Celtic Illumination, part 84, Three sheeps to the wind.
The morning of the second day, in the field, saw me playing a new game on waking. This game was to find a place on my body that didn’t hurt. I had two red stripes running over my shoulders where the straps of my rucksack had cut in. My legs throbbed and it felt as if my back was broken in eleventeen places. Had someone come in and put me out of my misery, with a humane killer, I would have been a happy little bunny. However it was the duty cook who came in and gave me a mug of hot sweet tea.
Our kit was soaked from the failed river crossing attempts the previous evening so we thanked our lucky stars that we had two of everything. We were told what kit to wear and off we went to dress appropriately. There was a lot of whispering and people moving into little groups chatting. When we emerged, there were only four trialists. Two had asked permission to be taken back to Valley. We were lined up and given the once over by Jack. He reminded us that we were now wearing our Dolomite climbing boots.
The previous day we had been wearing our Curly’s. The Curly’s were quite a heavy boot but flexible. The Dolomites were heavier and rigid. Jack asked who hadn’t treated their boots as per instruction. One fellow raised his hand and Jack began to bollock him. The ‘treatment’ was to pee in our boots, allow the urine to soak in to the leather and then put the boots on, and keep them on, until they were dry. This was the mountain rescue method of fitting the boots to your feet. If you didn’t do this, your boots would eventually fit themselves to your feet, but only after days and days of uncomfortable blisters.
Sometimes it was difficult to know if the instructions we were given were for the entertainment of the experienced troops or for real. This day we were taken to Ogwen Cottage from where we began to ascend Pen-yr-ole-wen. I may have thought Moel Siabod, which we had climbed the previous day, was a pig, this was ten times worse. It was steep; I think the gradient is close to one in two. It was rocky and there were so many false summits I was going crazy by the time I got to the top, it really was an “Are we there yet?” mountain.
I have to admit it was a wonderful view and a great feeling of achievement. The experienced team members sat around as we four trialists recovered enough to continue. The good news, we were told, was that the remainder of the day was all downhill. At one point we stopped and we four trialists were allowed to tidy up an area around a small concrete memorial for a dead team member. The experienced guys sat well away from the memorial, as if they didn’t want to accept it, whereas I could see that when Pib had said to me ‘I might be invited to join the team if I was alive,’ wasn’t an empty comment, we had been taken there for a reason.
I also learned that going downhill can sometimes be more difficult than going up and although I had looked forward to an easy descent, I soon feared that on the following morning my legs would be twice as sore, if that was possible. I had given up worrying about my shoulders and back as the sweat lubricated both areas so that the heavy rucksack could slide about and take another layer of skin off. At least my feet were fine, but one of the trialists was limping.
I had become quite friendly with one of the other trialists. His name was John Games, a lovely fellow from Liverpool, which earned him the name Docker. It was good to have someone to talk to and share fears and worries with, for had I to go through all this on my own, I think would have been impossible.
Once again we got back to base camp exhausted. The trialist who hadn’t peed in his boots was limping quite badly and asked permission to be taken back to Valley. Now, there were only three trialists. We once again were allowed to scrub all the cooking utensils and basically help the duty cook clear up the cook shack.
There were twenty six members on the team and each one took it in turn to be duty cook. Your duty was to get up early, set up the comms truck and contact Pitrevie Castle which was the Rescue Coordination Centre. You reported in, gave your position and team strength. Then you were given a weather forecast for your area, which you had to display on a large blackboard inside the cook shack. Next you began to cook breakfast for the team. Bacon, sausages, eggs, beans, tomatoes, toast.
When almost ready you would prepare a tray of mugs of tea and coffee and go around the tents waking all the team members and offering them a brew. Once the team left for the day you would prepare two five gallon containers of soup. This was easy. Two huge packets of powered soup were put in each container and topped up with boiling water. The mixture was given a good stir about and then any leftovers from breakfast were added.
If the team was called out, the soup could be taken to them in the mountains ensuring that they would have a hot meal inside them. I have to say if you’re on a mountain side, mid-winter and you get a mug of tomato soup and find a bit of bacon in it, it’s quite nice. A fried egg would be interesting, but all the same, still welcome.
With the cook shack duties completed we wandered off to Cobden’s hotel again. That evening the beer was quite medicinal and I tried to consume as much as I could as I needed a lot of medicine. Back at base camp it was apparent that most of the other guys had consumed a fair amount of beer too. It had been a great night in Cobden’s with the whole pub involved in singing folk songs and rugby ditties.
We slept in huge green military sleeping bags on small foam rubber mattresses know as scrims. You often see these rolled up and placed on top of rucksacks. I went into the tent I was sleeping in and noticed that my sleeping bag was gone. I was told it must have gone outside. I went outside and gingerly, stepping through, and around, the guy ropes on some of the personal tents, found my sleeping bag and brought it back into the tent. Now my scrim was gone so I dumped my sleeping bag and went and got my scrim. Guess what? Yes, my sleeping bag had gone.
The experienced guys were enjoying this and were calling me all manner of names and making all sorts of rude remarks. This time I kept a hold of my sleeping bag and went out to get my scrim. Everyone was joining in and with both my sleeping bag and scrim safely under my arms I had one of my ideas. I made my way over to the ambulance and put my scrim and sleeping bag in the back. Next, I ran about sixty or seventy yards to a small walled area where a farmer had corralled some sheep.
I grabbed a ewe and holding it tightly in my arms ran across to my tent. Most people were laughing and shouting that if I couldn’t find my kit I would be in trouble. I launched the sheep into the tent and tightly laced the opening up, securing the final loop with a heavy tent peg. I then ran as fast as my lovely, but sore, legs would carry me and locked myself in the back of the ambulance. Docker was inside the tent and tells me that the sheep bleated and everyone immediately went silent.
Someone thought it was me and demanded that I stop stepping on their legs. Then a torch flicked on. The moment the sheep was discovered, torches and lights came on and the sheep, perhaps not wanting to be left out of the pandemonium, began running in circles. Docker said the sheep was like a motorcyclist on the wall of death going round and around and around. It was quite a commotion in there and eventually someone managed to get the tent flap open and let the sheep out.
The guys from the other tents had come out and were creased with laughter. I think the only one who didn’t find it funny was the sheep. They searched for me for some time but eventually gave up. The next morning the incident was remarked on, but I could tell from the looks I was getting, it wouldn’t be forgotten about.