Oh the Cruel Rain and the Wind|
Jays, but the weather’s been shocking this summer. Hardly a weekend to get out in, and as often as not you’ve given up the idea by Wednesday because the 72 hour forecast has been for the perfect storm. Well I’ve no sympathy, you’re a half-hearted bollix. There’s never been a day so bad on the hill that it didn’t beat a trip to B&Q and that’s what you deserve. The late, lamented Chairman Mao said the guerrilla should move among the people as the fish in the sea. In the same way we are children of any weather.
For a start you’re spoiled rotten with equipment. Most of it breathes, which I’ve got to say leaves me feeling a bit uneasy. But with technical T-shirts, gore-tex anoraks and walk on water boots, you’re totally impervious in a way previous generations never were. My father wandered the Arrochar Alps in his apprenticeship overalls. He regretted being too young for the Spanish Civil war but I wonder if that’s because he might have been dry there. I was reading an account by W. H. Murray - Scottish inter-war climber and mystic – of trying out a cambric Himalayan expedition tent on Clach Leathad, 1000 metres up in the Black Mount on New Year’s Day. Anyway about midnight he realised the tent was meant to keep out snow not driven rain. He wrote that you could experience the effect yourself “step fully clothed into a cold bath at 2 a.m. in midwinter, and recline there with a cold shower playing overhead until 8 a.m.”
Murray was a bit of a hard nut. He once failed to unload his sleeping bag and some other key equipment landing on Rum. Camping in a rain storm that night “I found that my best way to resist was to try to work up heat by regulated shivering. This was an art I had learned in Central European prison camps in winter. One lies with a perfectly blank mind, half way between sleeping and waking, and let the body shiver for five seconds in every half minute. The process is reinforced at half minute intervals by a few more strenuous wriggles.” Well quite, simpler perhaps to hang on to your gear when getting off the boat.
Weather changes fast in the west – Ireland or Scotland. I’d a real soaking on Ben Gorm last spring. I was for going on to Ben Creggan but Ronnie who’s a gentleman by training if not by nature, deferred to my sister. She opted instead for descent by the east ridge. It turned out later his defective waterproofs meant he was soaking already but he’d have gone on if she’d said. Anyway, less than two hours later we were sitting in the square in Clifden, pints of Guinness before us and the whole place steaming in the sun. It’s hard to draw a moral here but I think we were better off up the hill than with a late breakfast and straight to the pub.
There are gradations of horrible. If I face up to the worst, there are days of unrelieved misery. Connaught is good for these. You really know you’re for it when water is hosing horizontally through the cracks in a dry-stane dyke. On the walk out from the south-east ridge of Mweelrea there are bogholes I’d happily consign my enemies to. But maybe the single most miserable day was years ago on midsummer’s day. We were sadly ill-equipped and heading for Stobinian in driving rain. On Stob a Choire Lochain we gave into misery and turned back. It was a bedraggled retreat. We dried a little in the car and stopped for a pint. We encountered true Scottish hospitality. Pints in hand we moved towards a blazing fire. “You can’t go there, it’s the dining area.” We were the only ones in the pub but all of our arguments, even offering to buy crisps, were in vain. That’s never happened to me in Ireland.
Another day with Ronnie and Paul just never did clear up. They were just started into hill-walking and when I put on waterproof trousers in a persistent drizzle, they didn’t bother. This is a day last century, but to this day Ronnie can reminisce with unnecessarily lurid detail on the effect sodden linen-mix boxer shorts have on the scrotum. We were six hours in the mist that day. Paul’s trampled on most people’s feelings at one time or another and that day was my turn. I brought us back to the car with what I felt was pin-point precision. I heard Paul exclaim “Hey, that’s Ronnie’s car! Lucky white heather, boys.”
But you get fabulous days when you ignore the forecast and just go for it. I was reminded how we just get blasé about heart-rending beauty a couple of years ago on Beinn a Chreachain. I was with my sister, a relative newcomer to the hills. We’d a tricky ascent, iced snow and then an evil snow-squall on the narrow east ridge. As we reached the summit the cloud opened like curtains to show a snow-covered Rannoch Moor, the Mamores, Ben Nevis. I looked and she was almost in tears with a beauty I was in danger of taking for granted.
Walkers keep varying records of their trips. Ronnie will mark a new Munro but otherwise hasn’t a clue. I’ve a diary with the hill names, who I was with, whether I could see off, and, peculiarly, what boots I was wearing. Gordon’s more what I take to be the Simon end of the scale, with photographs and GPS downloads to the Ordnance Survey package on his PC. He and I tend to compare each year hill lists, including crucially how many with visibility. There’s a heightist element in this as only listed hills over 2,500 feet count, so last year the two best walks, a perfect day in the Pins and heaven on Beinn Mor Coigach counted for nothing. But that’s the list game for you. Now there is an obsessive element in Gordon’s character and he has a kharmatic theory about the weather you get. Like good days are earned through persevering through bad days. But, especially if there’s been an extended series of bad days, he’s capable of getting very resentful over a fair-weather walker enjoying a day that has in fact been earned by Gordon. We’ve convinced him that if he explains this to these passengers they’ll just think he’s barking, so he contents himself with giving them misleading scare-stories about broken bridges on their routes and sneering at their equipment.
Foul weather’s fun in itself. Ronnie, Horse and I arrived at Butterbridge, ignoring the forecast, to climb Beinn Ime. The blizzard was rocking the car in the car-park and we downscaled the plan, just take a walk up to Abyssinia. From there we could see the dam under Ben Vane so we went as far as that and realised we were in the lee, sort of. Horse, who’s highland and regards the quantity of whisky that would knock me out as an aperitif, was talking about safety and weren’t the tea-rooms open at Arrochar? We went on. I’m normally the dwarf but I was the only one with goggles and as we came to the summit I had the unique experience of towering over the two of them as they cowered behind me. Staring back I saw Ronnie’s face masked in blood which turned out to be an effusive nose-bleed not Horse’s desperate attempt to enforce return with his ice-axe. A second at the top, 3000 feet up on the smallest Munro, then 90 minutes later we were in the pub. Maybe it wasn’t fun but it’s become legend for all of us.
It’s easier to explain the charm of a similar day on Stobinian. The wind maybe wasn’t so bad and this time we got a half hour break in the cloud from the summit. Gordon and I sat and watched the rags of cloud tumbling over Cruach Ardrain. Then the cloud shut down again. Or the Hogmanay walk on my local hills. There’s a moment frozen in my memory. I was crouched over my compass, staring through goggles at a swirl of white flakes and featureless moor. I was aware of encroaching darkness and this was the worst day of the year to think of Mountain Rescue. Get this wrong and I’d freeze within two miles of a corporation bus stop. But I didn’t and an hour later I was entering a suburban pub in full winter gear and slabbed with snow.
I’m not saying ignore weather forecasts. On the day of our trip on Ben Vane the MR were involved in about 16 rescues. But these were mostly people who hadn’t adapted their intended routes (and one party who couldn’t navigate when their one GPS went dead, but don’t get me started.) So get up and get out. If you don’t know the hills in every weather, you don’t know them at all.
1. Murray’s books, “Mountaineering in Scotland” and
“Undiscovered Scotland” are issued in a single volume. They’re worth chasing.