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Snowbound like Shackleton

David McVey

David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire.  He has published over 100 short stories and a great deal of non-fiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his home-town football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

Winter-wet moorland oozed cold blackness under our feet as we climbed under a smoky ceiling of cloud, trailing ectoplasmic coils of breath.


‘Keep an eye on the compass,’ said Frank, indicating an inky fold of cloud that was now engulfing the summit of our peak, ‘We’ll be among that lot soon.’  True enough, before long we had slipped into the gloom, and were treading through a soft wetness of snow. Gradually, the snow dried and deepened and firmed.  Fierce wind gusts wrapped the thick clammy cloud around us.


The wind grew in intensity and tugged at our clothes and rucksacks and lifted little confetti-puffs of dry snow to mingle with the milky mist. We picked our way carefully round a snow-rimed outcrop and found ourselves standing on a flat, frozen subsidiary summit facing a wind of snarling savagery.


‘Bloody mugs’ game!’ yelled Frank, turning his back to the blast.  I did the same, waiting for the power of the gust to subside, but it didn’t. The wind kept on roaring. It was there to stay. ‘What’s the quickest way down?’ Frank shouted again.


Clearly I had been mutely volunteered as navigator and decision-maker, so I worked quickly with compass and map, keeping a tight grip on the latter to prevent it flying off on a journey that might well end in the North Sea.  ‘Just west of north, straight down into the high glen.’ I shouted back.


‘Never mind all that!  Just point!’ Frank roared.


I mirrored the direction of the compass direction of travel arrow with my index finger and we slithered off quickly, battered by the unforgiving gale. These hills were notorious for steep outcrops that were difficult to see from above until you hurtled from them into space, so for all our speed we went cannily. Eventually, the high glen that ran west-east to the north of our hill gave us some shelter from the south-westerly winds, and we were able to slow down and relax.


The cloud had crept further down the hill’s flanks so that we were still in its clammy grip, even though I estimated that we could now be no higher than two thousand feet. The ground had levelled out and we were in an area of snow-covered rocky hummocks.


‘Lunch,’ said Frank.


We spread survival bags on a stretch of soft ground and sat down to squashed sandwiches, icy fruit and flasks of tepid but still welcome tea. Another hill had beaten us. This was proving to be a winter of low achievement, yet there was some consolation in being seated in reasonable comfort in this abode of snow and rock, the only sounds the distant roaring of the wind on the ridge and the whisper of far-imagined burns, while thick mist circumscribed our world to a tiny circle of wildness.  Man had no place, here; yet here we were, and perfectly safe and in control.


‘Explorers, eh?’ said Frank, ‘We could be stuck in the Antarctic or some place like that. Snowbound. Marooned. Like Shackleton.’


‘Maybe, but hopefully we’ll still be on the evening train from Crianlarich. Not quite the Antarctic.’


‘Do ye know where we are?’


‘Aye, roughly,’ I said, pointing at the map. ‘The burn below us leads to Glen Falloch. Once we’re down we can follow the West Highland Way to Crianlarich.’


The winding-sheet of snow and cloud still kept us tightly enfolded. We could have been the only people left in the world, I thought; Frank had clearly been musing along the same lines, for he said, ‘It’s like some nuclear holocaust sci-fi thing.  We could get back down to civilisation and find that we’re the only people left.  Everyone else wiped out.’


‘Aye, just like Reagan to push the nuclear button when we’ve got unused return halves on train tickets.’


‘Spoken like a true Scotsman.’


We rested for a while and then, when the cold began to penetrate, prepared to go. Yet even with the chill entering our bones we were reluctant to leave, having been captured by the spirit of this special, secret, silent place. There was a temptation to just stand there and listen to the peace, to savour the isolation.  The faint voice of the wind could still be heard, just louder than the whisper of shifting snow and the distant rumours of waterfalls.


And then, from somewhere beyond the enclosing clouds, came a sudden rending of the quiet, a great, resounding klaxon-like blast that resonated for several seconds and then ceased, its memory lingering in the echoes from every glen and corrie and fold in the hills.


‘What the hell was that?’ said Frank, as we gazed at each other in slack-jawed confusion.


I had no idea.  With a feeble intention of lightening the mood, I suggested, ‘Perhaps it was the four-minute warning?’ and then immediately wished I hadn’t.  Suppose it was the four-minute warning?  Suppose our land was about to be laid waste by nuclear holocaust, every town and city flattened, every person and every creature, even on this snowy, mist-wreathed hillside, burnt to a cinder?


‘What would you do if it was the four-minute warning?’ I asked. ‘How would you spend your last four minutes?’


Frank gave a bitter laugh; ‘Stuck up here, we’re a bit starved of options, aren’t we?’


Neither of us, I suppose, really imagined that this was actually the end.  But in an exposed situation like ours that great trumpet blast - the last trump? - was a puzzle. What else could it be?


We turned and began to pick our way down the slope, aiming to follow the obvious stream downhill to Glen Falloch.  What more could we do?  We had only started a minute or so, had only added a couple of hundred yards of troubled snow to our downward trail, when the colossal outpouring of deep brassy sound came again.


The last echoes faded to silence and Frank said, ‘Damn it, what is that thing?’


We continued our descent. The sound must indicate something, but whatever it meant, we were at least still here, alive, walking. A few minutes passed. The snow underfoot had thinned but the clouds still had us in their grip. We existed in a vaporous bubble fifty yards wide.


And then the Earth shook with seismic ferocity. A deep-bellied, thunderous roaring erupted somewhere, deafening in itself but prolonged as a pattern of echoes reverberating among the hills. After what seemed like a long time, the sounds died away and we stared at each other in dumb terror. Unspeaking, we counted down to the time when the nuclear shock wave would strike, the swift hot wind that would kill us, fry us and vaporise us.


It didn’t come.  We nodded to each other and continued downhill, through slushy snow fragments and wet grass until we were in a stand of thin birch forest through which a fretwork of tiny burns picked their way.  Just then the fog was ripped apart like a shredded newspaper and below us stretched the long wooded trench of Glen Falloch. Traffic beetled along the A82 and a goods train pulsed northward. Life was going on.


We continued to lose height, now below the cloud in a thin, unpleasant drizzle, following the burn as it gathered pace and volume on its journey to the Falloch.  Frank stopped and looked ahead of him. ‘Big roadworks on the A82, I see,’ he said. And then, again, came that mournful klaxon, but this time we could tell that it came from somewhere down in Glen Falloch. Again, the sound was repeated. When the last echoes of this died away we waited for the climax.  From a raw rock edge near the roadworks we saw a discreet puff of smoke appear, and then the hillside seemed to erupt in an inferno of flying rock. The thunderous roar hit us, and we turned our backs on its source.  When we looked again there was a pall of dust and smoke hanging over the roadworks, and a way had been blasted out of the bare rock.


 ‘The road!’ Frank yelled, ‘Of course! They’re blasting rock to widen the road!’


‘Mystery solved then, Watson.’


‘Bloody relief.  I was worried for a bit back there, I can tell you.’


Two hours later we were downing pie and chips in the station tearoom at Crianlarich, cheerful again, garrulous with the adventure of the day and already planning our next outing. When the train growled in from the north we rushed out into the chill darkness and found ourselves seats in a quiet coach, still full of talk and hope.


Everything seemed normal, familiar, human.  As the train rattled alongside a Loch Lomond that glinted in the brief passing lights of the train, we grew quiet. Talk, mere talk and cheerfulness, couldn’t erase the fears we had faced on the hill. Things had changed; we had changed, and we knew, we both knew, there could never be ‘normal’ any more, not after facing such terrible plausibility.

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