The last wolf in Scotland was shot in the 18th century. Or at least that's what I'd always been led to believe..... until I was obliged to share a small icy ledge with one, half-way up Ben Lui's Central Gully. OK, the wolf was probably only a large, hungry dog but, 1000 feet above the ground without a belay (the joys of moving together remain a mystery to me), I was feeling a little tired and emotional and wasn't prepared to take any risks. Anyway, if it was a dog, what the hell was it doing halfway up an ice-climb?
I live with a trainee mountain guide. Sometimes, I arrive home from work and Phil has dressed a rucksack up in my harness and woolly hat and I catch him rescuing the “victim” from a crevasse half-way up the stairs in our Edinburgh flat. The mountain guide thing does have some perks - so far, I've been up nine Munros without actually going hill-walking! Other mountain related activities include uphill skiing (hmmm), ice-climbing (hmmm) or scrambling (still hmmm). Oh for an easy angled broad grassy ridge,...maybe with a lunch stop where I don't have to hang off a peg, or where going for a pee doesn't involve taking my life in my hands!
Today's itinerary was new but not untypical – cycle uphill with my ice-climbing gear for eight miles - something they forgot to teach me in my cycling proficiency test - hide the bikes in a peat bog, then swap pedals for crampons and climb Ben Lui's Central Gully. After an hour of steady uphill on our bikes (am I the only one who thinks that an hour of uphill cycling can never rightly be described as “steady”?), and an hour of considerably less steady uphill bog-trotting, we donned crampons and headed 'steadily' upwards again. I'm sure Munros are bigger than the Alps or Andes on days like these. Phil was trying to convince me that the Central Gully wouldn't be quite as steep as it looked from head-on, but it felt pretty darned vertical once I was in it.
My usual ploy for a quick sneaky rest is the traditional “stop to admire the view” technique but this was of limited benefit when admiring the view simply reminded me exactly how far up an exposed slope we actually were. Phil's cheery comments about how far people had fallen down this slope and actually survived were not entirely helpful either. The 'uniformly steep approach slopes' as described in the guidebook seemed to be getting uniformly steeper and icier and I decided that just reaching a large snowy ledge at the bottom of the route would be an achievement in itself and a perfectly satisfactory highpoint for the day. We were in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the solitude and rugged wilderness. Surely enough reward in itself? Thats when I saw the dog.
It was perched on a sloping platform of snow about 50 metres across to our left. Apparently my words were “Well if I don't fall to my death, I'm going to get eaten by that wolf” (add some swearing for the full effect). I blame the altitude. Phil was annoyingly less freaked out than I was, and apparently enjoying the canine theme so much that he attached me to a leash of my own (“belay” he assures me is the normal term), and soloed off to investigate. As I watched him teetering across steep ground on his front points towards the dog, I wondered how I would self-rescue if both dog and rescuer took a downwards plunge. I did my best to show moral support by suggesting Phil be prepared to stun the dog with his ice-axe if it looked aggressive. Phil later recounted a Mick Tighe story about how to deal with hysterical victims with just dulcet tones...and a large ice-axe.
After a few minutes he emerged with a large, hairy and dangerously hungry-looking Alsatian hanging off the back of his harness. The dog showed about as much enthusiasm for short roping as I do, but our bond was a little compromised when the starving beast devoured our ham sandwiches (carefully spitting out the cucumber), flap-jacks and scotch eggs. Phil refused to hand over the emergency wine gums.
“At least we get to go down now,” I suggested. Wishful thinking. “That dog must have been here for days – look how skinny it is.”
Phil was clearly not convinced, and did his best to explain how the orientation of a dog's claws means it's good at going uphill on ice but lousy downhill. I think he just wanted to finish the route. He had a good look around just in case there was a human victim attached to our canine discovery but no. How the dog had arrived on its ledge was a complete mystery – no footprints, no avalanche debris, no sign of an owner.
And so I found myself climbing once more, now on a rope of three. I have to admit, conditions did seem pretty good - apparently sun, solid snow and no wind are not typical Scottish conditions - and I even summoned courage to admire the view on a couple of the less steep bits! Twenty minutes later, calves burning from 600 ft of front pointing up crisp neve, we hauled ourselves over the cornice onto the sun-drenched summit. With crystal clear skies we could see from the Mull of Kintyre to the North-West Highlands.
Realising that our new four-legged friend was neither going to devour me nor pull me off the mountainside, I grew fond of her – and the attachment seemed mutual as she clung closely to our sides. I wanted to give her a name but Phil sensibly suggested we shouldn't get too close until we'd done our utmost to track down its owner. We ran and jumped down the East Ridge in soft spring snow and traversed back round to the end of the track where we picked up our bikes. The dog was struggling to keep up. Phil tried to carry her under one arm, but without much success as he couldn't brake, so we limped on slowly together on foot. Every now and then the dog simply stopped, turned back to look at the mountain, and howled longingly into the wilderness. A primeval cry of pain and anguish to a lost friend still on the mountain? Perhaps she knew something we didn't and we feared the worst. A sense of unease descended on all three of us.
Five miles from the car, we stopped at Cononish Farm in case the farmer knew about the dog. The farm was deserted, but we noticed a tattered poster pinned to a fence post: “Lost dog, 23 March on Ben Lui – 9 year old Belgian Shepherd called Jude.”
“12 days ago! No wonder she's so weak!"
A couple of hours later, we handed back one very tired dog to one very relieved owner outside the supermarket in Callander. They'd been avalanched and lost each other in a whiteout.
We're off to the hills again this weekend. The snow's gone, the hills look grassy and rounded, but Phil's just bought me a pair of fell-running shoes...