This winter, as in a number of winters before, I’ve toyed with the idea of getting skis again. Not to go back to the crowded slopes of Glenshee and Cairngorm which I went to as a teenager, way back in the ‘70s, but to take to the wide open spaces between. The ideal of ski mountaineering is a siren call.
And then auld mannie pragmatism kicks in. Ski mountaineering – especially for someone who hasn’t worn a pair of skis for over 30 years – is something better done in company, and I don’t know many people who both ski and are absessed by the Cairngorms. And, of course, if I spent all that money on the skis and boots etc we’d get a run of snowless winters.
So now is probably a good time to shame myself by re-reading Ashie Brebner’s excellent article about skiing in Scotland in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, when the gear was rubbish and the skiers learned by reading a book and falling over a lot
The article was originally written for the MCofS magazine Scottish Mountaineer, but Ashie has given permission for the article to be republished on the blog. It’s a longer post than is normal here, but worth every word, not just for the information about skiing all those years ago, nor just for the light it throws on the building of the famed secret howff, but for the sheer joy and enthusiasm that shines through from start to finish.
So without further ado… read on.
From left: Charlie Smith, Jim Robertson and (turning) Doug Mollison, Ashie’s fellow howff-builders
On ski in the Cairngorms
By Ashie Brebner
Skiing in Scotland in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was rather different to what we know today. The Scandinavians had been skiing in some form for more than 1000 years, while the Alpine countries had been fast catching up since the 1920s. However, in Scotland only the middle classes could afford the pleasure and luxury of skiing and, since there was no form of uplift in this country, they travelled abroad.
This all began to change after the Second World War. Large quantities of equipment produced in preparation for winter warfare now came onto the open market, the chief buyer in bulk being Millet’s stores. It was now possible for the working class to buy an excellent rubber-lined frame rucksack for about 2/6d (12 ½ p), an ice axe of variable quality for about the same and a pair of skis for about £2.10s (£2.50). Of course, as an apprentice mechanic, I was earning something like £1.8.6 a week (£1.42 ½ ), so it was, in effect, two weeks’ wages. Nevertheless, skiing was within reach.
A few of the young lads in Aberdeen who were attracted to the hills saw the possibilities and, like many others, I bought my first pair of ex-army skis in readiness for the ‘49/50 season. We soon discovered they were very basic. At that time the correct length of ski for your height was for the upright ski to reach the palm of your hand held vertically above your head. Made from one piece of rather inferior wood, they had no steel edges and had a simple toe plate onto which was hooked a leather binding which slipped around the heel of the boot. The result was the heel was allowed to move up and down as in walking in cross country but useless for any kind of turn. The boot would make the turning movement, slip off the edge of the ski and the ski would continue its forward straight line. We quickly discovered a step turn was the only way to change direction.
Since the quality of the wood was very poor, we had problems with the tip either breaking or simply flattening out over a period of time until there was very little upturn. Every so often we would spend an evening during the week in which the tips were dipped in a bucket of boiling water. We would then jam them in a door which a second man would hold securely while you slowly pulled the ski round to restore a deeply rounded tip. And, yes, we know now that it should have been steamed but we had neither the knowledge nor the time to make a steamer. With this heavy-handed treatment, in heavy, wet snow the tip would break eventually under pressure. Despite these drawbacks, we were off.
Ashie Brebner on a sunny day on the plateau
Kandahar bindings came in possibly the second season and were a vast improvement. These consisted of a flexible steel cable with a large wound spring at the heel. You could tension these with a clip in front of the toe plate and the heel was held tight by the cable which was clipped to the side of the ski for downhill and was unhooked to allow the heel to rise for climbing and cross country. With this development we were able to move on to the more advanced turns.
There was no-one to teach us so it all had to be done by the book description and illustration. The perfect nursery slopes for us were in Glen Ey. There was an excellent bothy there named Achelie (We always pronounced it Acheeree. It is long since a ruin.), and in good snow cover it provided the perfect base with good, gentle slopes close by.
Auchelie in Glen Ey, 1951
That early Hogmanay saw five of us – Jim Robertson, Charlie Smith, Doug Mollison, Johnny Vigroe and myself – sharing a very large Austin taxi in Braemar, into which we piled all the rucksacks and skis and being transported up a very dodgy Linn o’ Dee road which was under deep snow to Inverey where we immediately donned our skis, still without steel edges but with the new Kandahar bindings in the cross country position for the three-mile trek up to the bothy. It was a beautiful moonlight night and the recent blizzard had obliterated all evidence of the track so we were choosing our own line. We each had the mandatory bottle of whisky in our rucksacks so we were moving fairly carefully but, even so, the moonlight slopes were difficult to read and Charlie Smith went down with a great clatter. We all laughed, of course, but then he said: “There’s something wet running down my leg. Oh no, I hope it’s blood.” It wasn’t. A precious bottle had been lost.
At that time most people worked on Christmas Day but had three working days’ holiday at the New Year, so we had time to concentrate on getting the stem turns and stem christies right by watching each other and deciding where and when the weight should be at a particular place on the turn. The result was that each developed a unique style which the rest of us could identify from miles away for years to come.
By the third day we had developed a confidence which was probably beyond our actual capabilities and decided we were ready for our first ski mountaineering trip. The plan was to climb Creag an Lochain to the south of Achelie and follow the ridge to Carn Creagach. Both hills were just under 3000ft which we thought we could cope with and leave us with a nice downhill run to Altanour, which was even then a broken down bothy at the head of Glen Ey. We would then return to our base along the floor of the glen.
We hadn’t reckoned on the weather changing. This was in the days before transistors made it possible to carry a small radio for forecasts. We just had to take whatever came along. And come along it certainly did. By the time we had reached the top of Creag an Lochain, the wind was screaming from the north-east and then the snow hit us almost as a solid wall. There have only been a handful of times in my lifetime in the hills when I have experienced a blizzard of this magnitude. Any communication between us was impossible because of flapping hoods and the howling wind. Soon it became very difficult to remain in visual contact with the others and we just plodded along in our own little world. Eventually, just ahead of us, we could make out something of a greenish-blue colour. A few more steps and we all came to a halt on the edge of an icefield which sloped at an alarming angle down to our right. Though we couldn’t communicate, we individually realized the wind had pushed us off the crest of the ridge and onto the headwall of the burn which comes off Carn Creagach and which earlier freeze and thaw conditions had converted to solid ice. This was beyond our skiing experience. The question was: how do we cross it? We still did not have the steel edges so were unsure whether we could get a grip with our by now slightly rounded edges. Do we attempt to cross it on ski, take our skis off, or perhaps turn into the wind and driving snow to regain the ridge? This last alternative, though practical, was not appealing. We each stood there deliberating, using our sticks to brace ourselves against the wind which threatened to drive us onto the ice. Doug Mollison made a decision. He bent down, took off his skis, slung them over his shoulder and edged onto the ice. Almost immediately the wind caught him, spun him round and he was off at high speed down the steep gully and out of our sight. We each stood there in silence, our slowing brains taking in the situation. We knew he would not come to real harm. There were no outcrops of any kind. He would have to find his own way back.
We now knew not to take our skis off and that we had to regain the ridge, so we backed away from the ice and reluctantly turned into the wind and snow to climb over to the right side of the hill. By one of those freaks of nature the driving snow parted momentarily as we came over the crest and we could see directly below us the trees of Altanour. Without hesitation we all pointed our skis downhill as the weather closed in again. This led to another new experience for us. We had lost contact with each other as we had each chosen our own line and were alone in a total whiteout with no point of reference. The result was the feeling at one point that you were progressing at a moderate speed then you would hit something that threw you off balance and you would pitch into the snow and only then realise you had been going quite fast. At other times you felt you were racing down, get scared and fall, and realise you had hardly been moving. Finally, and thankfully, we arrived at Altanour, where conditions were much more moderate and we were able to discuss the situation. We were all concerned we had left Doug to fend for himself, so we got back to Achelie as fast as we possibly could, only to find Doug toasting himself at the fire. He had slid all the way down the gully, losing his skis on the way, and out of the worst of the weather. He deduced he was in the Connie Burn, so it was quick and easy for him to get back home from there, though he spent the next weekend searching for and finding his skis.
Ashie Brebner (left) and Johnny Vigroe in the woods at Altanour after the blizzard
So ended the first lesson. We had learned how to control the skis but still had a lot to learn about reading the weather in winter, a vital factor which would only come by experience. In mitigation, our summer activities meant we had a reasonable knowledge of the terrain and we resolved to explore much further afield during the summer so that we had an inbuilt knowledge of the Eastern Cairngorms which we could fall back on in winter.
Time, distance and transport were major constraints in those days. Most of us worked on a Saturday morning, we had to use public transport and the winter days were short. So we would normally arrive in Braemar about 6.30pm on the Saturday night and if there were enough of us and we could afford it, we took the taxi to the Derry Gate. From there it was a four-mile walk or ski to Derry Lodge and Luibeg, where Bob Scott, the keeper, would let us use his bothy. The next day would be spent getting onto the snow, weather permitting, then the reluctant trudge back to Braemar to catch the 7pm bus to Aberdeen.
One day from that period stands out. It was early spring and must have been one of those rare occasions when we were given the key for the Derry Gate at a cost of 2/6. This allowed us to take the taxi right up to Derry Lodge and for it to pick us up again the following day in just enough time to get back to Braemar for the bus. The Sunday turned out to be one of those days one dreams of but seldom gets in Scotland. Cloudless blue sky, no wind and excellent snow cover on the high tops.
The snowline was about 2000ft so we carried the skis all the way up the Lui Burn and donned them on the Sron Riach. The aim was to take in Ben MacDui and see how the time went from there. So we contoured up the hill, the snow conditions getting better and better, and we arrived on the summit in remarkably good time. There was not a breath of wind and visibility was crystal clear. We debated our next move and someone suggested going across to look into the Cairn Lochain corries. That seemed a great idea so we pushed on across the plateau. Only other mountain skiers will appreciate the tremendous pleasure of gliding along effortlessly on a high top in perfect conditions with good companions, each taking turn to break the trail but making their own individual line on the downhill stretches. In no time we were peering into Corrie Lochain and had to consider our route back. The natural line was to skirt the Feith Bhuidh slabs at the head of Loch Avon, then down to the frozen Loch Etchachan. We were reluctant to leave the snow by going down through Corrie Etchachan so we contoured around the side of Derry Cairngorm and on to the Carn Crom ridge and finally ran out of snow halfway down Carn Crom. There was just enough time to collect our gear at Luibeg and meet the taxi at Derry Lodge. One of many memorable days.
Charlie Smith in warm weather gear
Glen Slugain and Beinn a Bhuird had always been a favoured area for us in summer. We would camp in the Fairy Glen at the head of Slugain and climb in the corries of the Beinn, go on to Ben Avon or wander down the Quoich. We had long noticed that the shallow corrie to the south of Coire na Ciche held good snow long after it had gone elsewhere. The difficulty was in carrying skis and winter camping equipment to the head of the glen – quite apart from the discomfort of winter camping. This just did not appeal. During the summer of 1952 we deliberated this problem and Jim Robertson, a stone mason with building experience, came up with a possible solution. What we would do was build a permanent base which would be so well hidden that the estate would not find it and pull it down. This would make a good base for summer and winter activities. So the idea of the Howff was born.
The Secret Howff, still going strong
We started building in the autumn of 1952 and completed it in spring 1953 and it was probably the best thing we ever did. I am delighted to say that 60 years on it is still being used by climbers and is now in even better shape than ever. Succeeding generations have added improvements which have increased its comfort and it looks like it will shelter many more generations.
From this base we could explore the Beinn on ski. I think the earliest we skied there was the third week in October, though, of course, it didn’t last and had thawed by the following weekend. Almost invariably we ended the skiing season there on the third week in April, for this was the Aberdeen Spring Holiday. What we had discovered on our various ski tours across the summit plateau was a wide, curving gully (Altan na Beinne) which left the top behind A’ Chioch and swept south and down at just the right angle to finish in the Dubh Ghleann. It was the perfect end to a good day’s skiing but a longer trek back to the howff.
Jim Robertson, showing how it’s done with no poles
We considered this and came up with a solution. Every spring holiday we would take a taxi to the Derry Gate, walk about a mile beyond the Black Bridge and then cut through Clais Fhearnaig and into the Dubh Ghleann to camp. We each carried several bottles of beer (no cans then) which we resisted drinking and buried in the snow wherever the Altan na Beinne run ended that particular year.
Ashie Brebner (front) and the others ski touring somewhere near the Howff
Then the next few days we would climb to the summit, explore the corries and take the last run of the day down the curving gully and plunge our hand into the snow at the end to extract an ice-cold beer. That seemed to us to be the ultimate in luxury.
Inevitably, as the years went on, girlfriends joined us and we discovered they were every bit as capable of crossing a mountain on skis as we were.
I look at ski equipment now with envy. There are remarkable developments in skiing and sometimes I wish I were starting all over again. But we are all of our time. You can go up and down a crowded piste all day and be happy but there is nothing like having a whole mountain to yourself where you are choosing your own line and working out how to use the hill for the maximum enjoyment. There is a new season coming soon and there will be miles of empty, virgin snow on the high tops once again. Get out there and make the most of it.
Norma Brebner heading down the upper slopes of Beinn a Bhuird, with a panorama of Cairngorm peaks in the background