I was once involved in a conversation with a work colleague about obsession.
“I’m just not obsessed with anything!” I insisted towards the end.
And that was the end of the discussion. I had stated an unassailable fact.
Time passed and one day, I remembered this discussion and thought to myself “Yes, that’s me, just not an obsessive person. There’s nothing that I return to again and again, nothing that I think about every single day and that I always find interesting. Nothing that I am addicted to …. hang on a minute!”
Suddenly, I realised that there WAS something that I return to again and again, something that I think about every single day and that I always find interesting.
I am always recalling past mountaineering experiences on my own or with friends, planning for our next trip or thinking about trips that we might do in the future as well as ones that I know, will probably never happen now.
After nearly sixty years, I realised that maybe I was obsessive… or at least about one subject.
So how did this happen? Where did this obsession start?
I started to think back….
A jolt woke me up, where was I?
Weak, grey light filtered through the thin curtain, which was drawn over the window. I was alone, lying in a bed on an overnight sleeper train heading from London to Fort William, Scotland. Clearly, it was morning although, not a bright one. I sat up and pulled back the curtain to see a sight I shall never forget.
The sky was filled with dark, grey clouds and in the distance gloomy, craggy mountains, capped with snow, were scraping the bottom of the clouds as they moved across the sky.
The railway line was mounted on top of an embankment and I could see the rest of the train ahead of me as we travelled around a long curve in the track.
Looking down, the land beneath me and for as far as I could see was covered with snow. At the bottom of the embankment, right in front of me was a herd of what I imagined to be Reindeer - (they were probably Red deer) – scratching the snow to find something to eat underneath.
It was a magical vision.
Then, I had a thought.
We had stopped in Glasgow during the night. I knew this because I had been awoken by the violent lurching of the train backwards and forwards as the carriages were changed from one locomotive to another. I looked out to see a station sign on the platform.
What if, I was on the wrong part of the train?
What if, I had been on a part of the train that had gone by boat to Norway?
I dismissed this idea. First of all, it was a ridiculous thought, that wouldn’t happen and secondly, if it did happen, we would still be at sea…Norway isn’t that close to the UK.
No, this was definitely Scotland.
So, what was I doing here?
I had grown up in the south east of England and had an enjoyable childhood. I had taken part in the usual school sports without being that great at any of them. My parents had enjoyed taking advantage of the then, new craze of package holidays to sunny Mediterranean destinations. Consequently, I had visited many places in Europe by the time I had left school and started working in a bank in London.
Like many people from the south of England, I had never felt the need to travel to the north of England. In fact, the furthest “north” I had been was Luton airport (just north of London) – to go on holiday to Spain!
Working for a bank, my career should have been set. In those days, working for a bank was a job for life but my heart wasn’t really in it. It wasn’t too hard to do and the pay and perks were good, so I continued with it. I had been identified as someone who could be “developed” and was sent on many courses to make this happen.
Eventually, one of my bosses decided that a trip to an Outward Bound centre for a course in the great outdoors would do me the world of good! Now, I don’t know if he thought that going on the course would ultimately be of benefit to the bank or if it was to make a change to a perceived defect in my personality or just to toughen me up, either way, I was nominated to attend.
I was quite enthralled by the idea. It was free (for me), I would visit somewhere I had never been and as I liked walking around the footpaths of Kent where I lived, I thought it would be fun. The idea of some easy adventuring was interesting and I fancied myself as an “Indiana Jones” type of guy.
(Of course, this was years before the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out but you get the idea?)
This was how I found myself on the train.
Now, I chuckled to myself. Three weeks off work, staying in this centre, food all cooked and payed for.
I had no idea how to look after myself in the wilds of Scotland. I had never been camping before and the news was always full of reports about idiots who got themselves into trouble on mountains because they didn’t know what they were doing!
With the snow cover and the weather being as it was, plus my lack of experience, there was no way I would be let out into the mountains. I would stick to a few low-level walks on footpaths around the Lochs, nothing too strenuous…maybe get some good photos? That would be all I would do.
How wrong I was!
Loch Eil Outward Bound centre sat on the north side of the Loch, overlooking its namesake and in the distance, the town of Fort William. However, the view was dominated by two things. The chimneys of a power station across the loch and behind this, the rounded bulk of Ben Nevis. I knew this was the highest mountain in the UK so what it lacked in visual charisma (from this angle), it made up for in reputation.
Achdalieu lodge as the centre is named, was a former shooting lodge and was set up how I imagined a boarding school to be. That is, rooms of bunk beds, communal showers etc and a “school like” cafeteria. There were only about 6 or 7 of us from Banks and similar institutions – 1 female and the rest male - and everything seemed to be very pleasant.
That was in the morning.
In the late afternoon, the rest of the participants arrived. The majority - about 30 - of them were from a “Builders” college – I had no idea there was such a thing – here, they learnt to do brick laying, drive diggers etc. and NONE of them wanted to come to Scotland to be in the cold and wet mountains. They were all male and most of them were drunk and abusive (or maybe just abusive). Finally, a small group (again, all male) arrived from the British Army. I think the idea for them was, not to toughen them up but to put them in a situation where they had to mix and work with unruly and undisciplined civilians. Something they weren’t used to.
We were all divided into groups and assigned a dormitory. We were told we would be living and working together in these groups for the next three weeks. No one looked that happy with the situation and as the “Builder” lads all knew each other, they were the obviously the dominant factions in each group. So, when it came to choosing the leaders for each group, the Outward bound instructors had an easy task.
I was chosen as the leader of our group….wonderful!
I don’t know who was unhappier with this decision, me or the rest of the group! It was obvious now, this was how the whole trip would go, everyone had to be out of their “comfort zone” the whole time!
Our instructor for the course was a man named John Hinde. He was one of the senior instructors and had a long background in mountaineering. I remember he told us he had been in the RAF and after he left he had taken his greatcoat, soaked it in oil, dried it and used it as a waterproof! This seemed completely likely at the time but I now wonder if he was just having us on! I also remember he told us he made the third British ascent of Mt Mckinley (Denali). Again, I had no way of knowing if this was true.
(Actually, he was part of the first British ascent of Denali – I think he was third in the group to the top.)
After 24 hours, the lone female participant had enough of being leered at by our Builders contingent and she left the course. The rest of us were force - taught the basics of surviving in the Scottish wilderness in Winter. I already knew how to read a map, so I tried to take in the details about camping, cooking and of course, keeping warm in the cold weather. It was emphasised how deadly, the elements in Scotland could be. John was determined that none of us would die from exposure!
One of the things I was advised to do on this trip was to keep a diary of events as they unfolded. I wondered if someone might check up at the end, so I did as I was told. I have never kept a personal diary but for my mountaineering exploits, I have continued that habit for most of the intervening 30 odd years. Consequently, I don’t have to rely on just my memory.
With a feeling of trepidation, we prepared for our first foray into the great outdoors.
The van dropped us off at the end of a forestry track, it was a cold, gloomy and drizzly start. I couldn’t believe we were going out to camp in this weather! At the time, I was unsure of where we were although, I had noted the unmistakeable shape of Ben Nevis through the gloom as we turned off the main road and onto the track. Consequently, I knew we were somewhere north of Loch Eil itself.
(After this excursion I found out where we had been for my diary, so I can add some context)
We were dropped off somewhere in Glen Suileag and after a walk in the now, pouring rain, we set up a camp.
For the afternoon, we climbed Sron Liath, only 720m high but it seemed hard to me! At the summit, we were enveloped in thick cloud – a new experience for me – and my diary notes that we descended by “running the scree” until we suddenly came out of the clouds and enjoyed a great view of the hills.
At this time of the year, it was pitch dark by 6pm and after we had eaten our camp meal (freeze dried Chicken curry) and, bearing in mind we were all cold, wet and tired, we got into our sleeping bags to go to sleep.
I don’t remember ever being that uncomfortable before, squashed as we were, 3 to a tent, I was sharing with Chris and Dave, 2 of the more amenable Builder lads. My clothes were soaked from either sweat or rain and I ached all over. Having said that, I fell asleep quite quickly.
I woke up.
Although, it was still dark is was quite a bit lighter than it had been, dawn must be close. It felt a lot cooler too but that was understandable after a long night. I checked my watch, in the dim light I thought I could see it was nearly 7am, time to get up. I started moving around and my companions awoke too.
“What’s going on… is it time to get up.” Dave asked.
“Yep, it’s getting light.” I replied.
He crawled to the far end of the tent and unzipped the tent inner, a draught of cold air fell into the tent. He reached further forward and unzipped the tent outer layer.
A load of white fluffy snow fell into the tent along with even colder air. We all gasped.
Outside had been transformed into a “Winter wonderland”.
At some point between 6pm and now, the rain had given way to snow. It had snowed for some time and everything was now buried under a covering of the crunchy white stuff. That included all of our pots and pans which we had left unwashed (even though we had been told to wash them) and outside the tent (even though we had been told to put them inside the tent).
On top of that, our leather boots (which we had been told to bring inside the tent inner) were left in the porch and being wet, were now frozen solid!
On top of that, it was still pitch-black outside but everything was illuminated by a huge full moon, it wasn’t getting light!
I checked my watch again, this time by headtorch light. What I had thought was nearly 7.00am was actually 11.35pm!
I was really popular!
After the commotion had died down, we tried to get back to sleep. Now, I was still wet, I was much colder, not at all tired and dismayed that we had most of the night to get through still.
Given the circumstances, I was convinced I wouldn’t survive to see the morning! If, by some miracle, I was alive, I wouldn’t be able to move and my strength would gradually ebb away! I contemplated my fate as the minutes slowly ticked by. I wondered if anyone would miss me and what the news report of our demise, would say?
I never realised a night could be so long!
Eventually, I dozed off and when morning arrived, not only was I not dead but I also wasn’t incapacitated! Moreover, everyone else was ok too!
John got us all up. We forced our damp feet into frozen boots and someone cleaned the pots and pans (I don’t remember if it was me!) and we had some food and hot drinks.
Actually, it was a lovely morning. Clear skies, the sun shining on a white, snow covered mountain landscape.
I imagined that, having survived the night we would just descend the way we had come and to try to head off the Mountain rescue teams that were no doubt gathering to come to our aid.
We were all amazed when John proclaimed that instead of going down, we were going “up and over that hill”. He pointed into the distance.
This seemed an idea of pure folly but I was convinced by now that this course was going to be a case of “last man standing”. They were obviously prepared to lose some men along the way if the group survivors became better as a result!
We set off again.
We toiled away as the short day passed. Stob a Ghriann (744m) was our objective, also known as Druim Fada, a tiring ascent of a snow covered, rolling hill. Eventually passing over the last top and descending back towards Loch Eil, I realised I was going to survive our first test and felt quite proud of myself, despite the hardship!
It was lovely to have a shower and sleep in a dry bunk bed!
I had never stayed anywhere so cold, I wore all of my clothes in bed inside the centre to try to keep warm. This meant I could get ready quickly in the morning.
After our first expedition, John Hinde realised we needed to hone some of our skills!
He took us canoeing on Loch Eil. The centre had no wetsuits, so our clothes were soaked about 10 minutes after we started! Scotland in January is cold when you are wet!
We were introduced to the “Ropes course” – an army like obstacle course. A lad called Steve fell off and injured his back and a lad called Les fell and injured his knee, so John decided it was too dangerous for us. Instead, we did a cross country run but even that had its dangers. Nigel had an asthma attack and I had a nose bleed!
John taught us to sail a dinghy and we shot some “white water rapids”, not very “white” if truth be told.
The evenings were taken up by lectures and preparations for our next foray into wildest Scotland.
After the camping ordeal on the first expedition, it was a relief to contemplate staying in a “Bothy” for our second excursion.
Bothies (we were told) are old, small, simple cottages in the middle of nowhere. Often abandoned farm or shepherd dwellings they are usually free to use and are maintained by volunteers. The main duties of users are to leave them as tidy and clean as possible and to re-stock the storage space with any twigs or driftwood you may have used for a fire.
John drove us down a forestry road on the south side of Loch Shiel to a place called Scamodale. Here, we left the van with the keys behind the back wheel – we were all convinced it would get stolen but John was confident it wouldn’t!
We headed up a river valley, out of the trees and onto the open hillside and the snow. As we climbed higher, the wind increased and it got colder. John found an appropriate slope and we all practiced falling and using our axes to break our falls.
We learned to cut steps in the ice – I don’t think we had crampons – and fell over a lot!
Near the top of the ridge, we stopped for lunch then continued over the top to descend in the gloom to reach Resourie bothy, our shelter for the night. The bothy was a bit more primitive than I had imagined but at least we could build a fire to keep warm.
Before we had left on this trip, we had decided what food we needed for the trip and divided all the foodstuffs into plastic bags to make it easier to carry. The theory being that when we arrived at the bothy it would be easy to cook.
Once a fire was going, I started to make some tea using the stove. I boiled up a huge billy-can of water and dropped in some tea bags to make the tea. It was decided that we should have milk in the tea, so the bag with the instant milk in it was produced.
I had never used instant milk powder before so, being unsure what to do I put 2 tablespoons of the stuff into the billy can and gave it a stir. The mixture lightened in colour a bit but obviously, needed more, so I put some more in. Another small change, so again, I put some more in.
By now I was starting to wonder how much more I needed to put in. The tea was still a very dark brown colour and I realised that some of the milk powder hadn’t dissolved properly, so I stirred more vigorously. No change.
I dipped the spoon in and bought out a spoonful of brown sludge.
“What’s that” someone asked. “Taste it, Mike.”
I took a sip, expecting the sweetness of milk. Instead, I grimaced and realised what we had done.
We had put instant mashed potato powder into the tea instead of powdered milk!
So, the tea was ruined and we had lost some of our instant mash. We tried to drink and eat what we had but it was awful.
After the remains of our food had been eaten, we sat around the open fireplace. John decided to tell us a ghost story! I can’t remember it now but I know it involved people arriving at a remote bothy. Spooky things happened during the night and in the morning, there was only one left alive!
This was really the sort of story told to teenagers rather than adults but that was what happened.
Soon everyone got into their sleeping bags to sleep, as there were no bunks we all slept on the floor. It was early and I wasn’t tired and (once again) I was wet. After our camping experience, I decided that, rather than try to sleep, I would spend some time trying to dry out my clothes and socks using the heat from the fire. I spent a good hour or so doing this before deciding to turn in as the fire had started to die.
I lay there in the darkness, then I heard a noise.
It was a sort of scratching, but not exactly that. I heard it again.
I sat up. “Did anyone hear that?” I whispered.
Most were either asleep or just ignoring me but someone replied. “Hear what?”
“That scratching noise.”
“It’s probably just John, messing about.”
“No, it’s not.” Said John from another part of the room.
“You’re not freaked out by that ghost story are you?” I was asked.
“Of course not, I just wondered what it was.” I replied.
“Will you two shut up and go to sleep!” John finished the conversation.
A few minutes later. I heard it again.
Now, I thought I knew what it was…mice.
I knew what mice were (they had been the main characters in cartoons when I was growing up!) but I had never seen one (except in a cage) so I didn’t know if my supposition was correct, I decided it was. I knew they wouldn’t hurt me but didn’t like the idea of them running around over me during the night and every time I heard a scratch, it disturbed me.
What could I do?
Suddenly, the answer came to me. The bothy had a loft with a ladder to get to it. If I went up into the loft, the mice couldn’t follow as they couldn’t climb the ladder. Brilliant.
I got up, picked up my sleeping bag, tiptoed over my sleeping companions and climbed up in the loft. After settling down, I listened…. No scratching!
Soon, I fell asleep.
I was awoken the next morning by the group waking up. I was lying on the loft floorboards directly above them so, I could hear the conversation. It went something like this:
“I thought he was next to you?”
“He was…. last night!”
“Well where is he now?”
“I dunno. His bag is gone too but his boots are still there, so he’s not outside.”
“Do you think the ghost got him?”
“I’m uuup heeeere!” I crooned in my most ghost like voice.
“What are you doing up there?” John shouted.
I told them the story of the mice and my plan to get away from them.
Everybody laughed again!
“Of course, they can get into the loft, that’s where they normally live!”
At the time, I wasn’t sure if they were having me on or not. Whoever heard of mice climbing?
There was one final note to this tale.
One of my companions had left his “Mars” bar on the window sill. He was surprised to find that it now had chunks missing and tiny teeth marks were visible in the chocolate.
I knew it wasn’t a proper scratching sound!
We packed up and got ready to leave but somehow there was a disagreement on the best route to take. John had planned to return the way we came but some of the group wanted to take the road the long way around the Loch-side.
We voted, I had decided to stick with John (along with a lad called Nigel) so we set off to return the way we came. With only the three of us, we made good time and were soon traversing the snow covered ridge at Meall nan Allt Beithe in a strong, blustery wind from an approaching storm. I thought I might get blown off the ridge but John was in his element.
“It’s a grand day.” He roared to no one in particular except the wind.
We descended to Scamodale and the waiting van, I realised I had really enjoyed the route, especially the wild tempest on the way back. I had a great sense of satisfaction at completing it in what I saw as such difficult conditions.
We had a day on Ben Nevis where we walked up to the C.I.C (Charles Inglis Clark) hut and built a “Snow Palace” – just some snow holes! We also put on Crampons and tried ice climbing.
We all had to spend a solo night out on the mountain side with just some basic equipment to make a shelter. It was another long, restless and wet night for me but I made it back under my own steam for breakfast.
We went rock climbing in Glen Nevis, learned to abseil and John took us on a short caving trip.
Somewhere along the way, my diary records I was quite enjoying the great outdoors!
This was our final expedition and the final test of our new abilities.
The group was dropped off near the Glenfinnan monument and we all took turns in map reading our way over the hills under John’s supervision. It was pouring with rain in the morning and that is my abiding memory of the day! I think it stopped as we descended in the gloom to Essan bothy on the south side of Loch Eilt.
We made a fire, ate dinner without mishap and spent some time drying our clothes by the fire. Again, I had an uncomfortable night but no rodent disturbances. However, in the morning, something had gnawed into our porridge to eat some but we were too hungry to care!
I went out to get some water and was astounded at the site that greeted me. When we had arrived the previous day, the loch had been grey and windblown and the clouds covered any sort of view. Now, the Loch was as still as glass and the hills opposite were perfectly reflected in it.
We walked westwards to Inverailort, a settlement on the shore of Loch Ailort, a sea loch. Here, we found canoes waiting for us and we set off canoeing down the loch, towards the sea. I remember the tide was coming in and the waves broke over the prow of my canoe and hit me full on the chest – icy cold water!
We passed the afternoon heading further down towards the mouth of the loch and finally at dusk, John shepherded us onto a beach by the Peanmeanach bothy. We all stripped off and put dry clothes on, made a fire and got dinner going. I don’t remember much else about the evening but I think I slept well for once – perhaps I was getting the hang of this?
The following day was meant to entail some climbing but it was pouring hard with rain again so John decided to let us all have a lie in! We canoed back to Inverailort in the afternoon, once again in very rough water.
I was surprised to realise I felt a bit sad that the last adventure was over!
Of course, now that we had finished our mountain expeditions, the weather was perfect!
I had one last thing to do, John took me on a climb up “Big George”, a huge Pine tree in the grounds of the centre – something I had failed on earlier in the trip.
That evening was cold and clear and we were called outside to see the Aurora Borealis – the only time I have ever seen it, despite around 20 winter trips to Scotland, Norway and Finland!
When I left Scotland, I thought I would like to visit it again someday but probably not to go hiking. I had enjoyed it but that was enough.
When I returned to work, I enjoyed some notoriety for a while as “the guy who went to the mountains” but after a few weeks this was forgotten and life returned to normal.
Except…. I found myself fondly remembering my days in the Highlands. The memory of the smells of the wet heather, the sounds of the running streams and the wind around the rocks played on my mind and I felt I was missing a lost friend.
It was 2 years before I “dipped my toe” into the mountains again, then went back for more!
The rest, as they say, is history – my history.
I lived a long way from any mountains so I attended courses at the BMC centres at Plas Y Brenin, Wales and Glenmore Lodge, Scotland and in 1984, I joined my local mountaineering club.
I expected it to be full of old men wearing check shirts and big beards reminiscing about the old days…. I couldn’t have been more wrong and my life changed forever.
I never met John Hinde again, the instructor who had looked after us on the course but I had reason to “encounter” him in some form on three later occasions.
The first occasion occurred 6 or 7 years later.
I used to climb at a place called Bowles rocks – this is a small Sandstone outcrop in the southeast of England – and I was there, waiting for a friend to arrive when I got chatting to another climber. He was a new instructor at the outdoor centre at Bowles rocks, he had just joined them after leaving an Outward Bound centre in Scotland… Loch Eil.
I told him I had been there and asked him if he knew John Hinde, he did. I told him how it was after my visit that I was inspired to take up mountaineering. He said that John would be pleased to hear that and he would write to him and tell him he had met me. I don’t know if he did but I felt pleased that John might know what he had helped to awaken in me.
The second occasion was when I turned over a page in a mountaineering magazine during 2002 to find an obituary for John Hinde. It was a complete surprise to find that he had died and that this had been reported in the UK Mountaineering press. I read about his life.
He had been in the RAF as he had said and had made an ascent of Denali in 1962. It was also clear that he had been an important figure in the development of the Kinloss Mountain rescue team in Scotland, something I was unaware of. His time at Loch Eil Outward bound took place towards the end of his career but lasted for 20 years.
The third occasion was last year, 2019.
I had the idea to write this article and I had been looking for the Obituary mentioned above. I was sure I had kept it but decided that time and house moves had meant it was lost. Whilst I was searching, it occurred to me that it might be recorded somewhere on the internet. It wasn’t but I later found the cutting in a box!
What I did find on the internet was a website dedicated to John Hinde and set up by his daughter. John had kept diaries of all his activities over the years and some of his entries were available online. I searched for the trip I had been on but it wasn’t there. Perhaps we were an unremarkable bunch and the diary entries weren’t that interesting but either way, I felt happy. I wonder how many more people are out there who were inspired by John?