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It was, I think, 1982 and I'd climbed all summer with Dai. Sometimes I'd even managed to retrieve most of his runners. The obvious and embarrassing gulf in our technical abilities was handsomely compensated by our shared enthusiasm for beer and self-inflicted misfortune. I'd spent summer weekends falling off the end of maladjusted ab ropes in Wen Zawn, suffered double vision and starvation during a protracted traverse of Lord of the Rings on Scafell, quaked in terror as all his runners failed on Blitzkrieg. In addition to this I'd been subjected to the unwanted attentions of a large seal during a swim out of a Pembrokeshire zawn (the tide, he'd insisted, was definitely going out...) and terrorised by his dog.
We were fit though, honed by a couple of long stays up at Hollow Stones, lugging up food, camping gear, climbing gear, forty eight cans of Kestrel lager and a large quantity of Pedigree Chum. This last item was for the dog who refused to carry it in his customised panniers. The dog, you see, was smarter than us.
Weeknight evenings passed belaying in clouds of midges, amidst the rusting prams that decorated various holes in the Lancastrian earth deemed too foul to be used as landfill. But now the nights were dark. And it was cold.
It was during one of our seven times weekly pub meets that he leaned across the table and sparked up another of my Embassy Regals.
“Do you...” his pinprick pupils pinning me like a butterfly, “fancy doing something this weekend?”
I could see what was happening but was powerless to stop it. He looked at me as though I was stupid. Which I patently was. However I had an ace up my sleeve. I didn't have any winter gear. As usual though, he'd been looking up my sleeve when I wasn't. He had plenty of spare kit he was willing to let me hire and all I had to do was borrow some boots and skive off work early on Friday. The Dai was thus cast and I was returning from the bar with pints before I remembered whose round it was.
And so it came to pass that a couple of days later had us fish-tailing up a snowy A74 and crawling through the Glasgow rush hour, en route for The Ben. Some hours earlier had found me arriving at his house and on production of five English pounds had been presented with my “Winter Beginners Kit”. This seemed, even to my untrained eye, a trifle meagre, consisting of:
1 pair of canvas gaiters, complete with state of the art denim patches;
1 pair of rigid mountaineering boots (found behind lawnmower in garden shed);
I also had a prototype sleeping bag made as an experiment by Dai. He'd sold it to me “cut-price, as you're a mate”, but had somehow neglected to remove the pins that held it together prior to stitching. It was like sleeping in the Iron Lady of Nuremberg.
I think it was around Dumbarton that I first heard him giggle. This was always a very bad sign. It probably didn't register initially, stupefied as I was by the endless tape loop of the Moody Blues and Eagles. My musical tastes were deemed far too “modern” for his discerning ear. I still weep when I accidentally hear Supertramp. Another giggle was followed by him jabbing a thumb towards the rear window. I swivelled in my seat, ripping my jeans on a renegade spring. We were being followed by a hearse. Hah hah and how we laughed. The joke was becoming decidedly threadbare as we approached Crianlarich, still shadowed by the ominous vehicle. It finally disappeared somewhere around Glen Coe and we relaxed and rubbed our hands in anticipation of a pint in the Fort.
A swift pint soon stretched into three or four and by then Dai was embroiled in conversation with an auld acquaintance from Glasgow, who in return for a lift up the road offered to show us a secret doss in the woods at the foot of the Allt a' Mhuillin. The deal was sealed with another pint (at least) and we stumbled out into the bitter night just in time to see the hearse cruise past, black and silent as a shark.
We slewed to a halt in the golf club car park and staggered about pulling on warm clothing, or in my case, just clothing. Lumpen sacks were shouldered and we lurched across the frosted fairways in pursuit of our guide, whose nimbus of torchlight was disappearing rapidly into the night. I fell into ditches and got snagged on fences. I crashed through thorny bushes and sank into stinking, bottomless bogs. My companions seemed to suffer none of these indignities, both apparently possessing a directional sixth sense; or perhaps just head-torches that were functional. After an interminable age of this torture the twin pools of light that bobbed so far ahead finally stopped. I staggered along and collapsed outside what appeared to be a derelict hen-house. There came from within the comforting roar of a stove and I crawled through the tiny door, my rucksack jamming spitefully as a final insult. Exhausted, I laid out my sleeping bag on the wooden floor, crawled inside and fell into an intermittent swoon, punctuated by the pins of Dai's defective needlework.
The reply - Orion Direct - meant nothing so I just shrugged and sank weakly back into the snow. Dai rooted around in his sack and began to gear up. I pulled on my harness over my saturated clothing and untied the crampons from my rucksack lid.
“What happens with these?” The retching had subsided for the moment. A quick demonstration from my mentor and as my frozen fingers struggled with the frayed leather straps, Dai began to disappear upwards into the murk. I tried to watch what was happening in an attempt to gain some pointers on technique but my eyes were watering with the cold and wind and my woolly hat was obscuring my vision, pushed down by the stupid helmet.
The ropes began tugging at my harness. I swung my first tool back as far as I could and with a blow worthy of Thor himself, buried it in the ice. I pulled tentatively on it. It seemed to hold so I repeated the action with the other. I booted in my front points with penalty kicks and began to leave the ground. I enjoyed the first fifty feet, but all of a sudden my right crampon didn't appear to be biting. I glanced down. It was hanging uselessly by a single strap. Goaded by fear I thrashed upwards in a series of hops until the left crampon, too, came adrift. Fortunately I had nearly reached the stance and a couple of one arm pull-ups, feet dragging uselessly behind saw me, utterly wasted, at the belay. A quick inspection of the errant crampons revealed the problem. My rigid mountaineering boots had only been rigid through age and neglect. Softened by the approach march, they had become rather bendy and not at all suitable for the abuse to which they were now being subjected. Dai cursed and railed. If there had been any sun he would have called me all the names under it. Despite a noticeable increase in the wind as it moaned through the gullies and the presence of a few fat threatening flakes of snow, Dai pronounced perfect conditions and going down was out of the question. Hell, what did I know?
We continued in this manner for a couple more pitches, him heading off into the intensifying gloom, me humping and bumping behind, crampons popping off at regular intervals. I was bitterly cold and demoralised. At every stance we tried to fathom a solution but all failed. We reached the Basin, where the lying toerag cheerfully assured me that we were “nearly there”. The weather had closed in now and small spindrift avalanches constantly washed down my neck. I was completely spent. Our progress had been shockingly slow and it was now getting dark. My clothing was frozen solid and my teeth wouldn't stop chattering through a combination of cold and terror. We struggled upwards as the poor excuse for daylight finally faded. It began to snow harder. Once again the rope tugged at my harness and above the shrieking of the wind I imagined I heard the call to climb. I battered up into the dark, the useless head torch barely illuminating the icy wall. It seemed to get steeper. The ropes pulled diagonally and my crampon skewed off again. I desperately tried to cut steps but my arms were shot and then I knew I was going to die. This realization came as a relief and as my other crampon gave up the ghost, one of my axes ripped and I barndoored outwards. Then I was off.
Looking down Orion Direct (V,5), Orion Face, Ben Nevis
© Colin Wells
I penduled through the pitch dark, headtorch a feeble strobe. When I stopped it seemed I was rather unexpectedly alive. I reasoned that angels probably wouldn't be using the language that rained down from above. I could make out his headtorch not far above and by a combination of pulling on the ropes and adrenalin, I landed, deranged, on the stance. Dai was still screaming at me and the reasons for this soon became apparent. Having run out all the rope, he couldn't find a belay and so had cut a couple of bucket steps in the snow and tied onto his axes. The ropes were too frozen to go through the belay plate and he'd been forced to use a waist belay. When I'd fallen he'd been dragged from his stance, the rope had ripped from behind his back and out of his hands. Then he'd turned upside down. The rope had jammed between his back and rucksack, and there we hung off two wobbly axes. I was now moaning more than the wind. Once we'd righted ourselves, Dai produced a couple of frozen Mars Bars. He reluctantly offered me one.
“I was saving these for an emergency” he said “but I suppose we could have them now instead”. We rested and shivered in the dark awhile.
Dai gathered himself and set off again, sending down shards of bone hard ice. I fed out the ropes and stared into an absolute nothing. There came a curse from above and a light came plummeting towards me, bouncing off the wall then arcing away into the void. More terrible cursing from above. His head torch had come off. A colourful request to shine some light in his direction, so I looked up and was smacked square in the face by a fist of ice. He screamed for more light and then suddenly a whoop of delight and the ropes began to run out more quickly. We crawled onto the plateau, raked by an evil wind. Some stars had started to appear and I imagined that I could see his ice-encrusted face split in a wide grin. We staggered off down, me more dead than alive. Stumbling, tripping, sinking to my knees, at one stage I began hallucinating and thought I was in the Lakes. Down and down until finally the snow turned to bog and we were crashing through the trees looking for the doss and I sprawled headlong a final time outside the door. I lay in my sleeping bag, too shattered to sleep, too hungry to eat while Dai ranted on about what a fantastic day we'd had, if “a little poky at times.” We'd been on the hill seventeen hours.
Around twenty years later I met Dai in Glasgow. Expeditions and epics across Trango and Gasherbrum IV, plus storm-lashed new routes in Alaska hadn't dimmed his enthusiasm.
He finished his pint and indicated it was my round.
“Do you know,” he said, “that was the most frightened I've ever been.”
And stupidly, I felt almost proud.