NPC Journal 4(1), Jan 1987, pp 38-39

A Day on the Hill with two Gentlemen

Harry (Eski) Hesketh

When the Reverend Millington and his man, Roebuck, had invited me on a short walk, "Merely to determine the condition of the snow, old chap", I had accepted gladly, yet now, as we stood in the snow-filled wastes of Coire an Lochain, I began to doubt myself. Then, as I gazed in awe at the icy crags surrounding us I realised that we were not alone and my spirit was lifted at the tiny specks of humanity clinging grimly to the precipitous snow, moving heroically ever upwards. Millington, however, was not impressed by their efforts. He declared forcefully that these men were not gentlemen and that we should seek a route to the summit unsullied by their passage. Gesturing towards an untouched section of the cliffs he commanded, "Marche ! Piolet Yeti."

His keen eyes had seen a narrow gully, quite vertical, and capped by a monstrous cornice, which he made our goal. Several hundreds of feet below this cornice, the Reverend suggested that I should, perhaps, tie on to the sharp end of his hillwalker's confidence line, which I did, but after advancing a few more feet I found that I could go no higher and retreated to the tiny stance hacked free from the living ice by my steadfast companion.

"It will not go." I said, but, "It must!" replied Millington and, taking the line from me, he sped up the gully. In the twinkling of an eye he ran out a full rope length then, disdaining Roebuck's advice to find a belay, carried on climbing. Watching them disappear into the stratosphere - the Reverend Millington pursued by a hundred feet of purple rope, the end of which jiggled tantalisingly inches ahead of the advancing Roebuck - I had to admit that I was slightly out of my depth. I therefore made haste to find an easier way to the top of the climb, and, within the hour, stood on the rocky western tip of its awesome jaws.

Dear Friends, I am not ashamed to admit that the black terror which lurks within all men crept into my soul as I gazed into those awful depths but I was greatly heartened by the sight of my brave companions. Roebuck stood on his crampon points beneath a huge cornice delicately balanced, one hand against the ice as he struck mighty blows at the frozen tidal wave above. His lifeline dropped, unhindered, vertically to where the Reverend Millington was belayed, although 'belay' is hardly the correct term for an ice-axe rotating gently in the breeze. (Millington obviously found this movement nothing more than a distraction from his meditative state, for I saw him quite deliberately avert his face from it.)

Impelled by a desire to watch a master at work from close quarters, I moved to the corniced area, but not before belaying my right ankle to the shaft of my alpenstock. I was wise to do so for the snowy lip slowly collapsed leaving me suspended upside down over the abyss. To add to my embarassment, my bandolier of slings and karabiners unfolded gracefully to end as a neat etrier from my throat, dangling enticingly a few feet out in space from the good Roebuck. Quickly sensing my dismay, Roebuck swung onto the makeshift ladder and was up it and over my body so quickly that I did not discover the crampon wounds for several hours. He hauled me back to firm ground and brought up Millington who charmingly amused us for some time by dallying under the cornice, demonstrating several methods of attacking it.

The hour was now late, and lesser men were heading homeward, but Millington gently insisted that we should press on to the summit which we duly did and though I expressed delight when we eventually reached the summit cairn, my good companions were at pains to point out that the scenery really was much better in daylight. It was at this point that I began to appreciate the humour of these two grand fellows and I joined wholeheartedly in the ensuing game of 'being lost'. Balancing delicately along, the ebony sky being mirrored in the inky depths below; the creaking and groaning of the snow slopes echoed by the stage whispers that, "Slab avalanches are a very rare occurrence on the West coast".

At last we descended and, when they were quite sure that I was safe, my companions allowed me to walk ahead so that I might savour the solitude of the hills, but they could not resist one last little joke. As I sat waiting on the bridge overlooking the River Coe I could hear them in the darkness going up and down, up and down the river bank gaily chiding one another and pretending once more to be lost. Such delightful chaps !

J.Eyre cartoon - 26k GIF

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