Celtic Illumination, part 102, Over the sea to Skye
Please don’t think that we never took any time away from mountain rescue. A couple of times a year we would go away on holiday. I mean the whole team would go. We would move to another area for four weeks and the team responsible for that area would, come into North Wales, and cover our area. This long break would be called the August Grant. We would claim to be on exercise for two weeks and everyone on the team would take two weeks annual leave, giving us the four week total. One year we went to the Isle of Skye.
This is a long time before the bridge was constructed connecting the island Of Skye to the mainland. It was quite an exciting time for me to actually be at the Kyle of Loch Alsh and then, via the old ferry, get on to the Island. For this was a spot referred to in song, and literature, and history, that would remain forever a milestone in your mind. We had to be careful as the vicar on the Island was a real bible thumper and would come down heavy on any wrong doing or lewd behaviour. Luckily we stayed at an old bothy so there was no need for tents. The weather was glorious and we were greeted, and kept company, by the biggest swarm of midges I have ever seen.
As you can imagine this was a fantastic exercise because only a few members of the team would have been there before, so for most of us it was back to basics, with the old maps and compasses. The most important activity we each had to successfully undertake was to complete the Cullen Ridge in one day. This is one of the goals many mountaineers would hope to achieve.
The Cuillin Ridge is only about seven miles long and you are expected to complete the whole ridge in about eighteen hours. It’s a mixture of scrambling and climbing which is why we had to pre-position ourselves up on the ridge ready for the off, at dawn. There are many established goals for mountaineers and a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge is regarded as the finest mountaineering experience available in the UK placing the Cuillin Ridge close to the top.
There are many traditional objectives and records which mountaineers set out to complete, equal or break. The most popular would have to be the Munro’s. Around the nineteen hundreds there was a fellow called Sir Hugh Munro. He recorded all peaks in Scotland above three thousand feet. He compiled all this information into one guide book and the activity, should you attempt to conquer every mountain in his guide, is known as Munro bagging. Many climbers will use the book almost like a train spotter, although without the anorak and thermos. So many people would be engaged in completing, or bagging, the Munro’s, we would refuse to touch any trigonometrical point, marking the individual Munro, and instead say that we were not doing the Munro’s, we would still tick it of in the guide book though.
I think it’s a great way for people to systematically enjoy the Scottish mountains and I would say the same about Wainwright and his guide to the mountains of the Lake District. We however were not collecting points or ticking off peaks. We were going to test ourselves and our skills over an established and highly documented route. This meant that we had to climb up on to the ridge the evening before, spend the night on the ridge and then set off at first light, if we were going to be able to complete the whole ridge in one day. Thankfully we found that the ridge was a midge free zone and it was quite enjoyable getting such a good view of the Island. The following day was not going to allow us many opportunities to enjoy the scenery and the route was horrendous and very much at the white knuckle end of dangerous.
That evening we began to cook our meal. John Boy declared himself duty cook. He prepared a small area and planned out the whole menu for that evening’s meal and for breakfast the following morning. I suppose this is where the five P’s came into play. Prior, planning, prevents, piss, poor, performance. Sorry, the six P’s. Like any decent mountain rescue man, John Boy, prepared everything and then slipped, sending all the food for that evening’s meal, plus all the food for the following morning’s breakfast, into the valley below.
We did have ropes but there are no rivers up on the Cuillin Ridge, so we knew, as did John Boy, that he would have to wait unit we returned to sea level before he would sleep with the fishes. We did have scran with us. Each of us would have had two or three chocolate bars and some fruit in our bags but we would have calculated what we might have wanted for the exercise and taken no more, for the last thing you want on a long hard trek is extra weight.
My memory of the Cuillin Ridge is that it was a horrendous ordeal. From the moment we set off we knew that we were under pressure, to not just complete the route within a certain time, but to be faster than any other unit that would attempt it. A fierce pace had to be maintained and the going was extremely tough. You seemed to move forward for ten yards then scramble down twenty, then climb up twenty, then move forward. There was no break where you could stretch your legs, it was up and down the whole way. Very, very, tiring.
We managed to complete it and believe it or not didn’t go for a beer to celebrate, instead we were content to pull up a sandbag, get a mug of tea, sit around and tell a few stories, oh yeah, and tie John Boy up and thrown him in the river.
I do remember one evening we all piled into a three ton truck and headed off for a local hostelry. I knew that it was my turn to be designated driver. Mid-way through the evening, as I watched the chaps down beer after beer, while I sipped my glass of tap water, Jack called Chippy Prince and myself over to a corner.
“Right you two,” he said, smiling and repeatedly sipping his beer, showing that perhaps he had taken the first steps on the route to being a little the worse for wear. “I want you two to go to the bar and get the barman into a session, that way we can get the bar to stay open longer.”
“But!” I said
“No but’s,” said Jack, rummaging through his head for his team leader persona. “Barman, session, now, you two!”
Chippy and myself did go to the bar and we discovered that the barman was drinking Southern Comfort. Doubles. After half a dozen of these, each, the barman asked if we were trying to get him drunk so that he would keep the bar open longer. Of course as we three were now the bestest of friends, ever, in the world, we admitted that we had been sent on a secret mission. The barman laughed and explained that if we had wanted the bar to stay open longer all we had to do was ask.
That didn’t really help the situation as Jack wanted to know who the duty driver was and the troops pointed to the drunken Irishman lying on the floor, next to Chippy Prince. Luckily there were one or two chaps on the team who didn’t over indulge and the team were able to be taken back to base camp that evening, or should I say, morning.
As for Skye it is a most beautiful place, from the shore line to the top of the Cuillin Ridge. If you ever get a chance go there, you’ll love it, sure even the water is lovely and cool. John Boy can vouch for that, and believe it or not, so can I.