The Edge – Twenty Years On…

Mountain guide Alan Kimber in the role of Norman Collie, myself and mountain guide John Lyall as John MacKenzie

Mountain guide Alan Kimber in the role of Norman Collie, myself and mountain guide John Lyall as John MacKenzie

IT was the most unlikely setting for a meeting, and one that saw me becoming involved in the most exciting television project of my career.

In 1993 I was in Russia with a group of trekkers, backpacking around the base of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain, before climbing to the 5,642 metres/18,510 foot summit. Sharing the icy flanks of the mountain with us was Chris Bonington, Britain’s best known mountaineer. Chris was working with a small film crew, making a film about his attempt on the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each of the seven continents.

Once we had all climbed to the top we retreated to the relative luxury of a valley hotel and enjoyed a few beers together. Over several beers I had a long chat with Richard Else, the film crew’s director, about the contribution made to Scottish mountaineering by Scotland’s finest mountain writer, WH Murray.

Richard was keen to make a documentary about Murray. At that time, in the early nineties, Bill was in his eighties and not in the best of health and Richard passionately believed there should be a television archive of Bill, a record of the man and his considerable achievements.

Some weeks later, BBC Scotland accepted the proposal but rather than a one-off documentary about Bill Murray they suggested a much bigger project, a six-part series that would document the past century of Scottish Mountaineering. It would be broadcast throughout the UK on BBC2 and Richard felt it was important to have a television presenter who climbed, so he asked me. Naturally, I accepted!

Initially we had two major problems. Firstly, how on earth were we to choose the subjects for six programmes from the plethora of great mountaineers Scotland had produced in the previous hundred years, and secondly, we only had four months to film and produce the six programmes. We started filming in January 1994 and we had to deliver everything by Easter.

It was an incredibly tight schedule but we were blessed with some phenomenal winter conditions and a film crew that was willing to work incredibly long hours in the most difficult conditions to get the climbing action we required. On many occasions our camera operators and safety crew wouldn’t get off the hill until well after dark, on some occasions as late as nine or ten in the evening, and then be up at the crack of dawn to start all over again. Without their total commitment and sheer professionalism we wouldn’t have produced anything.

This attitude contrasted greatly with stories I had heard from Tom Weir about film crews insisting they were back at their vehicles by five o’clock, and cameramen who demanded proper lunch breaks. In contrast, virtually everyone in our crew was a climber; cameramen, sound operators, runners and producers, and we were supported by a superb safety team made up of seven qualified Mountain Guides expertly led by international mountaineer Brian Hall. The combined experience and mountain awareness of the whole team was to prove invaluable time and time again.

Before we began filming Richard and I spent a lot of time visiting and talking to climbers about the subject matter. Tom Weir was very helpful, as was Hamish MacInnes who, sadly, couldn’t appear in any of the films as he was busy. Eventually we decided on a mixture of biographical and thematic films that we hoped would each represent a particular era in the development of mountaineering in Scotland between the 1890’s and the 1990’s.

We began with an examination of one of the finest climbing partnerships in the history of the sport, the unlikely pairing of Victorian scientist Professor Norman Collie and the Skye-based mountain guide John Mackenzie. The two men climbed together every time Collie visited Skye. On each visit he would immediately contact Mackenzie at Sligachan, and the two would formulate plans for the holiday. The guide to client relationship quickly grew into a deep friendship and the two men, from such contrasting backgrounds and cultures, were bound together by a common love and appreciation of the Skye Cuillin. They were eventually buried side by side in the little graveyard near Sligachan on Skye.

Murray WHOur original inspiration, WH Murray, was the subject of the second programme, and represented the era up to the outbreak of the Second World War. We decided to film an account of Murray’s ascent of Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis, his last climb in Scotland before going off to the war. This film, shot in remarkably good winter conditions, later won a Scottish BAFTA award.

On Murray’s return from the war he didn’t try and compete with the new generation of Scottish climbers, people like John Cunningham, Tom Patey, Jimmy Marshall, Robin Smith and Hamish MacInnes. According to Murray these men “had a speed and confidence we simply hadn’t possessed.” Another era was about to begin.

For this new era we concentrated largely on the contribution made by Edinburgh climber Jimmy Marshall and his relationship with the likes of the younger Robin Smith and Dougal Haston. The American mountaineer Yvon Chouinard described Jimmy Marshall as being “the real genius of the decade.” He was six years older than Smith and eight years older than Haston but Marshall was undoubtedly the inspiration behind the climbing success of a whole bunch of young Edinburgh climbers, collectively known as the Currie boys.

Though a relative unsung hero of Scottish and UK mountaineering Jimmy Marshall has been inextricably linked to the development of cutting edge climbing in Scotland during the 1950′s and 60′s. In one legendary week on Ben Nevis in 1960 Jimmy Marshall and Robin Smith transformed the shape of Scottish winter mountaineering, advancing it a full ten years. On consecutive days the two men climbed six first winter ascents, including the mini Alpine-route Orion Face Direct, while also making the second and much quicker ascent of Point Five Gully for good measure – in seven hours as opposed to more than 40 hours when previously climbed.

We filmed Jimmy climbing on the Buachaille Etive Mor and even at the age of 62 there was a precise ballet-like movement in his climbing, a vertical grace that was a sheer joy to watch.

Robin Smith became one of Scotland’s finest ever climbers but sadly died at the very young age of 23 in the Pamirs. Haston became the first Scot to climb Everest in 1975 and later moved to Leysin in Switzerland where he died in an avalanche in 1977.

Filming on the Old Man of Stoer for The EdgeThe fifties and sixties saw a huge explosion in interest in climbing and mountaineering in Scotland, with standards rising proportionally. While the Creag Dubh club in the west and Marshal et al in the East were leading the way many climbers were heading to the unexplored grounds of Scotland’s far north-west. One of them was Doctor Tom Patey from Aberdeen, one of the most charismatic Scottish mountaineers of the century.

Few climbers have matched the long-lasting charisma of Patey and when he died in an abseiling accident after climbing The Maiden, a quartzite sea stack off Whiten Head in Sutherland on 25 May 1970, it brought to an end a tremendous mountaineering career that had lasted twenty years.

To the public at large he was known only through the Old Man of Hoy BBC television spectacular in 1967 (which had an audience of 15 million) but inside the small mountaineering world he was a familiar and well loved figure. From his very first ascent on Lochnagar’s Douglas-Gibson Gully in 1950 to his very last climb, which led to his premature death at the age of 38, he was a major and significant player on the Scottish climbing scene.

Our final programme was very much a look at modern developments, as they were then, and we followed the climbs of three young Scottish Mountaineers, Rab Anderson, Dave Cuthbertson and Dundonian Graeme Ettle. This was at a time when climbing was changing fast. Better equipment, different attitudes and greater fitness saw the likes of our three climbers search our and climb some of the most technically difficult routes in the country, but other forces were at work too – indoor climbing walls were becoming fashionable and young climbers were training hard for sports climbs, bolted climbs, and even climbing competitions. It seemed that traditional climbing in the Scottish sense was being overlooked.

In an interview at the time 26 year old Graeme Ettle said: “There are any number of climbers of my age climbing hard on indoor walls or on bolted routes, but very few are active at the highest levels during the winter. In areas such as Beinn Eighe there are acres of climbable lines, all in the top grade, the equivalent of E3 routes and above in winter conditions. If more young climbers had as much commitment to winter climbing as they have to summer sport climbing the result would be tremendous, but it’s not happening. Wall climbing takes place in such a controlled environment that it is very hard to imagine anyone breaking away from it. If I am on a route and fail, then I am involved in hours of hassle before I reach safety. If you fail on a wall, you simply drop off and go home. Where is the comparison?”

Today, twenty years after Graeme’s comments, that specialisation he refers to has solidified. Rock climbers flood to the sports-climbing crags of the south while others, like Dave MacLeod, has brought the gymnastic skills of the climbing walls to outdoor crags like Dumbarton Rock, Ben Nevis and Strone Ulladale on the Isle of Harris.

Dave MacLeod climbing for the cameras on Strone Ulladale, HarrisThree years ago, in another Richard Else-led outside documentary, viewers watched a live ascent of the great overhanging prow on this Hebridean rockface by MacLeod and fellow climbers Tim Emmett. It was a fascinating and gutsy display of modern rock climbing at its highest level.

While it’s safe to say that much of the earliest exploration of the Scottish highlands took place in the first half of the twentieth century climbers are still discovering new crags and new potential lines, even on some of the popular crags. Last year I bumped into Andy Nisbet, one of Scotland’s climbing legends, and he was being very wary about telling me where he was heading. There is still a strong competitive element amongst those who seek out new crags and new lines and few Scottish climbers have as many first ascents to their name as Andy Nisbet.

There have always been peaks and troughs in the development of climbing in Scotland and in all the peaks, and more importantly, in all the troughs, there have still been climbers on the hills enjoying themselves. The vast majority of these climbers will not be challenging the prevailing standards, nor creating new routes, but just accepting the challenges the mountains pose for them as individuals. Most climbers, then and now, don’t particularly worry whether the sport that we know as mountaineering is developing or stagnating. It’s a personal game, and most of us take part in it, and love it, at that level.

Twenty years on from the filming of The Edge, there are still those pushing the standards of mountaineering in Scotland, and while hundreds annually line up in queues to climb Everest the mountains of Scotland still provide a technical challenge for some of the best climbers in the world.

And twenty years on from the first showing of The Edge on UK television perhaps it’s time the BBC commissioned a follow-up, to bring us up to date, a programme that could showcase some new faces, the modern stars of Scottish mountaineering?

The Western Isles End-to-End

Comp & Clegg at the start on Vatersay

Comp & Clegg at the start on Vatersay

Day 1

Ballachulish to Oban/Castlebay to Vatersay

Not really Day One, that starts tomorrow when we head north from Vatersay but we’ve called this Day One because we chose to ride some of the way to the ferry port in Oban.

Gina kindly offered to drive us some of the way so Hamish and I accepted her offer of a lift from Newtonmore to Ballachulish.

It was a wet start, a typical west highland summer morning of mist and drizzle but by the time we had crossed the Ballachulish Bridge the rain had gone off and there was a discernible lightening of the sky.

Encouraged by the change in weather we loaded the panniers and set off on the wonderful N78 cycle route that runs south to Oban.

We’ve both ridden this route before and know how good it is and although it joins the main road for sections it’s generally off-road on a very well surfaced path.

We made Oban in good time, after stopping for twenty minutes for a coffee and jam scone in Benderloch. We even had time for some fish and chips (to help us endure a five hour ferry crossing) before buying our tickets and boarding.

The sea was calm and the sun shone and Mull and Ardnamurchan and Rum and Eigg all looked majestic but not as beautiful as Barra looked as we swung into Castle Bay in the setting sun. Lovely Heaval, rising above the scattering of houses, was golden in the evening light and the ancient ramparts of Kishmuls Castle added a sense of romance to the scene.

On the ferry we had telephoned the Kishmul Cafe to book a table for dinner and it was lovely to return there where I had filmed when we did our Hebridean Trail telly programme a number of years ago.

There was only one problem. We wanted to begin our little bike odyssey in Vatersay, the most southerly inhabited island in the Western Isles, and that necessitated a big hill climb out of Castlebay and down to the causeway that links the two islands.

I had never ridden a fully laden bike up a steep hill immediately after eating scallops pakora and rogan josh! This was a new experience and not one I’m liable to repeat, although the meal did feel as though it might repeat, several times.

It was a genuine relief to freewheel down the other side and cycle over the causeway. My friend in the cafe had told us about a good camping spot, just on the other side of the causeway and we found it. We also found the crofter who owned it but he was charm itself, and told us the best spots to put the tents.

Within minutes we had pitched up, had a brew on, and laid back to the sound of the crashing surf on the beach below us. Some days are good and this had been a memorable one, and we hadn’t even started yet!

Day’s mileage: 35 miles

Day 2

Vatersay to Lionacleit, Benbecula

We were up and away by 8am. Hamish had some problems with the gas canister he had brought so we had to back into Castlebay and see if we get another one. Cycling back over the hill was certainly easier this morning and it was good to see, in the light of day, what we had tackled the night before with all that Rogan Josh and pilau rice sloshing around inside me.

As it happened the one shop that sold gas canisters didn’t open till 9.30 so we had to hang around a bit. As we waited a young lad approached me and struck up a conversation, a chat that was right out of a Lillian Beckwith novel…

Hello, he said, so you know the shows on today?

No, I didn’t, I replied, will it be good?

Yes, it will, I’ve got a boat.

Great, says I, is it a big boat.

Yes, and I’ve also got a hen…

We left it there, he to  attend the show, maybe with his hen, and me to follow Hamish who, now that he had his stove gas, was high-tailing out of Castlebay. We had a ferry to catch.

It was a lovely run up the west coast of Barra, past Borve and then over the spine of the island to the ferry port at Aird Mhor. A number of other cyclists were waiting for the ferry too, about 10 of us all together. I’d love to know how many folk do this trip every year, it must number thousands each summer.

We were a little sad to see the wee tea room which once graced the ferry port is no longer there. Hamish remembers the lady making his a bacon roll a few years ago and when Gina and I attempted to walk the length of the Hebrides, about 10 years ago, we had coffee and sandwiches there.

Now there is only a vending machine, and that was empty…

We had to wait until we reached the SS Politician, the pub on Eriskay, before we got some grub. But before that we had to negotiate the very, very steep hill that climbs away from the Eriskay ferry. It was hard work and we struggled a bit but it was worth it to swoop down the hill on the other side all the way to the pub where home made tomato soup and cheese toasties made us feel human again.

We didn’t stay that way for long though. On leaving the pub so began one of the hardest afternoons of cycling I’ve yet experienced. The wind had risen, out of the north-west, and threatened to stop us in our tracks if we eased our pedalling for even a second.

I’ve cycled in wind before, often enough, but this was a 30 mile ride in which I felt like I was living a nightmare, one of those dreams where you are trying to run as fast as you can but you’re not actually moving!

Fighting the headwind on Benbecula

Fighting the headwind on Benbecula

I’d love to be able to describe the landscapes we passed through but I was concentrating too much on maintaining forward progress to even notice it. What should have been a pleasant slightly undulating road became a test piece where every little rise, combined with the head on wind, felt like climbing Everest.

And many of the drivers on the mainly singletrack road didn’t help either, hurtling towards us, ignoring the passing places, threatening to drive us into the ditch. Drivers, in their little heated bubbles, totally unaware of the struggles we were having with wind and hills. Bastards.

We enjoyed a brief respite with coffee and scones at a museum tea room, Barbara’s Tea Room, and then we were off again to a new variety on the weather front. Frequent rain showers, frequently heavy rain showers.

By the time we struggled over the Benbecula causeway we were soaked, cold and knackered so we pulled into the campsite at Lionacleit, found a place for our tents as sheltered from the wind as possible, had a hot shower and cooked some very welcome food. After that we struggled along the road to the pub, had one pint, struggled back again and collapsed into out tents. It was only 8.30. We both fell asleep with a simple prayer on our lips. Dear Lord, kill the wind tomorrow -please!

Day’s mileage: 41 miles

Day 3

Lionacleit to Horgabost, Harris

The wind blew all night long. In the camp site at Lionacleit there were four tiny single person tents, all huddled round the gable end of the toilet block where the wind was slightly less fierce.

I didn’t find it too bad. I stuck some earplugs in my lugs and had a pretty good night’s sleep. Hamish just slept through it all…

We were up and away by 8.30, into a dour looking morning with a hint of promise away in the north-west and that promise soon came true. Once we crossed the causeway into North Uist the sun came out and the whole watery landscape glittered and smiled.

Being Sunday morning the road was quiet and we spent a lot of time taking photos. I’d take a picture of Hamish on his bike, then he’d take one of me on my bike, then I’d take one of him off his bike and so on and so forth.

Eaval, the Mt Fuji of the Uists

Eaval, the Mt Fuji of the Uists

We took some shots of the North Uist landscape too, although it seems there is as much water in it as land. Shots of distant Eaval, the Mount Fuji of the Uists, shots of croft houses on the horizon over layers of loch, seeweed and rocks, shots of signs saying Otters Crossing. We were making the most of the sun, which was as well because it didn’t last long.

We stopped for a bit to explore the 14th century remains of Trinity Temple, an ancient seminary where it’s said the young Duns Scotus was educated. The seminary was apparently founded by the wife of the great Somerled in the 13th century.

I’m glad we stopped for I’ve passed the road end often enough and its amazing to think that here, in amongst some little hills, one of the greatest minds in Scottish history was educated.

We had earlier made the decision not to follow the coast road round to Berneray. It was too long and we wanted to catch the 4.30 ferry to Leverburgh. Instead we took the Lochmaddy road and since the turn off up to Berneray was very close we decided to visit the Lochmaddy Hotel for some Sunday lunch. Nothing else was open, it being the Sabbath.

We had an interesting conversation with the barmaid. The menu said we could have a breakfast or bacon rolls up to 12 noon, but when we asked for bacon rolls we were told the chef wouldn’t be in until 12. So we asked if we could have a bacon roll when he came in but the girl said it would be too late then for the breakfast menu – you could only get that up until midday. We didn’t argue, and instead ordered some sandwiches… It seemed easier.

After that we flew along. The landscape between Lochmaddy and Berneray was as good as anything on the trip so far, and a sun dimpled landscape was a real bonus.

As it happened we had a bit of time to spare before we caught the ferry and I remembered a tea room just over the hill. The Lobster Cafe. We found it but it was shut – the Sabbath again, but we were a little put out by all the signs telling cyclists not to lean their bikes on the walls of the cafe -instead lean them against the fence. I’ts a curious way to encourage customers…

The ferry crossing was uneventful, although we managed to get some hot chocolate and a Kit Kat from a vending machine. Across the sound the hills of Harris looked dark and a tad foreboding and when we wheeled the bikes out from the ferry it was into a cold wind.

We didn’t hang around Leverburgh. Everything was closed – the Sabbath – so we high tailed it along the very scenic road for eight or nine miles to the campsite at Horgabost. We found a lovely flat bit of turf with great views across to the hills of North Harris and settled in for an epic cook- in and another early night. Tomorrow we hit the big hills of Harris.

Day’s mileage: 45 miles

Our camp site at Horgabost, Harris

Our camp site at Horgabost, Harris

Day 4

Horgabost to Dail Mor, Lewis

Woke to a magnificent pink dawn, then the wind dropped and the midges came out, midges the likes of which I hadn’t experienced for a long time. They certainly hurried us up with our packing and we were on the road before eight.

It was good to get moving, although on the big hill that runs down from the top of the Golden Road to Luskentyre we noticed that was definitely a minimum midge speed. If you dropped below it, the midges attacked, but keep above it and we ere OK. I think it was probably somewhere around 7mph and on the steeper sections of road it was easy to drop speed.

I did have the thought that if you found the road too steep, and you had to get off the bike and push, it could be quite a miserable experience, easily enough to put you off cycle touring for life. It was quite a motivation to keep pedalling, as hard as possible.

It was actually a good run round to Tarbert, despite the hill, and we were well aware we had an even bigger one to negotiate later in the day, over the Clisham pass.

We lingered for a bit in Tarbert, ostensibly waiting for the tea room to open and when it did we were tempted by their full Scottish breakfast, despite the fact we’d already eaten.

We bought meals for the next couple of days and suitably fortified with sausage and egg and bacon etc we tackled the Clisham hill, Hamish with more success than me. I was fighting my way up in my granny gear when, for no real reason I swerved onto the grassy verge and came off. No damage done, but when I tried to get going again I couldn’t – the hill was too steep. So I shoved the bike until I could get on and turn the pedals.

At that point the weather was pretty wet and gray but it must have been localised to the mountains because once we started the long descent the sun came out, for the rest of the day actually.

I stopped to take a picture of the Harris Walkway cairn, although the plaque looks pretty weather worn now. Hard to imagine I opened that route 14 years ago, in June 2000, at the grand old age of 50!

Our original plan had been stop at Luirbost, which would have given us another 43 mile day, but we got there in early afternoon, and anyway, there was nowhere to camp. We wentoff route for a mile or so to the Erixxx Hotel for a coffee where we both got a bit upset because an old couple from south Wales were having some difficulty.

The lady had lost her handbag with all their holiday cash, her credit cards, and her medicines. We really felt for them although there was absolutely nothing we could do. We left them in the capable hands of the Yorkshire couple who ran the hotel.

From there we pressed on and the new plan was to reach Callanish, which would give us a 53 mile day, but when we got there and asked at the Callanish Stones visitor centre we were told there was no camp site. The young couple made some suggestions but it seemed the best option was to continue for another 10 miles to Dail More, beyond Carloway. The girl said there was a car park near the beach and no-one would mind if we camped there.

It was a hard 10 miles. We were both knackered and we took it in turns to fight the headwind. Eventually, beyond Carloway, we saw the sign and followed a narrow road downhill for about a mile to a graveyard and a picnic area.

There were some German surfers in residence, complete with their VW’s, but we found space for our tents about 50 metres from the crashing, booming surf. There was even a public toilet, with an outside tap. We were quid’s in, although completely bushed. It had been a 64 mile day.

Day’s mileage: 64 miles

Day 5

Dail Mor to the Butt of Lewis and back to Galson

An easier day to complete our Hebridean End to End. We decided to check out an independent hostel a place called Galson, about 8 miles south of the Butt, and since there was room we dumped our panniers, had a cup of coffee, then hightailed it north to the Butt of Lewis.

We arrived about lunchtime, took various photos, sat in the sun for a while and soaked it all up feeling rather pleased with ourselves.

Sadly, the promised good weather didn’t quite happen. The watery sun soon evaporated into a dour greyness that, I have to confess, matched the dour landscapes of this part of Lewis. This isn’t stimulating countryside, many of the houses look mean and miserable and the only encouragement I took from the land I was passing through was in the number of YES signs I saw everywhere.

Journey's end at the Butt of Lewis

Journey’s end at the Butt of Lewis

We did have a marvellous lunch though. Both of us read, and enjoyed, Peter May’s book The Blackhouse, so we toddled down to Port of Ness, scene of the home of the legendary guga hunters, the men of Ness who travel to the remote Sgula Sgeir every year to “harvest” the gugas, the young gannets.

We had been disappointed that we hadn’t found any cafes open so it was with some delight we came across Cafe Sonas in Ness where we both had a superb steak mince enchilada. If you ever visit Port of Ness, check it out.

So, belly full of mince and cheese we cycled back to the hostel (we should have learned our lesson from the Barra curry) into the teeth of an increasing wind and rain.

Day’s mileage: 41 miles

Day 5

Galson to Stornoway and home

We were up and away from the excellent Galson Farm hostel just after 9am for an easy 20 mile ride down to Stornoway.

We were riding into a bit of a wind but the weather was much better than yesterday. And with the sun shining the general environment of Lewis smiled at us.

We cycled over the Barvas Moor and while this area can never be described as beautiful it does have its own attractions – vast moors of peat in every direction with the hills of Uig and Harris away in the south.

I remember when there was a proposal for Europe’s biggest wind farm to be sited here, and I also recall being surprised how many people objected on the basis that Barvas moor was a bit special. That proposal was eventually turned down on environmental grounds.

It didn’t take us long to get into Stornoway, grab a good breakfast and then hang around in the sun waiting for the Ullapool ferry. It was a good opportunity to reflect on the trip.

First of all, as ever, Hamish was a most excellent cycling companion. We’ve known each other almost all our lives so we have no need to try and outdo each other, or prove ourselves to each other.

Having said that, Hamish has worked hard and lost a fair amount of weight in the past few months and it showed in his cycling. He was much fitter than I was and made me work hard to keep up.

The trip itself was very good and the Hebrides End to End has become something of a classic. We saw plenty of other cyclists on the route, all enjoying it, and there is a good contrast between the flatter southern islands and the hilly areas of Harris.

Lovely contrasts too between Barra and Eriskay, my two favourite Hebridean islands, and the very different landscapes of the Uists, which are certainly not without their attractions. The long day through Harris was the hardest, but best, with some stunning mountain scenery.

We had a couple of great wild camp sites, two good nights on official camp sites and one night in the very highly rated Galson Farm hostel.

Total distance cycled was just under 250 miles, including our initial ride from Ballachulish to Oban to catch the ferry.

Day’s mileage: 22 miles