The Angry Corrie 60: Jan-Feb 2004

Some stuff you'll never learn from reading Langmuir: 10 common but rarely defined hill situations

image from TAC60

1 Narrow pathology

Typical of the situations to be described here, in that it occurs frequently without ever seeming to be written about, at least not in the standard hill-skills primers. Narrow pathology relates to a party of two, or to a twosome within a larger group. At some point in the outing the people concerned will fancy a natter at a time when the route is following a one-person-wide path along a broad ridge or across a moor. The ground is gentle enough to permit side-by-side walking, so Person 1 moves up alongside Person 2. But an awkwardness of manners intervenes: if Person 1 walks along the path while trying to continue the conversation, Person 2 is forced into the tussocks/heather at the side. This isn't the done thing, so Person 1 chooses to suffer the tussocks him/herself. Meanwhile, Person 2 is going through exactly the same thought process and likewise steps off the path by way of courtesy. So both parties stride - or stumble - along, slightly to either side of the unused path, until the conversation peters out and they return to line-astern formation. This has echoes of the word Droitwich in the Douglas Adams / John Lloyd book The Meaning of Liff (which uses placenames to define nameless-but-common concepts and is a strong contender for funniest book of the past 20-odd years): "A street dance. The two partners approach from opposite directions and try politely to get out of each other's way. They step to the left, step to the right, apologise, step to the left again, apologise again..."

The solution to narrow pathology? Only indulge in conversation while on tracks or pathless hillsides. Or walk alone and talk to yourself.

2 Newton's Cradle

An extraordinarily common situation, likely to make an appearance in any group where there is a marked speed/fitness difference between the fastest and the slowest. A traditional Newton's Cradle is the executive toy with five metal balls dangling from threads on a metal frame. Pull back one of the end balls, let it clack against the other four, and although the middle three stay immobile the far-end ball accepts the force and boings out in pleasing symmetry. Everyone has seen this. And every walker has seen the situation where the group pauses to let the backmarker catch up, but as soon as he or she arrives one of the speedsters, already rested and impatient to get moving, stands up and strides off, as if spurred by some Newtonian equal-and-opposite force. Thus the party remains forever split, and thus the slowcoach at the back, having just flopped down at their long-aimed-for respite point, becomes mightily pissed off at the thoughtlessness of those who seem to have plenty in the way of muscles but little in the way of empathy.

3 Imaginary fences

The traditional (eg Rockface) portrayal of a whiteout is of a thick blizzard in a screaming gale, but there's a second type, if anything even whiter and in some ways every bit as dangerous. It's the quiet whiteout: 100% snow cover but nothing falling, no wind at all and cloud so thick that everything blurs into one overwhelming whiteness on which the eyes simply fail to find anything to focus. These are eerie, unnerving conditions - but evocative too, and to be treasured. Many walkers will encounter them only once or twice during their entire hill career, if that. The effect really needs a smooth, grassy hillside: anything rocky or craggy tends to show through as black no matter how severe the weather. Hence the Borders or Dales hills - which often receive sudden blanketing snowfalls - are the most likely places, although Munros can manage it too, eg Ben Chonzie if approached from the east, on the empty stretch between the Lochan Uaine crags and the summit slopes.

In such conditions the eyes strain for something, anything, and strange optical tricks can be played. The most familiar, for those who have been out on such a day, tends to be the imagining of fenceposts. It works like this. You're steering on a tight, nervous cross-bearing, aiming not for the summit or even for the main ridge, but for a wire stock fence that you know cuts across your route if only you can find it. But time passes, the requisite number of double steps are counted, and there is no fence. Maybe you've been pushed off-line by that last big drifted-over gully; maybe you're going much more slowly than estimated. Still no fence. Maybe the posts have been completely snowed over; maybe the map is wrong in what it shows. Still no fence.

Then, suddenly, at the absolute limit of your eye-straining vision (which is probably only about ten metres ahead), there is a faint but definite line of short verticals: the fence. You relax and breathe a sigh of relief: it's easy from here. Except that when you walk those ten metres there is no fence, just more plain snowfields on an empty moor. Odd. Oh well, on you go. Then it happens again. And again. And each time you could swear you were seeing the damn fence. And when it does finally materialise (much less than ten metres away - conditions are so thick that you actually walk into the thing), you find yourself patting it and twanging the frozen snow from its wires just to check it's real this time.

This should be dismissable as an orthodox optical illusion: a retained retinal image akin to looking at, say, an advertising hoarding and then at the sky and briefly seeing the poster's letters against the clouds. Standard stuff. But wait a minute: on the hill you hadn't seen a fence at the time you started imagining one, so there was no retinal image waiting to be projected. Strange.

4 Bikefrogging

A useful and slightly counterintuitive skill, rarely seen in practice. Normally an imbalance of equipment is bad news, eg all bar one of a winter group having crampons is asking for trouble. On the face of it this is even more obviously the case with bicycles: how can a group stay together with any kind of coherence when P > B, where P is the number of people and B the number of bikes? Generally, it doesn't work - but bikefrogging is worth considering in certain long-walk-in (or long-pedal-in) situations. Take the familiar approach to the Cairngorms from Linn of Dee. The first 5km or so, to Derry Lodge, is along well-made and generally flat estate tracks. These are ideal for cycling (and it was no surprise to hear an outcry when the NTS tried to stop cycling here a few years ago). Now, imagine the simplest form of the problem: two people are heading for the hills, but only one has a bike. P=2, B=1. Person 1 pedals off from Linn of Dee, Person 2 starts on foot. Off-road cycling tends to be roughly four times faster than walking, and chances are that Person 1 will reach the pre-arranged changeover point at 21/2km in something like eight minutes. Here they dismount, leave the bike in an easy-to-find place, and start walking. Twenty minutes later Person 2 reaches the bike and uses it to cycle to Derry Lodge, where Person 1 will just be arriving on foot. The whole journey for each person will have taken not much more than 35 minutes, and the pair will be 20 minutes ahead of Person 3 who left Linn of Dee at the same time but who, not being in on the deal, has had to walk the whole way.

There are, it should be noted, potential problems. The most obvious one is Person 2 not finding the bike, possibly because Thief 1 intervened during the 20-minute gap. A more mundane problem comes when the two people are of decidedly different body shape. To take an example from the known TAC readership, bikefrogging is unlikely to work if the pair are Richard Webb (big) and Mary Cox (wee). No bike has yet been invented which could accommodate both these people.

That said, the process should work in situations where the P minus B figure is greater than one. If, say, P=5 and B=1, the time saved will be fairly minimal (each person would cycle for only 1km in the Cairngorms example), but it ought still to be quicker than for B=0. At what stage the equation becomes top-heavy is unclear, but P=50, B=1 would require so many dismountings that the journey could well take in excess of the on-foot-only version. It's also worth noting that although P=17, B=13 ought, in theory, to be worthwhile, it could become somewhat complicated.

image from TAC60

5 Bealach momentum

And speaking of cycling, here's something which road cyclists have long known about. A walker is descending a steady, even steep, slope, beyond which another hillside rears, waiting to be climbed. Let's say the to-be-climbed slope is 300m high: enough to be daunting, especially if it's the fourth or fifth climb of a long day. The temptation is to pause in the dip, maybe have a snack and a drink, and only then turn to face the effort above. Wrong. Or, at least, not very sensible. Much better, as soon as the downslope has ended and the bealach has been crossed, is to chug straight up a chunk of the upslope. It doesn't need to be a huge amount, only a quarter or a third of the whole, but taking an initial bite out of the ascent will make the task seem far less onerous than if tackled in a oner.

The reason the cyclists know this is because cycling is about smoothness, about flow, about momentum. In a comparable down/up cycling situation the sudden short burst of hard, high-gear pedalling at the end of a downslope really does generate impetus to make the start of the upslope easier. On foot the effect is more psychological than physical, but it's still worth trying. (Similar is fifty-feet-further-ism, the idea that even though a particular rock might have been treated as a target from below, once reached it's best to plod on for another minute or so before resting. In this way a four-stop hillslope can easily become a three-stopper.)

6 Busyridgeism

Again there are echoes of The Meaning of Liff here, eg Adams and Lloyd wrote this, under the heading Corriecravie: "...the cowardly but highly skilled process by which both protagonists [approaching from opposite ends of a long passageway] continue to approach while keeping up the pretence that they haven't noticed each other..."

Similar, sort of, is the situation on a busy hill path - say in the Ponds or North Wales - where the normal rules of brief pleasantry start to feel somewhat strained. On most Scottish hills, where people are encountered only rarely, it's entirely acceptable to nod and say Hello or pass some brief cheery remark about the weather (plus it provides evidence of your being a well-balanced, civil individual).

Quite what counts as the critical population density is unclear, but in busy-ridge areas (eg Helvellyn at a weekend) it has become generally accepted that to speak to every one of the 238 people met per half-kilometre would be deemed over-zealous, if not downright pushy. It would also leave you with a sore throat. This is a sad state of affairs, but it does at least seem clear-cut. The problem comes when the ridge is just busy enough to be transforming from the Scottish situation to a quiet-day-on-a-busy-hill scenario, such that you're faced with the tricky conundrum: to speak or not to speak? Speak too much and people glare at you for being weird; stay shtum and the muttered words Miserable bastard will in due course reach you on the prevailing breeze.

The uncertainties of busyridgeism appear to be on the wane, however. In thronged hill areas every second person is now yapping into a mobile phone as they march along, and the loud one-sided refrain - "Hey I'm on Brim Fell! On the phone!" - removes any need for conversational niceties. You just swear at them, unheeded, and move on.

7 Cornice nose

Another whiteout situation, usually only commented on in the pub that night when someone is spotted with their pint held in one hand on the bar while the other hand half-covers their face as though in some alcoholic reworking of a Rodin sculpture. The Shy Drinker, perhaps. Or not shy so much as embarrassed, and when you speak to them you find out why: they've somehow skelped half the skin off the front of their nose.

image from TAC60

What has happened is this. The person has been plodding up some steepish but not desperate hillside in quiet-whiteout conditions. The utterly mundane south-east ridge of Beinn Dearg, the Corbett above Glen Lyon, is typical of the place where it's been known to happen. The summit plateau has been approaching for some time, but the rhythmic step, step, axe; step, step, axe on the relentless regular slope has lulled the walker into near-hypnosis. Step, step, axe. Then, suddenly, bang. Ouch. They've arrived at the section of slope beneath the summit and the snowfield has abruptly steepened a couple of notches, either into a traditional jutting cornice or - even worse - a short, near-vertical wall of hard-packed snow. And because they've been leaning forward as they plodded, and because the whiteout succeeded in numbing-down most of their senses, they've walked straight into the snowbank, and their nose has taken the impact.

It's rarely if ever dangerous: there is no known instance of a walker being jerked backwards and plummeting down the snowfield because of cornice nose. But there is plenty of scope for being jolted into startled alertness. And there is often plenty of blood.

8 Navigation abdication

Related to narrow pathology in that it's likely to occur if the conversation, as recommended in that section, is confined to estate or forest tracks. Here there is no problem with the etiquette of walking side-by-side to natter: each person has ample space to amble, stride and stumble as they see fit. But the very fact that this allows unhindered and often quite animated conversation means that navigation concerns are put to one side. Hence when a crucial track-junction arrives, the wrong branch is blithely taken because (a) Person 1 assumes Person 2 knows what they're doing and is too polite to stop and suggest otherwise, and vice versa, or (b) both parties are simply too engaged in gabbing to even notice that there was a junction, never mind the possibility of a wrong turning.

A good example of what can go wrong came in the early days of TAC when the editor met regular writer Grant Hutchison for a stroll into Corrie Fee via a track system that both would have said in advance they knew fairly well. Barely 100 metres out of the car park the pair were blethering away about physics and football, and before long a green wall of dead-end trees was reached - at which point both parties said Oh, and belatedly pulled maps out of rucksacks. That was a lucky escape. Experienced groups have been known to be lost in ostensibly straightforward forests for days, even weeks, and there's a strong argument for only ever entering mega-forests such as Craik, Kielder or Glenbranter alone, as even the merest sniff of conversation is likely to cause a critical turning to be missed.

9 False summitry

Otherwise known as Almostthereism, or It's-just-over-the-next-bump disease (or Slogarie in The Meaning of Liff, where it appears pretty precisely). Used by adult leaders when guiding/cattleprodding unenthusiastic teenagers up some hill or other, allegedly for the good of their character. A modern adult version sees fagsmoking (sorry, Robin - see page 13), obese, fitnessophobes being cajoled along in cagoules on some team-building / corporate bonding nonsense. Either way, there are going to be people in the group for whom this is hell itself (people who will have become very aware of Newton's Cradle by the end of proceedings), and such people will repeatedly ask the question: "Are we nearly there yet?" Brutal honesty on the part of the leader is the best policy, but much more likely is the suggestion, for the fifth time that hour, that the top is just over the next bump.

A more extreme version of this is cafeteria syndrome, where the leader not only suggests that the top is just over the next bump, but that the summit will bring nourishment, shelter and all the E-numbers and video games that any bedraggled newcomer-to-the-hills could ever wish for. Fair enough on Snowdon, or if trudging up the northern side of Cairn Gorm, or on Cadair Idris in days gone by. But these aren't the only hills on which the promise is uttered. A friend of TAC, Mary Boyle, tells of having been taken to Ben Lomond on a school trip. She was finding it a hard slog, and was evidently in need of encouragement, so the teacher revealed, just for her, that there was a chip shop on the summit. Suddenly the effort seemed worthwhile, suddenly the whole point of hillwalking was apparent. The tiredness faded from Mary's legs and with great eagerness and excitement she made it to the top - where, of course, neither fish supper nor spam fritter was to be found. In the 40-odd years from that day to this, she hasn't been near another hill.

10 Proxy kidbagging

Another leader/kids thing, and more calculated than false summitry. The idea is simple: the leaders carefully plan their week of dragging weans around hills such that their own Munro tallies will not only increase markedly, but will do so at the expense of the local education authority or social work department. Actually, in these cash-strapped days this tends to be most often seen in public-school situations: drive past an empty Earl Branston's Academy minibus parked beneath the Etive or Fannaich Munros and you can be sure that proxy kidbagging is in progress.

The effects are most obvious towards the end of the week: chance upon the party on a Thursday and the kids will be bored, tired and nursing injuries to ankles and knees. Conversely the teachers, each with eleven new Munros already in the bag, will be demob- and multibag-happy.

Proxy kidbagging habitually involves the less fashionable Munro areas: the minibuses are rarely to be found in the Coe or in Torridon because the teachers will already have been to those hills in their own time. A minibus parked beneath a bunch of Corbetts indicates a chronic case (and a hefty budget). There is also the more extreme form, family kidbagging, whereby gleaming-eyed modern parents take their still-young sprogs (usually two per family, usually in the 12-15 age bracket) around not just a few Munros but the whole damn set. Come completion, the parents then notify the entire local press network, such that we all get to hear about it for days on end. Curiously, the failed attempts at family kidbagging - the bones of small children which lie mouldering beneath various remote Highland crags - never seem to receive the same kind of publicity.

TAC 60 Index