Action Man 49
We prised open the car door that had frosted shut overnight and tried to open our stiff jack knifed bodies into something resembling a fully open upright state. Whilst sleeping in the car is always an option, it’s never really preferable to a tent never mind a B&B. It was six in the morning and still very dark. A particularly luke warm flask of sweet coffee and some day-old bread with half a squished brown banana constituted what Mal called breakfast. At 11.30 pm the night before he had guided, or more like scraped his old car up the frost track to the deer gates that blocked our progress any further into Ben Nevis’s North Face.
As ever Mal had a plan to do another new route in winter on the “Ben” and I, as a willing accomplice to the randomness, had no clue to the destination and methodology required. After our hearty breakfast, we shouldered our winter packs and hiked into the CIC hut which rests below some of the most famous routes in Scotland. By the time we had decided, or Mal had decoded our target, a pair of famous French mountain guides were already half way up point five gully. We walked up to our target and as instructed I took the lead up a narrow, but not too difficult ice chocked gully which marked the start of an existing route. I stopped after 100 feet and brought Mal up to the stance. He then decided that instead of continuing up the gully he would head out left on to the sidewall of the gully and after 30 feet progress came to a halt. Much cursing and scraping of metal then followed as Mal teetered and muscled his way over a small, difficult rock bulge onto the easier angled snow and ice above. This was a man propelled more by desire than pure technical ability. Not altogether a pretty site and slightly worrying to be at the other end of a potential fall whilst on a poorish belay, but highly effective nonetheless. Finding a slightly different line over the bulge we soon stood side by side on the wall in the middle of the vastness of Ben Nevis rock and ice. Three easier pitches later and we were standing on the summit plateau.
Winter climbing sometimes feels gladiatorial, armed with metal in hand and on feet, helmeted, shrouded in Gore-Tex, and slightly removed from the world. But today walking back to the car in the pink light of an oncoming Scottish winter sunset, we were truly alive. Stories of daring do, Himalayan exploits and dodgy days surviving by wits and scams in Chamonix brought us with laughter back to the deer fence which divided our mountain life from the process of rejoining the rest of the sedentary Scottish Saturday winter world. New route or not I will never know, but I do know that to have shared this day with one of life’s true characters is more valuable than any tick in a guide book. Those of us who new Mal Duff well will always cherish his energy, love of life, and ability to tread a very different path,. Mal died tragically at Everest base camp some years ago and is sorely missed by many. Thinking of him always makes me smile. It’s a pity in life that we do not always appreciate those who truly march to a different drum a bit more deeply.