It went dark a long, long time ago and we are still walking. My boots are full of water, the result of sinking into a bog, weighed down by my rucksack full of climbing gear. Looking back I can see John’s head torch bobbing along behind me. He is heading for the same bog I just fell into. Part of me wants to call out and warning but the majority of me is just too tired. I pod on, lost in my world are aching legs and exhaustion, wondering idly if John will find a bog.
Then there is a cry, ‘Oh, for f**k sake!’ He found the bog.
We are two old men, retreating from a failed winter climb on Anoch Beag, a mountain near Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands. We should have known better. It’s December and the Highland days are fleeting, desperately short. It had seemed such a good idea. Early snow brought the mountains alive and, as we walked into the climb, morning sun had touch the summits and turned them crimson. The North East Ridge of Anoch Beag is a hidden gem of a route, tucked away in a distant Corrie. Our plan was to catch the cable car to the ski runs on the Mountain and that way save us a very long walk in.
‘Closed for maintenance, John reads the sign on the ticket office door twice, just so I am sure the first time hasn’t been a mistake. We look up at longingly at the gondolas, swaying silently in the early morning breeze. Their inaccessibility means only one thing, a long walk.
As we head up Glen Nevis in the morning starts well, the sun catches the summits of the hills in their new coats of winter white and leaves them gleaming. Walking up the long valley I feel sorry for the poor souls still laying in bed and missing this natural glory.
After a few hours our goal comes into sight, an elegant ridge sweeping up from the valley floor to the summit of the hill far above us. We head off up the climb, weaving our way between short cliffs, until the ridge steepens and narrows to a crest. John leads up a steep icy corner and I follow.
Now we encounter the snow. From the valley floor it had looked crisp, white and enticing, the kind of snow winter climbers dream of. This, however, is not that kind of snow. This snow is fresh, soft, and worst of all sticky. The Eskimos have forty words for different kinds of snow and I have one for this type, crap.
As I led the next pitch the spikes of my crampons became entombed in football sized snowballs and the whole slope threatens to part company from the mountain and drag me down with it into the jaws of the valley waiting, open mouthed, below.
By now the shadows are becoming ominously long and our progress worryingly slow. It’s crunch time, do we carry on and risk being caught on the climb in darkness or do we retreat now and face the long walk back. If we can get to the summit the way home will be a lot quicker.
‘John,’ I call. ‘We better go down if we carry on we’ll end up on here in the dark.’ I am, of course, wrong, it’s already too late. The darkness overtakes us on the descent and a nightmare ensues as we weave between cliffs whose hight we cannot judge in the dark.
Eventually we are confronted by a cliff we cannot circumvent. John prepares to abseil into the unknown. ‘What if I can’t reach the bottom?’
‘Well I’ll know the rope’s not long enough won’t I,’ I grin at John. He shakes his head and slides out of site. Eventually, much to my relief, the rope goes slack. Either he’s made to the ground or slid off the end. Fortunately it turns out to be the latter, I join him a few minutes later. Then, surrounded by the immense darkness, we begin our walk back to the road. Eventually, our legs rubbery with exhaustion from descending through the endless bog, we hit the path through Glen Nevis.
John collapses. ‘Leave me here to die.’ Wordlessly, I hurl a chocolate biscuit at him, in the hope the sugar will revive him. We both roll cigarettes and spend a few minutes sucking in the delicious, acrid smoke. ‘This will pass into legend. It’ll become a myth,’ we both chuckle. We head off down the Glen, despairing of our failure, like two one time badass gunfighters who have just been run out of town by the Milky Bar Kid.
These are the days before the internet when friends were people you had actually met. If you wanted to know about climbs and climbers you had to meet members of the outdoors brotherhood in the corners of drinking dens. At first they’d tell you very little until, by some mysterious process, you had displayed sufficient courage to be accepted into the fraternity. Then they would whisper tales of the great feats of other climbers, heroes who had faced the monsters of the mountains head on. Sometimes these tails would be of conquests but more often of heroic failure, for disaster makes a better story.
Over the telling the tales would grow, falls would become longer, climbs more desperate and their combatants bolder and more foolish in equal measure. So too would the tale of our long walk, through the deep blackness of this mountain night, be told. We would tell it, over beers in the pub in some distant future place, we would laugh at our ineptitude, relive our terror until the story had become absorbed into the folklore of our brotherhood.
The storytelling would have to wait, however, we were still in the middle of the adventure. The next few miles passed in a fog of exhaustion, I found the river and followed the path as it turned right. John, a few hundred yards behind me was less fortunate. I heard a cry of despair and, when I met him staggering forlornly up the trail, he told me he too had found the rivet but only by walking into it. Around midnight two leg weary climbers plodded into the car park and, at last, climbed into their waiting car, seventeen hours after leaving it.
Two weeks later I phone John and asked him how he was. He laughed, ‘I slept for three days man. I’m too old for that caper.’ We talked about it in the pub later, the legend had begun.
I will be at KENDAL Mountain Festival this year with my one man play about George Mallory. Come and see the show if you are at the Fest.