Summer snow and rough waters on Macdui

Summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

A tenuous arch of snow is all that remains of a tunnel through the Feith Buidhe snow patch

Macdui was busy on Saturday. When I reached the summit cairn there must have been at least twenty folk there and lots more approaching and leaving. One group on their way off was a party led by Simon from Cairngorm Treks, who greeted me by asking where I was off to today. Hmm. Britain’s second-highest mountain might have been enough, but he obviously knows me: on Saturday the summit cairn was just on the way to where I was heading.

Within just a few minutes of leaving the summit I was on the North Top of Macdui, bypassed by the highway from Cairngorm so seldom trod, despite being only a few feet of reascent, then I was dropping down its northern slopes to one of the least visited yet easily accessible parts of the mountain, that area where the Feith Buidhe and Garbh Uisge streams gather strength before tipping down into the great chasm of Loch Avon.

I was heading for the Feith Buidhe slabs, in the hope of getting some photos of the snow tunnels and crevasses in the long-lying snow patches there. I was there a few years ago and got a few pictures like this – more a snow bridge than a tunnel.

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013. Cairngorms

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013

But I’d seen photos Ian Cameron took there last weekend and reckoned I might get something more impressive this time around. So after walking as far as the Feith Buidhe stream on the plateau, I zigged under some outcrops back to just above the Garbh Uisge Beag and then zagged back to find the snowfield on the Feith Buidhe slabs, which had been totally invisible from above, but was quite extensive.

The slabs between the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge are an impressive feature even on their own: great sheets of granite, easy enough angled to walk on and stepped layer upon layer, sometimes rearing up in vertical walls, but often with slanting ledges or stepped corners providing surprising ways through. These steps bank out completely under winter snow, and provide enough of an anchor to stop it sliding off in spring, as it does on Coire an Lochain’s Great Slab in the nearby northern corries of Cairngorm.

Late summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorm

Snow starting to break up into ice boulders on a heavily stepped area of the slabs

When I got up close it was a bit of a bust in terms of what I’d been looking for. A once impressive tunnel had collapsed, leaving just a slender sliver of snowbridge amidst a broken jumble of ice slabs and boulders. But the novelty of being up close to snow 10 feet deep or more (at the edges) in the middle of summer meant I wasn’t too downhearted and enjoyed an hour or so just wandering about on the slabs and ledges exploring what I could of the area. There was an interesting looking crevasse away in the middle, but with no-one else about I didn’t think it was wise to take too many chances; those ice boulders you see in the photo were very heavy – and very hard – and I didn’t fancy being under anything like that.

Broken ice on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Nothing soft about this snow: these ice boulders were solid.

View from bergschrund on Feith Buidhe slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

Looking out over Loch Avon from the bergschrund between ice and rock

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

This distant view shows the full extent of the snow patch. The broken snow boulders show the area I was exploring

After I’d amused myself for long enough around the edges of this summer snow I started heading back to base – that was a long way away at Bob Scott’s Bothy, but I had plans on the way. A few weeks earlier I’d been in the area with a friend and had climbed from the Shelter Stone up onto the plateau by a route parallel to the Garbh Uisge. We’d left the course of the burn to head over to Carn Etchachan on that occasion, but this time I wanted to follow the course of the burn further.

This is a tremendous area of Macdui. As I mentioned above, being away from the trade routes, it’s little frequented, and indeed, much of it is hidden from most places people are likely to be.

The Garbh Uisge is well named – rough water – and the ground it travels through is pretty rough too, all rock and scree with sparse vegetation, many of the hollows showing by the black moss on the stones how long they spend under snow. It’s fascinating looking at the different  states of the rock – all granite, yet showing so much variation, from bedrock slabs waterworn and smooth, to bulging outcrops with horizontal fault lines expanding into cracks and different types of blockfields, some where thinnish sheets of granite resemble a ruptured flagstone floor, others with more irregular boulders. Some rocks lie in close pieces, fractured, clearly fitting together, yet with edges so worn you know they have lain in pieces for millennia rather than mere years. It’s a place where you realise the erosion of mountains is an ongoing process rather than just an end result. Sit in the bowl of Loch Avon and look up at the cliffs all around – An Sticil, Carn Etchachan, Hell’s Lum, Stag Rocks and all the others – and there’s somehow a sense of permanence. But here, in the corrie of the Garbh Uisge Mor, you know both that you are seeing an unfinished landscape and that this mountain shaping is happening in a deep geological time that is beyond imagining. It is a wild place. In almost 50 years of coming to this mountain I have never seen anything resembling the mythical Grey Man but, if there was such a creature, this is where he would be found.

And yet it’s not a horrible place. On Saturday I walked with pleasure up the course of the Garbh Uisge Mor, delighting in the sheets of slabs, the rushing gullies, the sandy coves, the cataracts and the still pools, exclaiming at the surprise of a small lochan appearing at eye level, marveling at the bright delicacy of ferns growing in a crevice between rocks. Distant views ranged from the Cairngorm massif to the north to Beinn Mheadhoin’s tors further east, but they remained essentially a backdrop to the more intimate views of this secret corner of Ben Macdui.

When finally I left the course of the burn to contour round the buttress separating it from the main path up from Loch Etchachan and cross that to return over the top of Derry Cairngorm, there was still plenty of good walking to do, but nothing beat the highlight of those couple of hours of summer snow on granite slabs and the rough water of Macdui.

Garbh Uisge stream on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge as you climb from the Loch Avon basin. (This photo was taken a few weeks earlier on a previous visit to the area)

Garbh Uisge cataract, Loch Avon basin, Cairngorms

Cataract in the lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge

Garbh Uisge Mor on granite slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Garbh Uisge Mor, sliding over sheets of granite before joining with the Garbh Uisge Beag to tumble over the edge of the plateau

Garbh Uisge Mor, on the Cairngorm plateau

Flowing over steps in the bedrock of the mountain

Lochan beside Garbh Uisge Mor, Ben Macdui

Flanked by lochans

Sandy beach in the Garbh Uisge Mor, Cairngorms

The shock of a sandy beach so high on the mountain – that’s the north top of Macdui on the right, at 1295 metres

Ferns high on Ben Macdui beside the Garbh Uisge Mor

And finally, the joy and delicacy of ferns erupting from crevices in the hard granite.

Posted in Stravaiging, Topography | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Faindouran Bothy back in business, complete with stove

Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon, Cairngorms

Faindouran Bothy in Glen Avon. The stove gives it a heart once more

After writing about a lost bothy in the last post, it’s good to be able to write of a bothy regained.

To be exact, Faindouran was never exactly ‘lost’, but it was a close run  thing at the start of 2013 when news came through that a large part of the gable wall had come down in a winter storm.

East gable of Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon, Cairngorms

The east gable of Faindouran Bothy showing the damage caused in the winter storm of 2013

The situation was serious. Nothing could be done immediately because of the weather, but there was further delay while a practicable solution to the collapsed wall could be found, given the remote location.

After a lot of thought, the wall was not so much repaired as replaced: the original wall (never built as an external wall) was capped and a block and timber wall was built outside it, giving both stability and protection.

A lot of work was involved, with volunteers making a number of long journeys – it’s 16 miles up a sometimes precipitous landy track – but by the end of last year the work was all but done.

Repaired east gable lof Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

The new gable, faced with long-lasting larch.

However a very important element was still outstanding. The gable wall had also been the chimney wall. Rather than try to rebuild a chimney, it was decided to put a stove in, with a flue going through the roof. That stove was in place last year, but lacked the flue.

Last weekend a group of us met in Tomintoul on Friday night and headed up the long and winding road to Faindouran – 16 miles, but a journey of over an hour in a four-wheel-drive. MOs Hugh and Marlene were joined by Kenny Freeman, his daughter Elaine, John Gifford, Stevie the plumber, Neil Findlay and myself. On Saturday morning we were joined by Bill Sutherland, who drove up two slaters from Airdrie, newcomers to bothy life, who had been wooed with drink at Bob Scott’s and fooled into volunteering to help out with the roof.

They came to find the flue almost in place through the roof, courtesy of Stevie and Neil F and set up scaffolding to allow them to slate the quarter of the roof which had remained unfinished – not as straightforward a job as you’d think, as the ‘slates’ were irregular stone tiles of all widths and lengths.

Scaffolding erected at rear of Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon

Roofers working from scaffolding at the back of the bothy

Kenny Freeman and Hugh Munro working in Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

Kenny and Hugh filling some gaps in the eaves to improve the sleeping area

By the end of the weekend the roof was all but complete (and certainly weatherproofed) and the stove had been ritually lit, quickly warming up the small bothy (albeit it was a glorious weekend weather-wise). The sleeping area in the attic was also improved.

New stove at Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

The heart of any bothy – the fire

Across in the stable, which had been given a wooden floor to provide temporary accommodation while the bothy was uninhabitable, Neil Findlay laid a cement floor in the doorway.

Stable building at Faindouran Bothy, Glen Avon

Cement mixer in action outside the stable

Improved doorway of the stable at Faindouran Bothy, Cairngorms

And where all the cement went – a new floor for the doorway to match the new wooden floor, making good spillover accommodation

With a high proportion of musicians and singers in the company, we had good-going ceilidhs on both Friday and Saturday nights, making sure the revived bothy was well and truly christened.

Singers at ceilidh in Faindouran Bothy

Hugh, Marlene and Bill give song on the Saturday evening ceilidh

(There’s now a dedicated Faindouran page in the bothies section of the website.

—————–

For Neil Findlay and I it had been a two-centre holiday. We’d met at Bob Scott’s on Thursday night and went in to Corrour Bothy on Friday morning to change over the toilet there. Then we returned to Derry via Carn a Mhaim before driving round to meet the others at Tomintoul. Don’t say we never get about in this business!

Neil Findlay sweeping the path in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

On the way in to Corrour Bothy on the Friday morning. The brush was a replacement for Corrour, but we couldn’t resist the idea of sweeping up on the way in.

Neil Findlay with ppe for changing the toilet at Corrour Bothy, Cairngorms

And finally… what the well-dressed bothy toilet cleaner wears – in Neil Findlay’s case a see-through boiler suit and pink marigolds. Pink???

Posted in Bothies | Tagged , | 16 Comments

Jean’s Hut – a lost Cairngorm bothy

Jean's Hut, Coire an Lochain, Cairngorm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robsons at Jean's Hut, Cairngorms

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

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

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

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

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

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

During construction in 1951. (Courtesy of Reg Popham)

Jean's Hut, Cairngorms

And complete

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

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

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

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

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

Builders outside Jean's Hut, Coire Cas, Cairngorms

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

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

Posted in Bothies, History | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Plans announced for Derry Lodge development

Derry Lodge in Glen Lui, Cairngorms

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

(Since this post was first written, a planning application for the development has been lodged with Aberdeenshire Council. The application can be seen in full here. According to Murray Hamilton, Director of Planning and Rural Development at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, it was called in by the CNPA on 20th June for determination.)

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

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

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

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

Hostel plans for Derry Lodge, Glen Derry, Cairngorms

Suggested layout for hostel accommodation in Derry Lodge

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

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

Development proposals for Derry Lodge, Cairngorms, including public toilet

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

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

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

There are a couple of obvious concerns about these plans.

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

Bob Scott's Bothy, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

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

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

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

And it is a nice building.

Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

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

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

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

Historic development drawings of Derry Lodge

Drawings showing the historical development of the Lodge

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

Arriving at Derry Lodge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since first writing this post Nick Kempe has written more about the conservation issues in his excellent Parkwatchscotland blog.

Posted in History, News | Tagged , | 23 Comments

Reviewed: Old Deeside Ways, by Ian Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Stravaiging | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

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.

 

Posted in Bothies, People, Stravaiging | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments