Welcome to “On the hill with…” a series of short interviews with members of the Rucksack Club.
This edition features our current hut warden of Craigallan, John Patrick.
How did you get into walking and climbing?
Growing up in Sheffield allowed easy access to the Peak District and family walks were my first experiences amongst the hills. Joining a local Scout group led to more adventurous exploits involving camping trips further afield to the Lake District. The equipment available to the Scouts included not only camping gear but ropes. This was available for loan with no questions asked and certainly no Health and Safety precautions. Along with a group of school friends, I borrowed a rope and we invested the proceeds of Saturday jobs in other climbing gear. We often caught the bus out of Sheffield as far west as possible then continued walking until we reached Stanage. After A levels a group of four of us had a post exam celebration by spending a week climbing whilst living in the somewhat basic accommodation provided by Robin Hood’s Cave.
University time in Nottingham provided more opportunities with weekends in Lake District and Welsh Huts.
I became enthused about the chance of bigger adventures by learning of the support available within the university to undertake overseas expeditions. In the summer of 1975, I led a party of sixteen students on an expedition to the Jostedal Ice cap in Norway. The late Professor King of the Department of Geography had visited the ice cap as part of a Cambridge Expedition in the 1950s so she was enthusiastic about our plans and provided us with an office in the department and free phone connection. The most stressful part of the planning was an interview at the Royal Geographical Society in London to seek their official support for the expedition. Fortunately, this was successful and led to considerable help from leading food and equipment suppliers.
I also joined a second university expedition to Arctic Norway two years later. Two of us had to leave early to start teaching jobs so we left the campsite 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle and, apart from a Bergen to Newcastle flight, hitch hiked most of the way back to Sheffield arriving with just four days spare before embarking on our teaching careers.
Who has had the most influence on your mountain experiences?
The introduction to the mountains outlined above would, I am sure, have led to a lifetime of outdoor adventures. However, the quality and variety of what I have done over the years has resulted from the influence of many Rucksack Club Members without whom my life in the mountains would have been much less fulfilling. I often think of the things I would almost certainly not have done without some much-valued friends in our Club. The list includes:
- A series of igloo meets on Scottish summits with Gordon Adshead.
- Completing a Wainwright book in one continuous walk starting on Saturday morning and finishing sometime on Sunday with John Crummett.
- Alpine meets during the decades either side of the millennium with a wide range of RC Members who, in addition to including me on memorable climbs, also inspired my two children to develop Alpine experience.
- Spending the springtime of both of my first two years of retirement with John Richardson on long cycle tours through France with generous hospitality from John and Sue both when we met up in Farnhill and in the Dordogne.
- Ski mountaineering with Frank Procter during a series of trips to superb locations, many of which I would have been unlikely ever to visit.
- Challenging cycling weeks in the mountains following an invitation from Mike Ferguson as soon as I was able to join his group after retirement.
- Most recently, encouragement from Andy Tomlinson resulting in a wonderful Himalayan trek when I had pretty much given up on a lifetime desire to visit the world’s highest mountains.
How did you come to join the RC?
It was all down to a chance meeting with one person. During my first week as a fresher at Nottingham University, early friendship groups were being formed and I fell in with a group which included Rob Ferguson who happened to be on the same Geography course as me. At the time I had no idea that this chance acquaintance would change my life in the mountains so much. After graduation, Rob invited me to present an indoor meet for the Club about my Norway expeditions which I was happy to do although, looking back, I suspect my commentary on the photos showed how little I knew at that time about the qualities and experience of my audience. They still applauded politely and Rob offered to propose me for membership.
What does a perfect “hill” day consist of?
My reflections on my best days in the hills always come back to having the right combination of companions, landscape, weather, and a good level of adventure where the outcome is not always certain. I often realise afterwards, rather than during, what has turned out to be one of those great days.
Over many years in the hills, what have been the most memorable times?
For me, the examples which come to mind are:
- Climbing Monte Rosa in perfect conditions from the Zermatt campsite during an early Alpine season with Rob Ferguson. We made good time from the hut to the summit and in those days spending money on the Gornergrat Railway was out of the question so we walked all the way back to Zermatt.
- Mont Blanc was, inevitably, on my list but on the way up my two companions (not RC Members!) had dropped out by the time we reached the Tete Rousse hut. I was not in the mood for turning back so I continued to the Gouter Hut, slept on the dining room floor, then reached the summit at 6.30 the following morning on my own. I met a British team on top and they kindly suggested that it might be a good idea to join their rope for the descent.
- In the Sixth Form we had a subscription to the “Geographical Magazine.” I those days there was an article each month entitled “The Possible Dream” about some kind of experience which was achievable but not easy. I had yet to put on a pair of skis and knew nothing about skiing but one edition was all about the dream of the winter Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt and I knew that I had to try to do it sometime. I did learn to ski and built up some ski mountaineering experience but the breakthrough was spending a weekend at Braemar on a Club meet where John Muskett was present. We got into conversation about the Haute Route and made plans to do the trip without a guide. We were eager to complete the classic route including the section from the Valsory Hut over the Plateau de Couloir on the Grand Combin and we succeeded on our third attempt, about thirty years after I first read about the dream. It might not have happened without John Muskett.
- With a colleague from work, I had a number of those autumn weekends when the clocks change and you find yourself enjoying considerable self-inflicted discomfort on the Karrimor Mountain marathon. In 1991 our efforts in the Arrocher Alps was our best result, achieving 5th place in the Score Class out of a field of 308 teams who started. It was our only year in which we managed to be amongst the prize winners but it was good to be there. The fitness gained from fell running enabled me to support Rae Pritchard on his Bob Graham both on the first section to Dale Head then the overnight section across the Helvellyn range when Ros Murray was also with us.
- Although it was a combination of many memorable days rather than one event, completing the Munros in 1990 is up there with my best memories.
- Some of my best mountain experiences have been with my family and a backpacking trip around the Tour du Mont Blanc was particularly satisfying, together with days spent climbing Alpine 4000m peaks with both Ian and Jane.
- I am fortunate that my memorable times are still being added to, most recently with my Himalayan Trek in the autumn of 2022. With much encouragement from Andy Tomlinson, I had one of my best mountain days walking up from Gokyo and standing on the Renjo La with Gareth Llewellyn at a height of over 5000m gazing at the view towards Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse. The whole 18-day trek was an amazing experience encompassing outstanding mountain scenery, the history of the area and not least the privilege of spending time with the Nepalese people.
Have you had any mishaps in the hills?
The only time when I had to look back and realise that I had been very fortunate was on an easy ski piste on the Italian side of the Monte Moro pass. I was just about to grab the T bar when a slab avalanche from the slope above came shooting across the piste. I was carried down but stayed upright and was pushed out lower down. Pam was below the lift queue and managed to ski out of the way. The avalanche buried about a dozen people, who were in the lift queue, against the building which housed the lift motor. All of us able to do so began digging with bare hands as there was no rescue equipment and, although we got people out, the girl who was behind me in the lift queue had not survived.
What is your dream hill objective?
Just keeping active in the mountains whether on foot, on skis or on a bike is my objective now rather than aiming for any notable summit.
What makes a great hill partner? Has anyone come close?
All those mentioned above fall into this category as do many other RC Members. It is not just on the hills when it matters – I remember being stuck in a tent for days with Andy Llewellyn on the Isle of Coll many years ago battered by gales which had resulted in ferry cancellations. Having people around you who are good to get on with, reliable and able to deal with difficult situations counts for a lot. One example of being with great hill partners was when Brian and Joyce Cosby joined Pam and I along with our children, who were quite young, on a thoroughly enjoyable two day walk along the Europaweg during a meet at Zermatt. The company of Brian and Joyce with their vast Alpine experience, but with never any need to try to impress anyone, provided perfect hill partners for two grateful children.
How do you keep active in the hills?
My training regime benefits from cutting the grass at Craigallan.
What future hill plans do you have?
Hopefully more multi-day walks passing through mountain areas. Perhaps sections of the GR5 with time to reflect on previous Alpine climbs without the pre-dawn starts and the need to reach a summit. Maybe another Himalayan trek too.
Do you have any regrets/missed opportunities?
I should have got myself organised to do the Bob Graham when I was at my peak of fell running. In Scotland a continuous traverse of the Cuillin Ridge would have been good, despite climbing all the Munros on the ridge over a few separate trips. In the Alps a plan to ski tour through the Bernese Oberland was cancelled due to an early snow melt so a desire to visit the Konkordiaplatz has remained on my wish list.
What have been the benefits of RC membership?
It is all down to the people mentioned in my answer to question 2, and many other members, who have been essential in creating opportunities which I otherwise would not have had. My very first meet was significant in making me realise the nature of the Club and that I had to up my game to benefit from what was on offer. I unwittingly thought that a meet entitled “Harter Fell to Harter Fell to Harter Fell” would make a pleasant weekend walk so Pam dropped me off in the Howgills to join a group which, unknown to me, consisted of the best fell runners in the Club. I hung on as far as the second Harter Fell above Haweswater before staggering down to the road to be rescued by Sue Richardson and transported to the finish at High Moss. The young upstart had been put in his place.