50 years in the Cairngorms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Reid on Grey Slab in Coire Sputan Dearg, Cairngorms

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

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

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

Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Corrour Bothy – post renovation

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

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

At work on renovations at Callater Bothy, Cairngorms

Alex at work on the saw table at Callater Bothy

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

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

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

Stream in Glen Dee, Cairngorms

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

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Posted in Bothies, People, Rock Climbing, Stravaiging, Winter climbing | Tagged , , , , , | 38 Comments

Walk out in the rain

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

The drama of the Cairngorms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slabs on Ben McDui, Cairngorms

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

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

Loch Etchachan and Loch Avon, Cairngorms

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

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

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

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

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

And one more time…

 

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

Derry Dam bridge closed

Derry Dam Bridge, Glen Derry, Cairngorms. Closed due to flood damage

Closed.

Mar Lodge Estate announced on Facebook today that the metal footbridge at Derry Dam in Glen Derry (NO 039958) is closed due to flood damage.

There are no further details at the moment but it’s likely that the problem lies with the foundations on the east bank, which were partly undercut in the major flood back in August 2014.

View of east pier of Derry Dam footbridge, Cairngorms

A face on view from the west bank of the damage done in 2014

The estate post says the bridge will be repaired as soon as possible, although that may not be for some time. In the meantime people are advised that the nearest bridge is the footbridge at Derry Lodge (itself just replaced a couple of years ago after being broken by a flood). However, the most relevant advice is that if you’re going up or down Glen Derry just stay on the east side of the Derry Burn. And don’t plan on doing that admittedly lovely short walk up one side of the burn and down the other.

Any queries should be made to the Mar Lodge Estate Ranger Service at 013397 20164.

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Hotting it up at Glas Allt Sheil

Glas Allt Sheil bothy entrance

Glas Allt Sheil – the bothy entrance is just inside the dark passage

Partnership working seems all the rage these days, and last weekend up Loch Muick was a great example.

The bothy at Glas Allt Sheil – the one in an outhouse of the Queen’s big picnic hoose – is officially looked after by the Dundee University Rucksack Club, but was needing more work than they had the expertise for. So along came a grant from the Mountain Bothies Association and a workforce from the Bob Scott’s Bothy Association.

Last Friday several 4WD vehicles drove along the lochside to take in trailer-loads of wood and insulation, along with two generators and enough power tools to stock a small DIY shop.

Unloading wood at Glas Allt Sheil, Loch Muick, Cairngorms

Some of the wood being unloaded. The section of roof with the windows removed is the part with the bothy.

Most of the Bob Scott’s regulars were there, along with a couple of new volunteers and, eventually, about 15 or more students from the Rucksack Club. Some were just there for the craic and the hill walking, but others joined in and worked with a will.

Blocks of insulation were sawn into shape to fit between the roofbeams, miles of flooring planks were hand-chamfered to convert them to elegantly finished lining boards (you can guess which of these jobs I was involved in!), and cement was persuaded in gaps between the granite of the external walls. Later in the afternoon too many people crammed into the attic space to nail the superbly chamfered boards while a handful of selfless heroes shivered outside in the grey, drizzling rain, expertly cutting the boards to exact sizes (yup, again you’ve guessed which group I was in).

Work at Glas Allt Sheil, Cairngorms

Cutting the blocks of insulation to size

Work in insulation at Glas Allt Sheil, Lochnagar

Dave Knowles fine tuning to get a tight fit

Dundee University student at bothy work party

India from the DURC, chamfering the wood for lining the roof

Saturday night, like Friday night before it, was ceilidh night. The students, having been entertained to the likes of ‘Sam The Skull’ and ‘The Dundee Doag’ on Friday night, had worked up some retaliation and, on Saturday night, offered up a trio of Corries songs, performed karaoke style. Foolish. We hit back and knocked them for six with a 15-minute version of the ‘Aitken’s Morning Rolls Song‘.  Then there was some real music from Bill on the guitar and a mood killer from my penny whistle. All good fun.

Ceilidh at Glas Allt Sheil

Saturday night ceilidh

Work picked up again in the morning (although I took a three-hour leave of absence to nip up and down Lochnagar) and carried on until late afternoon. I ended up back on saw duty for some of the afternoon, but at least Sunday was nice and sunny.

Cairngorms from near top of Lochnagar

Looking NW from near summit of Lochnagar. The view wasn’t really worth it

Glas Allt Falls, Lochnagar, Cairngorms

The Glas Allt Falls. The weather had picked up considerably by the time I came down

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the course of a weekend the attic space, used as sleeping accommodation, was fully insulated and pine-lined. Some repointing work was done outside and minor but fiddly insulation put in the eaves where they were open to the lower floor – as well as an emergency repair to the middle of the downstairs floor.

Glas Allt Sheil attic unlined

Before

Glas Allt Sheil Bothy attic fully insulated and lined

After

Later in the summer another work party will be arranged to replace the rather tired downstairs floor and insulate and line two of the stone walls, which should make the Glas Allt Sheil a lot easier to heat in the colder months.

Kenny Freeman and Allan Moore

Project manager Kenny Freeman (left), delighted at the prospect of another work party at the GAS

Alfie and Derek at GAS, Lochnagar.

And finally, who can resist a picture of a dog at play? Neil Findlay’s border terrier Alfie (left) with Derek Stewart.

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And here it is… the roof

Just a quick couple of pics this time around.

A few days ago I wrote about the renovation of the Slugain Howff, but wrote from the point of view of a lowly porter, who left before the job was done.

Now Ed Pirie, one of the Howff’s caretakers has sent a couple of pics of the finished article, with new roof and guttering completed.

He said: “Further work for internal fitting out and pointing is scheduled and in hand,” and, with a wee dig at my age references in the last blogpost, added: “For us oldies it was certainly an exhausting but very productive weekend. Thank you all for your portering help.”

Working to replace the roof of the Secret Howff, Cairngorms

Lining up the roofing sheets

Inside the Secret Howff, Cairngorms, examining the new roof

Inside, below the new roof

The completed new roof at the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Just in time. Roof on – rain on.

 

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Smuggling tin past the laird… or not

Slugain Howff. Picture of roof in 2017 just before removal and replacement. Cairngorms

The last picture of the old roof

Some sixty or more years on, it was no surprise that the roof was getting tired and that the leaks were getting worse. It was, though, a pleasant surprise to hear the solution.

The problem was that the roof in question was that of the Slugain Howff, better known as ‘The Secret Howff’. Built in great secrecy at the start of the 1950s, with an improved roof installed a couple of years later (see Jack Innes’ comment below this post), work had to be carried out in great secrecy, with materials carried in clandestinely after dark – no easy matter with wooden beams and sheets of corrugated iron. Fast forward to the present day and a rerun of the ’50s buccaneering activities was unlikely: the guys who look after the Howff these days are, well, not in the first flush of youth. Not quite be-zimmered, certainly, but while they were looking forward to removing the old roof and building a replacement, they realised that getting the building materials in there was going to be a problem.

The solution came in two parts. First, staff at Invercauld Estate (which had, over the last 60-odd years, noticed the presence of a small and inoffensive howff) indicated that they would be willing to assist with transport of the roofing materials as far as was possible by vehicle. (Support for the continued existence of the Howff seems to have been strong – at the same time as the Howff caretakers were getting permission and an offer of help from one part of the estate, a Braemar reader of this blog spoke to a friend on the estate staff who also offered assistance.)

The second part came from Bob Scott’s Bothy Association. Kenny Freeman was in touch with the Howff caretakers and offered the services of the Scottie’s crew for the final carry.

That’s how Kenny, Ellie, Jamie, Davey, John, Bill, Sandy, Alex, Dod, Ian and myself found ourselves early on Saturday morning meeting in a secret car park in a secret mountain range to rendezvous with estate and howff workers.

Materials for new roof for Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Roofing materials at the end of the landy track. From here it was an Argocat… and people power

To be honest, once a couple of youngsters were out of the equation, the average age of the Bob Scott’s crew wasn’t that far away from that of the caretakers, but Kenny had packaged the corrugated sheets in wheeled frames which were surprisingly effective for pulling up the path after the landy track ended, while an Argocat took wooden beams, cement bags and assorted tools.

Taking roofing sheets in to the Secret Howff, Cairngorms

A cartie with a difference. The corrugated iron sheets were easy to pull up the track in Kenny Freeman’s wheeled frames.

Unloading materials for repair of the Secret Howff, Glen Slugain.

Unloading the heavily-laden Argocat, filled with wood, cement and tools.

That still left the final stage up a seemingly endless steep slope. What had seemed a perfect morning had by this time developed into heavy snow showers driven by a strengthening wind that made carrying the roofing sheets somewhat challenging at times, with four people, one on each corner, making sure they didn’t blow away down the glen.

Carrying roofing beams in to the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

Carrying the roofing beams the last climb up to the howff

Roof beams were simpler, with one beam per person or two people per beam depending on length and – dare I say it – age of carrier, but the bags of cement were just pure killer. I managed three, but stopped about three times on the way up with the third, shoulders and neck aching and knees buckling. Definitely getting too old for this shit!

Roof removed from Slugain Howff showing the interior.

Exposed! The old roof is gone, leaving the Howff open to the elements.

While all the porterage was taking place, the work was proceeding apace. A small generator provided power for the angle grinders which helped peel the roof off, leaving the interior looking strangely naked and vulnerable. Roof beams were lifted out too, with gratifyingly little damage to the walls, although it was sobering to see how rotten at least one of the main beams was.

But that, for Saturday, was that. Having done our carrying, the Bob Scott’s crew were off down the hill. Watch this space for pictures of the completed job, once I get up there again, for, all going well, I’m assuming that the re-roofing went ahead successfully and that the Howff is now good for another 60 years or so.

Fitting new roof beams at the Slugain Howff, Cairngorms

New roof beams being fitted. Work should now be completed, so watch this space.

UPDATE: Photos of the completed roof can be seen in the next post here.

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From failure to magic in the Cairngorms

Snowy view from Carn Crom in the Cairngorms

The magic. The view from Carn Crom

In the Cairngorms even the failed weekends can turn out to be memorable – and for all the right reasons too.

I’d set out from work on Friday, heading up to Bob Scott’s Bothy with the intention of going out to Corrour on Saturday to change the toilet bag. My mood wasn’t improved by the Glenshee road being closed with the snow and me having to go all the way up to Aberdeen and then up Deeside. From Braemar to Linn o’ Dee the road was white and slithery and I made it only by the skin of my teeth round the rising bend after the Linn o’ Dee bridge. Tired from the start, the increasing depth of the drifts on the Derry track were taking their toll and I was glad to see Bob Scott’s, even if it was in  darkness.

Great. Three folk in – in their beds and it only 10pm! Well I was pretty hungry by this time so I unpacked my sack, laid out my mat and sleeping bag then sat down to make my dinner, and to hell if they couldn’t sleep. 10pm? In Scottie’s?!!!

Come morning the outlook was brighter. The guys seemed right enough blokes despite their sleeping habits and we chatted a bit over our various breakfasts, then I threw some stuff into my rucksack and set off for Corrour.

The going was heavy from the start, varying from fresh powder to soft drift. The ground underneath wasn’t very well frozen, so I had to be careful crossing the bogs in the Derry Flats. The tree across the track in the Luibeg Woods was a nuisance rather than a hazard, but once I was out of the woods the depth of the snow increased, with an average of just above the knee in depth and that infuriating consistency where you sink slowly into it only when you put your weight onto it. At times I was down to five to six seconds per double step. Going through the young trees in the Robbers’ Copse was worse, forcing through crotch-deep snow at times.

Snowy trees in the Robbers' Copse, Luibeg, Cairngorms

Like a scene from Narnia. Forcing a way through the snow-choked woods at the Luibeg ford

The ford, at first sight, didn’t look too bad. The river was fairly well iced, with the flowing water restricted to a few channels. I put on crampons for the iced-up stepping stones and started to cross – only to discover the ice wasn’t properly formed: some was slush and some of the sheets broke as soon as I put weight on them. It took about 20 minutes to get across, although on the plus side the only time I went in over my knee I was out again so quickly the water didn’t have time to penetrate the gaiters and waterproof trousers.

It was time to look at the clock though. As I sat down up the bank for something to eat I calculated I’d already taken a little over two hours to get to where I was, with maybe another two hours or so before I reached the bothy. Give me a ten-minute sit down to recover, then probably another hour or more to change over the toilet bag and burn the ppe suit and gloves. It would be dark before I even got back to the ford, let alone reached Scottie’s.

So enough. All this travelling and effort for nothing. I should have gone to the ceilidh with my mates that I knew would be on at Glas Allt Sheil that night. It was a low moment: so low that I couldn’t even face going back across the ford, and headed up the glen to use the bridge.

Luibeg Burn in the Cairngorms, in winter

Looking down the semi-frozen Luibeg burn from the bridge

But on the way up there, having resigned myself to failure, I started to enjoy just being there again and, by the time I crossed the bridge I was looking at the beckoning slopes of Carn Crom. It’s a steep hill from this side, but I’ve found myself tempted up there on a few occasions over the years, and today it had the added temptation of being on the windward side of the hill, so with very little drifting. It would, said I, making excuses for yet another daft ploy, possibly even be easier than wading back down through the glen.

And that moment was when the failed duty trip turned into a cracking day on the hill. Yes, it was a pech taking the steep slopes head on, but where you climb steeply you gain height quickly, and I was enjoying the rapidly expanding views. Cloud was plentiful, and down over the higher tops, but Carn a Mhaim was mostly clear and humble Sgor Mor was offering some ephemeral but stupendous views as the cloud was broken and reformed by the wind. Shafts of gold would strike out of the grey lift and spotlight their way across the snow, bigger rents would render a whole hillside golden for a tantalising second or two before the lights would once more go out as the cloud closed, whole ridge lines would suddenly be fringed with an intense gold halo as the sun caught on the spindrift blowing high in the wind.

Sunshine and shade on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Sunbeams shine out from the cloud and illuminate Sgor Mor

On my own hill, too, the wind was picking up as I gained height, snow smoking across the ground and whirling up into the sky. By the time I was nearing the summit it was probably blowing at about 50mph: enough to give me the odd buffet but not to knock me off my feet, and I was thoroughly enjoying just being there and being at ease in those conditions. When I stood at the summit cairn taking in the view and the sensations I reflected how I’d last been there just fortnight previously with a friend, the wind almost as strong but then driving a penetrating rain so heavy we were soaked to the skin and didn’t even pause as we touched the cairn at fled back down to the bothy. Today, even after I left the cairn, I was finding excuses to stop on the way back down towards Derry, pausing once to admire and ponder on the exquisitely sculpted patterns in the snow. We think of the wind as a battering, tearing force, and we think of snow as so soft and formless, yet all over we can see how the wind, using its own force and the abrasion of blown snow has etched the snowpack, one unsuspected layer at a time, into contoured patterns which speak of delicacy rather than the brute force of extreme weather.

Wind-sculpted snow on Carn Crom, Cairngorms

The delicacy of the gale

I once wondered, on reading Nan Shepherd’s account of a stream in the act of freezing, how anyone could have the patience to sit in such cold and watch this process, but this day, so comfortable and at home, despite the cold and blast, I could have sat and watched such a thing myself. A day that had at one point seemed such a failure and disappointment had turned into one of magic. For I had remembered why I was there at all.

(And as an added bonus? In a bothy full of strangers that night, we were all best of friends and had a great night of talk and banter in front of a toasty stove. What a bothy’s all about.)

Sunshine in winter from Carn Crom, Cairngorms

Envoi. The sun goes and so do I.

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