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.