David Armin and I met TAC's editor at Rowardennan on a blustery May morning. Readers will recall from TAC70 that this was the starting point for the Ed's assault on Ben Lomond with Perkin Warbeck, an occasion when the former had to continue to the top alone because of the latter's incapacitation caused by drink. It was this recent TAC theme of hangovers on hills that started us talking about the subject, and somehow, with that way he has, the Ed managed to tease from me the shameful tale of my incapacity on Beinn a'Ghlo.
That occasion, on a sunny July day in 1994 (yes, the story has been successfully kept out of the pages of TAC for that long), was bagging legend Graham Illing's completion of the Munros. GI shares with the Ed the unusual distinction of having a bagging-related acronym formed from his surname, in this case Insignificant Lumps Listed In New Guides. This accurately reflects GI's single-minded progression from the Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, through the Marilyns and Deweys, to whatever obscurities lie beyond and below.
GI's final-Munro day was a multi-bag job taking in all three Beinn a'Ghlo Munros and involving quite a large group of invited friends. GI had brought along various hipflasks plus a whole bottle of what could well have been the Famous Grouse. On the final summit, Carn nan Gabhar, the celebrations began - and, due to the warmth of the afternoon, went on for quite a long time. The flasks were emptied and then the Grouse (which it might well have been) was passed round a couple of times. A few people half-heartedly partook before I more or less took sole charge of the bottle...
Over the next hour or so I somehow became quite significantly drunk on top of quite a big hill. When we set off down, I managed to get some way along the ridge of Airgiod Bheinn before my reeling actions, assumed by my friends to be "just Graham messing about", deposited me over the side of a small crag. Annoyingly, my left arm wedged between rocks and was only partially successful in following the downward progress of the rest of me. I can never remember the differences between "compound", "complex" and "complicated" fractures: this mattered little in the event, as I had sustained all three kinds at once.
The long descent to the cars, some six miles away at Loch Moraig, was supervised (after he had administered first-aid) by the heroic GI who was not enjoying quite the end to his day of triumph that he had expected. His response to my one moment of weakness was, not altogether unreasonably, "You've got no fucking choice!" David ran ahead and valiantly drove his car quite some distance up a rough track to shorten my walk, from there acting as ambulance driver. Funnily enough, I did not feel much pain at all, either coming down from the hill or riding to Perth. My advice to readers - in addition to the blindingly obvious, that is - has to be this: if you really must break your arm on a mountain, make sure you drink at least half a bottle of whisky first, otherwise it might really hurt. The hangover arrived the following morning, after I came round from emergency surgery at the incomparably fine Perth Royal Infirmary.
A couple of days later the consultant surgeon, doing his rounds in true Sir Lancelot Spratt style with half-a-dozen trainee doctors following in his wake, arrived at my bedside and announced: "This man fell off a Munro!" Then, spinning round to select one of his entourage: "You! What's a Munro?" The stammering student clearly had no idea, so the same information was demanded from one of his companions, then another, then thrown open to all. Finally, in exasperation, the consultant turned back to me and said: "Tell them what a Munro is!" Which, of course, I did.
I seem to have digressed rather a long way from Ben Lomond, from the Ed, and from some frankly unimpressive tales about hangovers incurred before going on the hill. There is however one more thread to pick up from TAC70 - the one about the Ed having to top out Ben Lomond alone after having left his stricken companion Warbeck behind.
On our own attempt we appeared to be doing very well as we climbed Ptarmigan (where, spookily, we actually saw a ptarmigan). It could not be denied, however, that some gusts of wind were beginning to attain the gale force mentioned in the previous night's forecast. These gusts were to get far worse: by the time we had crossed the bealach beyond Ptarmigan and started up the steepening ridge to Ben Lomond itself, we were having to bend against the wind and were sometimes completely unbalanced. (I'm always completely unbalanced - Ed.) A little higher and it was becoming impossible to make forward progress without crawling; breathing was also difficult at times. We met a group of eight or nine who were coming down, incredulous that there were people still trying to go up. One lady had been knocked down by the wind and was slightly hurt, while another was having hysterics and being calmed by her companions. Just after they passed, every one of them without exception was knocked over by the same sudden gust.
By this time David and I were starting to think about turning back, but the Ed was very much more confident and assured us that the wind would be less severe higher up. With the two of us unconvinced, we all retreated to a sheltered spot behind a boulder for a snack and a bit of a think.
We decided to press on, but were repeatedly knocked down and within minutes had returned to the same boulder for a reappraisal. The Ed was still for the summit, so we decided to let him get on with it while we retreated (it was agreed that I would, should it prove necessary, write his obituary for TAC). I am pleased to report that in an impressively short time he was back with us at the agreed meeting-point by the lochan on Ptarmigan - but, for the second time in two visits, he had visited the summit of Ben Lomond on his own, without the companion(s) with whom he had started.
I therefore strongly advise the Ed to ensure that his next visit is made on a day without a breath of wind, preceded by one of total alcoholic abstinence by all the participants.
Ed. - The wind incident shed light on the current near-ubiquity of walking poles, a long-running topic in these pages. Graham Stevens mentions that a party of walkers passed us heading down while we were heading up. What he doesn't say is that most if not all of them were of the two-pole persuasion. As for the three of us, the distribution of poles was as follows: me none, Graham one, David two. But shortly after we entered the zone where, as Mr Dylan had it, "the wind began to howl", David and Graham stashed their poles. It was plainly a day for (a) keeping one's centre of gravity as low as possible by proceeding in a series of hunched all-fours scurries between gusts, and (b) narrowing oneself in order to reduce the amount of bulk that the wind could hit against. So when we saw the pole-wielding party come past, far too upstanding for their own good and considerably wider than had they not been carrying poles, it didn't need Gypsy Petulengro to realise that they were cannon fodder for the next big gust. When the whole party duly went down like trees in a copse it was both amusing and alarming to see, but it looked very much like an incident that could have been either lessened or avoided completely had they not been operating so rigidly in poles-are-essential mode.
Poles clearly have their uses in certain situations, but there is much crazily inappropriate use of them to be seen. The question has been raised here before, but I raise it again now: in recent times, say the past five years, how many hill accidents and incidents have been due, at least in part, to poles having been used when they would have been better stashed in the sack or left back at home?
TAC 71 Index