Our epic mountaineering triumph on 8th April combined with our legendary night out in the local village in the evening, ruined us. We had to drive South the following day. Rather, Ian had to drive South. He managed this rigor with good humour by driving very slowly and carefully. Our destination was Ratagan Youth Hostel, from where we hoped to climb one or two of the Five Sisters of Kintail. I had climbed all of them in my youth, in a single day, along with another mountain just for good measure. That’s another story though.
Before we could get to Ratagan we had to rest. Ian was also keen to watch a football match. Following his team’s surprise win in Part 2 of this story, he had begun to suggest the absurdly superstitious idea that somehow my watching a match would have a favourable influence on the outcome. We stopped at a pub on the North side of Loch Duich and he asked if the television could be switched over to the channel showing the game he wanted to see. I forget what it was now. With no-one else in the place, the staff were happy to oblige. As far as I recall, I didn’t pay much attention to the match. Ian’s preferred team conceded a goal. He asked me very nicely if I would pay attention. His side scored a goal whilst I was looking at the screen. Ian looked at me oddly. I went outside to take the air.
A bit later, Ian came out and asked if I would go back in and watch some more. “We need you,” he pleaded. This was getting silly. All the same, he had just driven me hundreds of miles around the country and thrown himself into the challenge of mountaineering, all because I had agreed to attend the original football match with him. It would have been churlish to refuse. I went back in and his team scored another goal! Now Ian wasn’t watching the game, he was watching me. If my eyes drifted away from the television he would cry out, “Watch the game! Watch the game!” I wanted his team to win for his sake but didn’t want them to for my sake. They won the game. Ian looked at me oddly and declared that I had some special power. “Stop saying that,” was all I could muster in my defence.
We drove to the Youth Hostel at Ratagan and checked in. It had changed dramatically since I had first been there in 1988. It had hot showers now and was open in the day time. Exhausted, by our travels and climbing, and with the weather turning against us, we decided to take the following day off for sightseeing.
There weren’t many other people at the hostel. There was one young man with a haunted look in his eyes, who was set upon climbing the Five Sisters the next day, on his own. By now, Ian was identifying himself as a mountaineer. My work was done! I could relax. Ian declared to me, “Being a mountaineer is one thing, a noble and spiritually rewarding vocation, I get that now, but going off on long walks on your own, that’s where the real madness lies.” I thought about my own long distance solo walking patterns. Odd how people always look to others to find extremes but never in themselves. “By the way,” Ian continued, “I’d really like to join you on your next South Downs Way walk, if that’s alright with you?” I had got into the habit of attempting to walk the South Downs Way on my own over midwinter, mostly by wild camping along the way. He knew I went alone but, presumably thought that was because no-one would come with me. This wasn’t going to be an easy explanation to make. “The thing is, erm, the point is, erm,” I faltered, “to do it alone. I’d love to do that walk with you one of these days but I need to do it on my own first.” Ian looked worried. “Oh…“, he said and then added with that look of disbelief that I had first seen from him in our University days, “that’s why you do it at midwinter?” I nodded. Once again, I lacked the words to explain why. The difference was that this time, instead of laughing and mocking me, Ian was staring off into the middle distance. He looked like he was thinking through the steps he had already taken. He looked like he was wondering how far off he was from the man about to take on the Five Sisters.
We went sightseeing. There isn’t much of a choice in this part of the world, so we pretty much fell in behind the tourist buses and got on with it.
The following day we took a stroll up Gleann Choinneachain, to look over into Glen Affric, a massive pathless uninhabited wilderness of its own. Trouble was, I was exhausted from our exertions. As I said before, Ian was (and still is) in much better shape than me. My left knee began to throb – an old skiing injury. We turned back to rest me up.
Back at the hostel, a large collecton of elderly ladies from Perth had turned up. They were some kind of Munro Bagging club. They ruined the atmosphere in the hostel by treating everyone else as a second class citizen who was basically in their way. After they left, we found one of their disgraceful lists. It contained a series of names of mountains (a Munro is a Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet) and a series of ticks. Previously I mentioned that I thought that there were only two types of hill walkers: the simple pleasure seekers (who go for the views only and won’t walk in bad weather) and the challenge seekers (who go because it is there). I had shut this third category out of my mind but their sad existence must be acknowledged. They are the baggers. They think that they can collect mountains in much the same way that other people collect stamps or spoons. They are the worst of all. They have completely missed the point. The fact is that you can climb the same mountain several times and it will be different every time. I once climbed the same mountain three times in three successive days and it might as well have been three different peaks (although my wife put her foot down when I suggested a fourth visit to the same).
Much later on the fellow who had set off to climb the Five Sisters on his own returned. We winced at the bedraggled sight of him. In the region of these very high and dangerous hills, the cloud base had been no more than 100 feet throughout the day. He looked like something out of a low budget horror movie, with a fixed focus in his eyes set to the very near distance. He prepared a simple evening meal and sat down to it as if it were his last supper, savouring every warm mouthful. I suggested to Ian that he go and ask him how his day was and be prepared for the understatement of the year. When Ian returned to our table, he reported the man had given a one word reply: “wet.” He was clearly a very experienced mountaineer!
The following day I was still too sore in the knee to manage anything much. Ian accepted an invite from a young couple in the hostel to take on one of the Sisters with them. I had a brief conversation with them, to check out that they knew what they were doing. They did. Pleased that Ian was going to get a decent challenge, I left him to it. My work was more than done! Here he was striking out with strangers, unstoppable. They climbed Sgurr na Moraich, and its accompanying ‘top’, Beinn Bhuidhe. Here’s the people who led Ian up:
Ian captured this view on his phone camera, looking into Glen Affric:
The Five Sisters are dangerous because you cannot come off them except at either end. Once you are on the ridge, which is sharp and boundaried on one side by cliffs which in places are a thousand feet high, you must either get to the other end or retrace your steps completely. There are false spurs to lure the unsuspecting to their deaths. Ian knew all this before he set out. Although the Sister he took on that day is the broadest, nevertheless there are very steep drops around it and the path travels very close to the edge in several places. How far Ian had come since his fear on Stac Pollaidh! Here he was, at twice the height, with much more danger, with strangers leading him on and he happily snapping photos and chatting along the way!
Definitely, my work was more than done. He had fallen in love with the mountains. For this, there is no cure. Whereas he had hoped to persuade me to take up a serious interest in the game of football, I had not been persuaded. He knew this and didn’t care about it any more. When we left Scotland, he promised to return with me – a promise he has since made good. Ian drove us 422 miles from Ratagan to Sheffield, where we greatly enjoyed the hospitality of the estimable @Strontelius. We told him what must have seemed tall stories from our trials on the High Mountains, played chess and recuperated in the bosom of his familial home.
Eventually, we parted, in London. I caught a train home and Ian returned to Wales. A week later, he rang me up and asked if I would turn on the television and watch his team a little bit. “We need you again.” They scored again and kept their place in the Premier League, against all expectations. That’s when I finally insisted, “This has got to stop now.“