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.

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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.)


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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Loch Lomond: a national park doing the dirty work for enemies of access

Loch Lomond

Looking across to the east shore of Loch Lomond, where camping bans are already in place. Photo by Nick Kempe

This blog doesn’t often venture outside the Cairngorms, but recent developments in the west cast a shadow over the future of all our mountains and our access to them.

There has been a lot of argument over the decision by Aileen MacLeod MSP, Minister for the Environment in the Scottish Government, to approve controversial proposals for new byelaws in the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park which will prevent people from wild camping in certain areas, principally the shores of several of the park’s lochs.

This is in response to well publicised problems with littering and vandalism, blamed on campers and anglers having barbecues and parties by the lochside and leaving huge amounts of rubbish, including fire debris, tents, air beds, clothing and, of course, beer cans and bottles.

I’m firmly convinced that the byelaws are wrong: laws already exist to deal with the problem, and the byelaws to be brought in will target the innocent along with – if not instead of – the guilty. Worse still, it sets a dangerous precedent. If it is justified to tackle littering at Loch Lomond with a camping ban then I can see no reason why it would not be justified at Loch Etive, where there are similar problems. And after Loch Etive? The doors would be open for any landowner to make a case for banning people from their land, rolling back the hard-won access rights which Scotland is so proud of.

So there are two parts to this post:

A petition you can sign opposing the introduction of the byelaws and urging the minister to reverse her decision

And, with his permission, the text of an open letter from former MCofS president and access campaigner Nick Kempe to Aileen MacLeod, again urging her to reverse her decision. It’s a long letter, but worth reading, presenting an exhaustively argued case against the byelaws. You may not agree with every point contained in it, but I believe the overall case made is overwhelmingly in favour of rejecting these byelaws as being the wrong solution to a misleadingly presented problem, and symptomatic of a national park which has been severely derailed from its original intent and now acts against the interest of Scotland’s people by threatening our access rights.

So here is Nick’s letter

Open Letter from Nick Kempe to the Environment Minister Aileen McLeod, 3/2/15

The Land Reform legislation of 2002 gave the people of Scotland and visitors not just a right to visit land but a right to stay on it overnight whether in a tent, campervan or bivvying. You are now proposing to remove that right from the most visited areas in the National Park, a National Park that was created with the aim of enabling more people to enjoy the countryside. For a Government that preaches social inclusion and a healthier more active population this is deeply ironic.

Everything that is wrong about your decision to approve byelaws banning camping around the lochs of Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is demonstrated by your news release announcing the decision

The figure that just 3.7% of the Park is affected has been repeated ad nauseam, as if this justifies banning people. What you do not say is the 3.7% covers the lochsides, the very places where most people want to camp.

West shore of Loch Lomond, showing land unsuitable for camping.

The argument that the restricted zones cover only 3.7 per cent of the park area is disingenuous. Does the whole area include the area of lochs too? And in any case, so much of the ground is not suitable for camping. Photo by Nick Kempe.

Your claim that this is for four “hotspot” areas – the four proposed management zones – is contradicted by the Park’s ranger patrol records. These show, for example, that over 23 locations on West Loch Lomond the average maximum number of tents recorded in 2013 was just three per location. There were just half a dozen places where higher levels of camping activity took place. Less than 10% of all ranger visits on West Loch Lomond (130 out of 1379 visits) recorded tents. The byelaws are about clearing people from the land, whatever the levels of use.

You are quoted as saying “The evidence that I have seen of damage caused, particularly in some of the most environmentally fragile spots in the National Park, tells a compelling tale of the need for action.” As Environment Minister you should know that our most environmentally sensitive areas are protected by being designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Special Areas of Conservation or Special Conservation Areas. A map check shows there are NO nature conservation designations covering Loch Ard, Loch Chon, the head of Loch Long, the west side of Loch Lomond north of Tarbert, most of Loch Katrine and most of Loch Earn – all of which are included in the proposed camping management zones. Even where land is designated, the Government’s agency responsible for these areas, Scottish Natural Heritage, has produced no evidence that the status of these sites is threatened by people camping. The threats that are recorded in SNH’s database for the land based sites are forest operations, invasive species (rhododendron) and, most importantly, grazing animals, whether deer, goat or sheep. Yet you are treating campers, not the landowners responsible for managing grazing animals, as the threat.

Several of the lochs within the proposed management zones, such as Lochs Lubnaig and Venachar, are part of the River Teith Special Area of Conservation, protected for salmon and three species of lamprey. The main threats recorded here are forestry operations, water management and sewerage. Again no threat is recorded from campers, or even from the anglers who may catch these creatures. Ah you might think, what about camper’s poo, is that not sewerage? Well, research published last year showed there was no evidence campers along the West Highland Way were polluting our river systems. This is much better evidence than anything supplied by the Park.

Camping on the West Highland Way  near Cailness - outside the restricted zoneNature conservation is important. When I was involved in negotiating access rights on the National Access Forum, prior to the Land Reform Act, the first thing the landowners and public agencies claimed was that access was harmful to nature conservation. The outdoor recreational representatives on the National Access Forum demanded evidence for this. None was produced. This helped persuade the Scottish Parliament that access rights should be enshrined in legislation. There is still no evidence that people fundamentally threaten nature conservation. That people in themselves, just by being on land, threaten nature is a very strange concept anyway. It is a fact that when lots more people used to live on the land in these areas there was a lot more wildlife – but unfortunately, as Minister, you have failed to scrutinise the so-called evidence presented to you by the National Park. In essence this consists of a large number of photographs.

The Park has used and depended on photos to justify its proposals to remove people’s rights. Embedded in its press release are 225 photos of “antisocial behaviour/camping”, 16 of “responsible camping” and 4 of “improved camping”

I suspect that you, like many members of the public, will have been shocked or disgusted by some of the images in the irresponsible camping folder. Abandoned tents and cookers, upturned tents, sheets of plastic bottles strewn everywhere, wasted food. I agree: they are images of everything that is wrong with our consumer society. It’s obvious these people don’t care, or perhaps should I say don’t care when they are out in the countryside having a party. For the images tell us something else about the people doing this. They are not campers in the usual sense of the word. For backpackers or fishermen, tents and camping equipment are prized possessions, not things they would ever abandon. These are people for whom the purchase of a cheap tent and equipment is less expensive and less trouble than a flight to an eastern European city for a booze filled stag weekend. The photos also tell you the Scottish Countryside is a much safer place to drink and behave badly: why risk a weekend in an east European gaol when you can clearly still get away with this behaviour in the Park?

I do not believe that large groups drinking, which we know from the Park’s own research are predominantly young men, are that hard to detect. Have you thought why the Park has only photographed the aftermath, rather than taking photos and car registration numbers at the time? Such photos could have been used as a deterrent and as evidence by the police if any mess had been left. The wrecked camps say as much about the failures of the Park as they do about campers.

While I am a liberal on drinking, and believe there is no harm in an angler or backpacker enjoying a tipple while gazing at the sunset, I wonder too, given there is empty bottle or drink can in almost every one of these photos, why you have preferred to remove the right to camp in preference to asking local Councils to control drinking as Stirling did on east Loch Lomond?

The numbers of photos tell you something else. If this was evidence, the Park should have taken photos every time their rangers recorded people camping when out on patrol. The public could then judge what proportion of people camping cause problems. Instead the Park have presented the problems out of all context. Early last year I asked the Park about what photos they had of people camping “responsibly”. Their answer then was evasive to say the least – I can provide a copy if required. The answer now, judging by the responsible camping folder, seems to be 16 – and of these 12 of the photos were taken in campsites. So, you have taken a decision without any consideration of how many people are camping according to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. The message, I think, is that the rights of people camping responsibly are unimportant.

In collecting photos to demonstrate “irresponsible camping” however, the Park have been rather casual in their selection of photos. These tell other stories apart from the shock and disgust the Park wanted you to feel so you supported this removal of rights:

* The very first photo in the antisocial behaviour album is taken on the south east shore of Loch Venachar, when the water is low. Who would not be influenced by such a sight? Certainly not it seems, the Park’s Convener, Linda McKay whose home is situated by the pier, known as the Quay, which you can see in the background. In the responsible camping album, the eighth photo, labelled Invertrossachs, is of this same shoreline. If you click on it, you can get a clearer view. There are two cars parked by the edge of Loch Venachar House, the property of Linda McKay which is hidden behind the trees, and what appears to be two tents on the shoreline. The photos don’t tell you that in 2014 the Park recorded 69 tents at the Quay or that the shoreline between the camera and Linda McKay’s House is owned by the National Park. Her house and this shoreline are within one of the proposed zones where camping will be banned. Linda McKay, as Park Convener, has played a key role in driving forward the bye-law proposals. How many people seeing this will believe that she has not been influenced by what happens in her backyard? I have tried to bring this to your attention, without response, but then Linda McKay is a non-Executive Director on the Government’s Strategic Board

* After the shock, a quick flick through the anti-social behaviour photos and its obvious many are of the same site from different angles. Indeed I have counted and there are 44 photos for Loch Venachar West labelled 140615 but you, like me, might not have realised this because some appear at the beginning of the album, some near the end of the first page and some on the second page. So, in what sense is this evidence of the extent of antisocial behaviour? I have not counted exactly but there are far less than 50 different examples in all. The photo “Sallochy”, where camping was banned four years ago, appears to show they cover a period of time. The photo “Inchmoan” is of one of the Loch Lomond islands where the Park says a camping ban is not justified and is outside the proposed management zones. So the Park has collected photos, any photos, to justify its proposals. 50 examples, 10 lochs, 5 years? Perhaps you could tell me and the wider public just how much “irresponsible camping” is required to justify a ban and remove access rights? When these irresponsible campers move elsewhere, will you respond to calls to ban camping there too? So, each time someone leaves a mess, will camping rights disappear? We don’t stop people driving just because they throw litter out of their car windows so how can you justify a camping ban in terms of human rights?

* A significant number of the photos in the camping/anti-social behaviour album – the Park clearly equates the two – illustrate problems that have nothing to do with camping. Several are of fly tipping, for example the photo of a heap of building materials and an enormous Jewson’s bag at the Fallen Tree layby on the A82. This will have required more work to clear than for any of the abandoned campsites, however unpleasant. Fly tipping like littering is already illegal, but the people responsible, almost certainly local residents, are much harder to catch than pesky campers.

* I hope the photo of the overflowing rubbish bin made you think. Similar ones are being used at present to illustrate “irresponsible behaviour” in the Cairngorms National Park consultation on a strategic plan for Glenmore. That all the rubbish is due to campers seems unlikely. Numbers of day visitors are far higher. But what is the mind-set of officials that sees overflowing bins as the fault of visitors rather than an issue for the local authorities who are meant to collect rubbish? Why should visitor be penalised because councils do not have the resources to fulfil their obligations? A number of photos show bags of rubbish left at laybys, including one under a sign that asks visitors to remove their rubbish. An issue yes, but a reason to remove people’s rights? A reason I would say for you to instruct the Park to develop its long delayed litter strategy, issue some consistent messages to the public, both residents and visitors, and sort out the inconsistent practices of Councils, some of which have litter bins at stopping off points and others not. I have previously written to you about this but again had no response.

* A number of other photos concern vehicles. There is a group of vehicles at Rubha Ban – so what I ask? These could be day visitors or campers. It is not an offence under traffic law to park your car up to 15 metres off road and it’s up to the landowner to control. Some landowners are happy to allow people to park in such a way but if not they can always fence off their land. If these vehicles were causing problems, the landowner could have asked them to leave and called the police if they had failed to do so. The photos of the tracks in Suie Field, a well-known place for anti-social behaviour, are interesting.…………back in 2010 Luss estates, keen supporters of camping bye laws agreed to take action to stop vehicular access. If these vehicle tracks were indeed caused by campers Luss Estates appear to have done nothing. Such tracks though are often created by land-managers, who, you may be surprised to learn, drive their vehicles off road into all sorts of places. In my experience this often causes much greater ruts than those shown. Perhaps, to address this hypocrisy, the new Land Reform Act which you are leading through the Scottish Parliament should require land-owners to have a licence to drive their vehicles off-road in the National Park? Such licences could then be withdrawn if there is any sign of landowners creating damage. I am sure this would be widely applauded and might just address the problems at Suie Field.

* While a delicate subject in polite society, such as the men and women who run the National Park, everyone needs to crap and, if you have to go in the great outdoors, the responsible way is to bury it. The photo Venachar West “the worst toilet ever seen”, which is of a camp chair with a hole cut through to create a toilet, shows how not to do it. I really do sympathise with the people who cleared this up – not a pleasant job. What the photo does not say though is that almost every visitor management survey ever done by the Park puts lack of public toilets and their opening times top of the list of visitor concerns. Indeed, as I have previously advised you, in the 5 Lochs Visitor Management Plan there was a detailed plan produced to address the problems at this very site, including installation of toilets. This was due to be delivered back in 2013-14 but nothing has happened. The message from the Park is that it is now more interested in clearing people from the land than putting in the type of visitor infrastructure that might address such problems in local hotspots such as this. I agree installing toilets might not solve the problem totally as the young men who take pleasure in leaving their shit in prominent places will no doubt continue to do so until the risk of being caught by the police makes it not worth the risk. But to put the matter in perspective, in less delicate times, there were no cludgies and all local residents went outdoors.

* The photos include a number of fires and fireplaces, and while many are clearly associated with camping, including those of tents actually burning, some could as well have been caused by day visitors. I struggle with these photos. I must admit I am personally not a fan of fires. I have seen a tent burn down, accidentally. It took a few seconds and I am not sure how the Park got photos of burning tents without catching whoever did this – but maybe they did, maybe the police were called? I am also green by inclination and think the carbon in trees would better be released slowly into the soil than suddenly into the atmosphere. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like cooking over a camp fire, the flames of a fire against a dark night are wonderful to behold and fire smoke does help keep the midges at bay! So, there are good and bad fires and this is reflected in the law: on the one hand Section 56 of Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 reads “Any person who lays or lights a fire in a public place so as to endanger any other person or give him reasonable cause for alarm or annoyance or so as to endanger any property shall be guilty of an offence and liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding [F1level 3 on the standard scale]” while on the other, lighting a fire is part of access rights. Advice on fires is contained in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and part of this advises that no trace should be left of fires. The photos of burned patches and fireplaces clearly are traces but they are generally small – yes, damage, but small scale compared to the widespread use of muirburn on grouse moors, which prevents tree regeneration across much of Scotland. But muirburn, which comes under your brief as Environment Minister, is done by landowners who like to claim how responsible they are, unlike the visiting denizens of Glasgow. Am I alone in thinking the line between responsible and irresponsible is far from clear? The photos demonstrate the Park seems to be in quite a muddle about fires. Among the “responsible” camping photos, the one on the beach along from Linda McKay’s house shows two fireplaces in front of the tent with chopped logs on them while another photo shows charcoal bags. Among the “irresponsible” photos there is one of a brick fireplace, labelled Lochan Lairig Chiele, and another showing barbecue trays which have burned square patches in the grass. So when is a fireplace responsible and when is it not? How did the Park know the “responsible” fireplace would be removed completely? Is this really end of the world stuff or the product of a petty mind-set? When does an irresponsible fire – that burned patch of grass – become a criminal offence of damage? In trying to work these things out, I like to think of the past as it gives perspective: charcoal burning was once widespread here but only the expert can now detect the former mounds of ash; I think of Rob Roy, on the run from the Duke of Montrose throughout this areas, who I am sure must have lit a fire most nights. Do you on the evidence of these photos trust the Park to decide what “damage” and what “likely to cause damage” means? I don’t. In agreeing the byelaws, that appear to shift the current law and make it an offence “to light a fire that causes or is likely to cause damage anywhere in the proposed management zones” perhaps you could tell the people of Scotland and visitors what exactly it is you believe is criminal rather than the merely irresponsible. A far better solution would be for the Park to provide barbecue pits, as they do in other national parks across the world; the existence of such a pit might have prevented that photo of a scorched table top.

* Like many, my heart bleeds when I see photos of hacked trees. It’s plain stupid, as fresh cut wood does not burn. But a few sawn branches are not proof of a problem. Indeed, almost all the native woodland along the lochsides, which now are protected as sites of Special Scientific Interest, owes its existence to coppicing, the chopping of trees by humans for charcoal and tannin. Looked at from that perspective, the amount of chopping is miniscule compared to what it was. It cannot compare with the poisoning of 300-year-old beech trees on Inchtavannach in 2015 by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Yet a few chopped branches are being used to justify the removal of access rights.

* I wonder if you noticed or asked why 10 of the 14 photos purporting to show responsible camping are taken on National Park campsites? In the Park’s mind-set of course “responsible camping” can only take place out of sight, in a campsite or when it’s under their control. I suggest as Minister you should ask the recreational community to send you all their photos of camping on lochshores in the National Park. It might give you another perspective. Better still, why not follow John Muir’s exhortation and go out camping yourself? Alternatively, look at the photo Loch Venachar (N) (3) taken on 4th July 2015: lots of tents, certainly, crammed together like in a campsite, and a fire is smoking in the background, but there are no signs of rubbish around the tents and – guess what – that’s a child standing by the shore! Isn’t this the sort of family friendly camping that the Park claims it wishes to promote and being prevented? The absence of photos of responsible camping is the biggest lie.

Reflecting on the photos, I think through education and policing you could prevent most of the problems the Park has illustrated. But let’s accept that not all prevention was successful; I wonder if you have considered the amount of time and cost taken to clear up abandoned campsites as illustrated in the photos? It is not much in the scheme of things. Apart from the case of Loch Venachar West on 14th June 2015, it would probably take two people less than an hour to clear any of the sites shown. Contrast this with the many hours the Park will need to employ rangers to police the byelaws. Have you considered how your decision will lead to a total waste and misuse of scarce resources because you are working against visitors, not with and for them? On east Loch Lomond, as I commented to you in my analysis of the deeply flawed review of the byelaws there, the number of ranger patrols has gone up, not down, because rangers now spend their time chasing away pesky campers, including those backpacking the West Highland Way. Indeed there are a couple of photos, entitled “cut alder” dated 7th September 2015 showing Ben Lomond in the background: it’s difficult to identify the exact location but this must have been in the area covered by the east Loch Lomond byelaws. Proof that the byelaws there have not worked or simply that many problems are attributable to day visitors? Whatever the case, resources would be far better invested in facilities that would benefit all visitors, whether toilets or litter bins, and in providing consistent messages to the public about how to reduce their impacts on the countryside.

Your press release announces you have reduced the time period the byelaws will apply each year – by just one month. I believe this is a sop to pretend you have listened. The Park’s statistics show there was very little camping, whether responsible or not, outside the summer months and the reduction in the time the byelaws applies just reinforces the fact that your decision is not properly evidence based and has been taken without any consideration of alternatives.

It is clear to me that another agenda has been at play through the entire byelaw process, one that has excluded recreational interests and the citizens of Scotland. In my view if the so-called evidence was properly scrutinised, as in a Court of Law, it would collapse. Tellingly, Lord Glennie, at the Court of Session hearing for the Holyrood campers a couple of weeks ago, was quoted as saying he drove past that campsite every day and “didn’t see any violence or vandalism”. Nor will most visitors to the National Park. Given that the implementation of the proposed byelaws will not be until March 2017 there is plenty of time for this decision to be challenged and for you or your successor to rescind it.


So to end: another chance, if you haven’t already, to sign the petition calling on the harmful byelaws to be rescinded.


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Cairngorms flood report

flood plain in Glen Dee west of Braemar, Cairngorms

Looking up Glen Dee across the flood plain towards Mar Lodge (not visible).

2015 ended badly in Deeside, with major flooding affecting Braemar and Ballater and causing damage to roads and bridges.

However the mountain areas appear to have escaped relatively lightly.

An outline update of Storm Frank flood damage from, updated on 21.1.16, can be viewed here.


On New Year’s Day, after Hogmanay at the Gelder Shiel, Walt Black and I walked in to Bob Scott’s Bothy, finding everything in good order, with the only effect of the flood being that the bothy had just experienced its quietest Hogmanay in history, with only Gus Fair and one other in attendance.

The Lui had risen with the flooding, but not nearly so high as in the damaging August 2014 flood, and didn’t come near the bothy. The temporary bridge at Derry Lodge also escaped unscathed, with the only visible damage being a few more inches of bank lost just downstream.

Footbridge over Derry Burn at Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

The temporary bridge near Derry Lodge, still secure

I spoke to a number of people on Friday and Saturday, and learned that the Hutchison Hut is okay, as is the small footbridge just below it. I didn’t hear anything specific about the metal bridge at Derry Dam but, given the relatively modest flooding in the area, I have no reason to suspect it will be damaged.

A group who came down from Carn a Mhaim reported that the bridge over the Luibeg is also undamaged.

Just had confirmation from German visitor Florian Finke that the Derry Dam bridge is indeed in one piece. Florian has also sent these photos of the Derry Lodge footbridge and of Bob Scott’s Bothy, both taken on 30th December when the flood was at its height. Looks like it was a close call for both.

Footbridge at Derry Lodge in Cairngorms during December 2015 flood

The Derry Lodge footbridge at the height of the flood. It’s probably the flat ground on the east bank that saved it from being overwhelmed. Photo by Florian Finke.

Bob Scott's Bothy during December 2015 flood in Cairngorms

Bob Scott’s Bothy, again on December 30th 2015, surrounded by water. This wasn’t so bad as the August 2014 flood though. Photo by Florian Finke

Glen Quoich

One bridge which is affected though is the road bridge over the bottom of the Quoich. Only saw this from across the other side of the glen, but it appears that the river has cut a new channel to the east of the bridge, rendering it uncrossable.

Bridge over Quoich, Cairngorms, showing flood damage

A distant view in poor light, but you can just about make out where the river has cut a new channel to the right of the damaged bridge

You can see a close-up of the Quoich bridge here, showing how the river seems to have almost completely bypassed it.

There’s an overview of the situation on Mar Lodge Estate in the NTS blog, with pictures, including a very much overfilled Linn o’ Dee.


There was more damage up by the Gelder Shiel, on Lochnagar. The rain must have been torrential, for even at the height of the bothy the burn rose enough to completely overrun the bridge just above the bothy and Queen’s cottage. The bridge still stands on its stone gabions, but the bank at either end has been gouged out, necessitating a clamber to get onto the bridge. The water was flowing on both sides of the Queen’s cottage (though neither it nor the bothy appear to have been inundated) and caused extensive and substantial damage to the landy track, gouging out ruts and holes over two feet deep.

Flood-damaged bridge at Gelder Shiel bothy, Lochnagar, Cairngorms

The disconnected bridge beside the Gelder Shiel

I’ll update this if any more news comes in, but remember, while tracks through the hills may still be passable, check before you leave home to make sure you can get access to the hills at all. At time of writing the A93 from Aberdeen to Braemar is blocked near Crathie where a long stretch of road has been completely swept away, and at Invercauld Bridge, just east of Braemar, where the bridge is shut because of damage. Check roads here .

Loch Muick

From the Balmoral Castle & Estate Facebook page:
“Please be aware. The footbridges at the west end of Loch Muick have been washed away and the footbridge across the River South Esk just above Moulzie has also gone”

Glen Doll

A diversion is now in place for people walking up from the Glen Doll car park to Bachnagairn/Loch Esk or Broad Cairn. This keeps people on the west side of the River South Esk (see map below). This diversion is necessary because the footbridge above Moulzie Cottage was destroyed during Storm Frank.Further route advice can be found at the Ranger Centre Glendoll, Tel: 01575 550233.

Moulzie diversion

Glen Feshie

It appears Ruighe Aiteachain Bothy was at some points an island, surrounded by floodwater, although as far as I’ve been told there was no water inside the bothy.

There has been substantial movement in the course of the river in places though, so care should be taken if you’re visiting there.

Anne Butler, of the Munro Society, reports that the bridge over the Allt Fhearnasdail at NN827983, 500m south of  Corranstilbeg in Glen Feshieis destroyed, with the bank washed away along with one end of the bridge.

Bridge in Glen Feshie destroyed by flood

The washed out bridge in Glen Feshie. Photo by Anne Butler.

Anne says this bridge is mainly used by mountain bikers and by locals for dog walking.

She said: “We walked up the west side of the River Feshie from Feshie Bridge on Sunday and the river has completely changed course and built/blocked channels in places. We are waiting for the river levels to go down before we attempt to walk to the bothy on the east side……….l’ll keep you posted.”

Anne further reported on 9th January –

Took a walk along the east side of the Feshie to Ruigh Aiteachain bothy today to assess the storm damage after Storm Frank (as promised Neil Reid)!
We left Achlean in -8c and the first obstacle was the Allt Fhearnagan which was double its usual width and now has two channels so was much easier to cross.
The east bank of the Feshie had been considerably eroded along the moraines with more path collapse looking inevitable.
The path was intact until we reach the Allt Garbhlach 😳. The steps to the river ended in a rather abrupt 5m drop to the floor below. The small bridge had gone and the river bed had quadrupled in size with a massive amount of rocks transported out of the corrie above. We walked about 100m upstream to the first group of granny pines where it was possible to cross the river. Opposite the south bank had been heavily eroded … We rejoined the path along the Feshie and all was good until the path disappeared again with 100m having fallen into the river. The detour through the woods involved a bog trot and climbing over a tree.
Considerable erosion from water run off on the track opposite Glenfeshie Lodge.
The Allt Coire Chacial was easier to cross being shallower and much wider.
I wouldn’t recommend trying to walk the route with a heavy pack in the dark 😱.

I’ve included one of Anne’s photos below, but it’s worth checking the full set.

Feshie flood 1

This path was only built a few years ago, seemingly safely distant from the river.

Glen Doll

The Bachnagairn foot bridge up the Moulzie track past the Moulzie Cottage has been completely washed away, so until further notice please be advised there is NO access to Bachnagairn. The Rangers are checking other foot bridges in the Glendoll area, so please seek advice from the Glendoll Ranger Centre on the current conditions of paths and bridges before heading out. Tel: 01575 550233

Glen Clunie

Had a query from regular reader Mountaincoward (I’m sure she’s not) asking about the bridge over the Baddoch Burn, which runs into the Clunie Water south of Braemar. Word from Braemar Mountain Rescue Team is that the Baddoch Bridge about half a mile up from the house – that would be 129 823 – has been washed away.


To finish on a lighter note, after some convoluted journeys we still managed to have a good New Year in the Gelder – including Ian Shand who had just spent a very productive day managing to save his home in Ballater from being flooded.

Two people playing one set of bagpipes at Gelder Shiel Bothy in Cairngorms

Teamwork! You blaw and squeeze and I’ll do the fingering.

Posted in Bothies, News | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Farewell to the Sea Kings – a Lochnagar memory

Sea King helicopter in action

A Sea King in action (not on the rescue described below)

Just been reading a blogpost by Heavy Whalley, a retired legend from the RAF Mountain Rescue, writing a fond farewell to the Sea King helicopters which join him in retirement on December 31.

Well worth reading Heavy’s story, but it also reminded me of my one dalliance with mountain rescue many moons ago on Lochnagar, when a group of us were so glad and grateful to see a great piece of flying.

It was winter, must have been the early to mid-eighties. I was staying in the Gelder Shiel with my then regular climbing partner, Kevin, and a newcomer to winter climbing, Dave. The weekend hadn’t got off to a great start. We hadn’t been to the Gelder before and, after a long trudge through heavy snow we arrived at a bothy that didn’t seem any warmer inside than out. Things didn’t get any better when Dave forgot he had wrapped the whisky in his sleeping bag ‘for safety’, and shook the bag out, sending our sole source of alcoholic comfort crashing to the cobbled floor. It was a long and bitterly cold night.

The morning, perversely, wasn’t so cold. As we trudged slowly up the hill towards Lochnagar’s famed North-East Corrie we were aware of a rise in temperature, with the snow getting softer. Struggling under a heavy load of climbing gear, and not feeling at all fit, I was making heavy weather of it and wasn’t too disappointed when we decided to call off our climb.

We’d reached the foot of Central Buttress, a Grade II climb we thought we might manage, but were unsure whether the snow was stable enough. There was no avalanche forecast in those days, but there was an increasing awareness of the problem and we knew from the guidebook that there was some ground higher up the buttress that could be prone to avalanche in poor conditions. We hummed and heyed for a bit, but when a small snowslide came down the shallow gully above us we decided on the instant.

We might have gotten away, too, if we hadn’t looked back at the cliffs as we neared the loch. Kevin and I both saw the two guys fannying about at the foot of the cliffs, both wondered what they were doing, and both realised at the same time that maybe they weren’t just fannying about.

One was lowering the other down the snow slope above the First Aid Box – and it didn’t look like it was just for the practice.

We headed back up and by the time we reached the First Aid Box the two guys were both there, and several others were arriving from where they’d been abandoning neighbouring climbs. (It wasn’t just us who thought the snow condition wasn’t very good.)

It transpired one of the pair we’d seen had been leading up the first pitch of Shadow Buttress A. He said the snow hadn’t been very good, but he’d just got to a point where he had two good axe placements, and had his feet in pretty well… “And then I fell”. Hmm. So how good were those placements?

He’d fallen and slid down whatever height he’d climbed, catching his crampon points on the snow and ripping the ligaments in his ankles, leaving him in a good bit of pain and unable to walk.

There were about a dozen folk now, besides our casualty. While we lifted him into the casualty bag from the box (a thick sleeping bag with a full-length front zip and handles along the side and head) we discussed what to do next.

It was decided (though not unanimously) that the wind was too strong and unpredictably gusty to get a helicopter in to the cliffs, so while we sent the two fittest to hotfoot it to the nearest phone (no mobiles in those days) the rest of us started to carry the casualty down to the loch and around it, aiming to get him out of the bowl of the corrie onto the open hillside, where hopefully the wind would be more predictable and manageable.

For anyone who has never carried a man in a casualty bag before, the first surprise is how easy it is. With three handles either side, and one at the head and one at the foot, it seems hardly any effort at all.

The second surprise is how quickly you realise you were mistaken.

Within just a few paces of tripping over boulders, falling into holes, catching the feet of the guy in front or behind and getting a kink in your back from carrying a load one-sided. On a level road it might be bearable, but descending a steep slope of rocks and heather, with humps and holes hidden by soft, wet snow, it quickly became torture, not at all eased by the constant buffeting of the wind. Even our casualty could see how hard it was and expressed some embarrassment at causing everyone so much work – although he didn’t take up my suggestion that he jump out of the bag and take a turn with the rest of us!

A measure of our pace can be had by the fact we were still well within the bowl of the NE Corrie when the helicopter arrived. Sure enough, whenever it tried to come in over the shoulders of the corrie we could see it being tossed to the side, forcing a retreat.

After a few tries it managed to drop the winchman and a stretcher on the eastern shoulder of the corrie just a few hundred yards away. Energised by the prospect of an imminent end to our ‘ordeal’, myself and two others raced up to fetch the stretcher, clambering over a snow-clad boulder field at an unwisely brisk rate, and returning even faster: I recall at one point two of us clinging on to either side of the stretcher sliding about six feet down a boulder to land at an almost-run on the smaller rocks below.

Once we got the guy onto the stretcher he was a lot happier – he had a more stable ‘bed’ and a bottle of Entenox gas to suck on for long overdue pain relief – but we were not: the stretcher was added weight and the steel tubing was harder to keep a grip on than the webbing handles of the bag.

So we were even more grateful when we saw what I still remember as the most amazing sight: a Sea King helicopter rising out of the ground in front of us.

In fact it had been following the slope of the hill up below the lip of the corrie and came in over the edge where the angle lay back into the bowl, but from our perspective, nearing that lip from within the bowl, it really did look as though it was rising from the ground in front of us – huge, massive, noisy and oh so welcome.

I vaguely recollected having read something about having the area cleared before carrying out lifts, and had certainly seen training flights where smoke flares were dropped and different approaches were tried, but there was no messing here. The winchman signalled to us all to drop down flat and started signalling to the helicopter, which flew right over the top of us – and you have no idea how massive a Sea King is until you’ve lain underneath one – and lowered the winch wire.

If we needed a reminder of how difficult flying conditions were, while this was happening the whole helicopter just dropped about 10 feet; dropped and stopped, leaving scarcely a clean set of underwear between the whole company, but just continued as though nothing had happened. The wire reached the winchman, who clipped the stretcher and himself into it, and then they were away, seemingly whipped away by the wind and then fast dwindling in size and noise as it sped off to Aberdeen and a set of crisp, clean hospital sheets for the casualty, leaving us sweaty, soaked and exhausted on a gale-battered hillside which seemed suddenly so quiet and lonely.

And so ended my only close encounter with a Sea King. After a tired walk out from the Gelder in knee-deep slush, and a long drive to get home after midnight, we read on the Monday how the rescue had been carried out by the Sea King – assisted by Braemar Mountain Rescue Team. That must have been the easiest rescue they never did but, quite frankly, they’re welcome to it: that was a straightforward, relatively unserious incident and it was cold, wet, exhausting work. It certainly taught me to appreciate the work the rescue teams do – and impressed me hugely with the skills and dedication of the Forces’ Sea King crews. I’m sure Bristows will do a great job in future, but we should never forget the huge debt we owe the pilots and crews of the faithful Sea Kings, and of the Wessexes before them.

Posted in Misadventures, Winter climbing | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments