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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8 Responses to Skiing the Black Spout of Lochnagar in 1954

  1. George Adams says:

    I was there that day and remember the event well.Stan Stewart was one of the Hash Kings he also was a fantastic guitar player and would entertain the passengers on the Strachans bus from Braemar to Aberdeen on a Sunday night with songs like Wabash Cannonball and Woody Guthrie melodies which are still some of my favourites today. Thanks again Neil.

  2. I’ve given thought to walking UP the Black Spout in summer – shows what a coward I am compared to your mate!
    Carol.

  3. Scott Muir says:

    As with when I first saw the article in the Scottish Mountaineer, I am flattered that my video is linked to such an inspirational story.

    Ashie’s reticence to tell the story, and the lack of “fanfare” about it is interesting for a whole number of reasons. Gully skiing in Scotland is quite popular now, relatively speaking. Unlike climbing, there’s not really been any records kept of who skied what. There’s a significant amount of information out there as to what has been skied in the form of guidebooks and website, but it is far from complete. Despite this, there’s currently a trend amongst some to “claim” first descents. This appears to be based upon not being able to find any record on the internet of a descent, or them and their mates not having heard of a descent by word of mouth. When this article appeared in the Scottish Mountaineer, it kind of proved the point I have been making for some time. People did these things, and just didn’t talk about it. There’s no possible way of finding out who has skied what over the years, and that’s the way it is, which I think is fine. We should just accept it and get out there and ski lines that appeal. I’m of the opinion that if I have spotted something that looks worth skiing, someone else in the past 40 or 50 years probably has as well.

    There seems to be a feeling that it was the late 70’s before gully skiing featured on the radar. I find it hard to believe that no one else considered it between 1954 and the late 70’s! That said, I think it is safe to say that Ashie probably did bag the first descent of Black Spout, round about a quarter of a century before it was probably thought to have first been done, at a guess.

    Despite my views on current claims of first descents, I’m partially responsible for the spread of information on interesting lines. I run a small site http://www.steepscotland.info. It’s a work in progress (content and structure), but the idea was to list gullies and faces that make good ski descents across the country. There’s a natural bias towards the Cairngorms, given that they are just up the road.

    I would really like to find out if Ashie tried to ski anything else at the time of a similar undertaking? I enjoyed reading his article as well. Beinn a’Bhuird is a particular favourite of mine, and I love skiing in the corries there. They are all possible in a day trip with the use of a mountain bike, yet feel remote and secluded. The skiing is fantastic, whether it is down the Allt an t-Sneachda, or one of the steep lines of Garbh Choire.

    The day featured in the video from 2011 was special for me as it was the first time i’d been able to ski the main branch of Black Spout top to bottom without having to take my skis off at the narrows (the point where I bump the tips of my skis off the sidewall of the gully) due to rocks and/or ice. Last season, Black Spout was so full, the “narrows” were buried completely, and it was a different experience again. Better equipment, transport and information make a descent of Black Spout less of a challenge these days. I’ve skied either the main branch and/or the left branch every year for the past 7 or 8 years, sometimes after work in May. I first tried to ski Black Spout itself in 1993 while at university, so it took me some time to finally get the whole gully done!

    Thanks for sharing the article again,

    Scott

    • Hi Scott, Thanks for a very informative response there. I’ve had a quick look at your steepscotland site and, though I’m not a skier these days it looks interesting – I’ll stick it on the list of links at the side of the page. I must confess I never thought to ask Ashie whether he’d done any other steep lines, but I’ll pass him your email address and he may want to get in touch.

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