The Angry Corrie 29: Nov-Dec 96


Accidental tourism: The 1996 SMC Journal reviewed

(Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal 1996, Vol. XXXVI, No. 187,

edited by Ken Crocket, x+208pp, ISSN 0080-813X, #8.95)

The original intention was for this to be half a specific review of the 1996 Journal, half a comparative analysis of TAC/TACit and the SMC, with the Journal used as an excuse for a general gaze across the wide bealach between. A kind of state-of-the-disunion address. This soon overextended like a telescopic skipole however, so more in TAC30 about the overall outlook (which feels far less frosty than once was). For now it's the Journal only.

It goes almost without saying that this is basically the same as ever. Indeed, we were also sent the 1995 edition for review, and certain comments can be snipped directly from the uncompleted draft still festering in \tac24\smcrev01.doc. It's as near as Scottish hillwalking comes to a genuine yearbook - although any such claim would ultimately founder on the same rock which saw a 1988 book entitled A Century of Scottish Mountaineering when in reality it was A Century of the SMC. The obvious comparison - to this cricket-loving reviewer at least - is always with Wisden's Almanack. Both Wisden and the Journal have a timeless-antiquated look, the one yellow, the other pale blue and serif-fonted (mention might be made of Gillean, but never in GillSans). Both are ritually structured in the same, rarely-altered order: brief editorial intro; string of articles mainly retrospective or analytical in nature; dominant middle sections devoted to the year's events - new routes and accidents here rather than championship scorecards. Both then end with reviews and obituaries. And both have been around, more or less unchanged, for a very long time.

With "Images", Donald Orr's well-written rockfall story, this Journal gets off to a far better start than did the previous, when John Mackenzie's "Salamander" set out a very archaic stall with its references to Gordian Knots, "our fellow men", Praetorian Guards and, Elysium help us, Eros and Thanetos. There's little of that this time - save perhaps the opening sentence of Iain Smart's CIC piece - and the usual scatter of stories, climb-accounts, and general musings will serve up something of interest to most hillgoers. Isobel Baldwin's "Spiders and climbers" - an SMC attempt at a website? - proved oddly interesting. Likewise Peter Drummond's continuing hillnames-analysis: linking a holiday in Iceland with a look at Nordic influences back home, and finding them in such unlikely places as Nutberry Hill near Lesmahagow. Also, his p51 comment that "most of Skye's names are Norse" begs an interesting question as to whether the late-nineteenth-century naming of individual Cuillin peaks was botched through the imposition of default Gaelicisms for the names of pioneers. Certainly a glance across the Sound to Rum tends to support this.

Most articles are wordy rather than numbery, and only Michael Götz's "Estimating time in mountain navigation" attempts much theorising. Maybe this was encountered on a brain-dead day, but Götz seems to explain a good idea very poorly. His summary mentions "a delightful mathematical aide memoire". Aide désordre more like.

The old cod-Latin house style pops up in the regular "Munro Matters" section, where Val Hamilton's man Graham features along with several other TAC subscribers: Dave Purser's third, "reverse", round, Johan de Jong's first Dutch one, and Jonathan Whitehead's 11-month dash (both the latter from extremely flat bases: Hardenberg and Hull). An 11-year-old completionist is reported, as is a steady increase in multiple rounds, with the fives and sixes stacked up like 747s circling an airstrip, waiting to land. What would be interesting to learn is how many reiterative baggers have also made major inroads into Corbetts and - particularly - Grahams and Marilyns. If happening, this would provide heartening evidence of growing eclecticism and of a healthy move away from Munrocentricity.

One aspect in which the Journal does regularly differ from Wisden is the preponderance of errors. These range from inconsequential typos - Lohtse, bizzard - to broader omissions leading to gaps and confusions. This year the Accident List seems particularly stricken. Strange arithmetic occurs in the initial Regional Distribution Table - eg the breakdown of overdue or benighted incidents is given as 13+5+8+2+8+15+9+5+2+5 ... equals 8! (Incidentally, as with the recently-seen Edale MRT's List of Incidents 1995, surely a more visual bar chart could be provided here rather than dull columns of figures, without necessarily subverting the overall feel that the Journal should look typeset rather than DTPed?)

Then comes a more major boo-boo, one which this reviewer chanced upon within two minutes of opening his copy, and about which he was thus able to email editor Crocket the day before he learned of it from internal sources! This is the complete absence of any notes for the "Other Central Highlands" section (ie excluding Ben Nevis and Glen Coe, detailed separately). Why this was chanced upon so quickly links directly with why the List is, for many, the most enthralling part of each Journal. The 1995 edition (pp729-730) included a comic-not-tragic tale of three parties, including a dog, falling through the same chunk of cornice on Beinn a'Chaorainn within an hour, such that all ended 140m lower, thrown together like characters in some Stoppard play. It's for such stories that many people, though they may not admit it, buy the Journal, and hence this same notorious hill was the first to be hunted for this time. Its absence - but more the absence of any equivalently absurd sequence elsewhere - brought back into focus the terrible fact that despite being the most immediate and human section of the Journal, it's the most grievous as well. The cliché "all of life is there" would apply were not 49 deaths detailed there also: terse, sad summaries scarcely hinting at the vast enveloping tragedies each one of these events spawned in many associated lives. And this is without accounting for the endless asides of "compound fracture", "serious head and back injuries", etc, all of which make the List the definitive cautionary reading for any hillgoer (not least those who think avalanches happen to someone else, somewhere else, there being ten such fatalities here).

One format-change is that victims are no longer named: a wise move, undermining rubbernecking tendencies if blocking recognition of a few lucky-to-survive friends each year. Ways round this haven't as yet been fully refined though, since there's now a touch of the Ayckbourns: "A woman legal secretary and a male librarian ... ", " ... a chemist and his companion ... ", " ... a plumber overcome with heat exhaustion ... ". (Plumbers feature widely and should evidently be avoided when choosing hill companions.)

The rise in mobile phone use is striking, yet whilst this appears generally beneficial in reducing callout times and pinpointing victims, inevitable new absurdities occur. None more than with the walker phoning home from every Five Sisters summit (p133). Batteries running down on Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe left him in a dilemma, since to continue without his cordless umbilical would ring more worrying bells back home. Hence he descended the hellish slope direct to Achnangart, took a fall, became cragfast, and was eventually winched to safety. So a happy ending to a needless incident - but one which required six MRTs and 420 hours ...

A more salutary tale of resourcefulness - albeit with a hint of Reggie Perrin - comes with the seriously injured walker in Ardnamurchan who "crawled into the sea to reduce inflammation"! And fairweather walkers would do well to seek out the gifted woman on p131, for whom "fortunately, the weather was good because she was benighted" (sic)! Likewise "two men ... slipped, one going up, the other down" must have been worth seeing.

Such lighter moments are grasped with relief, like firm boulders on slithery screeslopes, since to read straight through the List is to be left numbed by the numbers, with some incidents grim beyond thinking (eg Lochnagar 14th-15th Feb, pp138-9, and Sgurr Mhic Choinnich 6th-8th May, p145). Others beggar belief in terms of the thoughtless selfishness of those involved (eg Ben Nevis 5th July, p135, Braeriach 22nd January, p138, and Rothiemurchus 27th June, p141). The total of massively timeconsuming callouts is up on last year, with three stand-out incidents: 2513 hours on the Buachaille, 3644 hours on Cairn of Claise, and 3736 hours on Cairn Lochan (although only the distinctly odd and slightly "Greavesesque" middle one of these was not "spread", the callout hours being crammed into three days). Finally, a rare flash of weary sarcasm surfaces on p141: "Only two out of 750 walkers doing a sponsored walk from the Dee to the Spey had to be airlifted ... ".

What really marks out this year's Journal are the weighty obituaries. All seven 1995 names were obviously especial losses to families and to Club, but less generally resonant in the wider readership. Not so this time, with the dozen tributes including such well-known worthies as Len Lovat, Bob Grieve and, of course, Bill Murray. As would be expected, the bulk of these were far from young, and the crosschecking of names gives an overriding sense of a generation gradually passing, of what a Vic Goddard song calls "the long decline". Murray merits ten pages, starting with a transcription of Donald McIntyre's funeral elegy - all purple mysticism and classical quotes, presumably what Murray wanted but still appearing strange on paper. Succeeding pieces by Scott and MacKenzie (a west-coast pairing in two senses?) hint at how Murray was initially frowned upon by the selfsame institution over which he later presided. The closing tribute, a fine one from Bob Aitken, focuses on Murray's later committee work, telling of unease over the early simmerings of the NTS/Unna hooha and of a general wariness of quangoism. Reid ends by suggesting Murray may ultimately be recognised, certainly outwith Scotland, more for conservationism than for climbing.

Dutton on Grieve is an odd, idiosyncratic piece, accessible chiefly to Club insiders, and it's good that Tom Weir gets in first to sketch the bare bones - no pun intended - of the man's life. As ever, Weir's concise, human style is a joy to read, and he crops up thrice more, recounting tales of Lovat, Alex Small, and Adam Watson senior. The last-named, father of the great Deeside naturalist, died only seven weeks short of his hundredth birthday, and Weir comes away with a touching phrase: "There was a time when he looked younger than his white-haired son". Weir also tells of the Inverarnan, latter-day epicentre of Highland kitsch and wanton couthiness, being in the 40s and 50s a Temperance Hotel!

Only two of the younger brigade need remembered; both, naturally - pun intended this time - in climbing accidents. The tiger/sheep dichotomy is quoted, and applies, for Mark Sinclair and for Kevin Wilson. Sinclair (with his widow Libby) ran the climbing shop in Forres, an early and consistent ally of TAC's aims and ethos. Wilson had survived two ultra-close shaves when first his equipment (but not him) boarded the doomed flight PK268 to Kathmandu, then by opting out of a Gaurishankar attempt just days before a massive storm claimed eighty lives in the Himalaya. His luck eventually failed back home on Creag Meagaidh, but it's worth adding that when compared with the earlier Accident List (this incident was of course in the AWOL section), here at least was a highly competent climber/plumber.

This leaves unmentioned only the extensive (55pp) New Climbs section, the Club Notes, and the Reviews. New Climbs may well contain good jokes and (more likely) rude words, but is totally outwith the scope of this reviewer so he won't pretend. The Club Notes provide a load of possibly meaningful gubbins about foreign climbs/climes and sailing trips in fancy yachts, but again neither mean much to a stay-at-home ocean-feartie. And the Reviews feature high praise sung to a David Craig book recently slagged by this reviewer in another place, comment on the first two TACit Tables which we'll swerve through conflict of interest, and lastly a kind and welcome piece of signposting by Crocket. Rather than actually bothering to review Gordon Henderson's dismal Munros map, he merely hints at in-house shenanigans whilst flagging up Blanco's TAC28 deconstruction with the fine phrase " ... those who wield a more powerful laser ...".

Overall, in an age when glossiness supposedly counts, the Journal ought to be a disaster. It also has a persistent ability to annoy and irritate. But what the hell, it may not be the best but is surely the most varied read any nine quid spent on Scottish hillgoing will fetch you - apart perhaps from a subscription-and-a-half to this organ - and has a cracking set of sharp photographs thrown in. As with TAC, it's written and compiled by a group rather than by a single author: a group who will never in a thousand tigerish years agree on anything much apart from their individual and mutual love of the hills. In reviewing one of the various sections, the words "devoted to" have here been used. This was not without forethought, since the same term, in its other sense, can be used to describe the Journal. For all its failings and quirks, it's a work of devotion.