Book review: Beyond the Secret Howff, by Ashie Brebner

Ashie Brebner, author of 'Beyond the Secret Howff'

Ashie Brebner

The Secret Howff is such a part of Cairngorm lore that it’s difficult to remember that until relatively recently so few people knew anything about it other than it existed… somewhere.

Now Ashie Brebner, the last remaining member of the group of friends who built the howff back in 1952, has spilled the beans in this fascinating book – and given us so much more too.

Ashie was born in Aberdeen in 1935, starting to go into the Cairngorms with his companions in the late ’40s, when many of the traditions we take for granted were just developing, and that’s what makes this such an exciting read.

Auchelie bothy, Glen Ey, Cairngorms

Auchelie in Glen Ey, 1951. Photo by George Adams

Bob Scott’s bothy at Luibeg was starting to become established as a centre of activities for Aberdeen walkers and climbers, with Bob himself very much in charge; Corrour was in regular use as a bothy, having been abandoned since after the First World War, and at the end of the 1940s it was being saved from dereliction by the Cairngorm Club. The Hutchison Memorial Hut didn’t exist at that time, but other old buildings were being used by working class climbers and walkers, such as the now ruined Auchelie and Altanour.

As well as exploring the hills on foot, they took up skiing too. With great quantities of army surplus skis coming on the post-war market, the sport had become accessible (just) to working lads, and Ashie writes enticingly of adventures up Glen Ey and on Beinn a Bhuird in those days before ski tows and pisted runs. It was all new and exciting and the massive enthusiasm which the youngsters brought to everything they did comes across well.

Ashie Brebner and Johnny Vigroe at Altanour woods, Cairngorms

Ashie Brebner (left) and Johnny Vigroe in the woods at Altanour after a blizzard on the tops

And of course one of those ventures was the creation of their own howff to ease access to the remote skiing and climbing corries of Beinn a Bhuird and the surrounding area. In an era before the access legislation we enjoy today, building your own hideaway in hills belonging to one of the landed gentry was a risky enterprise. An earlier bid to create a gite in the Dubh Ghleann was short-lived, the wooden structure being destroyed by estate staff.

So it was decided to get serious. Or at least that was the theory.

It has long been part of the lore that the howff builders smuggled materials past the ‘big house’ in the dead of night, sometimes getting off the bus early or late to disguise their eventual destination. In one hilarious section Ashie both confirms the basics of that lore and relates how that was only the smallest part of it, with one ‘work party’ taking on pantomime proportions as drink, darkness, paranoia and ill-preparedness combined to bring about near disaster. That story alone is worth the entry price.

However, as fascinating as the details of the howff builders and their building are, this is only one part of a much more wide ranging book which would be well worth the read even without the howff. There are other tales of walking and climbing in the ’40s and ’50s, but the tale goes into the ’60s with a new adventure.

Getting to the hills at weekends was all very well, but Ashie found his weekdays stuck in factory work intolerably deadening, so together with his brother-in-law he took a massive leap of faith and set up Highland Safaris, a new type of tour business shepherding nature enthusiasts into the mountains and remote country. Nowadays there’s a plethora of guides of all sorts, whether you want to go on a gentle nature walk or hack your way up vertical ice, but back in the ’60s Ashie and brother-in-law Derek were making it up as they went along. And since they set their operations up in the far north, they had a pretty much blank canvas to work with.

Cue great stories about strangely recalcitrant Skye boatmen, prospecting skiing potential on Ben Wyvis, and a bizarre story of ferrying a minibus – at a very exact stage of the tide – on a raft of oil drums, with a very highland incentive to the ‘ferryman’ not to capsize!

The anecdotes are fun, but through it all Ashie captures the excitement and opportunity of the era, and the wonder of exploring and sharing the amazing landscape and wildlife of the far north-west which enthrals him still.

‘Beyond the Secret Howff’ comes to a satisfying close with a coda which brings the story full circle with Ashie’s return to the Howff in the ’80s to discover something he had thought long gone had instead become a legend.

I have to confess an interest in the success of this book. When I first wrote about the Secret Howff on this blog, the very first comment was from Ashie, surprised it was still secret and delighted it was still being used. A few emails went back and forth which resulted in Ashie being prevailed to write two excellent articles for the Mountaineering Scotland membership magazine Scottish Mountaineer, which I was by then editing. One of these has since been republished on this blog but, more importantly, Ashie confessed he had got the writing bug – and this book is the result, making it one of the more delightful consequences of this blog. (Credit, of course, should also go to Ian Mitchell, who was also in correspondence with Ashie and gave invaluable help in steering the book through the publishing process, writing an introduction and even organising the book launch, where Ashie gave an enthusiastically received talk about his career and answered questions from the floor, all his enthusiasm still shining through, as it does in a book which really should be on your reading list.

Cover of new Ashie Brebner book, 'Beyond the Secret Howff'

 

 

Beyond The Secret Howff, by Ashie Brebner, Luath Press, £9.99

 

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Posted in Bothies, History, People, skiing | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Glas Allt Sheil refurbishment completed

Work party underway at Glas Allt Sheil bothy, Loch Muick, Cairngorms

Kenny and Elaine framing up the wall under the stairs ready for insulation and wood-lining – and bunk beds.

After a third weekend work party, MBA members have completed a major refurbishment of Glas Allt Sheil bothy near the western end of Loch Muick.

A good turnout of volunteers at the final work party at the weekend there included folk from the Eastern Area MBA, members of Bob Scott’s Bothy Association and a couple unaffiliated.

Previous visits had seen the upstairs sleeping quarters insulated and wood-lined, and two of the downstairs stone walls insulated and lined, as well as installation of  a new stove (replacing the previous stove donated by Friends of Bob Scott’s) and repairs to the flooring.

This final trip saw further insulation and lining, with two bunk beds built under the staircase and shelves added in a window bay and corner alcove, along with a lot of finishing work.

Officially, the bothy – an out-house of the main building, which is owned by the monarchy – is looked after by Dundee University Rucksack Club, but after discussions with the club it was agreed that the scale and nature of the work was beyond the resources and capabilities of students, so the MBA and BSBA provided the skills and personnel, along with a generous grant from the MBA to finance the project.

A number of Rucksack Club members attended and helped out at the first work party back in May, but the only students present this weekend were a rather bemused trio from the ‘neighbouring’ St Andrews University, who had come expecting a quiet evening and ended up drawn in to the usual BSBA ceilidh. One was snitched upon by his pals as able to play guitar and, despite his protestations of incompetence was prevailed upon to give us a tune on Bill Sutherland’s guitar, surprising everyone with a very fine-sounding piece of classical finger-picking.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the evening, though, was how warm the bothy was – inside and out – despite the sub-zero temperature and snow outside. Those who remembered the Glas Allt Sheil as it used to be could scarcely credit the difference some insulation and a good stove (helped by lots of coal and offcuts) has made to what used to be a cold, dark hovel of a place.

A good job well done.

Neil Findlay and Derek Stewart at Glas Allt Sheil bothy work party, Cairngorms

Neil Findlay at the chop saw set up under the tarp out in the snow

Walt Black at Glas Allt Sheil bothy work party, Cairngorms

Walt Black starts to measure up wood for the window shelf

Cleared gutter at Glas Allt Sheil bothy, Loch Muick

Guess who got to go up onto the roof to clear the piles of frozen pine needles from the guttering.

Work party at Glas Allt Sheil

Stevie the Plumber gets started on the bunk beds under the stairs.

New bunk beds in Glas Allt Sheil Bothy, Loch Muick, Cairngorms

The finished bunks

Window shelf at Glas Allt Sheil bothy, Glen Muick

The completed window shelf

Alcove shelf in Glas Allt Sheil bothy

A new work shelf in the newly lined corner alcove

Stairs and bunk at GAS bothy, Cairngorms

The new bunk again, showing the paneling inserted behind the stairs, leaving room to get a hand-hold round the treads

Bothy page with full details of Glas Allt Sheil.

 

Posted in Bothies, News | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Going beyond the Secret Howff

Cover of new Ashie Brebner book, 'Beyond the Secret Howff'

Beyond the Secret Howff, new book by Ashie Brebner

Anyone who has been to the Secret Howff, and many who have just heard of it, will know the name Ashie Brebner.

The last remaining builder of the legendary howff, Ashie has finally decided to tell his story. Published by Luath Press, Beyond the Secret Howff will be launched in Aberdeen later this month.

As the title suggests, the book will describe Ashie’s life not just in terms of howff-building, or his pioneering adventures in Scottish skiing (ski mountaineering, of course), but also his later career in pioneering guided outdoor holidays in the Highlands.

I haven’t read the book yet but have exchanged a good few emails with Ashie over the last couple of years and know he has plenty of great tales to tell, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it myself.

In the meantime, whet your appetite with a couple of tales from Ashie which he allowed me to carry in the blog: one about the early days of ski mountaineering in the Cairngorms, and the other of a specific legendary exploit skiing the Black Spout of Lochnagar.

Ashie’s book will be launched at Extreme Sports, Links Road, Aberdee, at 7pm on Wednesday 22nd November. Ashie will be there himself, as will Mountain Days and Bothy Nights author Ian Mitchell, who has written an introduction to the new book

The launch is in Aberdeen on Wednesday 22 November in the evening at Extreme Sports on Links Road. It’s an open event, so if you’re interested come along and pick up an early copy of the book.

Find out more about the book at the Luath Press website.

Posted in History, News, People | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Trees of the Cairngorms

Pine seedlings in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Just away from the bothy and already the trees were standing out, young seedlings catching the morning sunlight

It had started out a day for the tops. Beinn a Bhuird to be exact. But having emerged into Glen Quoich from Clais Fhearnaig and seen the south top with its head in the clouds, I decided to set my sights lower. After toying with various ploys, I decided to have a return to my childhood and follow a route I’d first done with my father as a bairn – and probably not done since.

I came down to the jeep track up Glen Quoich and crossed the Allt Clais Fhearnaig to take the path which just a few yards on leads diagonally through the woods and on over Creag Bhalg.

The woods, standard plantation fare, were quiet save for the odd bird, but there were tracks of a red deer which had recently wandered up the path ahead of me, prints still sharp in the wet ground. The woods ended suddenly, as is the way with traditional plantations, and there was a sudden feeling of release, with views across the wide glen of the Quoich and west into the main Cairngorms giving a sense of limitless space.

Looking from Creag Bhalg into the central CairngormsThere’s an attractive quality to this bare hillside under the right light.

Looking across woods on the south flank of Creag Bhalg and on up Glen DeeBut it was good to swing round to the left and see the open woodland on the Glen Dee slopes of the hill. It looks like a natural tree line you see in the picture above, but the lack of growth on the moorland may just be because it is so wet, for as I climbed into drier ground nearer the summit I came among more young pine seedlings, now being given a chance to grow since the removal of the deer. In fact there were seedlings all the way to the summit at 668 metres.

Scots pine sapling near summit of Creag Bhalg, CairngormsLarge, long-dead tree on Creag Bhalg, CairngormsFrom new life to old. This must have been a grand old tree in centuries past.

The variety of shapes in Scots Pines is amazing

Solitary pine on Creag Bhalg, Glen Dee, CairngormsThis one had a touch of the Japanese Bonsai in its shape.

Pine tree in CairngormsAnd here I was reminded of acacia trees in the African Savannah. All it lacks is a leopard over that lowest limb or a giraffe nibbling its needles.

Spreading Scots Pine, Caledonian Pine, CairngormsAnd this, as I moved along the hill onto the Glen Lui flank, reminded me of a great old oak.

As I moved along into the more mixed woods above and north of the Black Bridge across the Lui, I began to get the full benefit of the bright autumn gold of the birch trees, standing out like beacons against the dark of the pines.

Birch trees on end of pine plantation, Glen Lui, CairngormsMixed tones of green, russet and gold.

Floats of golden birch leaves, CairngormsDrifts of golden leaves look like they’re floating independently of their trees.

Birch tree in autumn gold, CairngormsAt any season Birch are bonny trees, but who could resist them in autumn?

Birch and pine above the River Lui, CairngormsLooking down a row of birch towards the Black Bridge, which takes the Derry Lodge road across the River Lui.

Golden glow of birch in autumn, CairngormsThis young birch positively glowed.

Birch and pine in autumn, Glen Lui, CairngormsFlame in the forest.

Birch and pine wood, Glen LuiA cascade of fluttering gold.

This final plantation, the one above the Derry Lodge track just before the Clash, is thickly planted and movement was awkward at times, but the joy of the colours and textures made it a fitting finale to a wander that had been nothing to do with tops and all to do with the pleasures of stravaiging and remaining open to sensation – on this day dominated by the glory of autumn trees.

Plantation in autumn, Cairngormsmixed plantation on steep slope in autumn, Cairngorms

Posted in Nature, Stravaiging | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

The last snow in Scotland

The author climbing a gully in the Cairngorms

In trouble again… (Photo by Alistair Todd)

You’d think, having just passed the age of 60, I’d have a bit more sense. But no, here I was in the dripping jaws of a Cairngorm gully, boots scraping on grit, slithering on moss, chilled fingers testing protruding rocks to see which were actually attached to the disintegrating gully-bed. I was directly below Susan, whose footholds were at best precarious, but whose hands were wholly occupied in holding a boulder the size of a small baby, which had just become detached from the mountain. I made a couple of hurried steps and lunges upwards, trying to get close enough to take the boulder safely from her hands – otherwise there was little doubt it was going to send me flying, for the gully was narrow – but Iain and Alistair had been coming down from above at the same time and fielded and secured the offending rock. Saved.

This wasn’t sensible. No helmets, no ropes, and a 500-foot gully filled with boulders and choss, bound together by little more than dripping moss. Yet we were all laughing. It was, after all, a great day out.

It started through the week, when I mentioned plans to head up to the Garbh Choire between Braeriach and Cairn Toul, to see if the increasingly famous Sphinx snowpatch had finally melted. Its demise had been predicted for almost a month and my previous attempts to get in there and see for myself had all been stymied by one circumstance or another. But now the trip was on and when I mentioned it on social media Iain Cameron, chionophile and acknowledged expert on Scotland’s long-lying snow patches, said he was planning to visit the site too and suggested meeting there. Given that I was coming from the south and he from the north, and that we were heading for one of the remotest spots in the Cairngorms, I though his suggested time of 1.30pm rather precise, even with the added qualifier of “-ish”, but in the event, after walking through almost constant rain since I’d left Corrour Bothy, I heard voices as I was crossing the scree into the bowl of the upper corrie and looked up to see three figures starting to descend into the outer edge of the corrie. It could only be Iain and co. Both of us right on time.

Figures climbing to the head of Garbh Choire Mor, Braeriach, in the Cairngorms

Iain, Al and Susan approach

The situation of the Sphinx snowpatch in a hollow at the foot of the cliffs meant I wouldn’t see if it was still there or not until I was right up there, and the steep scree apron leading up to the cliffs provided a graphic reminder of this corrie’s name – Garbh Choire Mor, the big rough corrie. This scree is still being formed: so many of its component boulders all sharp edges, some large blocks still virgin pink. As I neared the level of the snow patch sites the boulder scree gave way to mainly smaller blocks in a matrix of grit and moss, making for more unstable footing. One displaced block went down a long way, setting off further rocks as it bounced and slid. The tumbling boulder underlined the instability of this remote corrie and the sense of how it is still, infinitesimally, biting into the vastness of plateau behind it. I have seldom wandered in the innermost recesses of this massive supercorrie gouged out between Braeriach and Cairntoul, but each time I have been struck by a sense of remoteness felt in few other places in the UK. I remember yet my first visit there, one late spring day. The cloud was low, just above the floor of the inner corrie. I’d climbed up the boulderfield to get there, listening to cavernous echoes of subterranean streams, to finally stand in that snowy bowl , its sides curving upwards into the grey invisibility of dense cloud. There was no wind and I stood in a world of blank silence only broken every minute or two by the crack and echo of rocks released from their frosty grip high in the cliffs. It was a place where, standing alone, nameless fear nagged at the back of my mind.

The cliffs of Garbh Choire Mor, Braeriach

Approaching the snowpatch sites. Those cliffs above are about 400 feet high.

Today the rain was easing slightly and the cloud was lightening but, even as the three figures approached, their voices already audible, the corrie retained its feeling of remoteness. It is a remarkable place.

Feelings of awe gave way to laughter though, as I reached the hollow of the Sphinx. After all the forecasts of doom, after all my efforts to get up and see bare scree where for 11 years there had been snow… there were two plates of ice. The largest little more than a metre square, but still there, still hanging on. What could you do but laugh?

Remnants of snow patches in Garbh Choire Mor, Cairngorms

Two stubborn sheets of ice, rock hard but steadily dripping into the scree. This ‘snow’ fell in 2006

When Iain arrived, introductions were made. With him were Susan Houston and Alistair Todd, who I’d never met but with whom I shared a number of friends. We discussed the survival of the ‘snow’, which, at 11 years old, was ice that felt as hard as the rocks on which it lay. Iain reckoned it would have melted by this time the next day. I, based on absolutely no experience of this at all, reckoned its density would help it last for at least a couple of days. But it was chilly up there and, for a few minutes even snowed quite heavily (though it didn’t lie) so none of us felt inclined to hang about to see.

Neil Reid with remnants of Sphinx snow patch in Garbh Choire Mor

Me with the remnants of Sphinx. I may never see it so small again in my lifetime

So I never did see the Garbh Choire Mor completely snowless, but no visit to this spot is without reward: it’s just wonderful to experience being there. At 3700 ft you’re standing higher than most Munros but with raw granite rearing hundreds of feet upwards behind you. You look outwards, high above the bowl of a sheer-sided corrie that almost surrounds you, opening towards views of yet more rocky corries and cliffs and, far off, across the trench of the Lairig Ghru, the steep, rugged flank of Ben McDui, its summit dome this day whitened with fresh-fallen snow.

Iain Cameron with the remnants of the Garbh Choire snow, 30th September 2017

Iain with his ‘babies’

Neil Reid, Iain Cameron and Alistair Todd at the Garbh Choire snow patch, Braeriach

The three wise monkeys discuss the prospects of the snow (Photo by Susan Houston)

It seemed perfectly right when Iain produced a miniature of Glen Fiddich to toast this last remnant of 11 winters. But I should have been more alert when, after the bottle had gone round the other three, Iain passed it to me and said “Just finish it.” It was still half full. I took a sip and held it out. “No just finish it.” So I finished it. It was Glen Fiddich after all. But I should have known: this wasn’t a toast, this was a stiffener.

“I thought we’d go out by Pinnacle Gully,” he said. “I thought you might like to come with us and lay the ghost to rest.” An unfortunate turn of phrase: long-term readers of this blog may remember me writing about a previous tussle with this gully. Well it’s time to name names. Iain Cameron was the one who recommended Pinnacle Gully as a route out from the Garbh Choire and it was his advice I thought I was following when I had my close encounter with the grim reaper.

Since then he had clarified his description and it appeared I had taken a wrong turning – or rather failed to spot a twist in the gully and gone up the dead end which just about ended me. So today I was being offered the chance to go up the right route. The comedian Ed Byrne had been taken up there and lived. Iain had been up there with others twice recently. And of the present company, although Alistair was a climber, Susan was not. Nor, he assured us, was Iain. So how could I say no? It’s a man thing. Doesn’t matter how much your brain is screaming no, you find yourself saying “Yeah, sure” like it was nothing.

So we went. All four of us. Even after Iain warned us that we would have to climb close together because of the danger from loose rocks. Not a helmet between us of course, nor a rope.

When I last had a run-in with this gully I quoted Tom Patey, who wrote: “Most gullies are unpleasant. A Cairngorm gully is double so. It is the sort of place you would incarcerate your worst enemy; a dank gloomy prison where moisture seeps from every fissure and ‘all the air a solemn stillness holds’ – save for the constant drip, drip from many a moss-enshrouded chockstone and the occasional dull thud as another ledge sloughs away in a welter of slime and rubble.” Well Tom had it absolutely spot on.

Climbers in Pinnacle Gully, Garbh Choire Mor, Cairngorms

Iain and Susan head off up the gully. This was about as stable as it got.

The first 20-30 feet were as I had gone before, up chossy, loose rubble and mossy grit. But where I had gone straight up, veering to the right for stable(ish) rock, Iain now led us up to the left. The rock here was sound, but running wet and mostly covered with thick moss. Some ledges made good footholds, with only the occasional wide step needed, but there weren’t a lot of good positive handholds – and although my fingers quickly numbed and lost much of their grip, I couldn’t understand how Iain was climbing this with thick mitts on. I wondered briefly if they were velcro’ed to stick to all that moss.

Still, it was only about 30 or 40 feet or so, with Iain knowing the way from previous visits. Then the gully turned into the main line again and we were assured the going was now easier. Hmm. Easier in a technical sense, but still fully living up to Mr Patey’s criteria. The gully now, it appeared, was a steepening scree chute punctuated by a series of chockstones and the odd bit of bedrock, which was sometimes sound (but mossy), sometimes disintegrating (but still mossy). Worryingly, as each chockstone appeared, with its own technical idiosyncrasies, Iain would confess that he didn’t quite remember this little difficulty. Strange really, as some of them certainly impressed themselves on my memory – and Iain was the one who claimed not to be a climber! The other non-climber in the party was Susan, but though she claimed not to be a climber, she was a mountaineer through and through: “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” she would say, and then she would do it with no fuss – perhaps only because she didn’t know enough to know how precarious it all was, but no fuss all the same, even when she went to pull up and ended up holding that rock the size of a small baby. That was when Alistair or Iain relieved her of her unwelcome load just in time to save me trying to reach up between the legs of a woman I’d known for scarcely an hour. It underlined, though, how inappropriate and ungentlemanly behaviour was the least of the dangers facing our group. It was all very well keeping close to reduce the danger of rockfall, but one slip by any one of us could take all of us out, and at that moment I think we were all close enough to fit in a phone box.

Alistair Todd in Pinnacle Gully, Garbh Choire Mor

Alistair high up in the gully

Ach, but it was never less than engaging. Perhaps worried that we were getting bored at one point, Alistair dislodged a large block which bounced crunchingly down the gully, all the way to the bottom and taking some other loose lumps as company. How we laughed.

Actually it was getting enjoyable, despite the seemingly endless series of chockstones which Iain claimed to be surprised at. We were having a laugh between the episodes of trauma and enjoying the sensational views which came with the increasing height and improving weather. We weren’t seeing much of it in our gully, but the sun was now out and we had a brilliant vista looking along the line of cliffs all highlighted in light and shade. It was, in its own way, a great place to be.

Finally, with me by some accident in front, we came on what turned out to be the final chockstone – and it was a beezer. About four metres high and slightly overhanging, it wasn’t looking very friendly. I managed to get my feet high enough under the stone to get a hand up beside it and into a crack. With that security (and trying to ignore the gap in the moss which indicated a recently departed chockstone under the one on which my life was now dependent) I was able to embark on that mixture of chimneying and wriggling known to climbers as a thrutch, with scraping, bum-sliding and skiting of boots off moss and mud, all to keep me up high enough to start delving the fingers of my other hand into the moss and grit at the side of the chockstone to excavate a usable handhold. When I first learned to climb my mentor dinned into me that I must never use a knee – it lacked good style and wasn’t secure – but this move was made with knees, elbows and full-body friction in a slug-crawl that finally allowed me to stand up on the moving scree above the chockstone – and within sight of the gully exit. We were up!

Susan Houston and Iain Cameron at the top of Pinnacles Gully

Iain and Susan emerging after overcoming the final chockstone. Susan’s smile is entirely understandable.

There was, it’s true, a certain amount of manic relief in our celebrations. Alistair and I, having agreed that the final chockstone was at least ‘Diff’ in standard (not to mention being loose, wet and mossy), decided that once was enough for this particular Cairngorm delight.

And delight was the prevailing emotion as we looked around us. The contrast from narrow, enclosed gully to 360 degree views on the edge of the plateau, especially with the added sunshine, was breathtaking, and we stood taking it all in for several minutes before having an eye to the clock and parting for our respective returns, Iain and co to the north and me back to Corrour.

From Braeriach to Angel's Peak and Cairn Toul

From confinement to infinity – the contrast was breathtaking

Beinn Bhrotain from Braeriach

Seldom have I made such a photogenic exit. Beinn Bhrotain makes an awesome backdrop. (Photo by Iain Cameron)

I followed the corrie rim round to Angel’s Peak, enjoying all the way the vast vistas across the massive hollow between the mountains, and picking out in disbelief the formidable-looking gully we’d just climbed.

The cliffs of Garbh Choire Mor in the Cairngorms, with Pinnacle Gully in the centre

Pinnacle Gully is the twisting line rising from the highest point of the scree in the centre of the photo

By the time I reached the start of the climb up to Cairn Toul sense (and old age) began to prevail, and I decided to save an hour by missing out the summit and contouring round to go straight for the descent. It was a glorious afternoon to be there, solitary amongst the vastness, but there was no denying I was tired. And I appreciated the scale of that vastness all the more as I walked and walked, the top of Coire Odhar seeming to get no nearer for ages. These are huge hills, and a human is very small crawling into their wrinkles and over their surfaces. But even as I limped the last few downward yards to fire and food at Corrour, I knew that I was lucky to be there amidst the vastness and the wonder. And I’d seen Scotland’s last snow and its first, all in one day.

Looking across the slopes of Cairn Toul

Waves in the landscape. A place of deepest beauty

Posted in Misadventures, Nature, Topography | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

50 years in the Cairngorms

It was  an inauspicious start: 1967, nine years old and chasing my brother through the heather. Suddenly I was doing a Wiley E Coyote impression, feet windmilling through the air as I fell into a gravel quarry at the side of the track up Glen Dee. There was scraped skin, a modicum of blood and bruising and plenty of tears, prompted by shock as much as pain.

But what swung it that day was the water. After the tears had subsided and we’d walked a little further we came across a stream. Not too big, but running clear down off the hill and culverted under the track to continue its way down to the Dee. A cup was produced, water was scooped from the burn and ritually tasted by my father and his pal. A little peaty, apparently, but potable. We would be able to drink it.

The author as a child with a family group in the Cairngorms

I considered myself a veteran by the time this photo was taken: my own boots, a smock anorak and – of course – good sturdy jeans(!) I’m pictured here on the right with my mother, brothers, wee sister and a family friend on the left.

Now just days from my 60th birthday the anniversary which counts more is the 50 years since that day in 1967. The half a century I have enjoyed in Scotland’s mountains, climbing hills, rock climbing, climbing icy gullies and ridges and stravaiging with no goal other than to be in among the hills.

In the beginning were the Cairngorms. My parents acquired a caravan which sat the summer through at the old Canadian Campsite, where the Lui joined the Dee, clear ground where just twenty-odd years earlier Canadian loggers had processed the trees they stripped from the surrounding hillsides to feed the bottomless appetites of world war. For us kids it was a perfect playground and the woods and hills around were simply an extension of that. Yes, with my father and uncle and my father’s many friends, we climbed hills, but there was no mention of whether they were Munros, no driving urge to stand on the top of a hill, and many a walk explored glens and corries, remote lochs, bothies, even stands of trees where deer may have shed their antlers and where we could find anthills to gaze at. It taught me to love the hills in their entirety, not just the piled rocks at the highest points.

In time there were the usual teenage distractions, but though the frequency of hill trips fell away for a few years they never stopped, and as I set out on my own life, with a move down to Fife and my own car, more distant mountains came within range. Glen Coe tempted with its roadside verticality and one new year death was diced with as a half-read, half-remembered route description  tempted me into a solo, late start, winter traverse of Aonach Eagach, finished only because I was too scared to go back the way I had come. As I stumbled gratefully onto the road near the Clachaig I muttered a heartfelt “Never again!”, but by the time the year was out I’d done it another twice in winter and several more times in summer.

That was the same year I joined the Braes o’ Fife Mountaineering Club and climbing beckoned. I never became particularly good, but God I was keen. Through the week I climbed evenings at Aberdour’s Hawkcraig or the small Craiglug crag at Dairsie. During the longer evenings we would go up to Craig y Barns at Dunkeld. Weekends were mountain crags, all over Scotland for club meets or up to Glen Coe when there was nothing organised. And we climbed. Hill walking was something you did when it was too wet to rock climb. My first mountain route was the stupendously out of my league thousand-foot Central Buttress of Coire Mhic Fhearchair on Beinn Eighe. Head minced by the last few pitches we finished in the rain, me on a tight rope. On the way down we managed to descend the wrong side of the hill and only made it to the pub at closing time – which was when the other club members had set a deadline for calling out the mountain rescue!

Come winter we moved into the gullies. Ill-equipped and ill-educated, we flailed our way into the avalanche-prone gullies of the Northern Corries of Cairngorm, Glen Clova, Glen Coe, learning how to keep our heads together with a full-rope run-out with no gear and dodgy snow offering no security. The routes were technically easy, but still we were often climbing at our limit and abseil retreats are a familiar memory, as well as after-dark finishes.

With my first climbing partner, Kevin Burns, I helped teach many people to climb, most of whom went on to excel their teachers. Colin McGregor was charitable enough to continue to climb with me long after his skills surpassed mine, welding that bond that only comes from being companions on a rope, fates bound together, depending on each other to hold it together when everything seems in danger of falling apart. I tell Colin now that most of my near death experiences came when climbing with him and maybe that’s true, but those are the times when we lived most intensely too, the memories which remain vivid and cherished. Belayed to a warthog driven into a rock crack, I watched one afternoon as Colin tiptoed across a bare granite slab on Creagan a Coire Etchachan, waiting for him to fall and calculating where he would land. We climbed into the night in Coire Sputan Dearg, struggling onto the plateau in a tearing blizzard, feeling our way along the cliff edge to find a descent, then almost falling asleep sitting against a tree in the Luibeg woods. We took it way beyond reason on Ben Nevis, putting in 24 hours nonstop, Colin falling asleep on one belay, both shaking hands as we finally lay side by side on the flat snow at the top of the route, nearly midnight, summoning the willpower to get up and find a way back down, still roped, and almost losing it all in a small avalanche. Ah, that familiar dread as Colin has led tenuously past any prospect of retreat without any assurance that the way ahead will go, me swearing to give it all up if I even manage to get up behind him.

Neil Reid on Grey Slab in Coire Sputan Dearg, Cairngorms

A more recent venture onto rock – with Colin McGregor on Grey Slab, Coire Sputain Dearg. Photo by Colin McGregor.

And giving up was an option some of those days. After I was married and with children joining the mix, the nerve tended to go. Once committed I could keep going, but there was conflict between the desire to climb and the fear that now so often held me back, with many long dark nights of the soul as I wrestled with conflicting urges.

Perhaps the bothies came at the right time. I’d used the Cairngorm ones since I was a kid, accepted them as part of the hills. Then Bob Scott’s – the new one on the north side of the Lui – burnt to the ground. I heard that it was to be rebuilt, thought I should lend a hand… but never did. Although I’d stayed there many times I’d never been part of the scene there, didn’t feel confident enough to rock up and offer just some very average DIY skills. However a year after Bob Scott’s came news that a renovation was to take place at Corrour, the first bothy I’d ever visited as a small child, where I was captivated by the whole idea of bothies as shelters open to all. This time I was determined I would help, and an opportunity arose. Pressures at work had been getting too much and I was signed off with stress – just at the time I read in a now defunct forum that people were needed midweek to help receive materials at Corrour from a helicopter lift.

Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Corrour Bothy – post renovation

So I turned up, lent a hand with some lifting and carrying, and was made welcome. And by dint of watching and listening, showing willing without overreaching myself – and because the others doing the work, and who all seemed to already know one-another, were friendly and encouraging – I learned enough to make myself occasionally useful. It set the foundation for the next phase of my life in the mountains. I met a whole new set of companions, some of them now counted as among my very best friends, and became more and more deeply involved in bothy maintenance. I was invited to be joint maintenance organiser for Corrour Bothy. It meant a commitment to helping keep the labour-intensive and rather odorous toilet running smoothly, but to be asked to look after this bothy which had so thrilled me as a child was a source of unseemly pride and I regarded it then and look on it still as a great privilege.

The same pride and sense of privilege has kept up for more than a decade now, being allowed to help in a major reconstruction of almost all the Cairngorm bothies – and a few outwith. There was the replacement of the Fords of Avon, the transformation of the Hutchison Memorial Hut, work at Tarf, Faindouran, Allt Shiecheachan, Sheiling o’ Mark, Glas Allt Sheil, Callater BothyScottie’s, Gelder Sheil… even the ‘Secret Howff‘!

At work on renovations at Callater Bothy, Cairngorms

Alex at work on the saw table at Callater Bothy

But it hasn’t all been bothies. Summer and winter I probably spend more time than ever in the mountains, getting to know the Cairngorms and their many corries and secret corners with a depth that increases rather than sates my passion, walking the hills by their familiar routes, seeking out seldom considered routes, poking my nose into corners that are on the way to no summit or discernible destination. And if the ropes and climbing paraphernalia are seen less often these days, they still come out now and then – and some days seem to hold plenty excitement even with none planned.

And the hills have, finally, taken over my working life and a large part of my personal life too. In  2011 I started this blog and soon after became part of the management committee of the MBA, as Eastern Area (Cairngorms) Rep. More recently, and, because I clearly wasn’t involved in enough, I became a trustee of the recently formed Bob Scott’s Bothy Association when it became necessary to lease the bothy from  the NTS. Then there was the professional move, when I was appointed communications officer with Mountaineering Scotland (then MCofS), editing the quarterly members’ magazine Scottish Mountaineer and counting as my colleagues people who I’d read about in books. Indeed, the people have been one of the major pleasures of mountaineering. From my father and his friends when I first donned walking shoes, through various companions, clubmates and climbing partners (not to forget my wife, who I met through the climbing club), those I’ve worked with in the bothies and so many of the thousands of people I’ve encountered on so many magical bothy nights, and the many – known and unknown – I’ve met through Mountaineering Scotland and the magazine, the mountains have been responsible for so many good friends and companions, just as they’ve been the scene and inspiration of so many countless adventures, epiphanies and days of wandering contentment.

Nine years old, I so wanted to drink that water which came from no tap but a wild stream in the hills. And I so much enjoyed it then and so much enjoy it still. Half a century later, with a lifetime in the hills behind me and hopefully many years still to come, I’m not bored of them yet.

Stream in Glen Dee, Cairngorms

Was this the stream I drank from all those years ago? I seem to recall it being a small wee burn, but who knows? It tastes sweet all the same.

Posted in Bothies, People, Rock Climbing, Stravaiging, Winter climbing | Tagged , , , , , | 40 Comments

Walk out in the rain

Lochan Uaine, Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Garbh Choire Mhor in the Cairngorms

The drama of the Cairngorms

I love the photo at the head of this post. It was one of several I put in a Facebook album and it was the one that got all the likes.

Now the camera it was taken on was nothing special (a Canon Ixus 860 IS if you’re really geeky about these things) and the photographer definitely not particularly skilled – I pointed, zoomed in a little, and clicked.

Yet it captures something of the qualities that make the Cairngorms so special: the sense of scale, the unyielding bulk of the mountains, the distances. The threatening sky over the rain-cleared brightness of the corrie with fresh green amidst the glister of the granite slabs brings out a sense of drama missed by those who thrill only at pointy peaks and narrow ridges.

In short: I love the photo at the head of this post.

It’s not there, however, to show you how good I am – the sight was there, I only had the sense to notice and click – but to underline something I forget too often myself. And that’s to GO. Get out there. Use the forecast to prepare, but get out onto the hill and discover what it reveals.

The day I found this scene really was a day for sitting at home with a good book and a roaring fire. Summer had forgotten its place and allowed November to gatecrash the party, with winds, low cloud, rain and stinging hail. All sorts of plans had been devised and ditched, and even Sunday’s first choice was abandoned as the legs didn’t feel up to it, but by that time I’d walked up Glen Derry to the Hutchy Hut, so thought I might at least go up McDui. It had already rained by the time I reached Loch Etchachan but I followed the path on up until I could traverse across to the foot of the slabs on the other side of the stream, where the bedrock of the mountain is bared.

Slabs on Ben McDui, Cairngorms

The slabs. My route went up the right side of the gully with the snow at the top, although you could make a few wandering routes across the slabs themselves.

These slabs are part of a broad ridge hiding the remote corrie of the Garbh Uisge Mor from the main ascent path. I climbed easy ground to the right of a gully up the north edge of the slabs to gain the crest of the ridge. The rain was back, the wind had more of a bite on the exposed ridge and the cloud was down over the main and north tops of the hill, but looking down the ridge made that all by the way. It was one of those views, like the first image in this post, which – to me – captured something of the nature of the Cairngorms: looking down over granite boulders to the waters of Loch Etchachan and, beyond that, through a cleft in the mountains and almost 700 feet nearer sea level, a glimpse of Loch Avon. Conditions for the photograph were poor, but it was a shot I had to take.

Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, Cairngorms

Lochs Etchachan and Avon, separated by almost 700ft of altitude.

The rain turned to hail and the cloud on the summit didn’t look like shifting, so I decided to head back down and cross over to Derry Cairngorm, which had remained below the cloud ceiling. I knew it was likely to rain again (and it did) but had it in mind that it was a day when at least one summit should be reached. In any case, it was a more attractive return route that all the way down Glen Derry again, or down the boggy Coire Sputain Dearg (whence I’d seen a damp Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team descending, bearing a laden stretcher as part of an exercise).

And that’s how I got the picture at the head of the post. Just after disturbing a mother ptarmigan on the Derry Cairngorm screes, seeing her trailing her wing in one direction and her five fluffy chicks scattering in all other directions, I looked across to Coire an Lochan Uaine and stopped.

The colours of the corrie were bright after the rain, and beyond the sweep of the corrie rim were the receding and increasingly blue layers of Cairn Toul, Sgorr an Lochan Uaine and the innermost recesses of the Garbh Choire Mhor, highlighted by the unseasonably diminished ‘eternal’ snow patches. It’s a view that should stop anyone in their tracks, but the weather added a sense of drama that made the whole scene even more special. This was a view worth getting wet for. The wind, the rain, the hail… they hadn’t spoiled this day at all – they’d made it.

Lochan Uaine, Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Garbh Choire Mhor in the Cairngorms

And one more time…

 

Posted in Stravaiging, Topography | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments