THE Mull of Oa on Islay ends in sea cliffs with Atlantic surges rumbling onto the rocks. I became acutely aware of the latter when a solo attempt to climb the ridge of one of the cliffs ground to a halt halfway up. The stoppage was due to the dawning of two new facts in my early teenage life – first, that the climbing term ‘exposure’ means when you look back down, the result is pure fear and literal knee-knocking; secondly, the realisation that you have to continue upwards, the alternative of downclimbing without a rope being unthinkable in smooth school gym shoes.

In the 1980s, we escaped Swaziland frequently, heading for the Lesotho escarpment and the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa. The Sani Pass was our entry, a spectacular zig-zag dirt road climbing to 8,000 feet onto the escarpment’s plateau: this was vast, treeless and likely qualified as tundra, snow or sleet having been recorded somewhere on it every day of the year. The highest point was called Thaba Ntlenyana (‘little black hill’) at 12,600 feet, but in practice it was simply one hillock among several, the difficulty being getting to it over rough pathless moors and sudden steep valleys. We were using a Sierra dome tent, one of the maker’s selling points being that at high altitudes, the tent’s flexibility allowed high winds to slip by. That morning near Thaba, after a sleepless night in an impressive gale, we found the fibreglass tent poles just above our sleeping-bagged bodies – and permanently bent.

Around this time, an American friend, Joe Williams, and I developed delusions about climbing Mount Kenya, inspired by Bill Tilman’s slim book, Snow on the Equator, which describes he and Eric Shipton’s summiting of its twin peaks. Our own technical standards were revealed when I was cornered in a Johannesburg climbing shop by a confidant young man while gingerly fingering the only piece of hardware which seemed non-threatening, a rounded metal object shaped like a voluptuous girl’s torso.

“That’s not as good as the Eiger one,” he sniffed, “ but I use the Colorado plate – much less friction when you brake.”

I decided to brazen it out. No 20-year-old with pimples was going to out-macho me. Who did he think he was? I was twice his age and running bloody hospitals…….

“It feels good quality alloy to me. Can’t imagine it – ah – breaking in the severest – um – conditions.”

Acne gave me a pitying look.

“I mean braking your descent when abseiling – that’s a figure-of-eight you’re holding.”

By great good fortune, Joe and I managed to persuade a real climber, a Peace Corps volunteer teacher from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to join us. Six months later, we were examining sclerotic-shafted ice axes and crampons with missing metal eyes and points in the equipment room of Naro Moru Lodge, 20 miles from Mount Kenya. The protective climbing helmets were battered and dented. Joe fingered one then looked at me.

“Dave, d’you reckon, as a medical man, that they removed these from the corpses after they fell down the Diamond Glacier or before they did the autopsy……….? ”

At Mackinder’s Camp in the upper Teleki Valley, Mount Kenya’s snow-covered peaks towering above us, we met Stephen, the Kikuyu in charge of the camp and the senior guide. He had a huge chest, tapering to slim hips and very long legs, all covered in skintight blue viscose. It was a comfort to know that he was leader of the mountain rescue team whose hut was not far from Mackinder’s. Indeed, as far as we could make out, the affable Stephen was the team – with his physique, he could probably have tucked one of us under each arm and run down the mountain in time for lunch.

Two years later, we met a small detachment of British Army men at Mackinder’s. The camp then consisted of a dozen permanent tents on platforms, the largest referred to as The Mess. It was well-named, being littered with teabags, tin cans, plastic bags, and discarded pasta and, at 13,000 feet, must have been the highest slum in Africa. Hence the presence of the soldiers, who had volunteered to clean up the place. Not only that, they had brought some explosives for making a deep rubbish pit and new pit latrines – after blowing up the old ones.

Leaving them to their tasks, I kept looking back at the mountain with some concern. Between Nelion and Batian summits is the snowy Gate of the Mists and below it is the famous Diamond Glacier whose ice scintillates white in the sun and is visible a hundred kilometers away. If the Army misjudged their ordnance that afternoon, it might never scintillate again...

Dr David Vost studied medicine at Glasgow University and is currently working at a hospital in Swaziland. He and his family live on a small farm in Northern Uganda near the Albert Nile.