Jean’s Hut – a lost Cairngorm bothy

Jean's Hut, Coire an Lochain, Cairngorm

Jean’s Hut in Coire an Lochain, date unknown.

Of all the ‘lost’ bothies of the Cairngorms,  Jean’s Hut seems one of  the one most brought up in folk’s recollections.

Not one I was ever at myself, although it didn’t finally disappear until the ’80s, but there are some good historical pictures from Reg Popham and Angus Robson which are worth sharing here.

Jean’s Hut started out in Coire Cas on Cairngorm, only later being moved to the location most people remember in Coire an Lochain.

It was gifted by Dr Alasdair Smith in memory of his daughter Jean who died in a skiing accident in 1948, having fallen when the edges of her skis failed to bite while traversing a steep, icy slope.

It was built in 1951, roughly where the White Lady Shieling stands now.

Angus Robson, who contacted me in response to another post about bygone Cairngorm bothies, wrote to say his father had been involved in the building of the hut.

He said: The tarmac road ended at Coylumbridge in those days and the forestry road ended at the old Glenmore Lodge (now the SYHA). All the materials were carried up Cairngorm from the Lodge on a footpath.

Apparently, people on courses at Glenmore Lodge were roped into carrying materials up the mountain. My dad was there on a rock climbing course in 1950 and remembers he helped with carrying stuff. He says the heaviest load he carried was a bag of sand. He would have been 34 at the time.

Angus sent in this photo of the Hut, taken in 1953, when his parents were on a hill walking course at Glenmore Lodge, and there are several more photos from Reg Popham showing the carrying in of materials and the construction of the hut.

Robsons at Jean's Hut, Cairngorms

Angus Robson’s photo of his Mum and Dad at Jean’s Hut in 1953, with a Glenmore Lodge instructor

Materials being carried in to build Jean's Hut in Coire Cas, Cairngorm

The big carry-in. Prefabricated sections of the hut being carried up the hill into Coire Cas. Love the period clothes and the sense of enthusiasm in this photo, courtesy of Reg Popham

Hut sections being carried in to Coire Cas, Cairngorm, to build Jean's Hut

Another photo of the young folk taking the hut in. Courtesy of Reg Popham

Jean's Hut, Coire Cas, Cairngorm - half built

During construction in 1951. (Courtesy of Reg Popham)

Jean's Hut, Cairngorms

And complete

It stood in Coire Cas for more than a decade before being edged out by ski development, and in 1964 or ’65 was moved to its final position at 981034, a little below the lochan of Coire an Lochain.

It was popular as a base for winter climbers, one climber remembering it as being furnished with rough wooden bunks, a table and benches, and a store cupboard full of food left by other climbers. But its popularity and the lack of any one person or organisation formally looking after it, meant it deteriorated through the years and by the ’80s – some say even earlier – it was in a pretty disreputable state.

There was some debate about its future, apparently prompted by a the death of three students who failed to find the hut in a fierce blizzard. (It was a hard period for mountain rescue teams, spoken of by Heavy Whalley in his blog)

It was finally demolished and removed by the Cairngorm Ranger Service removed in 1986. According to a Glasgow Herald article at the time there had been a last minute appeal by Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, who wanted the army to replace the dilapidated hut to be kept as a shelter and advance base for rescues.

Perhaps had the hut been maintained it would have lasted, but even had there not been the loss of the three students, its days were likely numbered, with one climbing pal recalling it leaning over and being fit to collapse. And perhaps there’s no longer the same demand for a bothy in a corrie that most people walk in and out of in a short day – or maybe the Northern Corries are just so busy these days that no size of bothy could cope with the numbers!

Builders outside Jean's Hut, Coire Cas, Cairngorms

Happy days! How can you not wish you were climbing in the Cairngorms in the 1950s? (Once more, picture courtesy of Reg Popham)

(Thanks to Angus and Reg for the use of their photos in this post – and their long patience in waiting for it to materialise!)

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Plans announced for Derry Lodge development

Derry Lodge in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Derry Lodge – is a new lease of life on the cards?

One of the most asked questions in Glen Lui has got to be “Aren’t they doing anything with Derry Lodge?”

It hasn’t been occupied since the Cairngorm Club gave up the lease in 1967 and has been slowly going downhill ever since.

However Mar Lodge Estate has now announced long term plans to bring the building back into use, as a walkers’ hostel.

The plans were on display at an open day at Mar Lodge at the weekend, but there’s little likelihood of them taking shape in the near future – sometime in about five years time is the estimate.

Hostel plans for Derry Lodge, Glen Derry, Cairngorms

Suggested layout for hostel accommodation in Derry Lodge

The basics are a hostel with 20-22 beds in two- and four-bed rooms, with the ground floor containing lounge, kitchen, dining room, meeting room, drying room , showers etc.

Additional to the toilets included within Derry Lodge, there are also plans to build a publicly accessible toilet at the green barn beside the Lodge. This would make a huge difference to the long-standing and worsening problem with human waste in an area which has for decades been popular with campers.

Development proposals for Derry Lodge, Cairngorms, including public toilet

The area surrounding the Lodge, showing plans for a public toilet

I see, too, that the plans for the wider area include a bridge over the Lui Burn at the bottom of the landy track which goes down to the river just west of Bob Scott’s Bothy. What’s not clear is whether this is intended solely to give access to Luibeg Cottage (Bob Scott’s old house), which could be used as staff accommodation for the Derry Lodge hostel, or whether the main track will be diverted over to that side. It seems an odd idea, but the estate has said it wants to direct the footpath away from the boggy Derry Flats, where Black Grouse lek, and one option would be to take the path to the south side of the river below Derry Lodge and return it to the north side once it’s past the boggy section.

Of course, with plans so far in the future there’s a lot can change, but as of now, that’s what the estate would like to do. The reason for the delay in implementing any of this is financial: in the wake of two major floods in two years there’s still a lot of flood damage to repair, including as a priority the road bridge over the Quoich, which wasn’t covered by insurance as it wasn’t actually destroyed – the river simply shifted its course to bypass it.

There are a couple of obvious concerns about these plans.

One is the question of access. Are cars going to be driving up and down Glen Lui? The answer would appear to be a very firm no. The estate still adheres to the long walk-in principle and plans do indicate that access to the hostel will be by foot only (though presumably estate traffic will be increased to some degree).

Bob Scott's Bothy, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

The estate has said Bob Scott’s Bothy will not be endangered by the plans

The other concern – to some at least – is what will happen to Bob Scott’s Bothy, just a couple of hundred metres away. Estate property manager David Frew spoke about this some time ago when we were discussing matters relating to the bothy. He assured us that the estate was more than happy with the way the bothy was being run and with the fact of it being there, and he said quite categorically that the future of the bothy would not be jeopardised by any possible hostel.

So, while the devil is always in the detail, I think the plans are largely positive. Personally, I’m still not sure about increased commercialism of the area but it’s highly unlikely that this listed building would be demolished and this proposed use is probably one of the least bad. The area, after all, is already pretty busy in all but winter conditions. It will have the added advantage of cleaning up the surrounding area by virtue of a publicly accessible toilet.

And it is a nice building.

Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

Derry Lodge and the green barn which was formerly a deer larder

Derry Lodge is one of those buildings that grew rather than was planned.

It started life as a single-storey rectangular hunting lodge at some time in the late 1700s, with a fire at each gable.

Historic development drawings of Derry Lodge

Drawings showing the historical development of the Lodge

As shooting became more important, it was enlarged in the early 1800s, rising to one-and-a-half storeys and gaining a kitchen extension, but it was the later 1800s that saw the main extensions, including the two-storey wing facing down the glen which is now the main

Arriving at Derry Lodge

The guest quarters and main entrance, built in the 19th century

entrance. This section was probably accommodation for shooting parties, while the west part would have accommodated gamekeepers. A survey of the building shows clearly which rooms were for guests and which for staff, with the guests enjoying a better and more elaborate standard of room. Nor was there any direct communication between the guests in the eastern wing and the staff in the west. Having said that, the older part of the Lodge was probably the home of the head keeper, with a family staying there into the first half of the 20th century, often playing host to the naturalist Seton Gordon while he was studying the Golden Eagles. (Another visitor, back in 1859, had been Queen Victoria, returning from her celebrated trip up Ben MacDui, though she just dropped in by for a cuppa, not spending the night there.)

The lodge was requisitioned by the army during the war, afterwards lying empty (though possibly used as accommodation for seasonal gillies) until the Cairngorm Club leased it as a club hut in 1955. One of the conditions of that least was that gillies were to be accommodated during the stalking season.

While the CC had the lease they built a new kitchen and passageway at the back, linking the two sections of the building and replacing an earlier wooden structure there.

The club held the lease until 1967, by which time they had acquired Muir Cottage, their present club hut in Inverey. Sometime in the 1970s, it temporarily housed army personnel who were building a footbridge across the Derry Burn (the one destroyed in the August 2014 flood), but apart from that it has remained empty and increasingly derelict, falling prey to vandalism occasional use as a doss by walkers up until the 1980s, when a student party staying there inadvertently started a fire, which caused internal damage and damage to the roof before the fire brigade reached the scene. (I was in Bob Scott’s that night and remember the surreality of the blue flashing light coming up the glen as a full-size fire engine negotiated the landy track.)

After that it was more securely boarded up and has remained empty.

Incidentally, the green barn beside the Lodge is a former deer larder, and the Aberdeen MRT Post down the slope is on the site of the former stables.

You can also read about the Lodge on Joe Dorward’s The Upland of Mar website at http://theuplandofmar.squarespace.com/derry-lodge/

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Reviewed: Old Deeside Ways, by Ian Murray

Old Deeside Ways, by Ian MurrayIt’s been out a few months now, but I only recently came across Old Deeside Ways, the latest book by Ian Murray in his fascinating series of books on the oral history of the Cairngorms and Deeside.

Notable for their excellent collections of old photographs as well as his interviews with local people, what proved an immediate attraction to this latest volume was a number of photographs of the WWII Canadian logging camp at the mouth of the Lui where it joins the Dee.

Having been almost brought up on the ‘Old Canadian Campsite’ during the late ’60s and early ’70s, I thought I knew a bit about this site, with its ditches and old foundations, but it was an education to see the wartime photos of the lumber camp in operation, with a sawmill building much larger and more substantial than I had ever suspected, and images of the logs being rolled into the feeder ditch. I’d seen a poor quality photo of the bridge across the Dee before, but hadn’t realised it carried railway tracks when first built. The photos on this alone were worth the admission fee!

Photos in Ian Murray's book, of Canadian Loggers' camp during WWII

Some great images of the Canadian loggers’ camp on the Dee

But, as ever with Ian Murray’s books, there’s a whole lucky bag of delights, with bygone characters, some only just within living memory, some beyond, from Mar Lodge, Inverey and Braemar, glimpses of the Victorian huntin’ fishin’ and shootin’ guests at Mar Lodge.

I was interested in a chapter about Sandy Davidson, the 1800s logging entrepreneur turned poacher, but also in chapters on still living characters, including that most excellent of fiddle players, Paul Anderson.

Ian Murray has already published three other books: In The Shadow of Lochnagar, The Dee from the Far Cairngorms, and The Cairngorms and Their Folk, and, if this book has a fault it’s that it almost relies on the reader being familiar with these earlier works. Quite laudably, Ian tries not to regurgitate stories and information from his previous books but now and then this results in chapters or part chapters which tell only part of a story, perhaps where he has unearthed additional material on a tale told previously. But that’s a trifling complaint: these books can all be read perfectly well on their own. However, the real stature of Ian’s achievement is best seen when they are considered together, creating an unrivalled picture of the human history of the Cairngorms and upper Deeside. If you don’t already have the previous books to hand you’ll want to get them. They really are essential reading for anyone interested in this area.

Old Deeside Ways is available in bookshops or via Ian Murray’s website.

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Winter is gone… Long live winter!

Angel's Peak (Sgor an Lochan Uaine) and the Garbh Choire, Cairngorms

Looking past Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak to the innermost recesses of the Garbh Choire

Glorious! Absolutely glorious.

Just when you reach that stage when the bite’s gone from winter but it won’t quite let go and allow spring to move up the hill, along comes a weekend like this: two absolutely classic winter mountaineering days!

Up for a disappointing Friday evening meeting with Mar Lodge Estate (They still want to remove the Garbh Choire Refuge), the weekend wasn’t starting well. It was good to see Cal and Andy from Dalkeith arriving at Bob Scott’s later in the evening though. Enjoyed a catch-up and a chat and we arranged to go up Ben MacDui on Saturday. Fairly new to hill-walking, they’d tried twice before, each time being dissuaded by poor visibility and lack of navigation skills.

Morning saw us heading up Glen Derry, Cal and Andy fully laden with all their kit, as they intended staying at the Hutchison Hut and climbing other hills from there on the Sunday. The blue skies of morning had disappeared as we walked and by the time we reached the Hutchie it was clear that, whatever happened, we weren’t going to get any views high up; but you’d go a long way to beat these two guys for enthusiasm and, after dumping most of their gear and us all getting a bite to eat, we set off up the track to Loch Etchachan, climbing into old, hard snow, soft, freshly-drifted snow, and snow still falling in an increasingly beefy wind.

Climbers on the path up to Loch Etchachan in a blizzard. Cairngorms

Cal and Andy nearing the top of Coire Etchachan in worsening weather.

Loch Etchachan was  fully frozen over and, though very little above that was visible, it was obvious that snow cover was complete all the way up. No path to follow and not much in the way of footsteps to follow, so I told Cal and Andy it was time to get the map and compass out, initiating them into the wonders of walking on bearings and counting steps. We took bearings on rocks, on patches of differently coloured snow and on a companion (me) sent ahead as a marker. We got the first leg spot on and weren’t too far out on the second, which gave us a chance to go over recover techniques such as aspect of slope and reversible probes on a bearing. It was all good fun and the guys were enjoying having their eyes opened… although open eyes were seeing less and less, as visibility steadily decreased.

Climber in a white-out on Ben McDui, Cairngorms

Cal in a disappearing world, with only a few rocks interrupting the overwhelming white.

With no boundary between snow and sky and nothing disturbing the whiteness save ourselves and a few rocks, I decided – and the lads agreed – that enough was enough. I knew from experience that a white-out on MacDui wasn’t to be taken lightly. So we worked out a safe retreat route (in this case simply follow the burn down) to get us back to Loch Etchachan and plunged down into the whiteness until the world began to appear again.

By way of consolation for the boys not getting up MacDui – again – I trailed them over to the col above Loch Avon. It was tortuous work, trudging through sometimes soft snow into the hail-sharpened teeth of a gale, but it was worth it when we got to the lip above the loch, looking down to the Shelter Stone, which we could just make out, and taking in the array of black crags surrounding the head of the glen: Carn Etchachan, An Sticil, Garbh Uisge Crags, Hell’s Lum, Stag Rocks and down to Stac an Fharaidh, across an unfrozen loch looking almost as black as the rocks contrasting against the snow and appearing and fading as the cloud rose and fell and the snow and hail allowed us to peer into the wilderness through stinging, glove-shielded eyes.

We turned and retreated to the descent into Coire Etchachan and the shelter of the Hutchie hut. I don’t know about Cal and Andy, but there was little sense of disappointment in failing to climb MacDui, just that joy and elation of having faced and endured the savagery of a Cairngorm blizzard.

Down at the hut we parted and I set off down into the more benign climes of the lower corrie and round into Glen Derry for a walk back to Scottie’s that still wasn’t finished with incident. Still a good way up the glen, I came across four young lads sitting by the side of the track, well laden with rucksacks.

“Going far?” asked I.

“The bothy,” said one.

“Corrour,” said another.

“No you’re not,” said I.

Quizzical looks gradually turned to dismayed ones as I explained they were in the wrong glen and showed them on the map where their route should have gone. They hadn’t been in any danger but, with an assessor due to check on them that evening, it could have resulted in a call-out for the rescue teams who are already busily occupied in the search for Jim Robertson, so they upped and set off down the glen with me and I pointed them across the Derry Flats to the right path. They’d added a couple of hours onto their day’s journey, but at least they would reach their campsite by the bothy before dark.

There was a fine night in the bothy, with the company including Jim Robertson’s son Paul, up with some of his friends to visit again the bothy where his father had last stayed before going missing. Lovely folk, and I hope his father is found soon to give peace to his family.

Sunday was a braw morning: cold, and a skim of fresh snow, but a blue sky tempting me out onto the hill again. A quick breakfast and I was off, leaving a note in the book to say I was bound for Derry Cairngorm.

It’s a bit of a beast, legs-wise, that start up the initial slopes of Carn Crom, but I love it all the same. You’re gaining height quickly, with views opening out behind you and soon allowing you to see over to Beinn a Bhuird. The end of the initial pull sees you on that rocky step of Creag Bad an t’Seabhaig, opening up the view west along Glen Luibeg to Carn a Mhaim and beyond to Beinn Bhrotain, then it’s an easier but steady pull to the top of Carn Crom which has one of the best sudden views ever: just come over the final few steps to the top and there they all are: the full panorama of Cairngorm giants, with Cairn Toul, Braeriach and Ben MacDui all presenting their spectacular rock-girt corries for inspection in an almost unbroken frieze of geological drama. It’s a view designed to lift the heart in an instant under any weather but, today, with the blue sky and heavy snow cover adding to the intensity it literally made me gasp.

That set of mountains remained my viewing companions throughout the pull up to the distant summit of Derry Cairngorm, the angles gradually changing and revealing and obscuring different peaks and corries as I progressed along the ridge, not too troubled by the fresh snow which was seldom more than ankle deep – a small price to pay for the purity it brought to my views.

Snow-covered summit cone of Derry Cairngorm

The pristine summit cone of Derry Cairngorm under a blue sky: climbing perfection

Carn a Mhaim, Devil's Point, Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor, in the Cairngorms

The black face of the Devil’s Point peeks over the spine of Carn a Mhaim, with the dramatic coire and col between Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor dominating the background

I’d half thought I’d meet Andy and Cal on Derry – they’d talked about it as a possible return route – so I’ll put the blame on them for me spending so much time looking north from the summit cairn. Because if I hadn’t spent so much time looking in that direction, and, of course, round the head of Coire Sputan Dearg and over to the flattened dome of MacDui, then perhaps I would have been able to congratulate myself on a good day on the hill and go home.

But I did look and I couldn’t help myself. Like a bairn who doesn’t know when to stop eating the sweeties, I left the cairn heading north, bound for MacDui.

Coire Sputan Dearg of Ben McDui in the Cairngorms

Looking like a slender spire from this angle, Terminal Buttress dominates this image of Coire Sputan Dearg

Delicately shaded snowdrift on Derry Cairngorm

I loved the delicate shading of this undulating, freshly drifted snow on the Derry Cairngorm/Ben MacDui col

To be fair, it wasn’t hard going. The north-facing slopes were all wind-scoured back to hard neve, taking a firmly placed boot but not giving way underfoot, and I enjoyed the steady pull up onto the plateau, distracted for a moment by the sight of one man and his dog a couple of hundred metres off. He looked for all the world like he was carrying one of those ball-throwing sticks and I was intrigued at the thought of the dog following the ball on a comic trajectory over the Sputan cliffs. I must control my thoughts better.

There was no further incident on the walk across the snowy plateau, nor back across to the top of Sron Riach for that always knee-jarring descent to truly spring-like conditions below, but the lack of yesterday’s drama didn’t mean any less pleasure. This was one of those magical, perfect hill days that live long in the memory: why we do it.

Braeriach from Ben MacDui, Cairngorms

Braeriach and Coire Bhrochain from the summit. (It’s one of MacDui’s tragedies that this mightiest of the Cairngorms has such a flat top that what should be spectacular views of its neighbours are largely obscured)

Snowdrift patterns in the Cairngorms

Different patterns created in the wind-drifted snow

Sculpted snow in the Cairngorms

Like a choppy sea frozen in time

Cliffs above Lochan Uaine, Ben MacDui

The cornice-fringed cliffs plunging down to Lochan Uaine

 

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Lochnagar… almost

The cliffs of Lochnagar in the Cairngorms

Massive and still winter-choked – the cliffs of Lochnagar

The great thing about heading for the hills is that even your failures can turn in great days.

Last weekend I was bound for Lochnagar, to the Gelder Shiel for the area meeting of the MBA. You’ll all be absolutely riveted to hear the minutia of bothy maintenance and administration issues we discussed on Saturday afternoon (to be fair, no-one actually fell asleep this time), so I’ll pass quickly on to the evening.

Which turned out to be rather a jolly one. The craic is always good at these meetings: catching up on old friends, gossiping about friends not there, enlarging on obsessions, swapping hill and bothy yarns and generally (and increasingly, as the cumulative effects of those modest libations take hold) blethering a whole lot of drivel.

Enlivening proceedings further was the music. These days there’s always an MP3 player about, with someone else’s music selection to slag off, but the make-up of the Eastern Area MBA is such that live music is almost guaranteed. This night Bill was there with his guitar and huge repertoire of songs, John Gifford from Callater can play guitar and sing some great antipodean songs, Hugh and Marlene from Faindouran both sing and Hugh plays guitar and a mean moothie, Ian Shand had his pipes with him, and even I got to squeak away on the penny whistle. Stan sings a great folk song or three, as does Kenny Freeman – and the rest of us all make varying qualities of noise as chorus singers.

Piper Ian Shand at a ceilidh in Gelder Shiel Bothy

Ian Shand on his border pipes

John Gifford plays guitar in the Gelder Shiel Bothy, Cairngorms

John Gifford takes a turn on Bill’s guitar (Bill in the foreground)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was all just so damned fine that I’ve no idea what time I went to bed, nor what time I ruined an already tired OS map of the area by throwing up on it, but I do know it was hardly past 7am when that heartless troublemaker Neil Findlay came in from his tent to fling his dog Alfie onto my head and tell me it was time I was awake. Thanks pal. Feeling like death would have been an improvement.

No point in trying to get back to sleep though. I’d already decided Sunday would be a hill day and the cold but clear weather outside was irresistible, even in my tender state, and after rummaging about to find some food I could get down and pack a rucksack, I was heading off for the hill.

I wasn’t, initially, very successful. Suffering more from lack of sleep than hangover, I’d only been on the go for about half an hour and just a little past the end of the landy track when I stopped at a large, flat rock and succumbed to this temptation of the only dry area in sight to lie down and doze for a time, enough clothes on to fend off the chilly air, drifting in and out of consciousness to the sough of the wind and the chuckling of grouse.

Only slightly refreshed after half an hour of this, I was still moving with an ‘auld mannie’ slowness which gradually convinced me that the original plan of climbing up the north side of Lochnagar’s corrie was never going to happen. I was too slow, too hazy in the head and could see that the wind was blowing fiercely up high, fresh snow smoking off the ridges.

Cliffs of Lochnagar, Cairngorms

The massiveness of Lochnagar’s cliffs beetle over the edge of the ridge I wasn’t going to climb. I was getting blown about here and could see spindrift smoking off the ridge.

There followed one of those swithery days which saw me lunch at the outlet from Loch Lochnagar, admiring the cliffs, still winter-clad with a rim of large cornices. Looking round to the eastern lobe of the corrie there’s a great plume of spindrift clouding across the blue sky.

Spindrift blowing from Lochnagar in the Cairngorms

Clouds of spindrift show how much fresh snow had fallen

Leaving there I think that rather than retrace my steps I’ll cut across to the landy track that comes over from Loch Muick, but my trail stays high and gradually starts gaining height as I’m drawn towards the white rocky cone of Meickle Pap. Foreshortening does its usual trickery and I decide I can at least get up there. And of course I can, steepenings and rocks adding occasional interest, with snow varying between soft and deep to crusty but taking a kicked step, until finally I’m staggering up the final few feet, battered by a wind that’s increased markedly with height. The views are tremendous though, with the awesome sight of Lochnagar convincing me I’d climbed the right hill after all – no views like this from Lochnagar itself.

Lochnagar, viewed from Meickle Pap. Cairngorms

Looking out from the Meickle Pap across a frozen loch to the iconic cliff scene

The day hadn’t stopped giving, with the path down from the Pap giving me my first sight of the year of a lizard. Below the snowline, but not by much, it was soaking up the sunshine when my arrival caused it enough fright to cross a patch of snow to get to cover.

Lizard on path on Lochnagar, Cairngorms

Not a great pic, but if you look closely you can see the lizard trying to get away but reluctant to go over the cold snow.

So, yeah: hungover, blown sideways, walking dead slow and stop, failed to climb my intended hill… but, hell, I was happy. A good hill day.

 

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The pictureless post: monolith and a halo

There are no pictures in this post.

There are, however, some of the best pictures I’ve never taken.

It didn’t seem to matter on Friday evening when, struggling to make headway – or even to stay on my bike at times – against a gale blowing down Loch Muick, I realised I’d forgotten to pack my camera. Photography was the least of my concerns.

It mattered only slightly more on Saturday morning when the sky was blue and it looked like I’d get a walk after all. Maybe no camera, but I could do with a good walk in reasonably pleasant weather for a change.

But of course it started to matter when I first caught sight of the Dubh Loch cliffs. Despite the fact I’ve climbed there in winter and summer (the easy gullies, not the climbs which have made these some of the most renowned cliffs in Scotland) I’d never taken the Loch Muick approach before, never seen that towering, monolithic mass of seemingly vertical cliff dominating the view ahead.

The Dubh Loch itself, anywhere else, would be a lovely sight, with its golden beaches adding colour to the upper end. But at the foot of these thousand-foot cliffs it has to be content with a best supporting actress role. making the star turn look even better. And these are tremendous cliffs, changing in character as you traverse the other side of the loch, looking across whenever the rough path allows you to lift your eyes.

First South-East Gully appears, slicing off the eastern segment of the monolith. South-East Gully that was the first route I climbed there, so many years ago, because we’d driven up Glen Clova to find that icy roads didn’t mean icy gullies and, with the hills there all black we decided to head up over Broad Cairn to see what was ‘in’ at Creag an Dubh Loch. SE Gully was there: nominally a I/II snow climb, but on the day boasting a necky steep pitch with awkward exit which slowed us down at the start. We might even have called it a day, as the day was already getting shorted, but carrying on up the gully looked like being the quickest way back to Clova anyway, so on we went, Colin leading the desperately insecure pitch to flank a massive cornice at the top while I marvelled at what strange combination of wind, thaw and freeze could produce such bizarrely curved icicles as grew from an overhanging sidewall. As I pulled over the top of the route after Colin the stars had appeared, and we reached the top of Broad Cairn under a glorious sweep of starlight but lost the way down to the homeward path, stumbling down steep slopes above the Bachnagairn Bridge before finding the path again and the interminable trudge back to Clova, so footsore that when we stopped at Kirriemuir for a Chinese on the way home we were hobbling into the shop like old men. Another picture.

Back on Saturday the Dubh Loch cliffs were still changing, as, in turn, Central Gully (a braw summer’s day out with my brother-in-law Tom, who knew these hills well but had never thought to take this through-route with its high walls and great granite boulders) and then North-West Gully showed up, slicing what first showed as a massive granite wall into four distinct buttresses, each with its own character and still massive in their own rights.

Size: that’s what you get from Creag an Dubh Loch; a sense of scale, of height, of mass. Can you capture that with a compact camera? I wished I could try.

But size goes in two directions. Walking along the rough, muddy, rocky path, I came suddenly face to face with a stoat as it came towards me from behind a boulder, pure white in its winter coat, just that black tip to its tail and another black slash on its back. It did a quick about-turn as soon as it saw me, but as I passed the boulder and looked back I saw a hole under it and waited a moment until the stoat reappeared and went on its way. Ermine, and looking far far better in the photo I never took than on the robes of a ‘lord’.

As I left cliffs and stoats behind me and climbed up beside the Allt an Dubh Loch my mood dropped a bit: this was a real arse end of winter walk: the sky had hazed over and the wind blew through me but there was still a heavy thaw on, with the ground saturated and snow-bridges hiding burns while being too soft to bear my weight.  I passed the mouth of Coire Uilleim Mhoir, which cuts behind Creag an Dubh Loch and the next, nameless, choire which boasted a corniced edge and obvious avalanche debris below, then eyed up a rib on the edge of a buried stream beyond, where the angle eased off a little and looked like the soonest access to hopefully firmer snow above on Cairn Bannoch.

Eight or nine mountain hares, still in winter whites, provided pleasant distraction from the slope as I plodded up on firming snow, eventually swapping poles for an ice axe as the gradient steepened before easing onto the plateau…

Which is where the camera really came to mind.

There ahead of me, the swelling rise of the hill, irregularities smoothed out by deep snow cover, different textures flat white or glistening in the dull sunshine – and above… Above a great halo around the sun: 360 degrees of inverted rainbow, red on the inside through to the blues on the outside, fading to white and back into the grey-blue of the hazy sky. Inside the circle a darker grey.

The radius of the halo is huge. Form a fist and stretch your arm out to the sun: the sun is at one edge of your fist, the halo at the other. It’s about a third of the sky, this great halo of rainbow light above the white swell of snow. I think it doesn’t get much better than this, but then it does.

As I trudge upwards (the snow weight bearing after barely ankle depth now) the summit of Cairn Bannoch comes into view, that curiously pointy rock and cairn to be found on such a rounded hill, and it’s poking black and stark out of the snowy plain, directly below the giant halo and I’m thinking of the old Paramount Pictures mountain logo and then, and then, just as I’m burning my eyes out trying not to look at this sun-centred marvel, the vapour trail starts to appear. Inside the halo, below the sun, a jet airliner draws a shining white trail through this visual miracle and I swear it’s like an animated title sequence, the plane drawing a line through the halo like an arrow through a heart. But it’s real. It’s all real. And glorious.

And that was the picture. That was the picture. But this was one of those days that kept giving. I remember the climb up on to the nameless top north of Cairn of Gowal, when the unbroken white swell was within a few paces broken by the black serrations of boulders, lined up on the skyline like Indians ambushing the wagon train; I remember the all-round views from Broad Cairn, seeing right across to Bennachie as I chatted to the first other walker I’d seen closer than a mile away. There was also the pleasure of descending towards Sandy Hillocks, moving from winter into spring and shedding hat, gloves and, finally jacket before heading down into Coire Chash and the long slanting path. That provided the adventure for the day. When starting out I’d seen snow lay across the upper part of this path; now I got to it it was no more than a hundred yards, but for all the shallow gradient of the path it was crossing formidably steep ground and I had the axe out again, kicking bucket steps and sinking the shaft in full depth, at one point even facing in as I descended to avoid a rotten snow-bridge.

And that was it for the thrills, just a pleasant march down to the loch and an amble round the top, getting one last glimpse of Creag an Dubh Loch, still imposing when glimpsed between other hills, before going back through the woods to the Glas Allt Shiel and a well-earned seat.

A great day. But no pictures.

Posted in Nature, Stravaiging, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

A good clean-out. Corrour Bothy toilet

Tracked vehicle and trailer outside Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

A box on tracks. Not very elegant, but a real mover on rough ground

I want one of these! It really is a delight getting out to Corrour Bothy – most of the time – but one of these would be just so much fun.

It was past time for the annual clear-out at the Corrour toilet, and along with my fellow MO Neil Findlay, and our pal Walt Black, we left Bob Scott’s on a miserable-looking Saturday morning to head out to Corrour.

Cloud so low you were afraid to stand up too quick, and intermittent rain meant there wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm about. My enthusiasm was also tempered by the fact I was carrying about 7 or 8 kg of coal in my already full weekend rucksack. Neil and Walt were carrying coal too, but both had none too discretely emptied some out before we left Scottie’s.

Walking through snow towards Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

A wet, murky trudge in to Corrour.

The Luibeg was crossed with no great trauma, but once we got started over the shoulder of Carn a Mhaim the snow made itself increasingly awkward. We had hoped for a freeze to make it solid, but instead it was thawing and soft, meaning whoever was out in front periodically fell through into streams, bogs and WANKS (cross-path drains, so named by one John Frae Kent, standing for Walkers’ Ankle ‘n’ Knee Snappers). By the time we finally reached Corrour all three of us were knackered and Neil had just gone thigh-deep in a slush-filled stream. As I trailed behind Walt & Neil on the final path up to the bothy door I was distracted by a rattling clattering noise as a large fall of ice came down from the face of the Devil’s Point.

I took advantage of a lazy afternoon by having a nap and we enjoyed a traditional bothy night by the fire – rather more sober than intended on Neil’s part, as his Sigg bottle of port had emptied into his rucksack during the walk-in.

Neil Findlay, Alfie the dog and Walt Black in Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

Oh what fun we have on a bothy Saturday night. Neil’s dog Alfie tests the ppe, with one of the disposable facemasks

Sunday was the big day. An early rise and then we got suited up for the main event. Disposable boiler suits and rubber gloves, then into the innards of the toilet. Neil passed the bags up to me, I passed them down to Walt, and Walt laid them on the grass outside: fifteen bags of human waste ready to go. All we needed was the transport.

While we waited I scrubbed out the now empty toilet and Neil fixed some wear-and-tear damage to the windowsill and then we brewed up some more tea – which was a sure fire signal for the vehicle to appear. Even then we thought we had time – the last time a tracked vehicle came out it traveled at a stately 2 miles an hour – but this one was tramping on and the tea had to be abandoned to get the bags loaded onto helibags in the trailer.

Relaxing in spring warmth outside Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

Enjoying a brief respite before the arrival of the estate vehicle

Tracked vehicle and trailer outside Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

Ready to load. Truck, trailer and bags – now it’s time to lift them on board.

Tracked vehicle transporting toilet bags from Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms. Carn a Mhaim in the background.

Off goes the waste bags. Unfortunately the workers weren’t offered a lift out with them.

Quarter an hour of hefting bags of shit and a brief chat with Mar Lodge Estate Head Ranger Paul Bolton, and it was all over. It just remained for Neil and I to fix two new bags onto the toilet tubes and close everything up for use, then the long walk out. The weather, at least, was considerably better, but with a major thaw in progress, the snow underfoot wasn’t any easier.

The bags, taken out by Mar Lodge Estate, were to be picked up the next day by a licensed disposal contractor. And that’s it for another year, other than the monthly visits to change over the waste bags and the routine maintenance jobs that any bothy needs, along with the rubbish clear-ups that a particularly busy bothy like Corrour so unfortunately needs.

Those of us who look after Corrour – and there is a core of great volunteers besides MOs Neil F and myself – sometimes get asked by bothy users how much we’re paid for this. We’re not, of course, we do it because we’re daft, but, given the appalling weather we sometimes have to go out in and the pretty distasteful nature of the jobs we sometimes have to do, I very much doubt if you could afford to pay someone to do this shit. (Next time I head up the hills I want to climb one, not spend the time cleaning up after folk.)

POSTSCRIPT:

MRT Land Rovers near Derry Lodge, Cairngorms, during search for Jim Robertson

MRT Land Rovers and a police van near Derry Lodge on Sunday. Most of these sported a St John Scotland logo, testifying to the massive support that charity gives to mountain rescue.

A sad reminder that there were other volunteers out and about this weekend. On the way back down we passed a police team doing a line search through the woods at Luibeg Ford, and when we passed Derry Lodge this line-up of Land Rovers from various teams spoke to the ongoing search for missing walker Jim Robertson, last seen on 2nd March, whose belongings were found in Bob Scott’s. Wishing these guys good luck in their search.

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