THE deaths of two renowned climbers on Ben Hope last week sent shockwaves through the mountaineering world and beyond.
Andy Nisbet and Steve Perry were huge personalities, and the outpouring of grief and fulsome tributes to their lives and achievements by friends, fellow climbers and walkers are a barometer of the massive loss felt by the mountain community.
The recovery must have been particularly difficult for the rescue teams, many of whom knew both men well. Their professionalism, as always, was admirable. Like most people, I was left feeling numb. It's the natural reaction to any tragedy on the hill. I didn't know Andy or Steve personally, only by reputation, and I wouldn't deign to try and add to the many poignant and eloquent testimonies.
The tragedy is a stark reminder that mountain accidents can happen to anyone, anywhere, and at any time, especially during the winter months. One split second, one slip, and even the best can come undone.
I have twice lost good friends to the mountains. Both had a wealth of experience and were highly skilled climbers. It shakes you to the core; there is no easy way to deal with it or accept it.
Tim died on the north face of Ben Nevis. He and a partner had completed their climb, and had packed away their gear ready for the relatively straightforward descent, when he slipped. It's thought his crampons had balled up.
His companion watched in horror as he tried desperately to break his slide with his ice axe, but the momentum was too much and he went a long way. A couple climbing nearby went to his aid. They were doctors and managed to perform emergency procedures to keep him alive. He was flown to hospital but never regained consciousness. His family had to make the heart-breaking decision to switch off life support a week later.
Three years later, Trevor died on Buachaille Etive Mor. He had been climbing in the early hours on Crowberry Ridge when he fell. One of the comforts I and many others were able to take from Trevor's death was the assertion that he would be forever young, that he would always look we way we knew him.
Death is inevitable but it is never easy. The oft-held ideal picture of departing this earth is depicted as a peaceful passing at home at a ripe old age with family and friends by your side. For most, this is just a fantasy.
Death can be painful and drawn-out, long years of suffering for loved ones. It's a scenario most hope to avoid. But sudden death is just as agonising, no chance to say farewell. The best we can hope for is that the life that has gone before is as fulfilled as possible.
When news first broke that there been a double fatality on Ben Hope, there was an initial sense of unreality, even bewilderment, for some. Scotland's most northerly Munro is not an accident black spot. It's one of the gentler strolls for those taking the walkers' trade route to the summit trig point by the long south ridge, an easy-angled incline on a motorway path. For those in any doubt about the safe route, there's even a sign at the car park which helpfully points out: Way Up, Ben Hope.
When you see shots of the mountain from overhead, a different beast is revealed. That easy ascent ramp is squeezed between a horseshoe of steep flanks on the west, north, and east. The north-west face in particular is the domain of the climber.
Walkers can tackle the mountain from the north, but most will choose to avoid the exposed scramble up an intimidating rock step and take the easier gully to the left. There are also possible routes to the east to the twin lochans, and but in tricky weather conditions or bad visibility the south ridge is always the surest line.
It's little more than a month since we were last on Ben Hope. We climbed it two nights running to catch the full moon in December, but both times we went up and came down by the south ridge.
This beautiful, solitary mountain has always had a special place in a lot of hearts. I suspect it will be in the hearts of many more now.