January 2016. Lochcarron, North-west Scotland, UK.
A confident, clean-shaven, youthful looking man entered the room and welcomed me warmly.
“Hi Dave. Thanks for coming to work for Moran Mountain” Martin Moran was one of Britain’s foremost mountaineers and most experienced Mountain Guides. I’d heard the stories (how could you not?) but stood before me was the man himself, in the flesh. It is easy to build up people in your mind based on what you hear about them, folklore in the case of Martin. Through experience I have learnt this to be a dangerous practice often wide of the mark and especially so, the more their reputation precedes them.
“I’m not long back from a solo, winter traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. The conditions had been good up to a point, but then the mist came down and I couldn’t see a thing. I’ve done either forty-four or forty-five summer traverses of the ridge, but up there today at points I couldn’t make out a thing. I was looking around for rocks I might recognise, my glasses all frozen up” Martin laughs light-heartedly looking back at his predicament in retrospect, as is often the way in mountaineering. Christ. Forty-odd Cuillin traverses. Makes my singular summer traverse seem trivial. Maybe all the stories are true?
Martin continued to talk full-bore and with born again enthusiasm about the Scottish mountains and the climbing conditions the North West were experiencing at the time. I was new to all this outdoor work having only recently officially joined the BMG training and assessment scheme. Indeed this was to be my first ever, paid outdoor work. Did Martin know my lack of experience? Should I have told him? Over time I grew to learn about Martin’s willingness to ‘bring in’ the next generation of Guides, a practice that suited not only the many dozens of aspiring British Mountain Guides Martin had helped along the way, but also benefited Moran Mountain with a seemingly endless supply of young, fit and overly helpful Guides, all keen to make their mark and eager to guide on one of Moran’s adventurous itineraries.
Working for Martin in the particularly wild NW of Scotland was something of a right of passage for many a British Guide. Prospective Guides looking for acceptance on to the BMG scheme begin by amassing huge amounts of experience in mountaineering, climbing and skiing before being signed-off to start the training and assessment process. The UK elements of the scheme are gradual and progressive beginning in summer in Wales, before heading north for what many see as the crux of the whole process, the Scottish Winter test. To this day the climbing and guiding I have done in the NW of Scotland is still undoubtedly some of the best I have ever done. The wild terrain, beautiful mountains and incredible selection of routes, no wonder Martin and Joy Moran (Martin’s wife) chose to base themselves here.
There were very few ‘easy’ days working for Moran Mountain in Scotland. The area is wild and generally quite inaccessible necessitating big walk-ins off the back of early starts and late finishes. This did however mean it was rare to see many (if any) other folks on the hills and we often had the crags to ourselves. Miles and miles of Torridonian monoliths, as far as the sea.
Martin saw these points as key to his business model, ever keen to get away from the crowds and an easy sell to clients looking for something special. Martin built and demanded something extra from both his Guides and clients and was never happier than when groups came back off the hill having had to put in a ‘little extra’ (often a few savage extra hours descending safely off the hill in appalling weather). His eyes would light up at such information; mission, achieved!
He would only ever give you just enough information (never all the pieces of the jigsaw), to go off and have a total adventure. Information is key and Martin was always keen to keep the uncertain element of any outdoor forays. This was Martin’s nature through and through, always looking to give folks the ‘full’ experience and nothing less. If you just wanted to ‘tick’ the box, this was not the course or the place for you…
I remember back in my first season working for Martin as a Trainee, out guiding the classic Forcan Ridge in Glen Shiel. I was running a ‘Winter Mountaineer’ course. Unlike most run of the mill generic type mountaineering courses Martin’s featured a steeper learning curve than most, taking on challenging traverses and the option of a night out snow-holing to able teams in good conditions.
All the elements came together that week and the last couple of days saw me guiding a team of three along the Forcan Ridge to a snow hole on the saddle, just down from the summit.
As previously mentioned Martin was keen to maximise the adventure at all times and having three on a rope on a fairly involving ridge traverse complete with big packs and an as yet unknown doss for the night made for quite the day out. Couple this with my relative inexperience as a Trainee Guide and the full team were on for some good learning. At one point the lead client (let’s call him Jim, mainly because I think that was his name) completely blew his footing and dived head-first off the ridge…! Much to my delight (and everyone else’s) my rope system worked perfectly and we continued our traverse to the summit.
Even with this very enthusiastic team we spent many hours digging our snow hole for the night before settling in. I remember this foray being a high point of the week for one in particular. He lived and worked the city life in London and I’m not sure he had even been camping before. He was able and keen, happy to dedicate the time and the long drive north to overall adventure, a prime Moran Mountain client.
It was clear the week (and in particular the snow-holing) was one of the best things he had ever done. He enthused about it and we finished off the week with a full traverse of Liathach in fantastic blue-sky, spring conditions. Along with Martin’s guidance I had taken the group from relative newbies to experienced novices and we had all learnt and experienced so much along the way. What an introduction to Scottish winter mountaineering! I could only imagine the stories he would regale when back in the city.
Martin also gave me the chance to guide further afield in Norway and the India Himalayas. In particular the trips I undertook to India struck a chord with me and now four trips later I can safely say (again) it is some of the best guiding I have ever done and one trip in particular quite simply the best thing I have ever done.
‘I am organising a personal climbing trip to India and there is the possibility of some others coming along. We are heading to the Miyar Valley area in Himachal Pradesh to attempt an unclimbed ridge line. There is plenty of scope for adventure and new routes in the area’ read the email.
I spoke with my climbing partner John Crook (a friend and fellow Aspirant Guide at the time) and debated what to do. We had not long returned from a trip to Alaska which had been one of the warmest and snowiest on record. On this trip pretty much all we had done was dig the tents out and fight for lives, but now this potential offer to join Martin and co on what would be our first trip to the Himalayas was too good to turn down. We replied to Martin eagerly and although there had been interest from much more accomplished alpinists to join the trip he saw our keenness and potential and signed us up. And so it began.
Over the next several months building up to and then on the trip itself, what an education in expedition planning and execution we had. It was like we were being schooled by the grand master himself. Arriving in Delhi it was clear Martin was in his element. Here was a man that had done over 35 trips to India and it showed. Indian cultures and customs, history, Gods, geography, regional conditions, travel and just about anything else, Martin understood it and the way it worked in this bizarre country. Upon entering mine and John’s room the morning after arriving in Delhi Martin preceded to tell us all about the ‘new’ mosquito-borne virus that was doing the rounds and the need to keep covered-up.
‘Can we borrow your mosquito spray?’
It was a good job as me and John on our first trip literally did not have a clue! 2000 Rupees is how much?
Martin had given us some objectives (along with everything else we needed) including beta on the biggest peak in the area, which was still unclimbed. We were lucky that (unlike our recent trip to Alaska) we hit great weather and conditions and all the remaining pieces fell into place to climb two new routes on two new summits, without doubt the highlight of my life so far. Essentially Martin saw something in us and gave us the golden ticket. Hitting lucky with conditions and weather on this trip all we had to do was cash it in. It was that simple. After our time up at high camp we returned to Base Camp and were all reunited to share stories of our successful forays into the hills. All three teams had successfully summited our peaks on 1st October. Martin could see how obsessed both me and John had been with our ‘A” plan and had started calling it ‘The Eye of Sauron’, such was the fix it had on us. I’ll never forget.
On another trip to India to the Kalapani Glacier a couple of years ago I was working with Martin and was storm-bound at 5200m at our advanced base camp along with 7 clients. We had a selection of tents and I was in a small, two-person Rab bivy tent on the end of our row of tents, cut into the snow. It was the sort of night with regular alarms to remind us to get up and dig the camp out. The morning dawned clear and we all came out to have a look at what greeted us. I was met by Joe (one of the clients) who was wide-eyed and eager to share.
‘I woke up to a funny tinkling noise last night in the storm. I looked over and saw Martin in the porch. He was having a wee into our pan. Then he opened the door, threw it out, scooped up some snow and put a brew on’
Completely normal expedition behaviour to Martin but clearly a memorable moment for Joe! We went on to climb four virgin summits as a team and descend safely back down to civilisation.
I remember last autumn when planning our Nanda Devi East expedition we kept on coming up against Indian bureaucracy and uncertainty as is so often the way in such things. Our agent, Mr Pandey (of Himalayan Run and Trek, Delhi), was doing a fine job sifting through all the necessary paperwork and chasing all the correct channels but at one stage the process was looking increasingly unlikely and with a substantial financial outlay with no guarantee of a permit. I asked Martin what he thought. His answer was simple and unequivocal, ‘You have to go for it, just go and there will be a way’. This uneviquival, adventurous and raw attitude summarised Martin, time and time again. We went for it and the gamble paid off. We got our wish and our permit and headed to Nanda Devi East. Here we experienced appalling snow conditions, frost-nip and a lot of sitting in tents. When we weren’t sitting in them we were digging them out. After two months I headed back to the UK. All Martin could say was ‘it is all part of the learning curve’ Be careful what you wish for…
After many years on the guides scheme I finally received my full IFMGA carnet at the annual BMG AGM last year. As luck would have it that year was held in Kendal (my home town). Due to a couple of reasons it was at one stage looking like I might not attend. I had mentioned this to Martin who came straight back via email to say I should go and that it would be great to see me get my pin. I’m so glad I went now.
I only knew Martin for maybe three or four years but looking back over that period he had without doubt the single biggest influence on my life during that time. Who will I be able to quiz now about conditions and objectives in India? Who will tell me what is in condition to climb around the NW and where the best bum-sliding descents are? Before Martin and Mark Thomas left for their last trip I had spoken with Mark about looking to return to Nanda Devi East to have another attempt on the NE Ridge. The only two teams to have ever tried it were Mark and Martin in 2015 and myself and John last year. It’s a mega line and we were both feeling keen for a rematch. As to how I feel about it now I’m just not sure. Maybe in time it will become clear, or maybe it won’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe there are plenty of other things to climb in life, or indeed other things to do.
When the news was coming out and it was starting to look like the unthinkable had happened a friend messaged me saying just how sorry he was as he knew what an influence Martin had had on me. He signed off with ‘Keep his spirit alive’. I intend to do this and will never forget our times together, my fortunate progress under his wing or the man himself. A fair few glasses have been raised over the last week or two, within the guiding world and a personal one at that. Martin often spoke about the fine line between the two; the do’s and don’t if you like. It was a fine line indeed, for such a man as Martin.
I’ve now lost quite a lot of friends and colleagues in the mountains. Martin and the other seven victims aren’t the first and unfortunately they won’t be the last. When I think about the mountains and the risks involved in all honestly I’m not sure if I would continue adventuring in them if the risk was nil and void. I’m just not sure I’d see the point. It’s a serious game and I like it as such. I’ve never really seen myself as tennis or track type guy, just doesn’t seem to cut the mustard. The mountain gives and the mountain takes, it’s as simple as that for me.
This post is mainly about Martin with who I had close contact but my friend Chaten Pandey was also taken. Chetan was an Indian national and had been with us for three out of four Indian trips and was a total legend. Never an angry word, a raised voice and always with a smile, no matter what he was doing, he ALWAYS had that smile! I remember carrying loads with Chetan on our first trip several years ago. Me and John had just finished our summer alpine training on the guide scheme and were more conscious than we had ever been on looking after folks in the outdoors. Martin had drummed it into us too; that the porters and the assistants on the mountain were our responsibility and to do our part for their well-being. We were carrying big packs and the weather came in, whilst crossing the moraine from hell. We were both trying to look after Chetan but he clearly didn’t need it. A fine example for me when I am out with clients in adverse weather.
This post has taken me an age to write and now in re-reading it I fear I might not have done it justice. I feel like I have been waiting for the perfect words, unaware there aren’t any. I have had countless conversations with colleagues and friends over the last couple of weeks and there is so much more to be said. I myself am absolutely gutted. It’s not a contest or question of time served front-line or other, but a huge feeling of loss for myself and many others that surrounded him. In my case the loss of a mentor (a pivotal one at that), colleague and friend. This tragedy has affected many and it is hard to imagine he is gone. Truth be told it hurts. I will continue to guide in his spirit both on the hill and in life in general.
My sincerest thoughts go out to Joy, Hazel and Alex Moran. Also to Mansi Chetan, C.S. Pandey and all the staff at Himalayan Run and Trek (HRT) and all the family and friends of the other victims involved in this tragedy. You will never be forgotten.
Take care out there boys and girls, it’s a dangerous world.
Below are a selection of images from Scotland, Norway and India showing both Martin and Chetan doing their thing…