If you’re going to do any hillwalking or mountaineering at all in Scotland, then one of the most fundamental things you have to learn is the difference between summer and winter. You can summarise that difference like this; winter is serious.
That’s not to imply that the hills in summer are without any risk – they aren’t. But winter is a much, much bigger deal. You have to contend with constant sub-zero temperatures, terrible windchill, pitifully short daylight hours, increased energy expenditure, and the many different risks associated with walking on snow across steep terrain.
I was ignorant of all of that at age 19.
These days I find ignorance kind of fascinating, because I’m interested in how people make sensible decisions while engaging in risk-inherent sports and activities. Ignorance of risk is not the same thing as stupidity, but it looks a lot like it sometimes. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and experience that can lead to bad decision making. The difference I think, between the two is how you react to a situation when you get the information you were previously lacking.
That reminds me of another saying. Experience is what you get immediately after you needed it.
The next several parts of my story are about ignorance, stupidity, and experience.
A few years ago, with plenty more than 19 years now under my belt, and the waistline to prove it, I was with a group of friends going out for a day in the Cairngorms in winter. It’s an amazing place to explore in the harsh season – as all mountains are under snow. But it’s no joke. The weather alone can kill in this place, and most years it does claim a life or two.
The six of us were garbed head to toe in the warmest clothes we owned. It’s no exaggeration to say we were dressed for polar conditions. Our human figures were distorted by strange bulges from heavily insulated jackets, big rucksacks and smooth round helmets. Our faces were enlarged by ski masks, buffs and goggles. Walking axes dangled from our arctic gloves, and our heavy boots were adorned by the spikes of crampons. We stood in a loose circle, alone in a world of white. The wind fluttered and rattled at us, the cloud pressed in. From the very start it was a total whiteout. Visibility zero.
We were chatting amiably, discussing the finer points of our plan for the day, when out of the whiteness two figures emerged. As they drew closer we made room to let them pass. Our group fell into a surprised silence as we took in their skinny jeans, trainers, and faux-fur trimmed hoods. Heads down to the wind, the man in front walked with eyes glued to a phone held in thin gloves. The lady following behind – presumably girlfriend, seemed to have no gloves at all. Neither carried so much as a rucksack. They walked through the centre of our group without a word, and off into the whiteness.
We exchanged glances, and then someone made a dark joke about calling the funeral home or the mountain rescue first. Aloud, someone wondered what they were thinking, and whether seeing us dressed as we were for these arctic conditions hadn’t given them any pause for thought. But inwardly, to myself, I knew that I had been just like them once. Ignorant.
In my early days at university I had made one of the best decisions of my life, when I joined the student mountaineering club. I was rubbish at sports in school. Team sports have weird dynamics when you’re a kid. For instance, in football your popularity mattered at least as much as how well you could actually play. Sometimes there was a proportional relationship between the two factors, but in my case I was just good enough and just unpopular enough to be permanently assigned as goal keeper. As far away from the cool kids of my own team as possible, but with enough responsibility to always bear all the blame if we lost.
I hated team sports. But I was equally rubbish at competing alone in athletics. Good enough to contend, never good enough to win. Plus, being slightly asthmatic didn’t help me get fit.
Climbing was a revelation. I may not have had enough power to throw a javelin very far, but I had plenty of strength to lift myself off the ground. In fact it turned out that my rake-thin frame was almost ideal for climbing. I was light enough to keep my weight close to the wall, with minimal strain on my arms. My limbs were outrageously long, too, easily able to snake this way and that across a wall for the best holds. Vertical movement came naturally to me, and my body responded to the regular exercise by rapidly building core and limb strength. Climbing made me feel physically good in a way I never had before.
The other brilliant thing about climbing was that it was a team game, but one where everybody was on the same side. If you were climbing then you always had a belayer – someone holding the rope and using their own weight as a counterbalance if you fell off. It made for a strong bond, as you were always part of the climb even if you were the one belaying. Often there would be other teams on the ropes to left and right of you, and plenty of banter between all concerned. The other great thing was that experienced climbers were often paired with beginners to literally show them the ropes.
It was fun, satisfying and very social. I discovered that the other students in the climbing club were a lot like me – there were a lot of nerds. I loved climbing immediately, and I quickly made friendships through the sport which were among the best I’d ever had. Plus, social groups at university are not nearly as age-segregated as those in school, so there was no shortage of slightly older people who had more experience, more skill, and seemingly unending tales of adventure and fun. The people made mountains enticing.
The Season. That was a phrase that you heard a lot. Winter. The climbing season. You see, rock climbing is a summer thing, but the real climbing was done in winter. Winter is for mountaineering and ice climbing. I mean ice climbing! It’s just obviously better, isn’t it? It seemed that way to me at the time.
I was very, very eager to get into it. After all I was already well used to hillwalking, had decent outdoor skills and the appetite to go much further. And so, one April morning near the end of my first year, I found myself with a pal in Arrochar, our heart set on the Cobbler.
The Cobbler is one of Scotland’s most famous hills. Its proper name is Ben Arthur, but it gets its name from its northern peak – a great leaning pyramid of broken stone that has the appearance of an old man hunched over a workbench. It’s an iconic, beautiful, fearsome looking peak that lies not far north of the area I grew up in.
We weren’t actually planning to climb as such; we just wanted to reach the summit of the mountain. Chris had zero experience in winter hills, while I had just the one winter day on Ben Bouie where Alex and I had messed around with our ice axes last winter. In fact, I’d never even climbed the Cobbler in summer before – not that I recalled at least. So, it was a bit of a shock as we drove down the road from Tarbert, and rounded the bend where you can see the full height and shape of the mountain rearing up above Loch Long. Our eyes swung up toward our rapidly ascending eyebrows as we took in the full height and shape of our objective.
‘Bloody hell. We’re not going up there are we?’
‘I think so…’
Wow indeed. Despite the fact that the glens were free of snow, the higher tops were still in their winter coats. The hill looked like a vast fortress of rock and snow. Huge cliff faces of black among white streaks. The north and south summits (the Cobbler has 3) had the appearance of devil’s horns. To be perfectly honest, it looked very threatening. I realised for the first time that we really were talking about mountaineering here, not hillwalking. But we were not to be put off. We had far too much optimism and far too little experience for such nonsense as second thoughts, and set off in good spirits.
Something else we didn’t have much of was appropriate equipment. Both of us were more than half dressed in military surplus gear that we still had from our days in the air cadets, topped off with a warmish jumper and some rather poor quality waterproofs. Chris didn’t even have any gloves – something that I would come to regret, because being a good pal, I gave him mine. What did I get by with? A spare pair of black cotton parade socks that I had chucked in the bag so I could have something over my hands after my gloves got soaked. Why on earth I didn’t give Chris the socks and keep the gloves I don’t know. Chris himself wore army boots that probably dated from the Falklands War, and was topped off with a ridiculous floppy, broad rimmed hat.
We trod the approach path to the hill in high spirits, ascending beyond the snow line and into a greyish whiteness flecked with dark stones. It was around this time that we spotted the other people on the mountain – two older guys with grizzled faces and rather superior looking clothes and boots. All the shiny kit they had looked nice, but I was pretty sure we wouldn’t need anything like that.
Finally we stood beneath the slopes of the Cobbler itself, ready to begin the ascent. It would have been an excellent time to have known which way to go. The two obviously experienced guys had passed us and were storming on ahead, up the middle of the hill toward the lowest point in the skyline. It would have been a reasonable bet to assume they knew where they were going. On the other hand, how could we know they were going to the same place we wanted to go? They might be going somewhere much more difficult, judging by their kit. You see, I had just enough second-hand wisdom at that point to leap to the wrong conclusion.
At this moment I put my faith in Chris, who had been up this hill before. Maybe. He thought so. He pointed to our right, with absolute confidence, directly toward the biggest and baddest looking lump of rock I’d ever seen, and declared that the correct way forward. The fact that he was pointing up a startlingly steep fissure in the bare rock, filled with snow, clear ice, frozen bits of grass and gravel – a gully that led to completely invisible and unknown parts of the mountain – did nothing to deter me. After all, it was our enthusiasm for such prospects that had brought us here. Adventure was exactly what we wanted.
We had no climbing equipment. No crampons, no axes, no rope, no harnesses, no helmets, no protection, no winter boots. In my case, no gloves even (again, why?) My only plan for such steep and icy terrain was to take the rubber tips off my walking poles, and wield the pole like elongated daggers into the ice. It had seemed to work for Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare.
My camera had run out of battery long before we started upwards, so today I’m not exactly sure where on the mountain we were, or precisely how steep it truly was. But I’m certain it was steep enough to have ‘consequences’ if we fell. Cheerfully ignorant of that fact and of anything else, we began.
I went first. I came to grips with the snow and ice in my sock-clad hands (whyyyyyyyy?) and did my best to kick my soft summer boots into the snow, or else find holds on the slippery stone or grass. Based on later experience, it was a bit like a Grade 2 winter climb, for those of you who know what that means. Probably not that hard in the grand scheme of things, but context matters.
After several minutes of huffing and puffing, getting higher and higher with every forward motion, the gully came to an end. It opened out and I clambered up onto a vaguely flat snowy shelf. Maybe this was the way indeed? Chris came up beside me, his hands no doubt cosy and warm while mine were soggy and frozen, and joined me to survey the situation. The way forward was not obvious. Directly above us reared near vertical crags of bare black rock, receding into mucky clouds. We searched to our right to see if there was a way around it, but the flat piece of ground ended in a sudden drop and a grey void.
Oh. We searched the other way, to our left, but found a similar abyss on that side too.
Oh. It seemed we were essentially stuck on a plateau. We looked at the rock above, but fortunately we weren’t dumb enough to try and climb that.
This obviously wasn’t the way after all, so we did the only thing we could think of, and started clambering back down the gully we’d climbed.
For purposes of narrative it would be great if I could say that something particularly interesting or remarkable happened on the way back down the gully, that we realised then and there how stupid we’d been, but it simply didn’t happen that way. We had to climb down, so we just… did. I no longer have a clear picture of it in my mind, but I don’t remember it being that hard. Maybe it wasn’t nearly as bad as retelling made it seem, but then again… no it was pretty dangerous. We were high enough that it mattered, terribly equipped and descending treacherously slippy terrain. A pair of parade socks and a blunt set of walking poles were not going to help much if things started to slide.
I said the difference between ignorance and stupidity lies in how you react to the new experience you’ve gained. By that definition, we probably were stupid. We were a little embarrassed about the mistake, but we didn’t really grasp the risk we were had just put ourselves in. Maybe we were just blasé about it. After all, we were mountaineering! Some risk had to be assumed didn’t it?
We found ourselves back where we started, and this time we chose to follow the tracks of the other pair up the easier looking snow slope to the horizon. At one point Chris plunged knee deep into a bog, but apart from that we had no difficulties with the ascent. Then, as we topped out on the ridge, we found ourselves in a fierce wind with very little visibility. Just enough to see the ridgeline of the hill snaking off ahead of us. The opposite side of the hill had been stripped of snow by the wind, so it was actually much easier to see the details of the terrain on that side. We were very wet, and very cold, and we’d had enough now. We ignored the path to the summit and continued along the shoulders of the hill, descending on more easy ground to the glen, and then back to the car. We’d still climbed most of the mountain, and done something pretty exciting. Our tails were not between our legs, but in the end we just got fed up of the weather.
It was a long time ago now. I wish I knew exactly where it was that we went, and where on the mountain we were when we found ourselves on a plateau, surrounded on every side by cliffs. I look at photos of the mountain and try to figure it out, but I just don’t know. All I do know is that on that day we were the people everyone else on the hill was worrying about. The kid who runs across a street oblivious to the car that passes behind them. We did something that could have ended badly, but it didn’t, so we weren’t bothered by it. Although we had wide, staring eyes by the end of the day, I’m sure that it was mostly just due to tiredness.
Some people shake their heads and mutter dark words when inexperienced people get into trouble on the hills. ‘Where is their common sense?’ they ask. But ignorance doesn’t work like that. If you don’t know anything about the rules of the place, then there is no reservoir of experience to draw sense from. It also overlooks the fact that many of us only become experienced in the hills by surviving our own mistakes, and they aren’t always that obvious. Our learning experience often consists of trial and error; getting in and out of situations and then learning how not to do it again. In fact there is a potential advantage in learning that way – because you know how to solve problems, and you know that you can. You’ve done it before. And let’s not forget that even people who do have plenty of experience still make poor choices sometimes.
The Cobbler was my first experience of winter in the Scottish hills. It was a pretty dumb thing to do. It was also great fun. In future years I’d come to be the person offering a nugget of wisdom to those obviously about to put themselves at senseless risk, but I’d always try remember that I had been them, and that I didn’t have any right to be gate-keeper to the mountains. Maybe they are about to do something silly, but they have every right to do something silly if they want. That’s one part of what the freedom of the hills means; the freedom to make your own mistakes.
Chris went off to the army shortly after our snowy adventure, and in a few years he was taking risks of a different kind in Afghanistan. For me it was just the beginning of my time with the mountaineering club. I knew enough about mountains to know we’d done it wrong this time, but we’d also gotten away with it, and wanted to learn how to do it better. There were obvious learning points – our equipment, our preparation, our route finding. All things that I could correct or pay more attention to next time. The one thing I was certain about was that I wanted a next time.
The couple who wandered off into the snow on Cairngorm? We never saw them again. But there was no bad news. I assume they made something of their own moment of ignorance.