Time to turn back?

A ques­tion­able trip to Cri­an­larich's peaks

Trail (UK) - - Contents - WORDS BEN WEEKS PHO­TO­GRAPHS TOM BAI­LEY

The rain had stopped. The sun was out. The slopes of the moun­tains glowed am­ber in the morn­ing light, their peaks coated white with snow sur­rounded by bil­low­ing cloud. These are the days I dream of. And yet… A stub­born knee in­jury ached dully, the en­forced rest it had re­quired over the pre­vi­ous weeks ev­i­dent in a lack of fit­ness com­pounded by the ex­tra post-Christ­mas pounds I was car­ry­ing. There was no joy to be had for me in these beau­ti­ful sur­round­ings, just fa­tigue and dis­com­fort. Even when the sun burned through, bathing the land­scape in warm hues and rich shad­ows, all I could fo­cus on was how hot it made me. At that point, I would have done any­thing to be back at home, snug­gled un­der a blan­ket on the sofa with my lit­tle girl watch­ing

Harry and His Bucket Full of Di­nosaurs. The theme tune played on re­peat in my head – ‘Stegosaurus, Ptero­dactyl, Tyran­nosaurus Rex. Sceli­dosaurus, Apatosaurus, Tricer­atops is next…’

Per­haps we should turn back…

The first few hun­dred me­tres of as­cent out of the car are al­ways the worst, as the mind and body adapt to the task. Soon the aching knee re­ceded to a back­ground nig­gle; pace and res­pi­ra­tion es­tab­lished equi­lib­rium and, cross­ing the snow­line and leav­ing the wa­ter­logged ground be­hind, en­joy­ment be­gan to seep in. The day promised much. Our ul­ti­mate goal was the sum­mit of the Cri­an­larich Munro Ben More and our route would take us over the lesser ref­er­enced, but more aes­thet­i­cally pleasing peak, of Stob Bin­nein. There was plenty to be pos­i­tive about. But, de­spite the sub­tlety of the light and the still­ness of the breeze, there was some­thing omi­nous about the snow-damp­ened si­lence. Per­haps we should turn back…

An hour later and ev­ery­thing had changed. The light had gone, re­placed by a grey damp­ness that merged with the thick white of the ground. It was freez­ing – the briefest ex­po­sure of hands to the air to tighten cram­pons numbed fin­gers within sec­onds. But the pre­cip­i­ta­tion wasn’t soft and white or even hard and white. De­spite be­ing above 1000m, with a wind chill that took the tem­per­a­ture to well be­low zero, it was rain­ing. Not snow, not hail, not even sleet. Cold, liq­uid rain. Vis­i­bil­ity con­tin­ued to close in – and this was a prob­lem. Stob Bin­nein’s back nar­rows as it climbs. To the right the edge of the ridge was ob­scured by a thick cor­nice. A cou­ple of days of warmer tem­per­a­tures had loos­ened win­ter’s grip on the moun­tain and cracks grew where the cor­nices had be­gun to peel away. We wanted to be nowhere near them when they went. But avoid­ing them was com­pli­cated by what lay to our left. A con­vex slope steep­ened and dropped away over smooth ice. In the event of a trip, this is the di­rec­tion we would slide – rapidly gain­ing mo­men­tum and re­quir­ing the mother of all ice axe ar­rests to stop the fall. Glanc­ing down, I noted that I had al­ready as­sumed the po­si­tion: axe clutched across my body, the head in my right hand by my shoul­der, the spike in my left by my hip. In­stinct had taken over. Per­haps we should turn back…

At some point the rain be­came snow. White whipped around us, driven into a frenzy by a strength­en­ing wind. Ev­ery so of­ten it gained an ex­tra shot of bravado, gust­ing into us with in­creas­ing ag­gres­sion. We hunkered down onto the snow. The al­time­ter strapped to my wrist showed us a mere 20 me­tres be­low the sum­mit, but by now we couldn’t even tell where it was. A GPS grid ref­er­ence was sought, checked and a bear­ing plot­ted. It pointed straight into the bliz­zard. We looked at each

Stob Bin­nein’s back nar­rows as it climbs

With ice-coated cor­nice-ob­scured drops on ei­ther side. All for the sake of 20 me­tres. Per­haps we should have turned back…

other through gog­gled eyes. We knew what the other was think­ing. Per­haps we should turn back…

Sum­mit fever is some­thing you’d as­so­ciate with Hi­malayan gi­ants, not lowly Mun­ros. But it was just 20 me­tres. I pointed, Tom nod­ded, we climbed on. The wind con­tin­ued to bat­ter. The air was full of move­ment, and dizzy­ing. The ground steep­ened. I kicked into the slope and clawed at it with hands and axe, look­ing down be­tween my cram­pons to spot Tom. Snow was blown up the slope into my ears and nose. Through the swirl he moved up be­hind me. Roar. Swirl. Blast. Per­haps we should turn back…

We climbed on. Out of nowhere, a rime­cov­ered rock ap­peared. Then an­other. A mound of them. A cairn. We were at the sum­mit of Stob Bin­nein. A hairy 20 me­tres, but we’d made it. We hadn’t spo­ken about whether we’d try to push on for Ben More, the higher peak and our orig­i­nal ob­jec­tive, or turn back. We hadn’t spo­ken at all, in fact, since the wind had made it all but im­pos­si­ble. Tom joined me by the cairn and pointed back down. I nod­ded in agree­ment. We knew there was no chance of con­tin­u­ing. I couldn’t re­ally re­mem­ber what it felt like to be warm and dry.

Back at the car, in dry lay­ers and with the feel­ing re­turn­ing to fin­gers and toes, the time on the moun­tain be­gan to seem un­real. Tom, usu­ally ex­cep­tion­ally con­ser­va­tive when es­ti­mat­ing these things, haz­arded a guess that the wind had been gust­ing at around 60mph as we ap­proached the sum­mit. A 60mph white-out. With ice-coated cor­niceob­scured drops on ei­ther side. All for the sake of 20 me­tres. Per­haps we should have turned back…

Any jour­ney on a moun­tain is gov­erned by a se­ries of de­ci­sions, and we aim to make the right ones. But maybe we make bad calls more of­ten than we think. Af­ter all, peo­ple make bad choices all the time. When that hap­pens in the hills and things go spec­tac­u­larly wrong, we tend to hear about it. But what about those de­ci­sions we make that, in hind­sight, were wrong, but – through the grace of which­ever de­ity you be­lieve in – we come away from un­scathed? If you can recog­nise you’ve been lucky and that things could have been dif­fer­ent, make a men­tal note – or a real one – and learn from it. Be­cause if you make a bad de­ci­sion and luck’s not on your side, it may be too late to turn back…

Whip­ping winds and white-outs start to make turn­ing back look like the sen­si­ble op­tion.

The light paints a pretty pic­ture when con­di­tions are favourable.

And, of course, sun­shine in the val­ley. On­ward and up­ward or head for home?

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