Friday, 14 June 2019

A Guides Tale

Not sure if I put this up before on here.  I am sure I put the story of being rescued by the team from Aonach Dubh the year before up.  Pretty wild looking back at what I was up to.  Ian Nicholson at 17 some 5 years earlier had climbed the Eiger N. Face with Dave Knowles.  Now that's impressive as it was probably one of the earliest British ascents. The Clachaig gully is pretty tame in comparison. Published in the SMC Journal here is the original draft.

A Guides Tale

June 1974
Guiding was as yet confined to few within the Glen and these few mostly in the employ of the old fox or his 2ic Ian Nicholson. Many were on an ad hoc basis recruited when business was brisk. Notables being the likes of Fyffe or Spence or maybe Dave Knowles when he was about.

At that time I was a mere youth as yet not tempered by attempting hard men’s climbs and harder drinking in the wee snug after hours.  One climb above all was revered by us fresh youths, both from behind and in front of the bar. This was partly out of convenience. Like the hindquarters of an elephant as eloquently described by Bill Murray, it started only 10 minutes from the bar door. “The Gully” could be accomplished either solo before twelve thirty Sunday opening, or roped between two thirty and six thirty, usually by a mixed company of barman/maid and customer. It is fair to say “the gully” was well known to us.

Walking down the village one Saturday a passing car stopped and wound down its window with the driver asking if I knew of a local guide for hire.  A couple of names were passed to him and the chosen route asked.  When the reply came that it was none other than “the gully” I felt compelled to offer my services – for a reasonable fee of course.

So it was that I was hired, but not before my clients revealed that they were a professional couple, betrothed, and in addition they belonged to a “socialist mountaineering club” (The Red Rope) and as such were happy to support the local proletariat but not at excessive cost. We settled on a less than princely sum, perhaps due to my obvious youth and assumed lack of experience.  I went home to collect my climbing gear.

My kit at that time was by modern standards very meagre, but at 17 years old, dances, Ceilidhs and girls took priority. So it was that I as a junior bergfuhrer assembled my rack at the foot of the gully.  200’ No 2 Viking nylon donated by Robin Turner after an abseil lesson of his cottage roof, a pair of new Lionel Terray boots from Hamish, as the originals had been stolen from Kingshouse after a rescue in Ravens Gully that winter when I took them off to go in the lounge bar (under the watchful eye of the proprietor Jim Lee), and the most modern harness of its age – the ubiquitous Whillans. This along with a set of nuts made by clog attached to wire hawser, a selection of pegs and several slings in bright pink tape concluded the ironmongery for the ascent.

It had not rained for a month but never the less it would not have occurred to me to wear rock boots, even though I had a pair of EB’s donated to me by Sandy Whillans a local policeman.  The gully is a boot climb.  That’s how Bill Murray did it and you always follow in the footsteps of the master, don’t you?

We started the gully at its root via a pitch shown to me only the Sunday before by one of the barmen. This pitch is walked passed by most but I thought that as I was getting paid for the job in hand then a refund might be requested should all available rock not be included in the ascent. It went very well, with the pair climbing very fast and alarmingly competently in parallel on the twin No 2 weight Nylon ropes. During conversation it became apparent that proper guides were hired on a regular basis by the couple – indeed the previous weekend a “proper” guide had been secured in the Llanberis pass for the same rate as I, and three of the classics of the pass, including the renowned “Wrinkle” had been successfully ascended.

By now the haze of morning had becoming a black menacing shroud of afternoon, and soon the occasional very large plop of rain fell.  By this time we had passed the lower greenery and were in the more austere surroundings of the crux slab above the “Great Cave”. The atmosphere was oppressive and clearly it was going to become very wet. We passed a road sign saying  “ice” complete with metal post, put there the previous year by some pranksters on a fresher’s weekend.  The slab was climbed and soon we were at the redoubtable “Jericho Wall” which at that time was pitch 7 or 8 of the roped pitches if you include the lowest pitch. I regaled them with stories of daring doo and an account of the early history of the gully, plus of course a few rescue stories to enhance the atmosphere. It clearly had the desired effect as they were keen to push on and seemed apprehensive to say the least. This was further heightened when the rain started and they realised we were in for a deluge.

The pressure was on, but could the aspirant bergfurher pull it out the bag without needing the services of the rescue team?  Absolutely - afterburners on it was all go with each subsequent pitch dispatched at full speed with a full blown thunderstorm breaking around us.  With drowning and falling as a combined incentive the pair climbed well despite being visibly terrified, so all credit to them as I was feeling a burden of responsibility beyond my years.  We topped out after a 5 hour ascent 30 odd pitches, over 1,700 feet of climbing and in a reasonable time for  a roped party of three.  Some parties have taken upwards of 14 hours and in one case 2 full days. For us all that remained was the knee wrecker down to the pub and a beer by the fire.

Two hours later as a bedraggled crew we arrived at the pub. They reluctantly bought me a beer as I was underage but  complemented me on a fine though short day.  As the day was shorter than they had in the famous Llanberis pass, and the climbing deemed inferior they had discussed the fee and felt that it should be halved.  So it was that barely enough cash for an evening “session” was handed over to the naive bergfurher, who there and then decided that the peoples flag was brightest pink and not as red as he might think. Guiding might not be for him after all.

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