45 years on – the Big Walk some thoughts of a winter West – East .

The West – East of Scotland Skye to Mount Keen 1977.

Looking through my notes from what seems another era I looked at my preparations and worries to get ready for a big undertaking then our winter walk in October / November in 1977. These were days of simple gear, no mobiles GPS and the maps I am sure were still inch to the mile?

The idea of a walk across Scotland from West to East in late October/ November with hindsight was crazy, with no support a pretty serious undertaking.  My pal Jim Morning and myself had just completed a huge North to South Of Scotland Walk in 1976  in May and along with Paul Burns we had pushed the boat out in the way of hills done. We thought we were ready for an unsupported winter traverse. After speaking to a few people most said go in late March/April making use of the long daylight and reasonable conditions. I never for a moment thought we would plan it for November. This is usually a wild month with various problems. The daylight is very short and the weather can be very unsettled and on this trip it was wild nearly every day. This ended up as a story of “A walk nearly a walk to die for.”

At the time I was a member of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team a young party leader who had just completed his Munros in 1976. The Team was myself Heavy Whalley, Jim Morning (JM) and Terry Moore (TM) this was the first expedition in to attempt a Traverse of Scotland mountains West to East in November. Jim and Terry were just posted in from Stafford and Valley in North Wales , both were incredibly fit and extremely strong mountaineers . This walk was the based on an idea by the late John Hinde, one of the founder fathers of the Big Walks.

At the time we were cocky young lads invincible or so we thought and I think John had the last laugh. He said do you think you are that good try a walk in early winter that will test you, how right he was so right.

Some quotes “Few civilians had the time or the organisational support to try it [a long walk]”…  Hamish Brown. “… It is not a competitive game, any cutting corners leads to lack of safety…”  John Hinde.

Past Walks up to our attempt in November 1977

1962  RAF Kinloss  East – West MRT  Season – Autumn Munros 11 Team Shaw, McKerron, Ballantyne.

1964 –  RAF Kinloss – North – South Season – Summer  – Munros – 37  Team – Armstrong, Golton, Raven

1966 – RAF Kinloss – North – South – Season – Summer – Munros – 32 Team – Ward, Morrison, Bradshaw.

1966 –  RAF Kinloss – West – East – Summer – Munros 30 – Members – Hinde, Shaw.

1967  – RAF Kinloss  South  – North –  Summer – Munros – 26 – Members – Gilligan, Ward, Wagg

1968 – RAF Kinloss/ Valley – North – South – Autumn – Munros 48/58 – Members – Hinde, Blyth, McGowan, Tomlinson, (Rabbits, Millgate) 350 miles/30480 metres 19 days.

1970 – RAF Kinloss – North – South – Winter – Munros 20 – Members Roney, Tindley, Luff, Higgins. 300 miles/18288 metres. 20 days.

1970 – RAF Stafford – North – South – Autumn – Munros 44 – Brewer, Keane, Gillies, Penning, Goldsborough.282 miles/21236 metres, 22 days.

1976 – RAF Kinloss – Spring – North – South – Munros 62 – Whalley, Burns, Morning.334 miles/31185 metres, 21 days

1977 –  RAF MRT Team Leaders – Spring – 62 Munros – Shanks, Weatherill, Aldridge (USAF 345 miles/29628 metres.

There was some great names on these lists and we were already on it, lots would be watching us and We spent a lot of time planning it we used the RAF Kinloss  MRT briefing room floor and had access to all the maps we needed. 

The walk with we had done with Jim unsupported the year before South to North in May gave us an idea of what the effort needed. We laid  all the maps out on the big floor over several days and planned our route. Jim and Terry were chasing their Munros and they had big plans. I just looked at the vast distances and hills and thought how hard this would be. Jim and Terry were another level both had just arrived in Scotland from RAF Stafford and RAF Valley they were so keyed up to get these hills done.

I had just completed my Munros in 1976 which was a big event in these days and was really amazed at the routes they were planning. They also wanted to go unsupported and the only time we could get off work was late October and November. Alarm bells rang in my head, but we were at the invincible stage of our mountaineering life and we could do anything? The gear was so basic as the photos show, heavy breaches or “breeks” that when wet rubbed you raw all over and when frozen became like armour. They took ages to dry, we had bought Polar jumpers and polar trousers from Helly Hanson they were a lot of money at the time but they proved the best buy I have ever made. They dried quickly and were a life saver. The rest of the gear was so basic; we carried one pair the forecast for the week was awful. Winter was coming early.

The boys at the beginning of the walk fresh and clean with no clue what was to happen to us.

We spent a lot of time planning it we used the RAF Kinloss  MRT briefing room floor and had access to all the maps we needed.  The walk with we had done with Jim unsupported the year before South to North in May gave us an idea of what the effort needed. We laid  all the maps out on the big floor over several days and planned our route. Jim and Terry were chasing their Munros and they had big plans. I just looked at the vast distances and hills and thought how hard this would be. Jim and Terry were another level both had just arrived in Scotland from RAF Stafford and RAF Valley they were so keyed up to get these hills done. I had just completed my Munros in 1976 which was a big event in these days and was really amazed at the routes they were planning. They also wanted to go unsupported and the only time we could get off work was late October and November. Alarm bells rang in my head, but we were at the invincible stage of our mountaineering life and we could do anything? The gear was so basic as the photos show, heavy breaches or “breeks” that when wet rubbed you  raw all over and when frozen became like armour. They took ages to dry, we had bought Polar jumpers from Helly Hanson they were a lot of money at the time but they proved the best buy I have ever made. They dried quickly and were a life saver. The rest of the gear was so basic, we carried one pair of socks as spare and a simple change for each night that we tried to keep dry inside the sleeping bag.

We carried plastic bivouac bags and head-torches and spare batteries.  In addition we carried chocolate for the hill food, which I hardly ate 3/4 days food at a time, a stove, pans, cups, knife fork spoon, fuel, matches, sleeping bags and a mat. It was basic equipment and weighed in about 25 – 30 lbs. Crampons and ice axe were added as was a small rope for river crossings.    We carried little in the way of luxuries, RAF plimsoles were used for the road walking  and what a bonus they were the fore runner of trainers. I had a book,camera and film, small first aid kit and some sweets.  We shared the communal gear each taking our turn, we planned to stay in bothies or with keepers. When we left we still had no accommodation for 4 nights to get?

The daylight is very short in October/November at the best 6-7 Hours and the weather is notoriously poor. Jim and Terry were incredibly fit and competitive a different class on the hill from me. It was going to be a wild walk and in the end we went in late October and early November as this was the only time we could take our leave or holiday .

We learned so much from this walk, lessons never to be forgotten in a lifetime in the mountains. During the walk we had set up food caches and were completely unsupported and self-sufficient, we walked the whole way no lifts were taken.

At a few points we were running on empty and without a doubt we nearly died, the weather was awful and even the A9 was blocked for a time. There was no gates on the A9 then.

Our Team Leader Ray “Sunshine” Sefton tried to get us to stop as the big blizzards came in, we kept going.

We had planned/hoped to stay in bothies and with local gamekeepers but we had several nights where we lived rough and had to change our plans. We had food dumps in some places and got re – supplied twice on the route. Jim and Terry were as always chasing Munros and that added to the pressure, no matter the weather.

I had completed the year before so had to follow and was supposed to be an expert!  I did a diary every night in an exhausted state! On reading it now it shows how worried I was and how exhausted I felt most days.

We arrived in Skye on 28 October 1977 to start the traverse West to East of Scotland. It was wild weather in Skye, the ferry nearly did not run. We were dropped off by the team at Glen Brittle staying in McRaes Barn and enjoyed a meal of steaks over a primus one of the perks of being a Caterer. The forecast was awful winds of over 80 mph on the Skye ridge we had big bags and 4 days food. Jim still had plans for a few Munros and then drop down to the other side of the ridge, sounds easy but not in Skye. This was our first night was at the JMCS Hut on the dark side of the ridge at Loch Coruisk. Jim and Terry slept well I listened the wind and rain batter the barn roof and feared for tomorrow. 80 mph on the Skye ridge. I was really worried especially about getting off the other side of the ridge and down to Coruisk. Jim and Terry were in their own world and were a lot better on the rock than me, that wee rope I was carrying may be used a lot tomorrow.

I was to be honest full of worries, would I cope? Or let them down and this was only day 1. I phoned my Mum and told her not to worry from the old phone box in the rain. As always she said she would pray for me, we may need it.

We left early in the morning from Mac Rae’s barn in Glen Brittle it was pouring and windy. The owner Gideon saw us leave and wished us well.

We were off !

 

 

 

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Bothies, Enviroment, Equipment, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Munros, Views Mountaineering, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.