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.
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.
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.
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 Bothy, Scottie’s, Gelder Sheil… even the ‘Secret Howff‘!
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.