The moveable feast and famine of mountain mobile reception

Ben Hope: signal strength good. <em>Picture: Harry Willis</em>
Ben Hope: signal strength good. Picture: Harry Willis

A trip to Sutherland last week provided contrasting examples of how mobile-phone technology is a complex muddle: both impressively rewarding and completely frustrating.

In my role as The Caledonian Mercury’s Outdoors correspondent, I drove up the A9 on Wednesday evening to stay with friends in Strathspey as a staging post before meeting mad-keen Munrobagger Stephen Pyke – aka Spyke – on Ben Hope. Spyke was about to demolish the previous fastest time for climbing all the Scottish 3000-foot hills, and The Caledonian Mercury just had to be there.

Ben Hope is the most northerly Munro, and my friend Bill Cook and I needed the best part of three hours to get there on Thursday morning. I had already filed a one-paragraph outline, the idea being that as soon as Spyke reached the summit I would text through the precise timings, these would be subbed into the existing paragraph, and we would be first with the story.

This, of course, assumed that a phone signal could be obtained from the summit – and as Bill and I drove through Altnaharra, the last community before Ben Hope, I noticed an old-style red phonebox. This might yet be needed – Vodafone was patchy at best in the glens.

But although we started uphill with zero signal, and although things stayed that way until near the summit, suddenly there was life. The line of sight to the north coast – with its villages and phonemasts – was adequate. Spyke and his entourage duly arrived, I texted through the copy, and Bill took a camera-phone snap of him touching the trig point. Hence the piece was live before we started downhill. All very modern, and pretty impressive.

I had been on the same hill ten years earlier to greet Charlie Campbell, the previous record-holder. I didn’t own a mobile in those days, so wasn’t able to try the same trick. But although the mobile network did exist, I’m pretty sure Ben Hope was a no-signal blackspot. Things have moved on a lot.

So that was all splendid. Next day, however, showed how this kind of stuff still has the capacity to infuriate.

After another night in Kingussie, I set off south in mid-afternoon – and somewhere around Drumochter twigged that I’d forgotten to chase details of another story. For several months, The Caledonian Mercury has been following the case of a freelance journalist alleged to have falsely called out a mountain rescue team in the Lake District. The journalist concerned was due in court that very day, and in the Munro-record excitement I had forgotten to make a note of the court phone number in Workington.

Damn.

I pulled into the vast car park at Bruar and texted my partner in Stirling to get her to find the number online. “Am in town. Need to wait till home”, she replied.

Surely it was obtainable from directory inquiries, however. What number to ring? I tried 192, but it didn’t seem to work. The only other number I could remember (oh, the power of advertising) was 118118.

The operative had poor English and was both very polite and completely useless. The call consisted of my repeatedly spelling “West Allerdale and Keswick Magistrates’ Court” – Keswick seemed a particular mystery – and I was already resigned to my fate when, after an interlude, he came back on and asked “Sorry sir, should I look under council?” Then the line went dead. There had been three quid on the mobile, and the call couldn’t have lasted much more than a minute. I’d effectively plugged a device into the phone and pressed a button labelled “Give the 118 people all your money.”

I wouldn’t have minded had I actually learnt the court number, but I was still none the wiser – and now had an empty mobile. Aaarrggh.

The Blair Atholl village store had a top-up machine, so I asked for a fiver to be put on. The old lady was the sweetest, friendliest shop assistant one could ever hope for – a throwback to a bygone age – but after several minutes of fiddling and fumbling it was clear she had no real idea how to operate anything more modern than a set of scales.

Her equally sweet husband joined in, and seemed to have a bit more idea, but in due course a printout emerged which the old lady read to me: “System busy.” She might as well have said: “Computer says no.” Meanwhile, the clerk of the court in Cumbria was several minutes closer to locking up for the weekend.

On to Pitlochry, feeling a bit fraught, where a young bloke in the petrol station topped up the phone as if it was the simplest thing in the world, while chatting to his mate. Life seemed easy again.

Phone back on, a text came in from my partner: she had the number. It was just before 5pm, and there was perhaps just enough time – but the court was in answerphone mode, so the whole thing would have to wait until Monday.

Ultimately, the episode was my own stupid fault – had I remembered to note down the number beforehand, none of the rest would have happened. But that one mistake plunged me into a chaotic world where technology was either in the hands of distant corporates or beyond the grasp of locals with their slower, more rural ways of doing things.

One lives and learns – but suddenly the easy, everything-works joy of Ben Hope seemed a long way away.