Etive Capers – a historical document

In the continued absence of sufficient motivation to write the many gems of Cairngorm wisdom I keep meaning to share, here’s a revived tale from many years ago when I used to occasionally visit parts west of the ‘Gorms – and when I used to tie onto a rope and perform feats of near competence on rock.
It first appeared on the Braes o’ Fife MC website, where it can still be read, but to celebrate its republication here I’ve removed some (but not necessarily all) of the typos.

For the benefit of non-climbers, the Etive Slabs are a large area of granite slabs set at about 40 degrees or so on Beinn Trilleachan. Despite the reputation of the place, some of the routes do boast the odd hold but all the climbs rely to greater or lesser degree on friction climbing and can have long stretches of unprotectable ‘padding’ when the friction of the granite only just outweighs the force of gravity. Falls have the potential to be large and highly abrasive. Add to that the fact that the easiest route is VS and it can be seen why the place has a formidable – but curiously attractive – reputation among climbers of lesser ability (that’s me, folks!). It is, however, a superb location with great views – and the two routes there I was ever capable of doing were among the best I remember.

(Oh, and the three other climbers in this story, despite my calumnies, are actually proper climbers and very able.)

 

Some climbing trips become elevated by posterity to the status of epics. This, however, was just a debacle.

Four of us – Dave Bryson, Colin McGregor, Chris Horobin and myself – were bound for the Etive Slabs. Rain threatened, but the blood was up and, even though we could see streaks of water on most of the routes, we decided that such fine fellows as ourselves must surely be able to forge our way up something.

Spartan looked pretty wet – a pity, since it’s the easiest route there – but Hammer looked drier and we straggled over to the foot of it and geared up.

A rush of enthusiasm took us up the first pitch, despite having to climb a lay-back with hands wrist-deep in sodden slime. It did look dry further up though… really it did.

Spirits were still high when we foregathered at the stance before the infamous Scoop, which was bone dry and despite its reputation went easily (amazing what modern rubber can do), and before too long had passed Chris and I joined Colin and Dave at the next belay.

Those who have been there know that this belay offers a superbly comfortable stance – for one. Four proved to be a bit of a crowd. Dave was quickly despatched above, while Chris and I were left arranging a semi-hanging belay for ourselves on the open slab beside Colin’s comfortable seat, in what was to be the last rational action of the day.

Weeps were beginning to emerge from the corner, and because of the specific inclination and frictative properties of Etive granite they were regarded as a bad thing and could not be ignored, especially by Dave, who had to step over them with the utmost delicacy. By way of compensation, opportunities for placing protection were blossoming; but just before the crux traverse Dave was to find that there could indeed be too much of a good thing.

By the time he reached the start of the traverse he found he had used all his quickdraws, with half the pitch left to climb.

Leaving a Friend at his highpoint, he down-climbed the corner, stripping most of the gear, and returned to the traverse, all the while bearing with superb élan the helpful comments and suggestions from his companions below.

To be fair to this Greek Chorus, the two on the slab were by now having to regularly shift position to avoid the increasing volume of the weeps, at least one of which was making a serious bid to be redesignated as a stream. The third member of the group, although secure on his stance, was greatly involved in the management of two ropes which often, though not always, were going in opposite directions.

Anyway, our bold leader was concerned about the traverse, not whether the shower below were dying of hypothermia or drowning. His own position was looking worse by the minute.

The holdless traverse now had a sizable and very off-putting weep running right down the centre of it, and it required a step both fairy-like in delicacy and elephantine in stretch to get across to the security of a flake behind which a runner could be wedged. Mr Bryson managed that step.

Now most people would have been happy to have achieved such a feat, but that wasn’t enough for Dave. It was the way the ropes ran, you see. Whether for aesthetic reasons, or just because of rope drag, they just would not do.

What happened next has been called into question by many who have done this traverse – and by even more who have failed – but all three of us who watched from below are agreed on what we saw.

He reversed the traverse.

Once back in the corner he rearranged his protection again and repeated the traverse in the conventional direction, but it was all to no avail. His by now mutinous companions were more impressed by the volume of water than by the feat of rock gymnastics, and forcibly made the point that they were by now saturated with, in equal parts, drizzle, seepage and pessimism.

Even Dave had to give in (It’s hard to keep climbing when your second ties off the ropes.) and once more he did the impossible by reversing the traverse.

Defeated but unbloodied, he soon joined us on what was once more an extremely overcrowded stance.

While he was down-climbing, removing all his carefully placed, replaced and re-replaced protection, Chris and I creaked into action, untying from our own ropes to arrange an abseil. It was at this point that what, even then, could have passed into club legend as an epic, finally crossed the dividing line into debacle.

Mindful of our status as adoptive Fifers, both Chris and I were agreed that only in direst necessity should we part from any of the expensive little bits and bobs which hung from our harnesses, and providentially an old loop of damp, smelling and rather stiff mohair rope was attached (or perhaps had grown from) a rock near our stance.

An experimental tug, careful not to pull too hard, was enough for us to persuade ourselves that it would hold a bus, and it did at least bear our weight as we abbed down to the next ledge.

By the time we were down a quick-thinking Dave had untied from both his ropes and clipped into ours just in time to stop us from retrieving them. We were prepared to overlook that breach of etiquette, but Colin was not.

Now left on his own with two uncoiled 50-metre ropes, he was exceedingly vocal in his protests, and so upset that he proceeded to abseil without attending to either of them.

All went surprisingly well until he started to move.

At that point both ropes did exactly as uncoiled ropes do and started to arrange themselves in the sort of knots only otherwise encountered in the more fevered designs of our Celtic forebears. By the time he was only halfway down to us he had no choice but to sidle across to a wide, sloping heather ledge to regroup.

A bad choice. The presence of the long, straggling heather was too much for the already excited ropes and they immediately began a frenzied mating dance with the lank strands of Calluna (very) Vulgaris.

It is with some regret that I note Colin’s lack of proper appreciation for our helpful advice and rather amusing jokes about spiders, spaghetti and knitting. In addition, he seemed to take it rather less than sportingly when he threw a painstakingly coiled rope to us only to see it miss by a mile and uncoil down bare rock. His temper was frayed even further when the re-coiled rope was flung a second time, only to become intimately entangled in the upper branches of the dead tree we three were now belayed to.

All good things come to an end though, even Colin’s jolly floorshow, and we were just drying the tears from our eyes when Colin abseiled the rest of the way down to our ledge, which was still about 100 feet above the foot of the climb. He stopped just above us and leant back against the tree……which broke.

This should have been a moment of high drama – literally. A hundred feet, after all, is still a long way to bumslide down rough Etive granite. But I fear we were now all far too far gone to treat this development with the gravity it merited.

Tied to a now forlorn bit of stick on a narrow ledge, we fell about in helpless hysterics. All save Colin, who still failed to see the joke.

And of course the final joke was on us. By a fairly minor contortion we could now look across the slabs to see the rather odd spectacle of numerous climbers (who all seemed to have found dry rock to climb on), all in that classic Etive crouch but all craning their necks to see what all the noise was about.

Hammer, it appeared, was the only route too wet to climb.

Debacle? Well of course. But at the end of the day I would cite A.F. Mummery’s thoughts on what makes the true mountaineer:

“The true mountaineer is a wanderer. Equally whether he succeeds or fails, he delights in the fun and jollity of the struggle.”

Or, as a more contemporary philosopher put it: “Cracking day, Grommet.”

Posted in Rock Climbing | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

The Sappers’ Bothy

Image of the Sappers' Bothy on Ben McDui

The Sappers’ Bothy on Ben McDui

I’ve noticed folk referring to ascents of Ben McDui remarking on passing the ‘ruined hut’ – or the Sappers’ Bothy if they know the name – as a sign that they’re nearly at the top.

Certainly, in the grey void of the plateau on a day of low cloud, it can be a welcome enough confirmation that you’re on the right road, whether heading up or down.

Sappers' Bothy, Ben MacDhui, in the snow

Sappers’ Bothy in the snow

But the Sappers’ Bothy (NN990988) has been more of an aid to navigation than most people realise.

For it dates back to the early years of the 19th century, when Britain was being properly mapped for the first time.

The Trigonometrical Survey of Scotland, to map the country accurately, began in 1802 and continued, with a long break, until the results were published in 1852. Trigonometry, for those who forget their schooldays, or who managed to miss them, is a branch of maths which involves lots of angles and triangles and enables you to work out heights and distances too great and too far away for your three-metre retractable tape measure. By starting with one accurately measured baseline you can then accurately map the whole country by using a network of triangles. However, the corners of each of those triangles have to be within sight of the corners of as many other triangles as possible to allow greatest accuracy. And that means placing your corners –triangulation stations, or trig points – at vantage points where they enjoy as wide and as distant a  view as possible. Hill and mountain tops fit the bill just nicely, which is why you usually (but not always) find trig points at the summits of hills.

The survey equipment necessary to make, check and re-check the numerous measurements required was big, bulky and fragile, and required expert handling. Added to the fact that, as hill climbers today know well, views from the tops of hills are by no means guaranteed, this mean that observations were protracted affairs and required a continuous presence on the hills for weeks, if not months. The station at the summit of Ben Nevis, for example, was occupied with measurements from 1st August to 14th November 1846. They noted observations on 17 points, including 28 observations to Ben More on Mull, 42 to Ben Wyvis and 35 to Ben McDui.

Fireplace at the Sappers' Bothy, Ben McDhui

Inside the Sappers’ Bothy, looking at the fireplace

Thomas Colby

Captain Thomas Colby

To enable observations to be taken over such a period, and to make the most of even brief spells of clear weather, the soldiers of the Ordnance Survey set up encampments on most, if not all, of the hills they had stations on. These are known as Colby Camps after Captain Thomas Colby, who was in charge of the Trigonometrical Survey. These involved tents but also, habitually, turf or stone-built buildings with roofs of tarpaulin where fires could be lit for cooking, warmth and to help dry out clothes.

On McDui, as elsewhere, everything needed would have been taken up by pony or on men’s backs – including all the fuel they will have burned for cooking and heat. I’ve not been able to find how many people would have occupied the station on McDui but, given the times, I think it’s fair to assume at least two surveyors, who would have been officers, and a fair few ‘other ranks’ to act as man-servants and general labourers of various degrees of skill. Probably no fewer than six in all and perhaps as many as a dozen? Even at the lower figure, anyone who has stood inside the walls of the Sappers’ Bothy will appreciate it will have been a tight squeeze and that, when stores are added to the equation, there must also have been tents or other tarpaulin-roofed shelters constructed on an area that is largely paved with boulders. It can’t have been the most pleasant of billets, although there is a strange attraction in the thought of sitting in front of a roaring coal fire just yards from the summit of Scotland’s second-highest mountain.

Setting of the Sappers' Bothy on the Cairnmgorm Plateau

The barren plateau setting of the Sappers’ Bothy

There’s an excellent article on Colby Camps in the 2013 Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, which I have shamelessly pillaged for extra material here. It’s not mentioned in that article, but reading that, and writing this, I wonder if it answers a puzzle further south in the Cairngorms. Near the westernmost of Carn Bhac’s three summits, just below the line of the broad ridge between them, lie the ruins of a stone-built building. I’d often wondered why anyone would built anything in such a remote position – it seemed to have no logic even as a shelter for stalkers and, in any case, was too substantial a build. But it would make sense as the cook-house of a Colby Camp. Carn Bhac is a tremendous hill for views (given clear weather, of course) and this would be an ideal location for an Ordnance Survey triangulation station.

Lest anyone get too dewy eyed about the sappers (Royal Engineers) who kipped on McDui while making maps, it’s not exactly the fruits of their labours you clutch in your frozen mitts as you try to navigate your way down out of a white-out on the plateau. Modern mapping is based on a re-triangulation which took place from 1935 to1962. And for those who use GPS: that’s based on magic and witchcraft, and no good will come of it.

Posted in Bothies, History, Topography | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

A glacier in the Cairngorms?

Garbh Choire Mor, Cairngorms

The Garbh Choire in July 2011. The false moraine is the ‘lip’ of the coire that can be made out just below the lowest snow

There seems to be something irresistible to many folk about having our very own glacier – even if it’s long gone.

A professor at Dundee University made the headlines this week with a claim that Coire an Lochain in the Cairngorms held a glacier as recently as the 1700s. The news seemed to excite everyone, and I have to admit to a small frisson myself. But why? Okay, 400 or so years ago is a lot more recent than the over 11,000 years conventional wisdom said had passed since the last Scottish glacier had disappeared but, all the same, it’s not as though we could go and poke it with an ice axe. Gone is gone, whether it’s 11,000 years or 400.

Anyway, the controversy opened up quickly when, writing the story up for the MCofS website, I asked the opinion of Adam Watson on the claims. He dismissed them as poorly researched and tested and said that if there was a ‘little ice age’ glacier in Scotland – which there wasn’t – it would have been in the Garbh Choire Mor, where, unlike Coire an Lochain, snows still lie through most summers.

Sphinx snow patch, Garbh Choire

The Sphinx snow patch in the Garbh Choire

But: the claims first:

Dr Martin Kirkbride, a geographer at Dundee University, said in his paper that Scotland’s most recent glacier – formed during the ‘Little Ice Age’ – possibly existed in the Cairngorms as recently as the 1700s.

He said it had long been understood that Britain’s last glaciers melted around 11,500 years ago, but that, by using modern dating techniques, he had shown that a small glacier had been formed in Coire an Lochain in the Northern Corries and had piled up granite boulders to form moraine ridges within the last few centuries.

He said: “Our laboratory dating indicates that the moraines were formed within the last couple of thousand years, which shows that a Scottish glacier existed more recently than we had previously thought.

“The climate of the last few millennia was at its most severe between 1650 and 1790. There are some anecdotal reports from that time of snow covering some of the mountain tops year-round. What we have now is the scientific evidence that there was indeed a glacier.”

Dr Kirkbride’s paper was backed by another from Dr Stephan Harrison at the University of Exeter and Dr Anne Rowan at the University of Aberystwyth, who developed a climate model to simulate Little Ice Age climate in the Cairngorms. Their paper argued that small glaciers would have been created in the corries by a cooling of air temperatures by 1.5C and precipitation increasing by ten per cent.”

Dr Harrison said: “Our findings show that the Cairngorm mountains were probably home to a number of small glaciers during the last few hundred years – around 11,000 years later than previous evidence has suggested.”

However, the claims of both sets of scientists were rejected by Dr Adam Watson, primarily an ecologist but who has made particular study of snow and long-lying snow beds in Scotland and in the Cairngorms in particular.

A chapter in his fascinating book, ‘A Snow Book, Northern Scotland’, based on over 70 years of observations and study, specifically deals with the 18th century glacier question and he is in no doubt that such a thing didn’t exist, the boulder moraines often claimed as evidence actually being built up by rockfall and avalanche debris.

To be fair, his chapter involved the Garbh Choire rather than Coire an Lochain but, after reading both papers, he said this week that one boulder ridge identified by Dr Kirkbride as a moraine (pushed up by a glacier) was, in fact, a protalus rampart, fed annually by boulders, soil, vegetation and other debris coming down in avalanches.

He said: “In areas of acidic bedrock, such as the granite of the Cairngorms, a moraine has a clearly defined profile with different soil horizons. These include very thin acidic dark horizons above a dark greyish horizon (all these combined often called ‘topsoil’ by laymen), above a strongly coloured orange-brown sandy or gravelly ‘subsoil’. Other glacial deposits, till or boulder clay under the glacier and fluvio-glacial deposits washed out by glacial rivers, have their own characteristic horizons. This differentiates them more clearly and reliably than any surface measurements by geomorphologists.”

He said the Kirkbride paper was typical of studies by geomorphologists “who fail to dig a single soil pit and ignore fundamental principles of soil science.”

And he added: “This failure includes Sugden, who made the original proposal of glaciers in several corries of the Cairngorms in the 1700s and one in Garbh Choire Mor in the early 1800s.

“Both the 2014 papers state clearly that there was no soil profile in the supposed morainic ridges that they described. This rules out moraines without further ado.

“Both papers are uncritical in dismissing the possibility of protalus ramparts on the basis of the authors’ personal opinions on the unlikelihood of boulders and other debris travelling so far in avalanches. This signifies that they have never witnessed avalanches in these corries or their aftermath that can be seen in photographs.”

And he concluded: “The claim in Kirkbride about moraines in Coire an Lochain of Cairn Gorm is particularly unlikely. A snow patch survives till winter during very few years in that corrie, whereas in Garbh Choire Mor the patches almost always survive till winter, and hence this is the most likely site for a glacier in Scotland.”

However, Dr Kirkbride has stood by his paper.

He said: “I don’t have Adam’s experience of the Cairngorms – I doubt anybody does. But I have been visiting the Cairngorms for over 30 years, in all seasons, and I share his appreciation of the role of avalanches in modifying the landscape. Before writing our paper, we carefully considered several possible explanations for the boulder ridges before interpreting them, on the balance of a variety of evidence, as glacial moraines.

“The key point with regard to the moraine ridges that we describe in our paper is that the larger avalanches actually start at this height in the corrie, and move boulders from here further down the slope. The glacier has deposited the boulder ridges in a different place from where the avalanches do: in fact, it’s snow avalanches in springtime which are gradually destroying the glacial moraines at the present day by eroding debris from them, not creating them.

“The ridges themselves are in the wrong orientation with respect to the cliff above to have been deposited by snow avalanches, as we explain in our paper.”

Dr Kirkbride said he agreed that further work on soil profiles would be useful, but said it was not true that he didn’t dig a soil pit to examine this. “The deposits are not old enough to have well-developed soil profiles on them, unlike the 12,000 year-old moraines elsewhere in the Cairngorm corries,” he said.

So there you have it: a clash of experts. Though Adam Watson is primarily known as an ecologist rather than a glaciologist, he brings a scientific rigour to the question (especially when you read the full Chapter 6 of his book) which is hard to argue with. But who’s to gainsay the expertise of Drs Kirkbride etc? I don’t think they hand out university professorships in lucky bags.

I suppose an ideal outcome would be for the two men to work together, bringing each of their expertise to the table and producing a joint paper. Maybe that would seem too much of a duel, with a winner and a loser, but I’d hope that both men are bigger than that and would be more interested in settling a question that clearly fascinates people.

Great. Settled. Now all they need is the time…

Since writing this post I’ve found a very apposite article on the ukHillwalking site, written by Dr Kirkbride and one of his colleagues, answering Dr Watson’s criticisms. It’s very worthwhile reading and can be viewed here.

And, at the risk of endless scientific duelling, here’s a more complete version of Adam Watson’s argument: http://www.winterhighland.info/forum/read.php?2,160860,160987#msg-160987

Posted in History, Topography | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Ben Muich Dhui & His Neighbours

Cover of Ben Muich Dhui & His Neighbours, A Guide to the Cairngorm Mountains, by Alex. Inkson McConnochie

The long out-of-print guide by Alex. Inkson McConnochie

Time was this was the crème de la crème of guidebooks for the Cairngorms.

The last hundred-and-twenty-odd years have seen a few worthy rivals come on the scene, but the republishing of Ben Muich Dhui & His Neighbours, by Alexander Inkson McConnochie is welcome all the same.

For years it’s been a real collector’s item, one I first heard mentioned a couple of decades ago by Hamish Brown, who commented in a newspaper article that he would give much to get his hands on a copy.

Now republished by Deeside Books, of Ballater, it can be obtained for a mere £12.99. No doubt bibliophiles will scorn the fact that it’s not ‘the original’ but I’m just happy to get the chance to read a long-sought book: the paper may be new, but the words are original and they’re what the book is all about.

In his preface to the new edition, Deeside Books’ Bryn Waytes outlines the history of the book, first published in 1885, two years before even the foundation of the Cairngorm Club or those Glaswegian parvenus of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. Originally intended to be privately printed for his hill-walking friends, it was eventually published commercially because of its popularity, and was the first in a series of books by McConnochie.

Reading this book now offers a fascinating glimpse into an earlier age, when transport was by steam train and horse-drawn carriage. When he talks of a driving road as far as Derry Lodge, you have to recall that he means driving by carriage and not car; and when he talks about access to the northern Cairngorms you are reminded that an ascent of Cairngorm itself would start at Aviemore rather than at the Coire Cas car park! A considerably longer walk.

In the original introduction McConnochie talks of a traverse of the Cairngorms talking three days, starting and finishing in Aberdeen. Day one is a train journey from Aberdeen to the end of the line at Ballater, followed by a carriage to Braemar. Day two takes the carriage on to Derry Lodge and then walks across the Cairngorms to Lynwilg in Strathspey, and day three is the return by train to Aberdeen – although, to be fair, one should expect to complete one’s return prior to noon on the third day. (Mind you, I do recall in more recent times, meeting a Polish or Czech guy in Bob Scott’s one afternoon. He had taken the train from Dundee to Aviemore early morning, walked across Cairngorm and ‘Muich Dhui’ and was heading down to Braemar where he hoped to catch a bus or hitchhike back to Dundee – all in one day.)

Given that much of the book is a straightforward description of the mountains, glens and lochs and their relative positions, you might be forgiven for thinking there will be little here that’s not done better in a more modern guide and in some ways that’s true.

But the value lies in the small details, the glimpses of how people thought of the Cairngorms a century ago, the way in which the reach of road access has changed the way we group the hills in our heads, how assumptions we think are natural now were not always so.

For example, McConnochie makes a case (albeit half-hearted) for the Geldie being regarded as the true source of the Dee and, given the northern branch being accepted, takes it for granted that the true source is the Pools of Dee (which he refers to as the Wells of Dee) rather than, as is commonly held today, the Wells of Dee which rise on the Braeriach plateau.

There’s also the difference in names, with the Garbh Choire referred to as the Garrachorry and the somewhat archaic spelling of Ben Muich Dhui itself – not to mention a hill that seems to have completely changed its name: Meall Lundain, north-east of Derry Lodge, is referred to here as Meall Guaille. Anyone know when that name changed?

Mind you, some things seem the same. In his introduction to the Cairngorm Glens McConnochie writes: “Tourists, however, are not specially welcomed by the owners of deer forests west of Castleton (Braemar), and indeed are discouraged among the Cairngorm mountains and glens; but fortunately old and well-established rights-of-way bar any attempt to exclude the public from enjoying their mountain scenery. At certain seasons of the year keepers will be met with in some of the glens who will endeavour – by order of their superiors – to dissuade tourists from taking particular routes, but it is quite unnecessary for the mountaineer to change his plans on such requests.”

I like the defiance in that paragraph and I like, too the modern-seeming assumption at the end of the first sentence, referring to the public enjoying their mountain scenery.

Almost as an afterthought, the author adds one or two accounts of his own ventures in the Cairngorms, including some monumental navigational cock-ups excusable only by the lack of a 1:50000 Landranger OS map and some novel routes to cross the range. He also describes trips in winter (discouraged to all but the most experienced in his introduction) including one when he and his companions crossed Loch Avon on ice, stopping halfway across for their lunch. (Speaking as someone who in his younger and stupider days once walked right up the middle of the same loch from the foot of Coire Raibert to the head of the loch, on ice rather ill-frozen at the edges, I can testify what a daft thing that was to do!)

Maybe you have to be a bit obsessed to be as excited about this book as I am but it’s great to see it available once more and an education to leaf through its pages. All credit to Deeside Books for reviving it.

Now. What about Seton Gordon’s ‘Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland’ next?

By the way, if you’re looking for a good guidebook to walks and scrambles in the Cairngorms these days, you could do a lot worse than Ronald Turnbull’s ‘Walking in the Cairngorms: Walks Trails and Scrambles’, published in 2005 by Cicerone Press. A personal favourite, it has all the routes one would expect as well as many more esoteric routes, all well described, mapped and illustrated.

Map insert for McConnochie's Cairngorms guidebook

The map included in McConnochie’s guide – hardly a Landranger.

Posted in History, Topography | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Braemar snowgate cam updated

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.

Posted in News | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

On the hopelessness of trying not to climb a hill

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?

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Balaneasie – the bothy that never was

Balaneasie Cottage, Glen Tilt, Cairngorms

Balaneasie Cottage in the late ’60s or early ’70s

Ever stayed in Balaneasie Bothy?

Thought not. Balaneasie is the bothy that never was.

a ruined Balaneasie Cottage

Balaneasie Cottage now – a sad ruin

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 and friends at Black Bothy of Glen Tilt, Cairngorms, 1964

Colin (right) with companions Brian and Bill, at Black Bothy of Glen Tilt, 1964

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.”

Glen Tilt MC lease for Balaneasie Cottage, Cairngorms

The lease from Atholl Estates to the Glen Tilt Mountaineering Club – £2 a year!

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:

Black Bothy, Glen Tilt, Cairngorms, 1964

Black Bothy, Glen Tilt, 1964

Bynack Lodge, Cairngorms, 1962

Bynack Lodge in 1962. It was burnt down in 1964.

Lower Geldie Lodge, Cairngorms

Lower Geldie Lodge, 1963

 

 

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