Some Recollections of an Addict

Foreigners rightly express surprise that the British Isles contain mountains. For sure, we have some moorland hills; anyone who loves the North of England knows the particular gentle yet uncompromising appeal of the Pennines and their offshoots, The damp freshness of a Derbyshire winter morning, looking across from above Whaley Bridge to Rushop Edge; or the awesome experience of tramping through a snowy dawn on Bleaklow - these are unforgettable. In the Lake District there are fells, miniature mountains in a uniquely compact landscape, complete with crags, waterfalls, boulderfields and valleys. Who can deny the allure of Borrowdale in May - or doubt that someone, at least, derives a particular pleasure from running across Kirk Fell in sunny late December, or swimming in Sty Head Tarn in July? On the Scafell massif, there is perhaps a true sense of mountain: there is a profusion of rock, plunging drops, and, in a hard winter, some ice. Yet the summit of Scafell Pike, the highest point in England, can be reached by any lightly-laden fit individual in less than one hour from the safety of a public road. This observation applies equally to all the high summits of North Wales, and of Ireland, without denying the rugged beauty of, say, Snowdon, or Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Undoubtedly it is in Scotland that Britain's mountains are to be found, and what a choice! Here is genuine wilderness by any standards, mountains of character reached only by long days and often nights in the open. I remember looking from the summit of Carn Dearg, the furthest point of a long walk from the A86 near Loch Laggan, towards the massive bulk of the Ben Alder plateau in the empty interior of the Central Highlands, still carrying great swathes of snow in mid-June; how I missed my camera then! And walking along the crest of the long ridge from Mullach na Dheirgain, many miles from civilisation, towards the remote high turrets of the complex peak Sgùrr nan Ceathreamhnan, deep in the hinterland between Glen Affric and Glen Elchaig. And descending from Sgùrr na Lapaich into Glen Strathfarrar amid ancient mighty conifers on the third day of a long horseshoe around Loch Monar.

I cannot omit a recollection of the incomparable Fisherfield Forest, lying between the Torridon giants and the magnificent rock edifice of An Teallach. I have traversed this area three times. On the first occasion I was an exhausted fifteen-year-old, only too glad to be given a rest day high up in Gleann na Muice while stronger members of a forty-strong school party climbed Munros and sunbathed for hours on the summits. Four years later I was a determined Munro bagger, looping all six of them alone with a night at Shenavall bothy and a trackless day of 32km and 2600m, reaching the car at 10.30pm while Northern Scotland's semi-permanent summer sunlight still shone strongly. The views from A' Mhaighdean, claimed by some as the most remote Munro and Britain's best viewpoint, had mad a great impression: westwards the Fionn Loch stretches under steep cliffs into thousands of tiny pools beyond the eye's reach; and to the south, mysterious lochans are locked in between strange ridges. Last April I paid my most recent visit, with company, all lugging very heavy packs full of goodies to eat at the bothy, which nestles under An Teallach's sweeping southern slopes in Strath na Sealga. There is a very fine view up to Beinn Dearg Mhòr, not quite a Munro. We began the day in the traditional manner by wading the river and ascending the steep slopes of Beinn a' Claidheimh. Paul and Ian left me behind on the climb and at the top I decided to take the short-cut direct to A' Mhaighdean with David, who was, unlike myself, happy to profess a lack of fitness. Recent heavy spring snowfalls had transformed the mountains and everywhere there was deep wet snow to struggle through. Watching Paul and Ian romp down towards the bealach, I was stung by the possibility of missing an unmissable day of sun and snow, and I had to do my best to run after them. The three of us zoomed over Sgùrr Ban, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair and Beinn Tarsuinn, using protruding boulders like stepping stones, and sharing the trail-breaking when there were none. Ian led the 400m ascent to A' Mhaighdean at a brutal pace, and at the top it took fully twenty minutes to slow my breathing to something like a normal rate. We relaxed, ate and drank, and absorbed the stupendous scene, That day was a wonderful combination of environment and exercise: from the last peak, Ruadh Stac Mòr, there was an undeclared war to be the first one back to the bothy, some 10km distant. I began to walk very quickly down the stalking track into Gleann na Muice, occasionally jogging. Turning occasionally, I saw Ian lumbering in his plastic boots across short-cuts behind me. In the glen, he turned off the path early; a tactical error! He had disappeared into the bog when I approached the first river crossing. Over my shoulder I was shocked to see Paul surreptitiously jogging to catch me up. There was nothing for it bit to stride straight into the river, which proved to be nearly waist-deep. Fortunately, twenty minutes later I managed to reach the bothy in first place - a little sweet revenge for the day's beginning!

In winter, travelling in the remote Scottish mountains becomes a very serious proposition. The days are short, the nights are very long, and the weather is sometimes atrocious. The terrain is much more challenging: some types of snow make progress very exhausting; distinctly layered and wind-compacted snow is avalanche-prone; and summer's rocky scramble becomes winter's technical mixed climb. In many areas, the high corries collect enough snow and ice to last almost all the way through summer. It is necessary to be fit and well-equipped with appropriate clothing, bivouac gear and food, and competent with ice-axe and crampons. Late March is a good time for an introduction to winter conditions, because the days are longer; December and early January are usually too early for sufficient snow to have accumulated. Recently I experienced, for the first time, a Scottish February. We headed for what could be regarded as the headquarters of the mountains of the British Isles. The Cairngorms occupy an area in the Northeast Highlands approximately 30km square and possess some special geographical features that in combination can produce a truly fearsome environment. Their position in the east of Scotland ensures a more rapid lapse rate (fall-off of temperature with altitude) than obtains in the west, and so since they consist of most of the highest ground in the country, they also have the coldest climate, essentially an arctic one: the next ice-age begins here. The Cairngorms comprise vast plateaux with sudden edges dropping into sheer-walled corries, and so the wind has every chance to reach frightening speeds, and to sculpt large cornices that disguise the dangerous edges. Although Skye and Glen Coe harbour mountains more magnificently Alpine in character, with much more technical rock, they do not experience a Cairngorm winter.

We left the car in the skier's car-park at Coire Cas at 10 o'clock, Sunday morning. There was some blustery rain and some sunshine. We began a relaxed ascent of the ski-slopes, pausing for some desultory practice of ice-axe arrests. From the shelter behind the Ptarmigan restaurant (1800m), where we huddled chewing dates and chocolate in amused view of the skiers cosy inside their ridiculous pink and yellow costumes, we began the final climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm, the fourth highest summit in the range at 1245m. This bitter staggering struggle with the wind did not bode well for the remainder of the day. But at the top, the wind seemed to drop, and the clouds rolled away to reveal the long miles of the central plateau, a whiteness relieved only by the barns (tors) on the summit of Beinn Mheadhoin. We watched Cairn Gorm's automatic weather station whir into action, donned crampons for the hard snows of the plateau, and strolled off to the west. We rated the wind at a fairly constant 50mph. Soon disaster struck: Richard's Karrimat was wrenched from his rucksack and blew away down into Coire Domhain. So dropping rucksack and axe, he charged off after it, while Ian and Paul (yes, those two again) and I enjoyed a break and the great panoramic views. Unfortunately for Richard, our break was extended somewhat when the wind blew his rucksack into the corrie too - another rapid descent and tiring reascent were needed; by this time, the Karrimat had probably reached the Shelter Stone, many hundreds of metres below! At last, we set off towards Ben Macdui. The snow had an awkward crust: you could lever off great sheets of it, but newer be sure whether or not it would hold the next footstep. We wound our slow way across the expanse. Lochans at the head of the Feith Buidhe had totally disappeared under the white. The clouds descended at length, and I led the final km or two in whiteout and a heavy crosswind towards the second highest point in Scotland, 1309m. There was now a choice: either east to the Hutchinson hut in Coire Etchachan, or west to the bothy in the Garbh Choire. Both of these were unknowns: the latter was chosen as an ideal base to climb the remaining 4000ft Munros which top the western plateau. Very numb in the wind, we were glad to lose height rapidly into the Lairig Ghru, the deep glacial trough dividing the central plateau and today's expedition from the western Cairngorms. The descent provided, at least for me, a 500m bum-slide and several bruises! We crossed the Dee, and tramped into the Garbh Choire through deep soft snow, alarmed at last to discover the bothy to be little more than a pile of stones; although, fortunately, they concealed an iron-framed hut about 2m cube. It was enough to admire the moonlit twilight before retiring for a heavy intake of pasta with soup and gruyere, and Cadbury's chocolate break. We were asleep well before 9 o'clock.

The wind had dropped during the night, and we left the bothy with a fine Monday morning feeling. We had our first opportunity to really test crampons, crunching up to Coire an Lochan Uaine: what a superb feeling when the points bite and the steep smooth ascent rolls away cleanly! halting at the lip at 900m, we chose the right-hand arm of the corrie: the northeast ridge of the Angel's Peak, a 4000ft Top of Cairn Toul. The map showed a uniformly steep knife-edge with the summit immediately at the top; this looked too good to miss. The adrenaline came very near the end: there had been an awkward, rocky bulge a little lower, but now came a larger barrier; it was necessary to lean against the rock while traversing to the right on front points, and then to ascend a few feet of very exposed 60° or 70° snow before a curving, lightly corniced ridge led to the summit. Paul followed me through this section without complaint, but absolutely refused to pose for a photo above the cornice. He did, however, call down from the top with news of a spectacular view, and, leaving my rucksack pinned to the slope with my ice-axe, I scampered to the top, only to find the clouds closing in again. Seen, cries could be heard from below: it seemed that Richard was stuck in the tricky section. Gloveless and clutching only my camera, I had to descend to the sack and axe, and after cruelly obtaining a photo of Richard in a desperate position, climbed lower, facing into the slope, hands freezing. After a lot of hesitation and encouragement, we were all at the summit. Cairn Toul itself lazily emerged from the mist to the south; Braeriach to the north remained stubbornly covered. Gradually recovering from the day's first excitement, we walked around the corrie rim to Cairn Toul (1291m), which was again clouded over. Now came Ian's speciality: navigation in cloud for several kilometres across a featureless plateau, with few contours, to a summit, Braeriach, perched on its very edge. This was for me a mindless tramp, automatically treading directly in Ian's footprints, trusting that he wouldn't lead us through a cornice. At one stage, we paused while Richard had the dubious pleasure of a notable first: defecation at 400ft! Finally we ascended the final gentle slope, and simultaneously the clouds lifted; the snow turned gold, and Braeriach's summit (1296m) lay only a few metres away. There appeared colossal views with lighting and cloud structure in rapid and continuous flux. Cairn Toul and the Angel's Peak topped out the huge bowl of Coire an Lochan Uaine; Carn a' Mhaim guarded the Dee's progress down the many miles towards Braemar; Cairn Gorm showed a distant dome; and nearer at hand, the complex ripples and flutings of Braeriach's edge were lit in black and gold by a low southwestern sun. Mountains marched away to the northwest. Reluctantly, as the cloud rolled slowly in again, we made our short way to the east, and, pulling on slippery overtrousers and removing crampons, slid all the way to the base of Coire Bhrocain, very well pleased with a conquest of the second, third, fourth and fifth highest Munros. There remained only one thing more to complete a perfect winter expedition: while Ian and Richard descended 1km to the bothy to retrieve the rest of our gear, at 3pm Paul and I began to dig a snow-cave with our ice-axes in the side of a huge drift near the lip of the corrie. Cliffs towered above, cut through by spectacular snow gullies, and short walks in between bouts of digging revealed Cairn Toul and Ben Macdui lit by the late sun. After two hours, Ian arrived with the snow shovel, and progress speeded. We took turns, on the principle that the coldest man should be allowed to dig. It was 8 o'clock, however, before I was adding the finishing touches in a furious final flurry of action. We were all cold and wet, and only too glad to slide down into the 2m-long trench leading into the drift where two-man bunks had been cut either side. After cooking, a late discovery of some pairs of dry socks in my rucksack made the prospect of sleep immeasurably more attractive. Curling up, fully clothed in sleeping bags and survival bags, we tried to feel warm; moonlight flooded in from outside. In the morning, it was raining. The novelty of a 3200ft bivouac had quite worn off. We set out at once to traverse the Lairig Ghru, halting once to stuff down some dried apricots. After a final pause in the Sinclair hut, there was a rapid soaking march over the Chalamain Gap and a hillside streaming with meltwater, to reach the car at midday. A few yellow and pink skiers were trying to ignore the rain. Flat old Cambridge was reached at midnight.

Matt Bramley, 1991