Thirty years have passed since I walked up past the entrance to Balmoral Castle and into the forest beyond. As I head up the forestry track I pass the neat, well maintained cottages that are home to the estate workers. I half expect to be confronted by guardsmen and I wonder if, somewhere in the castle, a security guard is watching an old man, weighed down by a rucksack, plodding slowly by the the ornate wrought iron gates. The forested section is steeper than I remember it and I’m breathing heavily under my load of coal, sleeping bag, food and whisky, but the time I emerge from the forest and out on to the open hillside.
The glen is broad and open, the outlines of the snow-covered hills are etched, white against the darkening skies. The silhouette of the mountain, Lochnagar, looms above the glen as a herd of deer trickle over the shoulder of the mountain. Out of the shelter of the forest the wind cold against my check and, as the light begins to fade and the evening turns to night I am suddenly conscious of how empty this place is. The wide valley is treeless apart from one small cluster of trees a couple of miles away. It is to that stand of trees I am heading for there, hidden amongst the trees, is Gelder Shiel bothy, my home for the night.
Charlie and I headed for that same group of trees one winter’s night thirty years ago. I had been dark then and a pale moon had picked out the trees, black against a sea of thigh deep snow. That night we had lingered in the pub and thought the walk in to the remote bothy would be little more than a stroll but we had not realised that a blizzard, a few days earlier had carpeted the landscape above the tree line with deep snow. Charlie swayed across the hill, in the deep snow neither of us had any idea if we were on the path or not. I had watched Charlie, with his wild hair and rolling gait, track backwards and forwards across the snow before finally having to admit that the path was lost.
Back then our rucksacks were crammed with rope, crampons and ice axes as we planned to do battle with ice clad cliffs of Lochnagar. Back then the mountain had an air of foreboding, it seemed wild and remote it’s winter climbs legendary for their ferocity. It was after midnight before the pair of us staggered through the bothy door. Thirty years ago Gelder Shiel was a grim place on a bitterly cold winter’s night. There was no fire place and the bare whitewashed walls gave little protection from the icy night air. Exhausted we climbed into our sleeping bags and had slept fitfully on the hard wood of the bunk beds, shivering now and again as the cold gripped the place.
Today, as I push open the door of the bothy, knowing that the Mountain Bothie’s Association have done a great deal of work here, I am hoping for a more comfortable night. I look around in amazement, gone are the bleak frozen walls I remember, no longer do the stones drip with condensation. Now the little one room bothy is insulated and lined with wood and, joy of joys, in the corner stands a wood burning stove, a serious fire capable of warming the bones of any old man foolish enough to wander this way. There is even a small supply of wood, provided by the Queen’s estate, and since I have carried in coal, a warm night is guaranteed.
Thirty years ago, Charlie and I awoke to an arctic landscape. During the night another snow storm had swept in contributing a few more inches to the already deep snow. High on Lochnagar itself the storm still raged and we climbed up into the corrie almost blinded by the snow, feeling our way to the base of the cliffs. It had been the lure of winter climbing that had led me to head north and make my home in the highlands. This was my first season and the prospect of meeting the great beast of Lochnagar head on filed me with a heady mixture of dread and excitement. Soon, through the swirling snow, a vague outline of the great cliff loomed above us still largely shrouded in the white clouds of falling flakes. We headed upwards and found ourselves in a broad gully that, though choked with snow, offered us little resistance Charlie and I climbed upwards through the soft snow with great towers of rock emerging on either side of us as we approached the summit of the mountain. Emboldened by our success we followed the guidebook and found a harder route to follow. I had a brand-new piece of kit I was desperate to try out, a snow anchor known as a ‘Dead Man.’ This was a thin metal plate, about the size of a large book, that, placed at the correct angle would slice into the snow and hold any fall. I placed the Dead man in the snow and pulled on it. To my amazement it dutifully vanished into the soft snow and I was convinced that it would hold us if we fell. Soon we were on alarmingly steep ice and my fledgling skills as an ice climber were being severely tested. I drove my ice axes into the ice and stepped up into the front spikes of my crampons. This technique, known as front pointing, was what I had been seeking to employ since I began winter climbing. Now I was doing it for real it felt precarious in the extreme and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to do it again. John and I had climbed higher, up soft unstable snow and out on to the face where the ice steepened. Here we were exposed to the full ferocity of the wind and batterd by blown snow. Following Charlie, up and over the final few feet of the cliff my hands became frozen, immobile with the cold. I held my ice axes in two frozen claws as I at last pull over on to the ice blasted summit of the mountain.
Those moments of thirty years ago came back to me in vivid technicolour as I sat in the newly refurbished bothy and watched the cherry red flames take hold of the coal in the stove. I remembered how elated we had been as we walked back to the bothy. We had completed our first real winter climb, a rite of passage. We had fought the demon and won. That climb was to begin an obsession with me that was to rule my life for the next ten years. Sitting with my whisky before the glowing fire I realise now that we had been unknowingly dicing with death that winter’s day long ago. After the recent snowfall, the face was dangerously avalanche prone but we, full of the bravado and ignorance of youth, had climbed on. Only luck saved us from catastrophe, enthusiasm and inexperience are a dangerous mix in this game of ice and iron. The greatest numbers of accidents do not happen to those climbing the hardest climbs they happen to novices, straying for the first time onto easy gullies, trying to develop their winter skills.
Thirty years on I hurl another log onto the fire and remember the cold of thirty years ago. Charlie and I had been lucky, we had tempted the mountain gods but they had chosen to treat us kindly and hold back the avalanches hanging above our heads. I no longer feel the need to test myself in the arena of winter climbing but I am glad that I can still come to these wild places and sit with contentment before the open fire. Pushing open the door of the bothy the frosty air hits me and reminds me of the cold. A few yards from the bothy is a small cottage reputedly used for afternoon tea by the Queen’s shooting parties. I’ve no doubt Queen Victoria, accompanied by Mr Brown, her favourite ghillie (highland game keeper) used to pause here on their rides through the royal estate. High in the heavens the stars twinkle in the clear night sky and I watch as two young men, the ghosts of my youth, head towards the mountain, ice axes jingling, sharing a joke in the early morning.
Lachin y Gair
Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses!
In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks, where the snow-flake reposes,
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love:
Yet, Caledonia, belov’d are thy mountains,
Round their white summits though elements war;
Though cataracts foam ‘stead of smooth-flowing fountains,
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr
Ah! there my young footsteps in infancy, wander’d:
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
On chieftains, long perish’d, my memory ponder’d,
As daily I strode through the pine-cover’d glade;
I sought not my home, till the day’s dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star;
For fancy was cheer’d, by traditional story,
Disclos’d by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.
“Shades of the dead! have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?”
Surely, the soul of the hero rejoices,
And rides on the wind, o’er his own Highland vale!
Round Loch na Garr, while the stormy mist gathers,
Winter presides in his cold icy car:
Clouds, there, encircle the forms of my Fathers;
They dwell in the tempests of dark Loch na Garr.
“Ill starr’d, though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that fate had forsaken your cause?”
Ah! were you destined to die at Culloden,
Victory crown’d not your fall with applause:
Still were you happy, in death’s earthy slumber,
You rest with your clan, in the caves of Braemar;
The Pibroch resounds, to the piper’s loud number,
Your deeds, on the echoes of dark Loch na Garr.
Years have roll’d on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
Years must elapse, ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you,
Yet still are you dearer than Albion’s plain:
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
To one who has rov’d on the mountains afar:
Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic,
The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr
—George Gordon Byron
Gasherbrum, Masherbrum, Distighil Sar,
they’re jolly good training for dark Lochnagar.