Back to Meall Dearg
Back to Sgorr nam Fiannaidh
Before the words "Do you fancy doing a bit of hillwalking?" fell from the mouth of my good friend Iain, my awareness of the existence of mountains in
Scotland was vague at best. I knew they were there of course, but their presence only registered with me at an almost subconscious level, much the same
as that I knew there were other planets in the solar system but my knowledge and appreciation of them never grew above a dull recognition that we both
shared some space within the universe. Countless times had I driven through areas like Arrochar, Crainlarich and Glencoe and never once had I stopped
to take in the breathtaking beauty of these rugged and majestic towering peaks. Ah but how the events of a single day were about to instantly change all
Ok I'm sorry but this is going to be a long one. So stop reading for a minute, make yourself a cup of tea and live pause Coronation Street on your
Sky Plus box so I don't get the blame for making you miss any of it. Now before I recount the events of the day in question, I feel it is important
to explain to you just how little I knew of hillwalking. I had never ever climbed a hill before in my life. Actually, that's not quite true. I can just about remember as a boy climbing a hill a few times with
my mum, dad, brother and sisters. I seem to remember it being called "nokin hair" - at least that's what it sounded like when you said it but
it was probably spelt something like "liudsagfkj ouhvdhibgdsago", you know what these Gaelic names are like. It seemed pretty high to me as a wee boy
but I don't know, it was probably no bigger than the plukes I used to get on my forehead when I was fifteen. But that's it. That was the only hill
I knew existed in Scotland until I was twenty-eight years old! I feel it is important to tell you this so that after reading this you don't think
to yourself "Donny Donny what a complete irresponsible idiot you are. What with you with your young family and all, you should have known better!".
My point is, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was led onto this mountain. I thought I was just going for a nice walk!!!
Anyway lets get to it. Iain asked me if I wanted to go to Glencoe to climb Buachaille Etive Mor. I said yeah sure why not. It was quite a lads day
out because Craig, Alan and Steve were coming too and it looked set to be a great laugh. I think it's important here to give a little bit of
information about these guys, these intrepid companions of mine.
Craig first. What can I say about this guy but that he's a mighty damn good friend
of mine. He was to become the ultimate hillwalking companion for me over the coming years and this day turned out to be just the first in a long
chain of adventures that we were to have on the mountains of Scotland. Craig was very new to this mountain business as well and only had a few munros
under his belt. I say he was "new" to it but, what he lacked in quantity of munros, he more than made up for in quality. Now, when people decide to
start climbing munros, they normally select from one of the many relatively simple and harmless ones that you can even take your young kids up. What they don't
do is select the one munro in all of Scotland that most munroists fear the most! They don't pick the only one that you absolutely have to
use a rope for! They absolutely don't opt for a rock climb up an almost vertical blade of rock which gives them hideous exposure on both
sides all the way up! No, cause that would be crazy! Oh I'm sorry did I forget to mention, Craig is crazy! Talk about throwing yourself into
the deep end. The mountain that I refer to is called the "Inaccessible Pinnacle". It's in the name! It's written right there! You're not supposed
to climb it! You'd think wouldn't you, that after such a soul shuddering and horrifically terrifying experience like that you'd instantly hang up
you're walking boots and take up darts or knitting or something. You wouldn't expect to become so obsessed with climbing more and more munros that
every time it was a sunny day and you had to go to work, the veins in your temples would pulsate furiously and your teeth would grind incessantly
with barely suppressed rage at the weather for having the audacity to be deliberately pleasant when it knew that you were up to your elbows in intestines
(Craig's a theatre nurse) and couldn't possibly venture into the mountains! That's him. My mate Craig. Do anything for you but kill you if you stand
between him and a munro.
Next, Iain. Or "The Big Man" as he is locally known. I know I know it's not a very original name but that's just what it is. There is an extremely
peculiar thing about this guy that I just can't figure out. Iain is one hundred and seven years old and has the body of an athlete in his twenties. You
have to see it to believe it! He also has a very strange affinity with sheep and enjoys chasing horses in fields in the middle of the night but that,
I'm afraid, is a story for another place and time, not for general broadcast on a website available to children and, well, normal humans. While Craig
and I were new to the munro game, Iain had a wealth of experience on the subject. He had, in particular, done a lot of climbing on the Cuillin mountains
of Skye. These are generally considered to be the mecca of Scottish mountains. Certainly they involve a great deal of exposed difficult scrambling and
even many areas where ropework is necessary. Why is it then (when clearly this man has vast amounts of experience in difficult terrain) that Iain does
not know his north, south, east and west from a soggy Digestive biscuit dunked in a mug of coffee? Iain has a very clear philosophy on climbing to the
top of mountains. See the hill, climb the hill. Keep going until you can't go any higher. Job done! I have no idea how this guy is still alive. The other
strange thing about him is his claim to be terrified of heights. Regular mountaineer with a particular interest in exposed ridge scrambling and an extreme
case of acrophobia. Mmmmmm. Not quite sure how that one works. So there we have him. Successful hardcore mountain climber with athlete's body, face of
a baboon (Craig's words not mine), very strange personal habits, a worrying inability to read a map and a puzzling claim of a fear of heights. Iain.
Did I mention he was strange? He is also, however, a really really nice guy and great fun to hang out with. All days climbing in the hills are much
fuller and richer when the big man is there. Top bloke.
Alan. What a guy. If ever you need someone to put a smile on your face or whenever intolerable exhaustion threatens to sap your very soul
and leave you stranded on the mountainside a catatonic wreck then Alan is there with his infectious laugh and a joke to drag you back from the brink
of despair. Never failing to see the funny side of life, Alan's presence as a companion on the mountain always brightens the spirit and doubles the
enjoyment of the day. He also appears to be fearless. He just seems not to sense the existence of fear around him, even in blatantly frightening
situations. Or maybe I'm wrong and he does sense it but reacts to it in the opposite way to everyone else. Part of me suspects that he gets some sick
enjoyment out of the presence of danger and just doesn't tell anyone about it in case it makes them feel inferior - an adrenaline junkie if you will.
One of the best things I love about climbing with Alan is that he always brings hot tomato soup (always Heinz) and pork pies (always with pickle)
and he always always shares. Many a time have I sheltered behind a crag with Alan to escape the freezing wind and feasted on the contents of his bag!
I remember being at the summit of Cruach Ardrain and complaining of being in agony with my what felt like near frostbitten fingers. Alan was the first
to whip off his own gloves and rub my hands until some normal feeling returned (not many mates would do that for you). The combination of that and his
tomato soup helped keep the worry of temperature amputation at bay. The very definition of good guy. I also don't think Alan would ever climb alone.
He is a social creature who only ventures into the mountains for the spirit of the adventure in the company of his friends. A very noble reason.
And finally, Steve. It would appear that this man has everything going for him. A great success in all aspects of his life, he samples only the very best of
all things. Happily married with 2.4 children, well, two anyway, great career (consultant anaesthetist), very physically fit with a great body, a very
talented musician (used to be in an extremely popular and successful band) and a thoroughly nice guy. So nice, in fact, that if you ever mention his
name to anyone who has ever met him you are always greeted with the same "aww Steve. What a nice guy!". Steve is also a connoisseur of Scottish mountain
climbing - he only samples the very best. This is in complete contrast to the attitude and approach that Craig and I take to the hills. We tend to go
for the incredibly greedy number crunching approach to munro bagging, constantly trying to climb as many as we can. To Steve, this seems like a completely
pointless exercise. He would much rather climb the same mountain several times if he knows that it possesses the qualities that would satisfy his needs.
He seems to have a phobia of just walking - he has this tendency of strapping on crampons and swinging his ice axe on incredibly steep snow slopes that
nobody else in his company wants to go anywhere near! He has also several times been a great psychological support to me on the mountains - in particular
on this very adventure that I'm about to narrate. His level-headed, calm, confident and sensible attitude on the hill sets a great example for me and
has helped me through several difficult climbing encounters. Great guy. Valuable asset on the hill.
Alright alright I'm finally going to get on with the story (cue the sigh of relief and the "about freakin' time!"). You will remember (ages ago, I know)
that I said that Iain asked me if I wanted to climb the Buachaille Etive Mor. No this was not a typing mistake on my part, he actually did. We drove up
to Glencoe that day with the intention of climbing that most famous of Scottish peaks. Now let me make this clear, the Buachaille would have been a far
far easier option than what we did that day - the two climbs are incomparable. Driving up, I even had misgivings about climbing the Buachaille since the
rain was bouncing off the road and we couldn't even see the mountain the cloud base was so low. This being my first ever climb, I could not
understand how it would be possible to climb a mountain if you couldn't even see it while standing right in front of it! While my thoughts centred upon
whether or not we would be able to climb anything at all, Iain and Steve were formulating a plan. When we arrived in Glencoe Iain suggested
climbing the first peak, Am Bodach (not a munro, but lies just east of the munro Meall Dearg), on the eastern edge of the Aonach Eagach and if the weather miraculously cleared then we'd continue on to the traverse of the
ridge itself (two munros, Meall Dearg and Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, are situated three kilometres apart on the north side of Glencoe and are joined together
by the Aonach Eagach Ridge or "Notched Ridge"). This suggestion instilled no fear whatsoever in me. Not because I'm brave or really keen on traversing
exposed ridges but because I had absolutely no idea about what a ridge or a mountain was. I merely had vague ideas about steep grassy slopes,
that was all. Although he denies it to this day, I am absolutely convinced that the big man had all this planned out before the start. I'm convinced
that he never had any intention of climbing the Buachaille that day and never had any intention of only climbing Am Bodach. This guy is crazy and
Am Bodach it was then. As we got ready to begin, the cloud base was still very low and it was raining miserably. I wrapped up well with my t-shirt,
fleece, jacket, hat and gloves. I was mildly excited as we began our first uphill steps and was enjoying the new and interesting experience. This
enjoyment lasted approximately five minutes when I had to stop. I had not expected this; nobody had warned me about this! I was completely exhausted,
my heart was hammering against my chest and I felt very very sick. Donning all those clothes at the start had been a big mistake. I was boiling hot and
had to take off everything but my trousers and T-shirt. If I felt like this after five minutes how on earth was I supposed to climb one of Scotland's
highest mountains?! I felt horribly unfit and ashamed with myself while the guys patiently waited for me to start feeling like a human again. Somehow,
I don't know how, but somehow, I managed to drag myself up that peak, but not without many many stops for water and to catch my breath. Into the cloud
we went - a very surreal experience for me - and stood at last on the top of my first mountain! I was absolutely delighted! Exhausted but delighted. We
couldn't see a thing so we obviously couldn't continue on to traverse the "best and most exhilarating ridge on mainland Britain" (as quoted by several
mountain guide books), could we? I was certainly ready to head back down to the comforts of the car but it appeared that the other guys had different
ideas. I felt a sharp pang of anxiety when I suddenly realised that I was the only one who didn't fancy continuing on to the ridge. I wasn't terrified
you understand, because I still had no idea what I was up against, I just didn't think I was fit enough to complete the traverse. My pride got the better
of me and I didn't voice my concerns about my own ability, I was going to traverse the Aonach Eagach Ridge!
So we headed west from Am Bodach and all too soon encountered the first difficult part of the ridge. A near vertical drop of about twenty metres made me
stop and think "Wait a minute this can't be right. We must have come the wrong way". I saw immediately that this was not the case when Iain plunged down
out of sight and with dread crawling in the pit of my stomach I realised that this did not match the preconceived ideas I had about hillwalking. Suddenly
I was having to gently lower myself off ledges, twist and turn my body awkwardly to get to the next foot or handhold and shout hysterically at my friends
ahead of me, demanding they tell me where to put my feet. Because you had to face inwards to get off most ledges, you had no idea where the next foothold
was and had to rely on the others to tell you.
Once at the bottom of this drop, we found ourselves on a path of sorts which was maybe four feet wide
with extremely steep, certain death slopes on either side. I suddenly and very acutely realised just what exactly a ridge was and I decided there and
then, I didn't like it very much! Reluctantly, I followed on with Steve behind me who could smell my fear and who constantly offered reassurances that
I would not, in fact, die on this ridge. On we went, over a series of jagged lumps and bumps on the ridge which remained very narrow throughout. A serious
head for heights was required here which I, unfortunately, was sorely lacking. At one point we caught up with the rest of the group who had stopped to
wait for us. As we approached, it became immediately obvious why they had stopped. Towering high behind and above them was a dark, vertical, evil looking
rocky stack which looked impossibly high (it looked about sixty feet but I don't really have a clue how high it was). I remember the maniacal grin on
Iain's face as he said "this is the stuff!" with gusto. I thought it was all a sick sick joke and that at any point someone was about to say "only joking
Donny the path's round this way". I have since learned that this section is known as the "chimney". But this was no ho ho ho santa chimney. In fact, there
was nothing funny about it at all. I would have preferred it to be an actual chimney - at least then you would have protection behind you if you lost your
grip! I had no idea how I was going to do this and survive without the aid of a rope. But somehow, after much racing of heart, straining of muscles
and peeing of pants, we all managed safely to the top. I was genuinely surprised to be alive! I have since read sections of guidebooks describing this
route which state that some climbing parties may benefit from a rope at certain points on this ridge. If I'd read that before I'd agreed to do this, I
would have insisted on bringing a rope. Actually, that's not true. If I'd read that, I would have stayed in my bed!
From then it was on and on, always narrow, always scary.
To give you an idea of how difficult I found the traverse, imagine this - for the average person
to walk three kilometres would take around forty minutes or so. The Aonach Eagach Ridge is three kilometres long and took us six hours to walk!
Most of this time probably came from the fact that I traversed most of the ridge on my hands and knees or my bum because many times I was too scared to
even stand up! The ridge seemed to get more and more difficult the further we progressed and every time we scrambled up a sharp pinnacle and got to the
top, directly ahead through the mist would be a much more terrifying and daunting stack to scale. The number of times I must have screamed "Ahh I'm
going to die!" must have either amused or irritated Steve but whose perpetual patience and reassuring words were a constant comfort for the whole traverse.
For most of the time, I couldn't even tell whether any of the others were enjoying themselves or scared out of their wits like me. Many times though I
suspected it was the former which didn't help me feel any better about myself. The only person that day that I felt was maybe sharing at least some of
my emotions was Craig. One time, when blindly attempting to lower himself backwards down one of the million ledges he screamed "Come On!" in
frustration and with such ferocity that I suddenly knew I wasn't the only one experiencing tension and fear. Was it wrong that I felt comfort in another
man's negative emotions? Probably but I couldn't help it - I didn't feel so much like a freak anymore. I had someone to share my misery with. And I really
did feel miserably all the way across. I didn't enjoy a single minute on the Aonach Eagach Ridge. I was constantly battling with my own morbid emotions
and I was completely convinced that one of us at some point was going to get killed or at the very least maimed.
Then came the low point of the day. Something happened which left me consumed with an utter conviction that something very bad was about to happen.
In every book which speaks of the Aonach Eagach Ridge, there is always the same strongly stressed point. "Never be tempted to stray from the crest of
the ridge - there are no safe alternatives." Yet, when reaching what seemed to be an impassable area of rock, we strayed from the crest.
Suddenly we found ourselves clinging onto the side of the ridge with terrible exposure at our backs, our hands and feet desperately trying to find decent
holds with reassuring grips. As always, Iain led the way. Now, you'll recall that earlier I mentioned once or twice that my friend Iain was Crazy? Yes?
Well, at this point on the ridge he proved that beyond any shadow of a doubt. Now I didn't actually see what he did because I was way too busy being
completely petrified and trying to stop myself from falling to my death but Craig did. And Craig recounts a tale of a man who ran across an almost
vertical wall of grass and rock, with nothing below him but certain death sheer slopes that dropped away at least a thousand feet. I will not recount
the list of expletives that fell from the lips of Craig but I can tell you that he was absolutely horrified by what he had just witnessed. I don't know
what horrified him more, what he had seen or that he was next in line to repeat the suicidal action that Iain (the acrophobe, may I remind you) had just performed. At this point I looked
up at Alan who was shaking his head gravely and saying "This doesn't look good does it?". At that point any lingering hopes that we might be ok
disintegrated from my mind. As I mentioned earlier, Alan is fearless. Many times on the traverse I spotted him with a grin on his face and I suspect
that the more exposed and tightrope like the ridge was, the more he was enjoying himself. So for him to be humourless and to utter a statement like that
was horrific. Craig staunchly refused to even think about repeating what Iain just did and there were no alternatives on that side of the ridge. The
two most experienced members of the group, Steve and Iain, then decided to go back up onto the crest of the ridge to try to find a way across. When they
disappeared, I was left to my own morbid thoughts. Clinging to the side of the ridge, I thought of my family. I was wrestling with emotions that were
gradually convincing me that there was a substantial possibility that I would never see my wife and child again. That was almost too hard to bear and I
realised that I absolutely had to get off this ridge, and quickly. The way I saw it I had three options: 1) go back 2) continue forward or 3) try to get
a hold of air rescue and have the helicopter pluck me from the ridge. The go back option was out because we had probably come more than half way and it
would be even more difficult to retrace our steps. The idea of continuing forward made me feel sick because all that had accomplished so far was to leave
me in a state of blind panic. The helicopter idea sounded most appealing but I didn't think I could bear to just sit on that ridge waiting for however
long it took for it to get to me. As I was pondering these options Steve shouts down from above on the ridge that he's found a way across. So we all start
to slowly make our way back up onto the crest. As always, I was last to approach the top and Craig was directly above me. He looked down at me and said
"Whatever you do, when you get up here, don't look down the other side!". Although this was well intentioned advice, it probably wasn't the best thing to
say to me. What happens when someone serves you a meal and says "Don't touch that plate, it's hot"? Of course I looked, but instantly wished I'd heeded
Craig's warning. When I peered over the top of the ridge and looked down the other side I found myself staring into a yawning abyss of ridiculously steep
slopes and clinging mist. My heart sank for the seventh hundred time that day. How was I going to get up without falling off the other side? I had a look
at the wall that I was clinging to and saw one foothold just about where my left thigh was. As I stepped up to get it, a sudden cramp tore through my left
hamstring! I couldn't believe it. There I was, clinging to the side of the ridge and shaking my leg about like a lunatic trying to get rid of the cramp.
While I was struggling with this, someone out of sight shouted "Donny! Are you alright!". At that, I instantly began to feel enormously sorry for myself
and through a tear choked voice returned "No I'm not actually!". But self pity wasn't going to save me so I somehow struggled up onto the ridge and
eventually joined the others, once again amazed that we were all alive and in one piece.
With both Iain and Steve assuring us that "I think that was the last hard bit", we moved on. Now this was a special technique which I have since learned
myself - the ability to convince people that the worst is almost over and that "You're nearly there". This technique generates a bit of mistrust and a
lot of "I thought you said..." but at least it gets the job done!
Many times that day, when I thought the worst must surely be over, another even more frightening obstacle would present itself to us. As we moved along
we reached a section of the ridge that was impossibly narrow. When people ask me how narrow the Aonach Eagach is, I have to answer that at some points
it's too narrow to walk on and that you have to straddle it! Below is a picture of what I mean. What you can't see in the picture is the sheer eternal
drops on either side!
Eventually we reached what I now know are called the "Crazy Pinnacles". Thank goodness I didn't know they were called that when I was there because I
would definitely have burst into tears! These presented us with more of the same kind of work we had encountered on the rest of the ridge only on a larger
scale. Vertical scrambling on sometimes outward facing slabs took us to the hideously exposed tips of these beasts. And to add insult to injury, it had
started to rain a bit, making the rocks slippy which was the last thing I wanted because there is a very big difference between scrambling on dry and
wet rock. But climbing upwards was never the hardest part; it was coming down these stacks that always presented the biggest challenge. I remember Alan
at one point as he was squeezing his way down a rocky step with his back to the rock saying "Whoa! My bag nearly pushed me off there!"
and taking his rucksack off and throwing it down to Iain. Needless to say, my bag was off my back and thrown down to Alan before I even
started descending after seeing that! You also always have to rely on the person who descended before you to tell you where to put your feet. "Ah but
what about the person who descends first" I hear you ask. Look, how many times do I have to tell you, Iain is crazy! If he had been there by himself,
I'm sure he would have ran the whole thing!
Eventually, and through much physical and emotional turmoil, we reached the top of Stob Coire Leith which marks the end of the serious difficulties. When
I realised for certain that there was no more scrambling or difficult sections the relief and surprise I felt were indescribable. I was surprised because,
contrary to my ongoing conviction that someone was going to die that day, nobody did. And everyone came through unscathed. I couldn't believe it!
Walking from here to our second munro of the day, Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, I was equally surprised to find I was actually enjoying myself, something I earlier
believed I would never to again. I remember talking excitedly to Craig on the way up that second munro, but I can't remember what about. Probably utter
gibberish that didn't make any sense but that didn't matter, I was just so delighted to be alive! The weather had cleared a bit by the time we reached
Sgorr nam Fiannaidh and the views from the top were incredible.
From here I remember looking back the way we had come at the Aonach Eagach and thinking
just how dark and menacing it looked. It looked as if it were furious with us for having trespassed on it's rock and bitter that it had not claimed us.
I swear I believe that if that ridge could have spoken, it would have said "You escaped me today, but I'll get you next time!" (obviously in a deep and
menacing voice). However, I know for a fact that it will never get me because I know I'll never be back!
The initial descent from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh was a steep scree slope which I descended gingerly on my bum. The others, however, and in particular Steve
and Iain, literally skied down the scree at astonishing speed and were probably back at the car in not much more than an hour! I, however, took well over
two hours to get down, partly because I was inexperienced and over cautious and partly because every muscle in my legs were about to go into spasm. On the
way down, surprised to find I had reception on my phone, I called home. I was caught by surprise when I heard Suzanne's voice and my own voice was choked
with emotion as I attempted to tell her some events of the day. This was one phone call I was earlier convinced I would never make.
When at long long last I stepped onto solid ground on the A82 and dragged my feet towards the car to meet the others, I thought to myself that this was
one of three days in my life where I had felt such enormous surges of emotion. The others were (obviously) my wedding day and the birth of my son, Jake.
Thankfully only one of these were pitted with such dreadful negative emotions that I never again wish to repeat!
Although in many ways this was one of the worst days of my life, a large part of me is very glad I did it. To come face to face with your own mortality
like that makes you appreciate the small things in life. And the heat in the car and comfort of the seat under my bum were no exceptions to that as we
drove home. Not a day I'm likely to forget any time soon.