AN ALPINE spring day in the Grey Corries and we were steadily gaining height amidst alternating waves of brilliant sunshine and swirling mists.
The ridge was still holding substantial sections of snow and despite the benign conditions we were in full winter apparel, ice axes in hand, crampons readily available.
I was at the head of the line as we reached the col before tackling the final slope to the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh, when we noticed three people off to our right in huddled conversation with a map fully extended. They looked confused.
Then one of them, a short, stocky man with a shock of white hair and an equally shocking white beard, turned in our direction and bellowed at me: “Are you a guide?”
When I told him his assumption was wrong, it only seemed to increase his decibel level and the annoyance was obvious in his reply: “Well, you look like a guide.”
Sorry about that, I'll try to be a guide next time. It certainly wasn't the best way to ask for assistance. It was almost as if it were our fault that he and his mates didn't have a clue where they were, a feeling of self-entitlement that we should be obliged to help.
I could have replied that he was a dead ringer for Captain Birds Eye, but it didn't mean I automatically assumed his rucksack contained packets of fish fingers.
Playing devil's advocate, it's possible there may have been an element of anxiety about their sudden predicament, maybe even a touch of embarrassment. They seemed under-equipped for the conditions. It may have been spring but it was still winter in the hills. Anyway, we pushed on and they wisely retreated.
Trusting your mountain fate to a passing stranger, no matter how experienced or professional they seem, is never a good idea. You have to have the right skill set, and confidence, for the conditions. You can't just assume someone else has.
There are other times when you have to bite your tongue even if you feel some quiet advice would be beneficial. It won't always be welcome and everyone is entitled to make their own choices. This doesn't mean you would ignore someone who is obviously in dire need of help. Accidents happen, and people can sometimes make horrendous choices.
It's alarming how often I've been approached over the years by someone asking which hill they are on or which is the right way down. On one occasion, I had a foreign student ask if he could tag along with me to continue to the summit after the rest of his group turned back because of increasingly icy slopes and lack of visibility. He was wearing light trainers and was soaked through – I managed to persuade him it would be better to head down.
The Grey Corries incident made me think again about a day many years earlier in the Black Cuillin with Skye mountain legend Gerry Ackroyd.
We were heading up the scree to An Dorus, the nick in the skyline between Sgurr a' Mhadaidh and Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, when Gerry pointed out two guys who had been tailing us all the way. They had been stopping when we stopped, starting again as soon as we did, but always keeping their distance.
We scrambled up Sgurr a' Mhadaidh and the pair hung back before following in our footsteps. When we crossed to Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh, they waited before coming on again. They were getting guiding for free and Gerry wasn't having that. He set an ambush for the freeloaders. After turning a corner above the short scramble up the wall, we waited just out of sight. Our two followers got a shock when they came round to see us sitting there.
They hesitated but Gerry said: “Go on through, lads,” in a tone that suggested there would be no question of an argument. They didn't look happy but they could hardly admit to have been hanging on to our coat tails. Now they would have to do their own route finding.
Life is full of contradiction and this was amplified by one of Gerry's hill mantras: Trust everything, and trust nothing. It's only as the years rolled on that I realised this was a common sense approach to self-sufficiency on the hill. You have to stand or fall by your own decisions, not leave your fate in hands of others. An assumption of wisdom can be a dangerous thing.
I remember being told by one boss never to trust someone who didn't drink. On the other hand it would be borderline insanity to trust someone lying drunk in the gutter soaked in kebab sauce and urine.
Stay safe this winter. Trust everything, and trust nothing.