Another Day -Another Dollar

It was a tiring and demanding trip

I wrote the following piece after a visit to the Alps in 1984, at a time when Outdoor Education provision in Edinburgh was in turmoil and my base in Macdonald Road had just been closed. It had been a demanding trip and I felt that John Picken and I had done a tremendous job organising and leading it. All came back safe and with hugely increased experience. We were proud of our work but I felt that almost no-one in the outdoor education hierarchy cared about the what we had done; there were no enquiries as to how the trip had gone and, looking at it with the benefit of hindsight, there appeared to be little back-up available should anything have gone wrong. I didn’t expect any medals but it would have been nice to have felt that the work was valued, just a little bit. I kept the group going for a few more years but its days were numbered and after a second visit to the same destination in 1988, it closed.

The trip was very much about developing the experience of the youngsters, pictured below. The strength of the bonds forged during that trip are illustrated by the fact that I kept in touch with some of the group for many years and, 36 years later, I am still in touch with Ed Carver, who, as I still am, is a keen cyclist. This was a small part of my job, but a very special one, and I look back on it with many positive and happy memories.

left to right; Ian Small, Gregor Watson, John Picken, Doug Herdman,Andy Hume, Dave Harvey, Claire Pattullo, Ed Carver, Justin Busbridge, Helen Abel, Peter Main

Another Day – Another Dollar

Here we are at day ten, just two days to go. If we push it, we could just get another peak climbed and I am anxious to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. The weather is forecast to continue fine and I have just the thing in mind; Pic Coolidge at 3700 metres is a fairly high peak by a straightforward and interesting route. However, there are some problems. The group are tired; I have pushed them hard and we have just climbed a 4060 metre peak. Some would stay at base camp if I let them. I make the peak optional provided they all came up to the hut.  After all, the Refuge de Temple is only 2000 ft and 3 miles above the camp. Most seem happy with this; however, Gregor asks if he can stay behind. I say no and he looks peeved. I just feel that it would be great to have us all together for the last night at a hut. I can give no reason for wanting to do this; I just have a feeling that it’s the right way to end the trip. John, my assistant instructor, is asleep but whats new.  

The day dawns and as usual at this campsite, the sun hits the tents at 9.20am and the heat drives us out of our tents and sleeping bags. A leisurely breakfast is followed by shopping, washing and eventually, packing. Well nearly everyone is packing but for Claire, who is in a huff. It looks bad; I even think she might refuse to go to the hut. The lads leave at about 3.00pm. I refuse to leave until the girls go and I stand over Claire while she packs a few bits and pieces in a very bad tempered way. We all meet up an hour later at the start of the climb to the hut; smiles from the girls; things are improving. As we start the climb, it’s not too hot. John and I actually catch and pass some of the lads; they must be tired as normally they are fast on the hill. The difference is age; the lads are in their first alpine season; I am in my 14th and get faster after two weeks, not slower. 

The hut lives up to expectations; it is a superb evening and we sit on the broad terrace, cooking our tea, admiring the route up Les Bans that we completed earlier on in the holiday and watching the sunset. I feel very relaxed; the group doesn’t need to be told anything. Those who will be doing the climb get up at 3.30am; those who are not sleep in. Claire has left her ice axe and crampons down at base camp so she cannot come but that is her problem. As well as being nicely situated the hut is quiet with only about 20 others staying there.

At 3.30am it’s crash, bang; the usual Alpine start. There are five plus John and myself. Some of the lads start up the path like they are jet propelled (some of us are) and as always I feel physically sick for the first hour and shout at them to slow down, (sometimes I am sick). There is a sea of cloud below us and a canopy of stars above. Eventually a beautiful dawn comes with Brocken Spectres of our mountain (shadows surrounded by a rainbow) on the cloud surface just below us. Justin is having a good day, feeling fit and on a high. He tells us it’s the best day of his life so many times it becomes almost boring.  When we reach the col, we put on our crampons and get ice axes out but don’t rope up, as there are no crevasses on this route.  The stars go out one by one and the rising sun hits us full in the face as we take short break. Now we traverse round the side of a steep ridge to reach an upper snowfield, taking care on some ice-covered rocks. I am still not going well and now all of us except Justin feel   tired after six peaks in ten days. The summit snowfield is reached and Justin forges ahead. We all make the summit, 4000ft from the hut, with no problems; Justin 31/2 hours and most of the rest in 4 hours. We are at 3700 metres and the views are superb; we can even see Mt. Blanc about 100 miles away. We bask in the sun, eat, drink and take photos for three-quarters of an hour. The descent is simple; we stay together until the path is reached and then the lads forge ahead as I am always slow walking down paths, trying to preserve my knees for future use. Back at the hut, some of the non-climbers have already left but others have stayed, enjoying the sun and reading books. It is now 11am and we have been going 7 hours. I am not being paid overtime either. We descend to the dusty trail leading to La Berard and base camp.

Time to wrap-up the trip. The afternoon is spent recovering, eating and having post-course interviews.  I am happy to be able to refund everyone 10O francs. Claire and I are friends again and Helen says she enjoyed it despite arriving unfit and climbing only one summit.  I hope she means it. The lads seem unable to offer any complaints; they have certainly explored their mental and physical limits on this trip. The evening is spent having a group meal out; steak, pommes-frites, ice-cream, cheese and maggots!  The maggots in the cheese must have been the funniest incident of the whole trip, “But it’s from the best cheese” said the French waitress. We could not decide whether this meant that it is normal for best cheese to have maggots or how could the best cheese possibly have maggots?  We return to the camp and sit round my gas light feeling very much a close group.  I feel a little sad and yet relieved it’s over; we are in one piece but we will never be together again as group.  In the morning most of the group leave to make their own way home. I get up to watch them go at 7am then wander back to the campsite alone and in a reflective mood, after waving good-bye.

I think about Outdoor Education, the Tuesday Group, Lothian Outdoor Education Centre, Alpine trips, the individuals in the Group and all the wonderful things that have happened in the last two weeks. How can those who don’t actually do it know what it is all about; how can I try to explain? How can I win their support?

After my own holiday, I return to work and its Edinburgh based petty politics. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own problems. I do not get one single query from my boss or other staff as to how the expedition went, so I tell them anyway. Ah well, it’s just a job, another day – another dollar.

“It’s my job, I do it for pay”

Bob Dylan from the Desire Album

©Peter Main – 1984 & re-published 2020
You are welcome to use extracts from this text but please give me an acknowledgment

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