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The Fiction of Don Thomasson
Strictly Illegal - Chapter 11

The Fiction of Donald William Thomasson
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XI

The ascent of Snowdon from Pen-y-Pass is technically a walk rather than a climb, but it is not to be compared with a stroll by the riverside. From the car park opposite the Gorphwysfa Hotel, on the summit of the road from Llanberis to Capel Curig, the path climbs through two thousand four hundred feet. Not all who start the journey manage to reach their objective.

On the exposed saddle below Grib Goch, Jimmy paused to point out the view to the north, extending far out to sea. He said it was almost too clear to be comfortable. There were clouds overhead and they might be glad they had come prepared for rain before they got back to the car.

'But I suppose we'd better get on. We've only done about seven hundred feet so far. There's another seventeen hundred in front of us.'

Pat made a face, but she seemed to be enjoying herself. This was her first experience of mountain walking and she was glad that she had an experienced guide.

Beyond the saddle, the view opened out to the south, with a towering mass of rock immediately on their right. Below them, the slope fell away steeply to the shore of a lake, where tiny figures were moving on a lower track. Above them, at the top of the rock mass, they could see equally tiny figures peering down from Pinnacle Ridge. There were quite a few people about, but by no means as many as Jimmy had seen on a summer Sunday, when the tracks became almost embarrassingly crowded.

Another mile of steady walking across the face of the slope brought them to a view of another lake, Glaslyn, that nestles in a vast bowl under Snowdon summit. This was where the hard work started, the path soaring steeply up the side of the bowl over loose stones and gravel. It was also the place where Jimmy got the first hint of danger. Looking up the slope suddenly, he caught sight of someone hastily ducking out of sight behind some rocks.

It was no more than the merest glimpse of a hurried movement, but Jimmy found it disturbing. That his alarm was irrational merely served to increase the sense of disturbance, so he set himself the task of considering the matter rationally.

How could anyone be waiting for them on the rim of Glaslyn Cwm?

He dismissed the possibility that anyone had trailed them from Pen-y-Pass and then slipped ahead unnoticed. While they had taken the climb fairly easily, he was sure that no one who had passed them on the track could have got so far ahead. It was just possible that agile and experienced climbers could have made sufficient speed over the higher Pinnacle Ridge route, but that seemed unlikely. If Jimmy and Pat had decided to cut short the walk and return by the Mine Track, anyone on Pinnacle Ridge would have been far out of touch.

The alternative was that someone had come up ahead of them, knowing that they planned to make the climb, which seemed just as improbable. Being well trained in the practice of mountain walking, Jimmy had left a note of their intended route at the hotel, but even if anyone gained access to that information they would have found it difficult to get to the top of Snowdon first.

He was forced to conclude that he was imagining things, that the man he had seen had been hiding from friends as a prank, perhaps. Nevertheless, he suggested they change course to the right, taking the easier but circuitous climb round the side of the cwm in preference to the direct scramble up the scree slope. It would be easy for someone to set the loose stones sliding and that might create an unpleasant situation.

Unaware of Jimmy's disturbed thoughts, Pat forged ahead energetically and he had to press on to catch her up. It was a relief when she paused, her head tilted as if she was listening. When he stood by her side, she said that she had thought she could hear a train.

Jimmy laughed. 'There's a railway about thirty yards away, on the other side of these rocks, so it isn't surprising. I'm glad it's still running, because that means the hotel will probably be open.'

'A hotel? Up here?'

'They call it a hotel. I don't know that they take in overnight guests, but we should be able to get a hot drink and something to eat.'

When they reached the railway track, Jimmy was thoughtful again. If the railway was running, it was just possible that someone might have used it to make a rapid ascent and get ahead of them, after finding out their plans from the hotel. But how could anyone know they were staying in Beddgelert?

The railway lines sloped at an improbable angle, but provided a smooth and easy path to the summit. Some distance away, two trains were passing each other at Clogwin, and these, combined with the smoother contours of the northern slopes, made a very different picture from the one they had seen during the climb.

While they sipped hot drinks, Jimmy remarked that the summit buildings blended very well with the landscape. 'I hope they do as good a job with the buildings at Uffington.'

Pat chuckled. 'You can't forget it, can you? To be fair, I can't either. I suppose you've been aching to go and snoop around the Welsh headquarters ever since we got here.'

'Not really.' Jimmy grinned. 'I'm keeping that as a pleasure to come. What about tomorrow evening?'

'Suits me.'

They duly climbed to the lookout on the highest point of the mountain, but agreed that the view from there was no better than some of the views on the way up. Jimmy noted with slight concern that little patches of cloud were drifting past at lower levels now and said they ought to start the return journey fairly soon.

'I thought the view out to sea was ominously clear. If that cloud thickens much, we could find ourselves caught up in mist as we go down and that might not be nice. The Pyg Track is fairly easy to find, but it isn't impossible to go wrong.'

'What did you call it?'

'The Pyg Track. I believe the name comes from the climber's hotel, the Pen-y-Gwryd. We saw it on the way up.'

They chatted for a while about similar scraps of local lore and then began the descent in leisurely fashion. Going down a mountain can be just as tiring as going up it. They felt there was no need for hurry.

Crossing the little ridge from the railway into the upper part of the Glaslyn Cwm, they found that the clouds below were thickening, even as Jimmy had feared. He began to wish they had started back more smartly. There was no question of hurrying on the difficult descent of the cwm, however. He could only hope that they would be able to follow the track.

Near the bottom of the steepest stretch, where they were beginning to descend into cloud, Pat tried an over ambitious step and nearly slid the rest of the way.

Jimmy called a halt. 'Steady. Let's get our bearings. There are some old mine workings just below here and we don't want to go walking into them.'

'I'll be all right. That was silly. I was careless.'

'You can't afford to be careless up here. Are you liking it?'

'Very much. It's great fun. Is someone following us down?'

'Sounds like it.'

There were scratching and scraping sounds from the mist above and one or two odd stones rolled past. Jimmy had almost forgotten his earlier alarm, but the stones reminded him of his vision of a minor landslide. Then the sounds stopped and there was an eerie silence. After a minute, Jimmy thought he heard low voices and his eyes narrowed.

Two people, at least, not far beyond the range of visibility. Why had they stopped? Glancing down the slope, he decided that the visibility in that direction might be better. He and Pat might be clearly outlined against the luminous white cloud swirling over Glaslyn. It would be wise to move.

He wondered how well the silent watchers above knew the terrain. If the mist had been a little thicker, he would have risked the steep scramble down to Glaslyn itself in the hope of breaking the trail, but that would only work if they could change direction without being seen and if the watchers had no suspicion that there was an alternative route. It seemed better to try to disappear among the boulders that lined the Pyg Track further along.

Once again, he had taken alarm on very scanty grounds, but this time he had no doubts. However impossible it might seem, someone was keeping an eye on them and wanted to do so without being seen. He said nothing to Pat, but she soon sensed his change of mood.

As they hurried along the track, she spoke quietly over her shoulder. 'You've gone all businesslike suddenly. Were those people following us?'

'They may have been. I don't know. I saw something earlier. I'm looking for a place where we can get lost among the boulders, preferably a place with a view of the track.'

A minute later, Pat suddenly turned left on a small grassy patch and began to climb the slope as quietly as she could. Jimmy followed, thankful that she could react so calmly to the situation. He suspected that he had been a good deal less calm earlier on.

Doubling back suddenly, she led him out to a smooth shelf of rock that jutted out high above the path. They lay down at the edge and waited.

Almost immediately, they heard cautious footsteps slowing to a halt and then two soft voices.

'Watch it! I think they've stopped.'

'Garn! They're walking on soft stuff. We'll never keep up with them at this rate.'

The second voice interested Jimmy a lot, for it made him realise why he had been alarmed by that earlier glimpse. He knew the voice and he had recognised the man, but it had seemed such an unlikely identification that his mind had rejected it. A little man who waved knives about. Yes, that was Al, all right. If only Pat hadn't been there, Jimmy felt he could have enjoyed himself.

'What do you think they mean to do?' Her whisper was barely audible in his ear. He shrugged his shoulders. It was hard to imagine what the answer should be. If there had been no mist, the two men could only have followed at a distance, watching where Jimmy and Pat went. There would have been no point in any other action on the open mountain slopes. Even a long range rifle shot would have been risky, with people all around at varying heights. The marksman could never have been sure of remaining unobserved.

In any case, the men had no rifle. They might have guns of a smaller kind, however. Jimmy had no desire to risk being shot at any range.

The two men still stood below the ledge, listening for the sound of footsteps. The man who had spoken first was convinced that Jimmy and Pat were not far away and was getting annoyed with his companion.

'If you hadn't made a muck of identifying the car, we wouldn't have had all this caper.'

'I didn't make a muck of it.' Al was indignant. 'Like I said, they got into a grey Maxi and I wrote the number down at the time.'

'We didn't find a grey Maxi, did we?' The other man spoke softly still, but put a lot of feeling into the words. 'Not one, let alone one with that number, even though we went as far away as Bangor and Dolgelly.'

Jimmy's lips twitched. The search for the Maxi had probably been concentrated on hotels and boarding houses and would scarcely have extended to garage repair shops. The little man with the careless feet had really confused the issue.

'Aw, never mind that.' Al was evidently rather touchy on the subject. 'At least I was right about him climbing Snowdon from Pen-y-Pass. If it hadn't been for this blasted mist, we could have followed them down easy. Then we get to the car park and invite them to come and see the boss. If we lose them now, he won't be pleased.'

The other man, half convinced, muttered something and Al snorted scornfully. 'Don't be daft. They're heading for a nice warm hotel somewhere. They don't want to hang about on misty hillsides.'

Pat was shaking with silent laughter and Jimmy could see the funny side of the matter, but he could also see the other side. The mention of an invitation to 'come and see the boss' sounded mild, but he knew how persuasive Al's knife could be in such circumstances. He hoped that with a little patience they might be saved the embarrassment of having to decline the invitation. They knew exactly what the position was and the other two did not. That could prove a crucial advantage.

There was a sudden movement below and Al said he was going to have a look around. 'Otherwise, we could be on this blasted mountain all night. We don't even know for sure that they're on this track. There might be a side path.'

Jimmy wished him luck. It was dangerous to stray from the marked route at any time, let alone in the present conditions, and Al showed no inclination to be careful. Perhaps the mist, by hiding the steep boulder strewn drop below the path, was making him over confident. He moved forward slowly, peering down into the murk on his right, paying no attention to where he was putting his feet. Straying further from the path, he began to fade into the mist, but Jimmy saw with sickening certainty that the next step would be onto a boulder that no only looked loose, but was also wet and slippery.

The boulder rocked. Caught off balance, Al threw up his arms, slid sideways and vanished with a despairing yell. There was the sound of sliding rocks, a scream, then a silence broken only by a faint moaning sound.

The other man moved forward, hesitated uncertainly and then stood petrified, afraid to move. Jimmy and Pat slid down from their hiding place, but he took no notice. Pausing only to remove a gun from the man's pocket and hand it to Pat, Jimmy moved cautiously towards the point where Al had disappeared, talking and peeling off his jacket as he went.

'I'll go down and see what I can do. You keep an eye on our friend, who should realise that he might need our help to get home safely.'

'Be careful!' Pat sounded anxious.

As Jimmy lowered himself over the edge he gave her a reassuring grin. 'Don't worry. It'll be safe enough if I watch where I'm going. You two could make yourselves useful by yelling for help. The sound won't get very far in the mist, but there may still be some people coming down from the top.'

Guided by the groans, he felt his way down the steep boulder slope. He hoped he wasn't being too optimistic about the difficulties facing him. With any luck, Al hadn't fallen far, but it would be only too easy to fall all the way down to the old tin mine by the lower lake, which would be a very different matter. Testing each hand- and foot-hold carefully, he went down with every nerve on full alert.

He found Al lying against a big outcrop, his right leg pinned by a massive boulder that he must have brought down after him. Levering the boulder away, he discovered that the leg was broken, a clean break with no serious damage otherwise. Even an injury of this magnitude can be a serious matter on a mountain, however, and Jimmy knew that it would be no easy job to get the casualty down to Pen-y-Pass. He was the only one who knew the mountain at all well and he was reluctant to leave Al on his own, since there was a real possibility that he would roll of his insecure perch.

Jimmy was still trying to work out how to deal with the situation when he was relieved to hear an answer to the calls for help. Soon afterwards, a stranger's voice from the path above asked what the position was. Jimmy was glad to note that the voice sounded calm and efficient. He felt efficiency could come in handy.

'Might be worse. Broken leg, possibly ankle as well. Fairly secure position, thirty or forty feet down. There seems to be a nasty drop below, so I think he'll have to come up to the path.'

'Can you hang on?'

The voice was still calm and Jimmy answered in kind. 'I think so, if it isn't for too long. It'll take some time to get the Pen-y-Gwryd people up, I expect.'

'Can't be helped. I'll get them going as quickly as I can. Have you got a rope?'

'No, I wasn't expecting this kind of excitement.'

'Hang on, I'll pass mine down. Shall I belay up here, or do you want the lot?'

'Belay, and see if there's enough spare.'

'Wilco.'

The single word of acknowledgement placed the speaker precisely and made Jimmy smile. Seconds later, a rope came snaking down through the mist, just out of reach to the left. Jimmy reported this and the rope spiralled gracefully towards him. Grasping it, he found there was ample slack to secure Al and to provide himself with a safety loop. Calling his thanks, he asked Pat if she wanted to go down to Pen-y-Pass with the stranger.

'You might as well. It may get pretty cold by the time the party get back.'

After a pause, her voice came back, slightly hesitant. 'I'd better stay, to show them the spot. The other man says he'll stay too.'

The voice of Al's companion was a little husky. 'Don't worry, mate. I'll stay. It's the least I can do after what you're doing.'

The stranger, sounding a little puzzled by the tone of these exchanges, said that the sooner he got on his way the sooner they'd all be in the warm. His footsteps plodded off in the direction of Pen-y-Pass.

When he had gone, the rope shook a little and Jimmy saw that a coat was descending, buttoned round the rope to make sure it would not go astray. It was not the coat that he had slipped off before tackling the descent. That came down afterwards, the husky voice explaining, 'You need to keep warm down there, mate, you can't walk up and down like I can. The other one's to go under Luigi's head.'

Luigi... Of course. That was the little man's real name. Jimmy preferred the name he had invented for him. It seemed more appropriate, somehow.

Folding the coat, he manoeuvred it under Al's head. The man's eyes flickered open, looking at him with an odd mixture of pain and astonishment.

'You! So we did find you, after all.'

There was a quirk of humour about the man, even in this situation. After a few moments, he seemed to realise what had happened.

'You came down after me. Risked your ruddy neck!'

Jimmy felt rather embarrassed. 'Why not? I came down carefully, looking where I was going. You were just plain careless. What's up? What are you trying to do?'

The man had been moving his arm as if trying to reach for something. He gave it up and a painful twist of humour showed again.

'I wanted to give you my gun. It's in that pocket. I really ought to hand it to you butt first.'

With that, he drifted back into unconsciousness. Jimmy looked down at him thoughtfully. He had always felt a sort of perverse affection for the man and it almost looked as if Al was trying to express something of the same sort in relation to himself.

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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |

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Mail me Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002