Just a mini post to let folk know the link to the Braemar snowgate cam in the blogroll at the side of the page has now been fixed.
It’s a useful guide to snow levels in the area if you’re headed up that way.
Just a mini post to let folk know the link to the Braemar snowgate cam in the blogroll at the side of the page has now been fixed.
It’s a useful guide to snow levels in the area if you’re headed up that way.
Apologies to regular inhabitants of the ukbothies forum, but I just came across this wee story I posted on there two or three years back and, in my own modest way, rather liked it. So here it is, for your delectation. A wee bit out of season – it was written in late spring – but the hills are familiar and will have snow on them soon enough anyway. So here goes…
With that well-known gang of ne’er-do-wells, better known as ‘the usual suspects’, all away to Staoinaig, Friday night in Bob Scott’s was a lonely affair, although quite toasty, because the bothy was still noticeably warm from Neil and Walt’s Thursday night blaze, and I had a couple of firelogs to save going looking for my coal.
My plans had been vague, but were centred on the presense of an unusual amount of snow for the time of year and a forecast that said the freezing level would be around 3000ft. Perhaps, all going well, I might go into Coire Sputain Dearg and climb one of the easy gullies. Or perhaps not: did I feel up to it?
Still unsure on Saturday morning, with a forecast promising evil weather in the afternoon, I packed crampons and a single axe and set off. Enthusiasm was low, but I supposed I had to do something.
Even in the lower reaches of Sputain Dearg I could see that… well I could see that I couldn’t see very much at all: the cloud was low and obliterating all but the lower part of the cliffs. Good enough for me, thinks I, I’ll abandon that plan and just go up McDui – haven’t been there in, oh, maybe a month or two.
But the danger of not having a hard and fast plan is that you haven’t got any hard and fast willpower either. I got a few hundred feet up Sron Riach, looked at the cloud coming down to meet me, thought about the Grey Man, thought (more practically) about spending the rest of the day feeling my way by compass and seeing nothing but stones, and thought: sod it. Plan two squirmed out of.
However Calvinism will out, even despite atheism, and I knew it was way too early to go back to the bothy. So perhaps if I just, instead of going back down the path, dropped down off the side of Sron Riach and over the burn to go up Carn a Mhaim… The top was in cloud and therefore excited no enthusiasm, but I’d always promised myself a close look at the east-facing slabs.
And that’s what I did: I traversed round under the slabs, had a look at (not very) possible (and too short to be worthwhile) routes, found a wee corner out of the wind to have some grub, and traversed further round to join the voie normale up the hill. And that’s where it might have ended, but the sun came out, you see, and I was shamed (Calvinism again) by the sight of two people heading upward and, well, even if the top was in cloud, most of the way up was clear…
So yes, despite turning back twice, I was heading upwards again, and kept going upwards until I reached the cairn erected on top of most hills as a sign to Munro baggers that they have to stop climbing and start going down again. And I did go down, but – well, the cloud had lifted, and that ridge along the length of Carn A Mhaim is so nice, and maybe I could just do that and drop into the Lairig and walk back that way.
But of course it doesn’t work that way, because once you start along the ridge you see the big beetling mass of McDui, now in sunshine, lovely white snow on top, and you think, well, it wouldn’t hurt, would it?
Well it would, and it did: you have to be a lot fitter than me for climbing big beetling masses without it hurting. But, oh, the views: to the front, alternating between lovely granite boulders and crisp snow, and when you turn, that peerless panorama from Devil’s Point (with snowy Bhrotain and Monadh Mhor behind) round the coires and peaks of Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak and Braeriach. Heaven under a blue sky!
And that was it. a chat at the summit cairn with a bloke and his 12-year-old son, and plunging down through soft plateau snow and over to the top of Sron Riach, standing on a boulder perched on the very brink of the precipices above still frozen Lochain Uaine. Down again that knee-knackering descent (pausing to direct the binocculars into Sputain Dearg, where I see a huge horizontal crevasse splitting the gully I’d planned on climbing) and the long trudge (then cycle) back to Scottie’s, much anticipated dinner and a fire that was to consume numerous logs and a bucket of coal (and keep me awake with the heat half the night), all the time wondering: Aye, it had been a great day, but how come I’d decided twice not to climb a hill and still ended up doing two Munros?
Ever stayed in Balaneasie Bothy?
Thought not. Balaneasie is the bothy that never was.
It’s a small ruined cottage in Glen Tilt, at NN 910719, a kilometre east of Marble Lodge and on the ‘wrong’ side of the river.
But way back in the 1960s things looked a little different to a trio of hill walkers who saw in it an ideal base for the hills, situated, as it was, at the foot of Beinn a Ghlo.
Colin Campbell, ‘Big Rab’ and Willie Hanna approached the estate with a plan to renovate the cottage to the best of their abilities.
But there was a problem: lack of transport.
Colin explained: “None of us had motor transport back then, although I did have a driving licence. The idea came from Big Rab that we should approach the newly formed Mountain Bothies Association for help with transport for sand and cement etc, and share the cottage between us.”
Everything went well for the first two weekend work parties but, with the MBA then an untried force, the estate factor turned up and announced that the Duke of Atholl would prefer to lease the cottage to a mountaineering club rather than have it open to all and sundry.
“Big Rab, Willie Hanna and myself, along with Richard, Alex and Sam – I forget their second names – decided to take up the Duke’s offer and we formed the Glen Tilt Mountaineering Club.”
Unsurprisingly, there was bad feeling between the Glen Tilt MC and the MBA (although all the Glen Tilt were also MBA members) but the deal was done: for the princely sum of £2 a year – payable in advance – the Glen Tilt MC had a club hut.
Colin remembers: “I worked in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Rosyth at this time and met up with a Royal Navy CPO that I’d known for a few years and I often spoke of our mountaineering club and the cottage, and it was he who donated the old anchor at Balaneasie cottage – which I’m told is still there!”
There was also an offer from the Factor to build a footbridge across the river, saving a hike in from Marble Lodge, but this came to nothing. Instead the Royal Navy faction of the club arranged a rope and pulley bridge, as shown in the photograph (top of post).
For a few years things went well, but the original trio eventually withdrew from the club they had been instrumental in forming.
“Eventually an element came into the club that put some of us – myself included – out on a limb, and the club gradually became known as the ‘Glen Tilt Drinking Club’. We more or less became a laughing stock amongst other mountaineering clubs for all the drinking and carry-ons.
“Finally, Big Rab, Willie Hanna and myself pulled out in 1976. It was a sad end.”
Arthritis limits Colin’s walking activities these days, but he still remembers his young days wandering in the Cairngorms, staying in buildings and bothies now long gone.
“I really loved the western part of the Cairngorms, where in early spring and summer I could watch out for the dotterel, wheatears, snow buntings and other upland birds. I became a volunteer for the RSPB early in 1962, observing and recording what I saw.
“By myself and with my friends we constructed several rough shelters in these parts, some of which did not survive the heavy winter falls of snow.
“I remember sleeping in the Upper Geldie Lodge before it was demolished by the estate around 1966. I slept in a tiny room two flights up, although the main boards of the stairs were gone and you had to use the supports to climb anywhere. I think all the major parts of the lodge must have gone into several fires.
“With arthritis in my hands and legs, I can’t walk very far now, and I often curse those early days in the hills not having the right kind of equipment for sleeping in rough, boggy places. Mind you, the poor wages in the late ‘50s early ‘60s did nothing to help. So the damage was done without me knowing about the consequences in the future.”
Some ’60s bothy images from Colin Cambell’s collection:
There are many legends of bothy lore, but who could have guessed an old zinc bath could be one of them?
When I started writing about the Tarf Hotel so many people recalled that, in its wilderness years before the MBA started maintaining it, the bothy possessed the remnants of a central heating system… and a bath.
Proof, if proof were needed, came with a photo by Graeme Hunter of someone ’paddling’ it up the Tarf Water, back in the day of black and white photos.
The Bothy Ghost, a man who’s seen the inside of many a bothy and told many an unlikely tale, was delighted to see the photo, as vindication of one of his apparently oft disputed tales:
“I hold a fond memory of four fine young men who had spent an entire day scouring that barren landscape for enough fuel to accompany oor evening drams ootside the Tarf Hotel, heating the bath-tub over oor precious fire, then drawing straws to decide who’d be last in… and though ye waldnae hae put a dug in it, it was steamin’ hot, it was oors, and it was the lap o’ luxury!”
With writing as vivid as that, Bill should be writing his own blog (and, indeed, has written a few good pieces if you rake through the ukbothies forum), but his comment was followed by another great tale from the Two Kennys.
The Two Kennys are Kenny Freeman and Kenny Ferguson, bosom buddies and bothy stalwarts who have been involved in a staggering number of bothy renovations and work parties in the Cairngorms.
Kenny Freeman writes:
“At a weekend MBA work party around about 1994, an RAF helicopter that was supposed to be delivering materials was instead diverted to a rescue.
So on the Saturday Stan Stuart, who was the MO [Maintenance Organiser with the MBA] at the time; Davy Miles, his best mate, who was MO for the Charr Bothy; Charlie Anderson, a joiner from Dundee who only had one eye and was probably one of the best story tellers I have ever come across; his mate who worked in a climbing shop in Dundee (whose name I don’t recall); Calum McRoberts, Irvine Butterfield, a lassie who wore a calliper on her leg and her pal who was diabetic (whose names I don’t know either), gathered up all the old pipework and metal that was strewn around the bothy.
All the smaller pieces were buried in a large pit away from the bothy but the larger pieces, including the old bath, were piled up and ready to be flown out should the helicopter turn up. But there was to be no helicopter on the Saturday .
Our mission for the work party had been to line the ceilings and replace rotten and missing floorboards, so when the chopper did arrived on the Sunday we had to go hell for leather to get as much of the work done before we had to walk out.
Kenny Ferguson and myself could both remember seeing a copy of a pencil drawing in a book somewhere drawn, I think, by the Duke of Atholl, depicting himself in the bath at the bothy.
So the two of us decided that the bath wasn’t rubbish after all and that it was, in fact, a piece of history and needed to be saved.
Now it just so happened that Kenny was building his own bothy around the back of his house and I, being a cabinetmaker, suggested that I could turn the bath into an armchair to grace the newly built bothy. We managed to convince ourselves that the carry out would be worth it as not only would it look good in the new bothy but it would have a great story behind it. So, late on the Sunday, with huge rucksacks already full of tools, the two of us took turns with the bath strapped on to the top of our rucksacks, with the front just about covering our heads, making it difficult to see as we walked out.
The bath is now nicely upholstered in a tasteful dark green material and is situated, as Ricky Marshall said, in a secret location in Elgin.”
Bothy folk, you see. Can’t beat them.
And more photos from the past
The Tarf Hotel is remote – a good couple of miles past the back of beyond, and in the wrong direction too – but it’s a bothy that seems to make an impression on folk.
For a couple of blogposts about the series of work parties this year to renovate it, and the bothy page I wrote containing much of its history, attracted a lot of attention and comment.
Recently Ian Mitchell (author of the classic Mountain Days and Bothy Nights and other great books) got in touch to fill in more detail about his visits there over the course of more than 20 years, showing how the state of the bothy changed with time, thankfully giving the lie to his gloomy forecast in Mountain Days & Bothy Nights that it would go the way of too many other lost bothies.
If I was giving advice to a young mountaineer it would be to take lots of photographs and keep a log; I regret I didn’t have a camera till I was 30 or keep a log till I was 40. So I have to rely a lot on memory, or seek corroboration from others’ memories, for anything before 1988.
My first visit to the Tarf – the one described in Mountain Days and Bothy Nights – was in 1977 or 1978 – or even 1979 – and I walked in from Linn o Dee, overnighted and walked back out; that was when the heating pipes and the old boiler were there. But none of the furniture Ashie Brebner mentions as being there 25 years previously – never mind the crockery! [Comment by Ashie on the Feith Uaine bothy page, referring to a visit he made there in the 1950s.] Clearly the estate had ceased to use the bothy by the 1970s. There wasn’t much evidence of use by walkers, either.
I revisited, walking in from Blair Atholl in 1983, which I can date from the location of Tarf images in my photo album, otherwise I would struggle to be so precise. The two images here [At head of post and below] were taken in March of that year. As you can see then there were definitely two AA signs, and the photos also indicate what the situation was with the side and front porches then.
On both these occasions I visited the bothy alone and found no one there, and there was no sign of any bothy book, or even any official maintenance. And still little sign of usage by walkers, such as abandoned bottles or tins. Most frustratingly, I cannot recall what I did on this occasion, or on the first trip either, though it must have been the three local Munros.
Nor did I see evidence of maintenance on the third visit, this time by bike from Blair Atholl, and this trip is one of the first entries in my log in 1988. Re-reading this account I see I saw signs of increasing use: candles, bottles tins, and the appearance of a bothy book. This was the first time I met someone in the Tarf, a lad from Blackburn. The Munro bagging phenomenon had taken off and the bothy book noted 55 ‘bed nights’ in the previous seven weeks. Sadly this had resulted in more of the doss going ‘up the lum’. One contributor to the bothy book had noted he had “collapsed the unsafe porch” – disguising an act of pyrolatry as being in the bonum publicum. Climbed Carn an Fhidleir and An Scarsoch this time.
In 1994 I visited again, on a walk through from Blair Atholl to Gaick, overnighting at the Tarf, by which time I think the MBA was working on the bothy, although once again I had it to myself. I noted that there was evidence of a walked path for the first time along the Tarf Water, from the pony shed to the bothy and evidence of much increased usage in the bothy book; this was at the height the great 1990s Munroing frenzy. The bothy was slightly flooded and a tale in the book told of a lad who had spent a couple of nights sleeping on the table as the floor was flooded, and he claimed the Feith Uaine Mor and the Tarf Water had combined to form a loch several feet deep with flood melt, and that he was marooned in the bothy for a couple of days. Whether this is more credible than the collapsed porch story, I would hesitate to say.
The last time I was there was the first time I went accompanied, in 2000 with Dave Brown, he to do his first Munro round of An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidleir, me my second, or possibly third. We cycled and walked in and met someone I had encountered a couple of years previously at the restoration of Melgarve bothy, and whose name I had forgotten. He was (no kidding) Hugh Munro, along with his wife. Not a name you might think you would forget. [Hugh and Marlene Munro are Maintenance Organisers for Faindouran Bothy in Glen Avon].
By this time it was a three star doss, thanks to the MBA.
Looking at the image of the bothy now, it bears no resemblance to what I dossed in 30 years ago – is that a sauna on the old porch? I will have to go back a sixth time, as I have the local duo of Munros still to do for my third round, just to be certain. Maybe I will see if I can filch a 5-star AA sign from somewhere and carry it in.
Anyway I am so pleased that my gloomy predictions from 30 years ago that the Tarf would go the way of the Geldie, Bynack, Altanour, Lochend and so many other dosses that were still in use in the 1960s, has proven unfounded.
All the best,
(Besides Mountain Days and Bothy Nights, Ian Mitchell has written a number of books on various topics. Of interest to the hill fraternity are the MDBN follow-ups ‘A View From The Ridge’ and ‘Second Man on the Rope’, and the excellent history book, ‘Scotland’s Mountains Before The Mountaineers’, which has a great deal of fascinating information about the early walkers and climbers in the Cairngorms as well as other areas.)
I’ve also heard from Bert Barnett, noted folk singer and producer of technical drawings for bothy renovations, about the legend that the well known climber Graeme Hunter had taken up the AA hotel sign.
Bert spoke to Graeme recently and confirms that it was indeed he who brought the first sign to the at that time dilapidated bothy. Bert added that it was also Graeme who placed the 30mph speed limit sign in the classic winter gully ‘Look C’ in Glen Clova. Now long gone, it was a fixture in the gully for a number of years.
And, because you’re worth it, here’s some photos…
The internet is a wonderful thing. And so are guide books.
But between the pair of them they were nearly the death of me.
I’d had a notion to go into the Garbh Choire of Braeriach and see the ‘permanent’ snowpatches at close range – something I’d never done. But the first attempt never got beyond Corrour Bothy (see previous post).
This weekend was my climbing club’s 40th anniversary ceilidh in Nethy Bridge, so I decided to try again, this time from the other side.
I would cycle up Gleann Einich and go up over the plateau and into the Garbh Choire by the Crown Buttress Spur. That would allow me to take some photos of the snow from across the choire as well as close-ups.
Great. Even better when I was informed via twitter that the best way back out of the inner cliffs of the Garbh Choire was by Pinnacle Gully. Not too loose and chossy? I asked. No steep sections?
“Oh no. I did it a couple of years ago. Don’t recall having any trouble.”
Well, of course I wasn’t stupid enough to go on the word of some guy on the internet. I checked the guidebook. And there it was: Pinnacle Gully, Easy in summer. Now ‘Easy’ in climbing guide terms is, well, easy. Central Gully at Creag an Dubh Loch is ‘Easy’ and I once took my non-climbing brother-in-law up there. He gulped when he saw it from below, but climbed it with no bother at all; he may even have kept his hands in his pockets most of the way.
So Pinnacle Gully it would be.
I was up before 6 on Saturday morning – the result of a dodgy chip supper on the way up on Friday night rather than enthusiasm. It meant an early start, but it also meant a slow one, as I had to stop twice on the cycle in to throw up at the side of the track.
I dumped the bike at the junction with the Beanaidh Bheag for the return and walked on to start up the Coire Dhondail path, grateful for its origins as a stalkers’ track which meant it took a gradual and easy way up despite the steepness of the hillside, even managing the coire headwall across several rock outcrops without any real exertion.
Then it was a steady pull up to the lip of the Garbh Choire Mor before following it round to the top of the Crown Buttress Spur. Possible a bit of a misnomer this, as it’s well to the east of Crown Buttress, starting just beyond the col before Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine) and leading steeply down to the coire a good bit below the fabled snow patches, which have melted only a handful of times in the last century or more.
From the bottom of the spur it was driven home one more how aptly the Garbh Choire is named – the rough choire. Cutting across several rock ribs at the bottom of the spur I was onto a pathless trudge up boggy stream and boulders.
As I stopped for a first abortive attempt to eat I heard a sharp bark from the cliffs above and eventually saw two deer working their way round the broken ground well above me, their tiny size emphasising the scale of the amphitheatre.
Climbing into the inner coire you are scrambling over large blocks of granite, hearing water running freely below, out of sight. You wonder how deep this scree slope is – and what voids lie within it, for on parts of the slope you can hear water echoing, as if pouring into subterranean cisterns. In the bowl of the coire, surrounded by cliffs, is a slight hollow where all the boulders are coated in a black, slippery moss, which disappears as you start to climb once more to where three small patches of snow remain from last winter’s white drift – and from the winter before and the winter before.
The legend of these snows being ageless has taken a bit of a dunt in recent years. During the 20th century these three snow patches disappeared completely only three times – 1933, 1959 and 1996. But since the Millennium they have melted on four consecutive years from 2003 to 2006. [Since writing this it has been pointed out that the Sphinx patch survived the years 2004 and 2005 - See Eddie Boyle's comment below.] And, to be honest, once you are there, looking at these three patched of dirty, icy snow (the smallest was down to about 7ft by 10) it’s hard to convince yourself that they are really anything special. I suppose it’s the fact of their existence rather than their actual substance that’s significant.
In any case, I’d come all this way to see them, so I took a few photos for the album.
That done, I scrabbled up into the foot of Pinnacle Gully, just above the central, Sphinx, snow patch.
It certainly looked harder than Creag an Dubh Loch’s Central Gully: chossy and mossy. And that first look should have made me heed Tom Patey’s words of caution in his classic ‘Cairngorm Commentary’:
“Most gullies are unpleasant. A Cairngorm gully is double so. It is the sort of place you would incarcerate your worst enemy; a dank gloomy prison where moisture seeps from every fissure and ‘all the air a solemn stillness holds – save for the constant drip, drip from many a moss-enshrouded chockstone and the occasional dull thud as another ledge sloughs away in a welter of slime and rubble.”
But no. Some strange part of my mind said that, despite all I knew and all I could see, it would be fine. So up I scrabbled, even though the gravelly earth and loose rocks I stood on slid away beneath my feet.
From lower down I could see that the route slanted diagonally behind Pinnacle Ridge, across the face of the cliff, meaning a gentler gradient than the face itself. But when I looked into the gully it was less encouraging. Some big steps. Mossy, gravelly steps.
Maybe a wee jink to the left, though; out of sight from where I was but looks like it could go. So up I go: 20, 30 feet of loose rocks in a matrix of earthy gravel until the first step. Some hesitation, then a few holds get me up and over without any trouble. Once the angle eases again, though, the bed of the gully is more compact. Some good rocks but everything dirty, moss-covered, lichen-smeared, broken fragments of stone and skittery grit.
A couple of press holds udge me up into another couple of good footholds but now there’s nothing ahead, just thick, lush moss bulging out at me. Over to the right clean rock beckons temptingly. If I can get across there. Reach a foot over to the side and kick as much grit as I can off a rounded hold. A balancing hand above and shift my weight… there I am, up a good foot and a yard to the right. Nothing else for my feet though, and not much for the hands either – although, maybe… a side pull there and lean across, get a boot scuffed into that gravel. Will it take my weight or will I slide? Can’t test it too much without losing my balance, so eventually I decide it will hold long enough to get both hands across to those good holds on the ridge at the side of the gully and I go for it – and I slide and grab in one heartstopping moment to pull myself up onto a foothold then an easy step onto the crest of the ridge.
The next few feet are straightforward: good, positive holds, clean dry rock, but I’m conscious that I’m now on Pinnacle Ridge itself, which is graded Diff. And after 20 feet or so of easy rock I’m up against another impasse. Looking back into the gully I can see where I might – might – manage to work my way back in, but it’s still below a mossy groove which is a lot steeper than it looked from below. Some easy-looking steps on the other side of the gully, but no way of getting to them that I can see. And no way up the ridge either. I can see the holds I’d need to use and, quite frankly, don’t like a single one of them. Different if I was on a rope, if I could wedge some protection in and make the mossy moves with a little security, but a quick glance to the void on the right gives me a sudden image of a short, scraping slide and maybe one bounce before I hit the scree slope a hundred feet below, rag-dolling down the slope who knows how much further, for, soft and limp as a new-made corpse is, it will not stop on first impact on these jagged slopes and there will be further breaking and ripping before it lies where a dispirited rescue team will eventually find it.
It was a brief but incredibly vivid image and I decided that I’d pushed my luck here far enough. The technical difficulty wasn’t out of order, but the loose rocks, the mossy, gritty holds and the gravelly slopes all combined to make an accident not so much a possibility and more a probability.
It left, of course, the problem of getting back down.
The first few feet down the ridge were easy enough but reversing the traverse I made out of the gully was going to be desperate. Stepping up on a moving hold was one thing but stepping down onto it wasn’t so funny, especially when I had much smaller holds to aim for on the other side. So I continued down the ridge until I spied an easier way across.
And it was easier. Just that one hold, an otherwise perfect breeze-block-sized lump of granite that waited until my foot touched it before cracking out of its socket and tumbling, crashing down the gully and scree below, going much further than was strictly required for dramatic effect and making so much noise I was afraid one of the stick figures silhouetted further round the coire edge would think something was wrong. (As if!)
A moment’s pause and I got my foot onto the space where the block had been. It made for a better hold anyway.
As I moved back into the gully bed I did notice what looked like a much better line of ascent on the left, but it was too late: I’d made the decision to retreat and was sticking to it. Indecisiveness isn’t the best attribute to take to a climb.
A couple of undignified bum-shuffles took me down the original step and I was out onto the scree slope again.
No more faffing about, I headed for the spur between Garbh Choire Mhor and Garbh Choire Daidh and exited steeply but easily onto the plateau.
Of course, the plateau is a huge area. Sir Henry Alexander in his classic first edition of the SMC District Guide to the Cairngorms described the Braeriach plateau as somewhat akin to a desert; I’ve never been in a desert but I kind of know what he means. It’s a great, open, undulating area of ground where one part is much the same as the next. Most people hold to the edge, following the coire rim between Braeriach and Cairn Toul, and you can understand that because of the views into and across the coire, but I like to wander ‘inland’, so to speak, treading on parts of the area I have no reason to be in other than that they’re off the beaten track. Even so, I ended up aiming for a definite point: the Wells of Dee, where the River Dee pours from the earth in several crystal clear springs, quite substantial from its very source. This force is puzzling, for there is so little of the mountain above the wells and the flow remains strong even after a dry summer.
From the Wells it would have been a short trip over the edge to drop back down into Gleann Einich and back to the bike and the ceilidh but there was a problem. For all the years – the decades – I’ve been wandering about the Cairngorms, I’ve never been able to rid myself of the notion that this bit is ‘just round the corner’ from that bit, or that this hill is ‘just next to’ that, always forgetting the distances involved. And that’s how I decided, despite the afternoon wearing on, that, since I was up there already, I’d really be as well just nipping up to the top of Braeriach.
And, once sore feet had trod the many boulders between here and there, it might be as well to go down the ridge between Coire an Lochain and Coire Ruadh, just for a change.
Well don’t. Not in summer at least.
Sure, it’s fine treading the narrow way between two coires but, once you get further down the rocks get covered with heather, somehow without gaining much in the way of soil in between, so you’re trying to pick your way down boulders and leg-breaker holes without the benefit of sight. Believe me: it’s slow, frustrating work.
But finally I was down at the junction of the burns where I’d left the bike. All that was left was a bone-rattling return to Coylumbridge and a high-speed drive to Nethy Bridge for a ceilidh dinner I at last felt able for. Made it with almost an hour in hand too.
More on the Garbh Choire snow patches – with a good bibliography – can be found on Eddie Boyle’s blog
Sometimes you really do wonder just why you bother.
Up at Corrour Bothy again, the plan was for Neil Findlay and I to replace a broken toilet seat and do a quick repair to the stove, then I would head round to the furthest reaches of the Garbh Choire and explore the snowfields, which would be approaching their smallest before the winter gets going.
But now I was seriously wondering why I spend so much time on this bothy.
It wasn’t the fact that the toilet bag needed changing already. It wasn’t that there seemed to be a population explosion of flies in the inner section of the toilet block.
It wasn’t discovering that the plastic box which sits under the storage rail to catch drips from newly hung bags was literally crawling with ill-defined creatures and in serious need of scrubbing out, or even deciding that the drip tray under the ‘live’ bags needed cleaning too and, in fact the whole floor of the back section needed scrubbing down.
Sure, it all took a couple of not very pleasant hours to do and I’d had to say goodbye to plans for the Garbh Choire, but it wasn’t that.
It wasn’t even when Neil Findlay pointed out that the steel tubes under the loo seats were minging. No, I kept calm even when down on my knees before the cludgies (there are two seats and two tubes to clean – one wouldn’t be enough) scrubbing away at dried-in faeces with a j-cloth, with my head almost down the tube and trying not to stare at the all too fresh pile of turds and bog roll in the bag below. Even though this wasn’t how I ever envisaged spending my birthday, I never questioned what I was doing there.
What finally broke me was the black bag.
The toilet was changed, mended and scrubbed into submission. The collar to fix the flue to the stove was in place and a new coat of stove paint applied (Neil F’s work). I’d even been sung ‘Happy Birthday’ by a nice group of DofE Award kids.
But then came the bag.
We’d seen it when we arrived: a black polythene rubbish sack hanging from a hook on the wall, obviously pretty full of rubbish. We knew that we’d have to go through it all and burn what we could and carry out the bottles and tins, along with the various bits and pieces left on the shelf: a festival tent, plastic bags, plastic cutlery (some used), a couple of tent pegs, a mess tin full of shredded and burnt tinfoil…
So I sat in front of the now lit stove and started pulling out wrappers, fag packets, polythene bags – the usual. Only the smell from the sack was pretty pungent, and getting worse.
First I came across the bag of lettuce. Well past its sell-by date. Then half a pack of sushi, a long way past being edible. There was half a banana: the suppurating brown parts were the healthiest-looking. By this time I was gagging. Most of a half pound of butter came next. And the finale was a something wrapped in tinfoil which no-one would look at long enough to attempt an identification and which I couldn’t bear to smell any longer.
What, really, was it all about?
Up here probably at least once a month and the same shit every time. Change toilet bags filled with shit and then come into the bothy to burn and carry out even more shit: shit left by selfish, lazy bastards who know damned well the council bin lorry doesn’t come up this way; filthy buggers who make bothies unfit for the people who come after them; dirty arseholes who don’t care that they make the bothy smell foul, that someone else has to deal with their waste, who don’t care if someone has to give up a hill day just so long as they don’t need to bother picking up after themselves.
And then, I really did wonder. Why – I – fucking – bother.
It was after four in the afternoon. I’d been up since seven, walking in to Corrour and then housekeeping all day. That was finished but it was going to be a long night. So I pulled on a jacket and headed up the back of the bothy to do the Devil’s Point, the first steep pull good for stamping out some anger, setting a fast, leg-burning pace. As the angle eased into the lovely hanging coire with its arms coming out to enclose a lush green sanctuary, a little calm returned to both pace and temper.
Finally, on the zig-zags up the coire headwall, aware of the steepness of the ground, of the boulders and rocks casting long shadows in the lowering sunlight, of a covey of ptarmigan contouring white-winged round the rugged coire wall and of the vast space enclosed and the vaster spaces beyond, I remembered why I was there.
Crossing the burn just below the lip of the coire, a few more feet took me out into the wide open spaces of the flat col between Cairn Toul and the Devil’s Point, and a short wander due south allowed me to look over into the abyss of Glen Geusachan and the sun-burnished slabs of Beinn Bhrotain, shafts of sunlight pillaring the hazy atmosphere.
Just yards from the summit cairn my phone suddenly burst into life with birthday texts from my wife and sister and, by the time I stepped those few paces past the summit cairn I was looking almost straight down over a thousand feet to see a group of kids arriving, all relief and excitement, at the best wee bothy in Scotland.
So why do I bother?
Lots of reasons really. Sometimes I tell people it’s because I’ve used the bothies all my life and it’s about time I ‘put something back’. Corrour was, after all, where almost half a century ago my father introduced me to that unique Scottish bothy culture where every man was your neighbour and no-one was left needing. So that’s true, maybe. Pride, certainly: pride that I, a wee bauchle who knew this iconic bothy when it was four bare walls, a roof and an earthen floor, have been able to help others more skilled than I to turn it into an exemplar of modern bothy culture and am entrusted to help look after it.
It’s for the craic, too. The craic and the company, for they’re a rare gang of folk who look after the bothies – like-minded hill gangrels with years of experience and tales to tell and share – and the Cairngorms crew are the best of all. (Although many trips to work on Corrour are solitary ones, and the friends I have made are true whether I remain MO or not.)
The gratitude of my fellow hill walkers and climbers is nice too. It would be a lie to say I’m not chuffed when someone says well done, when people who have enjoyed a night’s comfortable shelter and perhaps a dram and a tale or two around the fire say thanks for all the good work.
But, at heart, it’s because it is a chance, however small, to make a difference. By walking a few miles into the hills I love and doing a few hours of work, I can make a small part of the world a better place than it was. For the very existence of a bothy is a defiant subversion of the dog-eat-dog world of business and politics. Maintaining a place of refuge and shelter in the wilderness, open and free for all people to come together as strangers and share each other’s company as friends, to help one-another and share tales and experiences, is a proud assertion and reminder of humanity in a world where humanity too often seems in danger of being overwhelmed by fear and greed.
To be able to help in work like that is a privilege and a gift. How could anyone say no?