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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
The Cairngorms in Winter


By ALEX. INKSON M'CONNOCHIE,
Author of ' Ben Muich Dhui and His Neighbours: A Guide to the Cairngorm Mountains.

WINTER ascents of our Scottish mountains are by no means so popular as they deserve to be, though time and example are gradually popularising them and unfolding their beauties and pleasures. Such ascents, of course, should not be attempted unless one at least of the company has an intimate knowledge not only of the proposed route but also of the neighbourhood, in case of any deviation that may have to be made from circumstances beyond the control of the party.

I have had an experience of over twenty years at all seasons on the Cairngorm mountains, from the Dee to the Spey and from the Feshie to Loch Builg; and after a big fall of snow, followed by a severe frost, I know of no excursion more pleasant than a walk across these mountains. Under such circumstances, I hold that the ascent is easier than in summer, for all the little hollows are levelled up, and there is a smooth, dry, and hard surface for walking. As for the safety of such a journey, it is—due care being of course taken—in my opinion no more dangerous than one in summer. There are certain ascents and descents that the prudent mountaineer will eschew at all times; while others which might be made while the mountain sides are free of snow, will, in the winter season, be wisely avoided whatever may be the temptation. For a successful winter ascent, then, considerable knowledge is requisite in the first place, and great prudence in the second. In now giving a few of my winter experiences on the Cairngorms, I shall dwell rather on blundering and difficult than on successful and easy ascents, not only because it will, I think, be more interesting, but more can be learned the one way than the other.

My first ascent, or rather attempted ascent, was a complete failure. In company with a friend, with whom I have had many pleasant experiences and agreeable mishaps on the Cairngorms, I set out one 31st December from Aberdeen to Ballater by train. There had been an exceptionally severe snowstorm for some weeks in the north of Scotland, and particularly on Deeside, so much so that the mail-gig had ceased to run between Ballater and Braemar. In the innocence of our hearts we thought this a capital opportunity of extending our mountain experiences. Be it observed that while the fall of snow was more than ample, the necessary severe frost I have mentioned had not yet made its appearance. We made absurd preparations to face both cold and hunger, and as we waited for a "tandem" to convey us from Ballater to Braemar, we got ourselves photographed in an outfit that might have sufficed for a North Pole expedition. And here it may be mentioned, that the only honour, and that a very poor one, we gained in the whole undertaking, was between Ballater and Braemar, as we were the first to use the road since the commencement of the storm, the mail-gig modestly following several hours behind us. The reception we got at Castle- town of Braemar for our "enterprise," however, scarcely compensated for the complete collapse of the remaining part of the journey. The following morning we bravely sallied forth for the top of Ben Mulch Dhui. But while the road from Braemar from the east had been rendered passable for wheels by "casting," on the west the snow mostly lay as it had fallen, deep and soft. We struggled bravely on, however, and when we reached the Victoria Bridge, opposite Old Mar Lodge, we made our first mistake —we crossed the bridge. Naturally beyond the lodge the snow was untrodden, and thus every footstep told more on us than on the distance accomplished. In short, before we had reached the "Black Bridge" of Lui we were tolerably exhausted. Alas for the carriage road in Glen Lui! In many places it was not to be decerned from the pasture-ground of the glen, while in others there was a sluggish stream of water above the snow which turned it into slush of the most uncomfortable kind. We were often fain to give the road as wide a berth as possible, even though the alternative was to splash through the waters of the Lui which had escaped from the restraint of their natural channel. By the time we had reached the head of the glen we had more thought of housing up for the night than of being able to continue the foolish journey, for to add to our troubles soft snow now began to fall. But the occupants of Derry Lodge and Luibeg were either not visible or not at home at the time, so we had to content ourselves for some hours with the shelter of a peat-shed. Refreshed and reinvigorated in the morning, we found further progress quite impossible; the frost had not yet made its appearance, and snow was steadily falling in big flakes. Accordingly we retreated on Braemar, walking the same night to Ballater to catch the morning train—some twenty-six miles through the snow. The frost was so keen during the latter part of the walk that some water which I carried in an inner pocket was actually frozen. Ballater was reached in quite a different style and spirits to our start, and a damper put, for some time at least, on such expeditions.

Two or three years after we tried to cross Braeriach from Braemar to Boat of Garten. The morning was clear— there was a good moon—and frosty, so the walk to Derry Lodge was very pleasant. But no sooner was it put behind us than a slight fall of powdery snow commenced, which by the time we had reached Glen Dee, via Glen Lui Beg, developed into large snowflakes. When we came to the (popular) Wells of Dee, Braeriach was not to be seen, so we prudently gave it up and walked on, by the Learg Gruamach and Aviemore, to Boat of Garten. In the higher regions the cold was intense, and it was with difficulty it could be withstood while we prepared a cup of coffee.

Next year we tried Cairn Toul in the spring, there being on this occasion a party of seven. But though it was spring in the lower grounds it was winter on the mountain tops. We went by Glen Lui, Glen Lui Beg, and Glen Dee to the junction of the Alit na Leirg Gruamaich with the "infant" Dee from Braeriach and Cairn Toul, and there, in a snow-storm, commenced the ascent of the latter mountain. We reached, with a little trouble, the level of Lochan Uaine, but there our real difficulties began, and indeed at one time we had all but resolved to descend and proceed to the Spey by the Learg Gruamach. The ascent from Lochan Uaine is steep enough in summer; then it was a long smooth snow slope, with here and there a black rock jutting out above the snow. These we used as coigns of vantage and rest, but the last stage almost compelled a retreat. We had to dig our feet into the snow, and clutch above with our hands, before we succeeded in getting on the top of Sgor an Lochain, at a height of about 3,750 feet. The top of Cairn Toul was now within a mile on our left, with exceedingly easy ground for walking, but so strong was the wind and dense the falling snow that it was deemed judicious to make for the Feshie direct. Passing the upper crags of Loch Eunach, we reached the river a little above Achlean, whence we made our way to Lynwilg Inn. For six hours continuously we had snow, sleet, or rain. This expedition may also be looked on as a failure, but nevertheless all enjoyed it.

In the first week of April the following year, when the weather was wintry enough, a party of us set out from Aberdeen to Nethy Bridge, with the intention of taking Ben Muich Dhui and Cairn Gorm on the way. Derry Lodge was reached without much trouble, but along Glen Derry, the route selected, progress was not so easy, as the glen was completely snow-covered. Coire Etchachan was also of course full of snow, no trace of the stream being visible; indeed in some places the snow could not have been less than from fifty to a hundred feet in depth. The snow was very hard in the corrie, and the ascent therefore pleasant and invigorating; but when the level of Loch Etchachan (3,100 feet) was reached, a furious gale came on, and baffled any attempt at making for the top of Ben Muich Dhui. The loch was completely frozen over, even where the Derry leaves it, but the ice was too rough for skating. The gale soon became a whirlwind, driving the snow in all directions, so that the party had to keep close together to prevent losing one another. A hurried council was held, and a compass course struck for the upper end of Loch Avon and the Shelter Stone. The walk across the plateau was a continued struggle against the elements, while in descending to the loch great caution had to be used to prevent a slip from the top of the ridge. The Shelter Stone was visited as a curiosity at that season, and was found full of snow. The course was then along the frozen loch, one of the party having the curiosity to measure the breadth by pacing it. A capital dinner was partaken of on the ice, for we were in complete shelter in the great hollow. How majestic the crags that framed its upper end appeared from about the middle of the loch, topped here and there by big rocks standing bare and snowless! As for the Garbh Uisge, and its gigantic leap into the Maghan na Banaraich, not a drop of water was to be seen, all was sealed up by ice and snow. After dinner we ascended the " Saddle" to the source of the Nethy, only to encounter another little whirlwind that drove the hard snow against our faces with such force that another deviation seemed almost inevitable. But after a short sharp struggle we got into the shelter of the glen, and walked for about three miles on the snow in the bed of the river, and so on to Nethy Bridge. Though we had failed in getting to the top either of Ben Muich Dhui or Cairn Gorm, the excursion was considered both pleasant and successful. The time taken between Derry Lodge and Nethy bridge was thirteen and a half hours, but two hours were agreeably idled on Loch Avon and in Strath Nethy below Rebhoan.

My next winter expedition had both its comic and almost tragic side. Again Ben Muich Dhui and Cairn Gorm were to be crossed from Bracmar, and the weather was propitious,—that is, there was a great depth of snow, and severe frost of some days' duration. The party numbered six, two however only going, by arrangement, as far as Derry Lodge. The drive from Ballater to Braemar was made on wheels; from Braemar to Derry Lodge it was done in sleighs. Bidding good-bye to our two friends at the Lodge, the Lui Beg route was taken. In the lower part of the glen walking was not particularly easy, so thinking to better themselves two of the party, in spite of my remonstrance, took to the ridges on the right. The consequence was that, getting round by Cairn Crom and along the ridge between that hill and Derry Cairn Gorm, progress was at last found by them to be impossible, more especially as their knowledge of the Cairngorms was limited. In these circumstances they returned to Braemar, after making an unpleasant slip on the frozen slope, the consequence of which was rather unpleasant to one of them who wore the kilt. When 1, along with the companion who had stuck to me, got to the turn of the Lui Beg (1,536 feet), we found walking easy enough; and after we got into the fork of the burn, at a height of from 2,500 to 3,000 feet, we could decern our two friends away over on the ridge of Derry Cairn Gorm. So steep, however, is the slope there, that a descent, in the snow, was quite out of the question, and, as already stated, and as I had fully expected, they retraced their steps. We reached the cairn on Ben Muich Dhui without difficulty. As might be expected, it was a solid mass of ice, most fantastically shaped on the north side. Here sky and mountain seemed to meet ; above, one could only see for a few feet; while a radius of about a dozen yards closed the vision around. After a slight lunch we made for Cairn Gorm, walking by compass. We got as far as the head of Coire Domhain, where the ridge between Loch Avon and Loch Morlich is very narrow and precipitous, especially towards the latter. Somehow or other I slipped here, and slid down the corrie a considerable distance. I managed to stop myself by the aid of my stick, fortunately a stout one, but my thoughts may be imagined as I shot past black bits of jutting rock, contact with which would have sent a bruised, perhaps lifeless, mass into the Maghan na Banaraich. I may tell my feelings. I had no fear—perhaps there was no time; I only said to myself, Well, if my head comes against any of these black rocks, it is all over, but I can't help it. Judge of my horror when, after having succeeded in safely stopping my descent, I saw my companion sliding down at a fearful rate. He had thought my hurried descent was voluntary, and an easy way of getting downwards, so off he went! I tried to catch him as he passed, but he slipped like an eel through my hands (I had on worsted gloves), and, head first at times, did not stop till he was about 200 feet below me. When I reached him—which it was only possible to do by turning over face downwards, and making my way step by step with toes and hands dug into the snow—he was minus his hat, stick, and flask, but providentially uninjured. We walked the rest of the way to the Shelter Stone and examined the interior, and thence along Loch Avon, ice-covered, with here and there "cats' paws" of snow, to the Saddle. Then up the Saddle, and along the Nethy to Nethy Bridge Hotel, eighteen hours after leaving Derry Lodge; but, be it observed, the last four miles were done within the hour. Before breakfast next morning a telegram was received from Braemar, announcing the arrival there of our quondam companions and inquiring as to our safety. As our reply took several hours in transmission, not a little anxiety was evinced on our account. The scene from the moment we left the Ben Muich Dhui cairn was not one which we shall readily forget, apart from the untoward incident of the journey. For mountain and rock, loch and stream, were shrouded in ice and snow; not a water-course visible—in summer we all know how numerous the burns and water-courses are; everything white, except here and there the black top of some great rock. The outlines, storm-formed, were weird and grand, though often fantastic enough. The walk along the Nethy, with the slope of Cairn Gorm on the left and Ben Bynac on the right, and their picturesque snow-clad crags, was also one to be remembered for a lifetime. On the top of Ben Muich Dhui we estimated the depth of the snow to be six feet, and in the corries often a hundred, but of course we had nothing to test the actual depth. It may be interesting to state that the only deer we saw were between Braemar and Derry Lodge. My friend recovered his cap and stick at the bottom of Coire Domhain, and next summer I found the flask, full and uninjured, on the bank of the burn.

My next winter ascent was on a New Year's Day, when, along with a young student friend, I went to Ballater by rail, and on to Braemar by sleigh. The following day, by 8 a.m., we had passed Derry Lodge, and at 1.30 p.m., by the Glen Lui Beg route, we had reached a height of 4,210 feet on Ben Muich Dhui. Then blinding showers of snow began to fall, and nothing could, of course, be seen. So steady was the snowfall, and so strong the wind, that it was necessary to get into some sort of shelter at once; so Cairn Gorm, the original intention, had to be given up, as well as the cairn of Ben Mulch Dhui. We got into the Feith Buidhe, where we experienced quite different weather, and so down to the Shelter Stone. Not a burn was visible; even the rapid Garbh Uisge could only be seen (and sometimes heard) through the thick transparent ice as it fell headlong on its way to Loch Avon. The old route via the Saddle was taken, but so soft and deep did we find the snow in Strath Nethy, that it was not till ten o'clock that Rebhoan was reached. The walk along the Nethy, however, was not without its pleasures. It was a glorious evening, with moonlight and stars; and a short rest on one's back on the snow, looking at the constellations, seemed then the very acme of bliss. But my young companion's years began to tell on him after we reached the point where the Nethy is crossed by its uppermost bridge, where the Lang an Laoigh path bends for the east side of Caiplich and Ben Bynac. For, the road reached, we found the snow soft, and walking necessarily very slow and stiff work, and an hour was required between the bridge and Rebhoan. I reluctantly deemed it prudent, in the circumstances, not to proceed further, and accordingly burst open the door of the bothy. Some of the furniture, including a quantity of paraffine, had to be sacrificed to make a fire, and a table formed our couch for the night. We started before daybreak for Nethy Bridge, with the result that six hours were required for an eight miles' walk, for the snow was soft, and in the dim morning light I mistook the bearings of Cairn Rynettin. A stray stag was observed in sad straits in the deep soft snow near Rynuie. A local newspaper, commenting on this ascent, concluded its notice by remarking that, "notwithstanding the vicissitudes of the journey, the travellers enjoyed the expedition, and have not suffered from fatigue or exposure."

At some future time I hope to be able to add to this list of winter "adventures" on the Grampians.


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