Winter Holiday by Bruin Fisher – Day
I woke to sunlight streaming through
the window because I'd forgotten to close the curtains, and
immediately I knew something was wrong. There was an eerie silence.
In the cottage it's always quiet except for the occasional car
passing on the road outside but this was a different level of quiet.
I looked at the clock by the bed. I hadn't set the alarm and the
clock said 8:45 so I'd slept longer than I meant to. Must have been
all the fresh air. I got up and squinted out of the window at a
surreal landscape of white on white. There must have been a very
heavy snowfall all night because everything was coated with a thick
layer of snow. Maybe a foot deep. The trees between the cottage and
the lake were draped in snow, their branches drooping drunkenly with
the unaccustomed weight. The meadow that runs down to the lake was
smooth and white, with tiny patterns of animal and bird footprints
criss-crossing it and sparkling in the sun. The view was absolutely
beautiful and I ran to dress, pulling jeans over the boxers I'd been
wearing in bed, and grabbing a clean white T and a fawn check shirt
to go over the top. I ran downstairs and grabbed my quilted ski
jacket and my camera rucksack and rushed to the front door – which
I found I couldn't open.
I went to the front room window and
looked across to the door and I could see the wind must have drifted
the snow, piling it high against the door. I abandoned my photography
plans for the time being, then I took the time to put my boot socks
and walking boots on, and to wrap my waterproof gaiters over the top.
Then I climbed out through the window, and trudged through the snow
out to the shed in the back garden where I found a shovel. Back at
the front door it didn't take too long to clear the door and the
pathway out to the road. By this time I was cold and shivering and
the ends of my fingers were painful. I climbed back into the house
opened and closed the front door – just to be sure I could. Then I
made myself a cup of coffee, lit the fire in the living room and sat
warming my hands around the cup while I wondered what to do with the
It didn't take long to decide that I
needed to make the best of the snow. In southern England snow rarely
lasts long – we don't get cold enough temperatures – and pristine
snow is a rare treat. Up here in the Lake District the climate is
quite a bit colder than down south, but nevertheless I didn't expect
the snow to last long. So once I could feel my fingers again
properly, I put on two jerseys under my ski jacket, scarf and the
woollen hat that I look so stupid in, and gloves – why didn't I
think to put gloves on before I went out the first time? Over the top
of all that I struggled to shoulder my rucksack, having to loosen the
straps to get it on over the bulk of the clothes I was wearing. But I
was warm and wind- and waterproof so I reckoned I'd be able to stay
out as long as I wanted to get plenty of pictures. I remembered just
before setting out to put my spare camera battery in my shirt breast
pocket. Camera batteries tend to fail in cold temperatures, and this
way I could swap the one I'd been keeping warm close to my skin if
Once I got out I found that already the
sun had disappeared behind a bank of heavy dark clouds which seemed
to be building over to the west. So any hopes of beautiful snow
crystals glinting in sunlight were lost. The whole area began to look
dark and foreboding despite the snow on the ground. Nevertheless I
persevered and found a few subjects for my camera. I didn't have any
trouble with battery failure but I had to be careful not to breathe
on the lens surface because it would mist up immediately if I did –
and then it took ages to clear.
I can get completely absorbed in what
I'm doing when I'm out taking pictures, and when I first looked at my
watch it was already 2:30pm and I realised I was hungry. By this time
I was about a mile past the village at the head of the valley and I
decided I would walk back down into Grasmere and find the pub with
the funny name again. So I headed back. It was taking me twice as
long to get around because of the snow and although my boots and
gaiters were still keeping my feet nicely dry I was by now beginning
to feel my toes getting painfully cold. So I set up a brisk pace to
get down to the village and by about 3pm I was in the Fallen Poet,
leaning into the roaring fire along with several other guys trying
to warm the extremities.
The atmosphere in the pub was quite
different than it had been the previous day. As soon as I walked in
I'd asked the barman for a bowl of soup and although it was by now
mid-afternoon and he might have refused to serve me so long past
lunchtime, he took my order politely. Among the customers there was
no laughing and joking, and there were far fewer of them – in fact
to my surprise looking around me the five other customers in the pub
were all guys about my age. It could have been the YMCA. No, perhaps
My soup arrived with a big fresh bread
roll and plenty of butter and a fresh green salad too. I ate hungrily
and soon began to feel warm again.
There was a tension between the men
sharing the fire with me. There wasn't much talking but occasionally
they'd look at each other with an anxious expression and I was
curious. I'm shy enough to keep myself to myself normally, but I was
sitting shoulder to shoulder with these guys and I felt I had to
either talk to them or move away to give them space. So I asked:
“What's going on, then?”
I didn't know who to speak to so I just
threw my question into the fire to see who would pick it up. The guy
to my right answered me:
“There are two climbers missing on
silent again and I wondered for a moment if I should let it drop. He
clearly didn't want to talk. But something made me try again.
said. “I'm Joel.”
It was a
palpable moment before he sat upright and turned and smiled.
to meet you, I'm Dave. That's Tom, beside him is Andy and the goof on
the end is Brad. We're the Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team and we're
waiting to hear if we're needed.”
So now I
understood the tension. Helvellyn is the highest mountain in the Lake
District and although I've climbed many of the hills over the years
I'd never tackled Helvellyn in the summer let alone in January.
are these guys?” I asked.
know is they left their hotel in Ambleside yesterday morning and
didn't arrive back last night. They'd told the receptionist they
were going to tackle the mountain and no-one's heard from them since.
We don't know if they've got decent emergency kit with them or even
if they've got a mobile phone.”
It was Tom
who answered this time.
Maybe they'll come down under their own steam – it happens
sometimes. Maybe they have got a mobile and they'll have the sense to
use it. Maybe somebody will spot them on the slope and call in. We
haven't actually received a distress call so we don't act unless we
do. But we've got another problem just now, we're below strength.”
is twelve men and we need eight to make up a rescue team. But we've
got several guys out of action at the moment and we can't get hold of
two more which brings us down to six which isn't enough. Even if
we're called, we can't go with only six, it's the rule.”
your sixth man?” I asked, counting again the five men with me.
in the other room talking to the military base about using their
helicopter. He's our team leader. I don't think even Gary'll be able
to persuade them to fly the helicopter for us though. For one thing
we haven't had a distress call, and for another, the forecast is for
more snow. Apparently we're going to be in a blizzard by nightfall.”
back to the dark clouds I'd seen building earlier in the day. Since
then I hadn't really looked into the sky. What a townie.
into their faces. These guys were brave and well-motivated, that much
showed on their faces. And they were here ready to risk their lives
to help somebody out. Somebody who had probably got themselves into a
mess through their own foolhardiness or incompetence. I was filled
with admiration for them.
know to this day what made me speak up then. Like I've said, I'm shy.
I'm also not particularly brave and I'm certainly not an experienced
climber but I'm fit and healthy and I've got good stamina from all
the cycling I do around the country lanes in Surrey. So I said it:
come with you if it would help”.
turned to look me in the eye and Tom reached across and shook me by
said, Joel, and thanks. But we really need the guys we've trained
with. If we can't get hold of them it'll be up to Gary to decide what
to do about it. But I'll tell him you've offered if you're sure?”
like that. I'll hang around until you hear one way or the other.”
went quiet again as we all went back to our thoughts. What had I let
myself in for, I asked myself? I was way out of my depth and I
realised I could get myself in serious trouble for opening my big
mouth. So I calmed myself down remembering that they were not going
to take me up on my offer. Relax, Joel, breathe.
passed and the place began to feel like a dentist's waiting room.
Then a door opened beside the bar and Tom got up and began talking
quietly to the man who walked in. The two walked across the room
towards me and Tom called out to me:
this is Gary, our team leader. I've just told him you've volunteered
to join the team.”
I stood up
and turned, raising my hand to shake the hand of the team leader. Our
eyes met and for a moment I froze. Here was my shepherd again. He was
shaking my hand but I wasn't shaking his back. Pulling myself
together I gave his hand what I hoped was a manly grip and shook it
once and then dropped it. I was still looking into his eyes, piercing
blue eyes that seemed to look right through me. A frown passed over
his face and he turned away, leaving me gaping stupidly. I looked
down at my hand which was tingling slightly. What had just happened?
Nothing, I told myself – but I couldn't quite believe that.
So had I
just joined the team or not? I had no idea. A phone rang. Gary spun
his broad shoulders and headed back into the back room. A moment
later the ringing stopped and the room went silent.
have long to wait. Gary cannoned through the door and barked out the
are two of them. They're fifty metres below Striding Edge near the
summit of Helvellyn. One has a probable broken leg, the other is
staying with him. He's used his mobile phone but why the hell he left
it till now I don't know. They're both okay but they can't move and
the weather's deteriorating fast. We're going.”
looking like thunder and I felt I should be somewhere else. I was an
intruder and these guys had a job to do that I could have no part of
and would only be in the way. I turned to pick up my rucksack. I
could go back to the cottage and sit by the fire and wait for the
storm to pass. But now Gary was in front of me again and talking to
any experience on mountains?”
climbed Scafell and Ben Nevis but in good summer conditions. I've
never climbed Helvellyn and I've never climbed any Munro in winter.”
I knew I must give him accurate information – no good trying to
talk up my abilities.
like you've got good clothing. Have you any emergency equipment?”
an emergency foil blanket in my rucksack, a sit mat and whistle, and
my mobile phone. That's all.”
strong are you?” He grabbed my upper arm and squeezed. Through two
jerseys I don't know what he could tell but I do have strong arms so
I flexed my bicep against his grip. One of those blond eyebrows
lifted momentarily before he let me go.
he muttered, “you're in. It's against the rules but I don't see
that we have any choice. I want you right by me always – and
whatever I tell you, you do, immediately and without question. If you
fall behind or in any way hold us up, we'll leave you behind. Have
you got that?”
without speaking. I was being shown quickly and brutally that this
was for real and I would need to shape up to work with these guys. A
shiver ran down my spine despite the heat from the fire and I knew I
suddenly things started happening very fast.
me!” called Gary and I followed the whole team as we filed out to
the back room where Gary had taken his phone call. On one wall were a
line of lockers and on the opposite wall was an Ordnance Survey
walker's map of the southern lakes with Helvellyn at the top right
corner looking big and ominous even as a series of lines on a map.
team members were ignoring me completely now, so Gary opened a locker
and pulled out a rucksack. He passed it to me saying:
this and re-load it so you know exactly what's in it and where.”
I did as I
was told, carefully opening the main compartment and the zipped side
pockets and finding maps, compass, GPS receiver, torch, whistle, a
folding shovel, a foil emergency blanket like mine, a sleeping bag
and some clothes – socks, underwear and two jerseys. I wondered why
I would need to change my underwear up a mountain in a blizzard.
was definitely up – the team members were talking happily together,
laughing and joking, but I got the impression they were talking to
Gary only when necessary, and no-one even acknowledged that I was
there. Once everyone had their equipment, we barrelled out of the
little room into the yard at the back of the pub and into a battered
old Land Rover. Tom took the driver's seat and we were off up the
road. Huddled on one of the dicky seats in the back of the Land Rover
I had time to notice the weather which was clearly turning dirty. The
wind was blowing the Rover all over the road and Tom was fighting to
keep control. We were on a fairly major road, and there'd been
traffic on it since daybreak, so the snowfall had turned to slush
except in some places where it had turned to packed ice. It made for
an interesting journey. We came to the foot of Helvellyn and turned
off the main road onto a narrow lane and the Land Rover's tyres
couldn't get a grip on the packed snow. Tom and Andy got out of the
front seats with snow chains and fitted them around the tyres
amazingly quickly and in no time they were back in their seats and we
were making slow noisy progress along the narrow lane up the lower
slopes of the mountain.
We came to
a point where the lane we were following curved back down the slope –
so we had come as far as we could come by car. Tom parked the Land
Rover at a point where the lane widened a little and we started up
the mountain on foot.
followed the man ahead. It was clear that these guys knew exactly
what they were doing. I noticed that the bad atmosphere I thought
there had been in the pub had definitely dissolved now. Brad tapped
me on the shoulder as we set off and grinned which I took as a
friendly sign, and Andy smiled at me and asked:
- and when
I nodded he led the way along a footpath that I couldn't even see
because of the snow.
quite a bit of hill walking, and some mountain climbing and you get
to the point walking with friends when you feel like you need a rest.
It becomes harder and harder to keep going and you have to decide
whether to call for a rest break. Depending on who you're with and
how macho you feel the need to be, you either grit your teeth and
keep going or you flop down and announce you're not going on before
you've had a bar of chocolate covered Kendal Mint Cake. But that's
walking for pleasure, at your own pace, and in ideal conditions. This
quickly I felt exhausted, probably because it is so much more effort
walking in deep snow. But no way was I going to be the one to call
for a rest break. No way. I couldn't be a wuss in front of these
guys, hard mountain men who probably bit the heads off live chickens
for entertainment. So I forced myself onward, driven by dogged pride,
and it was Tom who first called a halt. We stood for five minutes and
looked around. We were now well above the valley and the wind was
stronger and colder. I was glad of my ski jacket which keeps the cold
out in most conditions but I was going to test it further than it had
been tested before.
was beginning to fail and Gary was up ahead talking on a
walkie-talkie. As we walked I called out to Brad ahead of me and
asked who Gary was talking to.
Stephen back at base. We're lucky to have him. He used to be a
regular on the team but he's left the village to go studying medicine
at university and he'll be gone again in a day or so. We couldn't
have done this without him.”
for a moment.
You don't mean the Grasmere Gingerbread Stephen?”
By the time
we reached the treacherous Striding Edge it was snowing again, but up
here it was snowing sideways. The snow was being driven horizontally
into our faces making progress twice as difficult. Striding Edge is a
narrow ridge sloping away sharply both sides leading up to the very
summit of Helvellyn. There's scarcely safe foothold to walk along it
single-file in good conditions, and if you lose your grip and slip
off the ridge you fall about 200 feet before the slope eases and you
can get a purchase. It's a deathtrap, and what these two climbers
thought they were doing on it in these conditions I couldn't imagine.
try to walk Striding Edge, but we spread out and combed the terrain
below it where the climber would have fallen to if he'd slipped. We
walked the entire length of the Edge and back again slightly further
up the slope but there was no sign of our wounded climber or his
companion. I was beginning to wonder if we'd responded to a hoax
call, when Gary signalled to us to walk around to the other side of
the Edge and search the other slope. The wind was now howling in our
ears, the light was failing fast and the snow was falling thicker
which made visibility a further problem. Fortunately this time we
hadn't gone very far when Andy called out and moved forward quickly.
When we caught up we found him gently moving his hands along the
right leg of a young man whose face was grey and pinched and who
looked only half conscious. He looked in a bad way and I wondered how
we were going to get him off the mountain – it was going to be hard
enough getting ourselves off. The wounded lad's companion was a girl
who couldn't have been more than 16 who was shaking and crying and
getting in Andy's way. Gary called us to him and everyone except Andy
and the girl gathered around. Shouting, he told us the military had
agreed to scramble their helicopter, that it would be with us in ten
minutes and would take the wounded man on a stretcher and five others
off the mountain. Two of us couldn't go in the copter, and Gary told
the team that he and I would stay and walk off the hill. I wasn't
consulted but before I could get upset about that I reflected I was
the junior member and I said nothing.
We used the
minutes waiting for the chopper to make the patient as comfortable as
we could and manoeuvre him onto the stretcher that Tom had assembled
from his rucksack. Then all six of us took a handhold and carried his
stretcher a few yards to what we judged to be the best landing spot
for the helicopter. In no time at all the machine loomed above us and
lit us up in its searchlight. The pilot seemed quite unaffected by
the snowstorm and dropped his machine right beside us. We loaded the
stretcher into the craft, then Andy climbed in next to the patient,
and Brad Tom and Dave got in next, and Dave gave the girl his hand
helping her up into the machine. Gary and I were left to wave to the
big chopper as it rose up into the dusk and became quickly invisible
through the snowstorm. I looked at Gary who didn't seem at all
perturbed at our predicament.
now?” I asked.
hand and don't let go.” he ordered.
I bit back
a protest – it was hard enough making yourself heard in the storm
without me questioning his orders. So like a little child I put my
hand in his and trotted along behind him as best I could.
I could see
his broad shoulders pushing through the storm in front of me but not
much more. In one hand he was holding mine, in his other hand he held
his GPS receiver. I occasionally caught a glimpse of the illuminated
display as he moved onwards. The storm was worsening, though, and I
felt sure we couldn't get all the way down off the mountain safely in
All of a
sudden Gary stopped and crouched down behind a dry stone wall,
sheltering from the worst of the blizzard. I joined him hunkered down
in the lee of the wall. He called:
your emergency blanket!”
So I swung
my rucksack off my shoulders and took the little package from the
zipped side pocket. He took it and unfolded the thin foil insulating
material, holding it tight to keep the wind from taking it. He
crabbed along the wall a few feet and disappeared through a hole in
the wall into what looked like a dark cave. Moments later he was back
without the blanket.
me in,” he shouted, “and pass me your sleeping bag.”
and half-crawled through the hole and found myself in a small square
room formed from four sides of dry stone walling about three feet
high and a crazy roof made of logs, corrugated iron sheets and turf
far too low to stand under. Parts of the roof had long since given
way so the snow had piled up below the holes but there was enough
roof left to form an effective shelter from the storm in one corner
of the little room. Here Gary had spread out the foil blanket on the
ground and he motioned for me to sit next to him on it.
an old sheepfold the shepherds used to use in winter. We'll stay here
for the night, and in the morning the storm may have blown itself
out, and we can walk back down easily. Are you alright?”
need to shout, the noise of the wind and snow was less inside the
ramshackle old structure.
but I'm getting cold!” I replied.
and I thought he was about to speak again, but instead he slid his
rucksack off his back and pulled the walkie-talkie I'd seen him use
earlier from a mesh pocket.
base. Can you hear me?”
here. Clear signal. Are you alright?” The tinny loudspeaker
distorted the voice and Gary turned down the volume a little.
fine. We're at Donald's Pen. We'll stay here until the storm blows
out or until daylight and we'll walk down then. I'll call you again
Gary, take care and we'll see you at the Poet when you get down.”
one, Stephen. 'Bye!”
a moment in case there was a further reply and then turned the radio
off. I'd felt considerable relief hearing the voice on the radio and
knowing that we were not out of touch with civilisation, and now that
lifeline was cut off again I felt very alone. I looked across to Gary
and was surprised to see that he looked strained. The sparkle had
gone out of his eyes and he looked spent. He saw me looking at him
have to ward off hypothermia. Take off your boots.”
getting used to obeying orders without question because I took off my
boots and he did the same. Then he really took me by surprise.
closer.” he commanded.
across the foil until we were sat next to each other. He grabbed the
sleeping bag from me and fed his feet into the neck of the bag.
too!” he commanded and I put my feet in.
Now he slid
the bag up our legs until he couldn't get it any higher.
close!” he said.
didn't respond, trying to make sense of what he'd just said, he
leaned across me and wrapped me in a bear-hug. His mouth just an inch
or two from my ear, he spoke through gritted teeth: “Hold me
close, I said.”
I put my
arms around him and there we were, hugging each other in a blizzard
in the dark on the slopes of Helvellyn.
were wrapped together, Gary wriggled the sleeping bag higher and
higher until we were fully in the bag. He tightened the drawstring at
the top a little and pulled my now half-empty rucksack under the
sleeping bag opening so we could use it as a pillow.
comfy?” he asked.
I guess.” I replied.
grin was spreading across my face, I couldn't help it and I knew he
couldn't see so I didn't try to suppress it. I closed my eyes.
best way to keep warm when you've got to sleep. Otherwise hypothermia
can take over and you go to sleep and never wake up. This way we
benefit from each other's body heat. You don't mind, do you?”
you put it that way.” I said, resisting the urge to giggle.
get some sleep. We'll see what the weather's doing in the morning.”
exhaustion, I didn't fall asleep straight away. Well I've never been
in such a situation before – hugging a cute studly guy in a
sleeping bag in a blizzard up a mountain. So I lay there hoping I
wasn't keeping him awake. I thought he'd gone to sleep, his breathing
became very regular. But a few minutes later he spoke.
you're gay, right?”
I did my rabbit-caught-in-headlights impression again.
okay, I'm sorry. Forget I asked that. Bad idea, considering our
position just now. Just don't freak out on me okay? I'm sorry.”
When I felt
it was safe to try speaking, I tried a question.
What made you think I was gay?”
I've done this lots of times in training with most of the guys on the
team and I find straight men get freaked by it and they go very
rigid. They can't relax hugging another man like this. But when I
hugged you, you hugged me back. That's cool – it's what you're
supposed to do – maximum body-to-body contact to preserve heat. But
I just hoped you might be gay. Up to now, I'm the only gay guy on the
team and it gets a bit lonely seeing the guys with their wives and
girlfriends, or listening to some of the stories they tell. But I'm
cool – I'm sorry, I won't bring the subject up again.”
This was a
lot to take in and I took my time over it. Gary had just told me he
was gay and he hoped I was gay too. I on the other hand had as good
as denied it. Typical. You have to know I'm not 'out' to anybody. Not
even to Claire who knows me as well as anyone. Dammit I'd only come
out to myself just recently. Maybe I'm a late developer but I really
didn't accept that I was gay until about six months ago, and now this
fantastic, heroic guy just told me matter-of-factly that he's gay.
I'm gay too.” I almost whispered. But he heard me. Cheek to cheek,
stubble to stubble, my mouth was so close to his ear he couldn't help
but hear me. And he hugged me a little tighter. But neither of us
said anything more until first he and then I fell asleep.
Back to Winter Holiday Back to Stories by Bruin Fisher Awesome Dude E-mail Bruin - send me feedback