Skirting the empty
By Niall McAlinden and James Callender
It was the Friday of the Easter long weekend of 2020, the spring of COVID as it was known. James and I set out to conquer 10 previously unclimbed (by us) Munros along the Cullen ridge on Skye. If successful, our feat would be considered a major achievement in the westies community. The attempt would test our endurance, bravery and the strength of our friendship
On the ascent, we take turns leading on the climb. James is moving well. His running style is always balletic, but today I can only admire the fluent way he transitions from running the flatter section into more technical climbs. It’s clear why he won at Cioch Mhor. However, despite James’s excellent form the weather is hampering us. It was a warm, muggy morning, not what we were expecting on Skye in April.
We are getting further and further behind our planned schedule and by the time we reach the summit of the inn-pin have run out of drinking water. We need to get a shift on if we are to make it to the Sligachan before closing. So we take some risks, just a few short cuts down some scree. As I’m gracefully surfing down a beautiful scree patch, disaster strikes, I spot a large sharp rock. The impact hurts! I let out a yelp! But the damage is not immediately clear. The rock has torn the sole of my right inov8 and broken the lace on the same shoe.
I can’t look at my shoe, but I know from James’s face that it is bad. He tries to lighten the atmosphere with his usual jokes about Jeffery Epstein and Prince Andrew but I can tell he is worried. Last orders at Sligachan is 11 pm and its already gone 6 with a long way still to go.
We limp on and reach the TD gap. To save time James suggests that we tie our two lengths of rope together to make one 20 m rope. He can then use this to lower me down into the gap. However, the knot does not fit through the belay plate and I have to stand up on what remains of my good shoe to remove the tension in the rope and let the knot pass through the belay plate. Initially, this complicated procedure works but as darkness falls and fatigue sets in we make a mistake. James accidentally lowers me off an outcrop.
There is nothing I can do. With my damaged shoe I am unable to climb the rope. I try to tie a Prusik knot but have no idea what a Prusik knot is. I try to shout to James but he can’t hear me over the Brazilian disco he’s been blasting from his rucksack soundbar all day. I hang there for what feels like 10 minutes but was probably less before the rope goes slack and I fall.
I’m alive! James has cut the rope! I’ve landed on a ledge about 30 cm below where I was hanging. Does James know I’m alive? I hope he’s not also fallen. I shout to hopefully get his attention but it’s useless he can’t hear me. Has he gone on without me? The Sligachan closes in 4 hours. If he wants to make last orders he’s going to need to better Finlay’s time along the ridge, but it is almost completely dark.
After spending several minutes contemplating my predicament, I decided that if I am on my own. James will have made the correct decision to head for the bar. I will need to drag myself off this mountain. All the colour has gone from my shoe. It looks swollen and cold. I tie a makeshift tourniquet to hopefully stop the infection spreading. I pull myself up, the blood rushes to my head, but I must get moving. Determined, I hop along the ridge, passing some other climbers who are setting up a bivy for the night. I drag myself on, the pain in my shoe has become a reminder that I am still alive, still moving.
I summit the last hill and can see the light of the Sligachan. It’s still a long way down a steep and treacherous scree slope but I push on. Checking my watch, I see its 12:30, is the pub open? I quickly check Google and see that it opens till 1am on a Friday, finally some good luck. The thought of a cold pint drives me on. I reach the door, James is just about to leave, he’s just exchanging numbers with some young wan. Two minutes later and I would have missed him. Sitting down to a cold pint feels like a dream. James tends to my shoe and offers me some crisps. The shoe does not look good, its only fit for the bin but at least I have a pint.
The journey back down the road to Glasgow the next morning is silent. I want to bring up that I understand why James left me but I can’t seem to find the words. We part without speaking, I hope we remain friends.
The Cullin Ridge had been on the list for a while but life has a way of getting in the way and there’s always the lure of ‘I’ll get it done next summer’. Not this year I decided – I booked Dr McAlinden in for Easter and turned down all other invitations for the weekend.
The drive up from Glasgow was a long one but it felt good as the stresses and strains of the city receded into the distance. Stiffly getting out of the car at Glen Brittle around midnight the slight nip of springtime highland air knocked all such worries out my mind, leaving only thoughts of tomorrow’s task and a tingle of excitement at the base of my spine.
The going was good at the start. Niall was cruising along the gabbro edges, still on from after his silver medal at Cioch Mhor and his toned lats glistening in the sun – that kettlebell he got for Christmas clearly having been put to good use. It was a stunning day and the alligator-teeth of the Cullin shimmered against an azure sky.
But as the shadow of the sun lengthened and the temperature rose we began to struggle. I don’t do well in extreme heat and by 11am the temperature was already well in excess of 12 degrees. Niall does a bit better than me in these conditions but ultimately Irish genetics are intended for survival in permanently overcast environments and he too began to struggle. Maybe we should’ve taken more than 2 cans of Lilt with us.
The Sligachan stops serving food at 9pm – I knew we were unlikely to make that but I tried to keep all thoughts of not being able to get a pint later out my mind. I knew were taking risks to pick up the pace but it seemed justified given how far we had to go.
When Niall ripped his lace we both understood how serious the situation was but oddly neither of us said anything – as if acknowledging it openly would be too hard. Instead there were a few feeble jokes and we carried on. But I was worried – at the speed Niall was going we were unlikely to make last order and even if we did Niall would look like a dick standing at the bar with his laces undone.
I don’t remember who suggested the TD-gap arrangements but I do know that Niall volunteered to go first and that he definitely knew what he was doing. Gazing out to the Atlantic horizon I slowly became aware that the rope was still tight but had stopped moving. With my spare hand I sent Niall ‘[Thumbs Up Emoji]?’ on WhatsApp. Minutes passed but the ticks didn’t turn blue. I phone him once, twice and a third time – never any answer. I glance at my watch and look along the ridge still be covered – it would be tight but doable. Awkwardly I reach into the top pocket of my rucksack and fish out my Swiss army knife. I take a deep breath.
I cut the rope.
Oddly I didn’t feel or think anything at first. It was like half my brain had shut down – all I knew was that I had to get to the pub. I stood up and set off.
Jogging down Sgurr Nan Gillean a couple of hours later I knew I was going to get a pint and with a bit of charm maybe even a burger and chips. But I started to think of Niall. Where was he? Was he still alive? What was I going to tell his family? We’d taken his car – how was I going to get home? Would the Westies Committee reprimand me for losing him with most of the Championship races still to go?
But I couldn’t second-guess myself. It was a difficult situation and I made the best decision I could. I’d avoid the AGM this year and FaceTime Katie from the bar so she could tell Niall’s parents. I’d remind her that he’d led a happy life and with any luck she’d be able to get the deposit on the wedding venue back.
My phone battery had died so I wasn’t able to make the call – lucky that as Niall hopped up to the hotel just in time for last pint and I would’ve looked like a fool banging on about him dying on the hill entirely because of his own piss-poor decision making that I had been powerless to oppose. I did feel a bit bad for cutting the rope so I bought him a drink and let him share my packet of salt n vinegar. I even offered him a spare set of laces.
On the journey back we didn’t have much to say to one another. It was like there was a gulf between us. Thankfully I’d some podcasts saved on my phone so the journey wasn’t too unpleasant. I’ll probably see Niall for reps on Thursday.