The Fool on the Hill

Ach, it’s all been a bit serious on here the last few posts, so here’s a wee bit of  light relief – a tale from the early years of this century when I still thought I was a climber and occasionally made it further afield than the Cairngorms. It happened on Ben Nevis, starts out sounding fairly unlikely, and gets more unbelievable as it goes on, but I swear it’s all true, and there are even witnesses.


Group outside CIC Hut, Ben Nevis

Outside the CIC Hut in March 2003: Ronnie Strachan, Lucy Hailey (now Murdoch), myself, Colin McGregor and Gavin Gibbon. Ken Murray took the photo

I  had just finished arranging a belay and was sitting in the snow at the top of No 2 Gully on The Ben, starting to pull in the spare rope. True, the earlier sunshine had gone, replaced with a thick white mist and visibility of about ten yards, but life seemed pretty good.

That’s when he appeared.

I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and looked round to see him, clad in jeans and trainers, slithering across the snow towards me. Towards me and a cornice over a 2000 ft drop straight down to the CIC Hut.

I called out: “Watch yourself, mate: we’re near the edge.”

It made no difference: he kept skiting and sliding towards me.

“Stop there! We’re at the edge!” It seemed dreadfully rude to speak so, but if nothing else I had to think of my second below, who was seeming increasingly liable to be wiped out by a 10 metres per second per second  putative corpse.

This time the newcomer did stop and leveled an unnervingly intense gaze at me. The voice, when it came, was best Russian spy guttural: “You have seen.” Pause. “A girl.” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.

I could have shown more interest here. It was, after all, a most arresting introduction. But my mind was on other things (like a rope to my second which had finally come tight) and I was still a little unsettled.

“No,” I said, perhaps a little peevishly.

I turned back to the rope to fit it through the Sticht plate and when I looked again the apparition had gone. Not even a shadow in the mist.

So I took Gavin up and we stood a few feet back from the edge, exchanged congratulations, and started stuffing ropes and ironmongery into our sacks.

“You’ll never believe what I just saw,” said I and, of course, he didn’t, because it all seemed so unlikely.

But just as I was fighting with frozen knotwork, what appeared out of the mist but… A girl. A vision, actually. Beautiful face framed with shoulder-length frizzed hair (a la Crystal Tips & Alastair for those of a certain age). Somehow you could tell that, under that bulky puffa jacket with its collar framing her fair skin and rose red cheeks, was a slim, nay, svelte figure. However on the minus side, the hair was pure white with frost, the nose was red and dreeping, and the hands were blue-white with cold. The tight jeans and trainers didn’t seem too good an idea either.

I was pretty brain dead by this time in the day, but a light bulb flickered on inside my skull. In my best understood-even-by-foreigners voice I asked: “Could someone be looking for you?”

“Is possible.” Where the male Russian had been brutalist accusation, the girl was all honey and sexy, foreign lilt. I was in love.

“Wait there. We’ll get you down.”

In a fit of gallantry I gave her my warmest gloves while I stuffed the unknotted rope into the sack. A somewhat bemused Gavin tried to engage her in conversation as we set off down.

She was sure, she said, she would find her way down, but we were not and she didn’t argue, so we plunged on into the mist as she told us her story. They were indeed Russians, and had been up Mount Fuji when they were in Japan, so had anticipated no problems on lowly Ben Nevis. And neither there had been, unless you count getting separated and almost losing her minder over the edge of the cliff (for I had convinced myself, against all the evidence of Glasnosk and Perestroika, that she was secretly a White Russian princess and he her KGB guard).

We were still in the cloud when the worried looking Russian spy reappeared on the scene, heading back uphill towards us. His face lit up when he saw her but our hopes of offloading her and then taking a shortcut down to the Halfway Lochan were quickly dashed.

“You have found her!” he exclaimed in best KGB guttural. “I tell the others.”

And he was off again at a great rate of knots. Credit  where it’s due: he may have been dressed like a div and still skiting all over the place in the snow, but this guy really was fit.

So that’s how we ended up going much further down the tourist path than we’d intended, not saying farewell to our beautiful Russian princess until we were clear of the cloud and in sight of a whole gang of Russians looking up towards us as the chief spy gesticulated with all the physical enthusiasm only a continental can muster. We thought it was better to avoid any outburst of Slavic bear hugs and before we reached them we slunk off towards the Halfway Lochan and the waiting car in the North Face car park, remembering, at least to retrieve my gloves. Kiss from the princess would have been nice though. Maybe one of those with cute face uptilted, soft lips pouted, and one foot lifted behind her as she stretches up on tiptoe on the other… Hmmm?


Anyway. That’s not what I started to talk about. Come back up the hill a bit to the top of No 2 Gully, where I was so rudely interrupted.

Life did indeed  seem pretty good as I sat there at the top of the climb. For it could all have ended so much more badly.

For Gavin had led the second last pitch. Which might have been all well and good if only he had ever done any climbing in his life before, and if only he wasn’t afraid of heights.

The problem, you see, was that he couldn’t navigate. In fact he hadn’t even hill-climbed in winter. So there was no question of letting him out on his own. But all of us that weekend wanted to climb. He was my mate, so I felt sort of responsible; just not responsible enough to give up the prospect of what would probably be a last route of the winter.

It was only Grade II, I justified to myself. He would manage. He had borrowed axes. I gave him my helmet so he wouldn’t get his head hurt, I gave him my harness so he would be secure on the rope. It didn’t matter to me that my own head attracted every single fist-sized lump of ice knocked down by climbers above; it didn’t matter that my improvised harness not only had to be hitched up every few metres, but also deprived me of slings for protection and belays.

And there is no excuse, or perhaps forgiveness, possible for what happened as we neared the top of the gully.

With an appreciable length of the rope wound around my waist, my pitches were shorter than most people’s and eventually I found myself at rope’s end in the middle of the gully, with no belay in sight. I took a rather inadequate axe-belay in the neve and brought Gavin up. I was tired myself, and couldn’t face the faffing about necessary to change over the belay, so I pointed to a huge boulder in the middle of the gully, not even 50 feet above, and to a large crack visible from where we stood. I handed him a Friend, explained how to use it, and told him to put it in the crack – it would fit – and then clip onto it and take me up.

And up he went, his tired feet marionette-loose on his ankles, until he reached the level patch of snow I’d directed him to in front of the boulder. He took the Friend from his harness, looked at it, looked at the crack … then looked round at me for assurance.

This guy, who was so scared of heights he had never once in the climb looked back down the way he had come, turned round in his footsteps and looked down 2000 feet straight into beckoning oblivion.

From almost 50 feet away I could see his eyes pop and his whole body convulse as, for one heart-stopping instant, vertigo kicked in and balance went.

Then he turned back to the big, solid boulder, touched it, placed the Friend perfectly and secured the belay. With that action I forgave him everything – he who had done nothing but cope with my idiocy. We were going to live.

I even forgave him for shrugging his shoulders down there at the bottom of the gully when we started out. For many things can be hidden, many left untold, but there, in that shrug, my humiliation had been assured.

I’d set up the first belay, tied him into it, shown him how to feed the rope through the Sticht plate, and set off upwards. After a few feet, of course, the rope jerked taut because he wasn’t feeding it through fast enough. I shouted at him. After a few more feet I stopped for a rest and looked round to see him contentedly continuing to pay out the rope. I shouted at him. It wasn’t fair because there were a lot of people about, both on our route and within hearing range.

At the end of the first pitch I found a belay. I looked down and shouted to him to take me off.

He looked up. He gave his shrug. And he spread his hands in the universal gesture of puzzlement.

Well of course. I hadn’t explained that bit.

I’d done everything for him: checked the harness, tied on the rope, fed it through the Sticht plate and into the krab. But he didn’t know how to do anything for himself, or even know what anything was called – and it was all my fault.

And, of course, as I drew breath almost 50 metres away, there came one of those freakish moments usually encountered only when you say something really embarrassing at a party: everyone, on every climb – and they were many – fell silent.

Just as I shouted, very loud and very clear: “See the round metal thing at your waist …!” The silence, born in coincidence, became stunned, and lasted well past the end of the explanation. There could be no recovery.

Fool on The Hill indeed. It was me.


And I swear all this was absolutely true, and that the real hero of it all was Gavin Gibbon who held it all together when everything was turning to bewildering shit around him. Or maybe he didn’t know how close to the wind we were sailing and just assumed climbing was always like that. Whatever, he was afraid of heights but was still willing to give it a go – and rock climbed with us at Poll Dubh the next day too, even though the whole Saturday had been debacle. For it wasn’t just me who was a fool on the hill that March day back in 2003. That photo at the top of this post shows five people. Colin and the lovely Lucy climbed a route and went back down the hill with no fuss, but Ronnie (far left) and Ken, who took the photograph, had their own comedy of errors, which involved flat tyres, two people on the same rope climbing two different routes, a descent in the wrong direction, dancing up and down in rage on a public road, an aborted DIY rescue party and – whisper it – taxis!

But hey, that’s another story.

Posted in Misadventures, People, Winter climbing | Tagged , | 21 Comments

Bothies, litter and education – a step forward

Last August I let rip at groups taking young people into the hills. I love it that there are people who care enough to encourage youngsters into the mountains but, like so many others involved in bothy maintenance, I’d cleaned out one too many load of rubbish and abandoned kit clearly left by young folk, and seen just too many pieces of graffiti including the initials ‘DofE’.

Rubbish in Corrour Bothy, in the Cairngorms National Park

Close-up of some of the rubbish left in Corrour Bothy

So on the back of an exceptionally large load of rubbish at Corrour, much of it clearly from young people, I challenged youth group leaders to clean up their act – literally. There was a lot of the predictable “oh no, not MY young people” but some did come forward, notably Alex Cumming, Assistant Director of DofE Scotland, and Steve McQueen of the Perth & Kinross DofE Association, both with a very positive attitude. The result was several meetings and exchanges of views, with the DofE organisation accepting that, though they are not the only youth organisation using the hills, youngsters in the scheme have been part of the problem.

There was some initial reluctance by some to accept responsibility, but that ended with the arrival of a whole set of photographs taken by an outdoor instructor at the Fords of Avon Refuge, showing numerous examples of graffiti obligingly signed by DofE groups.

It was accepted that, although youngsters on DofE expeditions aren’t meant to use bothies, sometimes they do – even if it’s just to cook in bad weather or pop in and have a look. But in the past not all leaders have told the kids about bothies or the sort of behaviour that should be expected. It’s perhaps understandable that kids, coming upon an empty building, and knowing no better, treat it as they would an abandoned ruin. So over the early part of the winter the DofE and Mountain Bothies Association have worked together to prepare some very simple and basic educational material so that youngsters – and some of the leaders – can learn about bothies; learn about their value, how they are looked after, and – above all – their vulnerability to misuse.

Cover of Duke of Edinburgh Scotland Bothies 101 booklet

The first page of the DofE bothies leaflet

The material was launched at Expedition Festival 2015, when new DofE leaders and volunteers ‘learn the ropes’ before the new expedition season, and is now available on the Expedition Downloads section of the DofE website as a resource for youngsters and leaders. Bothies 101 sheet gives the basics of how to use a bothy responsibly, and the Bothy session plan gives extra information which can be used in expedition training.

This doesn’t mean DofE expeditions will now start using bothies to stay in. Their emphasis on camping and self reliance remains unchanged. It does mean they are taking a pragmatic approach that recognises youngsters will one way or another come into contact with bothies and making sure that, when they do, they don’t arrive in ignorance.

The effectiveness of all this will only be seen over the coming years, but there are other positive developments, not least of which was the presentation of a cheque for £584 to the MBA after the Expedition Festival 2015.

Alex Cumming, Assistance Director of DofE Scotland, presents a cheque to Neil Stewart of the Mountain Bothies Association

Alex Cumming, Assistant Director, DofE Scotland, presents the cheque to Neil Stewart of the MBA

The DofE Perth & Kinross Association has also expressed an interest in possibly even getting youngsters involved in simple bothy maintenance projects. That will depend on a lot of factors, including the dreaded ‘healthandsafety’ word, but is a welcome explicit statement of attitudes which were maybe held by most before but perhaps not filtered through to the kids.

The MBA has also received a frank and wholehearted apology from a fee-paying school in England, some of whose pupils were amongst those who left their calling cards scrawled on the Fords of Avon Refuge walls. This was followed by contact from a group from the school who are planning an expedition through the Cairngorms this summer and, as part of the community element, plan to carry out inventories at and carry out rubbish from all the bothies they pass. Another part of their expedition is to learn about the history and role of the bothies they will pass.

Back in August I wrote: “I have in the past defended youth groups in the hills, but I am in no doubt at all that a large part of this shameful heap was left by youngsters supposed to be learning self-reliance, self respect and a sense of community and social responsibility. “Instead they have trailed their bad behaviour across a national park, displaying their ignorance of how to behave, their laziness and their disregard of other people.

“So my challenge to all these organisations which enable kids to go to the hills, is for them to teach some respect. Because whatever they’re teaching now plainly isn’t enough. They need to teach the children they direct to the hills about bothies. Maybe, as with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme expeditions, the kids are meant to be camping and not using bothies except in emergencies. But teach them that they exist; tell them why they exist, why they’re important, what their value is – and also how they exist, and how to behave in them.

“Most kids do behave well in the hills, and most of those who don’t are being anti-social through ignorance rather than badness. So let’s do something about it. There are enough adults who leave their rubbish behind – don’t let us turn a blind eye as a new generation comes along and behaves with the same lack of consideration and ignorance.”

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme has responded to this challenge. How effective the response will be is yet to be seen, but avenues of communication have been opened up where there were none before and where approaches were once met with denial that has been replaced with an exemplary and positive attitude.

Cover of Bothies Resource Booklet

Bothies Resource Booklet cover

Of course the DofE isn’t the only organisation taking young people to the hills – there are any number of schools and youth organisations which do that. Any of them are welcome to make use of the material prepared by myself and approved by the MBA which DofE based their own documents on. It’s available for download here – Bothies resource booklet – and further queries can be addressed to me: just post a comment at the end of this article, and if you prefer it to remain private, just mark NOT FOR PUBLICATION at the start and include a return email address. (Don’t worry – nothing appears live on the site unless I hit the publish button.)

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‘Extreme’ bothy maintenance

Tools ready for stove repair at Hutchison Hut, Cairngorms

Ready for action. A simple job made ‘extreme’ by remoteness and weather

Just back from a wee trip to the Hutchison Memorial Hut with Neil Findlay for some ‘extreme bothy maintenance’.

Neil and Walt had gone out a couple of weekend back to fix the door handle, only to find once they got there that the glass on the stove door had been broken. There was nothing they could do there and then – the walk in through soft snow had taken almost five hours, so there was no way they could just ‘nip back to the shop’ for a replacement glass.

Broken stove door glass in Hutchison Hut, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms

The broken stove glass meant smoke billowed into the room when it was windy.

But once home, Neil got a new piece of glass ordered and this weekend we arranged to meet at Bob Scott’s Bothy on Friday and head in to the Hutchie on Saturday to put the glass into place. A good decision was to stay there on the Saturday night.

We had Scottie’s to ourselves on Friday night, and it was empty on Saturday night too, which was a big change from the previous weekend when some friends found themselves amid a horde of 31 people! Very unusual to get so many, but wasn’t helped by a group of 13 cyclists who came up, clearly regarding themselves as exempt from the exhortation not to go to bothies in groups of more than six!

Anyway, after a quiet Friday night Neil and I set off up Glen Derry on an unseasonably warm morning. The Lui was high beside the bothy and flooding the path in places, bearing out the forecast of a massive thaw.

We got wet feet just reaching the tree bridge just above Derry Lodge and found much of the path up the west side of the river to be doubling as a stream.

Neil Findlay in Glen Derry, Cairngorms

Is it a path or a burn? Neil Findlay and Alfie on the way up lower Glen Derry

Knowing that the Glas Allt Mor was almost certain to be impassable, when we reached the Derry Dam we stuck to the west bank. There’s no path there (although a few fragments of deer track) and it can be pretty rough underfoot – boggy too with the massive quantities of melt-water saturating the ground – but it meant that we were sure of reaching the bothy. The only hiccup was when we nearly lost wee Alfie (Neil’s border terrier) when he went through a snow bridge into a fast flowing stream and had to be hauled out as he tried to hang onto the edge of snow with his claws.

Neil Findlay heading up Glen Derry, Cairngorms

Heading up the trackless side of Glen Derry

Crossing snow bridge in Glen Derry, Cairngorms

Treading gingerly across thawing snow. There was a stream somewhere under here and we weren’t sure how thick the snow was.

However we got to the bothy in reasonable weather, with the forecast winds gaining in strength but not becoming troublesome until afternoon once we were in the Hutchie, about three hours after leaving Bob Scott’s.

Tools for fixing stove door glass at Hutchison Hut, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms

The new stove glass and some of the tools. Note the two sets of Allen keys – we’d both, unknown to each other, bought a new set to be sure we had the right size. In the event the bolts wouldn’t turn and we had to work a way around it.

Apart from the inevitable fiddling and faffing, the repair to the stove didn’t take long, but we were glad to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting inside in front of the now usable stove, for we had plenty coal with us and the weather outside was appalling, with gale-force winds and sleety snow. Even going out to the burn for water was an ordeal.

It’s a cosy place with the stove on, though.

Repaired stove at Hutchison Hut, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms

The new glass fitted – and still so clean you can hardly see it’s there. A great stove when it’s working though.

Sunday dawned fair, with a bit of fresh snow on the ground and even a bit of sunshine showing earlier on. A bit cooler, too, so we took the chance and decided to go with the path and gamble on being able to cross the Glas Allt Mor.

Hutchison Memorial Hut in Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms. Hutchison bothy

Farewell to the Hutchie Hut on Sunday morning. Never get tired of this setting.

Before we got out of the coire, though, there was a wee bit of excitement. There was a rumbling and banging noise and we looked up to see a massive rockfall from the nose where Derry Cairngorm turns the corner into Coire Etchachan. A piece of rock that must have been about the size of a Mini came crashing and tumbling all the way down to the wee pointed knoll where you can get a phone signal, accompanied by a river of smaller rocks and leaving a trail of rock dust hanging in the air. Most impressive – just a pity there wasn’t time to get the camera out.

The Glas Allt Mor did indeed prove fordable – just – although Neil got wet when a large boulder rolled under him and he ended up wading rather than boulder hopping.

That was the last of the excitement though, and we even managed to stay dry crossing the floodwater at either end of the tree bridge when we got back to Derry. Although the sleety rain did return in a heavy shower just ten minutes from the cars. Typical!

A successful trip and an enjoyable bothy weekend. But please do take care with the stove door. The logistics of bothy maintenance are such that the last two repairs there – the broken door handle and the broken glass in the stove – took a weekend each, despite the actual work for each taking about half an hour or less.

So ca’ canny up there.

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Bothy crime

The refurbished Hutchison Memorial Hut, Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms

The scene of crime. The Hutchison Memorial Hut

I’ve railed before in this blog about folk who leave litter and unwanted gear in bothies, and all the ‘proper’ hill folk have nodded in agreement. Isn’t it terrible.

It is. But there’s worse.

And it’s been done by ‘proper’ hill folk.

Two MBA volunteers went in to the Hutchison Hut last week, to fix a faulty door handle and latch and stop the door from swinging open in the wind, letting snow into the bothy and damaging the door and hinges.

It was the sort of job that had to be done sooner rather than later, and volunteers have to fit in their trips to bothies with work and other commitments, so the choice of when to go was limited, and it turned out they found themselves heading up Glen Derry in a major thaw.

Deep snow, which had never properly consolidated, softened as the temperature rose and they found themselves sinking deep, falling into holes and streams as the crust gave way under their feet. It took five hours to get from Bob Scott’s up to the Hutchison.

When they got there, they replaced the broken handle. It wasn’t a big job – maybe half an hour or so to complete – but doing it involved going up to Bob Scott’s one afternoon, walking into the Hutchie the next day and doing the job, and walking out again the following day.

And they – or other volunteers – will have to do it all over again. Because when they were out there they found the glass in the door of the stove was broken. So that means another journey once a new pane of special glass has been bought. Sure, it was probably an accident – or carelessness – but if whoever did it had let the MBA know, then both jobs could have been done on one visit. It’s easy to make a bothy report. Just go to this page and fill in the form online. It means that damage can be fixed sooner, and with less time commitment from volunteers.
So if you see damage in a bothy, or if you cause damage yourself – accidents do happen – please take five minutes to let the MBA know about it.

That’s an important point. But it’s not why I started writing this post. That was because of a worse sin.


One of the other discoveries made when the two volunteers went out to the Hutchison Hut was that a small storage compartment at the hut, screwed shut, had been broken into and the contents stolen: some food, drink and fuel, both for stove and for cooking.

Sometime over the last few weeks someone who stayed at the hut has thought themselves pretty damned clever: sussing out that something was hidden there and managing to get it. Wizard wheeze? Good laugh? Celebration of the anarchism of rough, tough mountaineering ethos?

It was none of those. It was theft, pure and simple; vandalism and theft.

It wasn’t enough for that person to make use of a building created and maintained with the money and labour of others: he (or she, I suppose) had to steal from the very people who have ensured his comfort. Those fire logs, that coal, the tins, were all bought with someone’s hard-earned money, and carried in on their backs to make life a wee bit easier for volunteers heading out there for maintenance. It was even worse: most of the stuff that was stolen was bought and carried in by the bothy’s maintenance organiser not even for his own use but for the use of any of the volunteers carrying out work there.

But now it’s been stolen. By someone who may call himself a walker or climber or mountaineer, but who is, in fact, a thief.

Some may argue that bothies are common property and anything left there is fair game. Sorry, but that’s both legally and morally wrong. A bothy is owned by the estate on which it stands and leased to the organisation which looks after it. It is not common property and not an ‘anything goes’ zone. At the Hutchison Hut the MBA has accepted responsibility for maintaining the building and expects that other people – for whose benefit it is maintained – treat it with respect and don’t damage it – or steal from it.

Quite apart from MBA or volunteers’ property, equipment is routinely left in bothies while walkers and climbers are out on the hill.

Theft from a bothy is no joke: it strikes at the very heart of the bothy system, which relies entirely upon honesty. Bothies are traditionally bastions of liberality, with all sorts of behaviours tolerated and even celebrated, but there are surely limits. And a thief in a bothy is a contemptible creature with no honour who deserves to be hounded out. There is no excuse.

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Bygone Cairngorm bothy photos

I’ve been sitting on some of these photos for a while now, mostly sent in by George Adams and Colin Campbell, always waiting for the context to use them.

Then one of the comments after Ashie Brebner’s skiing article remarked that there can be few photos of Altanour Lodge still in circulation – and I got all guilty. Sure, there are a good new old photos in Ian Murray’s excellent books, but here I am sitting with some on my laptop.

So. No narrative to link them all together: just a collection of old photos of old bothies and buildings which were once close enough to intact to spend a night in.

Altanour Lodge, Glen Ey, Cairngorms

Altanour Lodge in 1952

Ruins of Altanour, Glen Ey, Cairngorms

Altanour in 2014

This is the Altanour Lodge, up at the head of Glen Ey, fleetingly mentioned in Ashie’s story as being a broken down even back in 1951. The upper picture, from George Adams, shows it a year later, still being used as a bothy but plainly in sad need of repair. The lower photo I took myself last year, showing how little remains in this remote corner of the Cairngorms.

Auchelie bothy, Glen Ey, Cairngorms

Auchelie in Glen Ey, 1951

This photo, again from George, shows Auchelie, lower down Glen Ey, later in the same year of which Ashie wrote. Again, there is very little remaining today.


Auchelie Bothy, Glen Ey, Cairngorms

Auchelie in 2014 – just an outline of stones.

Across the hills, follow Glen Geldie up to the Bynack Burn where it comes down out of the hills, and you find more ruins – Bynack Lodge.

Bynack Lodge, Cairngorms

Bynack Lodge in 2014

Here it is as it was in 1952, in a photo From George Adams.

Bynack Lodge, Cairngorm bothy, in 1952

Bynack Lodge in 1952

And in some later shots by Colin Campbell.

Bynack Lodge, Cairngorms

Bynack Lodge in 1962 – it suffered a serious fire two years later

Bynack Lodge, Cairngorms, 1989

Bynack Lodge in 1989

Further through into Glen Tilt, there’s a bothy – if you could call it that – which I’d never heard of. George Adams referred to it simply as a shepherd’s hut when he was there in 1952.

Shepherd's Hut, Glen Tilt, Cairngorms

Shepherd’s Hut, Glen Tilt

Colin Campbell, on the other hand, referred to it as Black Bothy when he was there 12 years later.

Glen Tilt bothy, Cairngorms

Black Bothy in Glen Tilt, 1964

Heading back north, Colin has another photo – lower Geldie Lodge.

Lower Geldie Lodge, Cairngorms

Lower Geldie Lodge in 1963, with a rickety-looking bridge

And a couple of Ruighe Aiteachain – the Feshie Bothy.

Feshie Bothy, Cairngorms

At the door of Ruigh Aiteachan, Glen Feshie.

Ruighe Aiteachain Bothy, Cairngorms

Feshie Bothy again, probably in the early ’60s

Finally, an old newspaper cutting from the start of the ’60s, just before George ‘Dod’ Adams emigrated to Canada (he subsequently moved to Australia) – a time when the papers would publish photos from under the Shelter Stone and in the bothies. Luibeg Bothy is, of course, the original Bob Scott’s Bothy. Rubbish quality reproduction by the papers, but good taste.

Newspaper cutting showing George 'Dod' Adams under the Shelter Stone, Cairngorms, and in Luibeg Bothy

As an afterword, I’ve recently heard from Graeme Hunter, who’s looking for a photograph of Lochend Bothy, which used to sit at the lower end of Loch Muick. Graeme remarked that he used to stay there a lot when he was a young climber, but never had a camera in those days. If anyone has one it would be great if they could get in touch.


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Skiing the Black Spout of Lochnagar in 1954

Ashie Brebner skiing the Black Spout of Lochnagar, Cairngorms, in 1954

Ashie Brebner is pictured skiing out of the lower part of the Black Spout, just before falling and almost starting an avalanche.

Ashie Brebner is best known as one of the people who built the Slugain Howff in the Cairngorms – the fabled ‘Secret Howff’ of many a hill quest.
However he was also almost certainly the first person to ski down the Black Spout on Lochnagar, using equipment that would nowadays be regarded as hopelessly inadequate for the job.
Once more this tale first appeared in the Mountaineering Council of Scotland members’ magazine Scottish Mountaineer, and is reprinted here with Ashie’s permission.
As he recounted in the previous post, Ashie started skiing in 1949, learning from a book and trial and error with his companions. Possibly with no idea of what his limitations should be, he progressed quickly and within just a few years he felt up for a feat which most skiers would regard daunting even today.
“When you are young you think you are immortal,” he said when recalling the event.
The Black Spout is the major gully in the northern coire of Lochnagar, an easy scramble in summer and a Grade I snow climb in winter. Recent years have seen a number of ski descents, including a couple by Scott Muir which have been posted on YouTube.
Until 1954, however, no-one had attempted it.
“It was spring,” Ashie recalled, “And there was still a cornice at the head of the Black Spout. It was easier to carry the skis into the corrie and climb up from the bottom, so I left Stan Gordon there in case of accident and climbed up. The snow was quite sugary and when I got to the cornice there were two lads trying to get through it. They were very surprised to see me with skis as they were both roped up.
“I got the skis on immediately under the cornice and set off. Just like in the video [Scott Muir’s], you don’t get much time before the wall of rock on each side looms up so you have to turn very fast. The style was quite different then: I was using stem christies and throwing out the shoulder with the weight on the turning ski. The sugary snow meant I side-slipped quite a lot on each turn and it was very hard on the legs. The pressure on my legs was tremendous and I had to stop at one point to ease the muscles and have time to look ahead. You are so busy turning before you hit the rock that you don’t have time to look down and ahead.
“As I came out the broader end of the Spout, I fell on a turn and the angle was so steep that the whole slope started moving with me. Stan Gordon thought I was about to start an avalanche and got out of the way fast. Luckily, I managed to roll over, get on my feet and ski off the moving slope.”
There was no fanfare about Ashie’s descent though.
“Only a few people knew about it because not many skied then and it was not the done thing to boast about something like this. Coming home on the bus Mac Smith* who I respected and was a great climber, much older than me, simply said: ‘I hear you skied down the Black Spout today.’ I said, ‘Yes’ and the subject was never mentioned again.”
(Incidentally, Ashie was reticent about his achievement even when I asked him about it, having been told of it by George Adam, a fellow climber from the ’50s and now still active in Australia. It was only after his son also persuaded him that he agreed to write some of it down.)
Just to give you an impression of what the descent of the Black Spout might have been like, here’s a clip of Scott Muir and friends doing the same gully in 2011, with modern gear and helmets.
*Mac Smith was a noted Cairngorm climber with a number of first ascents to his credit during the 1950s and ‘60s, and was author of the first climbing guide to the area.

Ashie Brebner below the Black Spout of Lochnagar, Cairngorms

Ashie after completing his descent, looking back at the way he has come.


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Cairngorm skiing – the traditional way

This winter, as in a number of winters before, I’ve toyed with the idea of getting skis again. Not to go back to the crowded slopes of Glenshee and Cairngorm which I went to as a teenager, way back in the ‘70s, but to take to the wide open spaces between. The ideal of ski mountaineering is a siren call.

And then auld mannie pragmatism kicks in. Ski mountaineering – especially for someone who hasn’t worn a pair of skis for over 30 years – is something better done in company, and I don’t know many people who both ski and are obsessed by the Cairngorms. And, of course, if I spent all that money on the skis and boots etc we’d get a run of snowless winters.

So now is probably a good time to shame myself by re-reading Ashie Brebner’s excellent article about skiing in Scotland in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, when the gear was rubbish and the skiers learned by reading a book and falling over a lot

The article was originally written for the MCofS magazine Scottish Mountaineer, but Ashie has given permission for the article to be republished on the blog. It’s a longer post than is normal here, but worth every word, not just for the information about skiing all those years ago, nor just for the light it throws on the building of the famed secret howff, but for the sheer joy and enthusiasm that shines through from start to finish.

So without further ado… read on.


Charlie Smith, Jim Robertson and Doug Mollison skiing on Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms

From left: Charlie Smith, Jim Robertson and (turning) Doug Mollison, Ashie’s fellow howff-builders

On ski in the Cairngorms

By Ashie Brebner

Skiing in Scotland in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was rather different to what we know today. The Scandinavians had been skiing in some form for more than 1000 years, while the Alpine countries had been fast catching up since the 1920s. However, in Scotland only the middle classes could afford the pleasure and luxury of skiing and, since there was no form of uplift in this country, they travelled abroad.

This all began to change after the Second World War. Large quantities of equipment produced in preparation for winter warfare now came onto the open market, the chief buyer in bulk being Millet’s stores. It was now possible for the working class to buy an excellent rubber-lined frame rucksack for about 2/6d (12 ½ p), an ice axe of variable quality for about the same and a pair of skis for about £2.10s (£2.50). Of course, as an apprentice mechanic, I was earning something like £1.8.6 a week (£1.42 ½ ), so it was, in effect, two weeks’ wages. Nevertheless, skiing was within reach.

A few of the young lads in Aberdeen who were attracted to the hills saw the possibilities and, like many others, I bought my first pair of ex-army skis in readiness for the ‘49/50 season. We soon discovered they were very basic. At that time the correct length of ski for your height was for the upright ski to reach the palm of your hand held vertically above your head. Made from one piece of rather inferior wood, they had no steel edges and had a simple toe plate onto which was hooked a leather binding which slipped around the heel of the boot. The result was the heel was allowed to move up and down as in walking in cross country but useless for any kind of turn. The boot would make the turning movement, slip off the edge of the ski and the ski would continue its forward straight line. We quickly discovered a step turn was the only way to change direction.

Since the quality of the wood was very poor, we had problems with the tip either breaking or simply flattening out over a period of time until there was very little upturn. Every so often we would spend an evening during the week in which the tips were dipped in a bucket of boiling water. We would then jam them in a door which a second man would hold securely while you slowly pulled the ski round to restore a deeply rounded tip. And, yes, we know now that it should have been steamed but we had neither the knowledge nor the time to make a steamer. With this heavy-handed treatment, in heavy, wet snow the tip would break eventually under pressure. Despite these drawbacks, we were off.

Ashie Brebner, on ski in the Cairngorms

Ashie Brebner on a sunny day on the plateau

Kandahar bindings came in possibly the second season and were a vast improvement. These consisted of a flexible steel cable with a large wound spring at the heel. You could tension these with a clip in front of the toe plate and the heel was held tight by the cable which was clipped to the side of the ski for downhill and was unhooked to allow the heel to rise for climbing and cross country. With this development we were able to move on to the more advanced turns.

There was no-one to teach us so it all had to be done by the book description and illustration. The perfect nursery slopes for us were in Glen Ey. There was an excellent bothy there named Achelie (We always pronounced it Acheeree. It is long since a ruin.), and in good snow cover it provided the perfect base with good, gentle slopes close by.

Auchelie bothy, Glen Ey, Cairngorms

Auchelie in Glen Ey, 1951

That early Hogmanay saw five of us – Jim Robertson, Charlie Smith, Doug Mollison, Johnny Vigroe and myself – sharing a very large Austin taxi in Braemar, into which we piled all the rucksacks and skis and being transported up a very dodgy Linn o’ Dee road which was under deep snow to Inverey where we immediately donned our skis, still without steel edges but with the new Kandahar bindings in the cross country position for the three-mile trek up to the bothy. It was a beautiful moonlight night and the recent blizzard had obliterated all evidence of the track so we were choosing our own line. We each had the mandatory bottle of whisky in our rucksacks so we were moving fairly carefully but, even so, the moonlight slopes were difficult to read and Charlie Smith went down with a great clatter. We all laughed, of course, but then he said: “There’s something wet running down my leg. Oh no, I hope it’s blood.” It wasn’t. A precious bottle had been lost.

At that time most people worked on Christmas Day but had three working days’ holiday at the New Year, so we had time to concentrate on getting the stem turns and stem christies right by watching each other and deciding where and when the weight should be at a particular place on the turn. The result was that each developed a unique style which the rest of us could identify from miles away for years to come.

By the third day we had developed a confidence which was probably beyond our actual capabilities and decided we were ready for our first ski mountaineering trip. The plan was to climb Creag an Lochain to the south of Achelie and follow the ridge to Carn Creagach. Both hills were just under 3000ft which we thought we could cope with and leave us with a nice downhill run to Altanour, which was even then a broken down bothy at the head of Glen Ey. We would then return to our base along the floor of the glen.

We hadn’t reckoned on the weather changing. This was in the days before transistors made it possible to carry a small radio for forecasts. We just had to take whatever came along. And come along it certainly did. By the time we had reached the top of Creag an Lochain, the wind was screaming from the north-east and then the snow hit us almost as a solid wall. There have only been a handful of times in my lifetime in the hills when I have experienced a blizzard of this magnitude. Any communication between us was impossible because of flapping hoods and the howling wind. Soon it became very difficult to remain in visual contact with the others and we just plodded along in our own little world. Eventually, just ahead of us, we could make out something of a greenish-blue colour. A few more steps and we all came to a halt on the edge of an icefield which sloped at an alarming angle down to our right. Though we couldn’t communicate, we individually realized the wind had pushed us off the crest of the ridge and onto the headwall of the burn which comes off Carn Creagach and which earlier freeze and thaw conditions had converted to solid ice. This was beyond our skiing experience. The question was: how do we cross it? We still did not have the steel edges so were unsure whether we could get a grip with our by now slightly rounded edges. Do we attempt to cross it on ski, take our skis off, or perhaps turn into the wind and driving snow to regain the ridge? This last alternative, though practical, was not appealing. We each stood there deliberating, using our sticks to brace ourselves against the wind which threatened to drive us onto the ice. Doug Mollison made a decision. He bent down, took off his skis, slung them over his shoulder and edged onto the ice. Almost immediately the wind caught him, spun him round and he was off at high speed down the steep gully and out of our sight. We each stood there in silence, our slowing brains taking in the situation. We knew he would not come to real harm. There were no outcrops of any kind. He would have to find his own way back.

We now knew not to take our skis off and that we had to regain the ridge, so we backed away from the ice and reluctantly turned into the wind and snow to climb over to the right side of the hill. By one of those freaks of nature the driving snow parted momentarily as we came over the crest and we could see directly below us the trees of Altanour. Without hesitation we all pointed our skis downhill as the weather closed in again. This led to another new experience for us. We had lost contact with each other as we had each chosen our own line and were alone in a total whiteout with no point of reference. The result was the feeling at one point that you were progressing at a moderate speed then you would hit something that threw you off balance and you would pitch into the snow and only then realise you had been going quite fast. At other times you felt you were racing down, get scared and fall, and realise you had hardly been moving. Finally, and thankfully, we arrived at Altanour, where conditions were much more moderate and we were able to discuss the situation. We were all concerned we had left Doug to fend for himself, so we got back to Achelie as fast as we possibly could, only to find Doug toasting himself at the fire. He had slid all the way down the gully, losing his skis on the way, and out of the worst of the weather. He deduced he was in the Connie Burn, so it was quick and easy for him to get back home from there, though he spent the next weekend searching for and finding his skis.

Ashie Brebner and Johnny Vigroe at Altanour woods, Cairngorms

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

So ended the first lesson. We had learned how to control the skis but still had a lot to learn about reading the weather in winter, a vital factor which would only come by experience. In mitigation, our summer activities meant we had a reasonable knowledge of the terrain and we resolved to explore much further afield during the summer so that we had an inbuilt knowledge of the Eastern Cairngorms which we could fall back on in winter.

Time, distance and transport were major constraints in those days. Most of us worked on a Saturday morning, we had to use public transport and the winter days were short. So we would normally arrive in Braemar about 6.30pm on the Saturday night and if there were enough of us and we could afford it, we took the taxi to the Derry Gate. From there it was a four-mile walk or ski to Derry Lodge and Luibeg, where Bob Scott, the keeper, would let us use his bothy. The next day would be spent getting onto the snow, weather permitting, then the reluctant trudge back to Braemar to catch the 7pm bus to Aberdeen.

One day from that period stands out. It was early spring and must have been one of those rare occasions when we were given the key for the Derry Gate at a cost of 2/6. This allowed us to take the taxi right up to Derry Lodge and for it to pick us up again the following day in just enough time to get back to Braemar for the bus. The Sunday turned out to be one of those days one dreams of but seldom gets in Scotland. Cloudless blue sky, no wind and excellent snow cover on the high tops.

The snowline was about 2000ft so we carried the skis all the way up the Lui Burn and donned them on the Sron Riach. The aim was to take in Ben MacDui and see how the time went from there. So we contoured up the hill, the snow conditions getting better and better, and we arrived on the summit in remarkably good time. There was not a breath of wind and visibility was crystal clear. We debated our next move and someone suggested going across to look into the Cairn Lochain corries. That seemed a great idea so we pushed on across the plateau. Only other mountain skiers will appreciate the tremendous pleasure of gliding along effortlessly on a high top in perfect conditions with good companions, each taking turn to break the trail but making their own individual line on the downhill stretches. In no time we were peering into Corrie Lochain and had to consider our route back. The natural line was to skirt the Feith Bhuidh slabs at the head of Loch Avon, then down to the frozen Loch Etchachan. We were reluctant to leave the snow by going down through Corrie Etchachan so we contoured around the side of Derry Cairngorm and on to the Carn Crom ridge and finally ran out of snow halfway down Carn Crom. There was just enough time to collect our gear at Luibeg and meet the taxi at Derry Lodge. One of many memorable days.

Charlie Smith on ski in the Cairngorms

Charlie Smith in warm weather gear

Glen Slugain and Beinn a Bhuird had always been a favoured area for us in summer. We would camp in the Fairy Glen at the head of Slugain and climb in the corries of the Beinn, go on to Ben Avon or wander down the Quoich. We had long noticed that the shallow corrie to the south of Coire na Ciche held good snow long after it had gone elsewhere. The difficulty was in carrying skis and winter camping equipment to the head of the glen – quite apart from the discomfort of winter camping. This just did not appeal. During the summer of 1952 we deliberated this problem and Jim Robertson, a stone mason with building experience, came up with a possible solution. What we would do was build a permanent base which would be so well hidden that the estate would not find it and pull it down. This would make a good base for summer and winter activities. So the idea of the Howff was born.

The Secret Howff

The Secret Howff, still going strong

We started building in the autumn of 1952 and completed it in spring 1953 and it was probably the best thing we ever did. I am delighted to say that 60 years on it is still being used by climbers and is now in even better shape than ever. Succeeding generations have added improvements which have increased its comfort and it looks like it will shelter many more generations.

From this base we could explore the Beinn on ski. I think the earliest we skied there was the third week in October, though, of course, it didn’t last and had thawed by the following weekend. Almost invariably we ended the skiing season there on the third week in April, for this was the Aberdeen Spring Holiday. What we had discovered on our various ski tours across the summit plateau was a wide, curving gully (Altan na Beinne) which left the top behind A’ Chioch and swept south and down at just the right angle to finish in the Dubh Ghleann. It was the perfect end to a good day’s skiing but a longer trek back to the howff.

Jim Robertson, skiing in the Cairngorms in the 1950s

Jim Robertson, showing how it’s done with no poles

We considered this and came up with a solution. Every spring holiday we would take a taxi to the Derry Gate, walk about a mile beyond the Black Bridge and then cut through Clais Fhearnaig and into the Dubh Ghleann to camp. We each carried several bottles of beer (no cans then) which we resisted drinking and buried in the snow wherever the Altan na Beinne run ended that particular year.

Ashie Brebner and others skiing near the secret howff, Cairngorms

Ashie Brebner (front) and the others ski touring somewhere near the Howff

Then the next few days we would climb to the summit, explore the corries and take the last run of the day down the curving gully and plunge our hand into the snow at the end to extract an ice-cold beer. That seemed to us to be the ultimate in luxury.

Inevitably, as the years went on, girlfriends joined us and we discovered they were every bit as capable of crossing a mountain on skis as we were.

I look at ski equipment now with envy. There are remarkable developments in skiing and sometimes I wish I were starting all over again. But we are all of our time. You can go up and down a crowded piste all day and be happy but there is nothing like having a whole mountain to yourself where you are choosing your own line and working out how to use the hill for the maximum enjoyment. There is a new season coming soon and there will be miles of empty, virgin snow on the high tops once again. Get out there and make the most of it.

Norma Brebner on Beinn a Bhuird, Cairngorms

Norma Brebner heading down the upper slopes of Beinn a Bhuird, with a panorama of Cairngorm peaks in the background

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