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Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 14 September 2011 2:48am
Dedicated to Mr Michael Palin whose computer space is being used for the following recollections.

Note that although the topic title is a travel story I have added another one and am thinking about a couple more. KD 15/02/13


This is the story of my experiences in climbing Bidean Nam Bian, a 3000 feet high Munro mountain in Glencoe, Scotland many years ago around 1979. At that time I was much younger and a bit fitter than I am now.

I had set my mountain climbing rules quite early. Solo was important because it meant that I could go and climb when it suited me. Fair weather was also necessary because bad weather can make the conditions more dangerous and photography is less appealing if a really good landscape is spoiled by misty conditions. I was using an Olympus OM2 at the time and carried it on most climbs. I also sometimes carried a Vivitar long lens that was nearly as heavy as the camera.

I can't remember how long I had Bidean on my list of mountains to do. It's maybe that I was just looking at a map of the region and decided that there was a route up the beast. Anyway, on closer inspection of the map I decided that the route would be from the main road straight up the gully to the summit but on closer inspection I found that the contours were missing near the top of this route. Missing contours means that the terrain is extremely steep while contours which are close together mean that the terrain is steep. This might require a break left or right to come round onto the summit.

So one evening, when the weather forecast was good for the next day, I decided that tomorrow I would be off on my travels.

I was living in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire at the time, the proud owner of a metallic blue Vauxhall Cavalier Coupe and this would be my transport for the journey to Glencoe. I eventually owned the car for about 20 years, having enjoyed many hours of doing my own servicing and maintenance either on the front driveway with the wheels off or in the garage with the cylinder head removed for a clean up.

I always worked out my timings for a climb but didn't always use the yellow card that could be left with someone to arrange a search party if you went missing. I find it very disappointing that some climbers these days take a mobile phone with them and expect the emergency services to cover for their incompetence (to put it bluntly). It's also worth remembering that in remote areas, and perhaps some not so remote, mobile phones do not work. I've just been to check and my 35 year old yellow card was still in my rucksack and the last climb on it is Carauntoohill, the highest mountain in Ireland which I attempted on 29/9/06 but that's another story. (Palinites may remember this escapade as I mentioned it here at the time).

The next morning I got up early and made preparations for the day. These days if I'm going to attempt a difficult climb I'll have a mountaineers breakfast which for me bacon, egg, beans, orange juice, cereal (maybe), tea with sugar and toast with butter and marmalade - not all on the one plate or necessarily in that order!

After breakfast I checked my rucksack was packed with survival rations. I call it survival rations after years of experience but some people just call it kit.

So, when I was sure everything was set fine I set off on the 100 mile (approximately) drive from Helensburgh to Glencoe. As usual the journey was very scenic up the A82 (mostly), through Tyndrum and over Rannoch Moor to arrive at the start point after about 2 hours.

The parking area gave me my first view of the climb and I was able to look into the gully approach. I couldn't see the summit yet.

Pulling on my smallish rucksack I set off and as most climbers will know, the easy sections are a bit of a trudge but care has to be taken where the ground is rocky and/or steep, It was the case here that after an easy rise into the gully it got steeper such that at times I had to pick my way carefully between the occasional rocks that lay on the bottom. At one point I had to cross the very narrow stream from left to right and was thankful for my fair weather climbing policy because if it had been raining this would have made the section much more difficult. Part way up this section I would have stopped for a break or two to review progress and the landscape.

The higher I climbed the more comfortable I became with the effort. It usually took me about 20 minutes to get into a rhythmic comfortable pace but here the terrain in some places broke the rhythm.

Towards the top of this section the front face of the mountain opened up before me and it was symmetrical left and right, rising steeply in the centre. The top looked like a flattened point.

I moved up some more and decided I had reached the place where I would have to make the decision to break left or right. I decided to go right because once I got to the top I could move on left off the summit and go down one of the other gullies in that direction.

A steep climb got me up to the right hand ridge and I started to ease left towards the summit on much flatter terrain.

Then a strange thing happened. I met someone. They were Chinese or Japanese. What surprised me most was that they were dressed for a day out to the shops or the beach. I didn't say hello because we were both making good progress and a short time later he disappeared - I think back down the way he had come up. I looked over that side of the ridge and it was very steep. I am assuming now that he was a Chinese mountaineer preparing for an assault on Nanga Parbat or Shisha Pangma in the Himalaya.

Quite relieved, I arrived at the top of the flattened point. I thought this was the summit but when I looked round I saw the actual summit was set back about another 1/2 to 3/4 mile from where I was standing. This set back was in line with the main gully I had come up. The other type of set back was the extra distance I had to do to get to the real summit and then come back the same way to get off the mountain.

I can't remember if I had a major intake of survival rations at the flattened top or the real summit but it would definitely have been one or the other.

For food I usually carried mixed nuts and raisins, salted crisps, an apple, a chocolate bar and a piece of cake. I don't recommend taking a chocolate bar on a winter climb as it goes rock hard with the cold. If you can break it then smaller pieces can be sucked until they melt - the longer lasting way to enjoy chocolate!

I rested on the summit and had a good look round and put simply, the view was mountainous. I was definitely on the highest point within a few miles and with this knowledge I knew that I had conquered the beast.

Thinking back, I'm sure this mountain was the one that firmed up my belief that the climb is not over until until you are back at the start point, or base camp as they say in the Himalaya or other big mountains around the world.

I left the summit and made my way back to the flattened point, turning right to head along the fairly easy ridge that would take me to the next gully downwards.

I arrived at the saddle at the top of the gully and got a fright. Its downslope was steeper than anything I had climbed up. I had to assess the situation. The centre surface of the gully was well worn and the sides were too steep to negotiate. I sat down and thought, 'I'm stuck'. I don't think I realized it at the time but the wear on the centre of the gully was a sign that it had been well used. I had a decision to make and I was taking my time about making it.

Then a wonderful thing happened. From my seat on the ground I was looking straight down the gully to my exit route and in the distance was the famous rocky ridge in Glencoe. I can't remember its name but I believe it or part of it is called The Chancellor. While I was looking across at this ridge I saw two jets flying, in formation at the end of the glen that the gully I was at the top of opened up into. There were two amazing things about this sighting. Firstly, the aircraft were at an altitude lower than me - I was looking down at them. Secondly, they had almost disappeared before I heard them! I don't remember taking any photographs on this climb but I had my camera with me because I remember mentally kicking myself that the camera was in the rucksack when the two jets passed. And in saying that I probably photographed 'The Chancellor' and the nearer glen after the jets passed.

Wallowing in the wonder of what I had just seen I still had a decision to make and without much more delay I decided I had to go down the gully. So, holding on to whatever tufts of grass or heather I could find at the edge of the worn drop I precariously stepped over the edge to make my way down. On the surface I found it was worn down to grit although the layer of grit was quite thin or non existent. This made it slippery but the combination of my Zamberlan boots and the tufts of grass seemed to work OK. I proceeded very cautiously until I noticed the steepness of the surface ease slightly until eventually I was able to move without holding the tufts. A short time later the gritty surface opened up to a flat river bed and I was able to walk upright fairly easily to the exit of the glen.

It was about a mile or so from here back to the car and I don't remember anything about that last mile other then the the fact that in walking it I would have been euphoric at having conquered Bidean Nam Bian and two of the big gullys in Glencoe.


Important note: Having found the map that was actually used to plan the route for the climb it shows that my recollections are not quite correct. Everything is correct up to the summit. After that, instead of heading back to the 'flattened point' (which I now know was Stob Coire nan Lochan) I turned onto the ridge leaving Bidean to the South East and it was after about a mile along this ridge where I got temporarily stuck at the top of the gully.

The map also shows the date of the climb, 24 July 1984, 5 years later than I remembered. Having moved to Scotland in 1976 that gave me nearly 8 years climbing experience before tackling a big one.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 18 September 2011 8:00am
Additional minor information added to the main text.

Minor improvements made on 24 Nov 2011.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by suzulu on 19 September 2011 7:14pm
An interesting account of your climb. The descent sounds hair-raising! Amazing that you were higher than the jets!
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 23 September 2011 12:43pm
Amazingly, my wife was having a clear out and came across the old photo album containing a photograph from the start of the climb. I'll put the link to it here in a few days, provided Holle is still able to do our photos through his Flickr account.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 24 September 2011 11:14am
I've added a link to the photo in the first message. The only way I've been able to get the link to work so far is by copying and pasting into the browser address field.

Thanks for the improvement to the photo Holle, the heather would have been more that colour in the summer.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 29 November 2011 9:38pm
I have updated the text of the main story to improve and correct it and in my research for the corrections I came across another route I did which got me to the top of 3 Munros in one day. These were Ben Lui, Ben Oss and Ben Dubhcrag. The story of that climb is for another day and the main things I remember are that it was a lovely sunny day and the walk out back to the car, after summiting the 3rd mountain, was very long and tiring because I was completely exhausted.

On another day I also remember climbing Ben Cruachan on the route known as The Cruachan Horseshoe.

It is quite satisfying for me to remember these climbs, and the experience of the wild open spaces, as they were all done solo.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 15 February 2013 1:56am
Here is another one. Once again it was many years ago and I'm sure I would have been checking the Ordnance Survey map for another one to climb and I came across Tarmachan, a Munro in central Scotland. The map showed an access road that could get me to within 6 or 7Km of the summit. The route went West and North and looked a good climb. I don't remember doing a serious winter climb before and this was to be my first shot at one.
The day arrived and I parked near a dwelling at the end of the access road and after doing the usual equipment checks I set off. It was cold but dry with no snow and the early part of the climb went quite well. As usual I climbed steady, resting occasionally to check the view. I don't remember anything spectacular about the view so I plodded on.
The plodding onwards and upwards took about 2 to 3 hours until after crossing a crest the summit appeared about 2 to 3 hundred yards ahead. It was quite a bit colder here and although the wind wasn't strong I sat down in the lee of the triangulation point or cairn at the top.
During lunch I felt quite tired and was surprised to discover that my boot laces had frozen solid. There was no damp in the air and with the bootlace material being of cloth I estimate that the temperature was about minus 10 degrees centigrade (Celsius). This temperature was of some concern as I was feeling tired and there was a risk of exposure. With this in mind I left the summit, not too quickly.
When I do a climb it is either a circular route or a retrace steps route and on this one it was a retrace steps because of the conditions. I can't remember if I had planned a circular route but on reflecting I'm sure I didn't because there were no other tops nearby.
Not far off the summit I came to a hollow which I hadn't passed on the way up so I sat down in it for some shelter. I felt my tiredness worsen and thought, 'You're in difficulty here.' What to do? Because I was in a strange hollow I checked my Ordinance Survey map and took a compass bearing back towards the summit, which I couldn't see, and checking the route off against the map I got up and headed in the right direction. The next section was difficult as I knew I had been caught out bu the conditions but the fact that I had started moving again meant my circulation and energy expenditure was keeping me warm.
Fortunately, as I descended the temperature rose (it's about 1 degree for every 300 feet in height) and I gradually began to feel more comfortable. The next hour or two continued with easing difficulty until I was back at the car. I remember thinking, 'That was a close one but you've done it.'
I have done winter climbs since but they haven't been as problematic as this one.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 15 February 2013 5:48pm
Test for paging loss.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 15 February 2013 7:02pm
I have another 2 recollections for you. Would you prefer 1) Ben Lui, Ben Oss and Beinn Dubhcrag or 2) Ben Nevis?
I see I have summarized number 1) in an earlier post so you can look forward to Ben Nevis next.
Re: Stuck on a mountain - a travel story. by Ken Dunn on 28 April 2017 7:13am
Brought forward for reference.

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