Friday, 19 February 2021

Renaissance of a Mountaineering Community

Its such a stoke to see all the great winter mountain and climbing pictures from the many folk who have made Lochaber and in particular North Argyll/South Lochaber their home. Summer and Winter weather is such a big part of our moods and positivity. Its undoubtedly a hard place to live, even as someone born and bred here I can attest to that suffering from the darkness of depression at times. But living here teaches patience and gratitude for when the good days come. And my goodness didn't they come in full over the last Month if your a winter mountaineer and ski tourer. So many folk out on the mountains having fun and enjoying the epic conditions. Fantastic hill walks, snowboard adventures, ski touring exploration and steep technical ice climbing.

The local mountain community has always had its dips and surges so its great to see it on the up and despite Covid. In the past these good times were beset by tragedy which set back folks enthusiasm when key movers and shakers were lost from the climbing community.  As a young man the best climbers in the area were by default in the rescue team, it just came with living here. Or they worked for Hamish's Glencoe School of Winter mountaineering (GSWM), Ian Cloughs Glencoe climbing School or were doing some private guiding work. Qualifications back then were just being a good safe mountaineer as there were few formal qualifications and no NGB's with the exception of the BMC.

My own early days were touched by folk who had lost their best friends in the Italian Climb tragedy on Ben Nevis when 4 locally based climbers were avalanched and only one survived. That survival all alone above the avalanched party was remarkable and required much fortitude. Events like that knock a climbing community back, as its heart is temporarily gone. 

Italian Climb Avalanche Aftermath
The turn of the 1960's to 70's were over shadowed by this, even before more loss occurred. Tom Patey although not a local was a frequent visitor, and was often in the village at "Tigh Dearg" Ian and Nicki Clough's house, or putting out tunes with my uncle Charlie Campbell up at Clachaig.  As a boy I saw  a slide show on the Old Man of Hoy by Patey in Tigh Dearg the Cloughs house. I was a pal of one of Nicki Cloughs nephews who came up in the summer holidays, and we swam in the river most days or fished. Little did I know I was rubbing shoulders with mountaineering legends when in having tea and buns.  They certainly inspired me as that's what got me hooked into climbing. Patey's death through lack of attention to safety on the "Maiden" a sea stack took away a climbing legend and character.  Although a great mountaineer he could be reckless and a bit cavalier. The mountains don't forgive complacency especially in the form of an old carabiner used to hold your trousers up and no system back up such as is taught nowadays. 

Then Ian Clough was killed on Chris Bonington's 1970 Annapurna South Face expedition right at the end near camp one, when it was all over bar the shouting after Dougal Haston and Don Whillans summited and were back safe. More than any other sad loss this wiped out the heart of the local climbing community and was keenly felt in the village as he was liked by all. 
Local lad Ronnie Rodgers on the Slabs

Ian Clough

Mountaineers are nothing if not resilient and addicted to their passion and new blood came in. Notably active at that time were the various instructors both part and full time with GSWM. Spence, Fyffe, Nicholson, Knowles and MacInnes himself, as well as Wull Thompson and John Hardy when not cutting tree's down for a living. Dave Knowles was killed on the Eiger, hit by a rock kicked off by a rigger on the film Eiger Sanction starring Clint Eastwood. Dougal Haston was the safety advisor on the film but after this incident left the film set and Hamish MacInnes took over. The most memorable scene had Clint Eastwood himself doing the stunt work falling down the North Face swinging over the face by an assembly of ladders tied together by Hamish. Dave Knowles loss again affected the local climbing community. He and his partner lived at Invercoe.  So as you can see the 1970's when I started had a bit of a cloud over them. Haston died in an avalanche in Leysin where he lived and worked. A film was made of him "Haston - A life in the mountains" which would be a good  festival film if it can be had.

Robin Campbells fine eulogy to Dougal Haston "Cumha Dughall"

I met Dave Knowles in the Clachaig bar one afternoon after climbing Clachaig Gully for the umpteenth time (it was handy and has a pub at its foot) and he gave me some very good advice after I mentioned how the psychological barrier for local hard routes was so high with folk either trying to psyche you out with route info on how hard things were, implying only legends got up them. "youth", he said, don't climb in Scotland. Get yourself down South away from all that bullshit and climb there then come back and climb. It was good advice as most (but not all!) the local routes I later climbed required no superhuman powers. However superhuman or not, some routes winter and summer stood out for sheer boldness. Like most things the bullshit barrier is the hardest bit and pure psychology. When on the sharp end you just get on with it.
Hamish MacInnes in Mary Poppins mode on a film set

The late 70's early 1980's were much better with another generation coming through, of which I suppose I was one, as was Fiona. Ed Grindley was very active on rock, and living in the village. Paul Moores  had his local guide business and a thriving shop "Glencoe Guides and Gear" which was run mostly by his wife Ros. A proper climbers shop. George Reid was living locally and going through the Guides scheme and hungry for routes, and some of the old hands such as John Hardy, Alan Thomson, Ian Nicholson and Wull Thompson as well as many other were active.  Mid week evening climbing in high summer including mountain routes, and at weekends a big gang would meet up in the Ferry Bar and hatch plans to be out and about, sometimes en masse at a mountain crag. Visiting climbers joined the fray with regulars like Joe Brown and Mo Antoine in among it. The end of the day would see a mass exodus to Kingshouse for a session and late night, sometimes all night if the next day was to be wet. The 80's for me were the best as I was pretty motivated and strong and the scene was good. Not only for local based climbers, but Cubby and others were thumping out the routes, Glen Nevis was getting its best new developments, and folk were busy doing alpine seasons, expeditions or just cragging.  And there was a lot of film work either on major films or local outside broadcasts.  Even the 80's had its setbacks as a local climber lost his life on central grooves

Ed Grindley in somewhat relaxed mode
belaying me on the F.A of "Sisyphus"

The 90's onwards were a bit doldrums to start as families were coming into the world, folk moved on and the scene around the main meeting point the pub was more serious as drink driving laws were enforced and folk just went home after climbing. But there was still an active local scene from rescue team members and joint services climbing instructors. The untimely death of local lad Allan Findlay in a car accident in the Glen put a cloud over things. Also another local climber Ray Darker from Ballachulish tragically fell to his death on Skye. Sadly I was involved in a couple of rescues for folk who I knew, finding them both dead. Dougie on the North Face Aonach Dubh and Bish under the Lost valley bridge. Even recently the mountains have taken as well as given, with the loss of our cycling buddy Chris Bell on Bidean and a young local climber in Deep Cut Chimney. I am not sure you ever get over these things but somehow mountaineering communities develop a resilience and get through it as although glib the Tibetan proverb "It is better to have lived one day as a Tiger than a thousand years as a sheep" has something in it. 

Davy Gunn on "Line Up" 1983
I took a total scunner a few years ago, and hated the mountains. Too much tragedy and loss looking back and a feeling I had wasted my life on mountains and rescues. The superficial thrills of skiing and day shift of ski patrol were more social and a lot more fun. I hated climbing for a bit, but through my sons enthusiasm, keenness and ability I got back into rock climbing and now really enjoy it again, especially sport climbing, and I especially enjoy the craic with folks at the two local walls 3 Wise Monkeys and the Ice Factor. The staff there are all motivated and upbeat and get out as much as they can, and happy to chat with old has been's like myself. 

Yvon Chouinard. Glencoe and Ben Nevis have
always attracted folk from all over the world 
I mention these early time as a bit of background history for folks to see what it was like here in the past, and because the interregnum from the 90's until now to me seemed to have less of a vibe than the 1980's. Of course it may be I just wasn't a part of it, so this is very much a personal take. With an expanding network of active folks in North Lorn and South Lochaber things are looking up. Many new folk have made the area their home specifically for the easy access to the outdoors. I call them new Scots. They are invested in living here, contribute to the community and love the mountains. Their enthusiasm be they beginner or expert is great to see, and I love seeing the social media pictures of folk having fun outdoors. More than anything its great to see a vibrant strong mountain community in the area again. Maybe post Covid when the climbing walls and pubs are open again the tales of adventures and the hatching of plans can be more social, even those talked about with beer goggles on. I look forward to that.

Click the hyper links for more interesting background info. Click the pictures to enlarge

The future is so bright we need doggles