Putting Your Best Foot Forward…

‘Break, Break, Break,

On thy cold gray stones…

And I would that my tongue could utter

The thoughts that arise in me.


‘If his leg wasn’t broken, then the pain devils must have been having a dance with ground glass spread on the floor of that bone for want of some soft talc’ or powder for their feet’…

Edwina Sutherland

Legends have it that Deirdre, ‘fairest of women’ lived with her lover Naose in the bounds of Glen Etive. Roaming the hills from there as together they hunted the wild game until lured to their doom by Fergus, Knight of the Red Branch. It was a different branch above Glen Etive and the lure of Willie, Blight of the Cracked Limb that led to my undoing. But, like Deirdre, when you’re numbers on it, there’s nowhere to run.

It would be easy to blame Willie of course, for he’s been blamed for many things in the pages of this newsletter, but other than getting me to partner him in the Lowe Alpine he had little to do with it. In fact earlier in the week all the portents for disaster were there…

If I was being poetic, I could say that a bird whispered in my ear but in reality it was a bit more dramatic, or at least pungent. Climbing with Nick Schierloh, on Hawcraig cliff, I was just levering myself up onto a ledge when an irate Fulmar vomited a gutful of oil in my ear. Unable to draw back, I could only hang on with face averted as it disgorged what felt like a couple of bucketfuls of oily puke down my neck and Nick disgorged heaps of unhelpful advice from down below. Half-blinded with puke and smelling like a week old kipper I continued to climb up the cliff, oil smeared fingers slithering from their meagre purchase, realising why the bird got its name of foul gull. Maybe its difficult to think straight with your hair slicked back with fulmar oil but along with the all-pervading smell, I also had an all-pervading sense that my luck had changed. A further climb that night bore this out, when a piece of protection I was placing pulled out from the rock face and would have succeeded in giving me a lopsided lobotomy if my head hadn’t been so greasy with oil. But with blood and oil dripping in my eye I was forced to retreat.

Thoughts about changed luck were dispelled when Willie and I set off on the Saturday from the foot of the White Corries’ chair lift, heading for our first checkpoint, a crag on the side of Cam Ghleann. The day was glorious. The moor was spread around us like a huge tapestry, interspersed with lochans and streams sparkling in the sunshine. Gentle zephyrs tugged the few clouds and brought gifts of cooler air from the slopes above. A day meant for running, or not as it turned out.

The first checkpoint easily reached and found, Willie and I had just settled into a comfortable pace, taking a long traverse below Beinn Mhic Chasaig when we arrived at a stream bedecked with typical Etive slabs. Not the easiest place to cross but a good place to get a drink. Almost stationary, I took a half step forward…in a trice my legs slipped away from me…left leg, knee moving inwards, ankle moving outwards, and thirteen and half stone of humbled hillrunner coming down with a vengeance on the bones which struggled to link the two. I heard that tell tale ‘crick, crick’ as my backside slapped the slab and discarded the hope that I’d just broken my ‘Kit-Kat’. I wasn’t carrying any anyway!

Springing up so quickly that Willie was, momentarily, relieved I wasn’t hurt I plunged my leg into the cold water before me. Now of course would be the place to take stock but no, stubbornly hoping that it was just a minor sprain, which would ‘run out’ we carried on around the hillside. But by the time we reached the path above the wood of Alltchaorunn, we knew that, if nothing else, our competitiveness was over. Our day now done like the vanished Rowans which gave their name to the wood below us but long ago were replaced by Sitka spruce. That’s the trouble with the hills they’re too analogous of life.

Aye well. Now there’s a thing about Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathons of the last couple of years. They like to bus you to the start, so for anyone injured early on in the event it is as far to go back as it is to go forward. Musing and mooting myriad options we carried on, deciding to follow the track beneath Aonach Mor down to the river where Willie could strap up my leg and we could decide what was best.

At the river we met a mixed pair in similar plight. The girl was in severe and obvious pain, and thought she had broken her ankle. She turned out to be a Doctor, so her diagnosis was probably good. Her partner wasn’t as medically proficient however and after watching Willie expertly strap up my leg he asked if Willie could do the same for her. Discussing the logistics of getting the girl safely out of the hills reminded us of the daunting prospect of retreat. It would mean a descent into the wrong end of Glen Etive, with a long walk out to Glencoe if we couldn’t hitch a lift and a longer walk back to Bridge of Orchy and then up to Victoria Bridge if no one picked us up.

To the other pair this seemed the best option, especially as the girl was resolute that she wasn’t going anywhere but that her partner would have to fetch help. We offered to help carry her down, or sit with her until help arrived but both insisted that they were all right. Counselling her to put on her warm gear, we decided to head for the overnight camp. Not only was it nearer, but at the camp would be medical and rescue facilities. Somewhere above us Steve and Serena were in a similar predicament. Sere’ was suffering from a trapped nerve in her shoulder and they opted to head back to the start. It cost them a seven and a half-hour walk back to Victoria Bridge.

With my leg heavily strapped I made a real meal of the 400-metre climb up Meall Garbh so was somewhat surprised to find Jacqui and Mark just drawing level with us on the hillside. Both somewhat angry at their bad route choice and more disheartened when they realised that we had stayed ahead of them despite our paltry and pathetic pace. Laogh means a calf, or friend and the contour round the slopes of Coire Laoghan proved to be more friendly, with my higher right leg taking most of my weight.

If we were heading to the overnight camp, there was no harm in picking up some checkpoints on the way. It would give me something else to focus on as it would be all too easy to dwell on the plight of my leg and by following the race route we’d stand a better chance of meeting marshals or mountain rescue people on the hill. So whilst Willie ran back and forth a hundred metres below me looking for the mythical re-entrant described as our next control, I located the checkpoint at the top of a stream, not a re-entrant. In fairness to Martin and his merry men the stream was unmarked on the map but was sufficient to have carved a huge snow tunnel through the snowfield which still clung to the hillside in the summer sun.

The hills round here are notorious for retaining snow all year round. At the other end of the Glen, in Glen Noe on Loch Etive-side the Macintyres used to pay the Campbells an annual rent of a midsummer snowball and a white calf. The snowball being gathered from a high hollow on the side of Cruachan. But Cruachan was still a long way off and moving faster than we both thought possible we traversed and dropped into the Col between Meall Odhar and Meall nan Eun.

Willie’s elation at being able to descend at (almost) the same speed as me soon evaporated when he agreed to heft my rucksack up the hill. A hundred feet later, my elation evaporated as a perspiring (and possibly expiring) Willie gave me it back. ‘Your sacks bl**dy heavier than mine anyway’, he mumbled uncharitably.

By now we were moving amongst runners from the other ‘classes’ and were surprised to be passing people as well as identifying others from ‘A’ who had started at the same time as us! There must be something about moving slowly, navigating carefully and, well, and only putting one foot wrong! On the way up Stob Coir an Albannaich we talked with Ian Jackson and Steve Garbett and communed with myriad midges. During a hot and humid ascent I found myself wiping hundreds of the b****rs off as I rubbed my brow. The top gained we traipsed down the other side but as we ran below Eas nam Meirleach, the Robbers Waterfall, a couple of leg twisting stumbles robbed me of any desire to continue. Besides, Willie had beaten me in the descent! Not so much a descent of the Peak of the Scotsman’s Hollow but more a hollow Scotsman who’s peaked, I shambled off the hill. Heading down through the remains of the old sheilings to where Glen Kinglass meets Glen Orchy and looking over Lochan na h-Iuraiche and Lochan na Saubhaide, the lochs of the gun and the fox’s lair, it was easy to reflect that the ‘hunt’ was over for us.

When Tilman, that great mountain explorer, broke his leg descending from the Carn Mhor Dearg arete, he tried to hide up in the CIC hut until he’d recovered but ended up being stretchered down the hillside, in shame. I had no such compunctions about assistance and the following morning; Arrochar Mountain Rescue spelt out the worst and carried me out. Willie of course ran back. Meanwhile of course everyone else from Carnethy were winning everything in sight, except for Andy and Gary who lost everything out of sight…each other and their lead in the ‘A’ class!

A trip to the Accident & Emergency unit after I got home confirmed that I’d a ‘greenstick’ fracture in my fibula and would be laid off running for some weeks but strangely, on balance, the whole weekend was still enjoyable. OK, so I’m an eccentric hillrunner but with good organisation, interesting routes and a return, for me, to some half forgotten mountains and memories as well as the bonus of some interesting discussions about mountain safety in the back of a mountain rescue landrover during the lift out! What more could you ask for?

And if I didn’t have the pleasure of finishing on my own two feet, well, those are just the breaks I suppose…

  Nick Macdonald