Friday, 13 May 2011

First and Last Climbs....Reprise

On 7 October 1952, my twentieth birthday, I climbed rock for the first time - with a rope, that is - on the Black Spout Pinnacle of Lochnagar. As I stood staring up at the dark, impending mass of it- which looked impossibly steep and no place for humans- a voice called out of the sky, "Hiya, Davie!... Fancy seeing you here!", or words to that effect. And there was Bill Brooker, at ease on the rock face, his feet on nothing very much, a rope spiralling from his waist to an invisible belayer somewhere round the corner. Thirty years later I found out that his companions had been Tom Patey and Mike Taylor and they were putting up a new route called The Stack.

Bill was then a chief pioneer of the post-War wave in rock and ice climbing. I had been at school with him in Aberdeen from 1937 to 1950, at the university since then, although our ways had diverged in our teens. In the later 1980s, as we both approached retirement, I rang him from three hundred miles away in Cumbria and we renewed our friendship. In no time we were enjoying the first stages of climbing together into our old age.

Bare rock had not been my experience of the Cairngorms. I walked through them, round them, up them, feeling those rounded masses pressing in, slowly clenching on you, as a grain of corn might feel the embrace of the millstones. To reach the next unfolding of a glen, and then the next, became the most satisfying sort of journeying in the world, with that straightening-up at the end of it as you sloughed off your ex-Commando rucksack and got ready to make cakes out of powdered potato and griddle them on top of a stove stuffed with pine logs. The slow rising and massing of the summits became for me the most fundamental example of the Earth's bunched shoulders and the Earth's naked scalp.

The Cairngorms, sixty miles west of where I lived, defined words like 'highand' and 'mountain' and 'glen' and 'plateau'. The many other gorgeous examples of those that lay to hand – in Glen Clover or Donside or Invernessshire – were lesser, or junior.

The Cairngorms were the great charismatic elders and you came back out of them transformed in a hum of deep-seated contentment.I camped in the upper glen of Quoich under the south-east limb of Beinn a' Bhuird, in a blue October when rutting stags were roaring out of the hill fog like barbarous bassoons and put a bunch of curly kail from Mrs MacDougall's garden at Inverery into the burn to keep it fresh for cooking with mince and potatoes over a fire of branches gathered in the silvery ghost of a pinewood felled by a gale of 1893 (or possibly 1879); and shared the plateau of the broad brown mountain above us with a flock of snow buntings that skedaddled over the Alpine mosses like the first blizzard of the winter.

We walked through the Lairig Ghru, twenty-two miles from hostel to hostel (and back the next day),and saw the green haughs of Speyside far off through the shallow vee between Carn Eilrig and Creag a Chalamain calling us like the promised land; and ate Spam and tinned peaches for our milk-and-honey. We overnighted at the Corrour Bothy under Cairn Toul, swinging along the two-strand wire bridge over the young Dee like drunken gymnasts, then cutting heather with our knives to lay on the hard peat floor and ease our hips.

We climbed Ben MacDhui twice on successive April days, footing it effortlessly over the huge re-frozen snow that bridged every burn and hardened every bog. On another more wintry occasion, we reached the MacDhui summit (4296 feet) in a semi-white-out and committed the cardinal blunder of following footsteps in the snow  south-south-east, as we thought, to the Sron Riach ridge and the escape route to Glen Luibeg, and followed and followed them until we checked the compass and saw we had been following ourselves.

As we set out for the Lairig up Glen Luibeg on a day when the west was louring, we met an RAF Mountain Rescue party stretchering down a climber who had fallen hundreds of feet off an ice climb in the Garbh Choire Mor of Braeriach. He had landed on his feet in snow and broken both his legs. It was calm low down and blowing a blizzard in the Lairig — "It's another world round there", said one of the men, his eyes staring and dull. As we took turns with the carrying, we could just see the injured man's face amongst the clothes and blankets. It was pale yellow and blank with morphine, still as a corpse. When we reached Derry Lodge and the press came out to meet us, some of the RAF men were suddenly furious and hurled stones at the photographer.

One summer, in the gently dipping and rising semi-col just east of Einich Cairn, on the way round from Cairn Toul to Braeriach, I came upon what is still the most beautiful thing I have seen, nature's value in its purest essence: a shallow basin in the field of scree, in which water came gradually into focus only because there was a trembling in the few inches of it, the slightest perturbing of the crystal-clear image of the grey gravel that made its bed — Fuaran Dhe, the Wells of Dee. Here the river is secreted by the mountain and at once plunges more than a thousand feet into the Garbh Choire and pours towards Aberdeen. I had been drinking it and washing in it ever since I was born, enjoying it especially when it was peat-brown after heavy rain.

So the means of life flowed from the Cairngorms. They were my bedrock, and my boundary (between our Lowland corner and the Gaelic West), and my marker of the pre-civilised, my type of what came before us, the epitome of the unchanging. Which they are not — the granite crags are wrecks, many of them, like splintered and rotting timbers of colossal stranded ships. When spate water skelps them, it cleaves deep grooves, whose raw sides the plants have a job to re-colonise in this sub-Arctic zone. Unchanging enough, though, their skylines identical before our births and after our deaths, with their look of something that has aged so much, there can be no more ageing in it. As you rise out of Coire Garblach above Glen Feshie and the hoary cranium of Cairn Toul lifts bald and angular across the Mhoine Mhor, the Great Moss, it looks as old as Odin or some other power from that pantheon which feels much closer to me than the Graeco-Roman.

I rang Bill Brooker in the 1980s in the hope that we could climb The Link, in order to write about it for Ken Wilson's book on Very Severe rock-climbs. Bill had put it up with Kenny Grassick, another familiar face from school, whom I hadn't seen for decades. Bill felt that Kenny was more in touch with hard rock these days so in the event it was he and I who made a kind of recce by climbing Pinnacle Face with my eldest son Peter in August 1985. Next year I was back with Kenny under the towering prows of the corrie, after some wet and windy days. We started up Route 1, edged gingerly up the ramp, and retreated baffled by the soapy state of the rock on the short wall below The Springboard. Maybe we would have done better in boots with Tricouni nails, those biting elephant molars that my companions had been wearing on the Black Spout Pinnacle thirty years before. Across the Spout Kenny and I ambled up the Buttress, to have something to show for the long walk in. On the way back down to Fox's Well he kept sitting down on rocks 'for a breather, feeling 'off colour' and `not himself'. Within the year he had died of leukaemia.

I should have been with them in the mountains in my teens. Held back by shyness, studiousness and unnerving parental pressure, I had missed the sort of chance that comes just once. And yet ... and yet ... the Cairngorms were still there, they hadn't lost any stature to speak of, fugitive sun rays through cloud-dapple still lit their slopes and made a long rise seven miles away to look as though you could reach it in half an hour.In July 1990 I walked off round Cairn Gorm with Bill from the top of the ski-lift, and as I followed him down the Coire Raibert path into the great trench of Loch Avon and once again the place enfolded me, cradling me, I didn't let on that I was weeping tears for the youth I should have had.

Across the loch a burn zigzagged down the tawny mountainside in a fierce bolt like white lightning. On all sides the limbs and heads of the bens lay calmly, uneventfully, assuring us that nothing seismic or desperate had happened or would happen here for many millions of years.

The clouds were dry and high and bluish-grey like goose-down, the very look of July in Aberdeenshire. We were making for one of Bill and Kenny's classic routes, The Talisman on Creagan a' Choire Etchachan. After an hour's steady climbing up from Loch Avon, over the col past Loch Etchachan and into Coire Etchachan ('corrie of great space'), we off-loaded our sacks where a buttress sprang out of the northernmost slope of Derry Cairngorm and rose for three hundred and fifty feet, as hard and clean as steel to the touch.

From the guidebooks, always a mixed blessing, I knew that the climb started up a 'short crack', on which they spent few words. The first moves up it were like trying to wade in rock. A huge recumbent flake is propped against the buttress proper. The fissure between them was obviously what to use. I stuck my left foot crossways into it, knowing it would lodge, hoisted my right one towards the shelf made by the flake, and ... nothing happened. My foot sank into the crack, and in and in – my other one couldn't quite hook onto the top – I was half-riding an obdurate stone steed, or rather I was slumping back off it in a sweat of frustration. There must be something. I braced my left foot hard, pressed sideways on it and ... it kept disappearing into that narrow, seemingly bottomless shadow.

Whoever set this up for our delectation knew exactly how should be to look perfect for our use while denying us any help stone steed waited patiently while I mounted and slithered and recoiled and tried to make a sort of eight-foot standing jump onto its long suffering haunches. In the end I grasped the left-hand edge in a horizontal lay-away and pulled, and pulled and pulled –it was like trying to haul a goods train with your bare hands. As my strength drained into the rock, my body rose slowly-slowly. Gravity seemed ten times its  normal drag. At the end of it all I floundered onto the flake like a beached walrus. After that the real climbing began.

It was a joy. It was like singing an aria that lasted for two hours without a break – no repetitions, no bum notes – an unstoppable melodious upward-pour. The great leaning shield of the traverse slab seamed with lateral cracks, their lower lips rounded, not too slippery, fairly asking the edges of your feet to sense and sidle with the delicacy of a snail's horns. The angle is comfortable; it's easing us into the body of the mountain. Kenny, who had originally led this pitch, must have felt like whooping and laughing as the massive jigsaw puzzle fitted together, piece by piece.

Suddenly the picture completes itself. Beyond its edge there is nothing, or rather, there are the slopes of Sgor an Lochain Uaiirle a mile away, speckled with boulders, a handsome sight, of no interest to us at this minute. At our feet the crag drops so sheer that its face is invisable. This gulf creates a slightly dizzy vacancy on our left hand for the next hour or two. The crest of the buttress juts above us like a well muscled torso. Bill and Kenny knew, as they looked up at it, that a gem of a route was theirs for the getting. Everything centres now, like the converging sections of a dartboard ,on the `awkward corner' forty feet above us. I've been reading about it for twelve years, in Ken Wilson's Classic Rock.

The bones of the crest grind inwards, making two jaws like a giant's gums mumbling, or the nebs of a pair of pliers, or twin millstones set on edge. We are the grist – we have to squeeze through there. I move up, feet clinging as firmly as buckies to the sloping shelves and little floors of this beautiful granite structure.

From immediately below, the squeeze looks quite as daunting as it does in those two photos in Classic Rock. It overhangs. The converging plates of it are splayed too much for chimneying. The join at the back is too flared for jamming – apart from the fact that if you did slot your hand in there, you'd need a fifteen-foot telescopic left arm to keep it lodged as you shinned up the right-hand wall.
Nothing for it but to cram some body into the narrows and edge upwards while looking for holds on the wall. 'There aren't any. Reach for the top. It's too far ... My memory of how I managed it can do no better than a blurred image of shrugging and flexing like some slug or worm. I think I remember a little vertical kerb to push against with the right foot. It isn't in the photos. Before this improbable system of levers and balances gave way, I reached my right-hand fingers over the top at their fullest stretch and found a providential lip. It was rounded, it was shallow; it was just enough.

I was never in the least scared, in spite of the near instability of it all, the drop on both sides, the absence of runners between Bill and myself some forty feet below. It was his presence that did it. He was at home here. He had never come to grief in all those years of rocky and icy exploration, with minimal protection- runners, often in cold and greasy conditions. Amidst all this exposure, this manoeuvring up unsunned greyish and brownish ribs and buttresses and cracked granite bones, I felt trapped in familiarity and friendship. The depth of the past, personal, historical, geological, was like a solid atmosphere around me and under my feet. Nothing could go wrong. An unbroken series of steps had led us to this point, and would lead on across the black of us.

'The Climber'- Bill Wynn

That day went on and on, because of the long light less weeks after midsummer at a latitude of 57° north and because we were tapping into more than forty years' acquaintance with these mountains, more than fifty with each other. We had been climbing with our rucksacks on. Now, after another hundred feet of pulling up the crest sometimes stepping down onto small ledges on the right-hand face just for the hell of it, we walked off at the top of the buttress and set our course west, then north-by-west, for the rim of the Cairn Lochan corries and the way back down and round to Coire Cas.

We had finished the climb at over three thousand feet and needed to gain little more than seven hundred and fifty in our two- or three mile stravaig amongst the gravelly uplands between Loch Avon and the Larig. We contoured above Loch Etchachan, a broad plate of greenslate rasped by the cool easterly, and crossed the wee burn that flows out of a lochan on the lip of Coire Sputan Dearg. It gurgled under a surviving roof of winter snow and reappeared four hundred and fifty feet below on the  verge of the loch. Around us was essence of Cairngorm, the plateau which Nan Shepherd calls 'a single mountain, the fissures and deep decents no more than eddies on the plateau surface!

The broad planes of it tilt this way, tilt that way, the waters gather and are tipped towards the Dee, towards the Spey. The grainy surfaces that swell around you, olive and oatmeal and jade, draw you in and surround you so completely that they become like the inner surfaces of your own head, the folds of your own brain. You never want to leave.

We were going at a kind of fast stroll, as the pigeon- coloured clouds began to flush with the setting of the sun, and talking continuously. How do you describe good talk? Of course it was about old climbing friends. Kenny Grassick, who had remembered me as one of  them, one of the prefects. Graham Nicol, who did great things with Patey – I remembered him as a sulky wee boy who walked along beside the gymnasium hitting his fist against the granite wall. Gordon Lilley, another Aberdeen pioneer, who had married my one-time sister-in-law. And it was about marrying and having children and not getting any younger, and how I had missed the climbing boat as a young man and why Bill had never gone to the Himalaya.

I was in the midst of fieldwork for a book about great rocks and Bill recommended the tor on Ben Avon called Clach Ban, the Woman Stone, where women used to come from far away to sit in the rounded neuks and ensure an easy confinement. He also repeated the explanation he had given me five years before on Lochnagar of how the 'crumpet formation' of those tors and the paps on Lochnagar had evolved their layered and thick-lipped shapes.

Such rambling rock-talk made the walking feel like gliding. We trudged effortlessly down and up shallow gullies and across fields of old snow darkened round the edges by grains of heather and peat. The sunset clouds were turning from vermilion to burnt orange to apricot to old gold as the last light came slanting through like a furnace door flung open and the silhouette of Carn Eilrig between the Lairig and Gleann Einich made a perfect triangle against the golden dazzle. We could just see our footholds as we stepped steeply down into Coire an Sneachda. From the cauldron of shadow below us a bird was chirruping and Bill identified it as a male snow bunting.

Minutes later we were wading through the heather hummocks on the corrie floor and a tousle-headed youth was coming towards us, laden with camping gear, weaving a zigzag course with the help of a pine branch. "Great mountains, man," he burbled dozily. "Like, what's up there? I mean, should I go up there?" A cold night was darkening over the 4000-foot plateau with its thawing snow-bridges and drops down massive cliffs. Bill advised him pressingly to turn back and stay low. He gave us a carefree "Okay, okay. See you around . . ." and headed on up the mountain.

Bill had been using a telescopic walking stick for balance, especially as he waded shin-deep through the Feith Buidhe where it flows into Loch Avon. For a year or two he had been bothered by a pinched nerve' in his lower back which gave him a bad time as he crossed broken ground. The day after The Talisman we came back up to the northern corries with Bill Birkett from Cumbria to climb Savage Slit on Coire an Lochain, a magnificent two-hundred-foot joint between towering faces of horizontally cracked granite, first climbed at the very end of the War. You can bridge at your ease all the way up the beautiful ladder. As I looked down I saw that Bill was having to contort himself in bunched-up back ­and-foot positions. His bad back was destabilising him. A year later his condition was finally diagnosed: motor neurone disease. The Talisman and Savage Slit were his last real rock-climbs.

David Craig©.2011