Cairngorm treasure

Cover of 'Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the CairngormsIn almost 50 years of wandering in the Cairngorms I’ve still to strike it rich. Nor have I met anyone else who has.

Yet once the Cairngorms thronged with prospectors, seeking after crystals in the rocks which could – potentially at least – make them rich.

A new book by geologist and mineral collector Roy Starkey takes a fascinating look at the gems of the Cairngorms and the people who once searched them out.

‘Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the Cairngorms’ tells the whole story of Cairngorms crystals – smoky brown quartz – and the other gems, such as beryl and topaz, to be found in the range, from their formation, their nature, their attraction and excavation to their ultimate destination as part of sometimes incredibly tacky and tasteless ornament.

It opens with a history of the fascination with the crystals, from the 1700s through the Victorian heyday to the present day, including a look at the 1960s and ‘70s when even Glenmore Lodge was running crystal hunting courses!

A chapter on geology looks at the processes which went on during the formation of the Cairngorms which led to the existence of crystals, followed by a long, comprehensive and lavishly illustrated section on the minerals themselves – the different shapes, colours and composition of the various gems and crystals.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter for me is that on ‘The Diggers’.

I’ve known since childhood that crystals could be found – even dug out some miniscule samples myself as a kid – and that in days gone by crystal hunters wandered the hills searching them out. And there’s a climbing route in the Loch Avon Basic named ‘Quartzdigger’s Cave Route’, after an artificial cave at its foot.

What I didn’t realise was the sheer scale and organisation of the operation. Starkey cites accounts from the early 1800s referring to an area on Ben Avon where 25 men laboured on an area covering about 20 acres, all trenched to ‘great depth’ with workings in search of Cairngorm crystals.

And, while the solitary searcher certainly existed, there still exists on the slopes of Ben Avon the remains of a stone-walled hut built by diggers. Far from a tiny howff, the walls, photographed in the book, show a structure nine metres by 4.5. Also photographed is an impressively large cave, five metres in length and penetrating right through a buttress high on Beinn a Bhuird. That I’d love to see – and it’s rekindled the notion that I really should go and take a look at the Loch Avon Basin cave.

Nor were all these hewers of rock anonymous figures lost in time. Some are named and anecdotes told. Among these, and making an interesting connection with the present, is James Grant, who lived at the farm of Rebhoan, now the well-used Ryvoan Bothy. About 1866, just 10 years before the farm was abandoned, he found a cache of crystals near the Feith Bhuidhe on Ben McDui, one of which was said to be over 22kg in weight and was sold to Queen Victoria for £50 – the equivalent now, says Starkey, of £3700!

The dealers, collectors and polishers are also covered and, while their story lacks the fascination of the diggers, it still throws up lots of interest and, by the final pages, you’re left with the feeling that there can be little or no aspect of the crystals not detailed here.

If the book has a fault it is in sometimes relying too much on lengthy quotations from old sources rather than giving the author’s own insight and perspective, but it’s a moot point – many will enjoy the archive content and, if there is a point of clarification to be made from modern knowledge, it is always made.

Where the book stands head and shoulders above any competitors – apart from its geographical focus and comprehensive nature within those bounds – is in its presentation. The large format is fully utilised to present the copious photographs to their best advantage, with their quality fully meriting the treatment. There are hill photos which made me want to put the book down and go up there, and photos of the gems – raw and polished both – which made me thirst: how good would it be to find even a wee wan?

In fact reading ‘Crystal Mountains’ did see me out there, scraping around in gravel newly excavated by the recent floods. Spent the best part of a mochy day, plagued by midges, digging away and forgetting the time like a bairn. Did I find anything? Well, no. But will I do it again? Oh, almost certainly; the photos are that good.

Crystal Mountains: Minerals of the Cairngorms, by Roy E Starkey, is available through http://britishmineralogy.com/  at £25 plus P&P

 

Posted in History, Nature, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Safety warning: Coire an t-Sneachda

Coire an-t Sneachda, Cairngorms

The view into Coire an t-Sneachda in May this year. The large amount of snow this year is believed to have been in part responsible for some of the rock damage.

The MCofS and Glenmore Lodge instructors have warned that climbing in Coire an t-Sneachda in the Northern Corries has become dangerous.

On September 2 a woman was killed when climbing on the Aladdin’s Buttress area of the corrie, and last month saw considerable rockfall reported in the area of the Goat Track, further along the same line of cliffs.

Shattered rock above Goat Track path in Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairngorms

Some of the loose rock above the Goat Track

Instructors at Glenmore Lodge reported their concerns about the stability of rock in the area, and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s Mountain Safety Adviser, Monty Monteith (temporary), said: “This is particularly worrying as we move into winter over the next two months.

“Experienced climbers and mountaineers are very aware of the fragile nature of our mountains, which are in a constant state of decay. However, the heavy snows of last winter seem to have destabilised the cliffs and their surroundings even more.

“Once the first snows of this winter fall and temperatures plummet, the situation will be made even worse as successive freezes and thaws dislodge even more debris. This of course will be exactly the time when the first winter climbers take to the crags seeking adventure.”

Monty added: “Rockfall is sometimes considered an objective danger, but let’s take heed of all available information and plan accordingly when heading out to seek the challenge of winter – especially in the last few months of 2014, before the snow and deep cold has cemented the loose rock under its frozen cocoon.”

Two of the most popular climbs in the corrie are Fingers Ridge (Diff) and Pygmy Ridge (Moderate), but these are likely to be the most affected and should perhaps be avoided completely until further notice. It’s understood that the fatal accident occurred on or near Pygmy Ridge, while Fingers Ridge, already notoriously loose, is close to the area of cliff from where rocks fell onto the Goat Track.

Posted in Rock Climbing, Topography | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A disgrace – and a challenge to youth groups

Is this acceptable?

Is this acceptable?

Have a look at this picture. That was part of the ‘haul’ of rubbish found at Corrour Bothy recently. Part – not all. Just part.
There isn’t usually this much rubbish, but this was exceptional in more ways than just the quantity, because just three weekends before this photo was taken there was a work party at Corrour and the bothy had been completely cleaned out. So this was all left in a very short period.
In fact, looking at the pile of rubbish, I strongly suspect that this was almost entirely down to one or maybe two groups of young people.
This photograph was taken after most, but not all of the rubbish had been piled in the middle of the floor, and not before I had started to burn some of it – and it doesn’t include two sleeping bags which I had already stuffed into my rucksack. (I knew they had been there for at least a week – and that means abandoned.)
So let’s count.
There were the two sleeping bags: both cheap, one a child’s
There were 11 pairs of socks – most hung up to dry but several lying sodden, still paired
There were four pairs of gloves, some too wet to burn
There was one damp full-face balaclava. Mouldy
There were two damp cotton hoodies
One long-sleeved tee-shirt
One bathroom towel.
That’s the clothes. There were also two half-used gas canisters, half a dozen clean mess tins, two mess tins with food burnt in, some cutlery, five water bottles and a large collapsible container, a paperback book, a 1:50,000 map. Oh, and a religious tract – in Dutch.
Food-wise, it was pasta heaven. I didn’t count, but there were at least a dozen pasta’n’sauce meals, a small packet of rice (unopened), three tins of mackerel, a tin of spaghetti hoops, dry spaghetti, a smoked sausage still in its packet, an unfeasibly large bag of unshelled peanuts, a large jar of peanut butter, a jar of pesto sauce, bags of oatmeal, bags of dried fruit, bags of trail mix, individual jars of jam, and many more unremembered odds and ends.
And of course there was the out and out rubbish. The wrappers, empty tins, empty jars, the half-eaten food, the unidentifiable stuff, a bundle of broken tentpole, straps, a stuff sack, one gaiter.

The rubbish, including clothes and food, took up a large part of the floor when gathered. And that didn't include the two sleeping bags.

The rubbish, including clothes and food, took up a large part of the floor when gathered. And that didn’t include the two sleeping bags.

The items of clothing spoke of young people: they were non-specialist and downright unsuitable. There was also a lack of experience in allowing spare clothing (many of the socks) to become not just wet but sodden. It’s also more likely to be young people who aren’t having to buy their own clothes who leave so much stuff just because it’s wet (and heavy).
The food is a similar story. No experienced walker carried a whole jar of peanut butter, or a catering pack of unshelled peanuts. This shouted out inexperienced walkers carrying far too much food and taking a chance to offload it when they knew they had more than they would need.

I have in the past defended youth groups in the hills, but I am in no doubt at all that a large part of this shameful heap was left by youngsters supposed to be learning self-reliance, self respect and a sense of community and social responsibility.

Instead they have trailed their bad behaviour across a national park, displaying their ignorance of how to behave, their laziness and their disregard of other people.
As a result of these youngsters – okay, and certainly others as well – I had to spent over two hours burning what I could of their waste. I then continued on my planned walk over the top of MacDui to Coire Etchachan with a rucksack that was so bulked up with two abandoned sleeping bags that the fierce 60-70mph winds on top several times blew me to my knees with a genuine risk of injury – not to mention the effort of carrying the extra weight. The selfish disregard of these people also disgusted a group of French walkers, who offered some much appreciated help by carrying out a large and heavy bag of wet clothes, jars and tin cans which I was unable to get into my rucksack.

Rubbish in Corrour Bothy, in the Cairngorms National Park

Close-up of some of the rubbish left by selfish walkers

In the long term, every day rubbish sits in the bothy makes it easier for the next person to leave more rubbish. Every packet of pasta left on the shelf encourages the next over-supplied walker to kid himself on that his unwanted food will “be useful” to some mythical starving traveller, whereas what really happens is that it attracts more food and rodents. Left uncleared, a bothy gets dirtier and dirtier, to the point of becoming a health hazard – and the more rubbish there is the more likely it is to be uncleared. For some of the regular volunteers who look after Corrour are becoming demoralised and wonder why they bother.
So what’s the answer?
I love seeing kids in the hills. I came to these hills as a 10-year-old and quickly grew to love them, and it’s important to me that new generations of children are allowed to do the same.
But just as the hills can be devalued by waste and rubbish, so are bothies a very fragile resource. Uniquely maintained by walkers for walkers in remote locations that often make even routine maintenance a major undertaking, they exist on a knife-edge.
So my challenge to all these organisations which enable kids to go to the hills, is for them to teach some respect. Because whatever they’re teaching now plainly isn’t enough. They need to teach the children they direct to the hills about bothies. Maybe, as with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme expeditions, the kids are meant to be camping and not using bothies except in emergencies. But teach them that they exist; tell them why they exist, why they’re important, what their value is – and also how they exist, and how to behave in them.
If any organisation wants to take up this challenge and make education a part of their encouragement of children – perhaps to better educate some of their leaders and supervisors – I’m prepared to help in the preparation of materials or in giving advice. I’m sure, too, that the Mountain Bothy Association would be happy to help. Most kids do behave well in the hills, and most of those who don’t are being anti-social through ignorance rather than badness. So let’s do something about it. There are enough adults who leave their rubbish behind – don’t let us turn a blind eye as a new generation comes along and behaves with the same lack of consideration and ignorance.
I’ve already had informal discussions about this with one group very active in the hills and received a positive initial response. I’ll be following this up and hope that other youth organisations whose aims include preparing youngsters for adulthood and inculcating a sense of responsibility might also get in touch.

Let them live up to their aims and not short-change either the hill-going community or the children themselves.

(As far as adults are concerned, I know full well that they can be worse than anyone, but I have to praise the attitude of the three young Frenchmen who volunteered to take out some of the rubbish. I have also been contacted by Mountain Guide Tim Hall who has volunteered to drop in by Corrour any time he’s in the area and take out any rubbish he finds. It would be nice if more people would do the same. Everyone who uses bothies surely has a responsibility to do at least that.)

Posted in Bothies | Tagged , , , , | 59 Comments

Cairngorms August 11 flood round-up

Just spent the weekend up at Bob Scott’s Bothy and touring the area to see what damage has been done by Monday’s flood (August 11th).

Started off on Saturday morning fording the Derry Burn, where the bridge has been swept aside, and going through Glen Luibeg and over to Corrour Bothy in Glen Dee (where I had to burn and remove an astonishing amount of rubbish – a tale for another day). The bridge at Luibeg is fine, but the ford, which I normally use, isn’t possible with dry feet any more because a crucial boulder has been moved.

(6.9.14 update: There is a large tree across the Derry Burn about 200 metres up from the broken bridge. Care is required, but this can be used as an alternative to wading the burn.)

Then I went up over MacDui, battling fierce winds which had me down on my hands and knees several times, hanging on to boulders, and down past Loch Etchachan into Coire Etchachan and down Glen Derry, where most of the damage seemed to be concentrated.

On Sunday I went through Clais Fhearnaig into Glen Quoich and had a look up as far as the ford, which has totally changed its configuration and again was not possible dry-shod. A shallower alternative looked possible a few yards upstream but as this involved wading through newly flooded heather I’m not sure it would be any dryer. I did intend walking down to see where a change in the course of the River Quoich had cut through the landrover track but I think it must be down near the bottom of the glen and, quite frankly, I was exhausted after my fight with the wind on Saturday and just didn’t have the energy.

So without any further ado, here’s the photos…

The tide mark high up the river bank is clearly visible in this shot taken just above the Black Bridge. The bridge is intact, but the tide marks and debris there show it was very close to being overwhelmed.

The tide mark high up the river bank is clearly visible in this shot taken just above the Black Bridge. The bridge is intact, but the tide marks and debris there show it was very close to being overwhelmed.

Flood-damaged culvert in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

The stream coming out of Clais Fhearnaig totally overwhelmed the bridge over the twin concrete culverts. Much of the road was washed away and you can see from the vegetation and gravel how large the flow was.

Some of the flood debris on the flats around Bob Scott's Bothy. The bothy was completely surrounded by fast flowing water but was undamaged. A sandbank upstream from the bothy has now disappeared, but there is a new gravel bank where we normally get water beside the bothy.

Some of the flood debris on the flats around Bob Scott’s Bothy. The bothy was completely surrounded by fast flowing water but was undamaged. A sandbank upstream from the bothy has now disappeared, but there is a new gravel bank where we normally get water beside the bothy.

The landrover track leading to the ford beside Derry Lodge to the Luibeg Cottage side of the river has been washed out.

The landrover track leading to the ford beside Derry Lodge to the Luibeg Cottage side of the river has been washed out.

The Derry Burn footbridge. The bank at the other side was washed away and the bridge swung round onto the east bank. The burn is fordable at several points but this could be difficult or even impossible in times of spate

The Derry Burn footbridge. The bank at the other side was washed away and the bridge swung round onto the east bank. The burn is fordable at several points but this could be difficult or even impossible in times of spate

The path on the west bank of the Derry Burn, downstream from the bridge, showing the extent to which the bank has been washed away

The path on the west bank of the Derry Burn, downstream from the bridge, showing the extent to which the bank has been washed away

This tidemark across the road beside the Mountain Rescue Post shows the extent of the flooding. The river runs just this side of the two further away trees but, at its height, it was lapping at the doors of the hut.

This tidemark across the road beside the Mountain Rescue Post shows the extent of the flooding. The river runs just this side of the two further away trees but, at its height, it was lapping at the doors of the hut.

Stepping stones across the Luibeg Burn have been swept away. You can still get two thirds of the way across dry-shod, but it's one boulder short of a complete crossing

Stepping stones across the Luibeg Burn have been swept away. You can still get two thirds of the way across dry-shod, but it’s one boulder short of a complete crossing. The bridge half a km upstream is intact.

A curiously deep but narrow flood channel in a footpath up on the Ben MacDui plateau

A curiously deep but narrow flood channel in a footpath up on the Ben MacDui plateau

The large, tightly jammed boulders which formed the stepping stones across the Glas Allt Mhor in Glen Derry have been washed away. Crossing is still possible just a yard or tow downstream.

The large, tightly jammed boulders which formed the stepping stones across the Glas Allt Mhor in Glen Derry have been washed away. Crossing is still possible just a yard or two downstream.

The Glen Derry footpath about half a kilometre north of the Derry Dam footbridge, buried deeply under gravel washout from a normally unremarkable burn. A huge quantity of gravel and mud has been washed down across the hillside over about 10 or 15 metres of track.

The Glen Derry footpath about half a kilometre north of the Derry Dam footbridge, buried deeply under gravel washout from a normally unremarkable burn. A huge quantity of gravel and mud has been washed down across the hillside over about 10 or 15 metres of track.

The extent of the washout from the burn, looking uphill from the buried track

The extent of the washout from the burn, looking uphill from the buried track

The east pier of the Derry Dam footbridge, showing the extent to which it is now undercut. I understand the estate has had an engineer examine this and that it is considered safe for the present.

The east pier of the Derry Dam footbridge, showing the extent to which it is now undercut. I understand the estate has had an engineer examine this and that it is considered safe for the present.

Another view of the east pier.

Another view of the east pier.

And a face on view from the west bank

And a face on view from the west bank

This burn used to flow gently across the path, with a few stepping stones. Now the water has not only cut a channel through the path but shattered about a foot of bedrock

This burn used to flow gently across the path, with a few stepping stones. Now the water has not only cut a channel through the path but shattered about a foot of bedrock

Another cut-out through the Derry path, this one barely a kilometre north of the Lodge

Another cut-out through the Derry path, this one barely a kilometre north of the Lodge

And in case you were wondering how deep that had cut - here's my walking pole

And in case you were wondering how deep that had cut – here’s my walking pole

Even small paths have been affected. Much of the path from Clais Fhearnaig down to Glen Quoich has been washed out

Even small paths have been affected. Much of the path from Clais Fhearnaig down to Glen Quoich has been washed out

The jeep track in Glen Quoich, where the burn out of Clais Fhearnaig has washed out the road.

The jeep track in Glen Quoich, where the burn out of Clais Fhearnaig has washed out the road.

The ford across the Allt Dubh Gleann in Glen Quoich, resculpted by the flood.

The ford across the Allt Dubh Gleann in Glen Quoich, resculpted by the flood.

For comparison, this photo was taken at the same ford a couple of years ago.

For comparison, this photo was taken at the same ford a couple of years ago. (Note the snazzy pink wellies!)

Posted in Topography | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Rockfall puts Goat Track path in Coire an t-Sneachda out of bounds

 

Rockfall over the Goat Track in Coire an t-Sneachda. Picture by Ruari Macdonald

Rockfall over the Goat Track in Coire an t-Sneachda. Picture by Ruari Macdonald

A large area of rock fall caused by Monday’s torrential rain has left a popular Cairngorm footpath in an unstable and dangerous state.
Slabs from the cliffs above the Goat Track path in Coire an t-Sneachda – one of Cairngorm’s famous and iconic Northern Corries which help form the classic view from Loch Morlich – have fallen across the track and surrounding area.
The rock fall was discovered by path builders heading into Coire an t-Sneachda on Tuesday morning. They carried out an initial examination, which showed the area to be very unstable and dangerous.
Julian Digby, Director of Cairngorm Wilderness Contracts, the firm carrying out pathwork in the corrie, said: “The rock fall is nearer to the Lochans as you start to ascend the long section of the path.
“It is passable, but the area it came from above is looking very unstable and liable to further movement.
“Further up, near the top where the path leads over the exposed bedrock sections, there has been some quite significant movement. This has been due mainly to the weight of snow that has sat there this year, but the fear is that the heavy rain will have destabilised this even further.”
The situation is currently being discussed with Cairngorm Rangers and the Cairngorms Outdoor Access Trust (COAT) to determine the best way forward.
In the meantime, for safety reasons, walkers and climbers are advised to avoid the whole Goat Track area.

UPDATE: 13.08.14

Two of the Cairngorm Rangers visited the site of the rockfall on Wednesday morning and took some photos. Ruari Macdonald, who took the photo at the head of this blog and the photos below, reported that the path was usable “with extreme caution” but there is loose rock over the path and one of the photographs shows an area of shattered and loose-looking rock still above the line of the path. I’d say that, until further notice, the path is still better avoided.

Rocks lie on the path below the Broken Gully area

Rocks lie on the path below the Broken Gully area

Loose rock still lies in the area above the path

Loose rock still lies in the area above the path

The news about the Goat Track rockfall follows the announcement that the wooden footbridge beside Derry Lodge was destroyed in the flooding on 11th August.

Posted in Nature, Topography | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Derry Burn footbridge washed away – and other flood damage

The Derry Burn footbridge in drier times

The Derry Burn footbridge in drier times

As of the morning of August 11th the footbridge across the Derry Burn beside Derry Lodge is no more. Torrential rain through the night and into the morning lifted the wooden bridge from its foundations and washed the remains a distance downstream. This was a small but important bridge in the network of walking routes through the Cairngorms. It was an essential link in the most commonly used version of the famous Lairig Ghru route and also gave access to all the Munros west of Derry Lodge. Access to them, and to the Lairig path, can still (as far as I know) be gained via Glen Dee, but this gives a substantially longer route on poorer paths for some of that way. Monday’s rain was both sudden and copious, raising river levels to spectacular levels. A video from Braemar Mountain Rescue Team showed the Linn of Dee almost bursting its banks – something I’ve never seen in almost 50 years of walking there – and the levees protecting Mar Lodge were within a foot of being overwhelmed. The Braemar MRT guys were also in action with the Fire and Rescue Service, rescuing three folk who had spent the night in Bob Scott’s Bothy and woke to find themselves surrounded by fast moving water. The rescued trio reported that water was starting to come up through the floorboards of the bothy by the time they left. It’s probably that the stone footings of the bothy will have prevented any structural damage, but at time of writing on Monday evening the exact state of the bothy is unknown. Damage elsewhere in the area includes the upper bridge across the River Quoich and, closer to Derry again, some damage – the extent of which isn’t yet clear – to the landrover track up to Derry Lodge. I spoke to Mar Lodge Estate Head Ranger Peter Holden earlier today and he said it was too early to properly assess all the damage or how it would be repaired. Checks still have to be made on several other bridges, including Luibeg Bridge at the foot of Carn a Mhaim, the metal bridge at the Derry Dam, and the wooden plank bridge on the way in to Coire Etchachan. Even gaining access to the Luibeg Bridge (without a walk the long way round) could be problematic until the river levels drop. I’ll be updating this blogpost as more information becomes available but the message for the moment is to ca’ canny with any plans involving the Cairngorms just now. River crossings may be dangerous or downright impossible, sometimes involving long and arduous alternative routes if you’re caught on the wrong side, so check the latest position before you go and keep your plans as flexible as possible. UPDATE: 13.08.14 Mar Lodge Estate has announced that the Landrover track up the west side of the River Quoich is affected by a change in the course of the river, which totally cuts off the track. It will probably be possible to detour up round the hill, but care should be taken. The exact location of the cut-off isn’t clear, but you can see a photo here.

UPDATE: 6.9.14 If crossing the Derry Burn is an essential part of your journey and wading doesn’t seem desirable or sensible, there is a large tree which has fallen across the burn about 200 yards up from the ex-bridge. You have to clamber over the root disc on the east side and fight through the branches on the west, not to mention taking care not to cowp on the main trunk, but a dryshod crossing is possible.

Tree bridge across the Derry Burn, Glen Derry, Cairngorms

The tree across the Derry Burn. Care is required and, until someone thins the branches, it’s a bit of a faff, but a dry crossing is possible.

Posted in Bothies, Misadventures, Topography | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Back in harness: climbing in Sputan

 

Back on the rock - and able to summon a smile!

Back on the rock – and able to summon a smile! Copyright Colin McGregor

It’s the easiest thing to stop being a climber, without ever having to take a conscious decision.

Several years ago I became involved in bothy maintenance, had some great weekends, rediscovered the joy of wandering about in the Cairngorms, visiting odd corners I’d never seen, sometimes walking miles and climbing up and down thousands of feet without ever visiting the summit of a hill. Made a lot of new, good friends too.

Not that I’d fallen out with my existing friends, not left the Braes o’ Fife MC that I’d been in for 20 years or so. Nor did I stop climbing. Summer and winter I was still getting the routes in. I even notched up a couple of first ascents, getting my name in the SMC Journal. But over the course of a few years, the gaps between climbs were getting longer and longer. Last year I went along the Aonach Eagach with a mate and was quietly taken aback at how much harder and more exposed it had gotten since the days when I used to do it twice or more in a year. A few weeks ago I took another mate up Curved Ridge on the Buachaille: I had no trouble with the moves, but the head was minced. So was it time to accept that maybe the rope should be relegated to car towing duties?

Cue Colin to the rescue.

I’ve climbed with Colin since he was a teenager learning his way around the crags, watched him develop into a far better climber than I ever was or would be, and enjoyed his patience in continuing to climb with me even after his abilities had far outstripped mine, choosing easier routes to accommodate my limitations, sometimes urging me onto harder routes in an attempt to get me to push my limits – not always successfully. After the kids came along my nerve grew annoyingly inconsistent: sometimes I’d back out of doing anything, other times I’d go for it, doing necky leads that surprised even myself. But I know it was frustrating. One time, after a rush of overconfidence, I agreed to do an HVS on The Ben with Colin: Bullroar. After advising, cajoling and pulling me up the forbiddingly steep first pitch – the technical crux – we did one more short pitch to land at the start of a long Very Severe (4c) traverse across slabs which sloped down to disappear over a massive drop. As soon as I looked across I knew I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to do it. I also knew that Colin’s blood was up on this one. We spent about half an hour, nose to nose on a belay ledge about the size of a shoebox arguing heatedly, vehemently, before Colin gave in to my obdurate refusal to move anywhere but down and we made a long and unhappy abseil which only made the ground on rope stretch. We did Observatory Ridge instead that day – a classic route, but poor consolation for a fired up Colin.

That was years ago, and even Colin had been climbing less often (relatively), so when he announced that this was the year we would do Grey Slab I was in no position to refuse.

 

Grey Man's Crag - the large buttress between Crystal Ridge on the left and Anchor Buttress on the right. The route starts at the centre of the toe of the buttress and goes up to join the diagonal crack leading to a pitch up the right hand side of the central slab and finishing up the obvious chimney

Grey Man’s Crag – the large buttress between Crystal Ridge on the left and Anchor Buttress on the right. The route starts at the centre of the toe of the buttress and goes up to join the diagonal crack leading to a pitch up the right hand side of the central slab and finishing up the obvious chimney

Grey Slab is a three-star Hard Severe in Coire Sputan Dearg, 115 metres over four pitches, first climbed by Mitch Higgins, John Innes and Brian Lawrie (then only 16 or 17 but to notch up a goodly tally of new routes in the Cairngorms) in 1963. I’d had it on my ‘to do’ list almost since I started climbing but it had just never happened – even though it had been on Colin’s list for almost as long. The trouble with all the Sputan routes is that they’re just so far away. While, as Tom Patey almost said, you can go to Glen Coe and belay from the car, it takes at least three-and-a-half hours to walk in to Sputan Dearg from the Linn of Dee – and the base of the cliffs is somewhere about the 1100 metre mark, so you’ve climbed the equivalent of a hefty Munro before you even get your rope out.

It’s worth it though. While I had always lacked either the weather or the partner to get round to Grey Slab, I’ve twice done the magical Crystal Ridge, climbed Terminal Buttress and Pinnacle Buttress, and been in there in winter to climb a challengingly poorly built-up Ardath Chimney at second attempt, again with Colin, and finishing after dark in a face-shredding blizzard.

So it was back in again. Colin set the weekend on the basis of an optimistic forecast, then suggested we take the Friday off to make a long weekend of it. Then we saw another forecast suggesting it might rain on Saturday so we ended up leaving Fife on Friday morning, leaving the car at the Linn of Dee and staggering up to Bob Scott’s with implausibly heavy sacks under a blistering sun. After a brief pause to lay out our sleeping bags to stake a place (thought it would turn out we were the only ones in the bothy all weekend) we set off, still laden with all the ropes and ironmongery, for the long, crushingly hot trudge up into Coire Sputan Dearg.

Even with frequent water stops I thought I was going to die – and I knew it was serious when Colin confessed that between the heat, the almost non-existent path and the weight of the sack, he was quite tired.

By the time we got to the foot of the route and geared up it was 3.30 pm, which turned out to be fortunate timing, for, after the first pitch we were at last in the shade, though still, at about 4000ft, comfortable in tee-shirts.

Was I apprehensive?

 

"Was that left over right or right over left?" Trying to get back into the swing of things

“Was that left over right or right over left?” Trying to get back into the swing of things. Copyright Colin McGregor

Well yes. Of course I was, and so was Colin when he saw me trying to tie on, but at least I was determined to do it, and once we got started it was all back to business as usual.

 

Colin McGregor on Grey Slab, Coire Sputan Dearg, Cairngorms

Colin at the foot of pitch two, which he joined to the first pitch in a single run-out

 

How pitch two looked as I reached the foot of it: a long sloping corner with the left flank sloping away to oblivion

How pitch two looked as I reached the foot of it: a long sloping corner with the left flank sloping away to oblivion

Colin led throughout and there were a few calls of advice on holds, but after an awkward first pitch and a mental bracing as I contemplated the second (flashbacks to the Bullroar traverse in the way the slab sloped off to the side and disappeared), I found the route absorbing and continually interesting. It was seldom strenuous: the crux second pitch requiring delicate footwork and trust in the friction offered by the weathered granite, with just the right number of handholds in the corner and on the right wall. The slab pitch was easier in the guidebook, but not by much on the rock: everything there, but every move requiring thought and sometimes close attention, with some holds only becoming apparent as they came within reach.

 

Delicate footwork and a trust in friction were essential to get up the corner. You can see better here how the left wall sloped away

Delicate footwork and a trust in friction were essential to get up the corner. You can see better here how the left wall sloped away. Copyright Colin McGregor

 

Pitch three (slab pitch) of Gray Slab

Moving up the slab pitch. Copyright Colin McGregor

At the start of the final pitch I had a few ‘moments’ while belaying Colin, thinking about the step down to traverse into the chimney. It was a classic ‘Hollywood’ ledge – about a foot and a half wide and extending round a corner, but with a distinct couple of steps downward on sloping holds. Easy enough when it came to it though, with the tricky bit in getting myself swung round and established in the chimney, then making the first few moves upward on rock that was still a little gritty underfoot, despite a lot of clearing by Colin. Grassy steps seemed dreadfully insecure until Colin advised me to leave the chimney for the left wall, which had plenty good holds right up to a final steep, blocky clamber to the top and a wander up a grassy gully to top out onto the plateau. Job done.

Pretty sure I wouldn’t have led any of that, but there was no time I wished I wasn’t there (it has happened in the past) and by the time I reached the top I was left with the feeling I might even do it again – after I’d hobbled across to that crystal clear stream I could see and hoovered up a couple litres of water!

After climbing the chimney for a few feet it was easier to move out onto the left wall, where good holds made themselves apparent just as I reached them

After climbing the chimney for a few feet it was easier to move out onto the left wall, where good holds made themselves apparent just as I reached them. Copyright Colin McGregor

Final pitch of Grey Slab

Looking up the last few feet of the climb. Copyright Colin McGregor

Colin McGregor at the top of Grey Slab, Cairngorms

Colin at the top of the climb. I’d just shown how I hadn’t entirely lost my touch by contriving the ropework to ensure that Colin ended up carrying both ropes up the final grassy scramble

And finally?

It could only be a bothy night. On Friday night we were too tired to celebrate much – it was half past nine before we even got back to the bothy, and after 10 before we ate – but, after a leisurely stroll up the Derry to the Hutchison Hut, where we lay on the grass and watched two tiny helmets crawling up Talisman, we returned to Scottie’s again on Saturday night and did full justice to the medicinal alcohol we’d carried in.

Still life with guidebook and whisky bottle. The bottle did not survive the night.

Still life with guidebook and whisky bottle. The bottle did not survive the night.

Climbing? Who’s stopped? Not me.

 

All photos of me were taken, of course, by Colin McGregor, to whom grateful thanks are owed for their use and for leading the climb

Posted in Rock Climbing | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments