It was early January when six of us travelled up to Scotland in Mark’s Sherpa van. Arriving in Glencoe in the early hours we crept into the bunkhouse at the Kingshouse and collapsed on the floor, intending to make an early start. Inevitably we overslept but we still managed to leave without paying, creeping past Big Ian who was watching breakfast TV in his house.
There was the usual chaotic sort out of gear at the golf course before we began the slog up to the hut. Inevitably I put my foot through the frozen crust of peat at the start of the path which resulted in a cold wet foot.
Initially I managed to keep in front of the super fit Caveman, but as we approached the dam, he got in front and left me trailing. It had been a cold, clear night with a fine dawn but a storm was forecast later in the day. Reaching the hut I collapsed outside and waited for Andy Platts to catch up. Fortunately, he was even more unfit than me, so I had a good rest.
When Andy arrived it had started to cloud over and flakes of snow were falling. Caveman and Martin to set off for Vanishing Gully. After some discussion Andy and I decided that we would go for Glover’s Chimney. Neither of us had done it before and it was a relatively short route, albeit with the crux at the top.
We geared up next to the hut on the pretence that gear you are wearing always weighs less than the same gear carried in your rucksack. It had been freezing hard for a couple of weeks without thawing. As a consequence the way up into Coire na Ciste was a wallow in deep powder. This was Andy’s first route since the last year (another epic in Crowberry’s Left Fork) and he was feeling the strain. Despite numerous pleas to be allowed to go down, on the pretext that he was totally knackered, I cajoled him to the bottom of the route, where he collapsed into a mini bergschrund.
I uncoiled the ropes and stuffed Mar’s bars into Andy's mouth in an attempt to revive him. My observation that although we had not yet started climbing, we were almost at the summit and so could not go back to the hut, was not well received.
Leaving Andy to sort out the ropes I wallowed over the bergschrund and managed to get established on the first pitch. The ice was very brittle and I despatched a few dinner plates down the hill to keep Andy awake. Confident that this first obstacle was only about 100 ft long I was puzzled when I ran out of rope about 30 ft from the top and was forced to belay on a couple of poor ice screws. Andy had recovered a little and made short work of seconding this pitch.
The next few hundred feet looked straightforward, but devoid of belays, so I asked Andy to start climbing when the rope went tight. The weather had closed in and there was a constant stream of spindrift pouring down onto us as we climbed. At the top of the easy section I went too far left and had to teeter back across a rib of rock to regain the gully.
Eventually, I arrived below the final chimney and began to look for a belay. Finally I noticed the peg sprouting from the gully wall right next to me and hurriedly tied on. I had just managed to arrange the Sticht Plate as Andy arrived. "That was a very long pitch", he said. "Yes", about 300 ft. I had to stretch the ropes a bit", I replied.
"We’ve only got this little chimney to get up and then we are at Tower Gap", I said. The crux chimney proved deceptively awkward, not helped by a lack of ice on the vital bits. I spoilt the illusion that I was confident and in control by performing an energetic mantleshelf to get onto Tower Gap and then falling down the far side. Luckily the rope drag stopped me after only a few feet.
Andy used his secret weapon, the Alpenstock, to overcome the crux. Not possessing any axes of his own he had only been able to borrow a couple of very long axes. These proved ideal for the route enabling him to reach right past the crux section and plant them firmly in the good ice at Tower Gap. "Can’t see what all the fuss was about, why didn’t you just reach up to the good ice on the top", he said as he joined me.
It was by now almost dark and speed was essential. I set off up the top section of Tower Ridge in a hurry, impressing on Andy the awful consequences of a slip into the unseen void from the ridge. There were no further difficulties and we got to the top of Tower Ridge just as it got completely dark.
"It’s O.K. I have got all the compass bearings written down in the front of the guidebook, I said. If we go to the summit we can go down the tourist track from there". Setting off on the right bearing we counted the paces but failed to find the summit. Retracing our steps on a back bearing we failed to find our way back to top of Tower Ridge, so were now totally lost.
"Oh well, never mind, if we just keep going West we should get down to the col eventually", I said cheerfully. We felt our way along the summit plateau, but eventually ran into steep ground. Mindful of an accident to a couple of friends the previous week in similar conditions we decided to bivvy.
"Let’s just dig a ledge by this boulder and sit it out till morning", I said.
"What do you mean, you have forgotten your bivvy bag!", I exclaimed. "Oh well, if I empty my sac into yours you can use it to bivvy in, it’s got a bivvy extension".
Some time later after everything was sorted out we settled down and ate the last remaining chocolate.
"Your rucksack doesn’t meet the bottom of my cag and the spindrift is blowing up my shirt", moaned Andy
"It’s incredibly boring sitting here", I muttered through my frozen beard.
"I’ve just found my hip flask and it’s half full of Grouse", I exclaimed.
A drunken couple of hours passed by as the contents of the hip flask were consumed.
"What time is it", I asked.
"About seven o’clock", said Andy.
"Oh good it will be light in a few minutes", I said.
"No it’s seven in the evening", replied Andy.
At this point I threw a wobbler and declared I was not going to sit here another 12 hours freezing to death. Andy was also really cold and readily agreed to another attempt at descent. We repacked all the gear and after a short conference decided to set off on a bearing of due South.
Staggering along by the light of the head torch we remained roped up, in the best tradition to ensure that we would both die should one of us slip. Eventually we dropped below the cloud and saw that we had emerged at one end of Glen Nevis (the wrong end).
Sometime later we reached the road. I wasn't looking forward to the five mile trudge to Fort William. However, luck was with us and a Landrover gave us a lift to the Nevis Bank Hotel where we had arranged to meet the others. Inevitably there was no sign of them but after a couple of pints the bar maid came over. "Are you two supposed to be meeting someone here". We replied that we were indeed. "Oh, good they’ve left this note for you".
Unfolding the note we read the following: "If you aren’t dead please can you go to the Police Station and tell them. We have gone to the Red Squirrel in Glencoe". Trudging round to the police station we informed them that we were still alive and then went to the chip shop. A failure to get a lift to Glencoe at midnight lead us to get a taxi and we arrived at the Red Squirrel somewhat dispirited and tired.
The others were pleased to see us and we were forced to relate our story. "Did you tell them at the Police Station you were back safely". I replied in the affirmative. "When we went to report you missing they were really good to us and made us all. cups of tea". There’s no justice.