Marhofn 212.12 - May 2010

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Snow Patrol

Alan Dawson

After her trip to Ethiopia in 1998, I recall Ann Bowker commenting that their guide twice assured them they were on the highest point of Ras Dashen, even though they could clearly see that they weren't. I first encountered this summit blindness phenomenon in 1989 on Kilimanjaro, when the English guide explained that most people would do well to get to Gilman's Point on the crater rim, and only super-fit dedicated walkers would bother going on to the highest point. As it turned out, the guide didn't even get as far as the right country; he broke an ankle round the back of Mount Kenya and had to be carried out by the group he was 'leading'. There were only two habitual baggers in our Kilimanjaro party, but all 15 did bother to go on to Uhuru Peak, the highest point.

I was therefore cautious before signing up for a trip to Elbrus two years later. I even went along to a company slideshow, met some of the staff of Sherpa Expeditions, and specifically asked one chap whether their guides would go up the west peak. He looked at me as though I was stupid, saying 'of course'. On the ground a few months later my naivety and trust were exposed. As the rest of the group flopped down exhausted at the col after we had climbed the east peak, I got up and asked who was coming with me up the west peak. Silence and consternation. It turned out that neither Russian nor English guides had ever been up it and they had no intention of starting just then. The English guide almost pinned me down to stop me going on my own, muttering words such as 'irresponsible' and 'forbidden'. While my bulging eyes and bravado wrestled against inner voices of caution and disappointment, the weather intervened. As the mist enveloped us I realised that I had no map or knowledge of the route, so with gritted teeth and bitten tongue, my contorted face followed my reluctant feet downhill. Somehow I didn't think I'd be back.

So I ought to have known what to expect in Ecuador in 1996. The guides were confident about Cotopaxi, which was duly bagged, but they were trying to talk us out of Chimborazo before we'd even started on it. This time I sought advance assurance by getting the English guide to agree that we could split the party if some wanted to go down. Next morning, as expected, the split duly occurred, as three of our group had had enough. A couple of hours later the guides decided they had had enough too, what with it being a bit cold and windy. Well, it does get that way at 6000m. So down we all went, as a different group, led by Alan Hinkes, stormed past and on to the summit, still a few hours away. He had struck me as somewhat boorish when we'd met him at a campsite a few days earlier ('these third-world cities are all the same'), but now I admired his drive and wished I'd been in his group. The numerous small crevasses on the route meant that a solo ascent was not really feasible.

I can't remember who it was that said 'if you're not making your own decisions then you're not mountaineering', but it's a fair point. And quite likely it means you're not bagging either. So I had had enough of lazy local guides who couldn't be bothered to go to the summit, and I resolved never to go with an organised commercial group again. And as I couldn't be bothered to go on my own or organise my own group, that was the end of my bagging of big foreign peaks. (I've been up Mulhacén since but that hardly counts - no guide required.)

Summit crater on Cotopaxi (photo: Alan Dawson)

Summit crater on Cotopaxi (photo: Alan Dawson)

All this was long ago and largely irrelevant now, but the memories returned a few months ago, when once more I stupidly put my trust in a local guide. As I set out along the snowy track from Braemar youth hostel to Carn Sgliat, I was content to let the assistant warden lead the way. It was his patch, he knew the route, and he also had snow shoes, which made following in his giant footsteps easy. He even let Bert and me have a go on them, and for a few minutes £170 seemed almost worth spending to float along the crust instead of plunging through the soft stuff. A pleasant easy day ensued, and after kicking a few steps up Millstone Cairn and a snowy plod over to Carn Leachda, we headed down towards Bert's van. About 20 minutes later we stopped for a moment to agree the line of descent, when the local guide casually mentioned that we hadn't been to the summit of Carn Leachda, which was about 500 metres beyond the cairn and several metres higher. As a local, he'd done it before anyway. So had Bert. I looked back. Twenty minutes back to the cairn, another ten to the summit, so about an extra hour of snow plodding. Could I be bothered? It was only a Corbett Top, but it would have been my first one for several months. There were no hazards, no crevasses, no mist, no excuses really, so back I went. I offered to meet the others later but to my surprise they came along too.

To be fair to Mat, I ought to mention that when we had first reached the cairn, he had clearly pointed out that it wasn't the top. I remembered looking across to the higher ground beyond, but we hadn't gone over there. All three of us had simply forgotten to go and bag the highest point. I've heard all sorts of lame excuses for people failing to reach summits such as Saxa Vord, Corse Hill, The Cobbler, Cnoc Glas, Hill of the Wangie, Elbrus and Stac Lee, but I had never heard of anyone simply forgetting to bag the summit. But if it can happen to three baggers at once then maybe it's not that unusual. And maybe, on this particular occasion, it wasn't entirely the fault of the local guide.

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