MY NAME IS Richard Lawes and I'm a climber. As they say, the first step in beating an unhealthy addiction is to admit it. Like most fellow addicts, I started on the softer stuff: hillwalking. I might have beaten this early dependency if only someone had helped me finish with the Munros and start on low-tar patches of Corbett walking. But I fell in with a bad crowd and started scrambling, despite attempts to resist this, and inevitably found myself climbing. Worse still, I became a climber hooked on the white powder.
It was after a particularly heavy session on the snow that this tale begins. Having snorted lungfuls of spindrift in a battle up Raeburn's Gully on Lochnagar one December, we emerged red-eyed and disorientated on the summit plateau. By anybody's standards it had been a poor trip. My partner Andy, a drum-and-bass DJ when he wasn't secretly getting his fix with me, had complained loudly that "Scottish grade II gullies aren't supposed to be overhanging for five metres and have avalanches on them." Still, we'd had our fix, and Raeburn had been the only dealer offering white stuff.
As we stood coiling the ropes wondering how we could make our comedown to the car park as mellow as possible, I had a vision of hundreds of people walking in single file. I shook my head: such flashbacks to hillwalking were becoming common. "Look, look, there's people over there!", shouted Andy. I rubbed my eyes, and sure enough real people were trudging head-down into a spindrift whiteout. "Quick, let's follow them and we won't have to use the map", screamed Andy into the wind with a crazed look. I could understand his urgency, as everyone knows that the worst bit of any comedown is the navigation. We dispensed with crampons to add some speed to wasted legs and lurched after the disappearing figures. Inevitably, we couldn't stay on the right path, lost them and ended up staggering round the cliff edge.
In the same way that you can drink eight cans of Tennent's Super in the centre of town and still wake up in your own bed, we used the homing instinct to reach the col below Meikle Pap and slumped behind a boulder for a rest. "I wonder what happened to those people?", Andy mused, handing me a sickly sweet prescription mugful from his flask. "Just forget it," I snapped. "They weren't real."
"Are you two climbers?" I coughed and choked on my frozen mouthful of meat pie. Looking up, I saw a Christlike vision of a bearded man glowering down at us, wooden axe in hand, map flapping round his neck like a halo. I could see Andy looking round, searching for an escape route, but it was no use. We were cornered.
"Er, yes. Yes we are."
"Hmm, well my mate George, and he's a climber, says nothing's in condition at the moment," said Jesus, suspiciously.
"His loss, it was great climbing today," I lied.
"Well, I can't believe people walk round the hills in these conditions ... not wearing crampons," he glared, pointing his ash-shafted alpenstock at our bare boots.
I covered our bling-bling axes self-consciously, before he could see them strapped to our bags and accuse us of stealing them to feed our habit. "Er, well, sure it's only a bit frosty on top ... Want some pie?"
"You loons should know better," he said, ignoring the tasty delicacy. "You should be properly equipped at all times." He puffed out the chest of his 20-year-old Gore-Tex and smacked his crampons with his axe to remove the few specks of hoar that were stuck to them.
"So, are you on a works trip out then? Where's your guide?" said Andy in a rare moment of acerbic lucidity.
"No we are not," retorted Jesus. "We're members of Cults Walking Club, and I'm leading this group as they don't have much experience." With that he turned, set his compass to the now-visible Loch Muick, and strode off. We watched a poor girl in stiletto crampons teeter past behind him as her points stuck in the wet grass and skated over the sugar-coated rocks.
"Do you think the third letter of his walking club's name should be changed?" asked Andy, shovelling a sausage roll into his mouth.
"Obviously," I replied. "That bird was quite hot, though. Maybe we should take up hillwalking again..."
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