Falling Stars

November 24, 2008

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“Have you met Cal Macaninch yet?” asked Ryan, the organiser of Fort William’s mountain film festival. “He’s just finished the second series of Rock Face, and he’s agreed to act as our compere for the festival!”

Rock Face was a program all climbers sniggered at and panned by every person I’d ever met. The BBC’s attempt to cross Casualty and Monarch of the Glen with the Vertical Limit.  The result had not pleased climbers.

I’d never seen it myself, as it clashed with Sponge Bod Square pants, but I imagined this guy Cal had to be an actor who played the part of a climber.

When I finally met Cal I was disappointed to find he wasn’t surrounded by an entourage of PA’s and paparazzi, looking like your average Scotsman in his mid-thirties (but with better skin), who, although he wouldn’t look out of place in a Top Man add campaign, did actually look like a climber. 
“Hi,” he said, holding out his hand, “I’m Cal Macaninch.” 

“Off Rock Face?” I said with mock excitement. 

“Yes,” he replied, with a gleam of satisfaction flashing across his face. 

“Sorry,” I sniggered, “I’ve never seen it…”

The evening went well, with lots of exciting films being shown to a very enthusiastic local audience, and afterwards, we did what all good festival-goers do, and drank until the bar closed. 

It turned out that Cal, although a novice before the series began, was now a climbing junky, climbing whenever work and weather allowed. Instead of talking about theatre, film, and TV, he enthused about rock-overs, run-outs, and climbing dreams.

He introduced me to his climber partner, a guy called helicopter Dave (on account of him knowing how to fly helicopters…and being called Dave), and very soon that talk drifted to winter routes.

Although he’d done plenty of filming in winter, Cal had yet to do a winter route, and so at the evenings drunken close, I suggested the three of us should try and bag a route the following day.  Being a consummate professional Cal told us he couldn’t, as he had to be back for six to prepare for the last evening of the festival. 

“Don’t worry mate,” I said, “we’ll race up a route and be back in time for lunch – promise.”

The words having somewhat of an air of deja-vu about them.


It was 5 pm.  The three of us hung in an icy groove on the side of Aonach Beag.  It was snowing and darkness was close. 

Cal looked at his watch while I looked at Dave’s minimalist belay and the thin vein of ice above. 

The top was still a short hard pitch away, and it looked as if our health would have to be balanced with a need for speed.

We’d made good time that day, getting out of bed and down to Aonoch Mor in time for the first ‘bins’, riding into the clag in the silence of our shared headaches and hangovers. 

Conditions weren’t ideal, being a little too warm, but being keen we’d geared up quickly anyway, Cal looking very suave in his BBC supplied wardrobe.

We tried Black Out first, a grade VI on the North Face. 

Cal seconded the first pitch with style. You could tell he had the passion of a climber, taking in the weather, exposure and company with relish.  One good thing about having an actor on board was while we waited for Dave to climb the crux pitch I could get Cal to recite some lines I thought would go down well in the new series; “She’s gone to solo the widow maker!”,  “No one has returned from the North face of Skull Mountain” and of course, “There’s been a murder” (well he had been in Taggart too)

The crux pitch was lean, and after a valiant effort, Dave was forced to downclimb and look for an alternative.  A thin icefall to his right looked do-able, so we shouted up for him to give it a try.

An hour later and after a great lead, Dave was halfway up the pitch but out of rope.  “Have you got a belay?” I shouted.  “…yes…sort of…” was his reply.

Cal seconded the steep icefall on sheer enthusiasm alone, somehow hanging on in there regardless of having no technique whatsoever.  Several times he was left dangling from one tool, dizzy after being hit in the face by a block of ice or badly wielded tool. 
I marvelled at how he just would not give in, shouting at himself like an enraged Richard III, as somehow he inched his way upwards. 

Trying to be helpful I shouted up “Think about your motivation”, as I took some shots, imagining the big bucks Hello or Heat magazine would pay me for them each time my flash fired.

I arrived at the cramped belay some time afterwards, to find Cal jammed in the back of an ice-dribbled groove, and Dave bridged somewhat guiltily in front of him.  The belay was the type that made you look down and calculate your chances of making the bottom alive in the event it ripped; comprising of a bad nut in a loose crack and an ice screw that was more clocked off than tied off. 

Cal looked at his watch. 

We had an hour left, even less if we wanted to get the last ‘bin down from Aonach Mor. 

The pitch above looked as lean as our bones would be if I fell off, but I’d made a promise to get Cal back, and that’s what I intended to do, even if I’d have to kill him in the process.

Imagining I was the star of Rock face, I scrambled over my partners and bridged into the groove directly above Cal’s head.  If I fell Cal would get fully cramponed. 

There was a slight cave into which Cal could potentially push his upper body, leaving him with a difficult decision. 

If I fell my crampons would probably rip his face off – not good when you’ve spent several years trying to get it recognised – but if he pushed his head into the cave I’d land on his groin instead. 

Seeing as he’d realised we’d all die anyway, and since in the entertainment biz it’s the done thing to leave a good looking corpse, Cal’s head disappeared from view, but being a real climber at heart it wasn’t long until it reappeared, keen to see a master at work. Or maybe he’d just decided that his groin actually meant more to him than his career.

The climbing was delicate, with a thin exfoliating skin of ice on the walls, forcing me to teeter up on tiny edges, my tools staked in the centre of the corner. 

After each move, I’d look down at Dave’s helmet and Cal’s pleading exposed face. 

I tried to imagine I was Al Pacino, which seemed to work -, as without the trouble of gear to place and slow me down - I soon reached the top, much to everyone’s relief, and set about constructing another poor belay.

Cal climbed up onto the exit slope with a whoop of joy, the type of sound you’d make when you got your first big part, then we hurriedly climbed onto the top. 

Once all there we shook hands and gave ourselves a minute to ponder our stolen climb before running back to Aonach Mor and its last ‘bin down. 

It’s funny but we all have our preconceived ideas of what stars of the TV will be like; arrogant, self-obsessed and up their own arses, but I’d come to realise that at least one part of Rock Face was the real McCoy…unless that is, he was just a really good actor?

Note:  Just to prove Cal is a real actor - check him out here