Top O’ The World Ma!
The recent death of nine mountain climbers in the French alps only underlines the constant risk that ‘adrenaline junkies’ and adventurers face when they decide to climb, swim, cycle, dive or simply survive in the world’s most inhospitable places (and Widnes). Now, I’m not knocking them, but as a time served shithouse, the very thought of doing ANYTHING that endangers my life fills me with dread. That includes going further than ten foot up a ladder or arguing with a taxi driver.
So, hats off to those brave men and women who put their life on the line as two of those killed did, to raise money for a children’s hospice. Such a selfless act of charity should be applauded but this ‘BucketList’ bravado has its limits. My own experience of mountain climbing is limited to scaling Snowdon, Scafel Pike and Ben Nevis, not on the same day like those Three Peaks cranks but with many years in between. My experience on Ben Nevis especially made me realise that climbing even relatively small mountains (small compared to the Alps or the Himalayas at any rate) was not for me.
My brother in law, Big Al, his three potty younger brothers and myself decided to drive up to Fort William on the spur of the moment one rainy day in May 95. It was the day before the cup final between Everton and Man United and our plan was to drive up Friday, pitch up tent, get an early night, climb Big Ben in the morning and get back into Fort Billy to watch the match.
What happened was we got lost in Glasgow and asked for directions outside Ibrox stadium only to find ourselves in Paisley, then finally getting to Fort William in a haze of weed blowback in the evening. We then proceeded to terrorise every alehouse in the town before driving (somehow) to the foothills of Ben Nevis, where three of the brothers attempted to put up their tent. I got onto the back seat of Al’s Range Rover to get my head down and half way through the night decided a needed a shit. I got out, cleared my bowels and got back onto the back seat.
Waking up the next morning, the Rangey stunk of shit and Big Al wasn’t a happy lumphammer fisted man when he saw that I’d walked in my own faeces and smeared it all over his lovely leather seats. He ordered me to clean it up and inbetween puking and pissing, I wiped the back seat clean as the three younger brothers crawled from under their unpitched tarpaulin cover to cook cheapo sausages and beans for brekky. The mountain was covered in snow right to the foot where we were parked and then we set off, not as I suggested by looking for a path but by simply walking directly up the slope nearest to us.
As we got further up, it soon became clear that this was a somewhat foolhardy way to approach the biggest mountain in Britain especially when you were wearing Gazelles, not state of the art mountaineering boots. Miraculously the higher we got, the better the conditions got and so the lads decided to fuck about sliding down massive crevasses on their arses. When we eventually reached the summit after meeting nobody, and thinking we were veritable Hillarys and Tensings, we found it packed with fellow climbers, the ones with proper sticks, waterproof anoraks and ICI socks. A few even had dogs and some of them were well over 70.
The view from the peak of Ben Nevis was truly awe inspiring, the Scottish islands and highlands to the north and west in a cloudless, blue sky. Now I understood what climbers got from their ‘sport’ or ‘hobby.’ The overwhelming human desire to channel into the natural landscape and to become small in the realm of rock and snow, is something primal and has motivated humans ever since the ice age formed these peaks and valleys.
Not that Al’s brothers were that moved by this wondrous sight and we soon began our descent, following the path at first and then taking a suicidal detour to clamber down the steep, heather covered slopes with chasms of endless rock below us. As the brothers hopped, skipped and jumped like seasoned mountain goats, my fear of certain death forced me to hang back and cling for dear life and fellow walkers shouted danger warnings to us. Unpeturbed by their shouts they continued down the slope and such was the gradient, my ankles gave way on me and I had to complete the upper stages on my arse.
Eventually I caught up with them on a plateau about half way down, the rock providing us with a windbreak and it became very hot. Fuck the match, we all had a kip to rid ourselves of our hangovers and got back to base as night was falling. Rather than stay another night, Al made the decision to drive home and we took turns to steer his top of the range Rangey through the now very wet Scottish hills and moors.
Even in the rain, the Scottish landscape is profoundly beautiful and although it’s the mountains and the lochs that get all the glory, my favourite part is the desolate moorlands between Glasgow and the English border. Living in a part of the country that has towns and cities almost overlapping each other this brown and purple landscape with its low hills and featureless plains stretching to the horizon made me yearns for the border reevers, cattle rustling and Jacobite insurrection.
We arrived back home in the early hours and I slept for two days. That was the last time I climbed a mountain. Al got into it big time, doing the Atlas mountains, Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas and Mont Blanc a few times, where he got marooned for a two days in a hut with his brother (who was rattling). He said it was the scariest two days of his life, not knowing if the terrible weather would clear and wondering if they’d need rescuing.
It was near Chamonix that these climbers died when an avalanche struck and although they were all regular climbers, the tourism industry has made a virtue of such ventures. If it’s not ‘celebrity’ challenges, being taken out of your so-called ‘comfort zone’ or needlessly futile feats of endurance, then it’s self-indulgent odysseys and record breaking attempts by spoiled rich kids and their overbearing parents.
The likes of Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, Hillary, Tensing and other true explorers and adventurers, even up to the first astronauts were truly going where no man had been before. They faced death in the pursuit of scientific and yes, commerical glory. As with most endeavors, it was the venture cpaitalists and imperialists funding these expeditions. Those who crave danger, even for noble causes or take unneccessary risks, endangering the lives of others, rescuers included, deserve our condemnation. I’m not saying this was the case in this instance but how many times have we seen the unprepared and clueless rescued from rocks and rivers, seas and cliffs as they risk death in the pursuit of kicks?
Me, I’m under no illusions and don’t feel as if I have to prove how tough I am or what I can endure. I’ve got soft hands and a dodgy gut, count me out! ‘One life, live it’ the all action man sticker says. I intend to mate.