Peter Scott – An Appreciation

Salvaged from our website circa 2006 from Doug - now Professor of Glacial stuff and a bit more at St. Andrews and University of the Arctic, Svalbard (UNIS).

Peter Scott – an Appreciation - By Doug Benn

I joined the Lomond Club in 1973, when I was sixteen, along with three older friends who worked at Weir’s engineering firm, near my home in the south side of Glasgow. These three – Alan Anderson, Willie Johnstone and Peter Scott – were as keen to get into rock climbing as I was, and we joined the club hoping to meet real climbers who would show us what to do. We soon found out that almost everyone was in the same state of cluelessness as we were, so we made it up as we went along, trying our best to follow in the footsteps of W.H. Murray and other heroes. No-one had told us that standards – and techniques – had moved on a little since the days of nailed boots and cutting steps up the virgin snow. When the dreaded Scottish VS grade covered anything up to E2, and all sorts of nasties lurked among the Severes, you were either very brave, or had lots of hard mates, or stuck to V Diffs.

In consequence, our earliest attempts at climbing were not terribly professional. Soon after we met, Peter and I went over to Court Knowe, a small dolerite quarry near my house. We decided to tackle a route that I had never been able to pluck up the stupidity to try solo, an off-width chimney with a block overhang at the top. Peter had first go, while I tied myself to a tree at the top and gave him a textbook waist belay. He made fast progress until he reached the roof and then there was a howl and the rope ripped through my hands while I gripped as hard as I could with flaying skin. Finally the rope slowed and stopped and I shouted “I’ve got you!”. To which he replied, “No you haven’t, you daft bastard! I’m at the bottom!”. I peered over the edge, and there he was lying flat on his back still clutching half of the block to his chest. The other half had jammed itself in a narrowing of the chimney, and provided the highlight of “Chockstone Crack” until it disappeared, no doubt after precipitating some other poor wretch onto the mud below.

Despite this, Peter became my first real climbing partner. Of the three Weir’s lads, Peter was closest to me in age, being in his early twenties, and the most likely to engage in goading and rivalry. He was tall, lanky even, and a clear six foot separated his great bendy boots from his beaming grin. He would bounce along, arms waving, through a Highland gale, joking, making fun of everything, including himself, singing “skinny-malinkey long legs, big banana feet!” to dispel the damp and the cold and the gloom. He was always enthusing, always ready for the next route, the next hill, with a huge sense of adventure and a long neck.

One of our first big routes together was Agag’s Groove on the Buachaille, which we did in October ’73 in the company of two other Lomond Club lads who had free seats to the Coe on the back of their motorbikes. We had arranged an early start, so I got the bus over to Peter’s flat the night before, then sat and drank whisky with him until I flaked out on the floor. After what seemed about five minutes the alarm dragged me awake and Peter got up to make breakfast while I lay on the carpet trying to remember where I had left my brain. After a while, noxious smells told me breakfast was ready, so I stumbled through to the kitchen to find a pan full of fried liver floating in melted lard. Close by was a white bread sandwich stuffed with the same gruesome mixture. I bit the sandwich and tried to swallow, but the liver had other ideas, so I had to flee the scene in a hurry then sank back to the floor wishing I was already dead. Peter appeared in the doorway, complaining that I had bitten his breakfast – mine was in the pan - and I’d better hurry up and eat it because it was time to leave. Deciding to skip breakfast, I hoisted my sack and followed Peter out of the door and into the dark streets.

The gloom of the pre-dawn start was soon dispelled as we sped north on the bikes through a fresh and clean autumn morning. The ride rapidly evolved into a race with much weaving and overtaking, and Peter and I grinned at each other whenever we passed, revelling in the speed and madness and freedom of it all. Eventually we arrived at the old Jacksonville car park below the Buachaille, where we sorted ourselves out, hopped across the river, and headed up past the Waterslide. Even in sunshine, the Buachaille looks imposing from below, and I was feeling very small and quiet by the time we reached the foot of the Rannoch Wall. The other two headed off upwards, while I began to make a carefully orchestrated series of whining noises. Peter, who never took any bullshit from anyone, said, “ You’re no gonnae crap out, are you?”, which wasn’t so much a question as a statement of fact. Suitably shamed, I looked up and could see the leader well above us making it all look easy. This was before I realised that this was Ken Johnstone, who made everything look easy, so I said, “OK, it’s my lead”. Peter grinned a huge grin, and tied on to the belay.

True to the Murray tradition, we were not carrying the most up to date gear. We were both wearing Hawkins “walkin’s” bendy boots, and for protection I was carrying two hawser rope slings and karabiners. Peter, who worked in the engineering factory, had a small collection of hand-made hexagonal brass chocks, which I never did get the hang of placing properly. I left the chocks behind, and led slowly upwards, following a ladder of flat but positive holds up a shallow scoop in the wall. I managed to find small spikes for both of the slings before I reached a comfortable ledge, which had a large flake belay in the traditional idiom, which was just as well. I sat and admired the view out over Rannoch Moor and hauled in the rope while Peter swarmed up the rock below. I then led the next pitch, an easy but exposed slab that rose leftwards across the steepening wall. Above, the rock reared alarmingly, so it was definitely time for Peter to take over the sharp end. He led the pitch in fine style, swinging left onto the face of a steep rib, fiddling in one of the brass chocks, then launching upward in a flurry of boots and curses. Soon, the rope came tight and I followed, finding the rib steep but not too hard once I calmed down enough to look for the holds. Peter also led the final pitch, apparently not the slightest bit bothered by the lack of gear and the huge amount of space between us and the gully below. He obviously hadn’t thought too hard about my belaying skills. Fortunately no-one fell off, and soon we were scrambling along the Crowberry Ridge and up and over the Tower to the summit, where we lounged and ate and smiled the smiles of kings.

One cold, wet day Peter, Alan, Willie and I ‘had a look’ at Clachaig Gully, which was distinctly green and pouring with water but at least out of the wind. The first few pitches went easily, and we became increasingly confident as we swarmed up to and then over the Great Cave pitch. Above, I scrambled up the gully bed ahead of the others to check out the famous Jericho Wall. I bouldered out the first few moves, and before I realised it found myself committed to a delicate sequence that I couldn’t reverse. I had no option but to keep going, and was mightily relieved that the climbing above was straightforward. Shortly afterward Peter arrived at the foot of the pitch, and from my perch I could see him craning his neck this way and that trying to see where I was. Then he looked up and saw me and yelled, ‘You jammy bastard!’ and then of course he had to solo it too. When Willie and Alan arrived the pair of us were perched at the top of the pitch grinning like a couple of crows.

Above that, the climb seemed to consist of a never-ending series of vertical waterfalls, in one of which Willie nearly drowned. We eventually bailed out just below the Red Cave, soaked and near-hypothermic, and clawed our way up festoons of ferns and moss which turned out to be much harder and scarier than the actual route.

When the weather was too boggin’ for climbing – which was often – we would squelch through the streaming bogs to climb the mist-choked lumps they call Munros. It didn’t matter much what we did, so long as we were out of the city and in the hills having a laugh. Once, the four of us spent a cold winter day fighting through the snow to the top of Cruach Ardrain and back. Peter was in the habit of bringing a big pot of pre-cooked mince on weekends away, to save on time and fuel when we got back to the valley. When we got down from Cruach Ardrain, however, he was heartbroken to discover he had left the mince at home, and we had to make do with whatever unguarded leftovers we could find in the Youth Hostel. The next day we waded up Bidean in a slow thaw, then headed down the road. When we arrived outside Peter’s flat, the pot of mince was still sitting on the pavement. “There’s ma tea!” he exclaimed, and seizing it, bounded up the stair.

In May 1974, Peter was killed in a road accident. We had spent the evening at the Whangie with a big crowd from the Lomond Club, and Peter and I had made a great game out of soloing the routes on the Gendarme before roping up for some of the bigger routes on the main face. As darkness fell, we loped back round the hill to the car park, where Peter jumped on his new motor bike and sped off, while I got into Willie Johnstone’s car. Minutes later, Peter failed to take a bend and left the road. And shortly after that, we drove past, unaware that he was lying just yards away. He wasn’t found until morning.

I knew Peter for less than a year. My climbing career now stretches over thirty times as long, and there have been bigger routes, wilder times, and plenty laughs. But the memory of those early days remains as clear and sharp as an October’s day on Rannoch Wall, and as bright as laughter in a gale.