditions, can be notoriously difficult. On top of this it was still raining and visibility was utterly atrocious. However, after attempting numerous routes down and coping with meeting, each time, a terrific uprush of rain and air (coming off the edges of the steep Cuillins) we found a descent that looked promising. Our spirits rallied once more and onwards we pressed. Able to see no more than a few feet ahead we were constantly slipping (with no idea how far we may be about to fall) and numerous times we almost blundered off the mountain edges. Then cairns appeared and our hopes soared, only to immediately plummet as we found the way barred by a waterfall. Undefeated, we placed a sling around the largest rock and abseiled down. I went first, reasoning that Mike could keep an eye on the sling as he followed behind me and also, since I had realised I was starting to feel panicky, felt I had to keep moving. (This, in fact, was a characteristic feature of the 'adventure'. I would start to panic and would be reassured and bolstered by Mike, then, usually shortly after, the reverse would happen. The obvious danger was that we might suffer one of these 'panic attacks' at the same time, but the seriousness of such a situation was, I think, clear to both of us. The warning signals issued, when this seemed likely to occur, somehow we managed to both shut ourselves up and remain silent until we had each managed to gain some sort of personal control). I am aware that at times I thought I was going I was going to die. How easy would it have been to have fallen whilst abseiling, or to have slipped over one of the many sheer drops we stumbled upon, or even, most simple and tempting of all, to have just sat down and given up?
Having abseiled down the waterfall we had, although at the time we did not know it, completed all the climbing we were going to have to do. We had realised the danger we were in and been willing to leave any amount of equipment behind if it meant a way out of this nightmare and a return to safety, but the rope pulled through quite cleanly.
Another, seemingly unending downward scramble followed and, by now, all concept of time had been lost. We emerged, at last, from under the cloud and into a dark and rainy, but none the less clear, landscape. This seemed, to us, almost shocking, having spent eternity in fog and spray, but at the same time brought such an overwhelming feeling of relief. We could see the sea, the peat bog, rocks and, perhaps most useful of all, a loch! We had thought, although we were unable to see anything, that we should have passed a loch to our left on the path we had taken up to the mountains in the first place. Now here it was!
The relief was so immense, spirits so raised, that it did not occur to us to look now at the O.S. map to double check on our assumed location. We did not pause to consider that there may be other lochs in the vicinity but off we (relatively) gaily stepped, downwards towards this wonderful loch and noticing, as we progressed, a 'big hill thing' over to the right of us. 'That' I told Mike, convincingly, 'was on our right when we drove in.' But I had not really convinced either myself or Mike and we checked the compass, only to discover that we were heading in a completely different direction to that we had supposed. We did think that the compass may still have been affected by the magnetic rock of the Cuillins and so carried on, eventually checking again. It still told us we were heading the wrong way but since, we reasoned, we didn't really know where we were going anyway, and the sea was ahead of us, we might as well forge on in the same direction and then follow the coast around to find our way back.
Some time later a further referral to the O.S. map forced us to the conclusion that the loch we were proceeding towards was not Loch an Fhir-bhallaich, as we had hoped and tried to convince ourselves, but was probably Loch Meachdannach, which put us miles 'off course'. Yet another debate led to the decision simply to continue towards the loch for a certain distance and then change our bearing. Shortly after this we came upon a four-wheel-drive track which seemed to be aiming, roughly, in same direction as us (N.E.) and it seemed to us that, since the vehicle that had made the tracks must have come from and returned to 'civilisation' (mustn't it?), then following them would surely take us, too, to either a path or a road to safety. Mike followed the left-wheel tracks (nearside) and I walked in the right track and so we continued for what seemed an age. Sometimes the tracks were quite marked, at others they petered out almost to invisibility, so that the only way of distinguishing them was to shine the Petzl so it skimmed the top of the grass (producing a similar effect to that of rubbing a lead pencil over imprinted paper). All our hopes and efforts and all our concentration was now channeled into tracing and following the tracks.
It was, by now, some 10 hours since lunchtime and we were seriously flagging. Mike remembered he had some trail mix and a Mars bar and we stopped, very briefly, to share the Mars bar between us. My hands had become so swollen through the continuous battering of cold and rain that, having eaten our meagre fayre, I could not get my gloves back on. On we trekked again, like a pair of zombies, plodding after the vehicle tracks, occasionally losing them and having to retrace our steps until we could pick them up again. Way in the distance a light shone from the sea apparently, to us (poor desperate souls!), guiding us in the direction we were heading. This, on top of the discovery of the tyre tracks, again gave us a lift in spirits.
Civilisation may have been starting to feel a little closer but we were by now utterly, and absolutely exhausted. The 'energy' the Mars bar had provided seemed to have been more than used up and we turned to the Trail Mix, each handful fueling, it felt, another 500 metres covered.
We came, at God knows what time, upon a wide fast-moving stream (allt Coire Lagan). The tracks appeared to indicate that the vehicle had simply driven across so we, having unsuccessfully tried to locate a shallower section, linked arms and felt our way, through waist deep, foot-tugging water, to the other bank. But wetter, colder, tireder than ever a final (at the time unbeknownst to us) bout of staggering brought us, it seemed suddenly, to the path behind that most romantic of structures, the toilet block at Glen Brittle.
The mingled relief, shock and elation was incredible. We shook hands in self-congratulation and exploded into speech - saying more in two minutes than we had in hours. Drained but so, so happy, we made our way to the car, still patiently sitting where we had left it so long before. Was it the same day? It seemed light years since we morons had set off from it. We had, during this time ascended then descended approximately 2,800 ft (860m) and covered 8 miles (13 km). Now our flasks, the remains of our packed lunch and a gentle, drive (with the heating on full blast) back to the cottage that was, for the meantime, 'home' beckoned.
In hindsight (funny thing that) setting off, climbing gear in rucksacks, in abysmal visibility and rain it seems almost inevitable that 'something' was going to happen. Then to stumble into a rockface and attempt to climb it without even knowing the route, having no guide book, very few rations, one torch and having no previous knowledge of the area at all (beyond the awareness that it was notoriously treacherous) weren't we just courting disaster? Or were we?
HILL G. J., ‘A "Comedy" of Errors’, Snaplink, Wellingborough Mountaineering Club, No. 83, 1 Feb. 1995, p24-27.