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A Journey into Scotland … Part 26

March 1998 A School Field in Derbyshire

I got a call to cover a PE lesson (Physical Education/gym class). It was a sunny day so I had no objections. I usually just divide them into two teams and let them chase a ball for an hour while I give a occasional blast on the Acme Thunderer. This allows both students and teacher to enjoy the lesson and all happily join in a pretence that the teacher is in charge, and is really out there to advance knowledge of physical fitness, and not just to get out of the buildings for a while.. This time another gym teacher is already doing that. He says I’m not really needed but I decide I  do fancy some fresh air and stay for a while. We talk.

He’s going up to Glencoe in the evening. It seems a long way to go just for the weekend and I express this thought. He assures me that the climbing makes it worth while. The journey can’t be done in much under seven hours. Even setting off straight after school would mean arriving towards midnight. Much of the driving would be in the dark and you’d miss  the beauty you are passing through. You’d be pretty tired and would have lost your Friday night and a good part of Sunday.

Glencoe 1

I wouldn’t do it myself but it’s in the spirit of the great climbing and fell-walking revolutionaries of the fifties and sixties. I couldn’t name a single current climber but in the sixties it was prime time television to watch Joe Brown, Chris Bonnington and Dougal Haston climb up cliff faces. In 1967 the BBC brought  us three days of live pictures from the Old Man of Hoy as these unlikely superstars inserted enough hardware into the sea stack to allow them to climb up while smoking cigarettes and telling the commentator all about how they came to take up the sport. I watched every minute I could. It was the most captivating television I had ever watched.

Joe Brown

Joe Brown Photo credit Daily Telegraph

Joe Brown was the king. It said so on the programme. He was introduced as the greatest climber in the world. He didn’t look or sound like a world beater but he had a broad Lancashire accent and an irreverent sense of humour to go with his chain smoking. At night they set up camp on ledges high up on the rock. The BBC sent up their supper; a primus stove, a couple of steaks and a bottle of whisky. Not the obvious choice if you are sheltering overnight in a gale on a narrow ledge of crumbling red sandstone. They ate the steaks and emptied the bottle.

Photo credit Wikipedia

The Old Man of Hoy (Orkneys) Photo credit Wikipedia

Climbers were inspired by the coverage. In 1975 the country became gripped by climbing fever again when Bonnington led an attempt on Everest.  In 1975 the mountain was still largely unclimbed and had never been conquered by a British climber. People tend to forget this in memories of the great expedition of 1953, when news came filtering through on the day of the Queen’s coronation, that Britain had climbed the world’s highest mountain. In 1953 the two climbers to reach the top were Edmund Hillary (a New Zealander) and Tenzing Norgay (a Nepalese Sherpa Guide).

The ’75 assault included grainy live pictures of  Bonnington telling viewers how they were establishing base camp, and we were transfixed by film of bearded men making tea with snow. Eventually the summit was reached by Doug Scott and, one of the climbers from The Old Man of Hoy programme, Dougal Haston. Three other climbers also made it to the top on the second summit push; Peter Boardman, Pertemba Sherpa and Mick Burke. It is not known with any certainty whether or not Burke made it. He was last seen alive very close to the top when bad weather closed in.

Doug Scott on Everset in 1975. Photo taken by Mick Burke who died near the summit

Doug Scott on Everset in 1975. Photo taken by Mick Burke who died near the summit

It was seen as the outer limits of human achievement and we lauded them as heroes. It took as much planning as a lunar mission and the recruitment of Sherpas to carry the equipment. There was no way you could even consider getting onto the upper slopes without the same amount of equipment that Pink Floyd used to take on tour.

And then came news of an even greater achievement. An Italian climber, Reinhold Messner, had organised an expedition and climbed the mountain without oxygen. In 1978 Messner and Austrian climber Peter Habeler stood on the summit having achieved what had been considered a feat beyond human endurance. Some doubted their word and rumours were started that they had been sucking mini bottles of oxygen. Messner silenced these critics by climbing the mountain on his own, without oxygen or even the backup of an expedition party in 1980.

Since then there has been a big debate in climbing circles as to whether climbing with oxygen should be allowed. British pioneer George Mallory (who some believe was the first to climb the mountain… in 1924 he died near the summit. His body was found 75 years later) said that using oxygen was ‘unsporting’ but he used it anyway. (Mallory was the man who gave us the most famous quote on why people climb mountains; “because it’s there” was his answer to why he made repeated attempts to climb Everest. The phrase has become a part of the language of motivation. By 1996 climbing Everest had become within reach of mortals and there was even a way to the top known as ‘the tourist route’. It was still a fearsome environment and in May of that year 8 climbers died on the same day. In all, 15 climbers died on the mountain that year. In his book Into Thin Air Jon Krakauer argues that the use of oxygen allows climbers, who really are not accomplished enough, to reach the top.

A picture I had on my wall as a child. Tenzing Norgay on top of the world in 1953. Photo credit British Foreign and Commonwealth Office

A picture I had on my wall as a child. Tenzing Norgay on top of the world in 1953. Photo credit British Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Just a month ago 16 Nepalese guides were killed in an avalanche on Everest. The tragedy has raised further questions about safety on the mountain as well as raising issues of whether western expeditions have simply being exploiting the Sherpas. (A Sherpa Guide can expect to be paid $125 for a climb).

So mountaineering feats have lost their lustre. The whole nation came to a halt to celebrate the news of Hillary and Norgay in 1953. No one turns a hair at the achievement today. Overweight, over-acting British thespian Brian Blessed has been to the top. Perhaps we ought to forgive him, all those chicken drumsticks thrown over the shoulder scenes in period films, and admire his climbing skills. Unfortunately his achievement serves only to downgrade the achievement of others in the public eye. Today affluent youth join fund-raising treks up Kilimanjaro and other mountains as part of the gap year experience. (For God’s sake, just donate the air fare to charity and leave the mountains alone). Climbing has lost its shine.

Except among the climbing fraternity. And there are more of these than ever. And Glencoe is the place where you will find more serious climbers than anywhere else in Britain. From a distance you are surrounded by magnificent slopes, crags and monstrous slabs of rock in every direction. Close up you will see climbers on each one. Climbs are graded and pecking order is decided by the degree of severity. Climbers push themselves. Dougal Haston said on the Old Man of Hoy programme that he did it to explore his limits “You find out a lot about yourself when you push yourself to the extreme.” he said while swinging round an overhang. (Haston died in an avalanche while skiing in the Alps in 1977).

Glencoe 2

I took up rock climbing as part of my teaching qualification. Outdoor education is my second subject though I have never felt capable enough to teach it. My aim was to overcome the vertigo that traumatises my ventures into the mountains. I clambered up tors on Dartmoor and found myself suspended above the waves at Sennen Cove. Each day I defeated my fear of heights only for it to return the following morning. Aversion therapy didn’t work for me but I did enjoy the sensation of climbing during the short afternoon bursts of heroism.

So yes, I can understand why my track-suited colleague would give up half his weekend to drive to Glencoe and spend the other half taking risks on the slopes. You’d never catch me on climbs as severe or exposed as these. I have neither the skill nor the nerve. But having spent some hours in the incomparable beauty and true majesty of this place, I think I might be persuaded to drive for fourteen hours just to sit at the bottom and marvel.


Codicil (or as Ronnie Barker would put it, the end bit)

Are mountaineers athletes, angels or madmen? I leave the last word to Robert Graves.

“My friend George Mallory …. once did an inexplicable climb on Snowdon. He had left his pipe on a ledge, half-way down one of the Liwedd precipices, and scrambled back by a short cut to retrieve it, then up again by the same route. No one saw what route he took, but when they came to examine it the next day for official record, they found an overhang nearly all the way. By a rule of the Climbers’ Club climbs are never named in honour of their inventors, but only describe natural features. An exception was made here. The climb was recorded as follows : ‘Mallory’s Pipe, a variation on route 2 ; see adjoining map. This climb is totally impossible. It has been performed once, in failing light, by Mr G. H. L. Mallory.’ “