Out of the blue I was contacted on Facebook by a guy I shared a tent with halfway up a mountain three decades ago. He is a Tim too, hence ‘two Tims and a tent’. The occasion in question was part of a ‘Scottish Highlands Expedition’ in 1991 when I was but a teenager.
We did not know one another before the expedition and have not been in contact since, until now. But our mountain experience in that tent is evidently etched in both our memories. It was the first recollection we drew on in our exchange of messages.
That Highlands trip was most likely the experience that cemented my love of wild and high places and very likely what steered me toward a career in ecology. Before I take you through the tale of the tent, let me set the scene, thirty years ago this summer.
Kinlochewe, Torridon. 1991. Late July, possibly into August. Imagine it: grand imposing mountains, great, slanting rock strata of ancient sediments, with gleaming, dazzling white quartzite, squeaking beneath your walking boots. A sea loch with tiny wooded islands, each a precious fragment of the ancient pinewood of Caledon. It was beautiful.
There were midges in abundance too, but the horror of those vicious ‘Torridon Midges’* seems to fade thankfully, while the awe of the landscape stays with you powerfully.
How I came to be there is worth recounting, briefly. I was a sixth-former, in the throes of A-Levels. Following a residential biology field trip the previous autumn to ‘Cranedale’, a North Yorkshire field centre, I was intrigued about their summer expedition. They ran an annual adventure in the Highlands. Ten days or so. Start of the school holidays. I applied, was accepted and prepared for my first backpacking experience..
(Incidentally, years later I took a job at the Cranedale Centre in a curious coincidence and spent seven fulfilling years there as a tutor. That’s another story though.)
The ’91 expedition was the trip where I climbed my very first Scottish Munro. The mighty Slioch! That mountain! Oh yes. I remember it.
It was a thankless, sodden slog, to a summit trig. point shrouded in fog. But it was my first. It gets in your blood I think. I’ve scaled numerous other 3000-footers since then, alone and with others, but I guess you never forget your first Munro.
The expedition itself consisted, in part, of wild camping high on Beinn Eighe mountain National Nature Reserve, while conducting surveys of the invertebrate life of pools and lochans. Tim and I shared a tent, his own, at that ‘high level camp’, a wild mountain plateau amid the Beinn Eighe massif.
One night, our last I think on that mountain there was a howling, lashing gale. Tim’s tent, his pride and joy, collapsed on us in in the height of the storm with a snapped pole. All the other expeditioners in adjacent tents, (orange ‘Vango Force 10’ models more than likely), were unscathed.
Thinking back, there may have been an element of pitching the tent for a slightly grander view to wake up to…? Which could have been our downfall. Or we were just unlucky to be positioned at the very spot the gusting winds reached their peak force. Anyway it’s academic now.
We spent a sorry, sleepless night shivering through the lashing storm. The outer and inner melded into a single, sopping layer of nylon, pressed cold against Tim and I with every gust, like we were being vacuum packed in tent canvas. I valiantly tried to hold up the stricken tent side with one arm against the fury, until it ached, somehow in my storm-addled mind thinking that the rest of my body could get some fitful rest in the relative comfort of my sleeping bag. When not flattening the tent onto us the wind would cause the fabric to flap wildly and deafeningly, all the while flinging a fine aerosol of ingressed rainwater until everything within was saturated. Needless to say sleep was impossible and morning could not come soon enough.
In the cold grey dawn after the storm, as soon as it was getting light, we were up, packed and crouching by a Trangia behind a big boulder, trying to make a morning brew. (Anyone who ever cooked on one of these stalwart cub-scout paraffin stoves will know that it can take a while….) When the others got up the cry of “So, Tim, where’s your tent?” was delivered with more than a hint of smug sarcasm.
However, we lived to tell the tale and, evidently, neither of us has forgotten it, thirty years hence.
* Even plastic-melting, expedition-strength Jungle Formula is no match for the Torridon Midge. So notorious are these “midgies” for their tiny, yet painful bites, that they are named specifically it seems. Nothing can protect you from them. On the Cranedale trip we were advised to bring a pair of tights to pull over our heads. We were bemused. But we brought them. And we wore them. And didn’t care how ridiculous we looked. That mitigated the torture somewhat, though the little buggers crawling over your ears sounded like stomping elephants through the drum of the nylons. During that expedition we coined them FMBs. I’ll leave you to speculate on that acronym, as I couldn’t possibly declare it here. Suffice it to say they were a menace to be endured. Perhaps they were not so forgettable after all!