Saturday 25 August 2007

Ups and Downs in Walking Scotland's skyline!

I started hill walking, regularly in October 1974 when I sent myself off to Birmingham's Outdoor Pursuits Centre, Ogwen Cottage in Snowdonia. It was for the Mountain Leadership Certificate Introductory course, for one week in my half term holiday. I still use my favourite rucsac from that time, that I bought immediately afterwards. It's a rock climbers' sac (Berghaus 272) used by my instructor, whose name I can still remember - Isobel Rennie! Howard Jones was the Principal Instructor.

Later, out on some hill, I met Geoff Wood of Bolton who talked of the thrill of nearing a summit when the immediate skyline finally falls away all around you! He was using the only available list of hills over 2,000 feet at that time, in 1980, by George Bridge, 'The Mountains of England and Wales'. I, too, bought the book. Those hills I completed in 1990 and I returned to Scotland to work through all the Munros and Tops in earnest. In total, they make for well over 900 summits over 2,000 feet in England and Wales and over 3,000 feet in Scotland. I have three left at the time of writing. (Now, all completed as of 8 June 2008, when I am updating this.)

I have done them singly in less than a day, as well as in great groups taking anything from two to four days of glorious times away from it all - both backpacking and bivying out, even on snow. It is a wonderful undertaking for people like me who love walking, the outdoors, wilderness, exploring and, going to places I would never have thought of visiting. For me, it's not a challenge so much as an excuse, an excellent reason, to use up some of that annual leave, to get away from family, home and civilisation - but for only a relatively short time! Visiting all the 3,000 feet summits is a way to plan and organise and to make it easier to decide which hill to climb next. I was doing them from north to south, reckoning that as the years went by, diesel would become more expensive (and, indeed it has, too) and, therefore, it made sense to do the ones furthest away, first.

Knight's Peak - on our way to our very last summit - bowled a boulder down on us and Becky dodged death by a hair's breadth!

I was with my daughter, Becky and her boyfriend, Tim on 2 June 2008, having just soloed Bhasteir Tooth via the Lotta Corrie route. We were in the gully between Sgurr nan Gillean and my final Top, Knight's Peak, on Pinnacle Ridge. Tim was leading and stepped off a huge boulder wedged in the gully. That extra little push-off sent the boulder but not Tim, thankfully, hurtling down. It missed me on my left side but Becky, who was bringing up the rear, had to step smartly to the left as the thing went thundering down in a cloud of dust down her right side. It missed her by millimetres. It was like something out of an Indiana Jones adventure film. The one with the boulder hurtling down, or rather chasing, Harrison Ford! (Becky's account went, "Tim tried to kill me ... I leapt dramatically out of the way!") From then on, we were rather more zealous in checking for loose rock before using it for a handhold or foothold - for the whole of the rest of the week!

In March 1992, I had two nights at the Hutchison Memorial Hut in the Cairngorms. Except, such was the filth of the place I actually put the tent up inside the bothy when I was ready to sleep in it! On the second night, I didn't bother and simply slept in the tent outside the bothy, on its lee side.

I lost my bearings in the cloud, went off course too far left and started to panic on the descent! My excuse: there are lots more ways to come down than to go up, of course!

Beinn Dearg 1084m (Ullapool) in winter. Now superseded by Basteir Tooth (see earlier blog)! Dearg took a second visit, in April 1995 when there was even more snow. On the third day, the weather cleared and, with an early start, a huge round of hills was achieved. By the late evening of that day, I was so tired, I fell off the bike as I approached a gate!

I forgot the small wooden spoon that was vital to eat my evening food and breakfast! That was in March 1995 on Beinn Dearg (Ullapool). I had parked the car at Loch Glascarnoch at over 1,000 feet. I remember wearing my 1970s, Point Five Glenmore Jacket that I still have and, occasionally, still use too! The snow was thick but not falling, although visibility was poor. Rather than pressing upward any higher when navigation was going to get increasingly uncertain, I decided to try out the £50 snow shovel. It worked brilliantly. Light, too, from the aluminium shaft and plastic scoop but my snow hole was nothing as ambitious as the one Griff Rhys Jones helped to carve out in this year's TV series!

A shower booth door in Aviemore was completely smashed when I slipped and fell through it. I also hit a deer driving to the next hill but, no pheasants!

I was disappearing down the N face of Ben Nevis when I managed to hang on to the rock from which I had just left. I was following the very bad example of two men from the RAF Staffordshire Mountain Rescue Team. They had taken their crampons off after coming out of a snow gully and were stubbing the front of their boots into the hard-packed snow and pulling up on their ice axes. I tried it once too often and it nearly led to my early demise! It was the year (1985) when Linda was carrying Becky. I suffered broken specs and a badly cut nose when I landed on the adze part of the ice axe.

On Easter Monday (17.4.06) on the summit plateau of A' Bhuidheanach (936m), just E of the A9 above the Pass of Drumochter. Strong, very cold W wind brought snow showers and sun. Much soft snow. Two other walkers on skis, emerged out of the spin drift all wrapped up with snow goggles who looked like Scott of the Antarctic! A further summit, 2K further on took me to beautiful wind carved snow cliffs and drifts.

SE of Poolewe in Wester Ross, I took the bike and the road that takes the traveller to two of the most remote Munros that, for me, needed a night out to take them both in. I came across a notice that did clearly forbade bikes. However, walkers and cars were allowed and it was so easy to carry on cycling - so, I did. If estate cars were allowed, there was no good reason for bikes, carrying walkers, should not, too. Or, so I thought! I left the bike locked to a tree above the now deteriorated track. On my return, the next day, I found the front wheel had been taken out of their forks but my cable lock had prevented it from being taken! Was it the act of the local laird, upset at my ignoring his notice?

One winter, I was confronted with a wind created low snow cliff that barred my way. It was great fun to pull up on my ice axe to get up and over it.

This was a pillow that was in my bivy/sleeping bag when I hurriedly rolled it up from sleeping in the car the previous night. A quick, and late, decision to go led to an inadequate lunch. Later, I felt really weak and unwell until I realised I needed more food and finally stopped! Then, that evening, in the dark, at the summit of some 3,000 footer I couldn't get the tent pole through the sleeve. I finally managed it when I put my back to the wind that had been keeping the sleeve so tightly shut the pole could not be pushed through.

I failed to zip up the inner door, that gave rigidity to the pole, of my Phoenix Phreerunner single skin, Goretex tent. Constant flexing in the moderate to strong E wind, on a ridge at 2,000 feet, eventually broke the pole. The wind had already sucked out my bivy bag cover and Karrimat and the sleeping bag was half out from under the outer door when, in the distance, I saw that the tent had collapsed. I charged down the slope and rescued it! The hill was Ben Lui (1130m), above Tyndrum. This was on a quite crazy day when I was wearing fell running shoes even when there was snow on the tops. I was full of more stamina than sense and took off on an enormous diversion to take in Beinn Bhuidhe miles away to the S that should have been left for another day. Then, arriving on the summit ridge, I was so cold after my exertions on the steep slope out of the wind, that I only went to the first of the triple summit cairns instead of all three. On looking back, I could see that there was another but I had so little on and time was so short that I never went back! Now, that one will be my very last Munro before the last two Tops! On this same crazy day, I reached the summit of Ben Lui after the long return run from Beinn Bhuidhe and saw two more summits (Ben Oss was one) in the distance that looked so close and I was so revved up, I thought I still had time to take them in, too! If I had, I would have lost the sleeping bag, for sure and then I would have been really up against it - even if I had been able to get back to the tent.

18 hours cosy and comfortable in my blue coffin tent as the rain descended; only to find, on my re-appearance in the outside world, that the swollen stream had come perilously close to the tent!

This was above Bridge of Orchy high on a steep slope where I found rocks and soft grass that beautifully cradled me as I lay back munching my lunch - and there was a view, too!

Ben Lomond, after I had given my son Jonathan my rucsac that slowed him down sufficiently and speeded me up, to make a lightening ascent in 1 hr 38 mins on a very good stone path in good weather. It was also a pleasure to have the company of Joseph Clayton. We were running at times and overtook almost all the other walkers out earlier than us!

I was taken by surprise, as I walked in to the Black Cuillin on a glorious May day in 1992, by the sharp, prickly, pointy peaks. I wrote, in May 1994:
"Walking in on the path from Sligachan to Loch Coruisk, more of this prickly and peculiar looking ridge appeared in close up on my right. The mountains looked just like those you see illustrated in a children's fairy story. It was as though they were the haunt of foul fiends and hobgoblins. Impressive but, certainly, very strange looking things. As usual, I hadn't thought to read up anything at all about these hills beforehand and quite expected to find that there would be a walkers' route round any difficulty. Roger Haworth, at Sligachan, had told me of some of the problems I could expect and how to avoid them but, my whole attitude was, I think, too laid back. He told me that he thought that I hadn't sufficiently taken on board the seriousness of the undertaking. I had blithely talked of soloing the whole ridge - of what Roger called the Greater Cuillin Traverse! In the end, he was quite right, of course but, I had an exhilarating, satisfying and quite unforgettable 3 nights bivying and 4 days walking in these remote and prickly peaks in quite perfect weather."

This was on the 26 March 1994 on Ben More Assynt and Conival, E of Inchnadamph. My entry in my copy of Munro's Tables records:
"An exhilarating day in the hills with the ridge in Alpine condition demanding crampons rather than ice axe for progress to be made. I've never before had a day like it for the clear weather and stunning, snow plastered rocky ridges and steep snow slopes. Camped on Conival. Narrow gorge widened out, weather improved and it turned out to be a magical day of true mountain top experiences. Unfortunately, ran out of film and took only one or two shots."
What made it such an unusual day was the sheer volume of snow and its perfect condition for crampons to be needed for most of the whole, long day. Ice axe was superfluous, although I carried it. I neither met nor saw a single other person and I was climbing on my own. Near the end, I noticed that the small, self-fitted, piece of metal coat hanger at the heel of one of my boots had come loose. By then, it was not critical. Crampons don't need the customer to fit a piece of metal today!

Day One was the Five Sisters of Kintail from west to east after a midge bitten bivy on a warm summer’s night on the side of a hill above where I had parked the car. The next two days were straight-forward ridge walking, including the first two thirds of day four, too. Then, bump! Just as I was expecting a quick return and a plane ride out, came one difficulty after another as I had to get to grip with rock and, work out the least steep route. It was a challenging climax to a great four days out in the big hills.

In Knoydart, I kept on meeting up with the same four guys but, I always got to the first summit of the day before them! Thereafter, they soon pulled ahead and were always far ahead of me for the rest of the day. For three mornings that happened. The reason was that although we were all going in the same direction, they had to peel off from the ridge to get to their bothy for the night. I put the tent up exactly where I had reached by the end of the day, with no diversion! On the final morning, I followed them back to their bothy where one of them took pity on my diet of sandwiches and cereal with dried milk and gave me my first hot food (of soup) for four days. Far better, they kindly gave me a lift back to where I had left my car by the dam and where they had left their second car. Otherwise, I would have been out for a fifth day and night just to do the long road walk back. A coincidence was that all four men came from either my home town or near abouts and I met two of them again at a quarterly meeting of the Halesowen Wildlife Group! On this expedition, I lost my rucsac for a few minutes as I hunted round rocks to find it on returning from doing the Munro that looks like a stuck up thumb and far too steep to climb.

Off the A74 in the Southern Uplands, my night's sleep was disturbed by a whirring sound just as I was getting back into my sleeping bag. I thought it was some engine that had started up in the nearby compound. I got into the driving seat and found a quieter spot to park up and sleep. Except, when I switched the engine off, I still had the whirring. I discovered that it was my electric toothbrush that I had put my hand on squeezing back into the sleeping bag! (I no longer bother with such excesses - the elecy toothbrush; not the sleeping bag!)

This was on the N ridge ascending Ben Hope, many winters ago. There was a steep section in the way. Realising that I might slip, I had the ice axe ready to arrest my fall. Just as well I did because I did slip and the ice axe definitely saved me. I was shocked and shaken but soon recovered sufficiently to climb away onto safer ground where I thankfully collapsed into the snow to eat my lunch. I then retreated back to the car that was my base camp. The next day, I climbed Ben Hope successfully from the south in cloud and snow.

emails from 10 January 2008:-

Hi Tim,

I was reading your blog and noticed the name of my sister Isobel Rennie who took you for your Mountain Leadership Certificate Introductory Course. I'm glad that she was so memorable as it is now 30 years since she was killed on a mountain in Wales by falling on her ice axe. She died 26/11/77. But she inspired me to go hill walking and took me up my first rock climb on Idwal slabs when I was 18 in about 1973. I followed her example and went snow and ice climbing in the alps.

Nowadays my husband and I do some mountain climbing in the lake district and I do some volunteering for the BTCV  (British Trust for Conservation volunteering. It looks like she did a good job of teaching you.

Hilary Salkeld

Dear Hilary

It was so very good of you to write to me and to tell me of Isobel's tragic death.

I was shocked and saddened that such a young and energetic and lovely life should have been so cruelly cut short.  I was so impressed with her (and attracted to her) that I returned to Brum and bought the gear she

recommended in October and November 1974 (not just her rucsac!) - and, I never forgot her name.  Yet, I never saw her again after that one week.  If you would like to tell me more about how she died and how old she was, I would like to read it.  But, only if you wish to tell me more.  I slipped and fell on my ice axe on the north face of the Ben in 1985 when my wife was pregnant with our daughter.  I nearly never met her; I was very lucky to survive!  Isobel must have been very unlucky.  Now, my daughter with her boyfriend go rock climbing and hill walking and, even ice climbing on a wall outside Symphony Hall in the centre of Brum at Christmas just gone!

I am glad to hear of your outdoor activities, too.  I also know and did

much practical nature conservation work through the Halesowen Wildlife

Group when we were more active ten to twenty years ago.

With every good wish


----- Original Message -----

From: Hilary Salkeld

To: 'Tim Weller'

Sent: Sunday, January 13, 2008 8:27 PM

Subject: RE: Isobel Rennie

Dear Tim,

Thanks for your reply. It was just so odd to see Isobel’s name on the web after all those years.

Isobel had been married for nearly 2 years. She was in the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue and she used to go out on Rescues with her husband John Lyndsay.

 That weekend there was snow on the hills. In fact my husband Geoff and I were out walking on Lancashire hills that day and it was a lovely crisp sunny day. Isobel and John had a Shetland sheepdog that they took walking with them. But that day John wanted to go rock climbing with other members of the team so Isobel took the dog and went for a walk with others up a mountain.

The mountainside was so steep that the dog slipped on the snow and landed on Isobel who fell and subsequently landed on her ice axe which went into the aorta.

John Lyndsay got a call for a mountain rescue for his own wife. She was 26 years old when she died.

I got married that summer so our wedding was the last time I saw her.

Geoff and I continued rock climbing and mountain climbing and when the kids were born Hazel (1986) and Adam (1988) they went as well. We took them up Ben Nevis when Adam was 5 years old. Hazel has just finished a degree in Geography and Geology and still likes hill walking especially if it is up volcanoes.

I know that you didn’t know her very well but it is a nice way for me to

remember her after 30 years. Now that I’ve found your blogs I will keep

reading them.

Thanks for your interest.

Best wishes



  1. I've been trying to dredge reminiscences of our walks from dusty memory banks. Here are ten that spring immediately to mind:

    1. Stunning camp site at Shieldaig.
    2. Wasps in Torridon.
    3. Drunkard at The Kings Head Hotel, Rannoch Moor.
    4. Wild red deer at the picture window at the above.
    5. Pondering the unanswered questions of life, eg has George Bush ever written a book and then concluding that he'd probably never even read one.
    6. Climbing Ben Nevis in February to mark your 50th in unbelievable T-shirt temperatures.
    7. The incredible Cuillins, can't remember the date.
    8. Interminable hours spent waiting for you on top of Lochnagar when you were distracted by the lure of completing an unplanned route.
    9. Interminable hours spent waiting for you in the Torridon car park when you were distracted by the lure of completing an unplanned route.
    10. Interminable hours spent waiting for you on the top of Ben Eighe when you were distracted by the lure of completing an unplanned route.

    I'm sure I'll think of more.

    Colin Port

  2. So who is this energetic Roger Haworth, at Sligachan? This Roger Haworth climbed the 22 metre hill in Northala Fields the other day and felt tired at the top!