Should you help or leave people to learn?

A conversation with another outdoor instructor today about an upcoming trip to Skye triggered a memory about an ‘interesting’ evening myself and a friend experienced a few years ago whilst on a climbing trip to the Cuillin Ridge. It is something i think back to occasionally, and still wonder about the ethical and moral implications of such a seemingly innocuous evening…

Skye

We were enjoying some spring weather on the island in May – after the majority of the snow had departed but before the midges arrived, that ‘sweet spot’ where it was pleasant to sit and watch the sunset without being eaten alive. We were sharing our bunkhouse with a mountaineering club from somewhere in the U.K. (I won’t say which…) who were there with a mixed group – old hands and complete novices. We got on well together in the limited kitchen and living space during the evenings, and went to climb our separate routes during the daytime. Some of the club group were known to my climbing partner and the atmosphere was most cordial.

About four days into the trip we returned from bagging one of the smaller Munros to an empty bunkhouse. As darkness fell we cooked the usual pasta and sauce and prepared the gear for the next day. The first set of climbers from the club returned about an hour after sunset, in high spirits and keen to crack open a beer and relax. We compared notes on the day, the weather, the desire to visit at least one distillery before leaving the island.

After a couple of hours I enquired as to where the rest of the group were – one moderately experienced club member and a couple of near novices, on their first ‘mountain’ trip.  They had been excited about the route they had been planning to attempt that day, a relatively easy climb on good rock on the side of Sgurr Alasdair…

So where are the rest of you?”

“Oh they’re still on the crag – I expect they’re having some fun right about now!”

“They’re still climbing? Have they got headtorches?”

“In their bags, but we told them to leave them at the bottom of the crag to save weight”

“It’s now… 10 at night, aren’t you a little concerned?”

“Nah they’ll be alright, it’s character building. Everyone should get stuck at some point…”

They had parked next to the Glenbrittle campsite, a midge-infested isolated spot on the edge of Loch Brittle in the summer and always a mobile-signal black hole. They were at least 25 minutes drive away, and a period of high winds and low cloud forecast. Even if they were making their way downhill by now they would indeed be having ‘fun’. This however didn’t seem to impact on their friends and fellow club members – the desire to eat and open a beer or three seemed to be of a higher priority.

I walked outside and looked south to the darkness, towards the Cuillin Ridge. I felt tired, and was quite ready for my sleeping bag. These were a group of adults who were quite happy setting off on their own, and were not under my care – shouldn’t I just go to bed and sleep? I had the same familiar knot in my stomach that I had felt before – unable to decide if I was in the right or worrying too much about something that didn’t concern me. I turned around and walked back inside.

The rest of the club were cooking and drinking, talking and laughing without a care in the world. Was my reluctance to do something more related to not wanting to appear to be a ‘worrier’? Was I more worried about what the others thought about me, not wanting to look like an idiot who panicked because somebody took a bit longer to walk back down than they should have done?

“So how long was it since you saw them?”

“Dunno, about 6?”

“Were they moving well or struggling?”

“Not sure, they’ll be alright though. I got stuck once on the Gower, sat on a ledge all night until it got light.”

“I think I might drive down to Glenbrittle and see if they’re back at the car yet…”

“Why? I said they’ll be alright. Now come and have a beer…”

“I’ll just feel better if I go and check.”

“Suit yourself. We’re off to the pub…”

I left the kitchen and went to find my climbing partner – who was sat in the lounge about to raise a glass of scotch their lips.

“Fancy a walk?”

“Why – what have you done?”

“Nothing – it’s just that Dave and the others aren’t back yet. I think they’re still on the slab…”

“Oh. Are the others coming?”

“No.”

“Oh…”

We spent the next ten minutes retrieving gear from drying rooms and the ends of bunk beds whilst the group shuffled off to the pub, throwing the odd joke our way about mothering instincts. That knot in my stomach wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t feel any better. I looked at the pile of climbing gear – ropes, rack and harness and thought about what I actually intended to do. We were just going to drive down to the campsite and see if their car was there weren’t we? If it wasn’t then they had probably driven into Portree for chips or something, and I had caused a bit of a fuss over absolutely nothing.

We didn’t need the climbing gear.

I put the climbing gear in a rucksack with the big headtorch.

The road to Glenbrittle is typical of highland minor roads – passing places every 50m and weaving in between spurs of hillside. Sheep wander across the road at regular intervals and the chances of getting a mobile phone signal fall to zero. As we drove down the track I expected/hoped to see the headlights of Dave’s Golf coming the other way, but we reached the nearly deserted campsite road without seeing another soul. A line of anonymous campervans and caravans were sat at the far end of the open grassy area, and the only light we could see that wasn’t powered by a battery was the solitary light in the toilet block.

“So….. what are we doing now?”

“Errrrmmmm… shall we take a walk up to the corrie?”

“Righto.”

“It’ll be okay, we’ll probably find them walking back down towards us.”

“Yeah, I’m sure we will.”

“Is that Dave’s car over there?”

“Yeah… I bet they’re walking down to us now.”

We picked up our rucksacks, checked the map and plodded off along the gravel track and out onto the hillside.

Walking in the dark with a purpose is a bit weird.
When you just wander in the darkness your senses open up and you become more aware of sounds and smells, where the wind is coming from, what the ground feels like under your feet. When you walk with purpose, towards a goal or with a task in mind you lose out on these experiences – or at least have your focus drawn elsewhere. When you walk with a purpose in a howling gale and low cloud then you just close down and plod on, trying to hide deeper and deeper in the hood of your jacket.

We tried to hide in our hoods and plodded on.

After an hour or so we reached the bottom of the slabs, hidden from the force of the wind by the surrounding ridges.After a short search we soon found three rucksacks, soaking wet and untouched in hours. We looked up and saw only mist swirling in our headtorch beams. Deciding to turn them off, we shouted into the darkness. Nothing came back in return.

After a bit of umming and ahhing we chose to climb the gully next to the rocky slabs, trying to gain height without committing ourselves to the climb. This felt better – we were confident that the three club climbers were above us ‘somewhere’ and it was easier to make a decision without worrying that you were acting foolishly. The movement of my body over the rocks and the comforting weight of  rucksack against my hips felt familiar and safe. I knew how to move over rough ground, I could look ahead with my headtorch and pick a  likely-looking route between the boulders.

Every now and again we stopped, turned our lights off again and shouted into the gloom. There was no moon and the clouds were drifting past at our height – tantalising glimpses of black rock snatched during gaps in the mist. After about half an hour of awkward ascent we spotted a faint glow off to our right. A bit of flashing of headtorches and shouting identified it as a human with a light, not a star or a spectral figure out for a bit of midnight-soloing. Picking our route carefully we scrambled over grippy rocks towards the light, hoping that this was our benighted group.

It was.

“Is that you? Thank god, we were getting really cold. We’ve been stuck on this ledge for hours – we tried to abseil off but the ropes got stuck…”

“You guys ok?”

“F*cking freezing. Where are the rest of you?”

“Just us. The others went to the pub.”

“The pub?!?”

We explained that we had been a bit worried and decided to come looking for them. After a bit of checking over and hurried talking we established that they had gone off-route whilst climbing as a trio and darkness had overtaken them. Without headtorches and other gear they had decided to abseil straight back down to the corrie floor, leaving protection like nuts and slings behind if they had to – until their rope had become stuck when they tried to pull it down on the third abseil. Skye and the Cuillin Ridge is famous for it’s dark, very grippy rock (gabbro) and ropes running over it have to overcome a lot of friction – and getting stuck isn’t uncommon. Unable to free the rope they had found themselves marooned on a ledge, unwilling to attempt a risky downclimb or traverse without knowing what they were heading into, and unable to call for help.

We helped show them the way back across to the stone gully with our lights and slowly scrambled back down to the grassy slopes under the scree and then to the campsite. As they moved away from the mountainside the conversation turned to their relief, and and their disappointment in their fellow club members. They felt abandoned by them, and were increasingly angry.

My partner and I kept silent and just walked along with them.

On the drive back to the bunkhouse I considered the decisions made that day. Obviously I didn’t agree with the club group leader’s choices or those of his fellow climbers, otherwise I wouldn’t have persuaded my friend to join me in looking for them. The missing climbers would have survived the night, cold wet and embarrassed but they would have been reasonably safe on their ledge – should they have been left to go through the night so that they learn and remember a few lessons about mountaineering? Should inexperience and human error be left to be punished where possible?

There is a tradition of self-reliance in mountaineering, but also one of camaraderie and brotherhood. I’ve done some pretty stupid things in the mountains, and seen friends do some daft things too. Each mistake taught me something, but I have learnt a lot from hearing about the mistakes of others too. I’m still not sure if I ‘should’ have gone up to find those semi-strangers that night, but I don’t regret it.

When we returned to the bunkhouse there was something of an atmosphere, and we left them to it. We retired to our rooms and rose late the next day. Nobody had gone climbing and the silence and tension amongst the group had completely changed the mood of the trip, and we wanted to escape. By midday we were heading over the bridge to the mainland, and by evening we had crossed over the mountains north and were sat in the Applecross Inn being plied with whisky by a fishery owner and his German wife…  The rest of the trip was spent exploring the Applecross forest and snorkelling in the clear, cold waters of the Inner Sound between Applecross Bay and the Isle of Raasay.

I’m still making mistakes and still learning and hope to be doing so until the day I die – but I will still help other people and welcome the help of others when I need it.

Picking the one you want
Who needs a first aid course?

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