Phil Jones

The September Featured Writer is Phil Jones

Please feel free to email Phil at: philjones816120@live.co.uk



by Phil Jones

“You don’t really believe in ghosts, do you?”

For a time I could not answer. But in the oppressive gloom of the cottage with sparks from our peat fire casting fiery trails into the dark throat of the chimney, and the wind rattling the shutters, it was difficult to discount the possibility.

“Well, you heard those tales at the bar. Things frightful enough to keep locals off the hill after dark.”

He began to suck noisily at the curved pipe held between his lips. “I heard their talk, but I cannot believe a single word they are saying. A climber perishing in a blizzard forever wandering the ridge? A shepherd losing both arms in the Great War, dies of his injuries, yet haunts the hills of his youth? I feel they were having fun at our expense.”

Wolfgang had been disinclined to conceal his scorn even as we bade farewell at the village inn ahead of the long trek back to Shenavall cottage.

“So you think their tales were designed to wrong-foot us?” I asked.

My fellow traveler exhaled a cloud of sweet smoke before leaning closer to the burning embers in the grate and shaking his head slowly. “Wrong-foot? Is that another of your English expressions? Listen, my friend, peasants the world over delight in sharing tales with strangers. Vampires from Transylvania, snowmen from the icy tops of Asia, the list goes on.”

There was perhaps a universal truth in what he implied. But our patrons in the Dundonnell Inn had not seemed intent on making sport of outsiders despite Wolfgang’s arrogant demeanor. On the contrary, they had been keen to offer advice—identifying the best line of ascent from the loch shore, the gullies most prone to avalanche and which descent route would prove safest should foul weather prevail. It had only been later, when several pints had been shared, that the talk turned to supernatural matters. 

Wolfgang continued, “Why, even my own compatriots tell tales of the Brocken Specter—a vast, grey creature that stalks the summits and lures unwary travelers to their deaths before dissolving into cloud.” He smirked as he relished such thoughts. “But every paranormal occurrence has a perfectly logical, scientific explanation. Even the Brocken Specter.”

My growing skepticism must have been apparent from the look he gave me.

“I swear, Edwin, I have witnessed it with my own eyes in the Alps. It is simply a meteorological phenomenon. An atmospheric aberration caused by nothing more mystifying than a specific combination of local climatic conditions and solar positioning. I can explain in more detail. . .”

My brooding silence seemed to encourage him further when all I really desired was a period of quiet in which to prepare myself mentally for the following day’s climb.

“Imagine a deep valley, choked with dense mist while above it in clear air stand the mountain peaks. Now, imagine a climber standing on a high ridge with the sun behind him at an angle of between thirty-five and forty-five degrees above the horizon. He will encounter his own shadow cast, not onto the ground at his feet but upon the swirling broth of cloud flooding the valley below. If he waves an arm perhaps or kicks out a foot he will see the creature make the identical gesture. But what he witnesses is nothing more sinister than his own shadow. So tell me, my friend, are you frightened of your own shadow?”

No more was said. We shook hands and wished each other a peaceful night. But as I lay coiled in my blankets and watched the fading firelight throw red flashes across the dark ceiling of our shelter, sleep seemed as distant as the remotest peaks. A sudden spatter of gunfire almost made me cry out in terror as hail struck the tin roof. And later, in the deepest recesses of night, I heard the wretched bark of a vixen somewhere close by. The foxes had often kept us awake at Ypres.


The hail had been replaced during the night by a substantial fall of snow on the high tops, but I was adequately prepared. By the time Wolfgang pulled the door open, nothing could have made me reconsider the day’s itinerary.

“I estimate there is snow lying as low as five hundred meters, Edwin. Are you still determined to reach the peaks?”

“I have my ice axe,” I told him. I have climbed in worse conditions. The strath below us is frozen so I would expect the snow to be clean and crisp on the way up.”

He shook my hand again then we set off our separate ways. Wolfgang was following the valley floor in the direction of Poolewe and the coast. I had higher ground in my sights and took the steep uphill path at the back of the cottage.

I love the hills and never fail to find fresh delight whenever I set foot on their tops: discovering my limits and sometimes being forced to exceed them. Having stared death in the face and survived the trenches I considered each successful climb a fresh affirmation of life. This was my own personal battle against the darkness that assailed me when I sank too readily into melancholy.

I paused as I began the slow ascent of Sail Liath and looked down again into the valley already far below. The cottage at Shenavall was no more than a dark smudge now, and although I scanned the shores of Loch na Sealga, there was no trace of my scientific friend.

The boulder-field two-thirds of the way up the flanks of Sail Liath brought my dash to a premature end. Like crossing a minefield, every step now had the potential for disaster. One careless slip of a boot could result in the twist of an ankle, the tear of ligament or crack of bone as the hidden hollows set traps for the unwary.

Gradually the gradient eased. The boulders gave way to pavement. Cobwebs of ice laced the gnarled, grey rock and here and there small cairns indicated the correct path towards the Corrag Bhuidhe buttress - the first obstacle along the main ridge of An Teallach. As I passed the largest cairn, my eyes were drawn to the pyramid of rocks: each boulder the size and shape of a skull, each with its own set of gaping eyes and twisted mouth.

The slopes leading down to the base of Corrag Bhuidhe held fresh drifts of snow, pristine beneath the bluest of skies. Verglas coated the tower of red sandstone where the sun’s rays had yet to reach but I could make out a faint, twisting trail threading a way upwards. From ledge to ledge, with a cool head but thrumming heart, my hands found holds and my feet scrabbled for purchase on the angled rock until I finally found myself on the skyline with the darkest chasm of corrie down to my right.

The loch of Toll an Lochain that fills this rock basin was ominously dark, and tendrils of grey cloud seemed to hover upon its surface before evaporating beneath the sunlit ridge. I took off my deerstalker and gazed in wonder at the panorama of rock, sky, snow, water and moorland laid out below with the blue line of sea beyond. The ice-carved hollow lay deep in shadow still and I imagined on another day it might well be flooded with cloud.

My shadow stood poised upon its treacherous surface—my Brocken Specter following my every step before leaping out to startle me.

Perhaps I had indeed become scared by my own shadow. Perhaps Wolfgang’s lurid talk had unnerved me and that is what caused me to twist away in reflex from the edge of the precipice. Whatever the reasons, vertigo or superstitious fear, I felt my feet suddenly skid from under me and lost all sense of direction. The sound of boot hobnails on rock rang in my ears then the air was torn from my lungs as I fell onto my back.

Fortunately my knapsack cushioned my bones against the rocks but the angle of slope was such that I was propelled towards the rim of crag overhanging the steepest cliffs.

My ice axe stood propped against the apex of the buttress, far from reach. I braced my elbows and dug my fingers into the snow and loose shards of rock, desperate to gain control. But already snow was sliding up into my sleeves and inside the back of my jacket as I hurtled towards my death.

It was fate or perhaps some ethereal coincidence that saved me from the final plunge into oblivion as my progress down-slope suddenly halted. I lay wedged in a crevice, trapped by my knapsack but with my legs and feet hanging over the abyss. I awaited the cruel termination of my good fortune: the painfully slow sensation as my body slid forwards, carried down by its own weight, inch by frozen inch until the rocky jaws released their tenuous grip and I plunged into open air. But that moment never came.

Rather, time seemed to stretch. A gnawing cold ate at my limbs until I could feel the blood slow in my veins. I called out. Of course I did, although the feeble sound of my voice cannot have carried more than a few yards.

My vision grew faint, then I felt flakes on my face and realized that a dense layer of cloud had descended upon the ridge. I dared not try to free myself for to do so would send me to my death. I thought back to those darkest days in Belgium when I resolved to no longer pray to a deity that allowed such suffering. Closing my eyes I searched for the words I had muttered by rote since an infant.

The voice of the angel when it came was desperate and barely audible. The words were garbled and more often than not were borne away on the wind before they reached my ears. But I understood them all the same.

“Reach. Behind ye, reach behind.”

I could not turn my head. Could neither see my savior nor ascertain his intentions. But I raised my stiff arms up to my ears, then higher, until I was convinced one more movement would dislodge my sack and send me to infinity. Something cold touched my fingers, cold as steel but as welcome as a handshake. I gripped the head of my ice axe and as my fingers closed around its shaft felt it pull me slowly upwards.

Then an avalanche of snow cascaded over my shoulders and head before spilling into the void below. My freedom was short-lived as the sack now became snagged on the rocks above making any further progress in that direction impossible. I was mortified. Had I been hauled free only to fall the remaining three hundred feet onto the rocky shores of Loch Toll an Lochain?        

“Hold still.”

I froze as I felt something tug at the straps of my sack. Then suddenly I was cut loose from its bindings with nothing to secure me except my iron grip on the slender shaft of my ice-axe.

“Now turn over.”

I closed my eyes and with my left hand still clamped onto the axe rolled onto my belly, my right hand groping blindly for something to grab hold of—snow, rock, air, anything. But what I felt instead was the sleeve of a jacket. And as my sack slid free of my shoulders I was tugged upwards by a superhuman force  upwards until my trembling body lay once more in submission at the summit of Corrag Bhuidhe.

I did not hear my knapsack hit the sides of the mountain’s rocky throat. I did not hear the cold ring of steel as my axe struck the icy shoreline far below. I did not hear the croaking ravens as they were dislodged from their perches by the commotion, or the haunting whisper of wind between the rocky pinnacles. 

My senses were focused entirely on my redeemer: an old man, half in shadow and half in mist.

He stood with his back to the blizzard, yet it was the front of his body that was most caked in snow and ice. His clothes were steaming despite the cold, and the rime that encrusted the rough sack mantling his shoulders had taken on the slickness of a newborn lamb coated by the lubrication of its birth. Before my incredulous eyes the man’s jacket became invisible as the fabric dissolved into cloud and driven snow. But it was the lingering forms of the two sleeves that I studied most closely. Sleeves enclosing two strong arms that had pulled me from the jaws of death—empty sleeves that flapped like flags in the rising wind.

I lay like a corpse for some time until the grayness became twilight and I would have surely frozen to the rock had I not moved on. No one was left to hear me gasping for breath. No one watched me weeping with relief or retching with terror. My savior, the shepherd with stumps for arms, had faded into the sandstone rocks nearby. There were no footprints in the snow to tell of his passing.

With darkness threatening to bewilder me with fresh torments, I began my retreat into the snow-choked low point between the pinnacles and the grey whale-back of Sail Liath. I slid and skittered down Corrag Bhuidhe like a complete novice, but never was I more grateful to fall than when I finally stumbled, face down into the deep drifts of snow at its foot.

I took little notice of my magnificent surroundings. Many a day I had gladly weathered storms on the highest ridges of Glen Affric or Glen Torridon, relishing the exposure and the play of the elements. But now I had no appetite for these hills. I barely paid heed to the rocks guiding me to safety from the summit of Sail Liath other than to curse as I negotiated the unforgiving slopes of this wretched hill: a no man’s land I was obliged to cross one more time.

I swept snow from my hair and felt my eyes moisten as they sought traces of life in the valley below. The wind gave no quarter even when I reached level ground. Yet it carried the scent of burning peat. This is what led me to the shelter of Shenavall rather than the faintest strip of light marking the door jamb. By the time I was outside the cottage, my fists were curled into clumps of frozen flesh. I would have beaten them against the wooden door until they bled. Anything to reach the warmth of the fire again.


The door was swung open by a young girl in breeches. Her body was shrouded by a welcoming flood of bright light and a gasp of warm air. She seemed to barely acknowledge me as she pulled the door quickly shut on our heels and rejoined three other climbers within.

“I thought I heard someone,” she spoke to the man in the room.

I followed her into blazing light and made my way towards the grate, conscious of my rude entry but desperate for warmth.

“The wind’s getting up. It’s wild out there,” I whispered.

Close by a fox barked to her mate sending a shiver along my spine.

“And what was that then, Cam? Hell, I told you when I googled it that this place is haunted."

“Och, don’t get your thong in a twist, Sinead. Haven’t you heard a wee kelpie before? You know, the shape-shifters.”

My clothes were steaming like the shepherd’s yet no one asked that I move. No doubt the couple would share what food and drink they had if I were to ask, but I felt more a stranger here tonight than I had in the Dundonnell Inn.

The girl called Sinead took a sip of drink from her canister before making her own way towards the fire. “Tease me if you like, but I’m gonna make sure this keeps burning all night.”

I made to stand aside in order to let her pass but was too tardy and regretted it the moment I felt her hand on my thigh. There was warmth and comfort in her gentle touch. There were longings I felt stirring that I feared had abandoned me. Then her right wrist and forearm slid into my flesh and I felt fire and ice and frightening pain as her fingers dug into the very quick of me.

We both screamed at once but mine went unheard.

“Christ, there is something there!” She recoiled from me as if I carried contagion. “There. Right by the fire. I touched it.”

“For God’s sake Sinead, get a grip. Grab another cannie and chill out.”

“I’m telling you. It was like putting my arm into a freezer.”

“What d’you mean?” the man called Cam asked. He sniggered and began making wailing noises. I’d heard the same at that music-hall charade my parents had taken me to when I was last home on leave.

“Knock it off.”           

“I’m having a laugh, for God’s sake. You don’t really believe in ghosts, do you?”

It was then it struck me. There had been no guardian angel or ghostly shepherd. No one had saved me from the mountain.

Phil Jones was an operations manager for over 20 years with FedEx. Now he mostly writes Young Adult/New Adult fiction under the assumed name Cyan Brodie. He deliberately chose a non-gender-specific name to reach a wider audience and if you google Cyan Brodie, it’s Phil.

Phil moved from North Wales to the Scottish Highlands eleven years ago after taking early retirement, settling in a tiny fishing village on the North-West coast. During his last year in North Wales, he set for himself the challenge of climbing every peak in Snowdonia above 2,000 feet. This motivated him to produce a serviceable walkers’ guide to the area complete with photographs and step-by-step directions. 80 Hills was published eighteen months later.

In 2012, his first YA novel titled Dreamgirl (set in Edinburgh) was chosen as joint winner of a competition organized by Manchester-based publishers Red Telephone Books for the ‘Young Adult Novel of the Year.’

Phil has published other novels. Dark Sky, the first of the Lochinver Trilogy, came out in February 2015, touted as “Tartan Noir for a New Generation.” This was followed a year later by White Shore then shortly afterwards Black Ice. All have sold moderately well and been mostly well-received.