James suffers from Crohn’s Syndrome. In his early 20s and newly married, he’d suddenly withered to half his former, shall we say, robust self.
“Can I come?”
“Of course you can’t, you’re ill!”
James had heard that we were planning a raid on Lochnagar; it was early March.
“I’ll be okay,” pleaded James.
“No, no and definitely no, you’ll do yourself in,” I persisted.
But James persisted too. For the best part of a week! Reluctantly I spoke to his wife. Although she wasn’t overly keen on the idea, she suggested that we might take him along for the ride. Let him start off; if he couldn’t manage the whole walk he could at least turn back and wait for us at the car. “It’ll do him good to try,” she reasoned.
It was a crisp, bright dawn. Taking it easy, for James’s sake, it took us an hour along the track to reach the high point and the path to Lochnagar’s North East corrie. To allow James to catch his breath we stopped for a cuppa.
As we rested other parties passed us by, some jangling with the accoutrements of far more vertical ascents than we intended.
“So James,” said I at length, “you sure you want to go on, or do you want to turn back? Now’s the time to decide.” I was secretly hoping he’d had enough.
Jumping up, grinning and positively champing at the bit, he shouldered his little back pack. “I’m fine,” he said “come on lads, lets get going.”
With Meikle Pap, Cuidhe Crom and Little Pap, each streaked silver with a smattering of snow, rearing up in front of us, we headed slowly up the path. It didn’t take long to reach the col.
Before climbing the path on to the mountain proper we dropped down a few dozen metres beyond the col for a look at the lochan; it was worth it.
Though we all stood transfixed as we gazed down at the frozen teardrop, we were nonetheless glad we didn’t have to go that way, so wild and uninviting did the snow make it all seem.
Back to the col and the climb up ‘the ladder’, as the path onwards is known.
Although there wasn’t much snow, there was plenty of ice on the rocks; soon I was slipping and sliding all over the place. Thing was, as I tried to make upward progress I began to feel as if I were climbing one step up and slipping two steps back; nobody else was!
I looked up. The erstwhile bull of our team, Philip, was making the climb look easy, (which it is).
Even James, the invalid, remember, was leaving me in his wake; I felt like a geriatric on Everest!
And then I twigged! In order to make things as easy as possible for James, I’d offered to carry much of his personal gear. This included a heavy coat (which, in the event, he didn‘t need), a huge flask of Valerie’s homemade soup (liquid concrete), and his SLR camera; I had much the same of my own to carry too. Sod this for a game of soldiers!
I shouted up for Philip to halt.
“Would you mind swapping backpacks till we get to the top?” I begged.
As if I’d asked him for no more than the time on his watch he obliged, and then raced on up again. What a relief, now I felt like a gazelle on springs.
The day had started virtually cloudless , yet now, as we climbed, a coolness began to grip us as Lochnagar gathered around its shoulders a grim cloak.
Very soon we were enshrouded in mist and intermittent snow flurries. As we climbed, fantastic rock formations loomed through the ‘smoke’, it was like being in some Tolkinien landscape; a monochrome Mordor of silver frost and black granite.
We reached the corrie lip and began walking around close to a significant snow cornice. We passed the entrance of the Red Spout in swirling mist and spindrift.
Some way further on we were suddenly stopped by the strangest of sounds. As we listened we heard a series of metallic thuds and scrapes accompanied by decidedly human noises: heavy panting and grunting.
Staring stupidly at the corrie’s edge, we all stood transfixed. Suddenly, no more than a few feet in front of us, a chunk of snow fell away lochan-wards. Next, where the snow had been, an ice axe appeared, followed very quickly by another. Then a red helmet popped up; next, two bright eyes and a big bearded grin.
“Morning lads,” said the first ice climber of the day. Pointing with his eyes towards the depths below he continued, “now where did I put the ladder, lads!”
Other voices wafted through the mist; Lochnagar was a busy mountain today, despite the gloom.
We passed the cavernous entrance of the Black Spout gully, walked past a pile of stones which marked Cac Carn Mor (the big turd cairn, I kid you not) and, a few minutes later, climbed the granite plinth upon which stood the cairn marking the highest point on Lochnagar, Cac Carn Beag (the little turd cairn; I’m still not kidding!)
It was hard to find a space to sit, so many others were already enjoying their freezing picnics.
James was positively beaming!
“How do you feel?” I asked him.
“Great, never felt better,” he replied, and then (thankfully), got stuck into Valerie’s home made soup and sandwiches.
We needed the compass to keep us right when it was time to depart. Not quite whiteout conditions, we used the leap frog technique to see us down and away from the cliff top. For a while the going was tough, now and then we floundered in soft snow often waist deep.
But as we lost height so the snow cover diminished, eventually to show us the path that would lead us all the way down to the waterfall above Glas-allt Shiel. The sun had chased most of the cloud from the mountain by now, sadly too late for the views we’d hoped for at the summit.
Though day-end shadows were beginning to stretch, we found this spot one of such beauty we felt compelled to stop for some time, restfully soaking in the scene and taking photographs.
As we walked along the Loch-side track for those final few miles, I sensed a quietness creeping over James. But we were all tired now and with darkness falling we slackened our pace, there was, after all, no hurry.
Back at the car-park we looked back to the beginning of the day. The stony slopes of Cuidhe Crom and Little Pap stared back at us, argent in the failing light. As we stared, the last of the sun’s rays slanted over those western heights as if to bid farewell.
‘The Doughty James’ crawled into the back of Philip’s car, very tired now yet with every reason to be immensely proud. I wouldn’t blame him if he slept the whole journey home.
I tried my best to stay awake, for driver Philip’s sake. I couldn’t hack it!
A couple of hours later he was prodding me in the side, “Wake up Frank, we’re home!”