This weekend, I went up to the Highlands for a couple days of climbing with herr honk and my Old Guy Climbing Pal (hereafter OGCP; for context, OGCP is 70 years old, a former gymnast, and an absolutely legendary elite rock climber and mountaineer). Our plan: one day of chillax climbing on a route called North Buttress and one day of more serious climbing on a different area, both on the same mountain.
So, let me describe this mountain. Here’s the business end:
You can see that it’s a complex place, hardly just an up and down pyramidal heap of rock and grass. There’s a lot of topography and structure going on, and it’s understandably popular with the climbing crowd since there is such a variety of routes on good hard rock with good friction. However, this season it’s been consistently wet and some of the climbing routes have been getting overgrown with algae and moss, and more territory than usual is slippery, rubbly, and dangerous. There’s also a very nice tourist path around the other side:
where the orange line shows where the walking area is. For the most part, it’s a straightforward if strenuous walk. You can’t shut your brain off for it entirely - it’s not exactly paved underfoot, but it’s non-technical hiking.
Now, here’s another picture of the business end, this time with labels!
Red line: our climbing route (ascent left, descent left)
Orange arrow: Curved Ridge, or the subject of the story’s intended descent
Black arrow: North Buttress top where we began to descend
Yellow circle: point where subject of the story was rescued/where we found him
Shadowy area to the right of yellow circle: Great Gully (left hand wall of Great Gully is called Slime Wall)
OKAY, on to the story. Anyway, this was our Saturday route - up North Buttress (left red line), a “shortcut” across below the summit beginning at the black arrow, and a descent down Great Gully Buttress on the right hand red line up there and crossing into Great Gully itself to regain the path out. I’ve done it without rope before, but frankly I prefer it as pitched climbing since the penalty clauses for mucking it up are pretty significant. We took minimal equipment and a single 60 m lightweight rope - about half the gear you would pack for a more serious route. I tell you this to impress on you the technical nature of the area there. It’s not hiking, it’s not walking, it’s very much climbing territory. Up we went, maybe 3-4 enjoyable and straightforward pitches, until OGCP decided “let’s not go to the summit, we’ve all been there loads of times!” and encouraged us to take a shortcut to a different descent route. (Now, I should know better than this, as any route or shortcut suggested by OGCP is generally mental, but, well, oops.) We went teetering over some of the most dangerous ground I’ve been on - sloping slabs of rock scattered with loose rubble, wet turfs, and algal slime, with several hundred feet of air not far away dropping into Great Gully. For future reference, fuck that.
As we made our way round this ridiculous “shortcut” and got to the top of Great Gully Buttress on the other side - which I should make clear is ALSO not a walker’s path - we started hearing muffled yelling. We all thought it was a climbing pair shouting belay commands and stuff, but it became clear that it was happening too regularly. Then we decided it must be an amorous goat down in the valley getting ready for the rutting season. But... then we rounded a corner and the voice became clearer. It was a guy, alone on the cliff where that yellow circle is, shouting for help. There was absolutely no chance of reaching him - he was about 50 m away over a gulf of empty air, with all of Slime Wall below him. He was surprisingly close to where we had just been climbing on North Buttress - if we’d for some reason wandered around to the right, we might even have stumbled on him, but he was definitely not on the route proper. Furthermore, he was nowhere near anywhere that walkers - or most climbers, and no one that day - would have sensibly been.
We shouted back to him and learned that he’d fallen and broken his ankle, then dropped his phone when he took it out to call for help. He’d been sitting there for 3-4 hours at that point. Herr honk’s mobile phone had signal, so I phoned 999 and gave location advice and assessed the angle and his condition as best I could from that far away. I got passed between a few operators, one of whom was quite quizzical as to why we couldn’t just walk there, and eventually got transferred to the helicopter pilot since Mountain Rescue usually has team members who are intimately familiar with the local climbing routes and features. We stayed with the guy for awhile until the helicopter started clattering in. I’m always impressed by high angle rescue and this was no different; that’s some precision flying right there.
So let’s now get to the reason I’m writing this post, and the moral of the story. THIS GUY WAS DEEPLY, DEEPLY FOOLISH. He walked in up the tourist path (second photo, marked in orange) alone, with very little mountaineering experience, and decided it was “too easy” so wanted to go down Curved Ridge. That itself is (a) hard to find your way onto, (b) has a start in admidst some very dangerous and technical ground, and (c) is a serious scramble that mountaineering guides usually take clients out on for their first roped experience. Our man here had only just picked up hiking - not climbing - and had only about 15-20 mountains under his belt, all on well-marked paths. He also didn’t have good information as to the topography of this mountain, and had simply strolled off the summit in the opposite direction to the path he’d walked up on - which took him right over the nose of North Buttress. He read on the internet that you don’t need climbing equipment for Curved Ridge, which is technically true for some people, but not for beginners, and DEFINITELY not if you’re a beginner and trying to descend the route rather than ascend it. (For the uninitiated: on technical ground, going down is far harder than up!) So not only did he have a terrible plan, he was miles away from both his terrible plan AND from safe ground. Then he kept on going! He knew he was off path, but kept dropping down ledge by ledge trying to work out where he was until his final ledge, when he slipped over an edge, caught his fingertips, and then fell where we found him. In short, if he HADN’T broken his ankle there, he probably would have heaved himself right down over Slime Wall trying to find his way down, where we’d have found his body an hour later when we crossed that bit of Great Gully. He’s even luckier because if his fall hadn’t been anything but precise, he’d have slid, been unable to catch it (rubble! slime! grass!), and ended up going right over that edge.
Guys. Don’t do that! Don’t do that! Don’t FUCKING DO THAT! This man had nearly died of Dunning-Kruger effect, by learning the bare minimum of mountains in Scotland, and having no fecking clue as to all the important stuff he DOESN’T know. Take this shit seriously. Take an instructor-led class, go out with people who know what they’re about, make sure you know where NOT to go and how not to make decisions that would get you there.
So right now I’m teetering between telling this guy how foolish he was and washing my hands of the situation. I think he realizes it was a serious situation, but he’s shown an appalling lack of knowledge for someone attempting this and other things he’s talking about. I don’t know why I feel a sense of responsibility here except that the way he’s talking, I reckon I’m going to find him on another mountain in six months or so and have to phone the fucking chopper again. On the other hand, as angry as I am with him, it’s kind of a relief to know that this happened because someone was being really stupid. I can control for stupid in myself and in the people I am in the mountains with. What freaks me out more is when something terrible or potentially terrible happens because of random happenstance. In the end, I hope he’s going to take his recovery time to learn, reflect, and absorb his terror in a way that enables rather than cripples.
If you made it this far, thanks for coming to my ted talk.