The Luibeg woods – aftermath of a blaze

Part of the hillside in the Luibeg woods, damaged by fire in June 2014

Burnt vegetation and charred wood – a hillside stripped of life

Three weeks since the fire and the smell of burnt wood still wafted across the river in the slight breeze. Not that you could have missed the charred hillside and riverbank: acres of black ground and browned pine needles where both should have been the vivid green of summer.

On 18th June fire struck a large area of the Luibeg woods, from about 300 metres west of Luibeg Cottage up the south bank of the river and over the area of hillocks that narrows the course of the Luibeg between the Derry Flats and the upper meanders of the burn.

Hillock and riverbank by the Luibeg burn showing fire damage

Just one of the hillocks and a section of the riverbank affected by the fire

The area affected comes to about 25 acres, and the scar is visible from Derry Lodge – a vivid reminder of the damage fire can do in this very vulnerable woodland. It was caused, said the fire crews who tackled it, by a campfire, either let out of control or left smouldering.

Fire circle and area of excavated peat at the fire site in Luibeg

The seat of the fire? A stone fire circle can be made out in the centre of this section where burning peat has been dug down to the subsoil.

And the danger is still there. Despite some rain on Saturday, the ground is a lot dryer than normal; on Sunday I crossed the Derry Flats without having to avoid any of the normally boggy stretches. Over the weekend both NTS rangers and police have visited the Derry Lodge area advising campers not to light fires.

There are many who regard a campfire as an integral part of camping and will witter on self-righteously about not being cheated of their god-given right to burn wood by officious, jobsworth rangers too pussy-whipped by health & safety fascists to realise that the campfire-makers are real outdoorsmen who know how to make a proper campfire without leaving a trace etc, etc.

But this isn’t an argument about the rights and wrongs of campfires in principle. This is about now: the fire risk is high; don’t light fires. Just don’t.

A walk over the burnt ground shows how lucky we were with this wildfire. There are some areas where the fire-fighters have had to dig away burning and smouldering peat clear through to the subsoil below, but much of the ground is normally wet and boggy: here the fire has spread quickly across the vegetation – heather and blaeberry mainly – leaving the ground still squelchy under the surface charring. It’s likely the ground cover plants will recover fairly quickly here. The mature trees, too, have mostly survived, with bark charred and needles scorched; the estate has said these will recover.

But there are several trees where deeper damage has clearly been done.

Damage to ground and tree roots at Luibeg fire site

Another section where smouldering peat has had to be excavated, causing damage to tree roots

Fire damaged tree at the Luibeg woods fire site in the Cairngorms

The fire has eaten deeply into this tree trunk.

And, sadly, there are also hundreds of seedlings, sprouted since the depredations of the deer were halted, which are no more than charred sticks. They look unlikely to recover.

Burnt pine tree seedlings at Luibeg, Cairngorms

The burnt vegetation reveals a field of charred sticks that once were seedlings

And that’s not even thinking about the wildlife. Elsewhere at the weekend I saw lizards, frogs, a toad – all of which would have been present in the fire area and few of which would have managed to escape. The only wildlife I found there on Sunday was a plague of clegs.

It could, I suppose, be argued that fires are a natural part of the life cycle of a forest, and we should just accept them. But I think it is important to remember that this is not – yet – a healthy forest. After over a hundred years of landowners forcing deer numbers artificially high for commercial exploitation, we are left with a sparse fragment of forest with geriatric trees, minimal undergrowth and, until the last few years, no signs of regeneration. Recovery depends on making every effort to allow natural regeneration, and the destruction of several hundreds – thousands even? – of  young seedlings represents a setback of several years in that not inconsiderable area of this precious woodland.

This is a forest in intensive care. So treat it with care.

Addendum:

Just back from a Corrour workparty on July 17th: spoke to Mar Lodge head ranger who confirmed that a second fire, in Glen Quoich last week, was caught early and extinguished before too much damage done – but was also started by a campfire.

Please do not light campfires just now.

Trio of burnt tree seedlings at Luibeg

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Is bothies policy designed to seal fate of Garbh Choire Refuge?

Garbh Choire Refuge, Cairngorms

The Garbh Choire Refuge: a part of our culture worth saving

It’s now over two years since I first wrote in this blog about the Garbh Choire Refuge and it seems the only thing that’s changed is that the door’s off again and someone has tried to waterproof the inside.

It’s not for want of the will to do anything. For years now, bothy activists – active members of the MBA, experienced and with access to the resources  – have been asking Mar Lodge Estate for permission to properly renovate the refuge.

The consistent reply from the National Trust for Scotland-owned estate is that it is going to hold a consultation on the future of the structure, yet no consultation has taken place, although a number of organisations, including the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the Scottish Mountaineering Club, and the Cairngorm Club, have expressed their wish that it should remain and be renovated.

But while there has been no consultation, the NTS has produced a revision of its ‘Mountain Bothies Policy’. And that, to cynical eyes, does not bode well for the Garbh Choire.

I’ll quote one of the relevant sentences from the new policy here:

“Where an existing bothy falls into a state of dilapidation, proposals to reinstate will be treated as for a new bothy.”

And from the listings of bothies on NTS land:

“Mar Lodge: Garbh Choire Shelter, NN 959986 Believed to have been erected by Aberdeen University Mountaineering Club about 50 years ago. Not watertight and receives little/if any maintenance.”

I can see the NTS argument now. Locally, the estate has made no secret it would prefer the refuge to be removed and, if unchallenged, this new policy would seem to make the estate’s case stronger. The implication is that its neglect and disrepair mean it is little used and not wanted. And if anyone wants to renovate it, the request – because of its alleged dilapidation – will be seen as a request for a new bothy, and almost certainly be refused.

I may be wrong, but I doubt it.

So let’s be clear about some things here.

1 The Garbh Choire Refuge is still in use as a shelter, both for short stops and overnights.

2 There is maintenance being carried out at the Garbh Choire Refuge.

3 Although in poor repair, it is not a ruin, and renovation does not equate to creation of a new bothy.

Interior of Garbh Choire Refuge showing repairs and damage

Inside the bothy in May 2014, showing tarpaulin installed to keep off the rain, and the broken door

It is true that the maintenance is sporadic and often ineffective; it could hardly be anything else given the remoteness of the refuge and the difficulty of getting tools and materials in there and given the lack of organisation and the limited resources of the individuals carrying out any work.

As stated before, and as made clear to the estate on a number of occasions, the MBA has the people with the experience, the resources and the willingness to both renovate the refuge and carry out an organised and regular maintenance programme into the future. What it does not have, despite repeated asking, is the approval of the NTS.  And according to another part of what is in reality a very short policy document: “No new bothies, whether created from existing structures renovated for the purpose [my italics]or built from new, may be established on Trust land without the permission of the Trust.

For  the NTS to use a state of disrepair caused by its own obstruction as a justification for removal or to block renovation is grossly hypocritical and must be challenged.

I won’t repeat the arguments in favour of retaining the bothy here – you can read them in previous posts here, here and here.

However, it is worth underlining the fact that the Garbh Choire Refuge is part of a unique network of bothies and refuges across Scotland. It is a part of our living cultural heritage. As such, and being the property of the National Trust for Scotland, the Trust has a duty of care, not just as the landowner but as the supposed guardian of our built heritage.

The NTS has been signally failing in this duty and in many eyes would be culpable for this alone. But it is worse: presented with repeated offers to renovate and maintain this part of our culture at no cost to the Trust, its reaction is to block every attempt. Instead it would seem to prefer to spend money to destroy that which it should be protecting. And that would be shameful.

 

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The Hutchie in winter – a great wee video

Hutchison Memorial Hut, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms

The Hutchison Hut in summer. Read on for the winter version

The sun’s been out all day here in Fife, and probably up the road in the Cairngorms too.

So what’s more appropriate than to share a cold snowy video clip with you.

A great wee five-minute snippet of bothy life, using the Hutchison Memorial Hut in Coire Etchachan, it succeeds where many other attempts have failed in giving a picture of what it’s like: stove on, cooking up dinner, some chat and stories.

The warmth inside is emphasised by the pictures from inside the porch and from outside the window, and the whole context is portrayed by scenes the following morning of walkers heading up the snow-covered path to Loch Etchachan, trudging upward, falling through holes, and showing the scale of the Hutchie’s peerless mountain setting.

Great work in just five minutes from Shaman Video and I understand it’s just a teaser for a longer film, which I’d love to see.

In the meantime, the guys at Shaman have been kind enough to let me share this on the blog so, if you haven’t already skipped ahead and keeked, sit back, pretend the sun’s not shining out there, and coorie in to the stove in one of the best bothies in the Cairngorms.

Bothy Tales – Hutchisons, by Shaman Video

 

 

 

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The five Cairngorm four-thousanders

Vista of Cairn Toul and Braeriach from Cairngorm

From near the top of Cairngorm looking back to Cairn Toul and Braeriach on the far horizon

What a day!

From the wind-battered, closed-in isolation of the morning to the wide open afternoon with its views right out to the horizon and the cool, blue-sky evening cradled between the mountains, it was quality mountain day all the way.

Deciding to do all five Cairngorm ‘four-thousanders’ in a day – Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak, Braeriach, Cairngorm and Ben MacDui – gave me some trouble initially. Was I doing it to prove something? Was it just a stunt? In the end I decided it didn’t matter: I’d had the notion to do it for years and it hadn’t gone away – and, if it turned out to be an empty feat, well, that was only one day ‘wasted’; contrarily, if I waited too many more years I’d not be fit enough to do it and would always regret the missed opportunity.

So in the end I did it, and it wasn’t any sort of a feat at all, for I’d decided I was going to do it and had no doubts that I could and would, so all that was left was to enjoy an absolutely cracking day. It was a positive indulgence, in fact. How many times had I walked this hill or that hill and looked longingly across to another, thinking how good it looked and how nice it would be to be there?  In fact, had I had more time (and, being honest, better legs) I was tempted by the sight of Beinn Mheadhoin and, on the final descent to Corrour, almost considered nipping along to Carn a Mhaim too, although by then the legs really were gone.

An early breakfast had seen me ready to go at 7am, looking out of Corrour Bothy just in time to see the first wisps of cloud brush the top of Cairn Toul. I headed straight for it, slanting diagonally up the mountain’s east face, and we came to meet one another: by the time I reached the bowl of Coire an t-Sabhail, which nestles under the two tops, I was looking up into the grey void which was to cocoon me for the rest of the morning.

Just before I reached here I was startled by a hen ptarmigan scuttling away through the rocks and heather trailing a ‘broken’ wing and, sure enough, when I looked down at my feet I was about to step in the bird’s nest, complete with seven eggs. I paused only long enough to take this photo before moving on to allow the hen back to the eggs.

Ptarmigan eggs on a nest on Cairn Toul, Cairngorms

Ptarmigan eggs in a nest on Cairn Toul

Nature photography behind me, I had to make up my mind about this cloud, for it didn’t look like it was going to shift in a hurry, despite the strength of the wind, which was blowing hard out of the west. There was no path up the easier north ridge of the coire but the way was easy enough to follow, so on I went, senses focussing on a narrower and narrower field as I climbed deeper into the cloud. By the time I reached a band of snow visibility was so confined that, though I was sure there was an edge there,  I couldn’t make it out, so I took a bearing for the last wee stretch to the cairn, then another to set me off in the right direction when I carried on after a short pause to Sgurr an Lochan Uaine. Not that it was needed, for the path was clear and the cliffs to my right still had a prominent fringe of snow.

Neil Reid at summit of Cairn Toul, Cairngorms

The magnificent views from Cairn Toul. Hah!

With the wind now battering into my face, there was no incentive to stop at Sgurr an Lochan Uaine and I continued to follow the path round the coire rim.

Melting cornices above Coire an Lochan Uaine and Garbh Choire, Cairngorms

The rotting cornices over Garbh Choire were my handrail for this stage of the journey

Walking in thick cloud is a strange, isolating experience. In clear weather you can see where you are: you can see that hill or that col that you’re aiming for, you can see when you’re getting closer, or veering away, you can see how your position changes in relation to the landscape; you know where you are both consciously and unconsciously. In thick cloud so many of the clues are removed. You do not know where you are except at an intellectual level. Your only knowledge of where you are is what you can reason from bearings and timings and pacing of distances and, without vision to confirm it, your reasoned position is a theoretical one, a point on the creased paper of a map, often with no way of really knowing that it corresponds to the few square metres of boulder and sandy scree you have within sight. But you have to make that do: the theoretical and the real have to come together.

Only, increasingly, they weren’t.

I’d jinked to avoid a snow patch that reached out from the edge, wanting to avoid it because I couldn’t make out the edge of it. But I hadn’t ‘unjinked’ enough once round it. There was no edge to my right, just ground sloping gently away. I’d come too far, too. And the wind was dropping in strength where, if I’d been on track, it would have been getting stronger around the col. So I was wrong. I was heading in a safe direction at least, for all directions away from the cliff were safe here, but I wanted that cliff to use as a handrail.

I knew I’d drifted off to the south but luckily, just as I sat down to have a look at the map, a couple of seconds of clear air below me revealed a stream, which allowed me to gauge a rough position and an exact recovery route, taking me to the coire edge at its lowest point. Oddly enough, although this error made me groan inwardly at the prospect of chasing the Grey Man through the mist over on the MacDui plateau, I didn’t even consider calling off the full walk.

After regaining the coire edge, following it was easy right round until the infant River Dee intruded on my solitary, wind battered cloud-cocoon of tundra and cornice-fringed void. On the banks of the river, already flowing strongly despite the source being so close and so high, I had something to eat and took a direct bearing to the summit.

The wind had already strengthened as the morning wore on, but on this stretch it was outdoing itself and several times I was sent staggering across the boulders and grit by unruly gusts. In my time I’ve heard the wind howl, heard it roar and even heard it scream, but now I heard a positive rumble. It came from the Garbh Choire Daidh below me and two seconds later the wind leapt out over the edge and bludgeoned me to my knees before tearing on across the plateau.

Was it that assault that also convinced the cloud that all was up? Who knows – but it was after that Aeolian assault that I first noticed a patch of blue away to the north, first realised that the final rise to Braeriach’s summit was visible before me.

Cairn Toul and Angel's Peak from Braeriach, Cairngorms

Looking back across to Cairn Toul – still cloud-capped – from Braeriach, as the day started to change

By the time i was at the top I could see all the way across to Cairn Toul, albeit with  cap on, and all the way round the edge of the great Garbh Choire and, just as I was leaving, spied my first people of the day, two retired teachers who had been staying at Corrour last night and were intending to do Braeriach and then Cairn Toul. I’d been thinking about them on my way around, sorry that they’d miss out on the stupendous views of one of Britain’s finest walks, but they’d timed it right and the weather continued to clear giving them endless views in every direction for the rest of the day.

For me it was on down into the Lairig Ghru. The teachers had confirmed to me that the old stalkers’ path into Coire Ruadh (the eastern one, above the Lairig) was clear of snow and easy to follow, so I headed down to the col between Braeriach and Sron na Lairig and tipped over the edge at the top of the path.

I was soon wondering what they were blethering about. I’d never actually used that path before, though I knew it was there, and was glad to see it so prominent at the top of the coire. However within a few yards I came on a snow patch which blocked progress. A step downwards was indicated by a boot-print below, but the path beyond that didn’t seem up to very much. Nor was it: it was a nightmare of loose rock and gritty dirt which required considerable attention to negotiate safely. It was only once I was down into the bowl that I was able to look up and see the path – looking very obvious now. I should have gone up at the snowpatch rather than down.

Coire Ruadh and stalkers' path on Braeriach, from the MacDui side of  the Lairig Ghru

Looking back into Coire Ruadh from the MacDui side of the Lairig Ghru. The line of the stalkers’ path can be seen as a faint zig-zag coming down from the lowest point of the col, but I had descended directly from the small snow patch – not to be recommended.

The rest of the descent to the Lairig was rough going, down a mixture of heather, boulders, holes and bog, but the clearing weather meant I could survey the way ahead. I’d planned on making a brutally steep but direct ascent up the March Burn but I could see now that snow blocked the higher reaches of it, with a clear path through the broken outcrops looking unlikely so, after (very) briefly considering walking through to the Chalamain Gap and up over Lurcher’s, I spied the relatively easy-angled north ridge of Coire Mhor. I followed the Lairig path southwards for a couple of hundred metres then sloped up the hill towards the vague ridge, passing a trio of deer on the way, who seemed happy to stand where they were unless I moved in their direction. Less happy was a hare a couple of hundred feet further on, who legged it up the hill at a speed I could only envy.

Lairig Ghru and Lurcher's Crag, Cairngorms

Looking north through the Lairig Ghru to Lurcher’s Crag

It was a fortuitous choice of route for, apart from the once more increasing wind, which once more had me on my knees, the climb up to the plateau was much easier than I had feared it might be, with occasional stops to glance backwards at the hills I had already done, marvelling at how far apart they seemed under what was now a predominantly blue sky. I’d already done a good day and it was only a little after lunchtime.

Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Braeriach, Cairngorms

My morning’s work, now under a blue sky: from Cairn Toul on the left over Angel’s Peak (Sgurr an Lochain Uaine), and round the Garbh Choire cliffs to Braeriach, whose summit is just out of picture

As the gradient eased into an uphill daunder the terrain turned for a time to sunny grassland with a stream flowing through so crystal clear that, though I’d filled my water bottle in the Lairig, I emptied it out and refilled it. When I drank of it in this spring sunshine I could taste the snow in it and, sure enough, not far uphill the stream came out from under one of several large snowfields which still lay across the plateau now spread out before me across to Cairn Lochan and round to Cairngorm itself, seeming impossibly distant.

Beinn Mheadhoin in the Cairngorms

Beinn Mheadhoin from the Cairngorm-MacDui plateau. Was it a serious temptation?

But for all the distance I was starting with a slight downward gradient and the highway between the two hills was easy walking and, though the speed dropped across the snowfields, I made good time, enjoying the changing perspectives and tempted by the clear air to think almost that Beinn Mheadhoin could be included in my itinerary. Madness, obviously, possibly a sign of tiredness.

The way from the top of the Goat Track (still choked with snow) over the top of

Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms

Loch Morlich from above Coire an t-Sneachda

Coire an t-Sneachda was enlivened by the views across the cliffs and down to Loch Morlich and by the chatter of a large group of school kids, but the last pull up Cairngorm looked like being an ordeal. For the first time in the day I was suffering to the point of wondering why I was bothering, but a handful of Sports Mixtures and a slowing of the pace was enough to restore some equilibrium and by the time I was at the top I was content again and didn’t begrudge a group of tourists who had come up on the funicular their easy summit, or the snow buntings that so delighted them. It was the guide with them who told me the wind had been gusting to 70mph earlier in the day. No wonder I’d been struggling at times.

The journey back across the plateau was marked by views back to the hills I’d started on, now clear under the blue sky, and by the clouds which sat high above the winds: some lenticular and others almost forming globes at times.

Coire an-t Sneachda, Cairngorms

Clouds over Coire an t-Sneachda

Clouds above Coifre an-t Sneachda

I loved the cloud forms as they changed against the blue backdrop

Unusual clouds over the Cairngorm-MacDui plateau

A final shot of the clouds

Walkers on the final ascent to Ben MacDui, Cairngorms

And a shot of two walkers ahead of me on the final ascent to the top of MacDui. The snow and the blue sky gives this an almost alpine feel

However the journey was over. By the time I was bypassing the north top of MacDui on the way to the main top I was still enjoying myself but the summit itself had the air of being a formality rather than a climax and I didn’t pause any longer than it took to take a selfie at the trig point before heading west to drop down the north-bounding ridge of Coire Clach nan Taillear, finding an unsuspected path some of the way down which meant only a short stretch of boulderfield before getting onto easier ground and the final descent to the Lairig path, which led me back, still walking at a brisk pace, to Corrour. Brisk? Well, yes: brisk. I’d expected to be on my last legs by the end but, by taking my own time and going at my own pace, though tired I still had a lot more go left in me than I’d ever have thought.

It had been a day of two halves – western plateau and central plateau, cloud and sunshine – but most of all it had been a big day, a cracking day, a day to remember. And, already, one I think I would enjoy doing again.

Neil Reid at the summit of Ben MacDui, Cairngorms. Cairn Toul is in the background

First and last top. Me, on the summit of MacDui, with my first top of the day, Cairn Toul, in the background

 

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The Sinclair Hut – one of the Cairngorms’ lost bothies

The Sinclair Hut in the Lairig Ghru, by Jim Barton

Sinclair Hut © Copyright Jim Barton

NH 959038 – 1957-1991

I first stayed there about 40 years ago, and seem to recall a sprung metal bedstead in one of the two rooms, although that could be a trick of memory.

The time I really remember was some years later, arriving there one February Friday night, well after the witching hour, after a fraught journey through a Chalamain Gap rendered hugely treacherous by snow and ice over the jumbled boulders, and not improved by the pitch dark night.

We arrived in the relative shelter of the bothy and commandeered a sleeping bench each. Wooden this time, and fixed to the concrete walls – which were lined with a good inch of clear ice. It was a cold, cold night and thick weather in the morning. Even had we been fit enough to reach the cliffs of the Garbh Choire we wouldn’t have been able to see them. By such means are the lives of the incompetent sometimes saved.

We never did get in to climb there, although at least twice more we made that exhausting, nerve-wracking midnight journey to spend the dregs of a Friday night and Saturday morning in the Sinclair Hut. I wonder if, at some level, despite condemning its demolition in 1991 or thereabouts, we were relieved that we were being saved from further purgatory.

It was, to be fair, a fairly comfortless stone box but then so were most Cairngorm bothies in those days and I never quite understood the rationale for taking it down. Vandalism was cited in the papers at the time but – well – what was there to vandalise?

The Sinclair Hut was, properly, the Angus Sinclair Memorial Bothy, opened in July 1957, just a few months before I made my own debut in the world.

The plaque in the bothy recorded:

Angus Sinclair OBE DLitt, Colonel of the Officer Training Corps, Reader in Philosophy, University of Edinburgh. He died on the slopes of Cairn Gorm on 21st December 1954.

Angus Sinclair was born William Angus Sinclair, in Edinburgh on 27th December 1905. He was a lecturer in philosophy at Edinburgh University and, in 1945, had stood as a Conservative and Unionist candidate for Edinburgh East. However, his sympathies appear to have been elsewhere for he subsequently joined the Labour Party and wrote the posthumously published ‘Socialism and the Individual. Notes on joining the Labour Party’, having been selected as a prospective Labour Party candidate for the 1955 election.

It was a busy period for him, for in August 1954 he got married.

However in December that year it all ended. A review of ‘Socialism and the Individual’ stated that he “met with a virile death in a snowstorm in the Cairngorms in December, where he was on duty with an Officers’ Training Corps detachment.”

Equally, a Glasgow Herald story about the both in 1974 referred to him dying in a blizzard on the slopes of Strath Nethy.

However, an obituary of his widow, Susan, a respected lecturer in her own right who had a strong commitment to the welfare state and died only in 2010, said that he had fallen ill and died while climbing in the Cairngorms. So it’s not clear whether he died from hypothermia in a blizzard or from natural causes. In any case, he was dead just days before his 49th birthday.

His fellow officers and cadets in the OTC obviously held him in some respect, for it was decided to build the bothy in his memory.

The Sinclair Hut in the Cairngorms, by Elliot Simpson

The Sinclair Hut in summer, copyright Elliot Simpson

The site was marked out in May 1956, choosing a prominent location in the Lairig Ghru, on top of a rise which meant the bothy would never be buried by snow (even if it made going down the steep slope to the stream for water a bit of a grind), at a ‘crossroads’ between the main Lairig path and the paths through the Chalamain Gap and up Sron na Lairige towards Braeriach.

A start was made in August to carrying in pre-cast concrete blocks, which carried on again at the Christmas break.

The following Easter more carrying in was done and the ground excavated and concreted to create a base for the bothy. The walls were started, but a heavy snowfall put a stop to work. Even when building started again in May, strong north winds with rain, hail and snow made work difficult and one night a section of the wall was blown down.

A further long weekend in June saw the work continued and the OTC contingent moved up for annual training on June 22, getting the roof on by 26th June.

It had been some feat. The site was above the 2,000 foot contour and approximately 16 tons of building material had been carried there from the base at ‘Picadilly’ (long-standing nickname for a junction of paths in Rothiemurchus Forest), which was the closest vehicle access.

The materials were carried up four miles of rough track in over 700 man-loads of about 50 lbs each (about 23 kilos), including difficult components such as 15-foot lengths of angle iron, doors and windows. In addition, about 25 tons of local stone, gravel and sand had been collected or quarried on the site.

The OTC reckoned that the actual building has taken 16 days, but the carrying had taken 35.

A list of thanks in a brochure produced to mark the opening (on 6th July 1957) showed – as today – the amount of goodwill there had been to the project from outwith the immediate climbing community.

The pre-cast concrete blocks were delivered free to Picadilly by the Scottish Construction Company of Edinburgh; teak for the doors and windows came from Cruden’s Ltd of Musselburgh, and the doors and windows were constructed by David Findlay of Heriot-Watt College. Most of the remaining materials came from Arnott McLeod Ltd of Edinburgh, and carrying frames and help in the carrying parties was arranged by Murray Scott, the then warden of Glenmore Lodge.

Initially the bothy was looked after by the Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities’ OTC, with funds from an endowment but, in 1974 the Glasgow Herald reported an appeal for funds to help with the maintenance. It was reported that, with the increasing popularity of hill walking and mountaineering in the Cairngorms, the bothy was being used by more and more people each year. The need for more maintenance and the erosion of the endowment by inflation meant the students were running out of money for the job.

I don’t know what happened to the Sinclair Hit after that. My first visit was in the mid ‘70s, round about the time of the appeal. I seem to recall a table, perhaps wooden benches, and a plastic water container as well as the metal bedstead I mentioned above. Of my several visits in the ‘80s I remember little other than the cold and exhaustion. (Although I do recall my companion’s loud groan not long after we arrived in the frozen early hours of one morning. “I’ve lost the car keys,” he said. It was useless to think about back to look in the dark and we put off thinking about it until our return on Sunday. Incredibly, they were lying in the middle of the path just quarter of a mile from the car.)

Eventually it was demolished and removed in or around 1991, reports at the time citing vandalism and – unbelievably – graffiti as the reasons for its demise.

I’d like to thank John Arnott, Chairman of the Mountain Bothies Association, who kindly made available to me the text of a brochure produced to mark the opening of the bothy, which contained details of the construction.

Photos: © Copyright Elliott Simpson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Jim Barton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

 

 

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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 , , | 14 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