Sex, drugs, and snow tunnels
July 1994 — Coire Gabhail (The Lost Valley), Glen Coe
Understandably keen to give my new old Morris Ital (registration RRY 331W) a spin, and with good weather forecast for the next few days, I had managed to persuade the boys that a night’s camping in one of the most beautiful valleys in Scotland was a good idea. The ‘boys’ in question were the rest of the members of the band that I had joined about a year before as bass player.
As anyone who has tried to organise three other early-20-something, ego-heavy wannabe rock-stars will tell you, the first challenge when arranging an outing — any outing — such as this is getting everyone in the same place at the same time. In today’s world of Whatsapp and easy communication it is something that we give little thought to. Back in 1994, picking up three societal drop-outs was a task in itself, especially when two of them were actual, proper heroin addicts.
I was the youngest in the band by almost two years, but it quickly became clear to me after I joined that I was the ‘dad’ in terms of organisation and getting people together for gigs, practicing and the like. I had at this point qualified as an electrician and was not long out of a four-year apprenticeship that was characterised by a need to be punctual, disciplined and prepared. The other band members had not needed to do any of these things, and they worked only when absolutely necessary, or their dole-money had been stopped. To them working didn’t really matter as they were, obviously, heading for rock greatness.
I had been told by a few people locally that this band were trouble, with a catalogue of misbehaviour. They definitely had a reputation, but I didn’t care too much for that. The type of music they played was electrifying for me, and I wanted to be part of it. When you’re 20 or 21 and in a band you naïvely assume everything is doable so long as the music works. And to a certain extent that’s true, but to another, large, extent it isn’t. Besides, as well as the music, I loved being with the guys when we weren’t playing. They were funny and edgy, introducing me to bands that I’d not heard before, and which have since become some of my favourites. Another by-product of being in the band was that whenever we played a gig there always seemed to be, I think it fair to say, a reasonable number of good-looking women present. It was a productive and enjoyable phase of my, until then, sheltered and largely uneventful social life.
But I digress.
On that July day we headed off from the uncharacteristically sunny town of Greenock. A stop at the supermarket yielded one bag full of rolls, cheese, pies and chocolate (all the essentials), with the other two full of alcohol. They were both very heavy. I eyed my three fellow band-members suspiciously to see who was going to have the dubious honour of lugging so many bottles of Bishop’s Finger up to 2,000 feet. In the supermarket I had suggested vodka as a means of compressing the units of alcohol down into a more manageable receptacle. This was out of the question because two of them — the heroin addicts — didn’t like their alcohol so strong, peculiarly.
On the drive up to Glen Coe we stopped off at Loch Lomond. It was such a nice day that we decided to hire a small dinghy at Ardlui and head out to a virtually unheard of island at the north end of the loch called Island I Vow (Gaelic for Eilean-a-Bhogha). The only notable event from this brief interlude was that the guitarist ran us aground, and the rest of us had to get out and push the boat back afloat. He blamed the rest of us for ‘putting him off’ while he was navigating the mile-wide loch.
We arrived at Glen Coe in the early afternoon. On the northward drive I had been noting the huge patches of snow still visible even on modest hills. From Tyndrum it was still possible to see lots of snow on Ben Lui and even Beinn Dubhchraig. Very unusual for the time of year. At the Black Mount on Rannoch Moor there was stacks of it. More than I had ever seen for the time of year. I, of course, was acting as unpaid snow-guide to my band-member friends, all of whom were not in the slightest bit interested, preferring instead to concentrate on drinking Bishop’s Finger and perusing a scud mag they had stolen from the newsagent the previous day.
When we arrived at the parking spot, dividing up the kit to be carried was done on the entirely unreasonable basis of who had the best rucksacks. This, invariably, meant that I lugged the lion’s share. I was, by popular consent, the fittest of the four, so it was only right — not to mention democratic — that I carried the most.
The walk up to Coire Gabhail was pleasant and not too taxing, taking in some of the best scenery that Glen Coe had to offer. About two hours after setting off we had arrived at the flat valley floor and pitched our two tents on the only grassy patch in ‘The Lost Valley’. (Coire Gabhail — coree GAAHL — means the ‘corrie of capture’ or ‘hiding’ and is allegedly thus named because the MacDonalds of Glen Coe used it as a place in which to hide stolen cattle: a past-time they were well-known for.)
It was only mid-afternoon at this point and much too early to eat dinner and embark upon drinking the rest of the beers. I said to the guys (who were unaware of my hobby) that we ought to go slightly higher up the corrie to inspect the massive lumps of snow that sat in the deep clefts of the Allt Coire Gabhail. I had spotted them from the roadside, and I wanted a closer look. There were no outwardly visible objections to this plan so off we went.
Winter 1993–1994 was one of the snowiest of its time. So much snow fell, in fact, during winter that the ski-tow pylons at the nearby ski centre were virtually buried and inoperable. Summer struggled to eat away this vast covering on the hills and, as a result, places like Coire Gabhail still had big reminders of it against the cliffs and in the gullies of the stream beds.
Our first encounter with one that day was, remarkably, at barely over the 2,000 feet mark. It was the first time I’d seen a truly massive snow tunnel. It arched across the stream gully and must’ve been 15 feet deep. Even the hard-to-impress members of the band were taken aback at its beauty and surrealness. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Writing this now, some 26 years later, I can still see the image of it in my eye as though it were yesterday. I can hear the water cascading and feel the smirr of moisture on my face from the waterfall. There was better to come.
A little above 2,500 feet there sat a deeper gully that had been carved by a large waterfall. In it sat a huge deposit of snow. I mean, a huge amount. We picked our way down the edge of the gully and peered into the opening that the stream had carved out. Out roared the water from the aperture. Above it were snow sculptures the likes of which I had never seen before. Scalloped hollows called ablation hollows were coloured blue by the strong sunlight penetrating the six-month-old snow. A freezing wind accompanied the outrushing water and the whole vision took the breath away. My fellow band-members were absolutely lost for words, as was I. My first experience of snow tunnels was to be one of the most memorable ever. To this day I cannot recall a finer one.
As we descended back down to the tent to get on with the serious business of drinking alcohol, I couldn’t get the images of what I’d seen out of my head. I didn’t know things like this existed in Scotland and non-one to my knowledge was writing about them. I just knew that I wanted to see more of them; to be part of it. The specific experience at Coire Gabhail had a big influence on me and sometimes informs where I go to look for snow to this day. I was pleased, too, that the guys in the band were also impressed. Though I’m sure that none of them would ever in the future go and do something like this of their own volition, it was nice to share it with them.
The walk back to the car the next morning, with an absolute stinker of a hangover, was the price to be paid for the experience of the previous day.
And of course, I carried the empties.