An Excursion in Scotland

Climbing Glencoe
By Royal Robbins
  |  Gorp.com
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When Chouinard returned to the States from his visit to Scotland, he said he had been treated like a king. He spoke highly of the manly, hardy race from the northern part of the British Isles. I wondered if I would be received the same way. Everyone likes Chouinard.

Impressions and legends of Scotland and the people figure early in the consciousness of Americans.

When I met the reality I understood more deeply the legends. I visited Scotland while on a lecture tour down in England. It wasn't really a lecture tour. I showed some slides and a movie, and said a few interpretative words. Not really lecturing. I remember the reception at the Alpine Club—exceedingly polite, exceedingly unenthusiastic. One can't blame them. It was mostly the old guard, the conservatives who disdain pitons. And what I offered was mostly American ironmongery, and some monkey tricks on bit rock walls—hardly grand alpinism. They must have felt like spectators at a zoo.

Tom Patey was the cause of our trip north. He telephoned us while my wife, Liz, and I were in the Lake District, and turned his considerable powers of persuasion to the task of convincing us of the propriety of making what we considered an impossible trip. Patey was enthusiastic. He would come down from Ullapool if we would come up from the Lakes. Meet us halfway. The time was late afternoon; with a lecture awaiting us just two days away, we found Tom's logic less than cogent. His enthusiasm, however, was so infectious as to be virulent. We caught the bug.

Late that same night we motored north along winding, narrow roads. I was occasionally startled into wakefulness when the car careered around a particularly bad curve. Liz was driving. I remember little except waking up amid amber lights. They were eerie, those long rows of amber lights in the black, wet, Glaswegian night. It seemed not a gay city.

I stumbled into a phone booth and called the number we had been given. Tom came out and led us to Mary Stewart's home in the country. In the morning we awakened to a life which one occasionally reads about in books, but rarely sees in reality, at least in the sedate American sort of reality to which we were accustomed. There were about half a dozen children, robust youngsters, beaming with superb health. Their frontier dress gave a hint of their wild free-spirited nature. The older ones cared for the younger, the strong for the weak. And there were the animals. Mary loves animals. There were dogs and cats of various aspect, goats, a horse, and a lamb. Behind the house were 200 cats in cages, which Mary used for research.

Scattered about the house were individuals of widely varying sorts, folksingers, do-wells and ne'er-do-wells, even a climber or two. All had come to Mary Stewart's for a bit of comfort and relaxation, and to escape the cares of the world.

Patey insisted we go to Glencoe. I felt more like sitting around Mary's place, taking it all in, but resistance was futile against such a tornado of energy. I can't remember when I first met Tom, but I had long admired him as one of those rare persons who have so much life that it rubs off on those around them. We had recently been involved together in a television stunt on the Anglesey seacliffs in North Wales.

Tom drove north like he had only a few hours to live, and didn't want to waste a second. He talked continuously, telling Liz and me of this adventure and that, and relating pithy anecdotes of various climbing personalities, and other stories as well; doctor tales of marvelous complications which arise as a result of vaginitis. I couldn't help but suspect that Doctor Patey embellished the stories a bit, and added a bit of Ullapool colour. But we didn't mind.

As the car rattled north, Tom told us how proud of it he was. It was a red Czechoslovakian crate, and the wonder was, to us, that it ran at all. Patey says he's not mechanically adapted. If true, that car was a fine companion, as it seemed the most ill-adapted mechanical contrivance to which I had ever dared trust my life. But it got us there, and somehow got us back.

As we approached Glencoe, Tom pointed out various areas of climbing interest, and indicated several couloirs from which acquaintances had been avalanched. We bounced to a stop on a gravel lot. Before us stood the Buachaille. In front of it, much closer, was a white building, the SMC hut. As we strolled by it, toward the mountain, Patey, ever anecdotal, told us how naughty Dougal Haston had estranged the leadership of the SMC by painting the interior livid colors because he was bored by its drabness.

We were on our way to the Rannoch Wall, to do Agag's Groove, easily a very difficult route, which shows how times change. The weather looked terrible, but Tom assured us he thought it would only rain. Only rain? I thought of the white, warm, Yosemite granite, and of the endlessly blue skies of the California summer days. Only rain? But clearly it rained a lot in Glencoe. Every footfall squeegeed into the turf. We seemed to be walking on a gigantic sponge. The rock face was a long time getting closer. These hills were bigger than I thought. It's no wonder that in the winter, with the short days and the fearful Scottish ice climbs, of which we have heard, even in California, that epics occur, and that the stories find their way 6,000 miles to the West Coast. But this was to be a fun rock climb, and Tom would take good care of us.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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The Scotsman Hotel
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The Knight Residence
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The Howard
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Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh

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