Published 5th February 2021, 15:47

    WE were sitting at the trig pillar on Gulvain's South Top, looking over to the familiar sickle shape of Ben Nevis and the connecting CMD Arete on the distant horizon.

    In contrast to the lively chatter of our ascent, there was now a reverential silence amongst the group. With all eyes fixed firmly on The Ben, we raised a glass to a lost friend.

    Just a couple of weeks earlier, our colleague Tim, a superb climber and a fine human being, had died after a horrific accident on Nevis. That was 20 years ago. It now seems like a lifetime, but the trigger of that archive picture suddenly made it feel like yesterday again, bringing all the raw emotions flooding back.

    Tim had completed a winter climb with a friend on the North Face and was on the way down when tragedy struck. While descending No.4 Gully he slipped and tumbled 700 feet. His partner watched helplessly as Tim tried unsuccessfully to brake his fall using his ice axe. He suffered devastating head and chest injuries.

    Six climbers from nearby parties, including Sir Chris Bonington, rushed to his aid. Members of Lochaber Mountain rescue team were on the scene quickly and he was airlifted to Belford Hospital in Fort William. He was later transferred to Glasgow but his injuries were too severe and his family had to take the heartbreaking decision to turn off life support.

    It's thought the cause of the accident was a cornice collapse, but a contributing factor may have been that his crampons had balled up. This can become a big problem in soft snow, especially on descent. The snow starts sticking to the bottom of the crampons, piling up until the points are no longer touching the surface. Anti-balling plates can help but they are not foolproof. Clearing away the excess by regularly kicking or tapping each crampon is crucial.

    The majority of mountain accidents happen on the way down – around 80 per cent – but the fact it happened to someone with such expertise as Tim made it all the more difficult to take in. It was a reminder that tragedy can strike anyone at any time in the mountains. No matter which level you are at, one slip, one split second, and a great day out can quickly turn into a nightmare.

    Memories work both ways. They can tear at your heart, but they can also provide solace with reminders of great times. And thankfully there are plenty good ones of Tim.

    He was a big personality, always with a smile and helpful advice. He was happy to talk mountains all day and we were happy to listen. 

    He was light years ahead of the rest of us when it came to climbing grades. He constantly pushed himself and tried to do the same with those of much lesser talents. His encouragement was often not enough, however, and many days at the climbing wall were spent watching him doing some impossible (to me at least) route.

    On one outdoor session, we had done a couple of easy grades when he decided we were ready for something more challenging. That something turned out to be several grades beyond our ability, requiring a leap of faith on a sheer rock face to reach a hold invisible to the naked eye. The trick, he said, was using friction to keep moving up before you realised there was nothing grab.

    His advice during the early days of my Munro round was invaluable, although no sooner had I completed when he said: “Ach, anyone can do the Munros. The Corbetts though, now there's a challenge.” It was all designed to keep you pushing on.

    Work always came second. He loved his time in the outdoors so much that he turned down several promotions because he feared it would lead to his mountain time being curtailed. On one occasion, he was demonstrating how to climb round the office without touching the ground when the door opened and his boss walked in with a party of visitors. They were stunned to find Tim somewhere between the top of a high filing cabinet and an overhead pipe.

    Tim was only 38 when he died. There's a lot of truth in the saying that those who die young will be forever young. We remember them as they were, full of life and inspiration.

    That photo brought back good memories, but it had an extra poignancy. One of those toasting Tim from Gulvain that day was Trevor. Three years later, he would die in a fall on Buachaille Etive Mor. Another one gone too soon.