Celtic Illumination, part 99, The coefficient of friction
I am sure you will understand that as military flavoured chaps most of what we had to do was written down, in triplicate! This wasn’t a bad thing as for us; it wasn’t the standard military bull. All our guidelines were brought together from years of experience. I bet you even today they are still building on and refining some of the guidelines we followed. For example would you believe that there was an exact way that you had to pack your rucksack?
I can also give you one clue as to how to spot a mountain rescue man at twenty paces. He’s the one with everything wrapped in plastic bags and I’m not talking about some unfortunate homeless person. If you are in a shop, or a pub, and someone takes their wallet out of their pocket, but first of all has to take it out of a plastic bag, that’s a most probably a mountain rescue man. If you see someone going for a smoke, and their cigarettes and lighter comes out of their pocket, or bag, in a plastic bag, mountain rescue. This advice wasn’t written down; you either copied what the other chaps did or adopted the method very quickly after your first river crossing.
Imagine, a trialist would be told how to pack his rucksack and that would be exactly the same as the most senior man on the team. One very good reason for this was that it didn’t matter if you were on the hill and discovered that you had someone else’s rucksack. There would be minor differences but each would have precisely the same kit. You would just pray that the fellow was the same size as yourself. However, as you can imagine, the most loveliest legs in Ireland demanded a superior pair of feet to carry them, and there were not that many chaps with size thirteen feet on the team. If a shout went out that six fellows had to get on to a helicopter, that was landing in twenty seconds, you didn’t really worry about which rucksack you picked up.
When you got issued with your rucksack you also got a nine foot long, heavy duty, plastic bag. It had to be laid out flat and then the top would be rolled back, like you would with a pair of shirt sleeves, until the bag was about two feet longer than the rucksack. The bag is now placed inside the rucksack and you begin to fill it with your kit. At the very bottom, a complete change of clothes. Next, would be your wet weather gear, including gloves, mittens and goggles. Next you could have a climbing harness or some rope slings, and a basic first aid kit. Then you would have your sleeping bag and then on the top, your climbing helmet. The pockets on the outside of the ruck sack would contain scran, chocolate bars and fruit and of course your radio. The large flat compartment on the top flap would contain your maps, compass, note book and pencil.
Extra equipment like ice axes and crampons would be attached to the outside of the rucksack. The theory is, or was, that if you found it necessary to bed down for the night, you would simply open your ruck sack, unroll the plastic bag, open out your sleeping bag and get into it. A great idea if it’s throwing it down with rain or snow, however you still end up soaked in the morning as the condensation inside the plastic bag is horrendous. But at least you were warm. Like wetting the bed, but without the embarrassment.
We were out on the hill one day. It was a very sleepy day. The whole area was covered in snow and we were wearing crampons. I hated wearing crampons as if you stumbled there was a good chance you could slice a lump of skin from your leg or ankle. And with legs like mine this was a definite no, no. Certain people, like Stan, loved crampons. He was a real monkey. Super fit too. Stan was a fell runner so the word ‘stop’ didn’t feature in his vocabulary. I remember watching him slip on a pair of crampons and shimmy up a telegraph pole. But then he was the sort of fellow who looked forward to winter and the chance of climbing frozen waterfalls.
Anyway, it was a lovely day and we were bumbling along when Paddy Cross, who was in charge of our little unit, made us stop. He had called for a scran break, so we all took off our ruck sacks and sat on them. After a moment or two Paddy then began to quiz me.
“What’s the fastest way off a mountain?”
I was tempted to say a helicopter but I was sure that that would have been incorrect. I couldn’t remember having been told this rule and wondered if he was referring to the method we used for scree slopes. The fastest way to cover a scree slope was to cause a sort of mini avalanche and ride the wave to the bottom. Slightly dangerous, but highly effective. I was taking too long to answer so Paddy asked me again.
“You’ve just been told to get to a point on the road.” Paddy was pointing at the black ribbon of tarmac that we could see far below us in the valley. “What is the quickest way of getting from here to there?”
We were in two feet of snow so I knew running would be the wrong answer. The Ski-Doo was back at Valley as winter had only just begun. I gave up and admitted that I didn’t know.
“Get your plastic bags out.” It was a simple exercise which just basically meant that our rucksacks were still properly packed, but upside down. He then told us to take our crampons off and attach them to our rucksack. Then put rucksack on. And get into heavy duty plastic bag. Paddy stood there telling me that I had to loop the end of the rope, on my ice axe, around my wrist and use the point of the ice axe as not only a brake, but to steer.
You could see the other chaps disappear off the side of the mountain and I wondered what speeds they were achieving when Paddy pushed me off so that I could find out for myself.
Never mind the amusements in Warrenpoint square losing a customer Alton Towers would never see me again, although I don’t know if it was open then. The coefficient of friction between snow and plastic bags is almost zero and the speed we achieved was thrilling. It is a method of descent that requires some practise. If you jab the tip of your ice axe into the snow, to attempt to decrease your rate of acceleration, you will find that the positioning is very important. It must be directly above your head otherwise you will begin to swing around as you descend. Plus you will find that jabbing the point of your ice axe in the snow too far will result in you understanding that you will either lose a wrist or an arm.
We tumbled into an untidy heap on the valley floor laughing and joking and Paddy smiled and announced that I now knew the fastest way off a mountain. By the way, the same method works perfectly well on grass, however your arse, like a top of the range sat nav, will remember ever rock you pass over on the way down.