I discovered the joys of Glen Coe back in the early 80s. Before that it was just a name associated with big mountains, bare chested climbing and the infamous massacre. At first I felt way out of my depth whenever I visited Glen Coe, or more accurately, when I visited the Clachaig Inn at the foot of the glen. The surrounding mountains are steep and forbidding, often shrouded in mist and rain, and to a young hillwalker the people in the pub were equally intimidating! "Belching, scratching and farting" was how my mate Clive once described the denizens of the Clachaig. I remember seeing lots of familiar faces from climbing magazines in the bar, many sadly now dead, and their tales of daring do seemed way beyond anything I was capable of.
But over the next few years my skills increased, and slowly but surely I found that I was turning into one of the belchers, scratchers and farters! It was great to turn up late on a Friday evening, after a 400 mile drive, and be recognised by the bar staff. I even started to have friends who I only ever bumped into at The Clachaig, or on the surrounding hills. I love Glen Coe at all times of year, but in winter everything moves up another level and the mountains attain a grandeur way above their relatively low altitude.
While I was enjoying myself in the wilds of Scotland, my mate Clive was busy bringing up a young family, but eventually he grew tired of my stories and decided he wanted to join me on one of my Glen Coe winter weekends. By now I had found that waiting for good weather in Scotland was a foolish thing to do. I generally decided to go whatever the weather, and had always had a great time. The classic big winter days were at least equalled by wet and windy wash outs, but I usually found something to climb and never had a wasted trip. Until the one with Clive that is....
Off We GoIt would be impossible to drive to Glen Coe on the Saturday, do some climbing, then return on the Sunday, a round trip of 800 miles. But in those days we rarely had the luxury of being able to take both the Friday and Monday off work. So generally it was drive up Friday, climb Saturday and Sunday, then drive back totally knackered, arriving home after midnight, with hopefully enough energy to get to work Monday morning. I'd got this down to a fine art, but Clive lived a further 100 miles south of me, and he was determined to do the driving, was this taking on too much?
The innocence, and stupidity, of youth prevailed. Clive arrived at my house late morning. We packed the car, ignored the diabolical weather forecast, and set off on the well worn track north. At this time of year the sun sets in Scotland by 4pm, so much of the journey was in the dark. Clive was eager to try out his new gear; plastic boots, crampons, ice axe (yes we were expecting snow despite the rain forecast), and more than anything he wanted to try out his new mountain tent.
The journey went quickly, non-stop conversation about the weekend ahead. Comparing options depending on the weather, me regailing Clive with stories about the Clachaig and all the great times I'd had there. We were ready for anything, or so we thought.
Things Get RoughAs we drove over Rannoch Moor we noticed that the car was being buffeted by the wind. "Don't worry" I said, "it will be a lot more sheltered down by the Clachaig". Clive smiled back, obviously reassured by my greater local knowledge.
But down at the pub it wasn't more sheltered at all. The easterly gale was being funnelled down the glen, and we had a job getting the car doors open against it. Wild camping is severely restricted in Glen Coe these days, and rightly so. It had become so popular, over 100 tents some weekends, that the pollution was threatening to destroy the beauty we were there to experience. But back then you could go more or less wherever you wanted, so with our head torches on we scrabbled around in the wind looking for a sheltered spot. There was no shelter, only places with a raging gale, and places where you struggled to even stand up, so the raging gale it was then.
There were lots of other tents already up, and more arriving by the minute. It was like a war zone, with extra strong gusts of wind hurtling down the glen like an express train. You heard them coming and braced yourself until they passed, then tried to get as much tent up as possible before the next one hit. It took over an hour to put our tents up, when normally we would have taken less than 5 minutes. Around us people were poking each other in the eye with flailing poles, and several brightly coloured pieces of nylon disappeared into the night sky on invisible wings.
But eventually we had got all the extra guy ropes pegged down, stones weighted down the pegs, and we were confident that the tents were up for the duration. We retired to the pub.
We noticed the increasingly haunted faces staggering in as the night wore on, late arrivals, fresh from their struggles with their tents, get another beer in Clive!
I've had some magical nights in the Clachaig. Watching as newcomers put their expensive clothing on the wood burners to dry out, then finding they have shrunk or caught fire! My old dog sneaking behind the bar and eating crisps out of the box. If I tried that I'd have been banned, but somehow she used to roll her eyes at the bar staff when caught, and she always got away with it. Scottish beer and Tex-Mex food, a strange but compelling combination, especially at 3am! Happy days.
Eventually the band finished and people started to drift back outside. Clive and I eventually followed, staggering slightly, must have been the cold night air or something. We turned the corner of the pub, and the wind and rain hit us. But we didn't notice it, we were far too concerned with the scene of carnage being played out infront of us under the dancing torch lights. Every single tent was flattened. Thousands of pounds worth of high tech kit obliterated. Clive's geodesic marvel, "as used on Everest", had 3 of it's 4 poles broken and the flysheet was ripped in several places. Even my old Vango Force Ten had 2 broken poles and was full of water. Literally not a single tent was left standing, then it started to snow!
It is amazing how fast you sober up when you have to. The only option left was to sleep in the car and see what the morning brought us. We crammed the tent wreckage into the car, and climbed in ourselves for a very unsettled night.
Eventually, round about 9am, it got light enough to see our surroundings again. People were emerging from cars to inspect the damage, like staggering out of a tornado shelter to look for your house. It was raining heavily now, the wind had dropped, and we could see a heavy snow cover on the higher slopes disappearing up into the cloud. Even if we had the energy there was no way anyone was going high that day.
Some people were heading for the pub, hoping for shelter, or more likely the toilet. Others were already driving off. I don't remember even discussing it, but soon we were setting off home as well, thoroughly p****d off! The drive up over Rannoch Moor was interesting. Snow lay on the road as we climbed up, and at the high point the road was only passable with extreme care. It also started to get very windy again. It had shifted round, and whereas the glen was now sheltered, it was really dangerous driving conditions for a few miles.
Safely off the moor, and below the snow level once again, we pulled into the Little Chef in Tyndrum for breakfast. Stepping into the car park we found it covered in 6 inches of semi-frozen slush. It oozed over our boot tops adding insult to injury. As we dashed through the rain for the door we heard a car sliding into the car park behind us. We turned just in time to see a Porsche 911 neatly park itself sideways right next to Clive's old banger. The driver looked shell shocked as he forced the door open against the wind. Suddenly the wind changed, and the door was ripped out of his grasp. It slammed into Clive's car with a bang, "ouch". The guy looked embarrassed and muttered something as he rushed passed us into the cafe. We went back into the rain to inspect the damage. Clive's car had a neat dent in the door panel, but the Porsche door was in a terrible state, justice was done, we started to laugh!
"800 miles for a beer and a band" is how we describe that trip these days. I've never had another one like it since, but I've had plenty more really great ones. I think it put Clive off for good though. He never really got any use out of his winter gear, concentrating on mountain marathons and other summer mountain activities. Personally, I think we all need sobering experiences like this one in order to really appreciate the good times. It certainly puts things in perspective, and aspects of it were fun anyway, or is that just nostalgia playing tricks?