A Short Walk with Mahler

From Red Rope Bulletin Summer 1985

edited by Dr Di Chisholm

by Jerry Ready

“Fancy a walk, then ?” said Gustav, secure in the knowledge that the abundance of water everywhere precluded climbing. Was that a glint in his eye, or just the sun reflected off his glasses?

We’d arrived a few days early for the Easter meet at the Cairngorms Mountaineering Club Hut, and walking up to camp at Derry Lodge the previous evening we’d been persuaded by reports from returning climbers to leave the climbing gear in the car. “There’s nobbut slush and water everywhere.” they’d said. Last week’s heavy snowfall followed by the current mild temperatures had left the rock faces greasy and uninviting.

So a walk seemed the only option this fine Sunday morning, though caution was necessary; in a pre-trip phone call Gustav had been keen to sell me the idea of all the four-thousanders in a day, and despite my polite refusals (— **** off, Gustav…. leave it out …pick on someone else –) throughout the journey he’d stuck at it. New Red Roper though I was I was no stranger to tales of Gustav, a legend in his own lunchtime, and his epic walks and bicycle rides. But in my stubbornness, my firm resolve and instinct for self-preservation, I knew his indefatigable enthusiasm had met its match.

After a suitable pause, guardedly I replied:

“—What sort of walk had you in mind?”

“—Well, what sort do you fancy?”

Got him. Easy, really.

“—A short one. A gentle loosener. I want to save myself for the climbing later in the week. Ten or twelve miles’ll do me.”

“—What about Ben a’Bhuird then? I’ve not done that one.”

“—Oh ay; and how far would that be?”

“—About nine or ten.”

“—There and back?”

“—Each way.”

“—Forget it.”

“—Oh come on. It’s all easy ground. There’s a landrover track most of the way, so there’s nothing steep. On the way down we’ll do four mile an hour. It’ll be a cruise. Nice light sacs remember – no climbing gear. Besides, nothing shorter will get us anywhere worthwhile. You’ve just got to get used to the distances involved up here. It’s not like Glencoe. All the tops are really remote. But it’s easy going, all gentle slopes. We’ll make dead fast time.”

An amazing thing then happened: I agreed. My mouth opened and it said “Yes, alright then. ” No qualifications I could add now like “I’ll just see how it goes.” “I’m not promising anything.” could save me. Gustav was already packing Christmas puddings into his rucsac. An eighteen mile walk. A short walk with Mahler . Make no mistake. He’s a very persuasive character, is Gustav.

We started directly up the hillside rather than round via the contouring landrover track, to ensure getting a good view while there still was one. Then down to a natural pine wood of severe, blasted beauty to cross Quoich Water at a fallen tree. The day was still fine and sunny, and having lunched early (and slept badly the previous night) I was drifting into dreams of glorious summer, warm dry rock, lazy afternoons, cool beer. How delicious to doze here an hour, amble back to camp in time for a relaxed dinner, and, who knows, maybe even make the pub?

I put my thoughts to Gustav. But Gustav doesn’t like pubs, nor lazy afternoons, nor being in time for anything. Destroyer of my dreams. Having agreed to this walk in the first place, I thought it uncomradely to give up almost before starting. So on I went. That was my second big mistake of the day. I should have listened to my body, not my sense of honour.

 Twelve miles later we were at the ford, or, more accurately at what might have been a ford were it not monstrously swollen by meltwater. The summit had been uninspiring, as summits can be, especially in the Cairngorms. Think of Kinder, treble it, then remove the Downfall. As Wainwright says, many depressions are encountered, particularly of the spirits. Now all I wanted was to be back in my tent. But first, to cross this river. According to the map a landrover could cross at this point; today it would need a ferry. We had neither.

Half an hour’s frigging about with fallen trees and ice axes convinced us that we had only two options: strip and wade this waist-deep icy torrent or detour ten miles via the nearest bridge. Cold and depressed we chose the latter. Day’s big mistake number three.

 The world is now my tired legs, bent back and blistered feet. To help pass time I quiz Steve on the birds and animals we see, of which he has an inexhaustible knowledge, then on the history and geology of these hills, and then on anything at all. What did you do before school, Steve?

I listen, trying hard to concentrate. Must think of something other than my feet. Each step is new pain, demanding new resolve. Pain, decide, step, pain. These are the poles. I realize for the first time the truth of claims by exhausted mountaineers that they’d happily have lain down, even if it meant for ever, if only they could cease this inhuman effort. Though my predicament and its potential consequences are not of that magnitude, I’d like to lie down and not have to move again.

The rests became longer and more frequent. It is no consolation that Gustav needs them as much as me; besides he’s probably saying that just to comfort me. What gets me up from these rests and keeps me going, I don’t know. Perhaps merely the knowledge that it has to be done, there’s no alternative, and that it must come to an end eventually.

Which it did, of course. Thirteen hours and twenty eight miles after it began, my short walk with Gustav Mahler was over. And tomorrow was a rest day.

Addendum Fortunately, this inauspicious beginning did not finish me for the week, as I feared it might, and the climbing days that followed, in good weather, are the best I remember. At some point I mentioned to Gustav that previous to my walk with him the most I’d ever done in a day was fourteen miles and that had been at the end of a week’s gradual build-up. He replied that on week-long trips he generally did things the other way round, i.e. start strongly but then deteriorate.

For once I had nothing to say, so I wrote this story.