The pictureless post: monolith and a halo

There are no pictures in this post.

There are, however, some of the best pictures I’ve never taken.

It didn’t seem to matter on Friday evening when, struggling to make headway – or even to stay on my bike at times – against a gale blowing down Loch Muick, I realised I’d forgotten to pack my camera. Photography was the least of my concerns.

It mattered only slightly more on Saturday morning when the sky was blue and it looked like I’d get a walk after all. Maybe no camera, but I could do with a good walk in reasonably pleasant weather for a change.

But of course it started to matter when I first caught sight of the Dubh Loch cliffs. Despite the fact I’ve climbed there in winter and summer (the easy gullies, not the climbs which have made these some of the most renowned cliffs in Scotland) I’d never taken the Loch Muick approach before, never seen that towering, monolithic mass of seemingly vertical cliff dominating the view ahead.

The Dubh Loch itself, anywhere else, would be a lovely sight, with its golden beaches adding colour to the upper end. But at the foot of these thousand-foot cliffs it has to be content with a best supporting actress role. making the star turn look even better. And these are tremendous cliffs, changing in character as you traverse the other side of the loch, looking across whenever the rough path allows you to lift your eyes.

First South-East Gully appears, slicing off the eastern segment of the monolith. South-East Gully that was the first route I climbed there, so many years ago, because we’d driven up Glen Clova to find that icy roads didn’t mean icy gullies and, with the hills there all black we decided to head up over Broad Cairn to see what was ‘in’ at Creag an Dubh Loch. SE Gully was there: nominally a I/II snow climb, but on the day boasting a necky steep pitch with awkward exit which slowed us down at the start. We might even have called it a day, as the day was already getting shorted, but carrying on up the gully looked like being the quickest way back to Clova anyway, so on we went, Colin leading the desperately insecure pitch to flank a massive cornice at the top while I marvelled at what strange combination of wind, thaw and freeze could produce such bizarrely curved icicles as grew from an overhanging sidewall. As I pulled over the top of the route after Colin the stars had appeared, and we reached the top of Broad Cairn under a glorious sweep of starlight but lost the way down to the homeward path, stumbling down steep slopes above the Bachnagairn Bridge before finding the path again and the interminable trudge back to Clova, so footsore that when we stopped at Kirriemuir for a Chinese on the way home we were hobbling into the shop like old men. Another picture.

Back on Saturday the Dubh Loch cliffs were still changing, as, in turn, Central Gully (a braw summer’s day out with my brother-in-law Tom, who knew these hills well but had never thought to take this through-route with its high walls and great granite boulders) and then North-West Gully showed up, slicing what first showed as a massive granite wall into four distinct buttresses, each with its own character and still massive in their own rights.

Size: that’s what you get from Creag an Dubh Loch; a sense of scale, of height, of mass. Can you capture that with a compact camera? I wished I could try.

But size goes in two directions. Walking along the rough, muddy, rocky path, I came suddenly face to face with a stoat as it came towards me from behind a boulder, pure white in its winter coat, just that black tip to its tail and another black slash on its back. It did a quick about-turn as soon as it saw me, but as I passed the boulder and looked back I saw a hole under it and waited a moment until the stoat reappeared and went on its way. Ermine, and looking far far better in the photo I never took than on the robes of a ‘lord’.

As I left cliffs and stoats behind me and climbed up beside the Allt an Dubh Loch my mood dropped a bit: this was a real arse end of winter walk: the sky had hazed over and the wind blew through me but there was still a heavy thaw on, with the ground saturated and snow-bridges hiding burns while being too soft to bear my weight.  I passed the mouth of Coire Uilleim Mhoir, which cuts behind Creag an Dubh Loch and the next, nameless, choire which boasted a corniced edge and obvious avalanche debris below, then eyed up a rib on the edge of a buried stream beyond, where the angle eased off a little and looked like the soonest access to hopefully firmer snow above on Cairn Bannoch.

Eight or nine mountain hares, still in winter whites, provided pleasant distraction from the slope as I plodded up on firming snow, eventually swapping poles for an ice axe as the gradient steepened before easing onto the plateau…

Which is where the camera really came to mind.

There ahead of me, the swelling rise of the hill, irregularities smoothed out by deep snow cover, different textures flat white or glistening in the dull sunshine – and above… Above a great halo around the sun: 360 degrees of inverted rainbow, red on the inside through to the blues on the outside, fading to white and back into the grey-blue of the hazy sky. Inside the circle a darker grey.

The radius of the halo is huge. Form a fist and stretch your arm out to the sun: the sun is at one edge of your fist, the halo at the other. It’s about a third of the sky, this great halo of rainbow light above the white swell of snow. I think it doesn’t get much better than this, but then it does.

As I trudge upwards (the snow weight bearing after barely ankle depth now) the summit of Cairn Bannoch comes into view, that curiously pointy rock and cairn to be found on such a rounded hill, and it’s poking black and stark out of the snowy plain, directly below the giant halo and I’m thinking of the old Paramount Pictures mountain logo and then, and then, just as I’m burning my eyes out trying not to look at this sun-centred marvel, the vapour trail starts to appear. Inside the halo, below the sun, a jet airliner draws a shining white trail through this visual miracle and I swear it’s like an animated title sequence, the plane drawing a line through the halo like an arrow through a heart. But it’s real. It’s all real. And glorious.

And that was the picture. That was the picture. But this was one of those days that kept giving. I remember the climb up on to the nameless top north of Cairn of Gowal, when the unbroken white swell was within a few paces broken by the black serrations of boulders, lined up on the skyline like Indians ambushing the wagon train; I remember the all-round views from Broad Cairn, seeing right across to Bennachie as I chatted to the first other walker I’d seen closer than a mile away. There was also the pleasure of descending towards Sandy Hillocks, moving from winter into spring and shedding hat, gloves and, finally jacket before heading down into Coire Chash and the long slanting path. That provided the adventure for the day. When starting out I’d seen snow lay across the upper part of this path; now I got to it it was no more than a hundred yards, but for all the shallow gradient of the path it was crossing formidably steep ground and I had the axe out again, kicking bucket steps and sinking the shaft in full depth, at one point even facing in as I descended to avoid a rotten snow-bridge.

And that was it for the thrills, just a pleasant march down to the loch and an amble round the top, getting one last glimpse of Creag an Dubh Loch, still imposing when glimpsed between other hills, before going back through the woods to the Glas Allt Shiel and a well-earned seat.

A great day. But no pictures.

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22 Responses to The pictureless post: monolith and a halo

  1. Doug Palmer says:

    You had me on the edge of my seat , sums up many a day when the camera never came out of my bag.

  2. Nick says:

    One of the most powerful pieces of short mountain writing I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Remarkable and truly evocative.

  3. Great description there – many times I forget my camera and, whenever I do, I either see superb sights or the weather is superb! 😦

  4. James Ford says:

    Photos couldn’t do justice to your great description!
    This is an excellent site for atmospheric optics:

  5. ardverikie67 says:

    Excellent bit of narrative, who needs pictures when the description is so good? A fine spot Dubh Loch, one of my favourites.

  6. Rab Young says:

    I really should be working but I read this instead. Wonderful images, it’s set me up for the day. Now back to the mundane.

  7. Sinbad says:

    Another great description of a fine day in the hills. Also the mention of “Muckle Wullie’s Corrie” which I don’t think is named on the map. Local knowledge is a wonderful thing.

    • Alas, Sinbad, my local knowledge isn’t as great as you think. Muckle Wullie’s Corrie is indeed commemorated on the 1:25000 OS map, although not on the 1:50000. Suspect there are a lot of names which never appear on the maps though.

  8. Richard Sime says:

    I could wish a lifetime away waiting for the freedom to roam – salary slavery ~ retirement. Why last week did I have to draw the curtains in my classroom so that we could see anything on the screen, while this week the clagg is wet and thick at ground level so that it is river walks for the kids and high bivis postponed? Your piece evokes all those blue sky lid days that inspire, and no, there is no better camera than the mind’s eye recall of vital beauty writ large before the willing observer.
    But no matter how pleasing a piece of written recall is as it runs off the fingers at the key board, it is always the damn typos the loom large later.
    Thanks for your efforts!

  9. Norrie Muir says:

    Yet another fine tale.
    I’ve many fond memories of Creag an Dubh Loch, but no photos.

  10. Tom Rollo says:

    Lovely writing Neil, a bit different from you. I really enjoyed it, and like the fisherman with the biggest catch that got away, I can still summon up images in my head of the photos that “got away”. Lovely stuff and thanks.

  11. Piper says:

    I Neil …and a fine nicht to finish off with…a dram in hand ,sitting by the bothy fireside !

  12. Mark says:

    I enjoyed that. I’d read about the Dubh Loch many years ago. Sometimes places become almost fixed in my mind, I’ve just got to go and see them. I’ve only passed that way three times in total but on each ocassion I’ve diverted from the logical route to visit this gem. A camera can be a hindrance at times, lovely piece of writing.

  13. Peter Aikman says:

    About 100years ago, but won’t have changed much – you can even paint in some snow

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