Buchaille Etive Mor

We took the sleeper from Euston, for a long weekend in the Highlands. As well as some hillwalking, there was a serious task at hand; the scattering of some ashes of a young woman who earlier this year, had taken her own life.

Our journey north was enlivened by about four fingers each of Glenlivet. We arrived at Glasgow Central after an adequate nights sleep, perhaps disturbed in my case by some rather odd whisky dreams. After a quick breakfast in the Gordon Street Cafe next to the station, we nipped off through the chill city streets to get our rental car. By 10 a.m we were parking up at Inveruglas on Loch Lomondside, in light rain.

Ben Vorlich

Past the rather impressive hydro-electric power station, you go under the West Highland Line, turn uphill keeping some rapids in a gorge on the left, and up a private road into the brown valley. Up ahead, there is a black industrial-looking dam.

Power lines march off into the distance. Dodging some maternal cattle who were monopolising the road, we broke right straight up into the hills, a long slog. We stopped for a quick bite to eat in a draughty cleft in the rocks, and pushed on to the summit. As we did so, the weather broke with a vengeance. Another half an hour later in starting, and we’d have been forced to turn back from the summit. In a howling, lashing storm, we bagged the summit and retreated as fast as possible. Fortunately there’s a clear path, even in thick clag. We were off the hill before 2pm, meaning that we’d bagged a Munro in less than four hours. Rather pleased with ourselves, we got in the car and drove north to the Clachaig.

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In Glencoe, we pitched our tents, not without some wind-related challenges, and retreated through the storm to the warmth of the pub:

“The evening shadows on the dry stone walls
The night draws in and the ale house calls”

(Chris Rea, “Chisel Hill“)

Buchaille Etive Mor

Around 10.30a.m, a party of eight of us set off up the Lairig Gartain. On the walk up the glen we had twice to ford streams that were running quite full and needed crossing with care. This was the largest group of people I’ve been on the hill with for twenty years. Six of the people present were university students less than half my age, and a handful of those young people were experienced hillwalkers. Everyone was quite fit, but the collective pace of such a group is slower than that of a smaller party. The route lay zig-zag up into Coire Altrium, negotiating through a band of cliffs and broken ground up onto the col between Stob Coire Altrium and Stob na Doire. We did not reach the ridge until after noon, and we paused there for refreshment. The day was wide open; whilst it was cold and windy, the weather seemed to be clearing.

The delicate light and remarkable visibility improved as the afternoon wore on.

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Along the ridge, things seemed further away than they really were. We met two parties as we continued north-west. The first was two guys, one of them with a rope over his shoulders. He reassured us in a strong Italian accent that the summit of Stob Dearg was by no means too far away. The second party was formed of more members of the university hiking club.

As we moved up towards the main summit of Stob Dearg, we were visited by a very tame raven.

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Strange, very strange, was this, to my eyes. I only found out later that this bird is a regular denizen of this summit. I should have known my local history better: A mountain with a route up it called Raven’s Gully might well have such birds lurking at the summit. The raven afforded some remarkable wildlife photography, with Ben Nevis prominent thirty miles away in the background.

At the summit of Stob Dearg – the shapely triangular mountain commonly referred to as “Buchaille Etive Mor”, the party paused for a moment of reflection. Earlier in the year, someone known and loved by members of the party had taken her own life whilst suffering from depression. Ashes were scattered. It was fitting that such an event should take place on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday.

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And then onwards and down. First, down to the col, and then, the steep descent into Coire na Tuliach. Until the party went down into the gully, the light remained absolutely remarkable. One might go on the hill for two years and not see conditions like it. Tired now, the party descended to Lagangarbh, and crossed the river. Only as we approached the road on the long tramp back to the car, did we reach for our torches. Our timing was perfect – in more ways than one, for the following day was rainy too. We were lucky enough to do our hike in all too brief weather window as Autumn slowly turned to Winter.

Stand up, hold my hand
I hope you understand
Here where time is still, I walk the hill

Stand here, close to me
Here for all eternity
I wait as others will, I walk the hill

(Stuart Adamson)

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Holy silence

How long can you be alone, and remain happy? A few days? Weeks? or maybe only hours.  I’ve known people who were uncomfortable with their own company for only hours.  Yet, the great hunters and explorers of North America must have spent months alone – think of John Muir, who was a six month in the Yosemite Valley with only a new testament for company.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.

Reflections on old coaching inns – II

Southward over the brown hills, under grey skies, to Pitlochry, where there was light drizzle, and picturesque clouds drifting across the mountainsides.  After lunch in a little cafe, onwards again along Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch.  Why? Because I can.

Brown and gold, red and orange, the leaves of Autumn.  Mountain and lake vista, and the peace of the empty road through the woods.  The changing scenery: woods of birch and glorious splash of autumn colour, then avenues of oak trees on either side of the road, then English-looking farm land with cows and farmhouses.  Still more lakeside and rolling hills and then still later on, the land rises.  There’s that beautiful, sooth, deep and rich brown of late Autumn, lovely under blue skies or grey.  The winding road climbs up onto the Moor of Rannoch.  I arrived at Rannoch Station in drizzle. Worth the journey just to see this most remote of British railway stations. Here, Fort William is barely 35 miles away by rail – but by road,  more than a hundred.

On the run back I stopped by a B&B whose website said “www.middleofnowhere.com”. I wanted to stay but there were no vacancies. Seems everyone wants to be in the middle of nowhere. I popped into the Kinloch Rannoch Hotel, a grandiose spa hotel, but they wanted £213 for a room.  I left, giggling.  If you need to know how much it costs, you can’t afford it – never a truer word.

Tiring now, I motored back to the A9 and joined the treadmill at 57mph over the Pass of Drumochter.  Pedestrian motoring; no fun at all.  A twenty mile passage more tiring than all the country lane driving of the day so far. And on to Kingussie, another one of those compact Scottish small towns with a neat grey high street.  And I stopped in the first place I went into – the Duke of Gordon Hotel.  A lady called Fran sold me a single room for £40.

So I’ve journeyed along the silver ribbon of highways through the fading glory of Autumn gold.  But it’s not the road that has been important this time:  this November, it is the silence, the holy silence.

 

Reflections from old coaching inns – I

Last night I stayed at the Invercauld Arms Hotel in Braemar.  Driving there, in the gathering darkness of afternoon in late autumn, I found the “passing place” signs to be like bright oases against the encroaching night.

The Invercauld is one of those ancient, fading coaching inns, a giant hotel speaking of a bygone age of glory.  This one has reinvented itself as a holiday destination for English pensioners – the “grey pound”, so to speak.  The bar fills with grey-headed English folk, some walking very slowly; none under 60.  A range of Northern English accents can be heard, with perhaps the harsh vowels of the East Riding of Yorkshire, predominant.  Strangely enough I am not ired by the presence of this parade of Daily Mail readers, but  somehow oddly endeared to them.

The place is clean and does not smell of decay – always a start in a hotel of this sort.  The woodwork is thick with old paint.  The staff are polite and upright foreigners, as was ever likely in a place as small and remote as Braemar.   From my room there is a view of the road and the mountains you could look at for hours, even on a misty day, and learn much about the nature of God and man.

Breakfast was served in a ballroom with a dance floor, and a bay window larger than most people’s living rooms. The room is deserted, almost.  The dozens of pensioners of last night have all set off somewhere.  Three people come in; hikers.  A youth with the longest hair I’ve seen on a man in years, all down his back.  His hipster buddy with a neatly trimmed but very full beard, and a dark-haired woman with quiet in her face.

The views from the windows are stunning.  Fan heaters rumble to keep the place warm.  In the ceiling, there is modern lighting fitted – a subtle indicator that this hotel is successful in it’s quest to be more than just another old inn.

The Linn of Dee – and the stones of Turin’s pride

At the Linn of Dee, I got out of the car and was struck immediately by the holy silence of the wilderness.  Almost it is like a church; I walk with quiet tread through the woods, mindful that this is God’s front room.

At the falls there is a mighty bridge across the narrowest part of the gorge.  It reminds of me of Ulmo Lord of Waters’ words to Turin in Tolkien: “throw down the stones of your pride”.  For Turin would have things as he would have them, and had caused to be built across the full flood of the Narog river, a mighty bridge, the better to access the entrance of the underground fortress of Nargothrond.  And Ulmo, herald-angel of the Most High, counselled Turin to cast those stones into the water.  For cometh evil that would use that bridge to destroy Turin, lay waste to all that he had created, and bring hideous sack and slaughter to Nargothrond.  And so it happened.

But what means this for us? The bridge at Linn of Dee allows vehicular access more easily so that walkers can get into the remote heart of the Cairngorms – one of Britain’s wildest, purest remaining places.  And rightly so – this bridge should not be thrown down.  But what we might throw down is dependence on stuff – idols.  Technology as our master.  Social media, handsets, tablets, the Cloud – all good things if they are our slaves.  But if we are to hear more clearly what God has to say in the holy silence of the wilderness, then we need to put aside the clamour of our toys, and focus on what is of true value.

 

Curved Ridge

Whilst I was physically unhurt by what happened at Curved Ridge, I don’t doubt that it had a deep and lasting effect on my psyche. Rob and I (Rob was the lad from Kingussie who knocked me from my perch on the ice) had no business surviving such a fall.

I recall falling head down on my back, and tipping head over heels, until I was facing inwards to the snow and ice, head uppermost. I came to a halt. I truly don’t know how that happened, because I had let go of my ice-axes, and they dangled uselessly on their wrist cords. They played no part in my narrow escape from death. One might retain no composure at all during such an event. One moment I was climbing a fifteen foot wall of ice and someone shouted “Watch out”! The next moment I was off and falling. In fact my colleague, hoping to snap a racy and exciting action shot of me battling my way up the ice pitch, had slipped and plunged off downwards, unfortunately landing on me on the way past.

When my wits returned – it was probably no more than a few seconds of confusion – I found myself on the steep snow below the short ice pitch. Of my friend there was no sign. My first understanding was that we had been caught by an avalanche. A few glances about me, however, and I knew the truth, that we had fallen off. I looked around for Rob, but of him there was no sign.

Darren, the third member of our team, bravely made his way unaided down the ice pitch we had been climbing, and together we gazed into the depths. It was entirely possible that a small yellow speck on the snowfield a thousand feet below was the broken body of our friend. He could not have survived such a fall. It was a sour moment.

We could not follow him down the cliffs of Buchaille Etive Mor, the mountain we were climbing. To get down, we had to move on up to the summit. Girding our loins, we set off, hurrying up and over the top. We went swiftly on down into easier terrain, country where we might walk without risk of falling to our death. After an hour or so, we chanced upon some of our colleagues from the mountaineering club, to whom we relayed the terrible news. All of them were stunned to silence, appalled at the news of violent death. Someone immediately set off on foot to raise the alarm – this was 1986, long before the advent of mobile phones. The rest of us moved in a group around the skirts of the mountain, through the melting snow, to search for Rob. At this point I was suddenly struck with a tremendous fatigue. I felt terribly guilty about it, as if I was betraying my friend. I could go no further; I was almost staggering with exhaustion. That I had myself been involved in a serious fall, that I was bruised and in shock, and had narrowly escaped with my life, did not occur to me. I felt bad that I could not keep up with my companions.

And so it was that that paragon of the mechanical engineering department, Mr. Ray Boucher, came into view some time later, with unlooked-for good news. Rob lived yet! The best news ever delivered in a strong Ulster accent. By some miracle he had survived a fall of some fifteen hundred feet. Really this was what I needed to hear; uncaring of anything else, I felt I could retreat to the minibus without further disgrace. I recall stumbling right through the icy and swirling waters of the river, hip deep, unheeding of the cold and wet, the quicker to get back to the minibus.

Much later there was the helicopter, settling onto the car park in the grey and blustery afternoon. In the artificial gale caused by the helicopter, an old Citroen 2CV in the car park was rocking back and forth on its springs to such an extent that we thought it would blow away. From the chopper emerged Mr. Hamish McInnes, mountaineer extraordinaire and leader of the Glen Coe mountain rescue team. He was dressed in immaculate light blue Gore-Tex over-trousers. The Great Man spoke briefly with us, telling me that Rob and I were incredibly lucky to have escaped with our lives. More chance of winning the football pools than both of us surviving such a fall, he said. Odd that. It didn’t feel like I had won the pools. I’ve thought about it a bit then and since, thought about other narrow escapes. Is there destiny? Does God in Heaven direct the affairs of men, delivering one, whilst allowing another to die alone and in pain? I didn’t really consider myself important enough to be delivered from death, and still don’t, but that never stopped me wondering.

Rob dislocated his hip. He fell over a thousand feet over snow and ice and rock and dislocated his hip. And that astonishing luck meant that he made the Daily Mail, as did I myself in a small paragraph in the same article. In hindsight he reflected that the dislocation of his hip had done more damage and hurt more than if he had actually broken his leg. He was on crutches for months and limping for longer still.

 That summer I put the Curved Ridge accident behind me. Three of us went to Glen Brittle on Skye in an old black Mk I Escort, and climbed and walked the Black Cuillin. It is only a coincidence, so I tell myself, that I have not climbed ice since the fall at Curved Ridge. The final word? News of the accident, published as it was in the local press and even in the “Daily Mail”, made it to the ears of a teacher from my old school. He was a very experienced alpiniste, a climber of an entirely different stamp to me. He said to me at beer one night, in jocular reference to an article in the local press,

“So did you fall off the dangerous and treacherous Curved Ridge or was it the easy and classic Curved Ridge?”