False summit claims were back in the news recently when the Swedish mountaineer Fredrik Sträng retracted his claim to have summited 8,047m Broad Peak after studying other people’s summit photos and concluding his own were not quite right.
From time to time we hear stories of climbers claiming summit success when they didn’t make it to the true summit, or of climbers claiming first ascents without properly verifying them. Against this backdrop, Sträng has been rightly praised for his refreshing honesty, but he’s not the only mountaineer of integrity. My own part in a notable first ascent in north-west Scotland has not received any press attention. This could be because the mountain in question is only 792m high, or it could be part of a wider media conspiracy to keep me out of the spotlight because the reflection from my bald head has a tendency to dazzle people. Whatever the reason, I thought I’d just put this out there to redress some of the balance.
It was filthy weather when we moved south from Ullapool and checked into the campsite at Lochcarron, a sleepy fishing village on the shores of – that’s right – Loch Carron, a sea loch on the coast of north-west Scotland.
The forecast was for low cloud and rain, but we decided to climb a Corbett anyway. The Corbetts are the mountains in Scotland over 2,500ft in height, named after the famous Scottish comedian Ronnie Corbett. They are not quite as well-known as the Munros, mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft in height, named after Marilyn Monroe, the favourite actress of Sir Hugh Munro who first compiled the Munro list. Nonetheless, they are still highly sought after by peak baggers.
Sgurr a’ Chaorachain (792m or 2,598ft) can be accessed easily from the Bealach na Ba, the 2,053ft high pass we had cycled over two weeks earlier while pedalling the North Coast 500. It was a good chance to reacquaint ourselves with the toughest section of our bike ride, a horrendous sequence of steep hairpins, renowned as the hardest hill to cycle up in the whole of the UK.
Sgurr a’ Chaorachain is a Gaelic name which translates into English as Cochrane’s Scar. It’s named after Sir Hamish Cochrane, the laird of Wester Ross who, legend has it, rode a highland stag up to the Bealach na Ba in 1762. Although the legend persists, many people believe the pass is much too steep for the story to be taken literally, and it’s likely that Sir Hamish got off and pushed the stag up the final section.
The existence of the road means that it’s possible to drive most of the way up this particular Corbett, and park in the car park at the top of the pass. Having cycled up it once already, Edita and I felt entitled to take a motor vehicle this time around.
Now, I expect some of you are thinking that driving 2,053ft of the way up a 2,598ft mountain is cheating. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the standard routes up many mountains involve bypassing far greater distances using motorised transport. On Everest, for instance, people fly to Lukla at 2,800m, and on 4,810m Mont Blanc, people think nothing of taking a cable car up to the top of the 3,842m Aiguille du Midi.
I don’t see why using a vehicle should be seen as cheating, any more than using an ice axe, a rope, crampons, or donning a stout pair of walking boots. Until somebody walks up Sgurr a’ Chaorachain in just their underpants, then it’s no use taking the moral high ground. And since style is so important to many climbers, I would expect the pants to be a pair of Calvin Klein boxer shorts, worn in such a way that the lettering on the waistband can be glimpsed above the top of their trousers when they stand up to remove a jacket (but since it’s an underpants-only ascent, the latter requirement could be waived in this instance).
But I’m digressing. Our ascent of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain turned out to be quite straightforward. Halfway up the road to the pass, we disappeared into a thick grey mist, but we recognised the twists and turns, and duly parked at the Bealach na Ba and put on our Gore-Tex clothing. From there a rough vehicle track led up to the peak. We walked up the track for fifteen minutes and were soon standing on the summit.
I was elated, and asked Edita to take my summit photo, which you can see below.
But Edita didn’t seem to be quite as excited as I was.
“Are you sure it’s the summit?” she asked.
“Of course it is,” I replied.
“How do you know?”
“Because you can clearly see that from here the only way is down.”
“But what if it goes down for a bit and then goes back up again?”
She asked me three times if I was sure we were standing on the summit. Despite my insistence, I sensed she didn’t believe me, and the third time I began to get irritated.
“But what about that?” she said, pointing to a pile of stones a short distance away that looked to be a metre higher.
She may have had a point, so we walked over to it, and she took my summit photo there as well.
For the record, here it is.
We drove to the pub in Applecross and had lunch. While there, I studied my summit photos. Once again, I had the distinct feeling that something about them wasn’t quite right. Then it struck me – the radio mast! It was quite prominent in the background of the photo. Surely if we were standing on the true summit, then other people who have climbed the peak would have seen the mast too.
I emailed my photo to the well-known mountain chronicler Konrad Bartelski, a personal friend who has built a reputation over the years of verifying summit photographs to confirm whether summit claims are true. In mountaineering circles, you haven’t climbed a mountain until Konrad says you have. I knew he would be able to tell me right away whether or not we’d reached the true summit. He may even have seen other summit photos of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain, and would be able to recall any distinctive features in the background.
As I expected, Konrad responded quickly. He sent back a scan of the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map with a note scribbled on it. The note was somewhat terse, but it left me in no doubt that we had not, in fact, reached the true summit of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain.
Here it is below.
The map revealed that the point we had reached stood at the top of a steep cliff, but had we followed the cliff around to the right we would have found ourselves walking along a narrow ridge that descended initially, but then climbed over a number of other summits before reaching the true one.
My initial disappointment was tempered when I realised that a number of these summits were officially classified on one of Scotland’s many peak lists. Indeed, by following the ridge to its end, we would not only be bagging a Corbett, but a Strachan, two Salmonds and a Sturgeon (they are a little obscure, but I believe these other peaks were named after long-forgotten historical figures whose names have vanished into the Scottish hill fog).
We swiftly downed our pints of (low alcohol) An Teallach ale and drove back up to the pass, where we found the mist had thickened, and visibility was down to just a few metres. We quickly passed the radio mast and continued along the ridge, breathlessly ticking off each summit as we crossed them.
At the end of the ridge we found a large cairn. We took the GPS coordinates, which confirmed the location on Konrad’s map. We were on the summit of Sgurr a’ Chaorachain for sure this time. I was super excited, and I think some of this excitement may have come out in my summit photo.
“Really? How do you know I’m the first?” she said.
“Do you know any other Lithuanian women who have climbed Sgurr a’ Chaorachain?”
There could be no doubt. We celebrated this important first ascent by drinking a tin Elvis Juice, our favourite grapefruit-infused IPA. It was an appropriate choice of summit beverage for this particular mountain. As I squinted through the fog I imagined that I could make out the rugged coastline a few miles away – the lochs, the islands, the rocky promontories and, of course, the Old Man of Whore, the famous sea stack thrusting out of the waves nearby, that was the scene of a live, televised rock climb in the 1970s. It was a time when rock climbing was as popular as big bushy beards are today.
Two lines from Elvis’s classic song Lighthouse Rock came to my mind:
Everybody on the mountaintop
Was dancin’ to the lighthouse rock
Here’s the historic photo capturing this great moment in Lithuano-Scottish mountaineering.
The news got better. As we continued through the fog back to our car at the Bealach na Ba, Edita revealed that she didn’t know any Lithuanian men who had climbed Sgurr a’ Chaorachain either. I therefore concluded that she was not only the first Lithuanian woman to climb Sgurr a’ Chaorachain, but the first Lithuanian of any description.
I feel humbled to have been a part of this historic achievement, and to have behaved with integrity in the face of uncertain facts. By humbled, I of course mean that I’m proud, and although humility is in some ways the opposite of pride, I have it on good authority (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that humbled is the right word to use in this situation.
If you enjoyed reading this post then please share it widely on social media, and help to make the world a better place by drowning out fake news, false summit claims, and dubious records.
Meanwhile we will be moving on to Ecuador, where I aim to become the first Englishman to cycle from sea level to the summit of Chimborazo wearing a Panama hat and a souvenir I love boobies tee-shirt purchased in the markets of Quito. You can follow my adventures here if I’m not too exhausted to post.