Once Upon a time

O.B Loch Eil Winter Skills Weekend
4-6th March 1988

It was 7.30 on a Saturday morning in O.B Loch Eil Campsite; my hands embraced a cup of hot, steaming tea. Lifting it to my lips, I anticipated the hot liquid running down the back of my throat, warming my inner core and re-charging the soul.

A bitter-sweet combination of a warming breakfast, an icy cold fresh morning and excitement of a glorious day’s climbing ahead on the Ben sends a shiver down the back, a tingle in the extremities and a tickle in the tum.

From the entrance of my tent, my eye is drawn to a single water droplet falling from a nearby bush, like the tears from mother nature’s eyes as the early morning sunshine turns frost to water. From sleep to waking up – it’s great to be alive!!

Anyway, no time to waste - Bill and I packed our day-sacks with ice-climbing gear, some spare clothes and enough delicious goodies to keep us going on a winter’s day.
Echoes of Geoffrey Winthrop Young and the poetry of the Scottish Highlands draws us like magnets to Scotland’s highest peak – Ben Nevis. The smell of Scotland’s amber nectar fills our beings as we step out of the car at the distillery car park and the beginning of the long but scenic walk up the Allt a’ Mhuilinn.
Once far enough up the track, we are confronted with the cliffs of the Ben – Great Bastions of impregnability. The summit hut is the battlement from where the Ben’s “claws” can pierce out like a bayonet and hold a man helpless in the teeth of a great storm. But today, this mighty lion within the Ben purred and rolled over, inviting all Scottish climbers to “rope up” and rub her tummy.
After a long haul, our boots crunched to a halt on the icy slopes of the Castle Coire.
Two tired men took the weight from their weary legs and rummaged in their rucksacks for some hot coffee and other culinary delights. I was about to lift a delicious red plum to lips when Bill said, “No, Try a dram of this wi’ me”
I couldn’t believe my luck as Bill produced a silver hip flask containing 30-year-old Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky!! I took a sip and swallowed it - slowly; it burned down my gullet and floated like dry ice, finally dispersing in my stomach. This celestial beverage cannot be equalled and is second to none, other than the kiss and cuddle of a braw Scottish lassie!!

The hip flask then found its way to the safety of Bill’s zipped inside pocket as we wandered up the lower slopes of the North Castle Gully. Conditions were perfect, I led the first pitch in absolute silence, apart from the sure thud as my ice axe was driven home and my crampon points sunk into the ice. My boots were slack and I could feel my heel rubbing with every step. The leather bit in like an ill-fitting pair of false teeth.
I then belayed and Bill was soon sitting by my side. We sat for a while, picking out climbers on huge ice routes. The haunting of “climb when ready” and “climbing” placed me back to the days of the pioneers who first put up these classic routes on the Ben. There is a wonderful sense of isolation in winter mountaineering and although there were many climbers on the Ben that day, I can still feel that I’m alone and that the mountain belongs to me.

A hop, skip and a jump saw us peering over the summit plateau. We sorted out gear and coiled our ropes in brilliant winter sunshine. A white glistening panorama danced around in front of us as we stood in composure, buffered by the greatness of a magnificent winters day.
We meandered along the summit plateau, meeting all sorts of people on the way to the Coire Na Ciste. A stop at the CIC hut for the last of our coffee and a look at the guidebook was in order before we tackled another route. I munched away on a chocolate bar and looked at Bill’s eyes, they seemed to bulge out and sway about, rather like a pair of silicone breast implants. I could see then he was being hypnotised by two climbers on the curtain. Then he said, “Fancy a go at the curtain?” I was apprehensive, Bill said, “I’ll lead” and I agreed.

This was it, a great climb or the “final frontier”. Bill led off up the easier first pitch to a small cave-type recess.
The second and third pitch would almost be as hard as trying to get Paul Carruthers to do a write up for a journal!
Bill swung out of the cave and tiptoed up an overhang. Bill Gray, the bearded ballerina, clung on to the ice like a fly, his legs and arms pulsating and shaking with fear as he placed an ice screw for protection.
Onwards and upwards he went to the next belay.

On my way up the overhang, the heads from both my Clog Vulture ice axes became detached from the stems and I fell backwards. Tumbling down at great speed to the Coire Na Ciste.

When I stopped, I felt someone shaking me. It was Bill. He said “We better get a move on”

I was still in my sleeping bag. I opened the tent and it was pouring outside, which means this whole story must have been a dream…………..

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