Friday, 13 January 2017

A Cairngorm Winter Diary: Part One

1975 started to die out and the long hazy summer days had finally retired to the southern hemisphere giving over its space to the short winter nights, allowing the cold to slowly encroach on the mind. Thoughts were turned to the Christmas break when thousands of students like me would be heading home, but as I had planned a climbing trip for the following year to Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina, I had other ideas on how to spend my time; two weeks alone climbing in the Cairngorms staying in the bothies.

If the truth be known, I also had another reason for wanting to go to the Cairngorms; to climb and stand on top of the Rock called Craigellachie outside Aviemore [meaning: ‘come to me come to me’], the historical meeting place of the Clan Grant. It is said that when the Clan Chief required the clan to attend a meeting, his caller would stand on top of the Rock and shout Craigellachie repeatedly until the call was sent out across the Clan Grant lands.

Having traced my male family line back to a James Grant, born 1664 in Glenmoriston, and who as a Jacobite, fought at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, I as a child had always wanted to see the landmark called Craigellechie, where he would have heard the call to arms. When I was 10 years of age, we lived in Glasgow and my father took me to see the rock from which time, I had always had a strong desire to climb its face, stand on the point and shout out “Craigellechie, Craigellechie” to honour my ancestors who fought and died for ‘their cause’.

And so on the Friday evening, I packed, unpacked and repacked my rucksack for the umpteenth time in a useless attempt to get all the equipment I wanted to take in the one sack. Something definitely had to be sacrificed. First to go was all my spare clothing. I reasoned that as I would be on my own I would learn to cope with the smell.

Next to go was the binoculars then the telephoto lens camera. Still not enough room for what was left. Should I take the trangy or the gas stove? The trangy won although I was not taken with the idea of having to take a fuel bottle but my reasoning was that the trangy was reliable and the gas stove was not. The four season’s sleeping bag was exchanged for the lighter two season’s bag and the down duvet jacket exchanged for two Helly Hansen sweaters, items I would later regret leaving behind. A little stomping with the foot made it go down somewhat, but just a little more had to go. Out went all the food as I decided to buy some supplies at Aviemore when I got there, or so I reasoned at the time. Finally, out went the climbing helmet as this was superfluous given that I cared not if I fell as death was no stranger to me and it held no fear.

Finally, the rucksack was full and once more with a concerted effort of the customary helping of the foot stomp, I managed to get the top closed. Despite my culling exercise, it still weighed far too much, but as I had no way of knowing its true weight, I again reasoned that all I had to do was carry it to the station and the train would take the rest of the strain. It is only with hindsight that I realised that during this activity, I had given no thought to where the food was going to go when and if I remembered to buy it. The crampons and two climbing ice axes had to be tethered to the outside of the rucksack which was a pain as I had lost the crampon rubber stoppers for the spikes which kept getting caught every time I lifted the bloody rucksack onto my aching back.

Alone in a carriage on the train to Aviemore, I watched the scenery flash by until fading light made it impossible to enjoy so I turned to my climbing guide to see what I could do over the next fourteen days. Long before I arrived at Aviemore station, I had decided to start my expedition by doing the rounds of the bothies in the area starting with Jeans Hut (sadly no longer there) somewhere near where the current ski lift is situated.

From there I would climb some gullies that led up to the plateau, then go on to the Sinclair Memorial hut for a few days before moving on to Rynack and Corrour bothies before making my way back over the tops, back to my starting point. If I had time, I would just repeat the routine but this time in reverse.

As the train pulled into Aviemore, I was the only one to get off. The train pulled out heading north leaving me standing there alone in the dark as there was a power failure. Guess where the bloody head torch was? Sods law dictated that it would be somewhere at the bottom of the rucksack and surprise surprise, sods law was right. Shivering and sweating as I pushed the stuff back into the rucksack, the power came back on. I should have known then that things were not going to be as I had hoped they would be. I walked across the road to find nothing open although why I thought anything would be open at 9.45pm in the evening is still a mystery to me today, as this was Scotland and you tell me where in the 1970’s you could find a garage or a shop in the highlands that is open after 6pm!

I went into the nearest pub and bought some peanuts, crisps and a bar of chocolate to keep me going. As I walked back down the road, I passed the brightly lit Youth Hostel where from inside, I caught the merry making of the guests as they were obviously getting ready for the Christmas festivities. I did not have to think twice about it so booked in for the night (there was only one bed left!) knowing that in the morning I could get my supplies and start off in daylight, at least, that was the plan, and anyway, Craigellachie is situated some way behind the youth hostel so I was all but at one of my desired destinations.

However, as the old saying goes, ‘the plans of mice and men are as different as chalk and cheese’ which my diary that I diligently kept is testament to. Extracts from that diary give an indication of what I was feeling and thinking at the time and which I still refer to when I need some reassurance that life is for the taking.

Dec. 21st
Slept badly. Someone snored all bloody night. Had a cold breakfast. Left hostel, tramped until I got to the hump that is Craigellachie. Climbed scree slope over and through snow covered bracken and heather making a right pig’s ear of it. Reached some rocks after about an hour.  Fought my way through and up a large boulder scree slope, jarring my knee several times. Was Craigellachie that damn important! Back was aching with heavy pack so left it under a small bush. Tied my neck scarf to the tree so as to find it on return journey.

Better progress followed. Came upon thick briar bush barrier. Tried to go through it but it scratched hands and face. Cursed the place more than once. Had to go round it. Pissed off with detour. Suddenly I was stopped by a crag face. Looking up I saw, and hoped, that this was the rock. Steep slopes to either sides meant either a wet scramble or, I could do my favourite way of going up anything, direttissima i.e. go straight up the front which was more to my liking. Fuck death. Straight up won the day.

The face was only about twenty to thirty feet but it was sheer and very cold to the touch. I wondered how many of my ancestors had stood where I was standing, at the base of the crag looking upwards listening to their Chief. I was proud to be standing there and wanted more than ever to get to the top, despite the growth of vegetation that was using the rock as its residence having other ideas.
 I climbed up a crack for some fifteen feet, then an awkward traverse for a few feet to the left followed, up and over a wet slippery bulge and I was there - standing on top of Craigellachie. A young man’s dream finally fulfilled. I sat for a while and dreamt of how things might have been different if James Grant had not fled to London after the battle of Killiecrankie, resulting in me being born an Englishman.

Such thoughts were rudely interrupted by the caw caw of a couple of hooded crows fought over a scrap of something one had found, so I walked off the back way, found my rucksack eventually, and headed for Loch Morlich allowing a tirade of thoughts and images to float pleasingly in and out of my brain as a result of my recent experience.

It was about the two-mile marker that the thunderbolt hit. I had forgotten to get supplies so back I trudged cursing my ineptitude for forgetting about it. Once I had two full plastic bags full of supplies which I hoped would last the whole two weeks, I set off mumbling to myself as I had to carry them as there was no room inside the rucksack!

Still muttering to myself as I trudged along, head down looking at my feet as they moved automatically, I was startled by a Landrover that pulled up beside me offering me a lift as I was obviously going in their direction. The occupants were some SAS guys who were also going to the Cairngorms for some survival training, but all they were interested in was the opening and closing times of the local pubs. After sharing a bottle of whiskey and a dozen cans of larger, I finally extricated myself, leaving them to finish off the other bottle of whiskey and a few dozen cans of beer.

Dec. 22nd
Reasonable night’s sleep. SAS guys never made a sound, must have spent the night in town! After breakfast, trudged up to Jeans Hut. Nobody at home, thank goodness, would have just walked back out if there had as I wanted to be on my own.

Spread gear around to make it look as if hut was full if anyone called, hoping it would send them off to somewhere else. Happy to be on my own. Cooked a meal and sorted out climbing gear. Was in my soggy sleeping bag by 8pm.

Dec. 23rd.
Squashed all the food into the rucksack ignoring the mess it made. Set off early in fine weather. Clear blue skies. Snow crisp underfoot. The world was mine as I climbed up ‘Y’ gully then along the top of the plateau. Wind got up mid-morning, increased to such a force that it blew me off my feet. Thunder claps in the distance. Temperature dropped and sun went inside for the rest of the day.

Made for the Sinclair Memorial hut, arrived around 4.30pm as dark was settling in. No one at home again, I felt blessed. Went into back room got brew on and tried unsuccessfully to dry clothes against trangy. Cursed myself for leaving behind spare clothes. Got into sleeping bag fully clothed. Tried to sleep but too cold as sleeping bag was too thin and too soggy. Regretted leaving the four season’s sleeping bag behind and the duvet jacket. Still, my choice so live with it.

4am. Sleep still won’t come. Bloody freezing. Wish I was home, anywhere else but here. Brain hurting. Everything was damp or wet with the incessant running of the condensation across the ceiling, down the walls and all making for where I lay.

Dec. 24th. Christmas Eve:
Must have fallen asleep around 5am. Looked at watch. 9.40am. Too cold to get out of bag. Tried to make a brew but knocked it over. Swore profusely. Finally get out. Clothes damp. Steam rising making the room foggy and unpleasant. Thought of those lucky buggers back down in the youth hostel. I envied them, no I hated them.

Left rucksack in hut and went for a walk. Clear blue sky again. Sun warm. No wind. Snow as crisp as yesterday. Up on the top of Sron Na Lairige. Fantastic atmosphere. Felt sorry for those poor sods below in the youth hostel. 

Absolute peace and tranquillity. Brain not hurting as much. Body a little warmer with the suns struggling bright rays and physical movement. Walking along the edge looking down into the Lairig Ghru deep in thought, when I heard the familiar sound of a jet engine in flight.

Suddenly without warning, an RAF Phantom jet roared past below me in the Lairig Ghru!  I stood transfixed. As it past, for a split second, I could see the face of the pilot and automatically waved, he seemed to wave back. Then silence. I felt a mixed bag of emotions. First I was annoyed that he had invaded my space, my peace, my thoughts and then I was pleased that he had acknowledged my existence. In and out of my life in under a second.

As waves of RAF nostalgia swept over me, I heard another loud roar and looked down into the Lairig Ghru to see the first plane’s wing buddy following on. Past experience told me that low level flying exercises are always done in twos or threes but never alone. The ground shook a little and I sensed something was wrong as a voice in my head told me that I was not meant to be standing, there so without trying to analyse it, I just ran away from the edge just as the avalanche happened.

Although my heart rate was working overtime, my breathing was in short gasps as I trembled with either excitement or fear, I’m not sure but for all of a few seconds, my mind was full of unpleasant emotions and feelings. I felt absolutely alone in the universe and yet I was enjoying every second of it.
Silence fell. I gingerly inched my way near to where I was standing just seconds before. The cornice had gone and with it tons of snow from the valley walls directly downwards which now lay in a heap on the valley floor below. Again, the ‘what if’ thoughts came back.

I allowed the thoughts to die so that I could carry on with my day. Gripping my walking poles tightly, I moved away from the edge and continued along the top to Ben MacDhui.  Stopped for some dried fruit on the summit. Sitting there staring out across miles upon miles of snow covered mountains, all alone was something you could not buy. I felt rich beyond belief. At one point I felt a presence beside me but as I knew that the mountain was supposed to be haunted by a Victorian walker who died of hypothermia on the summit back in the 1900’s, I just ignored it as I did not want to start any conversation with anyone or anything who might just be present, so got up, donned rucksack and walked back to the hut along the valley floor dragging my weary but satiated body along on lead filled legs. On reaching the spot where the avalanche fell, I had to climb up the side of the valley and circumnavigate the snow debris which was a pain in the arse but necessary.

5.30pm. Sitting here in the back room. Morbid thoughts entering my head. Am I getting depressed. Is this where I really want to be. Haven’t spoken to anyone for 48 hours now. Thought I would miss human contact but I don’t so why this feeling!

6pm. Half asleep I am startled by a strange scratching noise on the outer door. Overactive mind working too much. A little scared and nervous. Scratching continues and I pluck up the courage to go and see what it is. I go into the outer room and ask who is there. No answer just more scratching. Anxiously I take hold of the door catch and fling it open to see a stag standing there rubbing its antlers on the wooden door. I laugh and shut the door, call myself some unprintable names and go back to my soggy and unglamorous sleeping bag.

7.20pm. Still not able to sleep. Suddenly I feel my stomach turn, my body twitch with electricity. I feel decidedly strange. My hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I feel very very cold. The darkness all around is frightening, suffocating me. I don’t know what’s going on. I sit up and look out the frosted window and in the moonlight I see a dark shadowy figure walking up the steps towards the hut. He has a long stick or pole. He appears to be wearing what I believe to be a shoulder cape of some sort and a strange looking hat.

He appears to be carrying something on his back, a pack perhaps. I calm down and feel relieved that I will have some company at last although I hoped he would stay in the outer room for the night. I heard the door latch open, then the door is shut. I gave him time to get himself sorted out.

8pm. I shouted out to him to ask if he is ok. Silence. No reply. I heard a match strike and soon I smelt the sweet aroma of his pipe tobacco, distinct and aromatic. I was both pleased and annoyed as at that point in time I was trying hard to give up smoking so I found the smell of tobacco repulsive. However, I shouted again. No answer. Ignorant bastard.  Settled down and tried to sleep.

Image: Welcome to Scotland
Got up. Cold miserable. Need my climbing fix urgently. Leave the hut and head for Coire an Lochain. Pleased to see it covered in thick ice and hard snow.  I head for the Central Crack Route but male the cardinal error of judgement by crossing the Great Slab, oblivious to the fact that there had been a heavy snow fall the previous evening. Too late – the cracking sound broke the silence – movement downwards........shit!

To Be Continued

Frank Grant: 2017