I’m writing this in the little blip that exists in all our lives between Christmas and new Year. It’s like a temporary truce in festivities. The party poppers remain silent, crackers have been pulled, and those noisy, blowy, paper things that pop out when you blow them (as far as I know the English language has no word for them) are unblowed. The turkey is now long dead, what remains of it is sitting in my fridge in the form of soup. I never waste food. In my experience there is nothing in the world that you can’t either turn into soup or put in a curry, custard, perhaps being the exception.
This is also a time of year when the weather misbehaves, it’s like it thinks no one will be looking and goes off and plays. The North Atlantic simply refuses to play ball. Since the end of November, here in the North of Scotland, we’ve had succession of fronts come winging in from the west in bringing gales, torrential rain and the odd blizzard. Winter, much promised and heralded has refused to arrive. I sit, like a little boy, nose pressed against the window, waiting for the rain to stop so I can go out and play on the bike I got for Christmas.
As a mountain goer I’ve been frustrated by this time of year for as long as I can remember and it’s only now that I have realised how to cope with it. If you can’t go to the mountains the best thing to do is read about them. Stay in, open a book, or these days turn on your Kindle, and read about the hills.
Here are two books by friends of mine I have particularly enjoyed recently.
This is written by Alex Roddie, a young writer of whom I am sure we will hear much more of in the future. Alex has a fascination for the Golden age of mountaineering and for Victorian mountaineers especially. His research into this period is thorough and faultless and his writing contains some beautiful descriptions of the landscape of the Cairngorms which reveal his own love of the mountains.
This novel written in the style of the period and will transport you to the mountains and glens of the Highlands where a dramatic chase takes place with unexpected consequences. A great little read.
Here is a link to a review http://stravaiger.com/blog/2013/12/25/book-review-the-atholl-expedition-by-alex-roddie/
Here’s a taster of the action
The favourable weather lasted no longer than half a day.
Duncan sweated at the rear of the hunting party as they struggled up the southern flank of yet another mountain. He had no clear idea where they were. For a few hours after dawn the sun had blazed down on them as it climbed into the heavens, and Duncan had tramped upwards, tormented by the heat, swatting midges out of his eyes and following the pony as she picked the most efficient path through the rocks. They had not lingered at the waterlogged bealach between the two mountains, for such places were blighted by a miasma of bad air that was known to cause disease.
The wind began to pick up after an hour, and by noon a veil of high cloud had completely obscured the sun. The humidity of their ascent soon turned to a dangerous chill. Every man in the party wore clothing dampened by the sweat of his exertion, and now the north wind stole body heat from them with every step.
Prince Albert plodded grimly at his side. He hadn’t spoken for an hour or more. Duncan wondered what thoughts might be passing through the mind of the Prince in this wild and remote place. Did he miss his wife and family? Was he bent purely on his single-minded pursuit of the prize, or did his thoughts return to weighty matters of politics and state?
Suddenly they emerged at the most savage and breath taking location Duncan had ever seen in these mountains.
They had been following a burn uphill for a while now. The waters were often hidden beneath masses of old snow as they flowed down a furrow in the mountain. The hunters trod cautiously over this sugary carapace, and Duncan followed his father’s footsteps, wary of concealed voids. Sometimes he could hear the water gurgling and foaming below his feet. The surface was so dirty and blown-over with grass and dust that it hardly looked like snow at all, but resembled the rocks to each side: a desolate expanse of grey, pock-marked and rippled like sand on a beach.
McAdie led their party to the source of this burn: a bealach between two mountain peaks. The wind blasted shreds of freezing mist through the notch, and in the gale Duncan could smell an imminent blizzard. An ache of foreboding settled in his bones as he approached that fearful place.
A boiling confusion of cloud hid the landscape here and there, first obscuring it completely then revealing it for a dazzling moment before covering it up once again. Duncan had never climbed this high before. To his mind this notch in the mountains was the very gateway into the hell belonging to the Bodach: a world forbidden to men, a kingdom of monsters and savage forces, of avalanches and death.
He raised a hand before his eyes to shield them from the terrible wind. Ahead, he could see no distinction between the snow on which he stood and the churning white of the sky. The ground trembled and groaned beneath his shoes. He raised his eyes to the mountain peak on the right: a vertical cliff, monstrous to his eyes, fringed by dripping icicles that reached down like claws into the abyss beneath.
His father stood on a rock, leaning over the edge, trying to penetrate the veil of cloud which filled the amphitheatre below. Duncan flailed through the snow in his direction.
‘Where are we?’
‘Stay back!’ McAdie warned. ‘There’s a barraman here. I cannae see the edge.’
The wilderness of the Cairngorms is trodden by legendary stags, demons of local folklore, and a few brave souls all seeking very different things from the wild. This is a tale of life in the Scottish mountains before mountaineering began.
Peter Biggar’s The Pike Fishers and Other Tales is a great little collection of short stories. Peter has vast experience of climbing and walking in the Scottish Highlands as is a writer who has honed his art over many years. Although these stories are not exclusively mountain tales Peter writes with a great sensitivity. I especially enjoyed his story about pike fishing and the tale took me back to winters hunting these fresh water sharks with my father on cold dark days in Merseyside. Peter gives a great insight into the world from the point of view of the fish itself in a story reminiscent of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. A great book to take into a bothy and read while the rain beats on the roof above your head.
I hope you enjoy both of these unique books whether in a bothy or in your bed.