After being accepted by the team I was so lucky to get a long trip to Skye. In these days there was no bridge and it was a ferry it was a long 4-5 hour journey. By now I was really interested in the Munros and heard that at this time there were just over 100 folk had completed them all. Three team members were on that list and they were team legends. It was explained that if you completed the Munros you knew Scotland fairly well and would be a fairly component mountaineer. I set this as my objective and decided to go after them every weekend possible, I purchased a Munros book and began keeping a list of hills completed and a diary. On the few weekends off I was off with my mate Tom to climb or walk. We had some eventful weekends; with no transport it made life hard.
One of our first was off to climb the Glendessary Munros and the bus dropped us at the monument at Spean Bridge where we hoped to hitch, no chance and we walked all the way to Glendessary. This was an area of great memories to me as my father had been a student missionary for the area in the early 1930’s; he carried out services in this remote area aided by the local Head Keeper Mr Cameron. Those took in big hill days after the church service and my Dad as very fit runner was always speaking of this great man who escorted him into these remote areas.
As we approached the Glen after what seemed a 20 mile walk with huge bags, we were met by the local keeper. He told us that they were stalking and it would be inadvisable to go on the hill for the next few days. We were told not to go on the hill, we were devastated and camped for the night and headed back walking the same way back in the morning with no lifts!
No mountains that weekend just sore feet. Nowadays things are different and freedom of access is a great piece of legislation but we must work with those who work the land to make sure that all parties involved respect each other. Other weekends were great and I found I was hardly at home, we managed a few weekend at Aberfeldy and did some great days getting lots of Munros in Tom my friends Dad dropping us off in the early hours and us hitching back.
This was a great time to learn as we were on our own and learning the hard way. It was a great apprenticeship for both of us and we were getting some great hill days in. In the end the only way you learn for yourself is in the end to out and practice the skills you have learned for real. The mountains take no prisoners.
The team were given and extended Easter as a thank you for their efforts after the Cairngorm disaster were acknowledged. Four Team members were given awards for the efforts including the Team Leader George Bruce. They never spoke about what happened until many years later as this was the way in these days but some of the team were affected by this for many years. I cannot imagine what it would be like dealing with the deaths of 5 children in the hills. It was decided to go to Skye which is the Mecca for mountaineers in the UK. These are mountains of Alpine proportions which with snow are incredibly difficult.
A ten day’s training break in Skye with the team was hard to get work to give me time off. I worked for 14 days solid over two weekends and built up the time and was allowed to go. The team stayed at McRae’s barn in Glenbrittle near the base of the Skye ridge, we cooked in the farm garage amongst all the machinery and nowadays it would be and Food and Health & Safety nightmare. To me it was heaven, the owner was a mountaineering legend Mr McRae he had helped mountaineers for many years in the Cullin.
The team had been a huge part of rescues over many years and had helped the local team on many occasions over the years. I had heard the stories of the rescues over the years on Skye and never to underestimate it. The local people new the team well and we were always welcomed, we knew many of the characters, from the ferry men to the local postman.
My first day out in Skye was with John Hinde another ex-team leader who had just come back from Mount Mc Kinley in Alaska. John was an incredible man and outstanding mountaineer, he was a fount of all knowledge on the mountains and it was a great privileged to go on the hill with him. He was suffering from frostbite in his feet and hands after this expedition. He took me and another new team member Tom Mac Donald, who was back from his trial with the team. Tom was very fit and had climbed before, he knew so much about the hills and after this day we became lifelong friends. John had chosen the last mountain on the ridge to climb as our first hill as we were “Skye virgins”. On Skye most of the mountains start from sea -level and are incredibly rough rock Gabbro which is so rough it really sorts out your hands at the end of a day’s climbing. The ridge was covered in snow which would make this a serious day on Sgurr Na Gillian appropriately translated as “the Peak of the Young Men”. We were to age on that day. It snowed heavily and John decided that we would go up the West ridge instead of Pinnacle Ridge which was a climb and fairly serious in winter. It all went well; the scramble up the corrie in fairly deep snow was tricky in the mist. John seemed to know where he was at all times hardly looking at the map; he told us stories all the way up to the base of a chimney. From here we scrambled up the chimney which I found desperate and was glad that John roped us up. As I had not climbed much my rope work and knots were slow and I was soon told by John to get a grip as this was a serious climb. I vowed to ensure that I knew what I was doing next time out! John had to clear most of the holds all the way up, the snow was wet and loose and his hands were very cold even though he changed his gloves three times. His feet were by now frozen and John even changed his socks on the ridge. There was no shelter on what was now serious storm, John offered us to go back but we wanted the summit and a new Munro, so we pressed on. He explained how we must watch every step and climb with care; route finding was not easy in the mist and snow. We were about 100 feet from the summit when John decided to turn back, we were both glad!
That day I learned some vital lessons, to become more efficient on the hill and it is not getting to the top that counts but coming home safe and well. John worked his frozen socks off to get us of safely and the responsibility of leadership was not lost on us. It was a long walk back to the Sligachan Hotel were we got back just before dark, exhausted but elated. This is a Hotel with amazing climbing history full of pictures of the great of Scottish mountaineering looking down on us. You just drank in the history as you sat by the fire awaiting transport back to base at Glen brittle. We felt great to be back safe and we had another 8 days on these wonderful mountains.
When we arrived back to the Base camp we were told that we were the only party to get that high that day, so we did not feel too bad but still a bit disappointed that we had not got to the top. Over the next few days we had great time on the ridge and managed most of the Munros in full on winter conditions. I found it fairly stressful and seemingly woke up with nightmares one night that I had fallen off the ridge. On the last day we were going up one of the easier Munros Bruach Na Frithe when near the top one of the lads slipped on the steep snow and nearly went a long way over a cliff. He was very lucky as if he had not stopped he would have been severely injured or worse, again it was a lesson again to take ones time and be definite with your feet on icy ground. It was very hard putting on wet clothes most days and the boots were always wet and how not matter how tired you were after the hill you had to sort your gear out in case of a callout. These were all good skills to learn for the future. Myself and Tom ended up being taken out most days with the very experienced team members and learned so much in that training exercise in Skye. A lot of the team were just walkers and found the ridge in winter conditions very serious and left us to it. Though out of my depth at times I felt that I could cope and would have to if I wanted to be a strong member of the team, Tom now my best mate thought the same. The views from the ridge were incredible, Skye surrounded by sea was amazing and the views down to Loch Coruisk and the Islands were incredible. I was so lucky to see all this and sit on the tops when we had a minute and try to take it all in. The team seemed to know so many secrets of the ridge. They knew where the easier lines up the mountains. I was told to learn all these tricks as the next time I came it could be at night in a callout! I could not imagine this ridge in the dark or a wild night. On my last day of the grant we went back in a big party to climb the easiest peak Bruach Na Frithe by the South ridge. It was a special day and the walk in from Coir’ a ‘ Tairneilear is special, snow still made the day interesting and the final scramble to the summit was thought provoking. As we neared the summit one of the guys slipped on the snow covered rock and slithered over a small buttress, I watched it happen. The drop below was incredible and I was sure he was going to be severely hurt.
Somehow he managed to stop himself, how lucky. It really shook us all up, we laughed about it at the time but it was a lesson to me of how easy it was to have an accident. Easy peaks in Skye no chance all take no prisoners and you have to alert at all times, another great lesson. I vowed to climb all the Skye peaks in one day as this is one of the finest mountaineering days in Britain, to do this it was not just fitness but a good degree of climbing ability. Most of the ridge is climbed unroped an incredible objective for me at this time.